Tag: amicus briefs

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.

Obamacare Is Unconstitutional

The very day President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, Virginia’s attorney general filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the health care overhaul. Virginia’s complaint alleges, in relevant part, that the PPACA’s requirement that every individual purchase health insurance or pay a fine – the “individual mandate” – is unconstitutional because Congress lacks the power to enact it.

The U.S. Government filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that Virginia lacked standing to bring this suit but also that the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and Congress’ taxing power all justify the individual mandate. Virginia responded, in relevant part, that the Commerce Clause does not grant Congress unbridled authority to regulate inactivity and force every man, woman, and child to enter the marketplace or face a civil penalty.

Cato, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, filed a “memorandum” – not called a “brief” because this is district (trial-level) court – supporting Virginia’s position and explaining that neither of the Government’s fallback positions legitimizes the individual mandate. We point out that the Necessary and Proper Clause is not an independent source of congressional power, but enables Congress to exercise its enumerated powers. Similarly, the taxing power does not authorize the individual mandate because the non-compliance penalty is a civil fine – and it would be unconstitutional even if it were a tax because it is neither apportioned (if a direct tax) nor uniform (if an excise tax). Moreover, Congress cannot use the taxing power as a backdoor means of regulating an activity unless such regulation is authorized elsewhere in the Constitution.

You can read our memorandum here.  The Government now has an opportunity to reply to the arguments raised by Virginia and those supporting its position (including us), and then the court will entertain oral arguments on the motion to dismiss.  We can expect a ruling this fall.

Mixed Result in Complicated Property Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court came down with its ruling in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a case I previously blogged about here and here, and in which Cato filed a brief.

While the Court’s 8-0 ruling against the Florida oceanfront (now ocean-view) property owners was not the result we wanted, the part of the decision that was unanimously unfortunate turned on a narrow and probably mistaken interpretation of state property law.  Much more importantly, the remainder of Justice Scalia’s opinion makes clear that judicial takings are just as much a violation of the Fifth Amendment as any other kind.  “If a legislature or a court declares that what was once an established right of private property no longer exists,” Scalia writes for a four-justice plurality, “it has taken that property, no less than if the State had physically appropriated it or destroyed its value by regulation.”   And the test for whether the government—any part of it—has committed a taking turns on “whether the property right allegedly taken was established.” 

Moreover, that the Court ultimately found no taking here should provide no succor to courts and other state actors who wish to abuse property rights in the future.  The case could have easily swung the other way in a non-oceanfront circumstance or under a different state’s laws.  Indeed, two justices (Kennedy and Sotomayor) said that federal courts can still police judicial takings—under a different name—by using the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, while the remaining two (Breyer and Ginsburg) decided to leave the question for another day.  Nobody accepted outright the idea that courts cannot be held accountable for subverting property rights!

In short, state courts are now on notice that they violate long-held property rights at their peril.

Global Warming Plaintiffs Hoisted on Their Own Petard

We have reached a denouement of sorts in the “blame XYZ companies for causing global warming which caused Hurricane Katrina which damaged my property” lawsuit that I’ve previously discussed and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  When last I blogged about this, the Fifth Circuit had apparently lost its en banc quorum – a late judicial recusal left only 8 of 16 judges available to hear the appeal – and was figuring out what to do. 

Well, on Thursday the court issued an order determining that it lacked a quorum, but that the panel opinion – the one that allowed the tendentious causation claims to proceed – remained vacated.  The money quote: “In sum, a court without a quorum cannot conduct judicial business… .  Because neither this en banc court, nor the panel, can conduct further judicial business in this appeal, the Clerk is directed to dismiss the appeal.”  This means that the district court opinion dismissing the suit stands, though plaintiffs are free to seek Supreme Court review.  Not surprisingly, the three judges on the panel dissented from this order (which means that the order was decided by a 5-3 vote).

The upshot of all this is that the plaintiffs ended up botching their strategy of suing companies whose shares are owned by Fifth Circuit judges.  This clever legerdemain successfully removed seven judges, but that left a quorum of nine.  Of course, had the late-recusing eighth, Jennifer Elrod – who would’ve been expected to rule against the plaintiffs – recused when the first seven did, the court could not have vacated the panel opinion in the first place.  We’ll never know what happened after the court’s prior decision to grant rehearing that caused Judge Elrod to recuse, but at least we’re left with the second-best result: no strong decision from an important federal appellate court, but the reinstatment of the correct decision below.

Justice Kennedy Discusses Cato’s View on Use of Foreign Law

One quick addendum to my previous commentary on this week’s decision in Graham v. Florida the use of foreign law by U.S. courts: Toward the very end of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, in part D where he gratuitously nods to world opinion about juvenile life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences, he takes issue with one of the lesser arguments we make in our brief, that no international treaty prohibits such sentences.  (See page 31 of the Graham opinion – note that Cato itself is not mentioned because we were one of 13 groups signing the brief – and pages 14-16 of our brief.)  Kennedy says that the issue of whether international law prohibits the United States from imposing the juvenile LWOP sentences is beside the point, that the proper question to ask is whether such sentences are “cruel and unusual.” 

Well, yes, that’s the correct standard under the Eighth Amendment, and I’m glad that Justice Kennedy did not side with opposing amici and those in the legal academy who argue that various international conventions (or customary international law) do require such a prohibition.  But Kennedy’s point here raises a further question: why is what someone in France or Japan or Brazil or Saudi Arabia says on the matter relevant to what is cruel and unusual under U.S. law?

Supreme Court Further Reduces Constitutional Limits on Federal Power

As Roger has just blogged, the Supreme Court in today’s Comstock decision has ”turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power.”  That is, Justice Breyer’s decision has imbued the Necessary and Proper Clause – which merely gives Congress the power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the powers enumerated in Article I, section 8 – with independent authority to justify federal power.  Thus, in effect, Congress has the power to do anything it deems “necessary and proper” (or, indeed “convenient or useful”), quite apart from whether that thing relates to an enumerated power or not.  I explained here why this view – and Breyer’s elaboration on it during oral argument – is wrong.

Without exaggeration, the Comstock decision is one of the most harmful Supreme Court decisions in recent memory.  If there is anything worse than the Court’s radical expansion of the Necessary and Proper Clause, it is that seven justices signed onto this sweeping pronouncement.  While it isn’t surprising that Justice Breyer, joined by his “progressive” colleagues, would have such an expansive view of federal power, it is disconcerting that Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority opinion in its entirety.  And while Justice Kennedy separately counsels that “the Constitution does require the invalidation of congressional attempts to extend federal power in some instances,” it’s hard to see what those instances are in the wake of Comstock.  Justice Alito also has some qualms about the reach of the Necessary and Proper Clause but unfortunately is left satisfied that here “there is a substantial link to Congress’ constitutional powers” (adding yet another exception that swallows the constitutional rule on limited congressional power).

Only Justice Thomas, whose magisterial dissent is joined by Justice Scalia, sees today’s decision for what it is, the transformation of the Necessary and Proper Clause into a sort of federal police power, the existence of which the Court has long denied.  As Thomas says, ”the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.”  (This is of course counter not only the Court majority but also the immortal words of President George W. Bush that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”)

About the only good thing about this opinion is that it declined to expand Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause – an alternative justification for the law at issue that the government offered unsuccessfully in the court below and which Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned before the Supreme Court.

For more coverage of Comstock, see Josh Blackman’s series of posts and Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Also, here is Cato’s brief on the case (which I summarize here) and my description of Kagan’s response to some of the points we raised.