Tag: amicus briefs

Fifth Circuit Disobeyed Supreme Court in Allowing Racial Preferences at UT-Austin

Last year, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to the use of racial preferences in university admissions by reversing a Fifth Circuit panel opinion that had allows the use of race in UT-Austin’s admissions policy. That wasn’t the end of the story, however; after holding that the university bears the burden of proving that its use of racial preferences is necessary and narrowly tailored—a point on which university administrators are due no deference—the Court remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether UT had offered evidence sufficient to prove that its use of race was “narrowly tailored to achieving the educational benefits” of diversity. 

Recall that UT-Austin’s admissions program fills most of its spots through a race-neutral Top Ten Percent Plan—which offers admission to high school graduates in the top ten percent of their class—then fills the remaining seats with a “holistic” rating that takes into account various factors typical to admissions programs (including race for certain preferred minorities).

Well, on remand, the Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 but once again sided with the university, holding that even if the Top Ten Percent Plan already provided a “critical mass” of minority students, the use of racial preferences was necessary to achieve some other special kind of diversity.  The dissenting opinion by Judge Emilio Garza points out how the majority has deferred, once again, to the university’s hand-waving claim that its use of racial preferences is narrowly tailored to an actual, appropriate interest, without having actually proven anything approaching what is constitutionally required. 

Abigail Fisher, the white former applicant suing UT-Austin, has asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case. Cato has filed a brief supporting that petition. 

In our brief, we argue that the Fifth Circuit panel failed to apply actual, deference-free strict scrutiny, failed to require the university to define the “critical mass” its race-based policy is intended to achieve, and failed to require the university to explain with particularity why race-blind measures wouldn’t be able to achieve its interests. Rather than require that UT-Austin even roughly define what quanta of black and Hispanic students is necessary to further its diversity goals–a particularly meaningful task given the significant black and Hispanic presence on campus resulting from the Top Ten plan–the university was allowed to skate on vacuous platitudes about “critical masses,” “tipping points,” “upper bands,” and the like. But if interests so vacuous they read like a parody of a Thomas Friedman column were all that strict scrutiny required, why would the Supreme Court have even bothered taking up the Fisher case?

The constitutional laziness and deference the panel majority showed is striking.  The Fifth Circuit should hear this case en banc and correct the errors made by the panel majority, which contradict circuit precedent in various ways.

Further background and Cato’s previous filings in the case are available here.

The Right to Own Includes the Right to Rent Out

Since 2005, the city of Winona, MN will not grant rental licenses to property owners if more than 30 percent of the lots on their block already have rental licenses (the 30% “rule”). The rule contains a “grandfather clause,” however, that allows property owners who had licenses prior to the rule to continue renting even if their block has already reached the 30 percent threshold. Therefore, many blocks in the city violate the rule, which the Minnesota Supreme Court is now reviewing.

Cato has filed an amicus brief, joined by the Minnesota Free Market Institute at the Center of the American Experiment, supporting the property owners challenging the rule. We argue that the rule is an arbitrary, inefficient, and unconstitutional restraint on an essential and fundamental property right because it strips property owners of their right to manage and enjoy their property at the result of actions of their neighbors. The rule also damages communities by reducing property values and creating inefficiencies in the local economy and housing market without a substantial government interest.

First, the rule is a significant intrusion into the fundamental rights of residential property owners because it denies the right to rent—one of the three principal ways to use a property—and significantly limits the right to sell. In addition, since the rule restricts fundamental rights, it needs to be tailored to achieve a legitimate government interest to be held valid—but the rule is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.

Second, the right to rent is too important to restrict with an arbitrary limit on rental licenses. The rule isn’t an effective way to protect “community character”—its purpose according to the city—especially given the fact that the law has many exceptions and is applied arbitrarily. For example, the rule favors currently licensed property owners and encourages them to add rental properties to their lots, thereby defeating the asserted goal of avoiding rental clustering. Finally, the rule harms communities by artificially depressing property values and increasing the probability of vacancy. It further fails to rationally address the city’s other concerns. For example, one of the rule’s ostensible purposes is to reduce student-housing-related nuisance complaints, but it still allows large groups of students to live together in “theme houses.”

For these reasons, the Minnesota high court should reverse the lower courts’ ruling and protect the full constitutional rights of Minnesota property owners.

(Full disclosure: My condo building established a similar rule a few years ago because, due to federal regulation, it’s hard to get lenders to approve mortgages to finance purchases in buildings with a high rental quotient. Because I’m one of the original owners in my 7-year-old building, my unit is grandfathered in—except the condo board is now trying to apply the rental cap even to owners who predate the rule. It hasn’t come to litigation yet and the issue here is contractual rather than constitutional or statutory—and I don’t plan to rent out my place any time soon—but this episode just reinforced for me the practical importance of the high-fallutin’ principles Cato defends.)

Magna Carta and Constitutional Criminal Procedure

In United States v. Booker (2005), the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment prohibits a judge from sentencing a convicted defendant to a prison term exceeding the law’s maximum penalty for the crime committed, unless additional aggravating facts are found by the jury (or admitted by the defendant). The Court also held that all sentences must be reasonable.

In a subsequent case, Justice Scalia issued a concurrence in which he expressed concern about situations in which judges issue sentences below the statutory maximum, but which would only be reasonable in light of additional facts found solely by the judge. He proposed an “as-applied” doctrine, in which the reviewing court asks whether the sentence would be reasonable as applied to only those facts that were found by the jury.

The situation that Justice Scalia feared has now become manifest for three criminal defendants who were all convicted of selling small quantities of drugs but acquitted of conspiracy charges relating to the distribution of much larger quantities. Despite the acquittals, all three defendants received sentences four times greater than any other defendant convicted of the same crimes in the post-Booker era using the guidelines issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The defendants argue—and no prosecutor or judge has disputed—that their sentences would not be deemed reasonable without consideration of the additional evidence of conspiracy. In reviewing the sentences, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit adhered to settled precedent and declined to adopt the as-applied doctrine, and so the defendants seek to further appeal their sentences to the Supreme Court and finally resolve the question, under the Sixth Amendment, of whether a judge can base a sentence on facts that the jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt.

In an amicus brief supporting that petition, the Cato Institute, joined by the Rutherford Institute, argues that the Sixth Amendment prohibits the increased sentencing of defendants based solely on judge-found facts of the crime, regardless of whether the final sentence remains below the statutory maximum. The defendants’ constitutional right to a jury trial can be traced back to Article 39 of the Magna Carta, which is also the historical origin of the Constitution’s prohibition on ex post facto, or retrospective, criminal laws.

Article 39 reflected a deep concern that the government would undermine the jury’s role and imprison defendants without the input of their peers. Given the status of sentencing guidelines as “law” for purposes of the Ex Post Facto Clause, the Sixth Amendment should extend to the defendant’s right to the “lawful judgment of his peers,” meaning that a judge can only render a sentence based on the jury’s factual findings. 

In other words, if it’s unconstitutional to sentence a defendant based on rules issued after he commits the purported crime, it must be unconstitutional to sentence a defendant without the input of his peers.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Jones v. United States when it comes back from its summer recess.

Marriage Equality in Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee

Having filed amicus briefs in Hollingsworth v. Perry (California’s Prop 8), United States v. Windsor (Defense of Marriage Act), and the cases involving the marriage laws of Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Tenth and Fourth Circuits, respectively, Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed briefs in three marriage-related cases now before the Sixth Circuit. DeBoer v. Snyder questions Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Tanco v. Haslem challenges Tennessee’s non-recognition of same-sex marriages, while Bourke v. Beshear does the same in Kentucky. 

DeBoer was originally filed to similarly challenge Michigan’s non-recognition of same-sex marriages, but was later amended to attack the underlying issue of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage all-told. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Windsor (striking down part of DOMA), the DeBoar district court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor. The district court in Bourke then ruled in favor of two couples and their respective children; Kentucky’s attorney general had refused to defend the non-recognition law, so the governor hired outside counsel. Finally, in Tanco, decided this past March, three Tennessee couples were also successful in court. The Sixth Circuit stayed all three rulings pending its own examination of the issues presented.

The Cato-CAC position continues to be what we’ve argued all along: The Fourteenth Amendment promises the equal protection of the laws to all persons. It’s a sweeping guarantee that eliminates class-based discrimination that lacks a strong policy justification (for example, denying driver’s licenses to blind people). Though enacted in response to failures to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves, this guarantee was intended to protect the rights of all persons — as demonstrated textually by its neutral phrasing, extending its protections to “any person.” The amendment’s proponents consciously rejected race-specific language. Indeed, in introducing the amendment, Senator Jacob Howard explained that it “abolish[ed] all class legislation.” The common, public understanding was that the Fourteenth Amendment “[took] from the States the power to make class legislation and to create inequality among their people.”

Both early Supreme Court cases and modern precedent demonstrate that it was understood that the Equal Protection Clause spoke in general terms that were considered comprehensive. The equal right to marry the person of one’s choice is guaranteed by that provision. Even opponents of the Fourteenth Amendment acknowledged the fundamental nature of the right to marry. The modern Supreme Court has recognized this as well, most famously in Loving v. Virginia, as well as in Zablocki v. Redhail and elsewhere. 

Laws that prohibit or refuse to recognize same-sex couples’ marriages therefore violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. They impose badges of inferiority on persons based solely on their class and the harm extends to the children being raised by such couples. No compelling state interest is served by and no constitutionally legitimate rationale can be found in such disparate treatment. Merely invoking “tradition” can’t save a practice from constitutional prohibition — as has been shown in cases involving segregation, sodomy, and speech restrictions. The very purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to break the tradition of denying the equal protection of the laws to newly freed slaves and other disfavored groups.

The Sixth Circuit will hear argument in all these cases, along with one out of Ohio (to round out the four states that make up the Sixth Circuit) on August 6.

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Supreme Court Wasn’t Serious about the Second Amendment

While the media attention will focus on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway – the legislative-prayer case – the more interesting (and consequential) decision issued today was the Court’s denial of review in Drake v. Jerejian, the Second Amendment case I previously discussed here. In Drake, the lower federal courts upheld an outrageous New Jersey law that denies the right to bear arms outside the home for self-defense – just like the D.C. law at issue in District of Columbia v. Heller denied the right to keep arms inside the home – and today the Supreme Court let them get away with it.

Drake is but the latest in a series of cases that challenge the most restrictive state laws regarding the right to armed self-defense. Although the Supreme Court in Heller declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual constitutional right, lower federal courts with jurisdiction over states like Maryland and New York have been “willfully confused” about the scope of that right, declining to protect it outside Heller’s particular facts (a complete ban on functional firearms in the home). It’s as if the Supreme Court announced that the First Amendment protects an individual right to blog about politics from your home computer, but then some lower courts allowed states to ban political blogging from your local Starbucks.

Yet each time, the Supreme Court has denied review.

California Shouldn’t Be Able to Impose Regulations on Businesses Outside of California

One of the several failures of the Articles of Confederation was the incapacity of the central government to deal with trade disputes among the states. The Constitution resolved this problem by empowering the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. It has since become a basic principle of American federalism that a state may not regulate actions in other states or impede the interstate flow of goods based on out-of-state conduct (rather than on the features of the goods themselves).

That principle was axiomatic until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld one particular extra-territorial California regulation. California recently established a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (“LCFS”) that attempts to rate the “carbon intensity” of liquid fuels, so that carbon emissions can be reduced in the Golden State. California considers not only the carbon emissions from the fuel itself being burnt, however, but also the entire “lifetime” of the fuel, including its manufacture and transportation.

This has led to complaints from Midwestern ethanol producers, whose product—which is in all other ways identical to California-produced ethanol—being severely disadvantaged in California’s liquid fuel markets, simply because it comes from further away. Groups representing farmers and fuel manufacturers sued, arguing that the LCFS constitutes a clear violation of the Commerce Clause (the Article I federal power to regulate interstate commerce) by discriminating against interstate commerce and allowing California to regulate conduct occurring wholly outside of its borders. The Ninth Circuit recently upheld the LCFS, finding the regulation permissible because its purpose was primarily environmental and not economic protectionism (although judges dissenting from the court’s denial of rehearing pointed out that this is the wrong standard to apply).

The farmers and fuel manufacturer groups have now submitted a petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Reason Foundation, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, and the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute on an amicus brief supporting the petition.

We argue that the lower court’s ruling provides a template for other states to follow should they want to evade Supreme Court precedents barring obstruction of interstate commerce and extraterritorial regulation. As the Founders fully recognized, ensuring the free flow of commerce among the states is vital to the wellbeing of the nation, and California’s actions—and the Ninth Circuit’s endorsement of them—threaten to clog up that flow. Not only does the appellate ruling allow California to throw national fuel markets into disarray, it invites other states to destabilize interstate markets and incite domestic trade disputes—precisely the type of uncooperative behavior the Constitution was designed to prevent.

The Supreme Court will likely decide whether to take Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey before it recesses for the summer. For more on the case, see this blogpost by PLF’s Tony Francois.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.