Tag: amicus briefs

A Grimm Proceeding

On Tuesday — you may have missed this because of some political developments that day — the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  This case is a First Amendment challenge to a California law that prohibits selling violent video games to minors. 

Cato had filed a brief pointing out that, to paraphrase the Four Tops, it’s just the same ol’ song, but with a different meaning whenever a new form of entertainment comes along.  In other words, it is difficult to find any form of entertainment that did not once suffer the ire of parents’ groups, smoldering church bonfires, and would-be government protectors of children. From the Brothers Grimm, to “penny dreadful” novels, to comic books, to movies, to video games, each new entertainment medium was said to achieve innovative levels of mind control that corrupted children with flashing pictures, bright colors, or suggestive mental imagery.  

And it seems like the justices were listening.

Throughout a lively oral argument that primarily dealt with the vagueness of trying to define a “violent video game,” justices and counsel consistently discussed the rogues gallery of past entertainment industries that were said to corrupt our children. At one point Justice Scalia asked California’s attorney what “deviant violence” is, to which the attorney responded, “deviant would be departing from established norms.” Scalia asked incredulously, “There are established norms of violence?” The attorney began to say “Well, if we look back…” before Scalia cut him off with, “Some of the Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.” When California’s attorney said he would not advocate banning Grimm’s fairy tales, Justice Ginsburg came back, asking, “What’s the difference?…[I]f you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales?”

Later in the argument, Paul Smith, attorney for the Entertainment Merchants Association, referenced Cato’s argument: “We do have a new medium here, Your Honor, but we have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals.”

Granted, these arguments could have been raised even without Cato’s brief, but exchanges like these demonstrate the value of amicus briefs. Along with novel legal arguments, they can supply the Court with historical, statistical, sociological, and other information that is relevant to deciding the case.

You can read the argument transcript here and the audio will be available tomorrow at this site.  Thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his continuing work on this case (including with this blogpost).

Court Enforces Secrecy about Constitutional Abuses

The purpose of filing amicus briefs is to bring to courts’ attention certain supplemental arguments or relevant facts that go beyond those which the parties present.  It is also to show that a particular group – ranging from policy activists and think tanks to industry groups to ad hoc collections of academics to companies and organizations  that would be directly affected by the case – has a particular interest in a case, as well as educating the public about important issues.  Cato files its briefs for all these reasons, and we’ve found them to be an effective method of spreading our message, both in court and in the “court of public opinion.”

Now, imagine if, after filing a brief, you discover that the court has “sealed” it – meaning removed it from public view or access – precisely because your goal “is clearly to discuss in public [your] agenda.”  As Adam Liptak describes in a troubling New York Times column today, that’s the situation facing our friends at the Institute for Justice and Reason Foundation in a case before the Tenth Circuit (the federal appellate court based in Denver).

I won’t regurgitate the column here, but suffice it to say that the IJ/Reason brief shines a spotlight on various abuses by the Kansas U.S. attorney office, and supports a case in which the federal district court in Topeka has come down hard on an activist who thinks the government is too aggressive in prosecuting doctors who prescribe pain medications.  As my friend and IJ lawyer Paul Sherman is quoted as saying, “It’s a profound problem.  We want to bring attention to important First Amendment issues but cannot share the brief that most forcefully makes those arguments.”

Read the whole thing.

Anti-Obamacare Rulings a Trend or Just Coincidence?

I’m fond of saying that lawsuits don’t proceed at Internet speed – meaning that people are disappointed when I tell them that a new constitutional challenge to uphold property rights or free speech or individual liberty generally will take years to get through the courts, or that we’ll have to wait several months for a court to issue an opinion in some front-page case.  But lately it does seem that developments from the ongoing legal challenges to Obamacare are coming faster and faster, as if the train has now left the station and, to badly mix metaphors, it’s snowballing to an eventual collision at the Supreme Court.

That “gaining speed” phenomenon is mainly coincidence – given the more than 20 Obamacare lawsuits out there, briefing schedules, hearings, and rulings are bound to overlap at some point – but it has been interesting to compare and contrast the events of the last 10 days.  To recap some of the high points, this summer Judge Henry Hudson denied the government’s motion to dismiss Virginia’s law suit (read my comments here and Cato’s brief here).  Then two weeks ago, Judge George Steeh granted a similar motion in a case brought by the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan – in a cursory opinion I react to here and critique in this op-ed.

Last Thursday, Judge Roger Vinson issued a 65-page opinion allowing most of the lawsuit brought by 20 states, the National Federation of Independent Business, and two individuals to proceed (my reaction here).   This is an important ruling spelling out the unprecedented nature of the power Congress purports to assert here, with the individual mandate of course but also in potentially commandeering state officials and coercing them with strings attached to Medicaid funds and other regulatory burdens.

Finally, yesterday Judge Hudson held a hearing in Richmond on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment – which means both sides agree that no material facts are in dispute and the court should go ahead and rule on the law without having a trial.  (Cato filed a brief for this stage of proceedings as well.)  By all accounts, the hearing went well for Virginia; Judge Hudson was skeptical of the government’s argument that individual decisions not to enter the insurance marketplace was the sort of “local economic activity that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce” that the Supreme Court has said marks the outer bounds of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.  The judge also indicated that he would issue an opinion by the end of the year.

This is all heartening news – the courts that are seriously grappling with these lawsuits (and especially the highest profile cases brought by the 21 states) actually think the Constitution places limits on federal power.  Then again, I can’t believe that question is even up for discussion!  Stay tuned – and keep track of all the lawsuits at healthcarelawsuits.org.

If Only Hawaii’s Government Were as Beautiful as Its Beaches

Throughout history, people have fought over beaches, including in the legal arena. In the latest case in which Cato has filed an amicus brief, a state has once again redefined property rights to take possession of highly-valued beachfront property.

In 2003, Hawaii passed Act 73, which took past and future title to accretions (the slow build-up of sediment on beaches) from landowners and gave it to the State, changing a 120-year-old rule. While waterlines are unpredictable, the original rule — common to most waterfront jurisdictions — helped establish legal consistency. Indeed, without such a rule, beachfront property becomes beachview property in just a few years.

In response to Act 73, homeowners sued the state, claiming that the law violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment or, in the alternative, the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The state appellate court held that compensation was owed only for the accretions that had accumulated before Act 73’s enactment because the right to subsequent accretions had not “vested” (the legal term for when an expectation becomes an actual property right). Hawaii’s Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, so the property owners asked the U.S. Supreme Court to do so.

Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation, filed a brief supporting that petition and argues that the appellate court’s decision was contrary to long-standing definitions of waterfront property rights. Our brief highlights the increasing need for the Court to establish and enforce a judicial takings doctrine.

More and more states are using backdoor tricks — like legislative “guidelines” and judicial creativity — to take property in violation of constitutional rights: This Hawaii case is distressingly similar to last term’s Stop the Beach (in which Cato also filed a brief). In that case, Florida took property by adding sand to the beach and then laying claim to the newly created land — in essence asserting that property that was defined by contact with the water (in technical terms, “littoral” or “riparian”) had no right to contact the water. The Court ruled that while Florida’s actions did not rise to the level of a judicial taking, a large enough departure from established common-law rules could constitute a constitutional violation.

In this latest brief, we highlight both the largeness of Hawaii’s departure from established law and the spate of such actions in recent years — which circumstance calls out for Supreme Court review.  The case is Maunalua Bay Beach Ohana 28 v. Hawaii and the Court will decide later this fall whether to take it up.

Yes, Virginia, Congress Is Not Santa Claus and Is Bound by the Constitution

The legal battle against Obamacare continues. In June, a district court in Richmond denied the government’s motion to dismiss Virginia’s lawsuit (in opposition to which Cato filed a brief).  Despite catcalls from congressmen and commentators alike, it seems that there is, after all, a cogent argument that Obamacare is unconstitutional!  

Having survived dismissal, both sides filed cross motions for summary judgment—meaning that no material facts are in dispute and each side believes it should win on the law.  Supporting Virginia’s motion and opposing the government’s, Cato, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, expands in a new brief its argument that Congress has gone beyond its delegated powers in requiring that individuals purchase health insurance.

Even the cases that have previously upheld expansive federal power do not justify the ability to mandate that individuals buy a product from a private business.  Those cases still involved people that were doing something—growing wheat, running a hotel, cultivating medical marijuana.  The individual mandate, however, asserts authority over citizens that have done nothing; they’re merely declining to purchase health insurance.  This regulation of inactivity cannot find a constitutional warrant in either the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, or Congress’s taxing power.  Such legislation is not “necessary” to regulating interstate commerce in that it violates the Supreme Court’s distinction between economic activity (which often falls under congressional power as currently interpreted) and non-economic activity (which, to date, never has), it is not “proper” in that it commandeers citizens into an undesired economic transaction.  

Finally, the taxing power claim is a red herring: (a) neither the mandate nor the penalty for not complying with the mandate is a tax, and is not described as such anywhere in the legislation; (b) even if deemed a tax, it’s an unconstitutional one because it’s neither apportioned (if a direct tax) nor uniform (if an excise); (c) Congress cannot use the taxing power to enforce a regulation of commerce that is not authorized elsewhere in the Constitution.

The district court will hear arguments on the cross-motions for summary judgment in Virginia v. Sebelius later this month and we can expect a ruling by the end of the year. 

Obamacare delenda est.

Another New Supreme Court Term, Another New Justice

Today is the first Monday in October, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term.  While we have yet to see as many blockbuster constitutional cases on the docket as we did last term—which, despite the high profile 5-4 splits in McDonald v. Chicago and Citizens United actually produced fewer dissents than any in recent memory—we do look forward to:

  • Two big free speech challenges, one over a statute prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, another the offensive protesting of a fallen soldier’s funeral;
  • An Establishment Clause lawsuit against Arizona’s tax credit for private tuition funds (an alternative to educational voucher programs);
  • Regulatory federalism (or “preemption”) cases involving:
    • safety standards for seatbelts;
    • an Arizona statute regarding the hiring of illegal aliens; and
    • the forbidding of class-arbitration waivers as unconscionable components of arbitration agreements;
  • Important ERISA and copyright cases;
  • A case examining privacy concerns attending the federal government’s background checks for contractors; and
  • A criminal procedure dispute regarding access to DNA testing that may support a claim of innocence.

Cato has filed amicus briefs in several of these cases—and in various others which the Court may decide to review later this year—so I will be paying extra-close attention.

Perhaps more importantly, we again have a new justice—and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court.  While her confirmation was never in any serious doubt, Elena Kagan faced strong criticism (including from me) on a variety of issues—most importantly on her refusal to “grade” past Court decisions or identify any specific limits to government power.  The 37 votes against Kagan were the most ever for a successful Democratic nominee, which is emblematic of a turbulent political environment in which the Constitution and the basic question of where government derives its power figure prominently.  

Given Kagan’s political and professional background, it is safe to assume that she’s not the second coming of Clarence Thomas.  And because she replaces the “liberal lion” Justice Stevens, her elevation from “tenth justice” (as the solicitor general is known) to ninth is unlikely to cause an immediate change in issues that most divide the Court—particularly because she is recused from nearly half the cases this term.  She could, however, add an interesting and nuanced perspective on a variety of lower-profile issues.  Only time will tell what kind of justice Kagan will be now that she is, seemingly for the first time in her ambitious life, unconstrained to speak her mind.

Here’s to another interesting, varied, and (hopefully) liberty-enhancing year!

Liberty Wins First Skirmish in the Obamacare Legal Battle

As Michael already noted, Judge Henry Hudson of the Eastern District of Virginia denied the government’s motion to dismiss Virginia’s legal challenge to Obamacare.  Notably, Judge Hudson agreed with Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett (see here, here, and here) that the government’s assertion of Commerce Clause authority for the individual mandate is unprecedented:

The guiding precedent is informative, but inconclusive. Never before has the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause been extended this far. At this juncture, the court is not persuaded that the Secretary has demonstrated a failure to state a cause of action with respect to the Commerce Clause element.

And that goes for the government’s arguments generally:

While this case raises a host of complex constitutional issues, all seem to distill to the single question of whether or not Congress has the power to regulate–and tax–a citizen’s decision not to participate in interstate commerce. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor any circuit court of appeals has squarely addressed this issue. No reported case from any federal appellate court has extended the Commerce Clause or Tax Clause to include the regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, notwithstanding its effect on interstate commerce. Give the presence of some authority arguably supporting the theory underlying each side’s position, this Court cannot conclude at this time stage that the Complaint fails to state a cause of action.

In other words, at this first, early stage of litigation, Virginia’s lawsuit survives and the government has a real fight on its hands.  Read the whole opinion here

Now, this ruling does not decide the merits of the case and is not binding on any other court in any of the other Obamacare lawsuits – on Friday, for instance, Florida is due to file its brief opposing the government’s motion to dismiss the 20-state suit – but it is a beachhead in the fight against big government.  Judge Hudson’s opinion should finally silence those who maintain that the legal challenges to Obamacare are frivolous political ploys or sour grapes. The constitutional defects in the healthcare “reform” are very real and quite serious. Never before has the government claimed the authority to force every man, woman, and child to buy a particular product - and indeed such authority does not exist (as Cato’s amicus brief argued).

I look forward to further favorable rulings as the various lawsuits progress.  For further commentary, see Ilya Somin, Josh Blackman, and Hans Bader.