Tag: amicus briefs

Obamacare Legal News Gone Wild

Developments in the Obamacare lawsuits are coming at us so quickly that it’s hard to keep up.  After a month and a half of speculation on what the administration would do after it lost in the 26-state/NFIB lawsuit (Florida v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services), in the last week the D.C. Circuit heard argument in yet another case on appeal, the government decided not to seek en banc review in the Eleventh Circuit, yesterday we went from zero to three cert. petitions in that case, and the government filed a reply in the Thomas More (Sixth Circuit) case.  Here’s a breakdown:

1. D.C. Circuit Argument

This past Friday, the D.C. Circuit heard the appeal of Seven-Sky v. Holder (in which Cato filed this brief).  There wasn’t much media coverage, in part because the reporting came in on a Friday afternoon but more because the appellate developments after the Eleventh Circuit created a split from the earlier pro-government Sixth Circuit ruling are somewhat anticlimactic – because the action has moved to the Supreme Court.  I attended the hearing and can report a few key points:

(a) The government still has not managed to come up with an example of something it cannot do under its reading of the Commerce Clause.  This is shocking.  Solicitor General Verrilli (who did not argue here), a word of unsolicited advice before Justice Scalia asks you the same question: come up with a couple of outlandish things and move on.  Unless, you know, you think the government really can do anything it wants if a congressional majority exists for it.

(b) Judge Bret Kavanaugh, Bush II appointee and rising star in the conservative judicial establishment, had some serious concerns regarding the Anti-Injunction Act (the jurisdictional issue on which the Fourth Circuit based its decision to dismiss the Liberty University case).  Beth Brinkmann, arguing for the government and after floundering on the Commerce Clause (see above), seemed to have done a great job in putting Kavanaugh’s mind at ease – or at least getting him over the jurisdictional hump.

(c) Judge Laurence Silberman, Reagan appointee and author of many significant opinions over the years, has a really wide interpretation of government power under Wickard v. Filburn, the 1942 wheat-farming case.  I’m not sure that puts his vote in danger – he was also the one who most went after the government – but it does raise an eyebrow.

(d) Overall, I cautiously predict a 2-1 ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, but we won’t know till later this fall.  For a more detailed analysis of the hearing, see Randy Barnett’s post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

2. No En Banc Review in the Eleventh Circuit

On Monday, the government allowed the deadline for seeking review of the Eleventh Circuit panel ruling by the full court to slip.  Commentators, including myself, had speculated that it might file for en banc review in an attempt to push the inevitable Supreme Court ruling past the 2012 election.  That didn’t happen, and here was my press statement:

En banc rehearing would have been legally futile and politically damaging, so the government made the correct decision in not seeking it. We can now expect the solicitor general to ask the Supreme Court to review the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to strike down the individual mandate while leaving the rest of Obamacare standing. The certainty that such review will provide to a nation battered by this among so many other pieces of economically harmful administration policies cannot come soon enough.

The government’s inactivity here, as it were, provoked a flurry of coverage.  I agree with the analysis that Peter Suderman put up at Reason

3. NFIB Files Cert. Petition

Early yesterday (Wednesday) morning, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individuals asked the Supreme Court to review the one issue on which they lost before the Eleventh Circuit: severability.  That is, despite the government’s concession that at least the community-rating and guaranteed-issue provisions are inextricably tied to the individual mandate, and the obvious practical observation that none of the legislation would’ve passed without the mandate, the Eeleventh Circuit reversed Judge Vinson’s ruling on this point and only struck down the mandate.  The petition also makes the point that the Eleventh Circuit case presents the best Supreme Court “vehicle” among all the lawsuits because it most cleanly presents the relevant issues and doesn’t face lingering concerns over standing.   It’s a strong and aggressively worded brief which makes for a good read.  Here was my press statement:

The NFIB’s cert petition forces the Supreme Court to grapple not simply with the individual mandate’s constitutional defects but with the fatal flaws those defects expose in the overall legislation. The regulatory burden and economic uncertainty – let alone direct financial cost – that Obamacare imposes on individuals, businesses, states, and the nation as a whole are part and parcel of a noxious scheme centered on the individual mandate. The Court should grant this petition and thus begin putting an end to the government’s doomed – and unconstitutional – attempt to control our lives.

Randy Barnett, who’s now part of the NFIB legal team (which is led by veteran appellate litigator Mike Carvin), has this useful post about the petition’s treatment of the Anti-Injunction Act.

4. 26 States File Cert. Petition

On the heels of the NFIB filing, the 26 states in the Florida-led lawsuit filed their own cert. petition yesterday.  “Time is of the essence,” lead counsel (and former solicitor general) Paul Clement argues. “States need to know whether they must adapt their policies to deal with the brave new world ushered in by the ACA.”  The petition asks the Court to review three questions:

(a) Does the threat to withhold all Medicaid funding if states don’t agree to Obamacare’s onerous new conditions on that program constitute impermissible coercion by the federal government? [The Eleventh Circuit said no.]

(b) May Congress treat states no differently from any other employer when imposing invasive mandates as to the manner in which they provide their own employees with insurance coverage?  [This is a new formulation of a claim that hasn’t gotten much attention, and focuses on the somewhat idiosyncratic 1985 Supreme Court decision in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority.]

(c) Does the individual mandate exceed federal power and, if so, can it be severed from the rest of the law?

I’ve only skimmed this petition, but it too is a hard-hitting and elegant presentation of serious issues.

5. Solicitor General Files Cert. Petition

Around lunchtime yesterday, the government filed its own cert. petition.  (The parties were all clearly playing a high-stakes game of legal chicken; once the govenment declined to pursue en banc review, the NFIB incorporated that fact into a petition that it had clearly been considering filing preemptively, its co-plaintiff states soon followed, and the government’s hand was forced to throw its petition – which had obviously also been in the final stages – into the filing cascade. Note that yesterday was not any sort of deadline for seeking Supreme Court review!) 

The new solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, of course asks the Court to address whether the individual mandate is constitutional, but also, curiously, whether the challenges are barred by the Anti-Injunction Act.  On this second point, the government argues that the AIA does not apply but asks the Court to appoint an amicus to argue that it does, effectively to defend the Fourth Circuit’s position.  This is unusual.  The SG is essentially saying that he would prefer to win on the merits but will accept a technical victory so long as he doesn’t have to argue for it.  (This accords with my prediction that the Court will either rule for the plaintiffs or find a procedural way of avoiding the merits while allowing the individual mandate to stand.)

6. Government Responds to Thomas More’s Cert. Petition

There was one actual deadline yesterday, and the government met it: It filed a response (not labeled “opposition” as is typically the case) to the cert petition in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, the case coming out of the Sixth Circuit.  As expected given its earlier filing, the government asked the Court to hold this petition pending resolution of Florida v. HHS.  There’s really nothing to this filing beyond expressing that position.

Conclusion

The day we’ve all been awaiting since President Obama signed his health care law in March 2010 – the Supreme Court’s ruling – is nigh.  Normally the parties on the other side of cert. petitions have 30 days to respond, after which the Court considers the filings, issues a cert. grant or denial (here a grant of some kind), and sets the case for argument a few months in the future to allow time for briefing on the merits.  In Florida v. HHS, however, all the parties – the government, the states, the NFIB/individual plaintiffs – are requesting cert., so I’m not sure what value they or the Court would get from responsive filings (which would be due Oct.27).  Regardless of that wrinkle, the Court is likely to grant cert. sometime in November – or in any case by the end of the year – and set argument for March or April. 

So we’re on track for a decision that glorious last week of June when the Court releases its most pressing opinions and gets the heck out of Dodge.

The President Can’t Increase Congress’s Power Simply by Signing a Treaty

A lost episode of Jerry Springer found its way into the Supreme Court’s 2010-11 term in the case of United States v. Bond. Mrs. Bond, upset by the pregnancy that resulted from an affair between her husband and her erstwhile best friend, decided to take revenge. A trained microbiologist working at a chemical manufacturer, Mrs. Bond tried to poison her husband’s mistress by dusting her door knobs, mailbox, and car handles with dangerous, possibly lethal chemicals.

Upon being caught by (federal) postal inspectors, Mrs. Bond was charged with violating the law Congress passed to implement an international chemical weapons treaty. (There are no generally applicable federal attempted murder statutes, so prosecutors had to get creative to remain in federal court.)

But if general criminal statutes are beyond Congress’s powers, as even the most ardent federal-power activist must acknowledge, how did Congress have the power to pass the law that ensnared Mrs. Bond? — who, whatever her character flaws, was not selling chemical weapons to terrorists (the treaty’s target). Mrs. Bond thus hoped to challenge her conviction by arguing that Congress did not have the power to pass the law in question.

The Third Circuit, however, ruled that she did not have standing — a legal doctrine defining who has the right to bring a claim — to challenge the law on federalism grounds. Cato filed a Supreme Court brief supporting Mrs. Bond’s position and arguing that it makes no sense to deny standing to someone challenging a law under which she is being prosecuted. The Court unanimously agreed and remanded the case back to the Third Circuit, to finally hear arguments over whether the statute is beyond congressional power.

Cato has now reentered the fray, in a brief authored by Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz and joined by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. We again support Mrs. Bond’s claim that the law under which she was charged is beyond Congress’s enumerated powers. The main obstacle to this argument is the 1920 case Missouri v. Holland, a short and not completely clear opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that has been interpreted to mean that Congress can expand its enumerated powers via the Treaty Clause.

In other words, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, its power increases beyond constitutional limits. We argue that this is an astounding manner in which to interpret a Constitution that creates a federal government of limited powers. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand congressional power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change congressional power by abrogating a previously valid treaty — thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. We also point out how the most influential argument supporting Missouri v. Holland is based on a clear misreading of constitutional history and that the ruling is in deep tension with other cases.

On the treaty power, we’re in a constitutional quagmire that can only be escaped by limiting or overturning Missouri v. Holland.  The Third Circuit can’t itself overturn a Supreme Court decision, of course, but it follows our brief, it can at least limit its damage.

Unions Can’t Force Non-Members to Pay for Political Advocacy

As recent events in Wisconsin have demonstrated, public-sector unions are powerful political constituencies that can shape government to their ends. The Service Employees International Union, for example, the defendant in Knox v. SEIU Local 1000, has been ranked by OpenSecrets.org as the fifth biggest “heavy hitter” in federal politics in terms of campaign spending.

In 2005, the SEIU initiated a mid-year campaign against two California ballot measures, one that would cap state spending and another that would restrict the use of union dues for political purposes. In states such as California that do not have “right to work” laws, unions are allowed to take dues from non-union workers to finance collective-bargaining activities that, arguably, benefit all employees.  Since 1977, however, unions have not been allowed to take dues from non-union members to pay for pure political advocacy without adequate protections for possible dissenters.

To distinguish political money from collective-bargaining money, the Supreme Court requires that a “Hudson notice” be given to all non-union workers. This notice gives non-members the opportunity to challenge political expenditures. But when the SEIU began garnishing 25-33% more wages to fight the California ballot initiatives, it issued no new Hudson notice, effectively forcing 28,000 non-member employees to finance its political speech.

As Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote in dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the SEIU, “it is undeniably unusual for a government agency to give a private entity the power, in essence, to tax government employees.”  Now before the Supreme Court, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the Mountain States Legal Foundation, on a brief supporting the non-union workers and arguing that the Court should focus not on the extent of the burden Hudson places on unions (as the Ninth Circuit did) but on the paramount reasons why the notice requirements exist in the first place: to ensure that an individual’s right to speak or remain quiet receives the protection it deserves.

As Judge Wallace put it, “the union has no legitimate interest … in collecting agency fees from nonmembers to fill its political war-chest.”

We also highlight the numerous unscrupulous tactics that unions have used over the years that violate the rights of dissenting workers – the same kind of rights that the Ninth Circuit treated with indifference. Finally, in light of the extreme political power that unions enjoy, the Court should find that the only way to adequately protect the rights of dissenting workers is to require that all non-union members must “opt-in” to any garnishment of wages for political purposes.

The Supreme Court will hear the Knox case in early 2012.  Here again is Cato’s brief.

Property Rights Are Not Second-Class Rights

When state and local governments violate federal constitutional rights (e.g., First Amendment free speech), they can be sued in federal court — except when that government action violates the Fifth Amendment’s protections for property rights.  Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Williamson County v. Hamilton Bank, individuals and businesses alleging unconstitutional takings by state or local governments are required to exhaust state review procedures — seeking redress from the very officials who harmed them — before turning to federal courts.

This constitutional anomaly is evident in Colony Cove v. City of Carson, where the operators of a rental property in California alleged an unconstitutional taking when the local rent control board refused to approve an increase in rent to allow their business to operate profitably. California law forecloses judicial review of the findings of rent control boards, so municipal governments have an unchecked license to determine whether such businesses may operate: A property owner’s sole recourse is to appeal to the very rent control board who forbade her from charging a profitable rent in the first place.

These “review” procedures, like some others across the nation, are wildly insufficient. Even more significantly, once a takings claim has been fully heard in state proceedings per Williamson County’s command, it is usually barred from federal review based on various prudential doctrines. The result is the indiscriminate exclusion of takings claims from federal courts, a situation that invites opportunist states to usurp private property rights.

Seeking to afford citizens across the nation the opportunity to assert Takings Clause claims in parity with other constitutional rights, Cato joined the New England Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Institute for Justice, Goldwater Institute, and Professors James Ely and Richard Epstein in filing an amicus brief supporting the California property owners’ petition for Supreme Court review of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling against them.

We argue that Williamson County should be overruled because it relegates takings claims to second-class status despite the constitutional first principle that uniform protection of individual rights is vital to our system of government. At the very least, the Court should require federal reprieve when state procedures for rectifying a taking are futile — as they were here. Finally, we argue that the Court should correct lower courts’ misinterpretation of Williamson County, which puts property rights jurisprudence at odds with Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (a statute that gives people access to federal courts when a state denies them their constitutional rights).

The Court will decide whether to review Colony Cove v. City of Carson later this year.  Thanks to legal associate Anna Mackin for her help with the brief, whose counsel of record is Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin.

You Can’t Patent Thoughts

Doctors and researchers regularly perform blood tests to determine the effectiveness of various drugs. The resulting correlations between the test results and patient health have recently become the subject of numerous “process” patents. That these patents have been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit represents a dangerous expansion of traditional patent law.

This expansion threatens to stifle free markets and infringe on individual liberty. In Mayo v. Prometheus, the Court will address the important question of whether someone can patent the process of observing correlations between blood test results and patient health. The primary legal issue here is whether naturally occurring correlations are patentable as “process” patents simply because the methods used to administer prescription drugs and test blood may involve “transformations” of body chemistry.

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief, joined by the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, arguing that these patents are not “processes” as the term was originally understood in the Patent Act of 1952. We liken medical-diagnostic patents to other abstract-process patents—such as software and business-method patents—that have resulted in financial losses for firms and discouraged innovation, and argue that enforcing these patents “will only serve to further slow the economy, retard technological innovation, distort the free market, and place human health at risk.”

Moreover, upholding the patents at issue will impermissibly restrict public-domain activity because the final step in a medical-diagnostic patent is an entirely mental one that will be violated whenever a doctor performs a previously public-domain medical test after learning about the patented correlation. Our brief thus closes by arguing that the Court should also consider the profound First Amendment implications in allowing processes whose final step is entirely mental to be patented.* “The Court has repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment protects freedom of thought as well as freedom of speech.” Unlike copyrights, patents lack traditional free-speech safeguards (such as exceptions for “fair use”) and, therefore, the Court should reject medical-diagnostic patents as impermissibly restricting the freedom of thought.

Mayo v. Prometheus will be argued late this year or in early 2012.  Here again is Cato’s brief.


*Recall Judge Gladys Kessler of the D.C. federal district court, who found Obamacare’s individual mandate constitutional under the Commerce Clause because it regulates “mental activity.”  Combining this theory with the theory of patentability at issue here, federal courts could sustain lawsuits based on a defendant’s making the same “patented” decision (or non-decision) as a plaintiff.

Another Judicial Takings Case Reaches the Supreme Court

For over a century, Montana citizens have used non-navigable streambeds along their properties for various purposes without objection from the state government.  The hydroelectric energy company PPL Montana and thousands of other private parties exercised their rights over these non-navigable stretches that the state never claimed. 

Last year, however, the Montana Supreme Court overturned well-settled state property law by effectively converting the title in hundreds of miles of riverbeds to state ownership. The majority of the court ruled that the entirety of the Missouri, Clark Fork, and Madison rivers were navigable at the time of Montana’s statehood, producing a broad holding that eradicates the right to use rivers and riverbanks that Montanans had enjoyed for over a century.

PPL Montana thus asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court’s decision; Cato filed an amicus brief supporting that request, which the Court granted.  Now that the case is before the Court, Cato has joined the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, American Farm Bureau Federation, and National Federation of Independent Business on a brief supporting the property owners.

We are chiefly concerned with two parts of the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling:  First, the court incorrectly evaluated navigability for the purpose of establishing title – finding the entirety of the rivers at issue navigable (and thus belonging to the state) because portions of them are – contravening the legal standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Utah (which analyzed the riverbeds section-by-section to achieve a “precise” assessment of navigability).  Second, the court effectively transferred a substantial quantity of land from private owners to the state – a judicial taking that violates either the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments (as the Court described in the recent Stop the Beach Renourishment case, in which Cato also filed a brief).  

In short, the Court should reaffirm the Utah standard for navigability in the context of establishing title and protect private property owners against judicial takings.  By doing so, it would send a strong message to state courts across the nation that judicial usurpations of property rights are just as unconstitutional as those undertaken by other branches of government.

The Court will hear the case of PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana late this year or in early 2012.  Again, you can find Cato’s brief here.

Constitutional Structure Matters: A Response to Larry Tribe

SCOTUSblog’s symposium on the constitutionality of Obamacare – to which I contributed, as did Bob Levy – provides a glimpse at the astonishing views of the law’s supporters.  It particularly shows how divorced the legal academy’s leading lights are not only from basic constitutional text and structure, but from jurisprudential reality.

Most prominently, in responding to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision striking down the individual mandate (and to Richard Epstein’s symposium essay), storied Harvard professor Laurence H. Tribe criticizes the court for “reflecting what appears to be a widely held public sentiment” that Congress cannot “mandate that individuals enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”  That sentiment is a problem, according to Tribe, because it elevates form over substance.  That is, just as it has done with Social Security, Congress could (under modern jurisprudence, which is wrong as a matter of first principle but not at issue in the Obamacare lawsuits) levy another income or payroll tax and use that revenue to provide health insurance and/or care for otherwise uninsured individuals:

Put otherwise, Congress may undoubtedly use its taxing power to mandate that individuals pay for coverage supplied by private insurers, so long as it acts in two steps: step 1, impose a tax, and step 2, use the proceeds of the tax to fund privately provided health insurance for each individual. If Congress may accomplish this objective in two steps, why not in one? No federalism or liberty-related concern, whether the dignity of the states or that of individuals, is served by denying Congress that authority.

Tribe’s reasoning echoes Justice Breyer’s reason (in dissent) for rejecting the notion that the Takings Clause applies when the Government orders an individual to pay another individual, in the case of Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel:

The dearth of Takings Clause author­ity is not surprising, for application of the Takings Clause here bristles with conceptual difficul­ties. If the Clause applies when the government simply orders A to pay B, why does it not apply when the government simply orders A to pay the government, i.e., when it assesses a tax?

But there is a very good reason why courts should deny Congress the power to compel individuals to purchase products from private parties or, for that matter, the power to order A to pay B – even if a similar result could be accomplished through the taxing power: political accountability. As Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett explains:

Like mandates on states, economic mandates undermine political accountability, though in a different way. The public is acutely aware of tax increases. Rather than incur the political cost of imposing a general tax on the public using its tax powers, economic mandates allow Congress and the President to escape accountability for tax increases by compelling citizens to make payments directly to private companies.

Indeed, scholars as diverse as Richard Epstein and Cass Sunstein have argued that the Takings Clause requires just compensation precisely to preserve political accountability in the provision of public goods. As Justice Scalia explained in the case of Pennell v. City of San Jose:

The politically attractive feature of regulation is not that it permits wealth transfers to be achieved that could not be achieved otherwise; but rather that it permits them to be achieved “off budget,” with relative invisibility and thus relative immunity from normal democratic processes.

Under modern jurisprudence, essentially the only check on Congress’s taxing and spending powers under the General Welfare Clause (as opposed to its regulatory power under the Commerce Clause) is political.  So yes, Professor Tribe, there is a constitutional reason for depriving Congress of the power to do in one step what it could surely do in two other steps: to maintain that remaining constitutional qua political check. Indeed, the very reason why Congress adopted the individual mandate was because it lacked the political will – it feared political accountability too much – to impose single-payer universal coverage, where the government would first impose a tax on everyone and then provide health care (at this point it’s no longer “insurance”) to everyone.

To accomplish the same result without having to impose significant new taxes – as President Obama famously promised there would not be – Congress tried to evade political accountability through the individual-mandate mechanism. That’s why the Eleventh Circuit wisely declined to grant Congress the power to move a significant part of its spending “off budget” and “mandate that individuals enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”

Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon co-authored this blogpost.