Monday, March 23, 2020

States can pirate and plunder copyrighted material all they want

So said the Court in Allen v. Cooper, holding that states cannot be sued for copyright violations. Congress cannot abrogate under its Article I powers other than Bankruptcy Clause, which has "good-for-one-clause" support and the copyright act is not congruent-and-proportional because it reaches all infringements, not only intentional infringements for which states fail to provide adequate remedies. My SCOTUSBlog analysis is here. I got this one wrong after argument and need to stop making predictions based on questioning. I went lighter on the pirate puns because the Justices did it for me.

Some additional points to draw out:

Justice Kagan writes for a clear six (herself, the Chief, Alito, Sotomayor, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh). Justice Thomas writes an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Ginsburg) writes an opinion concurring in the judgment. But the labels on the separate opinions are confusing. 

Thomas labels his opinion  "concurring in part and concurring in the judgment," while saying in the first paragraph that he "cannot join the Court’s opinion in its entirety."

A concurrence in the judgment usually means agreement with the result but not the legal analysis leading to the opinion. A concurrence means, in this context, that the author joins the opinion except for a few legal points that do not affect the majority's reasoning and path to the judgment.

Thomas identifies three points of disagreement and pieces with which he does not join: 1) The standard for stare decisis (the majority demands a special justification, while Thomas believes precedent can be overruled if is demonstrably erroneous), although everyone agrees that controlling precedent should not be overruled under either standard; 2) the majority's advice to Congress about how it can enact a valid abrogation, which is dicta; and 3) whether copyrights are property for due process purposes, a point the parties stipulate in this case. None of these points affected how the majority reached its conclusion. It thus makes no sense to label this a concurrence in the judgment; Thomas joined (or appears to have joined) all the parts of the opinion that led to the judgment. This should be a concurring opinion, with Thomas providing a seventh vote for the majority.

Breyer labeling his opinion as concurring in the judgment seems strange for a different reason. He agrees that Florida Prepaid resolves the case, although he disagrees with the Court's sovereign-immunity doctrine (for reasons described in his dissents in several of those cases, which he string cites). And writing on a clean slate, he believes abrogation is proper. But the majority opinion resolves the case as Breyer believes it must be resolved--applying Florida Prepaid. It thus seems the appropriate approach would have been to join the Kagan opinion but to write the opinion he did as a concurring opinion (not concurring in the judgment). It seems odd to concur in the judgment but not provide an alternative explanation or analysis for that judgment beyond "what the majority said, with which I disagree but with which I am stuck."

This seems like a half-measure version of Justices Brennan and Marshall in death-penalty cases. They dissented from every summary disposition and cert. denial on the grounds that capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment, refusing to follow established precedent and insisting the case should come out the other way. Breyer wants to follow precedent, even precedent he sees as wrong. But that means he agrees with the majority's analysis applying controlling precedent, even if he would prefer to reject that precedent.

So at the end of the day, this is a 9-0 case--everyone agreeing that the statute is invalid in light of Florida Prepaid and three Justices expressing different views about the doctrine or pieces of the majority's analysis.

Finally, during SCOTUSBlog's live blog of opinions, Tom Goldstein identified a "generational divide" among the Court's liberals. The old guard of Ginsburg and Breyer--who were on the Court and dissented when this abominable line of precedent developed--continue to reject the doctrine. The new guard of Sotomayor and Kagan (who wrote the opinion) accept the current legal regime as correct. It is an interesting idea. Although query whether they regard it as correct as much as they recognize they are stuck with it and do not have the skin in the game to point to past dissents, as Breyer does.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 23, 2020 at 04:16 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, March 20, 2020

Acting President Who?

This post is a lark, inspired by a question from my daughter, a question from a colleague, and general paranoia among liberals that President Trump will cancel or undermine the election so he can remain in office in 2021.

Whether the election can happen and how is a genuine concern given coronavirus. But there is no single "election;" there is a series of 51 simultaneous elections in 50 states and D.C., and it is unlikely Trump at his most nefarious can stop alll. Nevertheless, assume the worst-case scenario of no election in any state this fall. The possible results are infinite.

Let's have some fun.

Trump's term as President (and Pence's as VP) end at noon on January 20, 2021. This is non-negotiable. The failure to hold elections means there is "neither a President nor Vice President" due to "failure to qualify," putting us into the Presidential Succession Act.

Acting President Pelosi. The Speaker of the House is first in the statutory line, unconstitutionally so in the eyes of many and unwisely so as a policy matter in the eyes of most. But there is a problem: If there is no election in November, it will not affect only the President; presumably states would be unable to hold House elections. There thus would be no House come January 3, because no House members would have been elected.  If there is no House, there can be no Speaker. If there is no Speaker, the President pro tempore of the Senate becomes acting president. Meaning:

Acting President Patrick Leahy. The Senate is a continuing body, with roughly 2/3 of the body returning in the new Congress. Thirty-five Senate seats are up in 2020; if there are no elections, those 35 seats will not be filled. Thus, the Senate in the 117th Congress in January 2021 will consist of 65 returning Senators. The breakdown of that rump is 33 Democrats, 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, and 30 Republicans. The President pro tem is the senior-most member of the chamber majority--Patrick Leahy of Vermont. But:

Acting President Grassley. In 46 states, the legislature can empower the Governor to make a temporary appointment to a Senate vacancy, pending an election at a future point (timing varies by state). Three of the four (OK, OR, RI) that do not allow temporary appointments have a Senate seat up this year. Thus, of the 35 contested seats, appointments could be made for 32 of them; of those 32, 13 are in states with a Democratic governor and 19 are in states with a Republican governor. Three (Arizona, North Carolina, and Wyoming) require the appointee to be of the same party as the vacating Senator; North Carolina's Democratic governor would have to appoint a Republican to the seat vacated by Republican Thom Tillis. This means 12 Democratic appointees and 20 Republican appointees, creating a 50-47 Republican Senate. The President pro tem (as in the current Senate) would be Chuck Grassley of Iowa. But:

Acting President Mike Pompeo. Five of the states with contested seats that would need an appointment (Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia) have 2020 gubernatorial races. If the election for President, House, and Senate does not happen, neither can the election for governor. Absent a governor and lieutenant governor, succession would depend on the weeds of the organization of state government--is either house of the legislature a continuing body that would have a leader who could serve as governor? If not, no appointment is possible in those five states. This means loss of four Republican appointees (by Republican governors in New Hampshire, Texas, and West Virginia and cross-party appointment by a Democratic governor in North Carolina) and one Democratic appointee (by a Democratic governor in Montana). That leaves us with a 46-46 Senate. Absent some sort of compromise, there would be no President pro tempore of the Senate. The succession law takes us into the cabinet, beginning with the secretary of state. Unless:

Acting President Grassley. Suppose that anticipating these gaps, the Senators in the three states guaranteed a same-party replacement resign in December 2020 so the governor can make the appointment. Those would be Republicans in NC, TX, and WV. They would remain in those seats through January 3, 2021, making it a 49-46 Republican Senate that chooses Grassley as President pro tem, who becomes acting president. Or:

Acting Prsident Grassley. Alternatively, the terms for those five governors end after January 3, when the new Congress begins and the Senate vacancy becomes clear. Each thus could make an appointment then, before his term expires, adding four Republicans and one Democrat to a 50-47 Republican Senate. Unless:

President Trump. The Constitution empowers each state to appoint electors "in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct." Every state has directed electors be chosen by popular election. But facing such an emergency, states could change their laws to provide a different selection mechanism--legislative or executive appointment. A state presumably will enact a law changing its selection method only if both chambers and the governor are from the same party. Twenty-two states, for 219 electoral votes, have unified Republican control and will appoint electors to vote for Trump; 15 states + D.C., for 195 electoral votes, have unified Democratic control and will appoint electors to vote for Biden. Twelves states, for 124 electoral votes, have a Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor or vice versa, and one state has a divided legislature. Those states may be unable to agree on a selection method--the legislature will not give the governor of an opposing party the appointment power; the governor will veto any attempt to give the power to the legislature. So the electoral college votes for Trump over Biden, 219-195 (which Trump will call the greatest landslide in U.S. history). The Twelfth Amendment provides that the winner must obtain a majority of the whole number of electors appointed. Because those 13 states did not appoint electors (because there was no election and no alternative appointment mechanism), the whole number is 414; 219 constitutes a majority and Trump is reelected. Alternatively:

President Trump. Those 13 states, not wanting to be left out, could compromise and create a mechanism to split their electoral votes. Trump gets 281 electoral votes (219 + half of 124) while Biden gets 257 (195 + half of 124). Trump is reelected. Unless:

President Trump. The electoral votes must be opened and counted before a joint session of the House and Senate, presided over by the President of the Senate (i.e., the Vice President).  Because there was no election, however, there is no House. Is the Twelfth Amendment satisfied if only the Senate is present for the count? If yes, Trump is president. The answer to that question may depend on the composition of the Senate (see above). If no:

Acting President Grassley or Pompeo. If the votes cannot be properly counted, no one will have qualified as President or Vice President. We are back into the statute. There still is no speaker. Maybe there is President pro tem, depending on the composition of the Senate (see above). Or we are back in the cabinet. Unless:

President Trump or Biden? If coronavirus is the source of election interference, the answer may turn on how many states--and of what partisan composition--will take steps to enable meaningful, simple, and manageable vote-by-mail. The easy partisan answer is that Democratic-controlled states are more inclined to expand the franchise than Republican-controlled states; easy vote-by-mail is an expansion (enabling) of the franchise in this context. So the answer may be depend on who is willing and able to create better vote-by-mail systems.

I will close by saying this is a parlor game because I am bored right now. I do not expect Trump to interfere with the election. I do expect life to be normal enough come November to hold an election or that states will create mechanisms to handle it (one side effect of the current situation is the number of governors flexing their muscles in the absence of federal action). I believe there will be the usual transition of government power come January.

But blogs exist for these kind of parlor games. Feel free to weigh in.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 20, 2020 at 01:11 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, March 13, 2020

Continuity of Government in a time of Cholera

Norm Ornstein writes in The Atlantic about the need for Congress to create some contingency plans in case the bodies are unable to meet or, worse, if substantial numbers of members become sick or die in the current pandemic. I had the privilege of doing some work with Norm on continuity issues following 9/11, with the Continuity of Government Commission that he chaired and several congressional hearings, as well as writing about this in several of my early articles. Then, it was a single catastrophic bomb (such as Flight 93) destroying Congress as a body of people; now it is the slow burn of Covid-19. But the failure to act 20 years ago--to allow for remote sessions, action by emergency rump bodies, and temporary House appointments--looms large.

In addition, a maudlin conversation with a colleague suggests that congressional continuity may not be the only concern. The President (who, despite the Surgeon General's sycophancy, is old, overweight, and not in great health) and Vice President were exposed to the virus by one individual. Nancy Pelosi is third in line. And no way would the House confirm a new VP nominated by Pence or Trump "in an election year," citing the McConnell Rule. (House Democrats dragged their feet on Nelson Rockefeller, and those were relatively normal times).

I have said  that the West Wing is the Trump presidency--I guess this is the next season of the show.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 13, 2020 at 02:14 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 02, 2020

28th Annual Rothgerber Conference: Women's Enfranchisement

The Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law will sponsor the 28th Annual Ira C. Rohgerber Conference, Women’s Enfranchisement: Beyond the 19th Amendment, on Friday, April 3, 2020.

This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, formally extending suffrage to some, but not all, women. Barriers to political rights and inequality persist, particularly for women at the intersections of race, sex, and class.  The conference will use the centennial to take stock of how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go—in terms of formal political enfranchisement and the empowerment of women more broadly.

The panels are:

PANEL 1: “Historical Perspectives on the 19th Amendment: Looking Back, Looking Forward”

Carolyn Ramsey (Colorado Law), Julie Suk (CUNY), Mary Ziegler (FSU Law), Susan Schulten (University of Denver)

PANEL 2: “Barriers to Political Representation”

Dara Strolovitch (Princeton), Atiba Ellis (Marquette Law), Bertrall Ross (Berkeley Law), Justin Levitt (Loyola Law), Ming H. Chen (Colorado Law)

PANEL 3: “Lived Equality: Beyond Formal Political Rights”

Aya Gruber (Colorado Law), Chinyere Ezie (Center for Constitutional Rights), Diana Flynn (Lambda Legal), Cary Franklin (UTexas Law), Scott Skinner-Thompson (Colorado Law) 

The conference is free and approved for 6 general CLE credits.  Both breakfast and lunch will be served to attendees.  The Colorado Law Review will be publishing a special symposium issue to share the participants’ scholarly works.

You may register for the event here by Monday, March 30.

[Editorial Note: I spoke at the 2019 Conference, on universal injunctions; it is a great program]

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 2, 2020 at 10:27 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Judge Sutton hates Rooker and Feldman--So now what?

The Sixth Circuit reversed a Rooker-Feldman dismissal of a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act action, challenging the interest rate included in state writs of garnishment. (H/T: Volokh's Short Circuit round-up). Judge Sutton writes a concurrence begging district courts to stop applying RF except to cases in which the district court is asked to rule that a final state supreme court judgment violates the Constitution.

Sutton insists that RF cannot be used to stop federal actions seeking to second-guess all state court rulings, such as an unappealed state trial-court ruling (whether interlocutory or final-and-appealable). Some courts had justified RF not only on § 1257, but also on § 1331's grant of original (rather than appellate) jurisdiction to district courts. If that also explains RF, then limiting it to final state supreme court decisions is too narrow, at least where the federal plaintiff truly claims constitutional injury arising from a state judgment.*

[*] The majority supported its no-RF conclusion in part because a writ of garnishment is not a judgment.

Sutton argues that such a case be handled by issue and claim preclusion. So does that work? Take the paradigm case of a state trial-court judgment stripping a father of visitation rights. If the father does not appeal to the state intermediate appellate court but instead runs to federal court, Sutton would say RF does not apply. But would preclusion bar that claim, as it must if district courts are not to become reviewing courts for state trial-court judgments.

I also would be concerned that the doctrine that will rise up to replace RF is not preclusion but Younger. A number of lower courts have used that doctrine halt these sorts of challenges where the state proceeding is pending. Except Younger should be limited to challenges to the underlying state law being challenged rather than to complaints about the state court decision itself.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 29, 2020 at 10:38 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Bivens closer to death (and Thomas would kill it)

In one of the (unfortunately) least surprising decisions of the Term, SCOTUS held Tuesday in Hernandez v. Mesa that a Bivens claim was not available against a border-patrol agent who shot a Mexican national standing on the Mexico side of the border.

Justice Alito's opinion for five adopts the most restrictive view of Bivens, defining a new context to include virtually any identifiable factual distinction (here, the fact that the plaintiff was injured outside the U.S.), despite the right (Fourth and Fifth Amendment) and basic facts (excessive force by law enforcement standing on U.S. soil) being the same. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, goes bigger--having cabined Bivens scope and limited its precedential value, the Court should "abandon the doctrine altogether." Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissent for Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

One notable point of departure between majority and dissent is how each reads Abbasi. The majority reads it as the latest in a 40-year line of cases rejecting Bivens claims, reaffirming the narrowness of past factual contexts and the newness (and thus inappropriateness of a Bivens suit) in other contexts.. The dissent emphasizes that Abbasi, while rejecting a Bivens action against high-level policymaking officials for national-security policy choices, "cautioned" against reading it to eliminate or limit core Bivens claims against rank-and-file law enforcement officers for unreasonable seizures.

If any case not on all factual fours with Bivens repesents a new context, the majority gets where Justice Thomas wants to go, without the political cost of overrulings. The "special factors" analysis will come around to congressional failure to authorize such a cause of action by pointing to § 1983 and the fact that it is limited to state (not federal) officials and plaintiffs within in the United States; that congressional failure will require judicial hesitation. The dissent's response--Congress enacted § 1983 in the middle of Reconstruction with a specific concern in mind and was not thinking about federal officials shooting people across borders--does not sway the rest of the Court. This factor always comes to conflicting views of what to do with congressional silence: The majority reads inaction as congressional intent not to reach the situation, while the dissent reads it as leaving the situation to Bivens (lest it create a situation in which it is "damages or nothing").

This decision is unsurprising, as conservatives have long hated Bivens. On the other hand, conservatives increasingly resort to the courts and constitutional litigation. What happens when conservative groups want to challenge ATF agents raiding their compounds?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 25, 2020 at 01:10 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Scope of the felon-enfranchisement injunction

The Eleventh Circuit last week affirmed a district court judgment declaring invalid a Florida law that required released felons to pay restitution and other "legal financial obligations" before their voting rights can be reinstated.

For my purposes, the injunction is limited to the 17 named plaintiffs in several consolidated cases. The Eleventh Circuit describes the district court preliminary injunction as "requiring the State to allow the named plaintiffs to register and vote if they are able to show that they are genuinely unable to pay their LFOs and would otherwise be eligible to vote." And it ends the opinion as affirming "the district court’s preliminary injunction enjoining the defendants . . . from preventing the plaintiffs from voting based solely on their genuine inability to pay legal financial obligations." No matter how some sources have read the order, the court of appeals is clear that this is a non-universal/particularized injunction, entitling the seventeen plaintiffs, but no one else, to vote.

The question is what happens next. The state remains free to decline to enforce the payment law against anyone while it continues to fight this litigation, even if not enjoined from doing so. That avoids either new litigation and a new injunction involving new plaintiffs or the court certifying a 23(b)(2) class of all felons unable to pay LFOs and extending the existing injunction to the class.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 22, 2020 at 02:20 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Fourth Vesting Clause and Explicitly Authorized Delegation

Beyond the cognate Article I, II, and III vesting clauses that parcel sovereignty into legislative, executive, and judicial powers, there is a fourth “vesting” clause that uses the language of “vest” to allow the grant of power to another branch of government. It is the “Excepting Clause,” or the excepting provision of the Appointments Clause. It is instructive for what it allows and how it allows it.

“But the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.” (Art. II, § 2, cl. 2, emphasis added.)

As far as I’m aware, it’s the sole clause in the Constitution to explicitly contemplate horizontal delegation of power, by which I mean legislative reallocation of initially granted authority to another branch. The Take Care Clause contemplates vertical subdelegation within the executive branch.

How is the delegation allowed? Initially, Article II grants the nomination and appointment power to the President upon the qualification that the Senate provides its advice and consent. The Senate and House acting together, however, can opt out of that default regime for inferior officers through ordinary legislation.

The policy basis for the delegation is convenience in light of the anticipated possibility of numerous officers requiring appointment. Notwithstanding that important value, the scope of authorized delegation is only a cabined one. The Clause authorizes only delegation of a portion of the appointment power—for inferior officers only—and only to particular recipients of delegated power, i.e. the Courts, in the Heads of (executive) Departments, or in the President alone. Finally, delegation ends formal congressional involvement in the appointment, at least until the legislative grant of appointing authority is repealed.

This instance of explicitly authorized delegation is instructive in at least two ways:

  1. It is evidence the Framers knew how to authorize delegation when they wanted to, and when they did, the scope of the delegation was authorized only limitedly.
  2. It recognizes that delegation is never just a horizontal choice. The Clause indicated concern over the anticipated recipients of the delegated power who were clearly identified too, recognizing delegation as a vector with "x" and "y" components. Inter-branch delegation is horizontal (from one branch to another, e.g. Article I to Article II) but also vertical in that Congress grants the power with a designated level of officer within the branch, e.g. President v. Attorney General. That anchoring of delegated functions more remotely from the President within the executive branch anticipated the modern trend toward presidential administration of power.

Of course, the Excepting Clause by its terms doesn't say anything about delegation of rulemaking authority and need not be read to disallow delegation of rulemaking. Those who eschew formalism can certainly resort to many functionalist, pragmatic justifications for delegation. Those, however, like myself, who find textualism and formalism persuasive should consider the existence of a fourth vesting clause as textual evidence that the Founders knew how to authorize and limit delegation when they intended to.

Posted by T. Samahon on February 19, 2020 at 02:53 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Trump Impeachment and Bad News for Federal Judges

The “Rules of Proceedings” Clause grants the Senate the power to frame the rules of its proceedings. And the impeachment trial clause specifies that the Senate has the "sole power to try all impeachments." "Sole" textually commits the impeachment trial power to the Senate, and "try" is a word that the Supreme Court claims, ironically enough, lacks any judicially discoverable and manageable standards. In Walter Nixon, Chief Justice Rehnquist enlisted fainthearted originalist votes to conclude there was a lack of discoverable standards to allow judicial review of Nixon's impeachment. Justices Scalia and Thomas joined the majority in consulting a 1971 Webster's dictionary to claim, due to a "variety of definitions" in conflict with ratification era dictionaries, ambiguity in the meaning of the word "try." Thus, the case was a political question unsuitable for judicial review. Of course, in the Seventh Amendment context, the Court regularly decides what a jury trial entails by looking to English common law at the time of ratification.

Walter Nixon's holding roped off the Senate's impeachment trial process from any judicial review. Effectively, it announced, to quote Justice Souter, "an unreviewable discretion in the Senate to ignore completely the constitutional direction to 'try' impeachment cases." Now, post Walter Nixon, we have just witnessed the Senate "trying" a case without any witnesses. That absence of witnesses (prosecution or otherwise) did not prejudice defendant Trump. Had he actually been injured rather than helped by the Senate majority, Trump might have attempted judicial review only to be confronted with Walter Nixon.

But Walter Nixon together with the new "Trump v. House Managers" no-witness precedent are swords that can cut offensively as well as defensively. One potential proposition from Trump that could serve as precedent is that the Senate need not allow any witnesses at any impeachment trial. What if a future accused wants defense witnesses yet the Senate majority finds no constitutional duty to hear from them in order to "try" an accused and instead it elects to convict on the basis of a "coin toss" or its view the accused is a really "bad guy," to invoke Souter's hypotheticals? And what if the impeachment target is not a President with comparatively greater legal resources and political allies, but a judge?

Consider that judicial impeachments are lower visibility events than presidential impeachments with less fanfare; politically, federal judges have a different relationship with senators than a President, as head of a party, enjoys; the resolution of judicial impeachments is relatively fast, entailing less opportunity cost for Congress, especially with subdelegation of evidence gathering functions under Senate Impeachment Rule XI; and judges are impeachable for whatever constitutes not "good behavior," which might be conceived as a more specific and higher Article III standard for appropriate judicial behavior—not simply a shorthand cross-reference to the very bad behavior embodied in Article II grounds as "treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors."

But isn't the 2/3 supermajority vote to convict a safeguard against a no-defense-witness impeachment trial? Institutionally, individual judicial targets have significantly fewer legal resources at the ready for their defense than incumbent Presidents. It's no wonder that threats of impeachment against federal judges frequently precipitate resignations in impeachment's shadow; impeachment's in terrorem effect reaches many more federal judges than those formally impeached and convicted.

Of course, we could try and "read" the Trump nonjudicial precedent more limitedly, i.e. the Senate can deny the House prosecution, but not a defendant, all witnesses. It's unclear, though, why that would be the case where the Senate holds the judicially unreviewable "sole power to try all impeachments." Told by the Court that the Senate can do what it wants when trying impeachments, we should be unsurprised when it does just that.

Posted by T. Samahon on February 15, 2020 at 01:22 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Model of Constitutional Litigation

My new piece on universal injunctions has been published in Lewis & Clark Law Review. Precedent, Non-Universal Injunctions, and Judicial Departmentalism: A Model of Constitutional Litigation joins three threads that I have been writing and blogging about here--the requirement of particularized injunctions, the distinction between precedent and judgment, and a model of departmentalism in which all branches are bound by judgments but only courts are bound by judicial precedent. The result is a model of how constitutional litigation functions in fact and should function in our understanding.

Abstract after the jump.

This Article proposes a model of constitutional adjudication that offers a deeper, richer, and more accurate vision than the simple “courts strike down unconstitutional laws” narrative that pervades legal, popular, and political discourse around constitutional litigation. The model rests on five principles:

1) an actionable constitutional violation arises from the actual or threatened enforcement of an invalid law, not the existence of the law itself;

2) the remedy when a law is constitutionally invalid is for the court to halt enforcement;

3) remedies must be particularized to the parties to a case and courts should not issue “universal” or “nationwide” injunctions;

4) a judgment controls the parties to the case, while the court’s opinion creates precedent to resolve future cases; and

5) rather than judicial supremacy, federal courts operate on a model of “judicial departmentalism,” in which executive and legislative officials must abide by judgments in particular cases, but exercise independent interpretive authority as to constitutional meaning, even where those interpretations conflict with judicial understanding.

The synthesis of these five principles produces a constitutional system defined by the following features:

1) the judgment in one case declaring a law invalid prohibits enforcement of the law as to the parties to the case;

2) the challenged law remains on the books; and

3) the challenged law may be enforced against non-parties to the original case, but systemic and institutional incentives weigh against such enforcement efforts and push towards compliance with judicial understandings.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 10, 2020 at 07:15 AM in Article Spotlight, Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 08, 2020

"Thereof," legalese, and the readability of the U.S. Constitution

Should reasonable (non-lawyer) voters be able to read the U.S. Constitution and understand its meaning?

In United States v. Sprague (1931), the Court offered its approach to interpreting the Constitution: "The Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary, as distinguished from technical, meaning; where the intention is clear, there is no room for construction and no excuse for interpolation or addition" (my emphasis).

The Court's notice-to-voters proposition seems reasonable in light of theories of consent, even if sometimes aspirational and sometimes fictional, for example, language drafted ambiguously to achieve political compromise. Yet, notice is undermined when a document bristles with legalese and language that could fairly be read as embodying technical legal terms of art rather than ordinary natural language (e.g. "other high crimes and misdemeanors"). That drafting diminishes the ability of voters to access the text. If it is intended that voters, generation over generation, are still meant to understand the document, that difficulty is compounded.

Take the adverbial legalese "thereof." It is used over a dozen times in the Constitution and its amendments, but it can really muddle the meaning of a text. The First Amendment's religion clauses say that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." "Thereof" means "of the thing just mentioned; of that." But what is the "thing just mentioned" or the "that"? Like the word "herein," "thereof" can be treacherously ambiguous. Consider two possible readings:

1. If "religion" is the word referred to by "thereof," the reading could support an individualistic, religious right of conscience. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." Today, the Supreme Court interprets the clause this way.

2. But "thereof" might refer to "an establishment of religion," not just "religion." Thus, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise [of an establishment of religion.]" The free exercise clause would protect an institutional religion's prerogative, not an individual right of conscience.

"Thereof" and similar legalese introduce ambiguity into the constitutional text, opening the door to misunderstanding and competing interpretations. Like clear legal writers, future drafters should skip the legalese, at least if notice to voters actually remains an object in constitution drafting.

Posted by T. Samahon on February 8, 2020 at 08:00 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Will the Seila Case Provoke Bold Moves from the Roberts Court?

Originalist arguments may provoke bold moves from the Roberts Court this Term. In Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Court will decide whether an independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau violates the Constitution. Leading originalist scholars have challenged the independent structures incorporated by the Bureau and a slew of other agencies as unconstitutional novelties. These agencies are independent, and arguably trammel on the President’s exercise of “the executive power” under Article II of the Constitution, because the President cannot remove their heads at will.

The originalist critique of independent agencies is no longer purely academic, thanks to a 2008 dissent that Justice Kavanaugh wrote as a judge on the D.C. Circuit. As he noted, the leading Supreme Court precedent supporting independent agencies, Humphrey’s Executor, has “long been criticized . . . as inconsistent with the text of the Constitution and the understanding of the text that largely prevailed from 1789 through 1935.” Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, 537 U.S. 667, 694 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Then-Judge Kavanaugh conceded that he was unable to set aside Humphrey’s Executor, as it was “binding precedent.” Now that Kavanaugh is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, this constraint no longer applies.

Originalist arguments raise serious questions about the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a multitude of other independent agencies. I will be part of the discussion of Seila and agency independence in the ABA’s upcoming issue of Administrative and Regulatory Law News. My contribution, Alexander Hamilton’s Independent Agency, will highlight the independent structure of an obscure, founding-era agency known as the Sinking Fund Commission. (For more background on the Commission, please see my working paper and earlier post.) In the article for the ABA, I conclude that the independent structures of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission are much closer to founding-era practice than previously thought.

It will be interesting to see how these issues play out at oral argument on March 3 and in the Court’s ultimate resolution of the Seila case. Given the complexity of the issues and the magnitude of the case, I suspect that Seila will be one of the Court’s end-of-term blockbusters this June. 

Posted by Christine Chabot on February 6, 2020 at 09:25 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Delayed executive transparency and political accountability

John Bolton may not be testifying during the Trump Senate trial, but eventually his manuscript, partial leaks of which have already been shared with the Press, will see the light of day, even if after a potentially prolonged (post November 3, 2020?) prior restraint of pre-publication review. As the Just Security blog noted, Republican senators voting to acquit on the basis of factual, rather than legal, deficiency will have to eventually contend with the Bolton’s manuscript disclosure and other subsequent factual developments.

The leaks of the general content of Bolton's book were timely and placed senators on notice that important additional evidence concerning the conduct of our foreign policy was missing that could have been sought. Too often, however, delayed disclosure is the rule, thwarting political accountability for bad actors, leaving only hortatory cautionary tales to be learned from past governance missteps.

Consider a few spectacular delayed disclosures in the use of force context (which I've written about elsewhere) that, had they occurred earlier, could have changed public discourse and perhaps the direction of policy by calling into question the amount of deference paid to the executive branch.

  1. Operation Northwoods. In March 1962, almost a year after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs Operation but 7 months prior to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Department of Defense personnel presented scenarios ("pretexts") to the Secretary of Defense and eventually the President, intended to trick the American public into supporting a war against Cuba. The memorandum disclosing the planning is notable for the explicitness of its object: “It is recognized that any action which becomes pretext for US military intervention in Cuba will lead to a political decision which then would lead to military action.” The pretexts included, inter alia, "develop[ing] a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington," sinking boatloads of Cuban refugees headed to Florida "(real or simulated)," and hijacking civilian aircraft, all while pinning the blame on Castro's Cuba. See the annex to the appendix to enclosure A (pages 9-11 of the PDF). This plotting was conspiracy, but it wasn't merely "theory." It's well documented and became available as a result of the 1992 John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, the Act's Assassination Records Review Board, and the efforts of James Bamford. It, however, was many years too late to hold anyone accountable. General Lyman Lemnitzer, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was subsequently appointed to leadership in NATO and even a commission designed to investigate CIA abuse of power. NB: The documents are authentic; I copied them while at the National Archives II, College Park Maryland facility.
  2. Saudi involvement with al-Qaeda and 9/11. Soon after 9/11, the FBI during the George W. Bush administration developed credible intelligence that an element of the Saudi government was a sovereign sponsor of the attacks. Some of that intelligence was collected by the Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, and reported in December 2002 in part 4 of the report, what have been called the "28pages." The Bush administration promptly classified these pages, which were only declassified near the end of the Obama administration. The Obama administration denied the records were evidence of Saudi complicity, but subsequent development of the factual record by Lloyd's of London in its SDNY reinsurance litigation in the 9/11 MDL as well as further government disclosure, cast substantial doubt on those denials. Under the Bush doctrine, where “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime,” Saudi Arabia was far more connected with 9/11 than was, say, Iraq. Nonetheless, delayed disclosure favors the received narrative that non-state actor al-Qaeda carried out its terror operation on its own while dismissing later credible evidence of state sponsorship as mere "conspiracy theory."
  3. The Afghanistan Papers. As recently reported by the Washington Post, George Washington University's National Security Archive (the Archive) brought a FOIA action for U.S. Department of Defense records relating to the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. The Archive's lawsuit sought Rumsfeld's early 2000s "snowflakes" memos as well as records generated by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which interviewed U.S. personnel and NATO allies to develop a series of "Lessons Learned" reports. The secret history critically appraised the prosecution of the war. The mission kept changing; there was a failure to clearly define who the enemy was; money was wastefully spent without good justification; and massive scale corruption ran amok in country and undermined the government's stability.

Competing values, such as security and maintaining the confidentiality of deliberation, prize nondisclosure over political accountability. But one eventually has to ask at what point have we actually sacrificed security and robust deliberation through secrecy that evades political ventilation? The fog of war is not lifted when we are overly deferential to executive claims of privilege and confidentiality.

 

Posted by T. Samahon on February 5, 2020 at 10:47 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Appellate argument (and law school), encapsulated (Updated)

From the Sixth Circuit argument in Higgins v. Kentucky Sports Radio, a lawsuit brought by a college referee who was attacked online by Kentucky basketball fans (particularly through harassing phone calls and negative reviews of his roofing business) following some controversial calls in a game UK lost. The defendants are the radio station and announcer who reported on and promoted the efforts, in a way the plaintiff alleges constitutes incitement and conspiracy to defame. (H/T: Regular reader and commenter Asher Steinberg).

In an argument that otherwise went well for the radio station, I loved this exchange (around 19:00) between the station's attorney and one judge (not sure who turns out to have been Judge Sutton), when the judge asked whether a more direct instance of incitement would have survived 12(b)(6):

Attorney: Your Honor, I'm hesitant to comment on hypotheticals. The point is that is not this case.

Judge Sutton: OK, wait. I hate to break it to you, particularly with some law students here. That is all we do. *** You want to win for your client today. And we do not want to issue a ruling that we will have to denounce tomorrow for the next case.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 31, 2020 at 08:33 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

On Presidential Accountability and Running Out the Clock

There are really very few opportunities to meaningfully hold a modern American president personally accountable when his party stands behind him.

1. A sitting President can't be criminally prosecuted, at least according to the executive branch and notable executive branch alumni.

2. Civilly, the President is absolutely immune, even after leaving office, for official actions taken while President.

3. Electorally, since the 22nd Amendment, a President stands for reelection only once, but typically has enormous advantages as incumbent and head of a major political party. If the President prioritizes self-preservation over party, the subsequent political fallout for party is a non-check.

4. Then, there’s removal from office through impeachment and conviction.

That bicameral "hundred-ton-gun" is difficult to bring to bear against a President. And Congress has terrible aim. Congress: 0, POTUS: 2. And, no, we shouldn't count Nixon's in terrorem resignation. My inquiry is interested in holding a president accountable even when his party stands behind him. The GOP of Nixon's era was unwilling to support him. As the Post reported, "Mr. Nixon said he decided he must resign when he concluded that he no longer had 'a strong enough political base in the Congress' to make it possible for him to complete his term of office."

The slowness of impeachment and the 4-year-term clock is an acute problem.

Trump's trial team has pressed the procedural argument that the House should have (effectively) conducted all investigation and fact development prior to the Senate trial. Of course, this process argument against witnesses and additional evidence would suffocate most impeachment efforts that involve factual disputes. If the Democratically controlled House actually decided to go back and try and gather additional evidence now by litigating House subpoenas, the ensuing presidential assertions of executive privilege and litigation would drag on for months if not years.

Thus, if a President ran out the clock on the term of office, impeachment of Presidents (but not judges) effectively becomes a dead letter. The delay would not only blunt accountability, but deny it altogether.

That outcome's absurdity suggests that:

(1) the original impeachment process cannot effectively function in cases of presidential impeachment and requires amendment, for example, by (i) very clearly empowering a presiding Chief Justice to adjudicate disputes about privilege (as a substitute for satellite pre-trial litigation), and (ii) authorizing both chambers of Congress to legislatively commit to more detailed impeachment procedure--at a time not connected with a live impeachment controversy--to lessen the problem of partisan bespoke trial process; and

(2) the other legal and political methods of holding presidents accountable, such as #1, the executive branch's self-serving view of immunity against criminal prosecution of a sitting president, should be revisited.

A constitutional amendment may be the deus ex machina of intractable governance problems, but that feels like where we are now. Pragmatism about partisanship tells me, given current political realities, Article V would never be unsuccessfully invoked to address this particular impeachment or perhaps even this President. A prospective-only amendment, however, might prove a more successful strategy, particularly if partisans could, through futurity's uncertainty, come to look at the problem impartially.

Update (Feb. 6, 2020): Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has proposed amending the impeachment process -- definitely not the constitutional amendment to the impeachment process I was proposing and principally offered as a partisan sally following acquittal.

Posted by T. Samahon on January 30, 2020 at 08:00 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Thomas and Gorsuch on universal injunctions (Updated)

SCOTUS stayed pending appeal the injunction prohibiting enforcement of the Trump Administration's public-charge regulation, another example of the government seeking and the Court granting extraordinary relief to allow the administration to continue enforcing policies pending litigation where the lower court found the policies defective. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in the stay, to take aim at universal injunctions (with citation to the work of Sam Bray and Michael Morley), properly defining them as injunctions protecting beyond parties rather than in geographic terms.

Unsurprisingly, I agree with Gorsuch's basic point against universal injunctions. I am not sure what it has to do with this case. Gorsuch would have granted this stay regardless of the injunction's scope. And I am sure he is waiting for the government to challenge a particularized Illinois injunction that (he acknowledges) remains in effect so he can stay that, as well.

Update: I wanted to come back to the question of whether the stay was proper. Given the make-up of the Court, it seems clear that, when the case comes to the Court on the merits, the majority will declare the policy valid. That aside, what about the stay? Where the district court granted an injunction, the question should be what will create more permanent and long-lasting chaos--staying the injunction (thus allowing enforcement of the underlying policy) or allowing the injunction to remain in effect (thus stopping enforcement of the underlying policy, allowing continuation of the primary conduct the regulation is designed to stop.

Today's order means the U.S. can deny status to certain people for the moment, although should the reg be declared invalid at the end of the day, those people could then reapply and be considered without the now-unlawful policy. Had the Court not stayed the injunction, people otherwise subject to the order could enter and/or gain status; if the order ultimately is declared valid, the government would have people in the U.S. or with status who otherwise should not have been permitted. It does not seem that the government could retroactively apply the regulation to remove presence or status already granted under the old rules. So as abhorrent as I find the policy, it seems a stay was appropriate. Where am I going wrong?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 27, 2020 at 01:48 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Congressional design, Senate partisanship by class, and impeachment trial politics

Post-17th Amendment, both the House and the Senate are directly elected--a change from the earlier dual constituency of state legislative election of senators. Still, important differences remain that result in intra-branch friction such as we're seeing in the impeachment process.

By design, the House would be more democratically responsive than the Senate due to its shorter terms and its method of direct election. One perceived downside was the House would be "liable to err also, from fickleness and passion." This is consistent with the apocryphal explanation that the Senate was designed to "cool" the politically responsive House as a tea saucer cooled hot tea.  The chambers’ different characters were features, not flaws, such as the requirement that the more politically accountable House “hold the purse” by originating all tax revenue measures but requiring Senate concurrence for them. Like hot and cold faucets, the chambers could deliver warm, but non-scalding (and non-freezing) water to the public.

Beyond Senate direct election and the 17th Amendment, consider an important political development on the House side that makes the House's "water" even more scalding. Aggressive gerrymandering in the House effectively allows representatives to choose their voters rather than the other way around. This bipartisan opportunity has changed over time and is far more effective now than it was at the founding. The House has very heavily gerrymandered districts (except for 1 representative states with at large districts, e.g. Wyoming, Montana, etc.) with very low rates of incumbents losing those seats. The increase in polarized House districts maintains that body's penchant for fiery politics, but it also makes the seats securely partisan. The Framers were right the House would prove hot headed, but not because the body was being responsive to what Americans in the aggregate in the several states would want. In a sense, with the new gerrymandering, the House lost some of the feature but kept the flaw - the House now is only modestly politically responsive, but still subject to fits and passions from partisanly gerrymandered, center fleeing districts.

The House-side development is not a phenomenon that occurs in isolation, however. If the House's still scalding water temperature is to be cooled, it requires the Senate to be more removed from partisanship. But today's elected Senate seats, incapable of being gerrymandered, are more competitive than House races. Consequently, senators up for reelection must be more politically responsive to their states’ voters in the run up to an election as they try to capture the median voter for their state. In the continuous body of the Senate, different Senate classes of senators (I, II, or III) will weight their responsiveness to voters depending on their proximity to election. Senators temporally closest to Election Day will, relatively speaking, be most responsive to voters in their states and the donors who facilitate their reelection. As one unidentified senator reported to political scientist Richard Fenno, “[w]e say in the Senate that we spend four years as a statesman and two years as a politician.” Those most distant to election will be able to vote their independent judgments. The basis for acting with greater independence includes beliefs that voters have short memories, that time will vindicate the wisdom of a senator's vote, or that voters back home will find subsequent action that they approve to outweigh earlier displays of independence.

Steven Levitt modeled (JSTOR access required) how senators vote, estimating the relative weights of overall voter preferences of the state electorate, supporter preferences, the national party line, and the senator’s personal ideology. His research called into doubt the median voter theorem as it found the primary determinant of a vote was a senator's ideology (63%). Importantly, though, the effect of election proximity and Senate tenure did bear out Fenno's anecdote: “[a]s elections near [i.e. votes in the election year for non-retiring senators], the weight given to overall state voter preferences doubles [from 9% to 18%], with that increase being offset by a decline in the weight placed on the party line.” In short, senators in classes I (reelection in 2024), II (reelection in 2020), and III (reelection in 2022) can be expected to vote differently.

Turning to impeachment votes to be held prior to November 2020, I've noted the Senate was selected to act as the court of impeachment because it was considered to be "sufficiently independent." But the level of independence will differ across the body given senator proximity to election. There is no legal sanction for breaking one’s impeachment trial oath to "do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws." The only here-and-now sanction for oath breaking is the republican remedy of election. And the administering of that remedy lies in the hands of electorates back home.

So, on this account, laying impeachment law and evidence aside, it's unsurprising that Class II senators McConnell (KY, in state Trump net approval +14) or Graham (SC, Trump net approval +5) would coordinate with Trump or otherwise support a Trump acquittal; or that Collins (R-ME, Trump net approval -6) would position herself as independent; or that McSally would prove taciturn (R-AZ, Trump net approval -3); or that Jones would withhold judgment yet question whether there was enough evidence to convict (D-AL, Trump net approval +22); or that Coons would signal his approval of the case made by the House managers (D-DE, Trump net approval -15), etc.

This is not to say "it's all politics" in response to voter preferences or that all voter preferences are bad, especially if in the context of impeachment voters are demanding non-partisanship and the exercise of judgment. But it might mean Senate Classes I and III will need to be the segments of the continuing body willing to exercise "sufficient" independence.

Posted by T. Samahon on January 27, 2020 at 11:45 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, January 25, 2020

On Disappointed Presidents

President Trump’s response to impeachment proceedings seems more defiant than regretful. The President has expressed regret in other areas, however.  He “may[]” regret his appointment of Jerome Powell as Chair of the Federal Reserve. The President may also have reason to be disappointed in Chief Justice Roberts, a Republican appointee who has publicly countered the President’s attack on the independence of federal judges. Any disappointment suffered by the President would reflect Powell’s and Roberts’ independence and ability to remain in office while making decisions contrary to the President’s wishes. The independence of administrative agencies such as the Fed has been controversial. The independence of the federal judiciary is established by Article III of the Constitution.  

Supreme Court Justices have a long history of casting independent votes that disappoint the presidents who appointed them. President Eisenhower declared Justice Brennan one of his greatest “mistakes.” A disappointed President Theodore Roosevelt complained that he “could carve out of a banana a Judge with more backbone than” Justice Holmes. Historically, Justices’ voting records in non-unanimous cases reflect a strong tradition of independence, though there is reason to think that presidents have enhanced their ability to appoint ideologically compatible Justices in recent decades. As noted by Lee Epstein and Eric Posner, we may be on the cusp of a new era in which Justices’ votes align with the parties of their appointing presidents more than ever before. It seems unlikely that the Court will ever have another Justice like John Paul Stevens, a Republican appointee who generally sided with the liberal wing of the Court, or even a more moderate Republican appointee like Justice Kennedy.

Any shift to a more political court would still depend on Chief Justice Roberts, who may have a broader commitment to the Court’s institutional independence. And perhaps Justice Gorsuch’s commitment to originalism and textualism will lead to unexpected results in certain cases. The magnitude of any change would also depend on the types of cases that the Court chooses to decide. A Term in which the Court overruled Roe v. Wade and declared vast swaths of the administrative state unconstitutional would be very different than one in which none of these things occurred. 

Notwithstanding any increase in politicized voting, presidents ultimately lack power to create vacancies that allow them to appoint new Justices to the Court. Article III’s life tenure provisions instead allow Justices to choose when they will retire. In recent decades many Justices have chosen to remain on the bench and pass up politically opportune retirements. Justice Ginsburg declined to retire when President Obama was in office, and last year Justice Thomas declined to retire during President Trump’s first term in office. (Because it is an election year, none of the Justices are likely to retire voluntarily this year.) Both of these possible retirements would have maximized Justice Ginsburg’s and Justice Thomas’s odds of being replaced by like-minded successors who would remain on the Court for many decades to come. Justices’ autonomous retirement decisions present another facet of judicial independence that one would not expect to change any time soon.

Posted by Christine Chabot on January 25, 2020 at 09:48 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Defining a show trial

Some people are decrying-in-advance the upcoming Senate impeachment as a "show trial." At some level the term is apt. The factfinder seems to have its mind made up; the procedures in place do not seem calculated to discover the truth; and the proceeding will bear the cover of a judicial proceeding but serve as little more than a cover for the political decision of those in power.

But  think of "show trials" in the context of the Soviet Union or other totalitarian regimes, where the government uses the sheen of judicial process to purge and execute an enemy of the state, where a conviction is the pre-ordained result. This is going the opposite way--an acquittal is the pre-ordained result. The comparator is not Soviet or authoritarian show trials of ordained enemies. The comparator is state criminal proceedings against Klan members and other Southern whites charged with crimes against African-Americans (e.g., Byron De La Beckwith).

Does the term "show trial" still apply?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 21, 2020 at 03:10 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Could Congress Put Chief Justice Roberts on the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee? It’s Not As Crazy As You Might Think

The Supreme Court has paid careful attention to Article II’s Appointments Clause requirements in recent cases. Such enhanced scrutiny coincides with renewed constitutional challenges to the appointments process for members of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee. Drawing on my recent paper, this post provides several reasons why the Committee’s appointments should be considered constitutional. These appointments even find support in the First Congress’s decision to make Chief Justice John Jay an ex officio member of the Sinking Fund Commission. The Commission is a founding-era antecedent to the Open Market Committee, and Chief Justice Jay served on the Commission without ever receiving an appointment as a principal officer in the executive branch.

First consider the Appointments Clause issues raised by the Open Market Committee. Its monetary policy decisions have enormous ramifications for the U.S. economy, and yet only seven of the Committee’s twelve members (the governors) are appointed as principal officers. The remaining five members of the Committee are presidents of regional Federal Reserve banks. The bank presidents vote independently and as the governors’ colleagues on the Open Market Committee, but their appointments are approved by the governors rather than the President and Senate. Thus the bank presidents meet only the requirements for inferior officers. Peter Conti-Brown has argued that multiple vacancies on the board of governors have exacerbated the problem by granting bank presidents a majority of votes on the Open Market Committee. It’s not clear that this change (or underlying factors) would render bank presidents principal officers under current precedent. A minority of governors would still retain power to remove bank presidents at will, and regional bank presidents cannot form a quorum of the Committee necessary to transact business without the presence of at least two governors.  (Please see my paper for citations to relevant authority.)

Nor do the bank presidents’ appointments run afoul of originalist arguments for broader Appointments Clause requirements. The Sinking Fund Commission, which again was the Open Market Committee’s founding-era antecedent, provides helpful precedent on this issue. As explained earlier, the Sinking Fund Commission was proposed by Alexander Hamilton, passed by the First Congress, and signed into law by President George Washington. Like the Open Market Committee, the Sinking Fund Commission conducted open market purchases of U.S. securities pursuant to a statutory mandate. In this legislation, Congress specified that five principal officers would become ex officio members of the Sinking Fund Commission: the President of the Senate/Vice President, the Chief Justice, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Treasury, and the Attorney General. The decision to bestow ex officio positions upon five persons who were already properly appointed principal officers is distinct from appointments concerns raised by the Open Market Committee. Still, the Sinking Fund Commission’s ex officio provisions suggest that some members of multi-member agencies may serve without meeting Appointments Clause requirements for executive officers.

Consider the Chief Justice. Chief Justice Jay was first appointed to an Article III office outside of the executive branch and performed judicial duties that had nothing to do with the Sinking Fund Commission’s open-market purchases of U.S. securities. The new duties Congress assigned as a Sinking Fund Commissioner were not germane to his existing judicial duties or even duties within the judicial branch. It would seem that the Chief Justice served on the Commission without a second appointment qualifying him to be an executive officer. The historical record does not clarify whether the Chief Justice’s role was permissible because he served alongside other properly appointed executive officers, or because the Commission’s open-market purchases were quasi-private actions that did not involve significant authority of the United States. Either way, Chief Justice Jay’s service on the Commission without an appointment to an executive post suggests that the limited appointments process for regional Federal Reserve bank presidents is also permissible.  

Posted by Christine Chabot on January 20, 2020 at 10:17 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Legal History | Permalink | Comments (1)

Securing Constitutional Change

The 22nd Amendment and its provision for presidential term limits has a neat bit of constitutional circumlocution in it to avoid “burdening” that Document with the filthy particulars of a proper noun, specifically, Harry S. Truman.  First, the Amendment articulated a general rule: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.”

Then, the Amendment carves out an exception: “But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.” The category the exception defines has only one person within it. It never mentions Truman by name, but sure enough it applies only to him as the person who held the office of President when Congress proposed the 22nd Amendment on February 6, 1947.

Beyond this curious attention to form, this Amendment embodies pragmatic wisdom when thinking about securing future amendments. It is clear enough why Republicans would favor the 22nd Amendment after the breach of the two term so-called "tradition" with FDR and Truman's succession after FDR's death. But why would any Democrat support an amendment that term limited an incumbent Democratic President in an apparent partisan sally against FDR? To win the support of enough Democrats in Congress and the state legislatures, Truman was grandfathered. The present addressed, Democrats looked beyond that horizon to consider (i) the uncertainty of a possible future where a Republican president could potentially serve multiple terms and (ii) the wisdom of lengthy presidential tenures generally. The House and the Senate voted to pass the amendment with Democrats crossing over to join Republicans in the bicameral supermajorities.

Constitutional change requires: (1) addressing upstream political constraints of the status quo, through strategies that "buy out” incumbents whose short term political oxen would otherwise be gored, thereby making change unlikely under supermajority regimes; and (2) relying on uncertainty, such as occasionally created by futurity (or distant futurity), in order to place parties in an original position behind a veil of ignorance, at least for those changes that lack any clear substantive political valence beyond the short run. In this way, supermajority rules privilege incumbents and provide them leverage in any political bargaining, but uncertainty resulting from futurity can aid parties in thinking evenhandedly about political principles. That's not to say partisanship disappears, but this kind of strategy can peel away enough moderates on the margins to allow change to occur. As one detailed academic account explains (JSTOR subscription required), several Democrats in the House and in the Senate as well as in the state legislatures crossed over to support the amendment.

In this way, the 22nd Amendment can be seen as embodying pragmatic advice when thinking about how to secure constitutional change for what might otherwise prove political nonstarters, such as limiting and regularizing Supreme Court terms. If an amendment proposes term limiting the currently constituted Supreme Court, it's unclear why Republicans would agree. They would perceive several more 5-4 opportunities in the short run. A proposal, however, that grandfathered all existing court members while applying the limitation prospectively might be more likely to get political traction than one targeting the political status quo.

Posted by T. Samahon on January 20, 2020 at 08:00 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Impeachment and the Direct Election of U.S. Senators

My thanks to Prawfsblawg for permitting me this guest writing stint. As a long-time reader, I have enjoyed others’ insights and now hope to contribute a few worthwhile nuggets during the next few weeks.

What type of impeachment trial can we reasonably expect in a Senate constituted by directly elected senators? As other commentators have observed (e.g. Jonathan Adler and Carissa Byrne Hessick), Alexander Hamilton anticipated the possibility that the House process could degenerate into a partisan food fight where House members, laying all merits aside, rush to defend or rise to oppose, a President along party lines. Nonetheless, Hamilton thought the Senate, constituted as a court of impeachment, would act as "a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent" to save the process from a crassly partisan fate ruled by political bosses.

The impeachment of a President entails different political calculations than impeachment of a judicial officer, and the case of presidential impeachment probably more sorely tests the procedure's limits than the relatively lower stakes of a U.S. district court judge. It's unsurprising that many judicial impeachments, say, of an Alcee Hastings, a Walter Nixon, or a Thomas Porteous, occasion little partisan fanfare.

In contrast to lower court impeachments, we are about to witness a presidential impeachment trial where the Senate majority leader has publicly pledged “total coordination” with the White House Counsel’s office to kill the Trump impeachment. And House leadership, recognizing that reality, stalled transmitting the articles and attempted to secure an agreement on how the trial should proceed in the Senate. Political prognosticators regularly consult the Cook Senate Race report to guess which senators might be peeled away from the GOP majority and which Democratic senators might feel pragmatically obliged to side with Republicans due to close races. Notwithstanding oaths, senators today have strong structural incentives to behave as partisans, disappointing Hamilton's expectation of a sufficiently dignified, sufficiently independent process.

When Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 65, he didn't know that in the late 19th century, Oregon and other states would informally adopt popular direct election of U.S. senators by straw poll popular elections or that in 1913 we would formalize and lock in direct senatorial election with the 17th Amendment. As Todd Zywicki has explained (Hein online subscription required), this change had important consequences for bicameralism by making both chambers subject to direct election.

Importantly, direct election means the relevant voting audience is no longer a body of roughly 120 state legislators, conveniently gathered in a single location for a senatorial vote. Instead, voting is done by (rationally) politically ignorant voters who only variably show up to vote. Moreover, successful direct election campaigns now must reach millions of dispersed voters through costly campaigns. And these campaigns facilitate contributors gaining significant influence over their senatorial candidates. Of course, several indirect election pathologies, including corruption, were offered to justify direct election, but the direct election remedy entailed substantial tradeoffs.

My posts, while acknowledging a range of views about the 17th Amendment and its probable effects, will question skeptically whether the benefits were really worth the changes in how the Senate today discharges its constitutional functions.

Posted by T. Samahon on January 16, 2020 at 08:00 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Political grass is always greener . . .

Thursday morning, I read this Atlantic piece from Lee Drutman (New America Foundation) arguing that a pure ideological two-party system had broken the Constitution. It produced the situation that Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and others feared of the "alternate domination of one faction over another." Drutman urges Congress or states to institutionalize multi-party democracy and proportional representation; he argues that Madison's Federalist No. 10, "with its praise of fluid and flexible coalitions," envisioned some form of multi-party system.

Thursday evening, I read this Tablet piece from Neil Rogachevsky (Israel Studies and Political Thought at (Yeshiva), arguing that multi-party democracy and proportional representation is what has placed Israel in its current political predicament, with no party able to form a government. He hopes that Benjamin Netanyahu might be able to push first-past-the-post as a parting gift to the country.

There are no right answers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 2, 2020 at 09:06 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Hate crimes charges in synagogue stabbing (Updated)

The United States has filed federal hate-crimes charges against Grafton Thomas, accused of stabbing five people at a shul during a Chanukah celebration. The charges were brought under § 247, which prohibits obstruction of a person's free exercise of religion through the use of force. According to the complaint allegations by FBI Special Agent Julie Brown, Thomas' handwritten journals and internet searches focused on some anti-Semitic content.

I have never been a fan of hate-crimes laws. I believe SCOTUS gave too-short shrift to the First Amendment concerns in upholding the concept in Wisconsin v. Mitchell. I am not convinced that Thomas' actions are "worse" because he targeted Jews as to require different crimes or punishments. Nor do I (as sort-of part of the "attacked" group*) feel safer or more protected that Thomas will be prosecuted for the specific crime of targeting Jews as opposed to the more general crime of attempted murder or assault-with-a-deadly-weapon or something like that.

[*] To be clear, in response to a reader email, I am not trying to separate myself from the victims of these attacks as "different" types of Jews. By sort-of, I was making the point that the attacks have been localized in insular Jewish communities in New York. So I am part of the group as a Jewish person; I am not part of that insular and localized group. For purposes of this post: If the attacks were taking place against Jews in Coral Gables, Florida (where my temple is located), I would not be in any greater favor of hate-crimes laws as the solution.

I did not know about § 247, distinct from § 249(a), which makes it a crime to willfully cause or attempt to cause bodily injury to a person because of, among other things, the victim's actual or perceived religion, race, or national origin. I am curious why the U.S. Attorney charged under § 247 rather than § 249. Is the difference that this attack occurred during religious exercise--a Chanukah celebration at a place of worship--rather than from encountering a Jewish person on the street? And if the US Attorney pursues others of the dozen-or-so attacks on Jews of the past eight days, which occurred on the street, would it use § 249 instead?

Update: Marty Lederman also wonders why the government used § 247 rather than § 249, because it would be easier to prove both the motive element and the jurisdictional elements under § 249 than § 247 (although Marty believes the government can prove both as to § 247).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 30, 2019 at 05:10 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Constitutional small claims court

Clark Neily at the Cato Blog proposes a constitutional small-claims court for low-level constitutional violations. Neily's starting example is a cop citing a woman for disorderly conduct for saying "bitch" in public, an obvious constitutional violation, then ordering away (on the silent threat of arrest) an attorney who attempted to intervene. Neily's proposal would create a small-claims-court/traffic-court hybrid, with small-money damage awards paid from an escrow fund established by each department. Neily acknowledges the major structural departure, but says it is better than the current approach, "which is to collectively shrug our shoulders at the vast majority of relatively low-level civil-rights violations committed by cops hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day across the country."

It is an interesting idea, of a piece with other proposals to enable recovery on small violations. In my Civil Rights class, I discuss Jim Pfander's proposal to allow plaintiffs to seek only nominal damages in exchange for eliminating qualified immunity.

There are a host of details to work out, as Neily acknowledges. They begin with whether this system is in federal or state court and what that choice says about our current assumptions about the federal judiciary and civil rights. If at the state (or municipal) level, recall that municipal traffic courts have become money-making institutions for themselves, their local governments, and their police departments, creating their own constitutional violations. We might worry about recreating that system, even with the different goal of compensating citizens against governmental overreach. Finally, should it be limited to police or should it extend to other executive officials who violate rights in a small, l0w-level way, such as the staffer in the Recorder of Deeds office?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 24, 2019 at 11:27 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Oaths, Impeachment, and Questions of Degree

Senator Lindsey Graham caused quite a stir last week when he said, regarding the impeachment of Donald Trump “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”  Soon after, Senator Mitch McConnell said “I'm not an impartial juror . . . I'm not impartial about this at all.”  While we might all suspect that Graham and McConnell were never going to vote against President Trump in the upcoming impeachment trial, these statements are nonetheless controversial because they seem entirely at odds with the oath that both Graham and McConnell will have to swear at the beginning of the impeachment trial.

The U.S. Constitution states: “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation.”  The oath itself is not written into the text of the Constitution, but the current Senate rules contain the following oath: ““I solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [name], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.’’  Similar language about impartial justice has been used in the oath for a very long time, at least dating back to the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.

While the text of the Constitution does not say anything about impartiality, it seems pretty clear why impartiality is included in the oath.  In Federalist 65, for example, Alexander Hamilton stated that the Senate was the optimal body to try impeachments because they were independent and thus more likely to be impartial:

Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?

In other words, Hamilton wanted the Senate to make these decisions precisely because it was more insulated from political pressures.

Others have noted that the statements by Graham and McConnell are, on their face, inconsistent with the oath.  I agree.  But I wanted to write this post in response to a counterargument that I’ve seen—namely, that because impeachment is necessarily a political process, we cannot expect the Senators to actually be impartial.  Perhaps the oath is outdated, some say, and in a post-Seventeenth Amendment world,* we must expect that Senators will make their decisions solely on the basis of partisan considerations.  In other words, some are arguing that, the oath notwithstanding, we cannot expect political actors to behave impartially.

I am no impeachment expert, but I think that this issue raises a deeper question that is worth talking about.  The question is whether we can acknowledge that impeachment will necessarily include political considerations, while, at the same time, insist that it be something other than an exercise in rank partisanship. That politics will play a role in impeachment is, of course, inevitable because the task was assigned to Congress.   But even if politics has some role to play--or at least will play some role--in impeachment, that doesn’t mean we should throw away the idea of the oath or the principle of impartiality.  I think we can acknowledge some role for politics without saying that politics is the only thing that will or should matter. 

I see an analogy here to judges and the role of personal values and judgment calls. I know a number of people who insist that judges must adopt a methodology such as textualism or originalism in order to constrain them from making decisions based on their own values or policy preferences.**  Their argument seems to be that, if we acknowledge that a judge’s values should sometimes guide their decisions, then there is no stopping point—judges can simply substitute their preferences for all policy decisions by the political branches.

This argument about judges ignores hundreds of years of history during which judges routinely decided cases on the basis of their intuitions about right and wrong.  The common law process—in which judges would make modest decisions, and then later attempt to identify broader principles—required judges to consider policy outcomes.  And although the system was hardly perfect, it rarely (if ever) resulted in the parade of horribles recounted by those who counsel judicial restraint above all else.

In fact, I have sometimes wondered whether judges tended to issue modest decisions precisely because everyone understood that it was the judges themselves who were making important decisions.  Maybe it is easier for modern judges to make sweeping countermajoritarian decisions when they can say that the text or the history of the Constitution demands such a decision.  If judges today had to say they were making a decision because they personally believe it to be the correct outcome, would they, perhaps, make more narrow decisions?

Similarly, we could acknowledge that Senators are likely to be swayed by political considerations, but also expect them to observe certain norms of impartiality.  For example, what if the Senators openly tried to grapple with the inevitable pull of partisan politics? What if they were to say something like “I know that, as a Republican (or Democrat), people might worry that I am going to vote against (or in favor of) removal based only on politics, but here is why I think it is the correct decision . . .”?  In other words, Senators could embrace the idea that politics inevitably shape important decisions, but also try to explain the substantive, non-political reasons for their decisions.

In any event, the path that Graham and McConnell have taken seems untenable to me. I don’t see how either of them can say these things and then swear an oath to do “impartial justice.”  Whatever the phrase “impartial justice” means, it does not mean loudly declaring that you refuse to be fair.

 

* I find the role of the Seventeenth Amendment in all of this to be fascinating.  If anyone knows of some good writing on the Seventeenth Amendment and impeachment, please let me know!

** There are, of course, other reasons to adopt such methodologies. But a number of smart people I know have said that they prefer such methodologies because they constrain judges.

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on December 19, 2019 at 02:36 PM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Legislatures creating universality

As I discuss in a forthcoming piece, the combination of remedial particularity (no non-particularized injunctions) and departmentalism (the executive can ignore judicial precedent about a law's constitutional validity, at least until the matter reaches court) leaves an essential role for the legislature. The only way to stop the executive from enforcing or threatening to enforce a constitutionally dubious law, even one declared invalid by SCOTUS, is to repeal that law.

That was the task of the Commission to Examine Racial Equity in Virginia, which last month released its Interim Report identifying dozens of state laws for repeal; these include the anti-miscegination law at issue in Loving, some education laws enacted during Massive Resistance to Brown, and some laws targeting the "feeble-minded." Josh Blackman comments.

The action is symbolic, because any enforcement effort would fail. Any government official attempting to enforce would be sued for damages (qualified immunity would be lost, because the invalidity of these laws is clearly established by SCOTUS precedent), injunctive relief, and attorneys fees. And the line attorney litigating the case likely would be sanctioned (although I doubt it would be by contempt, as Josh suggests). But there is a substantive component, if read as the legislature checking the executive in some manner.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 7, 2019 at 12:51 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 29, 2019

More state action and private vendettas

I wrote awhile back about a case in which police officers took private action against a citizen (trashing his car) based on a personal vendetta resulting from a professional dispute (the citizen filed a departmental complaint about them). The Seventh Circuit found no state action in an analogous case. A citizen shouted at a police officer while he was making an arrest and criticized the officer (and perhaps threatened his family) on Facebook, prompting the officer to file a criminal complaint with a fellow officer, prompting that officer to arrest the citizen. The court held that, although the original interaction came when the officer was on the job, he acted as a private citizen in filing a criminal complaint with another officer, who then pursued those charges.

The Seventh Circuit's analysis would reject the potential claim in the earlier case. I imagine the court would say the officers acted as private citizens in trashing the guy's car and it is not enough that the dispute traces to official police conduct.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 29, 2019 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Bribery, Impeachment, and the Common Law

Earlier this morning I published an online essay with The Atlantic about how the crime of bribery fits into impeachment. The editors at The Atlantic made me take out a lot of nerdy stuff about legal treatises.  And while I totally understand why that level of detail probably isn’t appropriate for a general audience, I wanted to offer that level of detail to the other law professors and lawyers out there who care about how we ought to understand bribery as it relates to impeachment.

The Constitution specifically lists bribery as grounds for impeachment.  Article II, section 4 says: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  I’m intrigued by the use of the word “shall” in that Clause.  (Does that mean it's mandatory rather than a matter of discretion?!)  But I’m a criminal law professor, not a constitutional law expert, and so I want to try and stay within my area of expertise.

Because there is a credible argument that President Trump committed bribery when he withheld military aid to Ukraine in return for announcements of political investigations, the public obviously cares what the word bribery means in the Constitution.  I’ve seen a number of people offer opinions on the issue. And while I do not think that there are clear cut answers here, I think that the opinions that are being bandied about are insufficiently nuanced, if not wrong.  So here is my more nuanced take.

First, let’s be crystal clear that current federal bribery statute does not tell us what the word bribery means in the Constitution itself.  The current federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. 201, wasn’t enacted until well after the Constitution was adopted. That doesn’t mean that whether Trump committed statutory bribery is irrelevant to impeachment. It could most certainly establish that Trump committed a high crime or misdemeanor.  But it doesn’t tell us whether he committed constitutional bribery.

So what is constitutional bribery?  Ben Wittes said on Twitter a couple of days ago that the House of Representatives gets to define the term.

I have a ton of respect for Ben. But I don’t think that, as a legal matter, the House gets to adopt its own definition of bribery.  To be clear, Ben’s point may be that the House has the de facto power to define bribery. But if we are talking about what the Constitution *means*, then we should care about legal definition, not de facto power.  And it makes me a little queasy every time that I hear people say that impeachment is a purely political issue.  Maybe it is as a practical matter.  But as a law professor, I’m unwilling to accept that law has no role to play in Constitutional moments, such as impeachment.

So what does bribery mean in the Constitution as a legal matter?  After all, the Constitution specifically defines the only other crime that it lists as grounds for impeachment—treason.  Yet it doesn’t define bribery. 

Even though it isn’t defined in the Constitution, we still know what the people who wrote and ratified the Constitution meant by the word bribery.  As Justice Story said in his influential Commentaries on the Constitution, they meant the common law crime of bribery.  “For the definition of treason, resort may be had to the Constitution itself; but for the definition of bribery, resort is naturally and necessarily had to the common law; for that, as the common basis of our jurisprudences, can along furnish the proper exposition of the nature and limits of this offence.” 

So what was the common law crime of bribery at the time the Constitution was written?  In particular, does it include a President who solicits a bribe from a foreign official but never receives it?  Well, that’s complicated.  And, unfortunately, there are a few takes floating around out there right now suggesting that it is cut and dry.  It is not.

Here is the Wall Street Journal saying that the President’s behavior doesn’t qualify as common law bribery.  Apparently the folks at WSJ who wrote this relied on a “friend” to help them with the historical argument. But I don’t think that friend did them any favors.  More important, because these authors apparently aren’t lawyers, there are some real ambiguities in the two arguments they make.

One of their arguments is that this isn’t bribery unless President Trump sought something “specific and tangible” like money.  It’s a little unclear if the WSJ editors are making a statutory argument here, or if they are making a common law argument.  As a matter of statutory law, they are definitely wrong.  As Randall Eliason has explained the “thing of value” that the official tries to obtain in a bribery case is very broad:

It encompasses anything of subjective value to the official that would have the potential to influence his or her behavior. Offers of future contracts or employment, sexual favors, companionship, and other intangibles all have been held to be things of value for purposes of the bribery statute. Publicly-announced investigations that would benefit Trump politically would certainly qualify. Trump’s actions in seeking the investigations, both personally and through intermediaries such as his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, amply demonstrate how personally valuable he thought Ukraine’s actions could be.

As a question of common law, the WSJ doesn’t provide any historical support for the idea that bribery has to involve something “specific and tangible” like money.  In fact, the historical sources that the WSJ editors do provide—Blackstone and Jacob’s Law Dictionary—seem to undercut their argument.  Both of those sources talk about “any undue reward.”  The most obvious reading of that phrase is much broader than just money.

The Wall Street Journal op ed also argues that this isn’t bribery because the exchange never happened.  Trump released the aid, and the Ukrainian President never announced the investigation.  Of course, as a matter of statutory law, no exchange is required.  It is enough for someone to solicit a bribe or to offer one.  But what about as a matter of common law?

Well, that’s not entirely clear.  Ben Berwick and Justin Florence have an essay over at Lawfare that explains this in some detail why the common law probably did not require an exchange to have occurred. They cite a number of treatises which include the mere offer of a bribe in the definition of bribery.

However, I have some concerns about the Berwick/Florence essay.  I agree with them that the majority of relevant treatises include the *offering* of a bribe in the definition of bribery.  But the treatises don’t include the solicitation of or demand for a bribe in their definitions.  They speak in terms of the official accepting or receiving a bribe.

To be clear, it was still illegal for officials to solicit or demand bribes.  But if an exchange didn’t actually occur, then the official may have been charged with a different crime—like attempted bribery or extortion—rather than bribery itself.  As an old Harvard Law Review development explains: “At common law the distinction between bribery and an attempt to bribe was largely academic; both were misdemeanors, and equally punishable.”

So where does that leave us?  Is Laura Ingraham correct (at least as a constitutional matter) that this is only “attempted bribery”?

I don’t think so—especially not if we look at the fact that Trump’s actions could be seen not only as an official *seeking* a bribe, but also as someone who offered a bribe.

Think about this from Ukraine’s perspective.  Trump offered them hundreds of millions of dollars in return for the official act of launching an investigation.  Nobody is really talking about this because the federal bribery statute is concerned with bribing officials here in the U.S.  But common law bribery didn’t have jurisdictional limits. 

Looking at Trump as the person who offered the bribe, the common law case against him is incredibly hard to dismiss.  It fits in the definitions provided by Blackstone and other treatises. It’s also consistent with the actus reus of a bribery crime that Congress adopted in 1790.

So where does that leave us as a constitutional matter?  As I said in the Atlantic essay—it’s not entirely clear cut.  But the weight of the historical record is against the President’s defenders who are trying to say that this behavior doesn’t fall within the Constitution’s use of the word bribery.

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on November 21, 2019 at 11:56 AM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Constitutional thoughts, Criminal Law | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Inexplicable decisions, in one post

The unifying themes of these decisions is that I heard about them yesterday and I do not understand.

• The Tenth Circuit held that officials of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine enjoyed qualified immunity from First Amendment claims arising from the school sanctioning a med student for "unprofessional" speech, because it was not clearly established that a professional school could not punish speech in the name of instilling professional values.

The court jumped to the second, "clearly established" prong of the qualified-immunity analysis, as it has discretion to do; but the court went beyond that, insisting that merits-first should be the exception, because of constitutional avoidance. But this seems problematic, generally and in this case. Generally, it will produce fewer opportunities for courts to develop constitutional law. In this case, skipping the merits no sense because the plaintiff also sought injunctive and declaratory relief, which is not subject to immunity and requires consideration of the constitutional merits. The court never explains what happened to those claims or why they do not compel the court to reach the constitutional question.

The case also reveals how courts, despite rhetoric to the contrary, demand factual overlap. As the court put it, the plaintiff “failed to identify a case where [a medical school administrator] acting under similar circumstances as [the defendants in this case] was held to have violated the [First] Amendment.” A" patchwork of cases connected by broad legal principles" is insufficient.

Also, note that the court ignored one factor weighing in favor of reaching the merits--the presence of amicus briefs from several First Amendment advocacy organizations, as well as Eugene Volokh. When the Third Circuit reached the merits and recognized a First Amendment right-to-record (while finding the right not clearly established at the time), it pointed to the presence of amici and the quality of the briefing in the case.

• The Fifth Circuit continues to be the only circuit to categorically reject state-created danger as a basis for substantive due process liability. The case involves  the mishandling of a 911 call--including waiting for officers to volunteer to respond and later refusing to help family members enter the victim's house unless they confirmed with local prisons and hospitals that she was not there, as well as the responding officers stopping at 7-Eleven before proceeding to the scene.

More standing/merits overlap (or confusion) in this Sixth Circuit affirmance of denial of a preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs are parents of a child with autism, who placed him in a private therapy program instead of public school; although he improved in private therapy, the state convicted the parents of truancy. They then enrolled him in a state-approved private school. But they are concerned that he may regress, that they may want to pull him out, and that they again will be prosecuted for truancy. So they sued for an injunction. The court of appeals affirmed the denial, agreeing that the parents could not show irreparable harm without the injunction because the hypothetical threat of enforcement was not "certain and immediate," but "speculative or theoretical," dependent on ifs (if the son regresses, if they pull him out of the current school, if they cannot find a new option, if the state decides to prosecute).

Assuming the court is correct about imminence, why is that not a standing problem--the family is not suffering a concrete and particularized injury because they have not shown "an intention to engage in a course of conduct" proscribed by statute for which there is a credible threat of prosecution. The course of conduct (pulling him entirely out of school) may not occur, depending on too many variables. But that seems to be precisely what the injury-in-fact prong of standing asks. The answer should not be different at the standing analysis than at the injunction analysis--if the injury is sufficiently imminent to establish standing, it should be sufficiently imminent to satisfy the irreparable harm requirement. This is why irreparable harm is often assumed in constitutional cases--the violation of rights (or threatened violation, sufficient for standing) qualifies as irreparable harm unless the injunction issues.

As a normative matter, it is interesting to consider whether the plaintiffs might have fared better had they sought a declaratory judgment rather than an injunction. They would not have had to show irreparable injury (although the court almost certainly would have moved this immediacy analysis up to standing and dumped the case on that basis--see above). This illustrates the type of case Sam Bray argues is appropriate for a declaratory judgment--the plaintiffs need an explication of rights but do not need judicial oversight or supervision going forward. The plaintiffs wanted and needed  guidance and certainty--to know where they stood and what they could (and could not) do as they tried to create the best opportunities for their son; they did not need a court order prohibiting government officials from acting at this time.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 16, 2019 at 03:25 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 08, 2019

State-level universality

Much of the controversy over "nationwide" or "universal" injunctions has arisen in suits challenging federal las and regulations. But the reason for finding and using the appropriate nomenclature is that the real problem--injunctions protecting beyond the plaintiffs--can arise in challenges to all laws at all levels.

A divided Eighth Circuit addressed this in Rodgers v. Bryant, a challenge by two individual beggars (their term) to Arkansas's anti-loitering law. The district court granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting all enforcement and the majority of the court of appeals affirmed, relying on the district court finding that the law is "plainly unconstitutional," so it should not be enforced against anyone. Even the courts most willing to issue non-particularized injunctions in challenges to federal law have advanced beyond "the law violates the Constitution, so it can't be enforced against anyone" rationale.

Dissenting, Judge David Stras gets it perfectly right--the district court granted a universal preliminary injunction, prohibiting state police from "enforcing the law against anyone, anywhere, at any time based on the harm faced by two individual plaintiffs." It is "universal" in that it protects the universe of people who might be subject to Arkansas law-as universal as the travel ban, only applicable to a smaller universe.

Stras examines the history equity to conclude that such non-particularized relief was not proper in individual actions and that equity's representative actions are now reflected in FRCP 23. Stras also hits the essential point that there is no reason to believe (and neither the district court nor the majority found) that "safeguarding Rodgers’s and Dilbeck’s right to speak somehow depends on preventing enforcement of the anti-loitering law against anyone else." The plaintiffs, he argued, sued to vindicate their own rights, so they obtain "complete relief" from an injunction protecting them from arrest under the statute.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 8, 2019 at 07:38 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Allen v. Cooper argument review

My SCOTUSBlog review of Tuesday's argument. It seems pretty clear the Court is going to reverse--only Justice Alito pushed petititoner's counsel and he seemed just as suspicious of the arguments from counsel for the state. Four justices--Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh--all expressed different versions of a suspicion that the state was asking for a license to violate rights.

A few interesting stray comments and exchanges from the state's side. The first was his assumption that sovereign immunity only bars claims for damages but no injunction relief; this is true in effect because of Ex Parte Young, but not true as a matter of formal sovereign immunity doctrine. The other was the Court's response to the state's argument that, even if the state cannot be sued, the individual infringing officers can be sued, while conceding they will be indemnified and may enjoy qualified immunity. That last point raised the Chief's hackles--he did not seem to buy an individual suit as an alternative if the officer would be immune; counsel for the state argued that the showing for an intentional infringement (and thus a due process violation) is the same as the showing for clearly established, so any officer claiming immunity likely did not violate due process. Anyway, that was the most exorcised the Chief has been about an officer enjoying qualified immunity.

And, of course, I could not resist some pirate jokes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 6, 2019 at 11:52 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Why not standing?

The problem with standing is not only that it is an improperly constitutiuonalized merits inquiry. It also is the inconsistency in the movement between standing and merits. Take this unpublished Third Circuit decision. Plaintiffs are anti-choice advocates who with to engage in sidewalk counseling through one-on-one conversations with entering clinic patients. The court performed a limiting construction on the statute, reading it (as it had done a similar ordinance in another case) as not reaching one-on-one sidewalk counseling.

But then shouldn't the result have been that the plaintiffs lacked standing? The conduct in which they intended to engage was not prohibited or regulated by the statute (as interpreted), so they were not suffering an injury-in-fact fairly traceable to the conduct of enforcing that statute, since that statute could not be enforced against them. At least that is how some courts resolve similar cases. And if not standing (as, normatively, it is not), that should mean that all of this is a question of the scope of the challenged law and the scope of constitutional rights?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 23, 2019 at 04:26 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Universal injunctions and mootness

A divided Ninth Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the new regulations regarding the ACA contraception mandate. One issue in the case, which the court ordered briefed, is whether a universal injunction issued by a different district court (and affirmed by the Third Circuit) moots this case. Because the plaintiffs are protected by the other injunction, a Ninth Circuit ruling will not change their situation. (H/T: Brian Cardile of the Daily Journal).

The majority held the case not moot, although some of its analysis does not capture the issue. The court began by discussing the risk of conflicting injunctions, which is not the issue here--the denial of the injunction in the Ninth Circuit would not conflict in the sense of creating competing obligations--the Third Circuit injunction obligates (or restrains) the government from acting as to anyone in the universe, so nothing the Ninth Circuit does changes that. The court also spoke about the territorial limits about its injunction, ignoring that the issue is not geographic where but party who. It said that the injunctions "complement each other and do not conflict." In fact, however, it is not that they complement--it is that they repeat one another, because the Third Circuit universal injunction, which protects the California plaintiffs, renders a second injunction unnecessary.

The majority avoided mootness by applying capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review. The Third Circuit injunction is preliminary (thus of limited duration) and before SCOTUS on a cert petition, both of which could result in the vacatur of its injunction or at least of its universality. The injury would not be capable of repetition only if the Third Circuit turned this into a universal permanent injunction, which is speculative and far off.

Judge Kleinfeld dissented on mootness, standing, and the merits. As to the different injunctions, he gets it:

That nationwide injunction means that the preliminary injunction before us is entirely without effect. If we affirm, as the majority does, nothing is stopped that the Pennsylvania injunction has not already stopped. Were we to reverse, and direct that the district court injunction be vacated, the rule would still not go into effect, because of the Pennsylvania injunction. Nothing the district court in our case did, or that we do, matters. We are talking to the air, without practical consequence. Whatever differences there may be in the reasoning for our decision and the Third Circuit’s have no material significance, because they do not change the outcome at all; the new regulation cannot come into effect.

This is correct and a proper recognition of what happens when courts take universality seriously.

I am not sure if the proper conclusion is that the appeal becomes constitutionally moot (I am not a fan of justiciability doctrines). Or, as Sam Bray argues, this is a good reason the Ninth Circuit should have stayed its hand.

Update: I took a quick look at the Third Circuit decision affirming the injunction. It misses the point, talking about people who work in different states than they live and the problem of geographic limitations. Again, however, the problem is not where. A protected plaintiff (including a state) is protected everywhere.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 22, 2019 at 04:33 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 07, 2019

District court abstains in Trump subpoena case (Fast Update)

The Southern District of New York abstained under Younger from a federal lawsuit by the President seeking to stop enforcement of a New York grand-jury subpoena seeking 8 years of Trump tax returns and financial records. The court abstained in a meticulous Younger analysis, then explained why the President did not enjoy immunity warranting a preliminary injunction even if it kept the case. The Younger analysis is almost certainly correct. The President's attempt to create an exceptional-circumstances exception by analogizing his immunity to double jeopardy (which some courts have held as a basis for not abstaining) was interesting, but I think properly rejected.

Given Steve's thesis that Trump and his DOJ cannot stand passing through the court of appeals, next step SCOTUS on a petition for cert before judgment?

Quick Update: The Second Circuit stayed the decision. But what did it stay and what does it mean to stay it? The district court abstaining? It makes no sense to "stay" a decision declining to hear a case. The denial of the preliminary injunction, which was arguably dicta? What does the stay of the denial of an injunction do--it can't create the injunction, which was never issued (because the district court lacked the power to issue it). What the Second Circuit wanted to "stay" is the state-court subpoena, but it has no power to do that. Ah, procedure.

Further Update: The Second Circuit order states

Appellant has filed a motion seeking an order temporarily staying enforcement of a subpoena to his accountant. Because of the unique issues raised by this appeal, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that a temporary administrative stay is granted pending expedited review by a panel of the Court.

So the court did stay the subpoena, not the district court order. I have had some conversations with Civ Pro colleagues and the general view is this makes no sense. Administrative stays are routine  as a precursor to turning the stay to a motions panel. But there is nothing to stay here. The court cannot "stay" a dismissal of an action or the denial of an injunction. Now there are mechanisms for the court to do this, namely under the All Writs Act as in aid of the court's appellate jurisdiction. But that is not what Trump asked for (it requested a stay) and the court did not do the (I expect) more complex analysis required before issuing a writ. It seems as if the court took the usual approach to an unusual case. In the routine case, the district court enjoins enforcement of a law or reg and the court of appeals stays that injunction; here, it rotely applied that procedure in a situation that does not match.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 7, 2019 at 11:18 AM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Minding the abstention gaps

I am trying to make heads or tales of this Third Circuit decision, which reveals some problems and holes in abstention.

A family court awarded custody of Malhan's children to Myronova, his ex-wife, ordered him to pay child and spousal support, and to give his ex rental income from their jointly owned properties. Malhan eventually received joint custody (and more than half of residential time) and the court ordered Myronova to return some money. But the court postponed a request to reduce child-support obligations until final judgment (which has not issued), although the children spend more time with Malhan and he earns less money than is ex. At one point Malhan stopped paying child support (in erroneous reliance on a comment by the judge), causing the court to garnish his wages. Malhan sued in federal court, challenging (among other things) the disclosure and administrative levy of his bank accounts, the garnishing of his wages (which order was vacated), and the refusal to allow the plaintiff to claim certain offsets and counterclaims in the state proceedings.

This type of case has been identified as the paradigm Rooker-Feldman case: A party claiming constitutional injury by the custody and similar orders of a state family court. And the district court dismissed the action on that ground. But the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the plaintiff was not a state-court loser because there was no "judgment" from the state court, no order that was final as a formal or practical matter over which SCOTUS might have jurisduction under § 1257. The state proceedings are ongoing--motions are pending, discovery has not closed, no trial is scheduled, and the court has declined to give Malhan relief until that final judgment.

There is a circuit split was to whether Rooker-Feldman applies to interlocutory state-court orders. The Third Circuit adopted the textual argument to say no. RF is based on § 1257 giving SCOTUS exclusive jurisdiction to review state-court judgments; a district court thus lacks jurisdiction to review a challenge to a state-court judgment, which should instead be appealed through the state system and then to SCOTUS. On that view, RF does not apply to state-court orders that could not be appealed to SCOTUS, such as non-final orders.

The argument for RF barring challenges to interlocutory orders relies on the policies underlying RF that federal district courts should not interfere with state-court proceedings or be a forum for obtaining review and relief from state-court decisions. That policy is as offended by an attempt to circumvent state appellate procedure on an interlocutory order as on a final order. One could identify a textual component, tying it to § 1331 granting district court "original" jurisdiction, leaving them without power to, in practice, exercise appellate jurisdiction over a state-court order, even an interlocutory order.

The court rejected an alternate argument that the three claims were barred by Younger. None of the three claims fit the third Younger category of involving "certain orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions." Count 2 challenged the administrative rules for collecting non-final money judgments; Count 5 challenged orders that are more like final monetary judgments and less like orders (such as contempt or appeal bonds) in furtherance of other judicial orders and thus enabling judicial functions. And the garnishment orders in Count 6 are threatened but not pending, thus federal jurisdiction would not interfere with state-court adjudication of those issues. The Younger analysis probably is correct, although the analysis as to Count 2 seems strained and the analysis and the analysis as to Count 6 suggests the challenge is moot, although the court strains to explain why it is not.

But the case produces a large abstention gap. An ordinary state-court interlocutory order in private civil litigation, one that is not akin to a contempt or appeals-bond order (orders that SCOTUS identified as enabling the state court to operate, as opposed to resolving the particular case), can be challenged in a § 1983 action. But Younger and RF together should mean that state courts must be allowed to decide the cases before them, without interference from federal district courts, subject to eventual review through the state system and to SCOTUS under § 1257. This case may allow substantial number of such cases into federal court.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 22, 2019 at 07:25 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Asylum injunction stayed, everyone confused

Sam Bray and I agree on the impropriety of universal injunctions--I am the NAIA version of Sam as opponent of universality. But I disagree with Sam's suggestion that Thursday's SCOTUS order staying the asylum regulations portends the end of universal/nationwide/whatever injunctions. This case is too confused and too much of a procedural and analytical mess to be that vehicle or even the canary in the coal mine.

First, the unstayed injunction that reached SCOTUS had been narrowed in the court of appeals to be circuit-wide rather than nationwide. So nationwideness should not have been an issue in this case. The court was staying a narrow injunction against a federal regulation.

Second, both lower courts had entirely conflated the issues and analysis, I believe because they continue to use the wrong nomenclature. The result was a mess. The modified-but-unstayed injunction that reached SCOTUS protected the named plaintiffs (immigration-rights advocacy organizations) within the Ninth Circuit, making it over- and under-broad. It was overbroad  because it purported to continue to protect non-plaintiffs; it was under-broad in focusing on geography, thus failing to provide sufficient protection to these plaintiffs by not barring enforcement against them everywhere they might operate and be affected by the challenged regs. In fact, Tuesday's order from the trial court reimposing the "nationwide" injunction (by supplementing the record that the Ninth Circuit found failed to support nationwideness) applied the appropriate analysis: It focused on the extra-circuit activities of the four named plaintiffs, that they operated and were injured outside the Ninth Circuit, and thus needed protection in other states; no mention made of protection for non-parties, which is the real problem. And the Ninth Circuit one day later limited that new injunction to the Ninth Circuit--inappropriately, as there were findings that the organizations work outside the Ninth Circuit and thus needed the protections of the injunction outside the circuit.*

[*] The result of this circuit-only approach is that one plaintiff who operates in multiple states must bring multiple actions to obtain complete relief. What should happen is that one plaintiff should have to obtain one injunction for itself, protecting everywhere. The further litigation should be by other plaintiffs, obligated to obtain their own judgment and remedy.

Instead, this seems an example of what Steve wrote about in his forthcoming Harvard piece (which Sotomayor cites in her dissental): The government increasingly seeking, and gaining, extraordinary relief from the Court in constitutional-injunction cases, rather than allowing litigation to proceed in the lower courts. It reflects the Court's general opposition to injunctions against federal regulations (a concern that seems to have begun on January 20, 2017 and likely will end on January 20, 2021). Scope had nothing to do with it.

Process aside, I am not sure the result--stay of the injunction--is not appropriate. I like to apply the chaos theory to the stay question--would allowing the injunction to take effect create irrevocable chaos if the lower court is reversed. On that theory, for example, stays of injunctions were appropriate in the marriage cases, lest the state have to either rescind marriages or have some same-sex couples married by the fortuity of the time that litigation takes. On the other hand, the stay of the injunction was inappropriate in The Wall case, since the harm is irreparable if government funds are unlawfully spent and an environmentally harmful wall is even partially built. As for this case, while the asylum-regs are enjoined, the government must allow this class of people to seek asylum. But there will be chaos in handling this group of people if the injunction is reversed on appeal because the regs are found to be lawful, yet some asylum-seekers are present when they should not have been and would not have been but for the erroneous injunction. I have to think more about that.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 12, 2019 at 07:44 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 05, 2019

"We the People" on universal injunctions

The new episode of the National Constitution Center's "We the People" podcast featured Amanda Frost and I discussing and debating universal injunctions. It was a great conversation.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 5, 2019 at 11:43 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (1)

Under color?

An interesting under color question. The officers were in disguise (and thus out of uniform) and presumably off-duty. But their personal vendetta arose from their professional conduct as police officers about which the citizen-victim had complained. Could they have done this but-for their official position? Being police officers did not enable the conduct. But being police officers is the only reason they had to vandalize this guy's property.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 5, 2019 at 11:42 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Qualified immunity and judicial departmentalism

The Sixth Circuit on Friday held that Kim Davis was not entitled to qualified immunity from a claim for damages by same-sex couples denied marriage licenses in the early weeks after Obergefell. Obergefell clearly established the constitutional right the plaintiffs sought to vindicate--to receive marriage licenses and a reasonable official should have known about that right. And Davis did not show her entitlement to a religious accommodation, as the court said:

Davis provides no legal support for her contention that Kentucky’s Religious Freedoms Restoration Act required her to do what she did. Her reading of the Act is a subjective one and, as far as we can tell, one no court has endorsed. In the presence of Obergefell’s clear mandate that “same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” and in the absence of any legal authority to support her novel interpretation of Kentucky law, Davis should have known that Obergefell required her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex coupleseven if she sought and eventually received an accommodation, whether by legislative amendment changing the marriage-license form or by judicial decree adopting her view of the interplay between the Constitution and Kentucky law.

Under judicial departmentalism, an executive official, such as Davis, is free to adopt and implement her "subjective" reading of the statute and judicial precedent. She does not need "legal authority to support her novel interpretation of Kentucky law"--the legal authority is her power as an executive official to act on her understanding of the law she is empowered to enforce. But qualified immunity is focused on precedent and the judicial understanding of precedent. So it could check executive officials going too far in a departmentalist direction, by tying them to judicial precedent on pain of damages.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 25, 2019 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, August 19, 2019

The street is never the place to argue the appropriateness of an arrest. That is what our courts are for.”

This, from the NYPD Commissioner, is scary. And it is wrong. Given modern Fourth Amendment doctrine, limits (to say nothing of arguments to eliminate) the exclusionary rule, and the expansion of qualified immunity, the courts rarely conclude that an arrest was inappropriate. And even when they find the arrest inappropriate, they more rarely provide a remedy beyond the dropping of charges, which provides nothing for the collateral consequences of the improper arrest.

What the Commish really should have said is "Don't argue the appropriateness of an arrest. Just give in to police power."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 19, 2019 at 07:03 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 02, 2019

Judicial immunity can be shocking (sorry)

In the judicial immunity section of my civil rights book, I use a puzzle that I blogged about years ago: A judge in Mississippi cited for contempt and jailed an attorney for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance prior to court proceedings. I spun that off into several hypos (inspired by a comment from Jack Preis), including the judge ordering the bailiff to tase the lawyer and the judge tasing the lawyer himself. The question is where judicial immunity runs out.*

[*] The attorney did not sue the judge, so this never became a real issue. The judge was disciplined--one of many, many disciplinary actions against him.

This story discusses the use of stun belts to control unruly defendants in court. The problem, besides the extreme pain these devices inflict, is that some judges use (or threaten to use) them not to control security threats, but to get defendants to pay attention to the judge or to stand while addressing the court. States vary as to who controls the device--the courtroom deputy acting on the judge's order or the judge herself.

So here is my hypothetical, brought to life. The arguable immunity turns on  the nature of the judge's action: Ordering the bailiff to tase the attorney would be immune, tasing the attorney himself would not be (nor would Jack's example of the judge shooting the attorney for refusing to comply. Giving orders to maintain courtroom control is a judicial function, with bailiffs and deputies executing those orders; tasing someone to maintain order is not a judicial function because not something done by a judge as judge. But at least some jurisdictions give the judge (not the bailiff) control over this device, making its use--not merely ordering its use--something that the judge is doing in her role as a judge while on the bench.

The story linked above discusses the problems in the use of these devices and how they affect criminal trials, as well as efforts to enjoin their use. No one has yet sued a judge for damages for employing the device, which is where judicial immunity would kick in. Stay tuned.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 2, 2019 at 12:10 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Random snippets of law

Each too short for a stand-alone post. Maybe this is why we have Twitter.

Here is everyone's Evidence question for the coming semester: The government in the Roger Stone prosecution has moved in limine to admit the clip from Godfather Part II in which Frank Pantangeli recants his prior statement implicating Michael Corleone. The government argues this is relevant to explaining Stone's repeated references in his communications with Jerome Corsi and shows that Stone was urging Corsi to lie to Congress.

• This point is moot with the announcement by the House Judiciary Committee that it is investigating "possible impeachment." But following Robert Mueller's testimony on Wednesday, Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi stated that their preferred next step was to complete litigation over various subpoenas; if the President disobeyed an Article-III-final court order, that would be the last straw prompting a move to formal impeachment.

I did not understand why that is or should be the relevant line. Some have flagged this as the line that Nixon would not cross, so crossing it would make Trump worse than Nixon. But it is hardly the worst or most wrongful thing a President could do. And it is not obviously worse or more impeachable than the misconduct--some criminal, some representing abuses of office or prospective office--described in Mueller's report and testimony.

I would guess that Pelosi and Schiff believed that Mueller had not described, in sufficiently dramatic terms, a single flashing-red-light act that would rally the public. Or they bought the media spin that Mueller's testimony was too dull to do that. So the strategy became to wait for the next single flashing-red-light act. Or the one after that. Or . . .

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 27, 2019 at 09:02 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Teaching Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

My civil rights course, in one case

This opinion by Judge Easterbrook is a fantastic encapsulation of most of my civil rights course.

Dad loses custody of kids because of state court decision, made in part on testimony of court-appointed psychologist; court strips custody, limits visitation to supervision-only, and twice declines to rescind supervision-only. Dad sues psychologist in her "official capacity," alleging that state child-custody law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Spot the many, many doctrinal problems with this lawsuit. I think I may use this as one grand, theory-of-everything hypo at the end of class.

(I especially like that, in rejecting plaintiff's argument that he has sued the state through an official capacity suit, Easterbrook talks about Will and states not being § 1983 "persons," rather than the Eleventh Amendment. Courts consistently get this wrong in § 1983 cases).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 17, 2019 at 06:14 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Free speech: Change or leave?

A fascinating thing about the President's remarks this weekend about four female Democratic reps of color, and of many responses from several congressional Republicans, is the model of free expression they represent. That model amounts to "if you don't like it, leave the country." This is not new. The President and Republicans have said similar things about Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, and other athletes who kneel during the national anthem.

In this vision, there is no room for someone to criticize government policies or actions with the goal of prompting change. Nor is there a need to respond to criticisms by explaining why those critics are wrong and that the current action is the proper course. There is no need or room for discussion or debate--critics should shut up or get out.

Of course, the President's critics are seeing something good (i.e., anything he does) and purposely writing or saying bad. That, we learned last week, is not free speech.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 15, 2019 at 11:11 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, July 04, 2019

It's the district court order, not the SCOTUS affirmance

On the eve of Friday's hearing on the next steps in the census case, more thoughts on nomenclature: The concern about the should not be framed as "The President is disobeying a Supreme Court decision."* The concern should be framed as "The President is disobeying a court order."

[*] Decision is an imprecise word, in any event. The court issues a judgment/order and the court issues an opinion explaining that judgment. I suppose a decision encompasses both of those. But when the judgment/opinion distinction matters, as it does, the specific words are preferable.

The key is that an injunction, entered by the district court, is in place and prohibits the printing and use of a census form with a citizenship question. That order prohibits the government from proceeding with a census containing that question and that order is what the President, Commerce, et al. violate if they proceed with the question.

That the Supreme Court affirmed the district court injunction is beside this point. SCOTUS affirmance means the government has nowhere left to turn within the judiciary. But it does not add greater force to the district court's injunction. Government officials violate the order by proceeding with the census-with-citizenship-question--whether they had proceeded the day before SCOTUS affirmance or the day after SCOTUS affirmance.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 4, 2019 at 12:29 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

More action on the census (Edited)

The citizenship-question case is heating up, following a tweet from the President denouncing as fake news reports that the administration had stopped pursuing efforts to place the citizenship question on the 2020 census. This despite DOJ attorneys having represented that fake news to plaintiffs' counsel and the district court as the government litigation position. This did not sit well with Judge Hazel (D.Md.), who held an on-the-record telephone conference to find out what is going on (as was the attorney for the government).

Judge Hazel questioned whether the government attorneys were speaking for their client at this point. He responded skeptically to the plaintiff's suggestion that he enjoin government officials (presumably including the President) from tweeting or otherwise speaking contrary to the government's litigation position or to requiring the Census Bureau or Commerce Department to publicly counteract any contrary tweets from the President.

The court gave the parties until Friday to submit either a stipulation that the citizenship question will not appear on the census or a scheduling order for litigating the equal protection issues (denying, with a sharp "no," the government's request to have until Monday). Meanwhile, Judge Hazel confirmed that the injunction prohibiting the government from printing questionnaires with a citizenship question remains in place, meaning the President is flirting with ignoring (or ordering underlings to ignore) a court order. On the other hand, government attorneys suggested they may go back to SCOTUS for a motion "clarifying" (or "undercutting," from the plaintiffs' standpoint) the Court's remand decision.

The court declined to do anything to get a firmer answer on whether June 30 (last Sunday) remains the drop-deadline by which the government must have the census form finalized (as the government has insisted throughout the litigation-he suspected "we're not going to get a useful answer to that question." But the court made clear that he did not blame the attorneys for this confusion.*

[*] Another way departmentalism remains in check, at least with a normal President. DOJ lawyers do not like getting yelled at when the executive officials they represent go off the rails. With a normal President, the attorneys can try to exert some control over the client. Or, with an abnormal President, they could resign or refuse to carry out his inappropriate wishes. Neither is happening here.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 3, 2019 at 08:58 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Judicial departmentalism and overbroad injunctions in the news

First, the Fifth Circuit reversed the contempt citation against a Carmen Alvarez and her attorneys for attempting to enforce the Department of Labor's overtime regs in a private action following a universal injunction prohibiting DOL from enforcing those regs in an action brought by Nevada and other states. The court held that there was no privity between DOL and Alvarez or her lawyers, because there was no evidence of an express or implied relationship among them that is necessary for one party to adequately represent the interests of another. The court stated that Chipotle's theory that "DOL represents every worker’s legal interests through its enforcement of the FLSA so as to bind every worker in the United States to an injunction where the DOL is the only bound party lacks authoritative support." Like Title VII, the private right of action under labor laws and regs leaves room for private persons to claim injuries and remedies distinct from those established in government enforcement.

Second, Texas GOP Representative Chip Roy took to Twitter to urge the President and the Commerce Department to ignore the lawyers "Completely. Print the census with the question - and issue a statement explaining why - “because we should.” Done." Such action could not be defended as judicial departmentalism, which allows executive disregard of precedent but not particular orders in particular cases; those most be obeyed unless reversed or modified. The President, the Commerce Secretary, and the other federal officials involved would be violating a court order prohibiting the use of the citizenship question* and would be subject to contempt and contempt sanctions for that action.

[*] Another example of indivisible remedies, giving an individual injunction universal scope. The government cannot print or use multiple census forms, so an injunction protecting individual plaintiffs spills over to protect everyone.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 3, 2019 at 07:57 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Another remedy in The Wall

Judge Gilliam of the Northern District of California issued two orders on Friday declaring invalid President Trump's efforts to divert funds for building The Wall. In Sierra Club v. Trump, the court permanently enjoined three acting cabinet officers and "all persons acting under their direction" from "taking any action to construct a border wall" in certain areas using certain funds. In California v. Trump, the court declared the use of the same funds for some of those sections unlawful, but declined to grant a permanent injunction. The court also ensured that the cases could be appealed together by certifying California for FRCP 54 appeal, along with the immediately appealable injunction.

Sierra Club does not speak to the scope of the injunction, because this is a case of indivisible relief and remedy. The court cannot enjoin the use of funds for the wall as to the plaintiffs but not to non-parties; any prohibition on the use of funds unavoidable inures to everyone's benefit, even if the injunction is formally particularized to the plaintiffs.

The court justified denying the injunction in California by pointing to the injunction in Sierra Club prohibiting use of funds on the same sectors of wall. California (and New Mexico, its co-plaintiff) would suffer no irreparable harm, because the injunction protects them in effect if not in name. This provides an interesting example of when declaratory relief may be sufficient and an injunction unnecessary--when an injunction protects the D/J plaintiffs, so the declaration is sufficient. It also answers the Ninth Circuit's question about whether a universal injunction in one case moots another--it does not moot the case because a declaratory remedy may be effective, although an injunction is not warranted. (Not that courts should issue universal injunctions--but this is the practical effect if they do).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 29, 2019 at 09:49 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Justice Gorsuch, standing, and the end of the Establishment Clause

Justice Gorusch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in the judgment in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. Gorsuch argues that the plaintiffs lacked standing, because "offended observer" standing should not exist (and really is a product of Lemon, which he reads as having been buried today). Offense is not a basis for standing in any other context and is inconsistent with the rule against generalized grievances. Recourse for offense is either averting one's eyes or resort to political solutions.

If Gorsuch is right, it is difficult to imagine who has standing to bring an Establishment Clause claim. He offers three examples: A student forced to recite a prayer in school, a person denied public office because of his religious affiliations (or lack thereof), and a person denied government benefits for not practicing a favored religion. This seems disingenuous. Two of those examples are not purely Establishment Clause issues--the government official, at least at the federal level, also has a claim under the Religious-Tests Clause; the government benefits claim also could be pursued under the Free Exercise Clause or, as in Texas Monthly (which Gorsuch cites) the Free Press Clause. But a student would not have standing to challenge the prayer if she were merely forced to watch others recite it or to leave the room to avoid it. And no one has standing to challenge any public religious displays. In fact, looking at those examples, it would appear that a state could establish an official church  and no one would have standing to challenge that as long as individuals are not forced to participate in that church or otherwise disadvantaged for their non-participation in the religion.

Gorsuch's rejection of offended-observer standing also is inseparable from the narrowing of Flast taxpayer standing. Gorsuch did not offer a taxpayer as an example of someone with standing, so it appears he does not consider that a viable route. But this further constricts the range of available plaintiffs. The core Flast case has remained narrow because there is usually someone who can show something other than a pocketbook injury--there has been no need for a taxpayer to challenge the use of public funds for the Christmas tree display at City Hall because someone who had to encounter the display in City Hall could bring the claim. That avenue is foreclosed. So I expect the next target will be the core Flast case, where Gorsuch almost certainly lines up with the Chief, Thomas, and Alito.

Gorsuch's argument illustrates, in two directions, the Fletcherian point that "injury" is inseparable from the constitutional right at issue and so is really a merits issue. First, the response to Gorsuch's offense-is-not-injury argument is that the Establishment Clause is different than the Free Speech Clause or the Free Exercise Clause or the Equal Protection Clause. The point of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the government from creating a state religion, either formally or in practice; it prohibits the government from elevating religion and from imposing that elevation on members of the public. Thus, individual constitutional rights are violated by that elevation and being confronted with that elevation, as by erection of a large cross. But there is no equivalent provision prohibiting the government establishing or elevating racist ideas, as by flying the Confederate Flag. Or, to put it in the school context: The Free Speech Clause is satisfied so long as a student need not recite the Pledge of Allegiance (put aside "Under God"); the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from sponsoring prayer, even if participation is not required.

Second, Gorsuch's apparent view of standing reveals the substantive scope of his Establishment Clause. Government elevation or promotion or sponsorship of religion is constitutionally permissible--even to the point of establishing the Church of Alabama or naming the Southern Baptist Convention as the official religion of the State of Alabama--so long as no one is forced to participate or loses out for non-participation. Certainly no one would have standing to challenge that action, because the only injury would be the offense and message of exclusion. In any event, that Establishment Clause does not do any work independent of the Free Exercise Clause.

I would add that I do not follow offended-observer standing wherever it leads. In the travel ban cases, I argued against standing for those individuals claiming offense from the existence of the ban and its application against other people. But the key was that standing (or constitutional violation, as I like to think of it) is tied to execution, not the existence, of a law. So one can claim offense from the erection of the cross, but not from the law authorizing erection; one can claim offense from being barred because of religion, but not from the law authorizing the barring.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 20, 2019 at 04:02 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)