Tag: amicus briefs

In Defense of Truthiness

If you only read one Cato brief this Supreme Court term, it should be this one.

Believe it or not, it’s illegal in Ohio to lie about politicians, for politicians to lie about other politicians, or for politicians to lie about themselves. That is, it violates an election law—this isn’t anything related to slander or libel, which has higher standards of proof for public figures—to make “false statements” in campaign-related contexts.

During the 2010 House Elections, a pro-life advocacy group called the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), published ads in Ohio claiming that then-Rep. Steven Driehaus, who was running for re-election, had voted to fund abortions with federal money (because he had voted for Obamacare). Rather than contesting the truth of these claims in the court of public opinion, Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission (OEC) under a state law that makes it a crime to “disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”

While the complaint was ultimately dropped, the SBA List took Driehaus and the OEC to federal court, seeking to have this law declared unconstitutional and thus enable advocacy groups to have more freedom going forward. The case has now reached the Supreme Court.

Joined by legendary satirist (and Cato’s H.L. Mencken Research Fellow) P.J. O’Rourke, our brief supports the SBA List and reminds the Court of the important role that “truthiness”—facts you feel you in heart, not in your head—plays in American politics, and the importance of satire and spin more broadly. We ask the Court a simple yet profound question: Doesn’t the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protect one man’s truth even if it happens to be another man’s lie? And who’s to judge—and on what scale—when a statement slides “too far” into the realm of falsehood?

However well intentioned Ohio legislators may have been, laws that criminalize “false” speech don’t replace truthiness and snark with high-minded ideas and “just the facts.” Instead, they chill speech, replacing the sort of vigorous political dialogue that’s at the core of the democratic process with silence. The Supreme Court of all institutions should understand that just because a statement isn’t fully true, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in public discourse. Moreover, pundits and satirists are much-better placed to evaluate and send-up half-truths than government agencies.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus on April 22.

Time for the Supreme Court to Explain the Scope of the Second Amendment

From the 1939 case of United States v. Miller until 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court left unclear what right the Second Amendment protects. For nearly 70 years, the lower courts were forced to make do with Miller’s vague guidance, which in many jurisdictions resulted in a cramped and limited right to keep and bear arms, erroneously restricted to militia service. While Heller did eventually clarify that the Second Amendment secures an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, the ruling left many questions about the scope of that right unanswered (and 2010’s McDonald v. City of Chicago merely extended the right to people living in the states, without further defining it).

Since then, several courts have made clear that they plan to take only as much from Heller as they explicitly have to. One of these is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which last year in Drake v. Filko upheld New Jersey’s “may-issue” handgun law, which says that an individual may be granted a carry license—read: may be permitted to exercise her Second Amendment rights—only if she proves an urgent need to do so to the satisfaction of a law enforcement officer. In order to show this need, one must prove, with documentation, that there are specific, immediate threats to one’s safety that cannot be avoided in any way other than through possession of a handgun. If an individual can actually persuade the local official—who has total discretion to accept or deny the claim—then she gets a license for two years, at which time the gun owner must repeat the entire discretionary process (proving an imminent threat, etc.) to renew the permit.

IRS Illegally Expands Obamacare

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.

Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.

Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).

Scalia the Unlikely Swing Vote in Big Workers Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris v. Quinn, the case regarding the forced unionization of home healthcare workers in Illinois (and by extension the 10 other states with similar laws). To me this is a pretty easy case: just because the state is paying these workers through its Medicaid program doesn’t mean it employs them – just like my doctor isn’t employed by my health-insurance company – which means that it can’t force them to pay dues to a union that negotiates Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Like most of the labor cases in recent years, however, this one is likely to go 5-4. The so-called “liberal” justices were all openly hostile to the workers’ position, so the challengers will have to sweep the rest of the bench of to win. Fortunately, such an outcome is more than possible – though much will depend on the thinking of Justice Scalia, who was hostile to everyone.

The argument began in a frustrating manner, with a focus on the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and whether a union asking for a pay increase was different from an individual public-sector employee (a policeman, say) asking for the same raise. Justice Scalia correctly pointed out that this wasn’t really the right at issue here, but he further confused the matter in distinguishing the right to petition from the First Amendment (when in fact that right is found in that amendment). He meant to invoke the First Amendment right to the freedoms of speech and association, but also indicated that he was prepared to give the government plenty of leeway when it was acting as an employer.

Justice Alito was the most skeptical of the union/government position, pointing out that unions don’t necessarily act in all workers’ interest, even when they succeed in negotiating certain “gains.” For example, a productive young worker might prefer merit pay to tenure provisions or a defined-benefit pension plan. Chief Justice Roberts was similarly concerned about administering the line between those union expenses that could be “charged” even to nonmembers (because related to collective bargaining) versus those that can’t because they involve political activity. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, noted that in this era of growing government, increasing the size and cost of the public workforce is more than simple bargaining over wages and benefits; it’s “a fundamental issue of political belief.” In no other context could a government seek to compel its citizens to subsidize such speech. A worker who disagrees with the union view on these political questions is still made to subsidize it. 

It was also heartening to see that the continuing vitality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) was in play. That case established that, in the interest of “labor peace,” a state could mandate its employees’ association with a union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. (Abood simply assumed, without further analysis, that the Supreme Court had recognized labor peace as a compelling interest.)

Justices Breyer and Kagan were particularly concerned that so many employers and unions had relied on the Abood doctrine over the years, so touching it would implicate significant reliance interests. But overruling or severely limiting Abood would only be one more step in the Court’s trend of protecting individual workers from having to support political activities. More workers could thus opt out of supporting a labor union – but if unions truly provide valuable services for their members, few workers would do so.

Of course, the Court could shy away from touching Abood and simply rule that being paid by state funds alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a state employee. Such a position might more easily attract Justice Scalia’s vote – and that of Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to rule narrowly – even if it leaves unresolved some of the contradictions at the heart of the jurisprudence in this area, such as the duty of courts to police the murky line between “chargeable” and “nonchargeable” union expenses.

For more on the case, see George Will’s recent op-ed and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial.

Connecticut, Drunk on Power, Uses Bottle Bill to Steal Money

For nearly 30 years, Connecticut beverage distributors received the unclaimed refund value of recycled bottles as part of the state’s Bottle Bill, which set up a refund system for used bottles as an attempt to encourage recycling. As in other states, the law requires beverage dealers to pay refunds for every bottle turned in.

Fiscal troubles in 2008 prompted Connecticut to amend the law, however, to require a “deposit account” from which distributors were to pay the refunds. This requirement was intended to aid the state environmental agency to study the rates of deposit payments and returns. The following year, the fiscal situation worsened, and the Bottle Bill was again amended, this time to require the remaining funds in the deposit accounts (after returns were paid out) to be paid to the state—retroactively including any unpaid remainder funds since the accounts went into effect in 2008.

A. Gallo & Co. and other beverage distributors in Connecticut saw this as an uncompensated taking of their property and sued the state. They took their case through the state court system, but even the Connecticut Supreme Court turned a blind eye, holding that beverage distributors never had a property right in the remainder funds in the first place. The distributors have now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case, and Cato joined the New England Legal Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, and the National Federation of Independent Business on a brief supporting their petition.

We argue that Connecticut’s budgetary troubles are no excuse for violating a longstanding property right without compensation. Moreover, by twisting its statutory interpretation to satisfy political pressures, the Connecticut Supreme Court has made itself complicit in the uncompensated taking. It’s bad enough when strapped-for-cash legislatures unfairly force public burdens onto the shoulders of private parties to feed their spending addictions, but when all three government branches – including the one entrusted with soberly interpreting the law, especially in times of fiscal emergency – get drunk on power and deny even the existence of a property right, it’s time for a Supreme Court intervention.

The Supreme Court will decide by winter’s end whether to take the case of A. Gallo & Co. v. Esty.

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.

Antidiscrimination Law Can’t Trump the Freedom of Speech

While Cato supports marriage equality, a commitment to equality under the law can’t justify the restriction of constitutionally protected fundamental rights like freedom of speech or association. Yet increasingly, legislation and judicial rulings sacrifice individual liberties at the altar of antidiscrimination law. Perhaps the most prominent current example of that trend is the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer.

Elane Photography, a Christian-identified business in Albuquerque, declined to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony based on the business owners’ personal opposition to gay marriage. New Mexico law prohibits any refusal to render business services because of sexual orientation, however, so Willock filed a claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. She argued that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that is subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law. The commission found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees. The state trial and appellate courts affirmed that order.

The case then went before the New Mexico Supreme Court, where Cato, along with same-sex-marriage-supporting law professors Eugene Volokh and Dale Carpenter, filed an amicus brief urging the court to reverse the court of appeals. Our brief explained that photography, unlike many other wedding-related businesses (e.g., caterers, hotels, limousine drivers), is an art form protected by the First Amendment—even if it’s not political and even if the photos are taken for commercial purposes. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wooley v. Maynard—the 1977 “Live Free or Die” license plate case out of New Hampshire—that forcing people to speak is just as unconstitutional as preventing or censoring speech. The First Amendment “includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.” Moreover, unlike true cases of public accommodation, there are abundant opportunities to choose other photographers in the same area.

Alas, the New Mexico Supreme Court also ruled against Elane Photography, holding that the First Amendment only prohibits compelling an individual to speak the government’s message, and that even if the state law did infringe on Elane Photography’s speech rights, those rights could not be vindicated because they conflicted with Willock’s right to equal access to public accommodations. Cato, again joined by professors Volokh and Carpenter, has again filed a brief, this time urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, because the New Mexico court’s reasoning is incorrect and incompatible with Wooley. 

The Supreme Court has never held that the compelled speech doctrine is only applicable when an individual is forced to serve as a courier for the message of another. Instead, the Court has said repeatedly that what the First Amendment protects is a “freedom of the individual mind,” which the government violates whenever it tells a person what she must or must not say. Forcing a photographer to create a unique piece of art violates that freedom of the mind.

Our brief also argues that the New Mexico Supreme Court was wrong to hold that the First Amendment can be abridged if a state law creates a “new right” that the constitutionally protected expression allegedly violates. The U.S. Supreme Court has never allowed such operation of state law, and allowing the New Mexico court’s reasoning to stand would send a dangerous message to state legislators and courts that the Bill of Rights is merely a suggestion, not a rule.

Vanessa Willock has until February 11 to file her opposing brief, and soon thereafter the Court will decide whether to take the case. If it does, Elane Photography v. Willock would likely be argued at the beginning of next term, in October, with an ultimate decision by June 2015.