Sunday, April 11, 2021

Universality in Tandon v. Newsom

Christopher Sprigman started a Twitter thread contemplating what happens if California disregards or circumvents the order in Tandon v. Newsom. A different thread derides the suggestion as "stupid." I do not believe California will attempt this, so the issue is academic. But we can illustrate how litigation operates by parsing this specific case.

We need to break down what state officials might attempt to do and against whom.

Tandon was a lawsuit by ten plaintiffs, individually. Newsom and other California officials are enjoined from enforcing COVID restrictions against these ten individuals and the religious groups they head. Any attempt to enforce against them would constitute disregard for a court order. It could be punishable by contempt, sanctionable by fines and, in the extreme, jail. And yes, Biden would be obligated to send in US Marshals, if not the 101st Airborne, to enforce the court's order against state officials as to these ten plaintiffs.

No court order prohibits Newsom and other California officials from attempting to enforce the regulations against anyone other than those ten individuals. State officials therefore would not be in contempt of any court order in attempting to do so. Nor would they be "disobeying" the Supreme Court, because the Supreme Court did not order them to refrain from doing anything as to anyone other than those ten plaintiffs. And Biden and the US Marshals would play no role, because there is no court order to enforce.

What would happen if Newsom or other state officials attempted or threatened to attempt this?

    • The new targets would sue in federal court, asking for an injunction to protect them.* They should get it, although a lot depends on how much precedential force these per curiam shadow-docket "decisions" or "orders," even with five justices behind them, carry. They may carry force less as precedent than as a looking threat--lower courts are on notice that failure to enjoin will be summarily reversed by SCOTUS, which now sees it as its job to superintend litigation without awaiting finality or full briefing. Either way, it seems likely that the district court would issue that injunction prohibiting enforcement against these new targets. The new targets also could obtain attorney's fees as prevailing parties, which might be the strongest drag on pursuing this strategy. This new judgment and injunction protects these individuals against enforcement by these state officials. Were officials to continue enforcement efforts as to these plaintiffs, they would be disobeying a court order; subject to contempt, fines, or other sanctions; and subject to action by US Marshals.

[*] Alternatively, they might join as plaintiffs in the current action and ask the court to expand the injunction. There are some close Rule 20 joinder issues there.

    • The new targets also might ask for damages from the attempt or threat to enforce, even if only nominal. The question then is whether the defendants would lose qualified immunity for their actions. Is it now clearly established that COVID regulations treating religious practice less favorably than any other activity (comparable or not) violates the First Amendment? Again, it depends on how courts treat these orders as precedent that clearly establishe a right.

Would Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, both on record as rejecting application of injunctions beyond the names plaintiffs to that case, disagree with any of this?

This is the first time we have seen this idea from the left; previous talk of "resistance" efforts came from the right, in response to Brown and Obergefell. And it does no good to distinguish this case as involving a "rule that religious people get to ignore the law." Any framing--here, in Brown, or in Obergefell--reduces to disagreement with the substance of a decision and an attempt to convert disagreement into a suggestion of illegitimacy.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 11, 2021 at 05:12 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Speech is not money (Update)

People are having fun ridiculing ridiculous Republicans. After years of insisting that the First Amendment guarantees corporations the right to spend money supporting (mostly Republican) candidates and causes have now decided that corporations and corporate executives must "stay out of politics" when their speech consists not of writing checks to GOP candidates but of boycotting certain locations and business partners or otherwise speaking as an entity on matters of public concern. In fairness, maybe Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never believed that corporations should be able to "speak," only that they should be able to spend money (by giving it to Republicans)--and speech is not money.

Of course, the left is not doing much better. Many are urging, supporting, and celebrating large institutions (Coca-Cola, Delta, MLB) wielding their economic power to protest, and try to influence, government decisions and public policy. But if this is legitimate and laudable behavior from these companies, most of the left criticisms of Citizens United and cases--"corporations are not people," "corporations don't have First Amendment rights"--evaporate. Believing that MLB can and should move the All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to voter-restriction laws depends on believing that MLB has the right, as an entity, to take a position on matters of public concern.

Neither side can have it both ways. Either corporations enjoy First Amendment rights to engage, through expenditure (or non-expenditure) of funds, in public debate or they do not. It does not vary by context. It does not vary by the political position they take. And it does not vary by the type of corporation. If Delta can (and should) take corporate action that furthers principles you like, then Delta may take corporate action that furthers principles you do not like.  If Coca Cola can spend money to support the election of candidates you support, then Coca Cola can spend money, time, effort on positions you do not support. You can make your expressive decisions accordingly.But your response cannot be that it does not have the right to do it or that it should "stay out of" the arena.

There is a liberal argument that would oppose expansive campaign spending  but support current corporate efforts in Georgia and elsewhere. But it is not the Citizens United bumper sticker that most liberals favor. It argues that big-money contributions and expenditures should not be allowed to influence public officials and elections, that elections are "bounded institutions" in which unique limitations should apply in ways they do not in the larger public debate. This is an argument about wealth and controlling its influence in the electoral system, not corporate status. That is, the problem is not corporate spending but all spending, by people and corporations alike. But that is not the argument that most liberals make about campaign finance.

Update: Wow. I was being sarcastic about Republicans being ok with corporations spending money but not speaking. But that appears to be Mitch McConnell's position: "Stay out of politics because it's not what you're designed for," but "I'm not talking about political contributions," only "taking a position on a highly incendiary issue." Don't speak, just spend money. Don't take express positions, just give money to me and people I like (presumably to gain influence). I can only assume that issues and candidates with which McConnell agrees are never "highly incendiary." This would be laughable if not so par for the course.

I do not expect intellectual honesty or consistency from McConnell. But I would like to hear a theory of why contributions are ok but express positions are not. To blanket contributions (and expenditures) in the First Amendment, there must be an expressive quality to those expenditures. And there is no logical way to say a corporation has First Amendment right and can speak, but that it must limit its expression to the form of campaign contributions but no other expression in other forms (especially because giving money so someone can spend it is less expressive than other forms of corporate communication involving true speech).

Further Update: An alternative title to this post (seen on Twitter and elsewhere) might be "Money is speech, but speech is not speech."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 6, 2021 at 11:32 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Return of Kitty Genovese?

The video-recorded attack on an (unidentified) elderly Asian-American woman in New York is striking two themes: the increase in bias-motivated violence against Asian-Americans and the apathy of the men inside the building who watched the attack on the sidewalk, then closed the door when the attack was over and the woman was lying on the ground. The staff members have been suspended pending an investigation in cooperation with the SEIU; the union says that their current information is that the workers called for help and urged people not to rush to judgment. Meanwhile, video and stills of the attacker have been released and calls are out for information about the identity of the assailant.

The story brings to mind Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 murder wrapped into an inaccurate narrative of bystander apathy that remains 57 years later, even as recent accounts have shown that narrative to be false. That this new (apparent?) apathy was caught on video makes the narrative more powerful and potentially stickier. It is different in two respects. First, it does not allow a complete-apathy narrative, as witnesses say someone on the street (not captured on video) chased the assailant, who pulled a knife before escaping. Second, the apathy is bound up with the anti-Asian narrative. So this is not public apathy, but racist apathy directed at a vulnerable population.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 30, 2021 at 06:10 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Qualified immunity, inconsistency, and level of generality

A practical problem with qualified immunity is its inconsistency. This is especially true with respect to the level of generality at which a right is defined, which often determines whether a right is clearly established--the broader the level of generality, the more likely that precedent, created on different facts, can clearly establish. Case in point: The District of New Mexico holding that it was clearly established in 2019 or 2020 that a local elected official violates the First Amendment by blocking people from their private Facebook page.

At first glance, this seems impossible. SCOTUS has never addressed this, nor has the Tenth Circuit (which includes New Mexico). The two appellate decisions holding that the First Amendment prevents government officials from blocking people on social media--the Second Circuit in Knight Foundation and the Fourth Circuit  in Davison--came in 2019. That is not a "robust consensus" of lower-court of precedent. But the court did not look for such factual specificity. Rather, the rights at issue were to be free from viewpoint discrimination in online spaces used as "metaphysical" public fora and from viewpoint-based retaliation in those public forums.

This stands in sharp contrast to the typical approach. Even outside the absurd cases ("precedent saying it is unlawful to steal drugs during a search does not clearly establish that it is unlawful to steal coins during a search"), courts look for at least some factual similarity beyond general free-speech principles. An official blocking a user from her private page, while leaving that person otherwise free to say whatever he wants wherever he wants, is a far cry from a state banning individuals from all social media.

Perhaps this is how things should be. If qualified immunity must remain, perhaps courts should think about rights more broadly and in a less fact-bound way. But it is out of step with current immunity doctrine, including from the Tenth Circuit, that "viewpoint discrimination" is not a sufficiently specific right.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 21, 2021 at 03:11 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Zombie revivals

Michael Dorf writes about a new Arkansas law that bans all abortions except to save the life of the woman in the case of a medical emergency. Dorf wonders why Arkansas (or any other state) does this rather than attempting to enforce an existing law. He argues it is partly political--current legislators and the current governor want the political trophy of such a law, as opposed to give the attorney general the glory of new enforcement. There also is the problem that Arkansas or another state may be under an injunction not to enforce the existing laws, so the new law is necessary to create a new enforcement opportunity. Alternatively, the AG would have to ask the district court to lift the injunction, which may be difficult when done in anticipation of SCOTUS overruling precedent.

Some good thoughts here that I want to incorporate into my Zombie Laws paper.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 11, 2021 at 04:11 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Twiqbal and voting

I  doubt I am in the first person to draw this connection, but here goes:

The political group(s) pushing to restrict voting rights are the same group(s) who seek to restrict access to courts and to civil justice. The real reasons for restricting access are the same--the people they want to win will not win if there is broad access (Republican candidates v. governments/businesses/persons who engage in certain types of wrongdoing). But they cannot acknowledge those real reasons. So they create evidence-free arguments equating expanded access with abuse of the system (massive voter fraud  producing an incorrect, inaccurate winner v. frivolous litigation with burdensome and disproportionate discovery hurting innocent companies and producing coerced or inaccurate judgments).

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 11, 2021 at 08:58 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Cascading Fed Courts issues

I have not given enough thought to how one SCOTUS decision on one issue produces a cascade of other issues. Janus provides a nice case in point.

SCOTUS held that mandatory non-member agency fees violate the First Amendment. That triggered a wave of actions against unions by non-members to recoup fees paid prior to Janus, which courts of appeals have uniformly and all-but-unanimously rejected via a defense of good-faith immunity (the Fourth Circuit joined the chorus yesterday).

The Seventh Circuit on Monday considered a different downstream effect: A union sued the state attorney general challenging state law requiring unions to represent free-riders, claiming that mandatory representation violates the union's First Amendment rights against compelled expression and association. The court of appeals held that the union lacked standing.* No freeriding nonmember had grieved the union for failing to represent it. The attorney general (the defendant in the action) had not initiated or threatened an action against the union for unfair (or non-) representation. And the union had not alleged an intent to not represent freeriders to set-up a pre-enforcement challenge. So while the court acknowledged the issue was unavoidable post-Janus and would eventually require resolution, there was no live case or controversy teed up.

[*] While acknowledging that it also could have been unripe. But wouldn't it all be so much easier to say that nothing had (yet) caused a violation of the union's constitutional rights?

That leads to a further downstream effect: If a freerider files a grievance or the state brings a failure-to-represent action, would a federal court abstain under Younger from the union's action? It may depend on the state laws and procedures governing state labor proceedings. I think abstention would be required in the AG action, because the action sounds comparable to an attorney-grievance proceeding. The freerider grievance may be a bit more open after Sprint, since the state would not be a party.

This is far from played out, as the Seventh Circuit recognized. I wonder if the Janus majority anticipated this three years ago.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 9, 2021 at 10:57 AM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Nominal damages, past injury, and a morass to come

SCOTUS decided Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski Monday, holding 8-1 (Thomas for the Court, Roberts dissenting) that nominal damages are a retrospective remedy and plaintiffs can pursue them as the sole remedy for a past constitutional violation. The decision allows plaintiffs to vindicate rights (e.g., the right to protest in a time, place, and manner to which the plaintiff was entitled) that are easily violated but rarely, if ever, worth a lot of money. It also strips government of the power to moot cases after they have begun by repealing the challenged policies, at least where the plaintiff can show an injury from when the policy was in effect.

But the decision leaves many issues open and to be resolved by lower courts going forward.

One is how prevalent this practice will become. Will every plaintiff challenging the validity of a policy include a nominal-damages claim to guard against the government mooting the case? And how will this affect the willingness of courts to say the prospective claim is moot if there is a retroactive claim keeping the case alive? Courts are all over the map on when the repeal of an executive or department policy moots a case and when it is the sort of voluntary cessation that does not moot the case. On one hand, a court may hold the prospective claim not moot, since the nominal-damages claim will keep the case in court. On the other, it may be happy to dump the prospective claim and focus on a small-money claim for a likely de minimis past injury.

Second is how this affects attorney's fees, which was the hidden import of this case. A plaintiff who recovers nominal damages is a prevailing plaintiff entitled to fees under § 1988. Had this case come out the other way, it would have upped the incentive for government to repeal challenged policies, mooting the case and immunizing itself from fees.

But even if fees are available, the amount of recovery may be limited where the plaintiff only receives nominal damages after seeking more--when a plaintiff recovers nominal damages but nothing else, the reasonable fee may be "nothing." Courts might narrow the degree to which the plaintiff prevails, and the amount of fees she recovers, where the government repeals the challenged policy; the plaintiff prevails "only" on the past violation and can recover only for that legal work. An increase in nominal-damages actions may produce a drawback in the amount of fees courts are willing to award.

Third, Jim Pfander proposes that Congress should amend § 1983 to allow plaintiffs to bring claims seeking nominal damages--foregoing compensatory, punitive, and other substantial damages in exchange for the defendant being unable to assert qualified immunity. On one hand, this case treats nominal damages as a remedy consistent with Article III and thus within Congress' power to enact by statute. But the logic of Pfander's proposal is that nominal damages function like an injunction or declaratory judgment, neither of which is subject to qualified immunity. But today's decision paints nominal damages as s a retrospective remedy. Of course, the policy concern for an officer paying out of his own pocket disappears if he only will pay $ 1. But the validity of the proposal turns on that policy, not on the analogy between injunctions and nominal damages.

Fourth, the case illustrates the Court ongoing use of Article III to constitutionalize all sorts of merits questions. The majority talks about the need to show standing and a cognizable cause of action, assuming they are obviously distinct and never recognizing their unavoidable overlap. The Justices continue to make Article III and justiciability as a vehicle to discuss what injuries plaintiffs can recover for and what remedies they can get for those injuries, which should be core merits issues.

Roberts' dissent is worse. He argues (adopting the position of the United States and echoing his dissent in Campbell-Ewald) that a defendant can moot a nominal-damages case by depositing $ 1, avoiding a resolution on the merits. But an action for past injury (as the majority characterizes a claim for nominal damages) never becomes moot. Unlike an ongoing injury that ends when the policy causing injury is repealed, the past injury occurred and does not disappear with payment of money. The payment remedies the injury, putting the plaintiff where she would have been had the past violation of her rights not occurred. But the injury does not disappear and it does not become moot. Unfortunately, Kavanaugh wrote a one-paragraph concurrence to agree with that point in Roberts' dissent, meaning two members of the Court for that absurd position.

Finally, whether characterized as merits or mootness, the question remains whether government can do what the U.S. and Roberts/Kavanaugh would allow: Render the claims recognized in this case meaningless by depositing that $ 1 and demanding the government enter judgment, even if the plaintiff would rather not accept the settlement.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 8, 2021 at 01:53 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Twiqbal meets the Kraken and Gondor

The Kraken and other pro-Trump/pro-Republican lawsuits about massive election fraud are fictitious nonsense brought by terrible lawyers. The litigation efforts, and the lawyers who brought them, have been justly ridiculed, But I am curious about one point of criticism--that the plaintiffs failed to offer proof of this massive fraud and the pleadings have been absurd because they included allegations of wrongdoing without proof. The same critics distinguished the leaky press conferences and Holiday Inn legislative "hearings" from courts, where the latter have rules governing proof.

Under notice pleading, however, the plaintiff is not required to plead its evidence or to offer proof of its allegations; the idea is to plead skeletal facts showing wrongdoing and leave it to discovery to find evidence behind allegations. Twiqbal requires more than that, of course. But even Twiqbal does not require a plaintiff to identify the evidence supporting its allegations, only that those allegations be more detailed. In any event, many people criticizing the Kraken pleadings decry Twiqbal for ratcheting up what plaintiffs must do to get into court and proceed to discovery.

Part of the issue is that the plaintiffs not only filed complaints, they sought immediate preliminary injunctive relief, which does require evidence beyond the allegations. something the plaintiffs were unable to provide. That made the motion, which must be supported by proof, more salient than the complaint which does not. Still, responding to a ridiculous complaint by demanding proof seems to ignore how federal litigation begins and the idea that the demand for proof comes later--discovery, summary judgment, and trial. And demanding that Gondor and the Kraken have proof at the outset, when we criticize the courts for demanding the same from a typical civil rights plaintiff, seems disingenuous.

Again, I am not saying these cases should have succeeded. Plaintiffs did need evidence for preliminary relief and did not provide it. But the framing outside the courts seems wrong.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 4, 2021 at 08:52 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Universality and the CDC eviction moratorium (Updated)

Judge Barker issued a declaratory judgment in Terkel v. CDC, declaring the extension of the CDC's eviction moratorium constitutionally invalid. This creates a split with district courts in Georgia and Louisiana, as Ilya Somin describes. But the Terkel court did not issue an injunction, accepting the government's representations that they would "respect" the DJ; it added that the plaintiffs could "seek an injunction should defendants threaten to depart from the declaratory judgment."

As with all of this, the question becomes scope and what the government can do now. The plaintiffs are one individual and five property-management companies, in an action not certified as a class action. Saying the CDC would “respect” and not "depart" from the DJ should mean respect it as to the parties and that it "departs" it only by attempting to enforce against the plaintiffs, which it is unlikely to do. It should not stop the CDC from enforcing the policy against anyone else, certainly outside of Texas, who lacks the protection of a judgment.

The risk for the CDC in enforcing is that Judge Barker will get mad, issue an injunction, and make it universal. This would be wrong on several levels, beyond the usual normative incorrectness of universality. It would be incoherent for the judge to issue a universal injunction in furtherance of a party-particularized DJ.

Even if universal injunctions are appropriate in some cases, this would not seem to be such a case. This is not the DAPA/DACA cases, in which Texas was worried that non-enforcement outside of Texas causing undocumented persons to migrate into the state looking for driver’s licenses. It is not the sanctuary-city cases, in which allowing enforcement as to non-party jurisdictions injured them by shrinking the pool of available funds. It is not an immigration case, in which there is a perceived command that immigration law be uniform. The only conceivable argument for universality requires every injunction to be universal--the CDC policy is categorical and applies to all landlords who may want to evict people. Unfortunately, that is the argument I would expect Judge Barker to accept.

This case exemplifies when universality is inappropriate. Injunctions must provide the plaintiffs complete relief. These plaintiffs get that if they are protected against enforcement. The enforcement or non-enforcement of the CDC policy against anyone other than these managers does not affect the enforcement or non-enforcement of the policy against these plaintiffs.

Update: DOJ filed a response to a notice of supplemental authority on Terkel in the District of the District of Columbia, arguing, in part, that the Terkel judgment does not extend beyond those plaintiffs and does not prohibit enforcement of the policy against others, including the plaintiffs in the D.C. case (which includes the Alabama Association of Realtors). (H/T: Josh Blackman).

Second Update: DOJ announced an appeal in Terkel with a press release stating: "The decision, however, does not extend beyond the particular plaintiffs in that case, and it does not prohibit the application of the CDC’s eviction moratorium to other parties. For other landlords who rent to covered persons, the CDC’s eviction moratorium remains in effect."

The Court avoided universality in cases challenging Trump Administration policies, because the majority declared the ban valid in the cases in which universality was most central, notably the travel ban. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch have been unequivocal that the judgment in a case cannot extend beyond the parties. It will be interesting to see what they do with a Biden Administration policy that offends their pre-New Deal constitutional sensibilities.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 27, 2021 at 05:24 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 08, 2021

Campus speech (Updated)

This story--a pharmacy grad student suing University of Tennessee after it voted to expel her over sexually suggestive and vulgar, but unquestionably protected, social-media posts (the expulsion was rescinded by the dean)--captures everything that is problematic and misunderstood about attempts to regulate speech on campus.

• The university went after an African-American woman who graduated from University of Chicago and, in her words, "dominated her class," asked a lot of questions, and was a target of colleague complaints on social media. Just as Wisconsin prosecuted an assault by African-Americans against a white victim under its hate-crimes law. Just saying.

• An expert on higher-education law says, "'If someone is shouting in a classroom, you have the right to control the time, place and manner,' he said. 'When they are shouting on Twitter, is it their space or yours?'" This is stupid. First, the comparison is not between Twitter and the classroom; no one believes the classroom is a speech zone or anything other than the professor's space, and a student is punished regardless of what they shout. The comparison is between Twitter and the public spaces on campus opened up for speech; they are the students' spaces, shouting is permitted, and a public university cannot punish some shouting but not other shouting.

Plus, the woman was not shouting. She was posing for non-naked pictures and reciting lyrics. That becomes "shouting" only if you object to the content.

• The story kind of goes off the rails with a detour into Tinker and the Mahanoy case ("Fuck cheer") that SCOTUS will hear later this term. The rules for speech in secondary schools do not apply to college students on college campuses--adults, living in a self-contained "city" that is more than classrooms. There is a reason universities lose most of these speech-code cases, while high schools tend to win them. Discussing both in the same article confuses that issue.

• I am curious about the student's lawsuit. She was not expelled, so she cannot get an injunction for reinstatement or damages from her expulsion. Essentially, she is challenging the investigation that caused her emotional discomfort and distraction and that forced her to hire an attorney. Can a student recover when a public university takes steps to punish on constitutionally violative grounds, even if it does not complete the punishment? Does the university have any power to look into the issues to see if they are protected? Or must the university get one look, say obviously protected, and stop in its tracks? How far can an inquiry go before it becomes a violation? Interesting theory at work.

By the way, UT has been embroiled in a multi-year dispute over whether students can hold an annual "safe sex week." So we are not exactly enrolled in a bastion of free expression and academic freedom.

Update: Here is the Complaint; it makes a bit more sense. The school sought to sanction the woman for violating "professionalism standards" built into the school's academic policies, although stated nowhere in writing. That is a cute attempt at a work-around: "You are not violating public-school policies, but standards of the profession into which you are about to enter." She seeks an injunction prohibiting future enforcement of these unknown, vague, and overbroad "professionalism policies," claiming that she is self-censoring and has reason to fear future enforcement while she remains in school; that makes sense. I remain unsold on the damages theory. She was subject to an intermediate sanction for prior speech--she was made to write a letter about why her speech was bad and then self-censored in the lead-up to the more recent enforcement effort--that may warrant damage. But she seems to be claiming damages for the investigation and proposed expulsion (overruled by the dean) under an invalid standard. As stated above, I am trying to find a theory or limiting principle for how long an investigation can go before it becomes a First Amendment violation. At the very least, it seems to run headlong into qualified immunity and it not being clearly established that the policy is vague.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 8, 2021 at 10:32 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Senior Judges and Biden appointments

Donald Trump's in disputable success as President was in filling judicial vacancies (leaving to one side the political disputes over how he had those vacancies, how he filled them, and with whom). He appointed more than 300 judges, including more than 1/4 of the judges on the courts of appeals. And there are not many vacancies for President Biden.

But under the Rule of 80, active judges can take senior status when they are 65 or older and their age + years of service is 80. As the Judicial Nominations Blog reports, more than 80 Carter, Clinton, and Obama appointees are eligible to take senior status, creating a vacancy for Biden to fill.  Judge Victoria Roberts of the E.D. Mich. submitted a letter today announcing her intention to take senior status in February. She may the first of many, especially in the two years that Biden will have a Senate majority.

On that note, check out Marin Levy, The Promise of Senior Judges (Nw. U. L. Rev.), which considers the role of senior judges, including mechanisms for incentivizing judges to take senior status.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 20, 2021 at 04:36 PM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Monosyllabic presidents

Pattern for the day: The disaster that is the Trump presidency results not from Trump being everything Hamilton feared might find his way into the presidency. Rather, it results from Trump having one syllable in his last name.

Of 45 (as of Wednesday) people to hold the presidency, nine have had monosyllabic last names. Here is where they appear in the presidential rankings from C-Span (2017) and Sienna (2018).

Polk (14/12)

Pierce (41/40)

Grant (22/24) (perhaps with a bullet--his presidency is being reconsidered)

Hayes (32/33) (could see a drop following the new conversation around the racist bargain that made him President in 1877)

Taft (24/22)

Ford (25/27)

H.W. Bush (20/21)

W. Bush (33/33)

Trump (NA/42) (and his spot on the next survey should be obvious)

So three single-syllable Presidents are in the top half of each survey and none makes the top quartile. Meanwhile, two are among the five worst. In addition, seven served one term or less, five of those losing reelection bids.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 18, 2021 at 11:02 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 11, 2021

Citizens United meets cancel culture

The premise of the campaign-finance/First Amendment connection is that spending money to support candidates (as expenditures and contributions) is a form of expression by the donors/spenders--expressing their support for the candidate, what the candidate stands for, and what he will do in office. Whether true, the premise could be tested in the coming months and years as companies request the return of donations or refuse to donate to candidates who voted in favor of the objections to electoral votes.

Shouts of "cancel culture" by the "leftist mob" are sure to follow. But if donating to candidates is First Amendment activity, then so must refraining from donating to candidates who act in ways of which you do not approve. To insist that corporations--whose constitutional right to donate you have demanded--must continue funding you regardless of your actions reveals that complaints about cancel culture really are complaints about counter-speech.

Mind you, I do not expect this newfound corporate conscience to last. But while it does, it is the logical flipside of the Court's entire body of campaign-finance jurisprudence.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 11, 2021 at 02:42 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Which Republican party will emerge? Early returns not encouraging

In two posts, I discussed suggestions that the GOP was going to come apart into two or three groups. The question is which group will retain the party's power within government. Would the autocrats be cast out or abandoned, leaving a slightly smaller but rational center-right party committed to the system? Would the autocrats be left alone in the husk of a party (a la the pro-slavery Whigs) while the pro-democracy group formed a new entity? Or would the autocrats retain control aided by the pragmatic fence-sitters who want to retain power, leaving the tiny group of sort-of moderates (Murkowski) and those committed to the system (Romney) nowhere to go but to stay and shout at the rain.

Early returns are not encouraging. Trumpist Ronna McDaniel was reelected, unopposed, as RNC Chair. A super-majority of House Republicans voted to sustain challenges in Arizona and Pennsylvania and would have sustained challenges in Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada had any Senators gone along. Mitch McConnell will not bring the Senate back before January 19 and an evenly divided Senate may decide there is no jurisdiction over an ex-President. Lindsay Graham says it is time to "heal and start over" and not hold anyone accountable for a mob storming the Capitol (he was talking about impeaching Trump but I assume he would say the same about efforts to censure or expel Hawley, Cruz, et al).

Even after Republican playacting at overthrowing the government turned real, violent, and deadly, most members of the Republican congressional caucus and others "think fewer voters will get and stay mad at them for the historically irresponsible stunt than there will be voters who are way into it, don’t care, don’t understand, or don’t even know."

Update: Steve Scalise says the same thing about impeachment interfering with whatever will unite and bring our country together, while Jim Jordan speaks of "united and healing." Even Derrick Evans, the West Virginia legislator who was arrested for being part of the mob, wants  to help the healing process and bring the nation together. So everyone seems to have received the talking points memo. And the talking point is that unity, healing, and bringing the country together are more important than accountability and repercussion for past misdeeds--at least when Republicans engage in those misdeeds.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 9, 2021 at 11:40 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

On "cancel culture"

A great post on cancel culture from Sasha Volokh at the VC. He touches on the Hawley book contract, social media control (presciently written before Twitter banned the President and the accounts of everyone the President was using to try to get around the ban), private universities, and school-curriculum choices. I join his closing point:

"Cancel culture" is a broad term that embraces lots of different acts and lots of different consequences—boycotts, firing, piling on to someone on social media, refusal to be friends, rescinding a college acceptance or speech invitation, pulling down a statute, taking a book off the curriculum, etc. In some cases, some of those acts might violate someone's rights. This is especially true when someone has made a contractual commitment to do the opposite, or when a government is doing the acting. Governments have certain duties to be evenhanded, but people lack those duties. Instead, people have freedom, both freedom to choose how to use their property and other resources, and more generally a right to choose who they'll associate with. Those are core freedoms. We should feel free to argue about how people ought to exercise their freedoms, but always recognize that the freedoms are theirs to exercise.

Contrast this with the statement of the National Coalition Against Censorship's statement on the Hawley book, which concludes that the "best defense for democracy is a strong commitment to free expression." This rests on one of two competing premises--either that the only one engaging in "expression" here is Hawley's or that the expressive rights of the publisher must be in the direction of producing more speech.

NCAC also errs in relying on this idea: "Many of the books–and many of the authors–are highly controversial and generate intense opposition. When that happens, it is crucial that publishers stand by their decision to publish, even when they strongly disagree with something the author has said." Perhaps that is the correct principle in the standard-issue "author of YA fiction says controversial thing about topic du jour" case or in the "non-group members cannot write well about groups" case. This is not that. Simon & Schuster reacted to Hawley's actions as a United States Senator that contributed (in their view) to a mob storming the Capitol and attempting to interfere with the work of the government. That is a distance from JK Rowling taking an unpopular position on gender issues.

And a third example comes from various Republicans and conservatives on Twitter, defining "private company exercises control over the country's leader" as something that happens in China and complaining that the culling of right-wing extremists from the site has reduced their followers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 9, 2021 at 10:48 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 08, 2021

July ('74): District of Columbia

Reports are that Nancy Pelosi spoke with Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley about "precautions" against Trump starting a war. We are in July 1974 territory when military and DOD officials were informally telling one another to ignore potentially crazy orders from President Nixon, who was drinking heavily, sensing that the end was near, and a threat to lash out. Of course, Nixon was an intelligent person with some baseline respect for the constitutional order (yes, he committed crimes--there are obvious degrees).

We are not so fortunate at the moment.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 8, 2021 at 12:49 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Noisy withdrawals (Updated)

Everywhere today. Some questions remain: Are these exits appropriate and appropriately done? And why now--other than consequences resulting from the conduct of others, was Trump's conduct before and after the putsch any different than what he has been doing and saying for 3 years and 50 weeks? And with 13 days left, how is this different than giving two weeks notice.

Facebook (and other social media sites followed).

The attorney in Philadelphia whom the court called out for saying there were "non-zero" Republican observes in the counting areas. I would like to hear from PR experts whether this was done in an appropriate manner. I have seen some lawyers suggesting that the noisiest of withdrawals should not include specific accusations that may breach confidentiality.

Chad Wolf as nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security. This is tangled up in competing stories about the timing of the re-nomination and withdrawal.

Bill Barr, who already withdrew but is not being noisier about it. This one rings hollow, given his fawning statement as he stepped out the door.

Several national-security officials have resigned in the past 24 hours and reports are more may be coming in the next few hours or days.

Updates:

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (aka Mr. Elaine Chao, the Senate-Majority-Leader-for-the-moment), effective Monday. There is some question whether acting cabinet members can participate in the 25th Amendment process, so similar resignations could make that path trickier than it otherwise might be.

Forgot Mick Mulvaney, who resigned  as special envoy to Northern Ireland, saying "I can’t do it. I can’t stay." Mulvaney will (or should) forever be tagged for his November 7 Wall Street Journal article (paywalled) guaranteeing Trump will concede gracefully if he loses.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 7, 2021 at 01:18 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Three (maybe four) parties?

John McLaughlin (Johns Hopkins) says it "Feels like we might be heading for a 3 party system, formally or in practice. Hard to understand how Rs like Toomey, Sasse, Romney, etc. share future goals with Cruz, Hawley, Johnson, House Rs who are about to challenge basic democratic norms. These are not mere policy disputes."

But returning to my response to Steve Schmidt's similar suggestion, I think we have to tweak McLaughling's argument to make it four parties: 1) Cruz, Hawley, et al; 2) Romney, Sasse, Toomey; and 3) the vast remainder of the GOP who voted against the challenges but might have acted differently if the possible result would have been different.

However framed, I do not see this rift as permanent. McLaughlin is right that there "are not mere policy disputes." But that is because these groups do not disagree on most policy matters. And those policies are the "future goals" they share. Toomey, Sasse, and Romney were appropriately and explicitly angry with the actions of Cruz and Hawley and the +/- 125 House Republicans in futilely challenging electors for show and political points based on false claims of wrongdoing. But they can and will continue to make common cause because they agree on most policy questions. And that is before we get to the many members who will make common cause around the simple idea of obstructing Biden.

I might view it differently if there appeared  to be a move among party leaders (most of whom are more in group 3 than 2) to sanction Hawley or anyone else for undertaking these efforts, especially after the siege laid bare the problem of pushing false narratives on the public. I have seen no indication that this will affect Hawley's relative position within the Republican Senate caucus (which may be less important to him than visiting Iowa and New Hampshire).

The answer may depend on whether a combination of photos, speeches, and votes from today has electoral consequences for the highest-profile Republicans. Does that photograph end Josh Hawley's political career, as David French hopes? Will political ads juxtaposing member speeches about fictitious made-up votes with images of rioters hurt them with voters, who seem them as simpatico on policy but unworthy of support because of their lack of commitment to democracy? If so, that might cull what Schmidt called the autocratic faction.

But that depends on how this multi-party split plays among Republican voters. I quoted Mike Sacks (prior to Wednesday) that GOP Congressmen "think fewer voters will get and stay mad at them for the historically irresponsible stunt than there will be voters who are way into it, don’t care, don’t understand, or don’t even know." In other words, how many GOP voters are in the autocratic faction, how many in the pro-democracy, and how many in the pragmatic.

I have long feared the answer. Yesterday shows I am right to be afraid.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 7, 2021 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Partisan messaging

Keith Whittington at Lawfare breaks down the legal, constitutional, social, and political problems with what congressional Republicans plan to do tomorrow.

He responds to the argument that this is harmless political posturing, a "messaging" act that causes no harm because it cannot succeed (akin to voting for a bill that will not pass or that is likely to be declared invalid). But:

[E]ven as a political messaging exercise, what exactly is the message? Are these congressional Republicans telling voters that if they elect enough like-minded politicians, then a majority coalition would be willing and able to overturn the result of a presidential election? Is the message that every future presidential election is up for grabs when Congress meets to “count” the votes and that election results are simply contingent on who holds the majority in Congress? This is hardly the message that any responsible politician should be sending in a constitutional democracy. No democratic political system can function in that way.

Whittington is right that this is the message Republicans are sending to voters. And that tracks with questions over the divide within the Republican party and which direction that divide might go. Perhaps the message is that voters must primary the pragmatic faction and elect more autocrats, at the federal and state levels, so this will work in the future. Perhaps the message is to GOP autocrats at the state level to alter their election laws and processes to allow this to work in the future, up to and including returning selection of electors to the legislatures (the past two months show that many Republican voters would not oppose this in their Red or gerrymandered states).  Or perhaps the message is to the pragmatic wing of the GOP in Congress--hang with us, even if opposing us now, because eventually there will be an election that comes down to one state and a few hundred votes (e.g., Florida in 2000) and this will work.

Regardless of the message, Whittington's ultimate point stands: "This is hardly the message that any responsible politician should be sending in a constitutional democracy. No democratic political system can function in that way."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 5, 2021 at 06:17 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, January 04, 2021

Court smacks down dumbest election lawsuit and its lawyers

The dumbest election lawsuit was the one in the District of D.C. against Pence, the Electoral College, Congress, and a bunch of state officials, alleging that Article II requires that a state legislature certify the results post-election so any electors appointed without that certification (i.e., all 538) were invalid and could not cast lawful votes. District Judge Boasberg initially gave the plaintiffs busywork of providing proof of service on all defendants, including the Electoral College (which, of course, is not a thing that can be sued). When no such service occurred after twelve days, the court declined to wait any longer and denied the motion for preliminary injunction.

And Boasberg was not messing around. The suit would have been "risible were its target not so grave: the undermining of a democratic electionfor President of the United States." Plaintiffs’ "theory that all of these laws are unconstitutional and that the Court should instead require state legislatures themselves to certify every Presidential election lies somewhere between a willful misreading of the Constitution and fantasy." And this is the closer:

Yet even that may be letting Plaintiffs off the hook too lightly. Their failure to make any effort to serve or formally notify any Defendanteven after reminder by the Court in its Minute Orderrenders it difficult to believe that the suit is meant seriously. Courts are not instruments through which parties engagei n such gamesmanship or symbolic political gestures.As a result, at the conclusion of this litigation, the Court will determine whether to issue an order to show cause why this matter should not be referred to its Committee on Grievances for potential discipline of Plaintiffs’ counsel.

Many have noted the absence of sanctions in these cases, despite all being patently sanctionable. One reason may be the details of FRCP 11 and the incentives of parties and courts. Rule 11(c) imposes a safe harbor--before seeking sanctions, a party must notify the opposing party of its intent to seek sanctions (by serving, without filing, a copy of the proposed motion for sanctions) and give the party 21 days to cure the sanctionable conduct, as by withdrawing or amending the challenged paper. But the defendants in these cases want these cases to go away, not to drag the cases out by giving the plaintiffs time to cure. And most courts have held that the safe harbor means that sanctions cannot be sought after dismissal, so post-dismissal sanctions are not possible. Meanwhile, judges have the same interest as defendants in making these cases go away and no desire to keep them around with additional rounds of satellite litigation.

This was was unique in several respects, so it makes sense that it might trigger sanctions activity. Because plaintiffs never bothered serving anyone, the case never reached an adversarial posture; the judge was on his own own. And the theory and construction of the case was uniquely loony. That combination raised the suspicion, more than the other Kraken cases, that this was a political show and nothing more.

One more thing, because it is something I expect to see in the coming months. The plaintiffs alleged that they had been "disenfranchised," which Boasberg said was not true since they had voted and their votes counted. But "disenfranchisement" means something different in the minds of these groups of voters and advocates. The "franchise" means not that I was able to vote or that my vote was counted, but that I was able to elect the candidate of my choosing; I am disenfranchised if my candidate loses. This framing is not new. Many of the early Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010 were covered as complaints of disenfranchisement--the protesters were disenfranchised because the person they did not vote for had one and he was pursuing policies they did not favor. That is certainly grounds for protest; it is not disenfranchisement and should not be accepted as such.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 4, 2021 at 03:20 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Political parties and notes on a broken process

A jumble of thoughts on the role of political parties in presidential selection and what happens next.

The Framers considered but rejected legislative selection of the executive, fearing that a president chosen by Congress would not be sufficiently independent of the body to which he owed his office. That is why the states were empowered to decide the methods of choosing electors and why the electors would act on their own. The House contingent election was a necessary fail-safe. At the same time, some believed that fail-safe would become the norm, at least once George Washington left the scene. They doubted one figure could attain sufficient national recognition and support to achieve an EC majority, especially in a race among multiple candidates representing different regions and interests. These figures expected the EC to become a screening mechanism to produce two or three candidates, from whom the House would select the President.

The unforeseen (or unaddressed) development of political parties and settlement into a two-party system allowed the Electoral College (as tweaked by the Twelfth Amendment) to function as a true selection mechanism, making the contingent election an unnecessary vestige. The one post-Washington election that operated as the EC was designed on paper was 1824--and it produced the contingent election that some Framers expected or feared. There were no competing political parties and multiple candidates represented different regions and interests within that party, none of whom had the national stature to gain a majority. Otherwise, the competition between two major national parties ensured sufficient support nationwide support for one candidate, absent a breakdown in state processes (as happened in 1876 but has not happened since, including this year, conspiratorial fantasies aside). The congressional role became ministerial and ceremonial--count the votes and confirm the winner of state-controlled processes.

The 140+ House Republicans and dozen Senate Republicans planning on making futile-but-dangerous mischief on Wednesday have clothed themselves in a vision in which Congress plays a substantive role in checking the limits of the EC and choosing the President. Ted Cruz has pointed to 1876 and the congressional commission; historical ignorance aside, Cruz argues that Congress can and should exercise meaningful power in looking under the hood of state and EC processes--the House as the ultimate arbiter of the election. Never mind that this vision has never controlled in 240 years of elections. On the other hand, the two-party system means that a congressionally selected President would not be dependent on Congress as the Frames feared when they rejected legislative selection. Party identification unifies the branches, so congressional Republicans support rather than attempt to control a Republican executive whom they chose. Another example of the Levinson-Pildes separation-of-parties-not-powers thesis.

The maneuvering will not give Trump another term in office nor stop Biden's inauguration on January 20th.* It further undermines Biden's presidency. And it lends further cover to the inevitable refusal of all Senate Republicans--not only these twelve, but the silent Rubios and McConnells--to cooperate in any way with the Biden Administration.

[*] The insistence by Peter Navarro on Fox News that Congress could move the inauguration is laughable. But it reflects the moving goalposts. Several people insisted that there was no reason litigation had to end by December 14, since that date did not appear in the Constitution; the implicit argument is that statutory deadlines are meaningless. Apparently, so are constitutional deadlines. Although Navarro may be correct that Congress could move the Inauguration as an event. But that will not keep Trump in office past noon on the 20th.

So what happens after the play-acting fails? Former Republican political consultant Steve Schmidt argues that January 6 will mark the beginning of the end of the modern Republican Party, as the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act marked the end of the Whig Party. Both brought to the fore fundamental divides that drove the party apart. As he puts it, the GOP's "Pro Democracy faction and Autocratic factions can no more exist together then could the Whig Party hold together [t]he abolitionist with the Slave master."

I want Schmidt to be correct, but I do not believe he is. Abolitionists and supporters of slavery could not exist within the Whig Party because that fundamental philosophical divide made it impossible to agree on policies or candidates and to do the things political parties are designed to do. The anti-slavery Whigs found a home in the new Republican Party.

But the GOP's factions can co-exist when the smoke clears because the divide is not so philosophical. They will unite around knee-capping Biden (again, has any President had zero judges confirmed) and retaking the House/retaining the Senate in 2022 around a platform of Biden's failure to unite the country as he promised to do. Schmidt imagines a '22 primary bloodletting (including an Ivanka Trump-Marco Rubio primary in my home state of Florida, for which I will buy popcorn and a ringside seat). But, again, GOP party identification unites the factions against the common Democratic enemy once those primaries end. GOP voters will vote for whichever candidate carries the Republican label, the  party's structural advantages means there will continue to be more Rs than Ds in both houses, and the unifying goal will be opposition to the Democrats.

And unlike 1854, there is no place for these pro-Democratic Republicans to go. They are not going to become Democrats. And there is no room in the system for a third party.

Moreover, Mitt Romney and a few others aside, I think Schmidt misidentifies the factions within the party, at least within Congress. There is not a pro-Democracy faction and an Autocratic faction. Instead, there is one windmill-tilting autocratic faction and one pragmatic faction that will not waste time on futile efforts but would be "fine with this effort actually succeeding" and likely would not "refrain[] from supporting it if they thought it could succeed." McConnell is not using or threatening to use any of the tools at his disposal to pull these Cruz, Hawley, et.al in line. Perhaps he knows it cannot work. More likely, he knows that he and the rest of the party benefit from these failed efforts. It is enough to shut up and reap the benefits.

I believe Mike Sacks has it right: "They’re playacting an attempt to overthrow democracy because they think fewer voters will get and stay mad at them for the historically irresponsible stunt than there will be voters who are way into it, don’t care, don’t understand, or don’t even know." Sack was talking about Gohmert, Cruz, Hawley, et al. But it is true of every member of the party's congressional caucus.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 3, 2021 at 10:35 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (15)

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Mike Pompeo? (Updated)

Criticizing Lin Wood's legal acumen is fish-in-a-barrel stuff these days. Still I was struck by this: In his prediction/call/hope that Vice President Pence would be arrested and executed for treason, Wood said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would take charge of the Senate on January 6 and would save the election.

Obviously this is nonsense, and I do not know whether Wood believes it. But I am curious how he got there--even if you know nothing about law or the Constitution, what is the logical progression that gets the Secretary of State--an executive-branch officer whose existence is not provided for in the Constitution--presiding over a joint session of Congress and performing a function that is constitutionally delegated to the VP? The only thing I could think of is that Wood went through the line of presidential succession to find the next executive-branch officer and decided that person must perform the VP's functions if the VP is sitting in prison awaiting execution. This is wrong for several reasons, but I think that is it.

By the way, I am with the many people believing that this insanity does not end on January 6. Someone will seek to enjoin Chief Justice Roberts from issuing the oath to Biden or will seek to mandamus Roberts to issue the oath to Trump. Someone will challenge a Biden-signed law or Biden-issued executive order and argue that Biden is not really the President. Someone pointed out that the birther lawsuits continued into December 2012. And I would not be surprised if some Republican House members made noise about impeachment, which would be the appropriate vehicle (as opposed to these nonsense lawsuits) for removing a President who won the office by deceit or wrongdoing.

I also continue to believe that none of these will hurt the Republican Party or any individual Republican officials, in the short or long term.

Updated: Apparently, there is a different version of Pompeo, the Hero, in which Pompeo becomes acting president. According to the December 16 LawFare podcast, Senate Republicans will delay count-and-challenge until January 20 (Cruz's demand for a 10-day study, followed by referral to state legislatures, would achieve), then obtain a ruling from OLC that § 19 is constitutionally invalid to the extent it allows a non-executive officer to become acting president. The OLC ruling would require the executive branch to accept Pompeo as acting president, while the rest of the government would presumably recognize Nancy Pelosi as acting president.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 2, 2021 at 10:12 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Third-party universality

A judge in the Northern District of California has universally enjoined the President's Executive Order on diversity training. Plaintiffs are several non-profit LGBT education and advocacy organizations that do trainings and education programs for local businesses, governments, and health-care providers. These programs cover systemic bias, anti-racism, white supremacy, and other issues the EO attempts to stop. The court held that the EO violates the First Amendment.

The court made the injunction universal/nationwide, based on third-party effects. "Permitting Plaintiffs to provide training regarding “divisive concepts,or to promote those concepts,would do Plaintiffs little good if their sources of employment and funding remain subject to the Executive Order." Pointing to evidence of third-party cancellation of programs in which the plaintiffs were scheduled to participate, "[i]njunctive relief is necessary to allow third parties to hire and/or fund Plaintiffs without fear of violating the Executive Order."

Third-party effects can expand the scope of a particularized injunction, in the sense of protecting those with whom the protected plaintiff engages in its protected capacity. For example, the injunction stopping enforcement of the Muslim travel ban as to the University of Hawaii protected actual and potential students; the injunction stopping enforcement as to HIAS protected actual and potential HIAS clients. Similarly, the court is correct that protecting these plaintiffs requires protecting those who do business with them.

But it did not follow that the injunction stopping the travel ban should protect other state universities, other immigration organizations, or other potential immigrants who have nothing to do with those plaintiffs. Similarly, it does not follow that this injunction must protect other training providers who have nothing to do with these plaintiffs or other entities who do not and would never do business with the plaintiffs. Giving relief to other grantees/contractors, who have nothing to do with the plaintiffs, is not necessary to give the plaintiffs complete relief.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 24, 2020 at 01:04 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Remembering James Watt

Can we agree that the President's closest advisers at the moment--"a felon, adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a White House trade adviser and a Russian agent’s former lover" is the greatest collection since James Watt in 1983?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 22, 2020 at 11:09 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Plenty of perjury and authoritarianism

Two unrelated items, united by the news of the day.

Based on the quality of lawyering we have seen the past 46 days, does anyone believe Nick Sandmann recovered anything more than nuisance value in settling his $ 250 million lawsuit against CNN?

In spring 2016, I had a conversation with two conservative academics about the ongoing Republican primary. One said GOP folks were worried about Trump winning. I responded, "why, because he's a crazy Fascist?", to which he responded with a smirk that they were worried about down-ballot drag. I said "which really means they know he's a crazy Fascist." The other asked, indignantly, why I thought Trump was a fascist and why I believed wanting to keep our country safe made him a fascist. I hope we agree that talking with people in the Oval Office about calling in the military to seize voting machines and order a redo of an election makes someone a fascist.* As someone wrote earlier today, Trump is a dictator; that the adjective "failed" goes in front of that does not change the fact that he is a dictator.

    [*] Or let's say a dictator or an authoritarian or a person not committed to democracy. I admittedly used fascism as a synonym for those. I think the point stands.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 19, 2020 at 06:21 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Malevolence + Incompetence = No Standing

That is the gist of the Per curiam decision dismissing the challenge to exclusion of undocumented persons from the census for lack standing/ripeness (at this point they are the same and we should stop treating them as distinct). Government agencies are struggling to identify undocumented persons and exclude them from the count--in other words, struggling to implement the presidential memorandum--by the December 31 deadline. This creates "contingencies" and "speculation" as to the extent of the harm (how many millions of people will be identified and affected) that "impedes judicial review."

Breyer dissented for Sotomayor and Kagan. Money quotation:

To repeat, the President’s stated goal is to reduce the number of Representatives apportioned to the States that are home to a disproportionate number of aliens without lawful status. The Government has confirmed that it can identify millions of these people through administrative records. But if the Census Bureau fails to fulfill its man-date to exclude aliens without lawful status and reduce the number of Representatives to which certain States are en-titled, it will be for reasons not in the record. Where, as here, the Government acknowledges it is working to achieve an allegedly illegal goal, this Court should not de-cline to resolve the case simply because the Government speculates that it might not fully succeed.

Otherwise, we have a new principle: Plaintiffs lack standing if government is too incompetent to get its shit together and commit the violation it intends, as a matter of announced formal policy, to commit.

Oh, and I forgot to add: I presume folks in the Trump Administration now believe standing requirements are great and necessary constitutional bulwarks and not technicalities and dodges wielded by fearful Justices.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 18, 2020 at 10:30 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Departmentalism and the First Amendment

Last month I speculated that government officials might enact laws they know will not survive judicial review but that make good political and constitutional statements.

Case in point is the bill that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Wednesday. The bill prohibits the state from selling or displaying "symbols of hate," defined to "include, but not be limited to, symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazi 10 ideology or the Battle Flag of the Confederacy." And it calls for the enactment of measures to prohibit the sale of symbols of hate on the grounds of the state fair or other fairs receiving public funds. The first clause is fine, although largely symbolic (not sure how many New York office buildings are flying swastikas). The second is almost certain to be declared invalid if challenged in court; the prohibition is a viewpoint-discriminatory restriction on speech that will occur in a limited public forum.

Cuomo acknowledged that constitutional questions surround the bill and promised to work with the legislature on "technical changes" to correct potential constitutional problems, although I am not sure what small change will save the fairgrounds portion. Eugene Volokh points out that the law likely cannot be challenged at this point because it does not ban anything; it orders a state agency to enact regulations. Perhaps this is why Cuomo believes there is an opportunity for changes that avoid constitutional problems.

Cuomo explained his reason for signing despite the constitutional questions:

This country faces a pervasive, growing attitude of intolerance and hate — what I have referred to in the body politic as an American cancer,” Cuomo wrote in his approval message.

“By limiting the display and sale of the confederate flag, Nazi swastika and other symbols of hatred from being displayed or sold on state property, including the state fairgrounds, this will help safeguard New Yorkers from the fear-installing effects of these abhorrent symbols.”

So did Cuomo act in an "unconstitutional manner" or violate his constitutional oath? It depends on whether he believes the law is valid, apart from what courts might conclude. And the concerns Cuomo describes--intolerance and hate is a problem--can be part of the legislative and executive calculus. He seems to be trying to thread a needle here--signing a broad law for show, then attempting to dial it back to address constitutional concerns. But in a broad departmentalist sense, what he did is fine.

Is there a difference between what Cuomo and New York did here and what other states have done with strict abortion bans? None of these laws will survive judicial review under current jurisprudence. One difference is that the abortion bans are designed to create litigation with the hope/expectation that a different SCOTUS majority will change its constitutional interpretation and render the laws valid. I doubt Cuomo expects SCOTUS to change its views on hate speech, viewpoint discrimination, or public forums. Should that matter to how we evaluate a departmentalist executive?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 17, 2020 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Fake electors

If the Trump presidency began with alternative facts, it ends with alternative electors: Uncertified Trump would-be electors who got together, voted for Trump, and sent their results to the archive to be opened in Congress on January 6. None of these actions have any basis in law. Michael Dorf explains that the lack of legal basis might not matter, while Neil Buchanan explains how some stupid mischief could play out without success on January 6, which may explain why Mitch McConnell has discovered his limit on cravenness.

But let me add one more wrinkle combining the posts. Neil argues that one reading of the Electoral Count Act is that Congress cannot reject a slat of electors unless there is a competing slate purporting to be properly appointed. Neil argues that simply rejecting the Biden electors would not create a path to Trump becoming President, because the rejection would not be of their votes but of their appointment as electors. So Congress could not subtract 73 electors (MI/PA/AZ/GA/WI) from Biden's 306, drop him to 233, and call for a contingency election; the 73 would be dropped from 538, giving Biden 233/465 and a one-vote majority. In other words, it is not enough to carve 73 votes from Biden; they need to shift votes to Trump.

This is where the "alternate" Trump electors (whom Dorf analogizes to the French citizens taking the "Tennis Court Oath" in 1789) come in. Although lacking a fig leaf of legal authority or state support (despite what Sidney Powell apparently represented to SCOTUS), they actually exercise as much authority as force and other actors are willing to accord them. Now there is an alternative slate of electors that Republicans in Congress could recognize, despite the lack of meaningful authority; instead of 306-232 Biden, it is 305-233 Trump. Note, again, no House contingency election; Trump wins outright.

Finally, Jermey Mayer offers a final nightmare in which congressional Republicans drag things out by contesting and debating every vote, then declare that there is no electoral college winner, triggering contingency elections. Steve Vladeck explains why this cannot work: There cannot be a contingency election unless Congress agrees that no one received a majority, which cannot occur unless Congress rejects--and replaces--some Biden votes. Delaying certifying Biden's win also delays certifying the absence of a majority winner. And, Steve goes on, if they delay until noon on January 20, Nancy Pelosi becomes acting president.

Mayer's hypothesis shows a problem with using shorthand in lieu of text and procedure, something I try to explain to my students. Mayer says "The Constitution specifies that if there is no Electoral College winner, the Senate chooses the vice president and the House picks the president." But that is not an accurate description of the text or process.  The 12th Amendment says, in relevant part, "the votes shall then be counted;-The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority," there will be contingency elections in the Senate and House. This requires more than Congress taking a long time to challenge votes. It requires Congress to do something--count and announce the results of that count. And a count, absent rejected votes or switched slates, will reveal a 306-232 Biden win. The text does not allow Congress to do nothing or to not count; inaction just runs the clock until no one shall have qualified as President or Vice President.

Note: None of this will happen, because Democrats control the House; this is all a parlor game. At the same time, if Democrats did not control the House, none of the legal niceties at work here would matter, because Republicans have shown themselves willing to do whatever they want. Which is the common them of both Neil's and Mike's posts.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 16, 2020 at 03:10 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Universality and the facial/as-applied distinction

An aspect of universality about which I have not written is its intertwinement with the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges to the laws.

Normatively, it should not matter. Dick Fallon has it right in arguing that facial/as-applied relates to the scope of the precedent rather than the scope of the judgment. A facial challenge produces precedent pre-determining the validity of the law as to non-parties and future cases, which future courts will apply as firmer precedent in resolving the second lawsuit. But any injunction in that first lawsuit remains limited to prohibiting enforcement only against the plaintiff. Descriptively, however, suggestions that a challenge to a law is facial bleeds into questions of who will be protected by the resulting judgment.

Case in point is Tuesday's First Circuit decision on a First Amendment challenge to Massachusett's ban on surreptitious recording, even of government officials performing public functions in public. In consolidated cases, the panel* the panel found one challenge ripe (Martin) and affirmed a declaratory judgment prohibiting enforcement as to recording of police in public spaces, while finding a second challenge (Project Veritas) not ripe as applied to recordings of all public employees and other individuals lacking expectations of privacy.

[*] The panel was David Barron, an Obama and potential Biden short-lister, who wrote the opinion; Justice Souter riding circuit; and Bruce Selya of the large vocabulary. Interesting note on seniority on the panel, which goes: Active Circuit, Retired SCOTUS, Senior Circuit

There was preliminary wrangling over whether Martin was facial or as-applied. Here is how Judge Barron resolved the back-and-forth:

This battle over labels is not fruitful. The Martin Plaintiffs' challenge takes aim at only a portion of Section 99, but it seeks to block it in circumstances beyond the Martin Plaintiffs' own recording. The challenge thus has both "as-applied" and "facial" characteristics. There is no obvious sense in which one predominates.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has confronted similar half-fish, half-fowl First Amendment challenges and instructed that where the challengers "do[] not seek to strike [a statute] in all its applications" but the relief sought "reach[es] beyond the particular circumstances of [the] plaintiffs," they must "satisfy [the] standards for a facial challenge to the extent of that reach." John Doe No. 1 v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186, 194 (2010) (emphasis added); see also Showtime Ent., LLC v. Town of Mendon, 769 F.3d 61, 70 (1st Cir. 2014). We thus proceed on the understanding that the Martin Plaintiffs seek the invalidation -- facially -- of Section 99 but only insofar as it applies to bar the secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces.

We emphasize, though, that the Martin Plaintiffs contend that Section 99 is unconstitutional as applied to their own recording. In that respect, they are not bringing a First Amendment overbreadth challenge. Nor are they seeking, however, to invalidate the measure only insofar as it applies to their own conduct. They are bringing a challenge to a portion of Section 99 that they contend cannot be applied to bar such recording, whether undertaken by them or by anyone else, because it is not tailored in the way that they contend the First Amendment requires.

With the Martin Plaintiffs' challenge now better in view, we are well positioned to explain why we conclude that it is ripe.

The court addressed this it affected ripeness. But note how scope-of-remedy bleeds into the analysis. Twice the court describes the plaintiffs as attempting to stop recording "beyond [their] own recording" and "whether undertaken by them or by anyone else." But  a party cannot, as a matter of the judgment and absent class certification, stop enforcement of the law as to anyone else or anyone else's conduct. Speaking in these terms creates that remedial confusion, even where, as here, only a declaratory judgment and not an injunction is sought.

Other than this remedial quibble, this is another great addition to the burgeoning body of law establishing a First Amendment right to record.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 16, 2020 at 10:07 AM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Not a technicality, still a distraction (Updated)

Standing is the word of the weekend, as the lame-duck President took to Fox to decry the reliance on "little technicalities, like a thing called standing," before expressing shock and awe that "the President of the United States does not have standing."

I prohibit my students from using the word "technicality" in class or in their work. Another word for technicality, I tell them, is "the law." It is not a technicality when evidence is excluded because police executed an unlawful search, because there are laws prohibiting police from doing that and those laws are no less important than the law prohibiting some action as a crime. And it is not a technicality when a court dismisses (or refuses to hear) case because it lacks the authority to hear it (as standing is understood), because the laws limiting the court's adjudicative authority is as important as the Electors Clause.

Update: Trump later tried his hand at textualism, insisting that SCOTUS' original jurisdiction is enumerated in the Constitution. But so is standing (descriptively derived as it is from the "case or controversy" language), in the prior clause of the same section of the same article.

Trump's complaint also ignores that one court found standing before rejecting all the merits arguments. The court's standing analysis is debatable. I agree that Trump was injured and that an injunction prohibiting certification would remedy that injury (subject to whatever happens next under state law). But any standing here would have been Third Party standing--Trump asserting the rights of the Wisconsin legislature to set election rules. The court either needed to find the other elements of third-party standing (close connection between Trump and the real right-holder and some barrier to the right-holder asserting its rights) or conclude that, as in Bond v. U.S., a party with standing can assert any alleged constitutional defect in a law.

All that said, I continue to believe that standing is jurisdictionalized merits. What courts have made a jurisdictional threshold is a merits determination: "Your constitutional/statutory rights have not been violated in this case because the law does not recognize those rights, so you lose on the merits." That is what standing measures--"perhaps the Constitution or law was violated in some way, but it did not affect you so you cannot be the one to pursue the claim and obtain a judicial remedy." Would we be better off if courts spoke about it in those terms, rather than as a threshold that can be waved away by non-lawyers as a technicality?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 13, 2020 at 01:02 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Requiem for principles

Multiple items, unconnected except by the thread of the ongoing coup attempt:

• Carter Philips, Republican former Assistant to the SG and SCOTUS advocate and leader of an early amicus opposing the Texas lawsuit, tells the National Law Journal (subscription required) that it would be "counterproductive" to seek attorney sanctions: "The problem is you just want this to end and to move on. It doesn’t help it to end if you start filing [frivolous litigation] motions and trying to sanction the other side. . . . It turns up the volume and gives more reason for rancor." Phillips is correct that sanction activity--or post-litigation efforts before state bars--keep this going. But then how do you stop this from happening again and again? The purpose of Rule 11 is to deter repetition of this conduct or comparable conduct by others similarly situated. Without the threat of sanctions, because those sanctions are counter-productive, nothing deters Wood, Powell, Paxton, et al. from doing this again. Put another way, sanctions exist because most lawyers are internally motivated to do the right thing and sanctions can deal with the outlier. What happens when those not internally motivated are not the outliers?

Jeb Bush says: "This is crazy. it will be killed on arrival. Why are smart people advancing this notion? Let it go. The election is over." Does he really not know the answer to that question? Smart people are advancing this notion because they can get not-smart (or not-informed or not-engaged) people to believe their narrative of a stolen election. That narrative might be dead on arrival before SCOTUS. But that narrative will allow them to maintain public support when they undertake a scorched-earth campaign against voting rights (which has already begun in Georgia in advance of the Senate run-offs) and against the Biden Administration. Ted Cruz said the Senate will not confirm Biden nominees "[a]s long as there's litigation ongoing, and the election result is disputed." So unethical lawyers bring bullshit cases, without fear of sanction or consequence, and unethical legislators use those cases as pretext to prevent Biden from governing, without fear of sanction or consequence.

• Speaking of: The President's new argument is that the Biden Administration will be a "scandal-plagued mess for years to come." Short term, he uses this as a basis for SCOTUS action (Principle: If SCOTUS knows the incoming administration will be bad, it can overturn the election to "Save America"?). Long-term, this is a repeat of Trump's successful 2016 move. It was obvious four years ago that Trump was a corrupt liar, but he managed to convince the press and a sufficient number of people that Hillary was more of a corrupt liar.

Now a President who was impeached, presided over the most corrupt and unethical modern administration, surrounded himself with criminals, engaged in blatant nepotism, and profited from public office is suggesting that the new administration is scandal-plagued before it begins. Which will work to make the press report on Biden's scandals--no matter how unrelated to the President or the administration--as if it was on a similar scale and degree to what we just witnessed (and continue to witness).

• And this is why I, and many Democrats, were disappointed by the results of this election, Biden/Harris aside. Republicans suffered no consequences for enabling Trump the last four years. They will suffer no consequences for enabling Trump in the current efforts to undermine a democratic process through blatant falsehoods. And they will suffer no consequences  for preventing Biden from appointing cabinet officials, never mind judges. So there are no incentives to get them to stop.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 11, 2020 at 10:25 AM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 03, 2020

How many cheers for the GOP? (Updated)

On one hand, officials such as Georgia's Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger have certified vote counts and denied claims of fraud or misconduct in the election. Republican legislative leaders in Michigan and Pennsylvania made it known early and clearly that the legislature would not (and in most cases could not) appoint a different slate of chosen electors.

On the other hand, Republican legislators (including committee chairs) in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia have provided official-seeming (and thus official for those who do not know any better) forums for Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell, Jenna Ellis, and their traveling show of rejected SNL-skit characters to spout nonsense. Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano led the introduction of a formal resolution to appoint electors (he left the game when he contracted COVID). Republican members of canvassing boards in Michigan made noisy performance out of declining to perform (or considering declining to perform) ministerial functions.  Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson says Biden won but it would be political suicide to admit it--and Democrats do not love America. Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks announced that he will challenge electoral votes from the swing states, at least if he can find Senators to go along for the ride. And even those who have acknowledged Biden as the winner of the election and the president-elect have been couched--"I have not seen evidence so far." Obviously the President is being the President.

So, on one hand, a handful of Republicans in key positions who matter have made clear that nothing will be done to prevent Biden electors from voting in the College on December 14 and nothing will stop Biden's inauguration on January 20. The democratic process worked to install the properly elected official. On the other hand, they have amplified and lent credence to the stolen-election narrative. This will 1) undermine Biden's presidency before it begins in the eyes of a large swath of people (a much larger swath, officially sanctioned, than anything that happened in 2017) and 2) provide a pretext for Republican officials to enact sweeping changes to election laws to make it more difficult to vote, especially for certain constituencies in certain locations.

So how many cheers? They did not destroy democracy now. They are teeing up the possibility for destruction next time.

Update: How about both hands in one person? On one hand, Gabe Sterling, Georgia's Republican voting systems implementation manager, called out  the people making these false claims and inciting violence, including the Republican candidates in the two Senate run-offs. On the other hand, Sterling said he still would vote for both "because some things are bigger than this." What could be bigger than undermining democracy through calls for violence and false claims of voter fraud? How can calls for violence and false claims of voter fraud, if they are "not right," not be disqualifying for public office? In the balance of structural principles, partisanship prevails over democracy, even when the express goal of partisanship is undermining democracy.

Updated Again: Deduct at least part of a cheer. Republican House members, including the Speaker and Majority leader, sent a letter to the state's congressional delegation urging them to object to the state's electoral votes. it will not work now, for many reasons.* But the effort undermines Biden's presidency. And it puts in place the framework, narrative, and precedent to work in the future.

[*] As Steve notes, the House will not go along even if the Senate tries this and the safe harbor controls, requiring a divided Congress to accept the governor-certified slate. Biden has a 36-vote cushion, so losing Pennsylvania's 20 votes does not push him below 270. And if it did (or if other Republican-controlled legislatures join this circus, a distinct possibility), I am persuaded by the Dorf-Tribe argument that rejecting a state's slate of electoral votes lowers the number of electors appointed, lowering the denominator needed for a majority. So if Republicans pulled this for the four swing states (worth 52 electoral votes), Biden wins with 254 out of 486 votes, ten more than he needs.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 3, 2020 at 05:26 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Judicial departmentalism, writs of erasure, and the stupidity of political hackery

Tennessee state representative Jay Reedy has introduced a resolution calling on Congress "to enact legislation to prohibit the desecration of the United States flag." Reedy is being dragged by free-speech types.

As a matter of judicial departmentalism, Congress could constitutionally enact this law and Reedy and his compatriots can constitutionally urge Congress to do so. If Congress believes that the best understanding of the First Amendment is that it does not prohibit flag desecration, it can act on that understanding and enact legislation prohibiting flag desecration. And Reedy can urge that action. It would be a waste of time, a zombie law that could never be enforced because of existing judicial precedent (any attempt at enforcement likely would not enjoy qualified immunity). But Congress could pass such a law, if only for symbolic purposes. And Reedy may have good reason for wanting it to do so.

Here is why Reedy is stupid: A federal law prohibiting flag desecration already exists. Because judicial review does not erase laws, the provisions of the Flag Desecration Act of 1989, declared invalid in Eichman, remains on the federal books. So the problem is not that Reedy is urging Congress to enact an "unconstitutional law," since Congress can make its own judgments as to constitutionality, even if they differ from those of SCOTUS. It is that Reedy is urging Congress to enact a law it already has.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 1, 2020 at 03:12 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Defending Trump's lawyers on hearsay (Updated Twice)

The Trump Campaign is attempting to appeal an early defeat in Michigan state court. A core piece of evidence was an affidavit by Trump poll watcher Jessica Connarn, testifying that an unknown poll worker had come to hear, in tears, and told her that another unknown poll worker had told her to change the dates on ballots. The trial court rejected this as hearsay-within-hearsay. The brief argues that Connarn's affidavit is not hearsay, because she was describing her first-hand impressions (that the unknown poll worker spoke, that she was crying, that other people yelled at her). The arguments have drawn the scorn of law Twitter.

I want to offer an argument that some of this is not necessarily inadmissible hearsay, although not for the reasons the Campaign argues in its brief.

There are two layers of hearsay--Unknown poll worker # 1 to Connarn and Unknown Poll Worker # 2 to Unknown Poll Worker # 1. Connarn can describe what she saw UPW #1 do. But the Campaign wants her to testify to what UPW #1 said UPW #2 said. That is the additional layer the Campaign seems to ignore.

As I like to map these problems for class:

    Connarn---UPW # 1 ("Someone told me to change the dates")---UPW # 2 ("Change the dates")

In a case with multiple declarants, each layer must be admissible under the rules. Working from the outside in until we get to the witness:

    # 2 to # 1: We do not know what was said. But it seems that #2's words to #1 are a command ("change the dates"), which is not a statement. Alternatively, and more powerfully, the command to change the dates is the unlawful conduct--manipulating ballots--alleged in the case. So what # 2 said to # 1 is a verbal act (the wrongdoing of commanding the change of dates requires words) which is not treated as a statement offered T/M/A. If # 1 testified, I do not think hearsay would bar her from testifying to what # 2 told her to do.

    #1 to Connarn: This is a statement (# 1 asserts that # 2 told # 1 to do this) and it is offered T/M/A (it must be true that # 2 told #1 to do this). But if # 1 was crying, does that make this an excited utterance--she is describing the event (being ordered to change the dates) while under the stress of excitement (shown by her crying) caused by being order to change the dates. Perhaps not, but that is the argument the Campaign could make; that it is not making it shows how bad the lawyering is.

To be sure, there are reliability concerns with Connarn's testimony, since both declarants are unknown and she probably has serious credibility problems. Perhaps that undermines the relevancy. Or perhaps it triggers a solid 403 objection. Or perhaps a court decides that the second statement (# 1 to Connarn) is not admissible as an excited utterance because the specific circumstances of the particular statement (unknown people reporting something to an unreliable witness) indicate untrustworthiness--some courts add this element to the 803(2) analysis. But I do not  think it is as simple as saying "this is hearsay."

Please tell me why I am wrong.

Update: The commenter below says there is an additional layer of hearsay--Connarn did not speak to the crying poll worker, but was told by an unknown Republican poll challenger about what the crying UPW #1 said. Looking at the Affidavit, this is right. The affidavit says: "I was approached by a Republican Party poll challenger, who stated that a hired poll worker of the TCF Center, in Wayne County, Michigan, was nearly in tears because she was being told by other hired poll workers at her table to change the date the ballot was received when entering ballots into the computer."

So, as the commenter says, on my model we have:

    Connaran--GOP--UPW #1---UPW #2.

There is no argument to get that new innermost leg (GOP to Connaran) in under the rules. Even if the GOP person was crying or speaking right after it happened, she is describing/upset by what she was told by UPW #1 and Connaran is repeating that for T/M/A. I give a similar example in class to distinguish a declarant excited by and describing an event and a declarant excited by and repeating what someone else says about an event.

But if this is correct, Thor may be in some trouble. Here is how the brief summarizes Connaran's affidavit:

    p.4: Jessica Connarn testified in her affidavit that she personally witnessed a poll worker’s distress because that poll worker was instructed to count ineligible ballots being tallied as lawful votes at the Detroit central counting board.

    p.17: Jessica Connarn’s affidavit describes how an election poll worker told Jessica Connarn that the poll worker “was being told to change the date on ballots to reflect that the ballots were received on an earlier date.”

    p.22: Jessica Connarn’s affidavit describes how an election poll worker told Jessica Connarn that the poll worker “was being told to change the date on ballots to reflect that the ballots were received on an earlier date.”

The brief three times states that  crying UPW # 1 told Connarn personally, not the "Republican poll challenger," about the date-change command. Unless Connarn submitted a second affidavit at some point. Which then puts her to the task of explaining away the contradictory sworn testimony.

Updated Again: Unless (I know, I am spending too much time on this): One could read the original affidavit (not the situation described in the brief) a bit differently: Not as the GOP challenger being told by # 1 what # 2 had told her to do, but as the GOP challenger having witnessed first-hand the exchange between #1 and #2 and reported it to Connarn. The affidavit does not make clear how GOP found out what # 2 told # 1. So perhaps we have:

    Connarn---GOP ("2 told # 1 to change dates and # 1 was crying")---#2 ("change dates")

#2's statement remains a verbal act, witnessed by GOP and about which GOP could testify without hearsay objection. What about that inner leg from GOP to Connarn? I think it could be a present sense impression, depending on when GOP spoke to Connarn, or an excited utterance, if GOP was somehow upset by what she witnessed and is describing; we need some foundation. Either way, GOP is describing an event or condition (#2's verbal act) to the person who will take the stand.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 1, 2020 at 02:49 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The 20-day coup (and counting)

Everyone is sharing the Washington Post story on Trump's 20-day attempted coup, so here it is. It does not change my overall pessimism about how close we came or where we now stand. A few notable things:

• While the story describes the fringiest of the fringe taking control in the White House and the campaign, no one (other than some lawyers) walked away or spoke out against what he was doing. Most at least humored or appeased him. No one went on the record for this story. All of which enabled the narrative about fraud and a stolen election as much as Rudy's direct insanity.

• In her letter releasing transition funds, GSA head Emily Murphy insisted she delayed her decision and released funds "independently," without direct or indirect pressure from anyone, including the White House. The Post states that it happened only when Trump, after "prodding," "agreed to permit the General Services Administration to formally initiate the Biden transition." Someone is not telling the truth.

• The article's narrative is that this was a 20-day thing, running from Election Day until GSA acknowledged the transition on November 23. But Trump's effort to undo the election did not end on the 23d. Or now. The efforts continue--through his interviews on Fox News, his GOP allies in Pennsylvania seeking to change state law to override the popular vote, and the constant din of allegations of fraud, stolen elections, and illegitimate successors that have undermined Biden, likely irrevocably.

• Even with this new information, no one in the GOP establishment has spoken out. The story as they see it is "he just didn't have the facts to make the argument," rather than "he is genuinely trying to pull down democracy."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 29, 2020 at 03:12 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Evidentiary problems (Updated Again)

Election-law attorney Marc Elias has kept a running tally of the Trump Campaign's litigation record, which stands at 1-38 and has a chance of getting to 50 losses. As his litigation efforts flail, however, his political efforts have succeeded--not in keeping him in the White House (which may not even be the point), but in destroying public confidence in electoral and political processes, undermining the Biden presidency before it begins, and in creating space for an army of state-level mini-Trumps to make noise (even if unsuccessful) about overriding the results of the election.

The difference is evidence.

Trump has lost in court because courts have strict rules about what constitutes valid allegations and evidence (under oath, reliable, credible, based on actual understanding of things such as how elections work, and subject to testing) and they are bound by the allegations and evidence in making decisions. As Judge Bibas wrote, "calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof." On the other hand, Trump has won in hotel ballrooms and porn-shop-adjacent parking lots because evidence is whatever nonsense, however fantastical, can be spouted at the highest volume with the straightest face. And decisionmakers (the voters who believe the election was stolen) can base their beliefs on whatever they want.

Whither legislative bodies? They have rules about what constitutes valid evidence--witnesses are under oath and cannot lie. But no external rules limit what legislators can hear or use in reaching their decisions. Which leaves room for people like Pennsylvania Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is leading a legislative move to appoint the state's electors. And he can base his efforts on "findings" of "substantial irregularities and improprieties associated with mail-in balloting, pre-canvassing, and canvassing" based on "facts and evidence presented and our own Board of Elections data" that the presidential election (although, miraculously, no other elections within Commonwealth), was "irredeemably corrupted."

But where is the evidence of this irredeemable corruption? There is none, at least nothing that any court has taken seriously or could rely upon. So it must be that legislatures, or at least some legislators, believe they can and should base decisions not on what suffices in court, but on what suffices in ballrooms and parking lots. In a legislature, unlike in court, it is enough to call an election unfair and act on that call. And that is the problem.

This is not new. Legislators often make bad policy off bad evidence and bad findings. Policy can be undone. The votes of almost 7 million people cannot. And neither can a widespread belief that the system is corrupt whenever your preferred candidate loses. That Mastriano's effort will fail is beside the point. That he is making it and that it will be taken seriously suggests we have crossed some lines.

Updated: Phillip Bump at the Washington Post calls for the Republicans to release the evidence or shut up, then defines what is and is not evidence. But there is no agreement on what constitutes valid evidence, at least outside of court. So Trumpists will reject the premise of Bump's argument.

Second Update: Will Cain on Fox says it aloud: "There may not be enough evidence for a court system, but there should be enough evidence for state legislators to change their electors." Because Republican legislators do not need any evidence beyond "because it's true."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 28, 2020 at 12:09 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (1)

We have not pulled back from the edge

Molly McKew argues that we did, if barely. But evidence suggests we still are heading off the cliff.

The election was close, no massive repudiation of the person who history will show as a worse president than the guy who started the Civil War and the guy who allowed the South to win. Jeff Greenfield argues that the past month has revealed the vulnerabilities in the political and electoral systems; it is a blueprint for a future authoritarian who is more competent, represented by better attorneys, able to come up with better facts, able to influence more state and local officials, and working with a marginally closer election. Trump has succeeded, aided by state and local officials, in convincing majorities of Republican voters that the election was stolen, through repetition and oathless hotel-ballroom show "hearings"* at which fanciful allegations are presented and accepted as true (unlike in court, where there are penalties for lying). Republicans--the same Republicans who have enabled, supported, and never abandoned the President through his antics, no matter how fanciful and dangerous to the democratic process--gained in the House and Senate, giving them a stronger position come January. The ongoing national political sorting reflects badly on Democrats' long-term prospects in Congress.

[*] A new one has been announced for Arizona for Monday.

The Biden Presidency is DOA. Some percentage of voters, egged on by Trump and Republican officials at all levels of government, do not believe Biden legitimately won the presidency (or won it at all), because the election was irretrievably tainted by overwhelming (if unpresented or unreliable) evidence of fraud. Large numbers of people, including those holding the levers of political power, will wield this "lost cause" narrative y to oppose everything he attempts for the next four years.* There will be no legislative action, as McConnell has no incentive to work with Biden to actually govern for the benefit of the public. Has any president appointed zero judges?** Might McConnell attempt to reinstate the filibuster for appointments, neutering the few Republican Senators (Collins, Murkowski, Romney) who might vote to confirm Biden nominees? Federal courts and ex-officials (hi, Bill Barr) will discover previously unknown limits on unilateral executive power, including the use of acting cabinet members. Universal injunctions are looking good again. And suspicions and aspersions will be cast on every future election.

[*] Any comments comparing the lonely tilting at windmills by John Lewis and a handful of other will be deleted. Save us both the time.

[**] There are no current appellate vacancies. But Marin Levy has shown that approximately 60 active Democratic-appointed circuit judges are eligible for senior status. A critical mass of this group taking senior status could reshift the court balance. But any vacancies will remain unfilled until a Democratic Senate or a Republican President. Which do we think is more likely to happen first?

McKew recognizes that the answer to her question is not clear, presenting two options.

The election of Joe Biden is still, in a way, a condemnation of America — a defeat of Trump, but not Trumpism, a small-minded, self-centric view of the world that is anti-system rather than collaborative, brittle rather than resilient, hollow rather than vital, and fundamentally defined by the idea that others must suffer for you to do well.

With any luck, this particular red-hatted cult madness will wane, its power less effective when it is viewed in the rear view mirror, a neon-lit road-side mirage that seemed so marvelous in the night, but now garish and rusted and cheap in the light of another day. A realization that the identification of problems is not enough to solve them, that if dehumanization and cruelty are the “policies” you like, maybe you need to have a look at what that says about you.

But Trumpism could also become sharper with smarter, less lazy champions of its dark and anti-democratic ideals. Personalities who are more acceptable, and better able to hide the intention behind cruel policies. While many were drowned by the surging tide of Trump, and others seemed to ride with him a while only to be smashed into the rocks when he crashed into the shore — there were a small number who rode the wave, never at the crest, never subsumed, but surfing, surfing the edges, carried along by the madness, now alighting unscathed, and waiting, waiting to fight for the crown that Donald Trump never attained but made real for too many who should know better and want more.

Other than Biden's comfortable-but-closer-than-expected-and-hoped-for victory, the answer, to me, is the latter rather than former. The results of this election and the post-election madness, aided-and-abetted by most Republicans, supports that answer. And the early 2024 contenders (Cotton, Cruz, Hawley, Rubio) are practicing their mini-Trumps, as is Trump himself, all convinced that this is the path to political victory.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 28, 2020 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, November 27, 2020

Reshuffling the Court? (Updated)

Josh Blackman offers an interesting proposal/prediction/speculation: Chief Justice Roberts should retire, allowing soon-to-be-President Biden to elevate Justice Kagan to chief and to fill a seat on the Court. Josh originated this proposal in September as the new way to save nine, when polls suggested a Biden presidency and Democratic Senate that would expand the Court. While Court-expansion is off the table, Josh renews the speculation in light of the Court's new shape and the Chief's role, as revealed in this week's decision enjoining New York gathering regulations, in which he dissented for himself. With the appointment of Justice Barrett, Roberts no longer is the median Justice and may be in the minority more often. At the same time, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan have less incentive to join his opinions, because they cannot produce a majority. The result is a Chief Justice consistently voting alone.

In December 2016, I wrote that Roberts won and Kagan lost the Merrick Garland debacle. Roberts avoided being a Chief Justice consistently in the minority thereby retaining the power to assign and cultivate majorities, while Kagan lost the opportunity to be the Brennan-esque intellectual heart of a liberal majority. Josh argues that this moment passed with Trump's appointment of three solid conserbatives. This proposal would somewhat reverse what I described--Roberts leaves before his power wanes, while Kagan gets a promotion. Of course, Kagan would find herself where Roberts would have been had Garland been confirmed--a Chief Justice regularly in the minority (unless she proves even better than advertised at bringing the Court together in the middle). And the real winner of the exchange would be Justice Thomas, who regularly becomes senior Associate Justice in the majority with the power to assign opinions.

In fairness, I believe it is safe to say that Josh is no fan of the Chief and would shed no tears if he left the Court while leaving a secure, and young, conservative majority.

Update: One point I forgot: If this were to happen, it would give Biden three appointments in one term, as I expect Breyer to retire by spring 2022.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 27, 2020 at 04:00 PM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Paying for vaccination and the First Amendment

I am intrigued by this idea making the rounds: Pay people (amounts thrown around are $ 1000-$1400) for getting the COVID vaccine. The plan achieves three things: 1) Ensures broader vaccination towards herd immunity (estimates say a 70% rate is necessary); 2) economic stimulus; and 3) support those suffering financial loss in the economic downturn.

A question: Would someone with a religious objection to vaccination have a First Amendment or RFRA claim? Is not receiving a widely available benefit, unavailable to you because of your religious beliefs, a violation of religious exercise? And, because that is all the rage these days, what would be the remedy if this is a violation? How would the Court level up--requiring the government give the religiously unvaccinated $ 1000? Or would the Court level down and prohibit the government from doing this?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 23, 2020 at 01:39 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Trump campaign loses big in Pennsylvania (Updated)

Update: Just wanted to highlight a few things discussed below, as the Pennsylvania litigation continues apace. First, Trump's lawyers are as bad at appellate procedure as they are at civil procedure--the motion for expedited review insists that they are only challenging the denial of leave to amend to file a Second Amended Complaint, not the dismissal of the First Amended Complaint. And they have not asked for an injunction pending appeal, which means Pennsylvania could certify the results today and moot the case. Second, Trump's lawyers are being hoisted on their Twiqbal petards. They continue to insist they are entitled to discovery and the chance to present evidence at trial, ignoring the obligation to plead a plausible claim, including standing. Third, liberal delight in flaunting Twiqbal is disturbing.

Opinion here. This was always a weak case, so the result is unsurprising. Giuliani's involvement brought a brighter spotlight to it than its merits deserved, making it more farce than lawsuit. But the decision is as much of a smackdown as people are saying, with the court dropping occasional phrases suggesting annoyance. Some quick thoughts.

1) This case further convinces me that standing as a merits-independent threshold inquiry makes no sense. For the two voter plaintiffs, the court focuses on the fact that they sued the wrong people, people who did not violate their rights and thus injure them. That should be part of the merits--your county violated your rights by treating you poorly, but other counties do not violate your rights by treating other people favorably (as permitted by law). Similarly, redressability was framed in terms of remedy--the plaintiffs lacked standing because they requested the wrong remedy--which should be a post-merits determination. The goal seems to be to make what are effectively merits determinations while denying the case is about constitutional merits.

2) The Campaign asserted associational standing,which the court rejected. But it did not assert third-party standing on behalf of voters. Was this another pleading error? Political campaigns have always struck me as a classic example of third-party standing--their interests align with the voters and individual voters lack the incentive to bring broad-based litigation.

3) Given the GOP campaign against universal injunctions the past four years (with which I agree, of course), it is ironic that they requested the ultimate universal injunction. The plaintiffs asked the court to stop Pennsylvania from certifying the election--functionally nullifying every vote in the state--to remedy the violation suffered by two voters who were denied equal protection by the actions of a non-party. But it also would have been insufficiently universal, in that they only wanted to stop certification of the presidential election but no other election, although the voters were denied equal protection to cure their votes in those elections, as well (unless they could allege that they only voted in the presidential election).

4) The case illustrates the disconnect between litigation, which is often small-bore and centered on discrete violations of discrete people's discrete rights, and the vast international and technological conspiracy that Trump's lawyers sought to prove. Put aside that the evidence does not exist. There was no room for such evidence on the claims alleged. But does this create a catch-22? The Campaign will complain that it never had an opportunity to present its evidence in court (as people have been demanding), because the court never accepted its unsubstantiated allegations (which is all a complaint is supposed to be) and allowed it to find and present that evidence. At the same time, this is how much litigation works since Twiqbal--a state of affairs about which Civ Pro scholars have been complaining for almost 15 years.

5) I liked Judge Brann putting citations in footnotes, a practice I am surprised has not caught on more (some judges on the 5th and 6th Circuits do this). On that note, check out footnote 80, sure to go down in history as the new footnote 4.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 22, 2020 at 10:47 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Repeating other's thoughts

As I wrote yesterday, I have not been able to organize my thoughts on everything going on. Fortunately, I agree with everything Benjamin Wittes says at Lawfare.

Meanwhile, we can have fun with hearsay and those who did not pay attention in class:

The Trump campaign also sought to temporarily stop counting some ballots in Detroit. It cited a GOP poll watcher who had said she had been told by an unidentified person that late mail ballots were being predated to before Election Day, so they would be considered valid.

The judge repeatedly asserted this was hearsay, but Trump campaign lawyer Thor Hearne sought to argue that it wasn’t — despite it having been someone who said they heard about something they weren’t personally involved in. He pointed to a vague note the poll watcher produced — which said “entered receive date as 11/2/20 on 11/4/20” — as evidence:

STEPHENS: So I want to make sure I understand you. The affiant is not the person who had knowledge of this. Is that correct?
HEARNE: The affiant had direct firsthand knowledge of the communication with the elections inspector and the document they provided them.
STEPHENS: Okay, which is generally known as hearsay, right?
HEARNE: I would not think that’s hearsay, Your Honor. That’s firsthand personal knowledge by the affiant of what she physically observed. And we included an exhibit which is a physical copy of the note that she was provided.

The two later returned to the point, after Stephens reviewed the note, and Stephens echoed Judge Diamond’s exasperation:

STEPHENS: I’m still trying to understand why this isn’t hearsay.
HEARNE: Well, it’s, it, I –
STEPHENS: I absolutely understand what the affiant says she heard someone say to her. But the truth of the matter … that you’re going for was that there was an illegal act occurring. Because other than that I don’t know what its relevancy is.
HEARNE: Right. I would say, Your Honor, in terms of the hearsay point, this is a firsthand factual statement made by Ms. Connarn, and she has made that statement based on her own firsthand physical evidence and knowledge --
STEPHENS: “I heard somebody else say something.” Tell me why that’s not hearsay. Come on, now.
HEARNE: Well it’s a firsthand statement of her physical –
STEPHENS: It’s an out-of-court statement offered where the truth of the matter is [at-issue], right?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 11, 2020 at 04:47 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Annual sports election predictors

I have thoughts on the election, but too jumbled to and disorganized to write in detail. I began with mixed feelings--thrilled that Biden had won, crushed that he will face a GOP Senate that will undermine his presidency at every turn (has any President gone a full term without appointing one judge?). I am concerned and (mostly) surprised that so many GOP officials have gotten on board and are amplifying Trump's nonsense. This allows the Senate to bolster its planned obstruction with a "stolen election" narrative--Biden is an illegitimate president not because people voted against Trump rather than for Biden, but because Biden "won" only because of fraud. The Senate thus does its patriotic duty by not cooperating with this illegitimate official until he can be voted out of office.

So let's look at something lighter: How sports predicted the election.

World Series Was Right: The NL's Dodgers won the World Series, which has meant a Democratic President in 18 of the past 29 elections, 13 of the 19 since the end of World War II, and 5 out of 6 since 2000.

Washington NFL Team Was Wrong: The Washington Professional Football team won its final home game before the election, beating the Dallas Cowboys 25-3 on Sunday, which has predicted the incumbent party retaining the White House in 17 of 21 elections (although wrong the last three). Ironically, Washington beat the team owned by Jerry Jones, Trump's closest friend and political ally among NFL owners and, stories suggest, a big reason why the league reacted as it did to Colin Kaepernick.

Harvard-Yale Will Not Play: The other presidential-election year they did not play was 1944, when a Democrat won.

Ending Sports Droughts: I wrote that this tends to favor Republicans. I am not sure how to categorize this year's election. The Dodgers won their first World Series in 32 years, but I am not sure if that qualifies as historically long when we have almost 120 years of World Series and this is an historic franchise winning its six World championship.

One City/Multiple Champions: The Series had one unique piece of intrigue--the winner would give its city a second 2020 championship. The Dodgers gave Los Angeles its second title, following the Lakers winning the NBA championship. Had the Rays won, they would have given Tampa its second title, following the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup. So this got me thinking about correlations between presidential elections and single-city/multiple-champions. Prior to this year, this had happened in seven presidential elections dating to 1927. The Republican prevailed in six (Hoover in 1928, Eisenhower in 1952, Eisenhower in 1956, H.W. Bush in 1988, W. in 2000,* and W. in 2004), the Democrat in one (Truman in 1948). Biden makes it GOP in 6 out of 8.

[*] The  Yankees won the World Series while the Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup. Whether to count this depends on how we regard New Jersey sports teams. I leave that question for others.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 10, 2020 at 08:58 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics, Sports | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, October 25, 2020

"Zombie statutes," non-universality, and judicial departmentalism

The opening paragraph of this Fifth Circuit opinion by Judge Costa accurately describes judicial review (H/T: Josh Blackman):

It is often said that courts “strike down” laws when ruling them unconstitutional. That’s not quite right. See Jonathan F. Mitchell, The Writ-of-Erasure Fallacy, 104 VA.L.REV. 933, 936 (2018). Courts hold laws unenforceable; they do not erase them. Id. Many laws that are plainly unconstitutional remain on the statute books. Jim Crow-era segregation laws are one example. See Gabriel J. Chin et al., Still on the Books: Jim Crow and Segregation Laws Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education, 2006 MICH.ST.L.REV. 457 (highlighting the segregationist laws still present in the codes of several states); see also Josh Blackman, The Irrepressible Myth of Cooper v. Aaron, 107 GEO.L.J. 1135, 1199 (2019) (noting that the Texas law criminalizing sodomy at issue in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), remains in the state code).

The opinion deals with what Costa calls "zombie statutes"--laws in one state that remain on the books but are unenforceable (at least judicially, more on that below) in light of SCOTUS precedent declaring an identical law from a different state invalid. The challenge here was to a Houston ordinance requiring initiative/petition circulators to be registered voters; SCOTUS in Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation declared an identical Colorado law to violate the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit held that the plaintiffs had standing and that the case was not moot--there was sufficient threat of enforcement despite Buckley and the city's addition of an Editor's Note to its code--stating that it would accept petitions from non-registered voters and provided a form for such petitions--was not sufficient to moot the case.

This "zombie law" concept is interesting. I wish I had it in front of me (or had thought of the term myself) when writing about the link between non-universality and judicial departmentalism. Because those concepts inform what makes a zombie law.

Because of non-universality, the concept should not be limited to the situation at hand--State B's law is a zombie because of a decision involving State A's law. State B's law can be a zombie because of a decision involving that law as to non-parties to the prior litigation. It also means we could have federal zombie laws. The point is the same in all--the prior judgment spoke to the challenged law and the involved party, not to any other law or any other party.

Because of judicial departmentalism, it is arguably unfair to call any law a zombie law. Because if the government believes, in its independent judgment, that the law is constitutionally valid, it acts within the full scope of its constitutional power in enacting or enforcing it, regardless of contrary precedent. In that sense, the law is alive and enforceable. On the other hand, maybe zombie is the right term because the laws are undead--they are alive in remaining on the books and in remaining enforceable by a departmentalism government, but the actual or threatened enforcement is DOA in court, where SCOTUS precedent binds and determines the outcome. On a third hand, maybe we need distinct terms to capture distinct concepts--law on the books but no intention to enforce v. law on the books with intention to enforce--rather than lumping everything as a zombie.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 25, 2020 at 11:56 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Declaratory judgment of protected speech

ElDfrdHUcAEQYGkThe Lincoln Project erected these billboards in Times Square, suggesting lack of concern about COVID by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Attorney Marc Kasowitz sent the Lincoln Project a two-paragraph letter stating the billboards are "an outrageous and shameful libel" and that if they "are not immediately removed, we will sue you for what will doubtless be enormous compensatory and punitive damages."

Needless to say, the statements on the billboard are not libelous, regardless of whether they are outrageous or shameful. And it is doubtful that Javanka will recover compensatory and punitive damages, let alone enormous ones. The billboards imply callous disregard for COVID deaths, which is non-actionable opinion. The quotation from Jared comes from a Vanity Fair article about the administration's COVID response. The full statement is that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did not do enough to get PPE, so "his people are going to suffer and that's their problem." It is at least ambiguous whether "their" refers to Cuomo or "his people" (meaning New Yorkers); so even if it leaves a false impression, it does not rise to actual malice. The juxtaposition of their photos with body bags and death tolls is hyperbole. And, again, these are government officials.

Anyway, this letter is no different from the many bumptious letters that President Trump and other Republicans send to their human and bovine critics over plainly protected speech. They often give attorneys a chance to wave the banner of the First Amendment in their responses. But Popehat views these letters as a genuine threat to free speech when in furtherance of "abusively frivolous" defamation claims (which this letter is). So he offers a proposal:  The "'That's Not Defamation' Declaratory Relief Act:"

Under the statute, the Lincoln Project could send a demand to Kasowitz and the Kushners to withdraw the threat. If they don’t withdraw the threat, Lincoln Project can sue under the statute seeking a declaration that the speech is not defamatory. They can bring the equivalent of an anti-SLAPP motion immediately. If they prevail, they get an order that the speech is not defamatory ....AND they get attorney fees collectible from (this is key) either the Kushners or Kasowitz. If the judge finds the threat was frivolous, he or she can impose penalties on top of the fees. Would make legal threats have consequences.

White views attorneys as a big part of the problem. We expect people who believe they have been wronged to be angry and to lash out. We perhaps should expect more restraint from public officials and in the past we got it, but the human reaction is understandable. Attorneys are supposed to understand the law, to recognize the difference between hurt feelings and actionable defamation, and to talk their clients off the ledge, especially from throwing around money and power. An attorney who sends a letter such as this does the opposite; indeed, he exacerbates those money-and-power imbalances.

A declaratory judgment of protectedness is theoretically available under the current Declaratory Judgment Act, but defendants do not avail themselves of the option. Likely because most such letters are empty threats (Donald Trump has yet to sue over 2016 reporting of sexual-assault allegations) and the defendant's prefer avoid litigation, especially because attorney's fees are not recoverable under the current law. White's proposal makes the attorney demand part of the game.

There is an interesting Fed Courts angle to this. Under Skelly Oil, an action seeking a declaration that speech is constitutionally protected/non-defamatory does not arise under federal law, because the underlying enforcement action (a defamation suit) would not arise under federal law. It could only reach federal court on diversity. So if White wants these cases in federal court, the statute should include a jurisdictional grant that does not rely on the Well Pleaded Complaint Rule.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 24, 2020 at 12:51 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, October 16, 2020

Prawfs' moment in the sun

One drawback to paying zero attention to the Barrett confirmation hearings: I missed that Barrett did a guest stint here in March 2008 (I was doing a semester-long guest stint at that time that led to Dan inviting me here permanently). Her six posts are listed among her "Opinion, Editorals, and Letters" section in her CRS bio. One post, about potential retroactivity problems in eliminating the crack/powder distinction, was the subject of an exchange with Sen. Booker; Booker asked why she did not discuss the injustice of the distinction--a stupid question justifying the amount of attention I devoted to the hearing. (H/T: Josh Blackman, who pays more attention than I do). (If you want to subject yourself to it, it is around the 7:17:00 mark).

Booker described us as a "well-known legal academic" blog, which is nice. Barrett called us "LawPrawfsBlawg." Oh, well.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 16, 2020 at 08:16 AM in Blogging, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Impementing SCOTUS term limits

I missed the introduction of this bill last week, which Eric Segall discusses. It provides for appointments in the first and third year of a presidential term. It also provides that the Senate shall be deemed to have waived its advice-and-consent authority if it does not act on a nomination within 120 days of the appointment and the nominee shall be confirmed. This is cute, designed to prevent the McConnell move of sitting on a nomination, although it does not stop a determined Senate majority of one party from blocking everyone a President of the other party nominates. I have seen other proposals for a statute or Senate rule that failure to confirm within a certain time shall be deemed confirmation.

The bill does not make the Balkin move of giving senior justices specific SCOTUS-related responsibilities. But current Justices are not required to retire from "regular active service," so there are no problems of changing the tenure of sitting Justices. But appointments will begin upon passage, with new appointees serving as active Justices for 18 years. Presumably, the Court will expand until current Justices retire.

But this creates some strange Court dynamics as the new system takes effect. Justice Srinivasan appointed under this law in 2021 would be active until 2039, then forced into senior service. Meanwhile, in 2039, six current Justices (seven if you include Barrett) would be in their early 80s or younger and likely still wanting to remain active. A big chunk of the current Court would form a "core" that might continue for another 30 years, while an "outer" Court changes around them. The demand for incrementalism due to non-retroactivity creates some difficulties.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 7, 2020 at 07:05 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Balkin solves the 18-year conundrum

Proponents of 18-year terms with regularized appointments biennial conflict over a procedural problem: Whether it can be done by statute without changing the nature of the position for current justices. Requiring a Justice to assume "senior" status and changing the nature of the job--no longer hearing SCOTUS cases--is arguably inconsistent with the life tenure that came with the original appointment.

Jack Balkin has solved the problem with an expansion of past proposals and his argument in his new book. Under Balkin's proposal, all Justices remain active until they leave the Court. Instead, Congress changes how the Court hears cases. Original-jurisdiction cases are heard en banc and all Justices decide cert. petitions.  But appellate-jurisdiction cases (i.e., all but one or two cases each year) are heard by a panel consisting of the nine junior-most Justices. More-senior Justices fill-in (in reverse seniority) if there is a recusal or vacancy among the 9-Justice panel and can sit on courts of appeals.

There should be no question that this can be done through ordinary legislation, because it does not change the job description. Rather, it changes the responsibilities of each Justice, akin to requiring circuit-riding that dates to the founding, and how the Court hears cases, unquestionably within Congress' power to structure and organize the Court.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 6, 2020 at 12:31 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, October 05, 2020

Thomas and Alito defend Kim Davis

SCOTUS denied cert in Davis v. Ermold, which held that Kim Davis did not enjoy qualified immunity in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it offends her religious beliefs. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, issued a cri du ceour respecting the denial of cert., lambasting Obergfell as creating a "novel constitutional right" having "ruinous consequences for religious liberty."

Three things.

First, Thomas proceeds as if Smith no longer is good law and that the First Amendment demands an opt-out from a generally applicable law or satisfaction of strict scrutiny. He cites Smith in a footnote, but to argue that Obergefell is more illegitimate because not done through the legislative process. This seems disingenuous. I doubt that if Kentucky had legalized SSM by statute with no religious accommodation, Thomas would be more willing to accept those ruinous consequences for religious liberty.

Second, I am waiting for a good argument for why having issue licenses to same-sex couples is more a violation of religious liberty than having to issue licenses to inter-racial couples or inter-faith couples. All can be, and have been, subject to religiously based objections by some people. Would Thomas be staking out this position if someone denied a marriage license to Noah Cohen and Mary-Margaret O'Reilly?

Third, whatever one believes about a private baker or photographer, it should not extend to a government official performing her official functions. Her job as a public employee is to carry out the law. If that law offends her religious or other sensibilities, then she should quit. We would not allow someone to enlist in the Army and then refuse to fight in a war; we would not allow an atheist police officer to refuse to conduct traffic at a church. There is no reason to allow a clerk to refuse to issue a marriage license.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 5, 2020 at 02:45 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Bad legal reporting yields bad legal takes

Over the weekend, media outlets reported that a federal judge had removed or ousted William Pendley Perry as acting director or as person functioning as director of BLM. This prompted ALittleRebellion to make Bad Legal Takes for insisting that "no judge has the power to remove any executive appointee." In fairness, he may have made it more for further insisting that Perry "must ignore any such diktats," a screed about constitutional determinations under Article V, and a later insistence that "advice and consent" does not mean approval, just informal consultation.

But this tweeter's basic point--judges cannot remove executive appointees--is correct. Fortunately, the judge did not remove an executive appointee. The court declared that Perry was serving in the role in violation of federal law, enjoined him from continuing to act in that capacity because any conduct in the office is unlawful, and asked the parties to identify actions that may be invalid because enacted by someone unlawfully serving a role. All of which is what judges have the power to do and are expected to do in resoling cases and controversies. The problem--that long predates the rise of Twitter Law--is that much of the mainstream media does an awful job of covering courts and judicial processes, resulting in in fundamentally inaccurate reporting and information such as this. Which the uninformed of Twitter Law can run with as proof of an out-of-control judiciary with power-abusing judges who must be stopped.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 29, 2020 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink | Comments (7)