Tag: amicus briefs

The Treaty Clause Doesn’t Give Congress Unlimited Power

In 1920, the Supreme Court decided an obscure case concerning the implementation of a treaty between the United States and Canada regarding migratory birds. Tucked into Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s five-page decision in Missouri v. Holland was a sentence that expressed a truly startling idea: that Congress can transcend its enumerated powers via its power to implement treaties.

That is, although Congress has no enumerated power to pass, say, general criminal laws, if a ratified treaty with France demands that we pass such laws, then Congress’s power expands to allow for such legislation. Thus, foreign nations and the executive branch are given the power to change, almost at will, one of the most hotly debated and carefully crafted sections of the Constitution, the scope of Article I congressional power!

Now an equally obscure case relating to copyrights gives the Court an opportunity to revisit Missouri v. Holland’s starkly erroneous proposition and reaffirm the Framers’ vision of Congress’s powers as “few and defined.” Golan v. Holder concerns a law Congress passed after the president signed and the Senate duly ratified the “Uruguay Round” general trade agreement, which in part amended the 1971 Berne Convention on intellectual property. This new law reinstated copyright protection to works that were previously in the public domain.

A number of orchestra conductors, educators, performers, film archivists, and motion picture distributors who depend on the public domain for their livelihood challenged the law on two grounds: 1) that it violates the “promote progress in Science and the Useful arts” limitation on the congressional power to pass copyright laws (the Copyright Clause), and 2) it violates the First Amendment. Cato and Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz filed a brief that supports this challenge by highlighting the problems with an expansive interpretation of the treaty power.

We argue that, as a matter of constitutional structure, history, and logic, a treaty cannot increase Congress’s legislative powers. Not only is the power to “make treaties” distinct from the power to execute treaties already made, but such an expansive interpretation of the treaty power would allow Congress and the Executive to circumvent the Article V amendment process.  Even more shockingly, it would allow foreign governments to have control over the scope of congressional power. In sum, Missouri v. Holland is a structural and doctrinal anomaly in tension with other precedent and based on a misreading of constitutional history. It should be overruled.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Golan v. Holder this fall.

In Global Warming Case, Supreme Court Reaches Correct Result But Leaves Room for Mischievous Litigation

In the important global warming case decided today, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court unanimously reached the correct result but one that still leaves room for plenty of mischievous litigation.  While it’s clearly true that, as the Court said, the Clean Air Act and the EPA exist to deal with the claims the plaintiffs made here—that the defendants’ carbon dioxide emissions are pollutants that cause global warming—the Court left open the possibility of claims on state common-law grounds such as nuisance.  And it unfortunately said nothing about whether any such disputes, whether challenging EPA action or suing under state law, are properly “cases and controversies” ripe for judicial resolution.

The judiciary was not meant to be the sole method for resolving grievances with the government, even if everything looks like a nail to lawyers who only have a hammer.  This case is the perfect example of a “political question” best left to the political branches: The science and politics of global warming is so complex and nuanced that there simply isn’t a judicial role to be had.

As Cato’s amicus brief argued, the chain of causation between the defendants’ carbon emissions and the alleged harm caused by global warming is so attenuated that it resembles the famed “butterfly effect.” Just as butterflies should not be sued for causing tsunamis, a handful of utility companies in the Northeastern United States should not be sued for the complex (and disputed) harms of global warming. Even if plaintiffs (here or in a future case) can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make nuanced policy decisions that should be left to the legislature.  Just as it’s improper for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s beyond courts’ constitutional authority to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed in anything but an adversarial litigation process.

If a court were to adjudicate claims like those at issue in American Electric Power and issue an order dictating emissions standards, two things will happen: 1) the elected branches will be encouraged to abdicate to the courts their responsibilities for addressing complex and controversial policy issues, and 2) an already difficult situation would become nearly intractable as regulatory agencies and legislative actors butt heads with court orders issued across the country in quickly multiplying global warming cases. These inevitable outcomes are precisely why the standing and political question doctrines exist.

Dissatisfaction with the decisions and pace of government does not give someone the right to sue over anything. Or, as Chief Justice Marshall once said, “If the judicial power extended to every question under the laws of the United States … [t]he division of power [among the branches of government] could exist no longer, and the other departments would be swallowed up by the judiciary.”

Of Course Defendants Can Challenge the Constitutionality of Laws Under Which They’re Prosecuted

Hard cases make bad law, the saying goes.  Well, a bizarre case that the Supreme Court decided unanimously today has set a good precedent for the enforcement of residual Tenth Amendment powers. 

As I described in December when Cato filed a brief in Bond v. United States:

Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement authorities to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Bond pled guilty and was sentenced but now appeals her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment – in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution. The Third Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, holding that Bond did not have standing to raise a Tenth Amendment challenge and that, following Supreme Court precedent, a state actor must be a party to the suit in order to challenge the federal government for impinging on state sovereignty. Bond now seeks Supreme Court review on the ground that the statute, as applied to her, is beyond the federal government’s enumerated powers.

Our brief argued that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but also that lower courts are wrong in assuming that both the president’s power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution.  That is, many judges seem to erroneously think that treaties can give the federal government powers it doesn’t otherwise have under the Constitution.

The Court’s ruling today, in a tight opinion by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that individuals can indeed raise Tenth Amendment claims that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers.  The Court took no position on the merits of Bond’s constitutional argument – relating to the expansion of federal criminal law via the Treaty Power into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels – but this non-decision is in itself a positive development because it signals that the underlying issue is in dispute.

The Third Circuit is now charged with determining in the first instance whether the law implementing the chemical weapons treaty is “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the Treaty Power, including whether it’s overbroad if it snares people like Bond.

Even if Bond loses on the merits in the Third Circuit and/or the Supreme Court, however, her case has confirmed the idea that someone directly and particularly harmed by a federal law can challenge that law’s constitutionality.  As Justice Ginsburg said in her concurrence,

a court has no “prudential” license todecline to consider whether the statute under which the defendant has been charged lacks constitutional application to her conduct. And that is so even where the constitutional provision that would render the conviction void is directed at protecting a party not before the Court. ….

In short, a law “beyond the power of Congress,” for any reason, is “no law at all.” Nigro v. United States, 276 U. S. 332, 341 (1928). The validity of Bond’s conviction depends upon whether the Constitution permits Congress to enact §229.  Her claim that it does not must be considered and decided on the merits.

For more on the proper scope of the Treaty Power, I recommend Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Update:

Josh Blackman parses Justice Kennedy’s opinion and shows how it tracks the approach that Randy Barnett and Cato have been taking in our Obamacare briefs.

Shooting for State Sovereignty

On October 1, 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, the purpose of which was to regulate guns manufactured and kept within Montana state lines under a less restrictive regulatory regime than federal law provides. That same day, to ensure that Montanans could enjoy the benefits of this less restrictive state regulation, the Montana Shooting Sports Association filed a declaratory judgment claim in federal court.

The lawsuit’s importance is not limited to Montana, as seven other states have passed laws similar to the MFFA and 20 states have introduced such legislation. The goal here is to reinforce state regulatory authority over commerce that is by definition intrastate, to take back some of the ground occupied by modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, however, and MSSA appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Now on appeal, Cato has joined the Goldwater Institute to file an amicus brief supporting the MSSA and arguing that federal power does not preempt Montana’s ability to exercise its sovereign police powers to facilitate the exercise of individual rights protected by the Second and Ninth Amendments. More specifically, for federal law to trump the MFFA, the government must claim that the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses give it the power to regulate wholly intrastate manufacture, sale, and possession of guns, which MSSA argues is a state-specific market distinct from any related national one.

Our brief argues that federal preemption would violate the “letter and spirit of the Constitution” and that heightened judicial scrutiny is required whenever the federal government invokes an implied power to override state sovereignty. The MFFA should not be preempted because: (1) principles of state sovereignty limit federal power; (2) preemption would violate the federalism framework established in National League of Cities v. Usery; and (3) preemption would not allow state sovereignty to serve its role as a proper check of federal power. The Supreme Court has made clear that Congress is not the sole venue for states and individuals to seek protection from federal overreach and so this case is fundamentally a dispute over federalism—which should allow for state regulation of local matters to flourish in concert with federal power over “truly national” concerns.

Allowing preemption here would have the perverse effect of allowing the federal government to regulate “states as states” while impairing states’ ability to operate in areas of traditional governmental functions. The Ninth Circuit should thus find that district court committed reversible error in dismissing the lawsuit and, as a result, MSSA should be allowed to pursue its case beyond the pleadings stage.

The Ninth Circuit will hear the case of Montana Sports Shooting Association v. Holder in late summer or early fall.

Unanimous Supreme Court Vindicates Market-Based Fees for Civil Rights Claims

It hasn’t happened that much under my watch, but it’s gratifying when the Supreme Court overwhelmingly endorses Cato’s position in a given case.  Not a 5-4 split dependent on what Justice Kennedy had for breakfast or some narrow “win” that doesn’t reach the issues we care most about, but a solid across-the-board victory for our first principles.

But such was the case in Justice Kagan’s (!) opinion for a unanimous Court in Fox v. Vice, in which Cato filed a brief last December that I discussed here:

Private lawsuits challenging government violation of civil rights are notoriously difficult and expensive to bring and win. To address such impediments to the vindication of civil rights, Congress passed a law that, among other things, awards attorneys’ fees to the prevailing parties in certain cases. As noted by the House Judiciary Committee, this was necessary because “a vast majority of the victims of civil rights violations cannot afford legal counsel, they are unable to present their cases to the courts …. [the law at issue, 42 U.S.C. § 1988] is designed to give such persons effective access to the judicial process.” Congress thus harnessed market principles, creating an economic incentive for citizens to vindicate their civil rights directly rather than relying exclusively on enforcement actions by the federal government itself.

In the case of Fox v. Vice, however, the Fifth Circuit ruled that an unsuccessful result on a threshold or procedural matter relating to part of a lawsuit could justify a court order requiring the plaintiff to pay all of the defendants’ attorney’s fees — even those expended to address other, meritorious claims. Such a rule departs from the market-oriented legal structure Congress designed and, if allowed to stand, would significantly harm the ability of plaintiffs to bring private civil rights claims.

Today the Supreme Court essentially agreed 9-0 with our view that (1) the Fifth Circuit’s decision imposes prohibitive costs on civil rights enforcement of civil rights; (2) by prematurely deeming a suit frivolous and ordering the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s fees, the lower court imposed penalties that would shut down legitimate lawsuits midstream; and (3) the Court should not permit fee awards in situations where a plaintiff dismisses a federal claim in order to secure a remand of related state-law claims to state court, contrary to the law’s purpose here.

In short, when a plaintiff’s lawsuit is for both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, a court may grant reasonable fees but only for the costs that a defendant would not have incurred but for the frivolous claims – so no fee awards even for work that goes towards both frivolous and non-frivolous claims.  You can read the opinion here

Thanks to our pro bono counsel at WilmerHale and to the organizations who joined us on our brief: the Liberty Institute, the Independence Law Center, the Institute for Justice, and the James Madison Center for Free Speech.

Once More Into the Obamacare Breach

Today we filed Cato’s sixth brief supporting the various legal challenges to Obamacare, this time in the D.C. Circuit.  Like Tom Joad, wherever the fight has been, we’ve been there, and now it’s in our backyard.

In February, Judge Gladys Kessler of the D.C. district court granted Congress the power to regulate “mental activity” in a decision that flippantly disregarded the core distinction between action and inaction: “Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something.”  The frightening scope of that opinion has proven more harmful than helpful to the government, which has shifted its focus away from Kessler’s sweeping language by describing the mandate as merely a requirement that people pre-pay for the health care they will inevitably use.

Our latest brief deals more directly with that added nuance—even more so than the brief Cato filed two weeks ago.  Due to a local circuit rule requiring amici with similar arguments to file jointly, Cato coordinated a brief involving six other organizations—Mountain States Legal Foundation, Pacific Legal Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Goldwater Institute, Revere America, and Idaho Freedom Foundation—as well as Prof. Randy Barnett.  

Using Cato’s previous brief as a starting point, amici worked together to adjust our arguments in light of new ideas coming from both the government and academia.  The core argument, however, remains the same: regardless of any linguistic contortions, the non-purchase of health care is fundamentally a non-economic inactivity that Congress cannot reach under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses.  

Allowing Congress the power to conscript citizens into economic transactions not only goes beyond current precedent, but would give Congress a general and limitless police power to do whatever it thinks best, checked only by politics.  

In addition to the doctrinal arguments we presented in previous briefs, here we remind the court that limiting Congress’s power is the explicit purpose of Article I of the Constitution and address the relationship of the individual mandate to United States v. Comstock, the most recent interpretation of the limits on federal power under the Necessary and Proper Clause (a case in which Cato also filed a brief, that Ilya Somin covered in our Supreme Court Review, and about Trevor Burrus and I recently published a law review article).  

The D.C. Circuit will hear the case of Seven-Sky v. Holder in September.  Given the state of litigation around the country, we will likely not be filing another Obamacare brief before the action reaches the Supreme Court—which it’s expected to later this year, after the first few circuit courts issue their rulings.

Activity vs. Inactivity

The challenge to the constitutionality of the individual mandate – Obamacare’s central feature, without which the whole regulatory scheme collapses (practically speaking, though I agree with Judge Vinson that it also can’t be severed as a matter of law) – boils down to whether, under modern constitutional doctrine regarding what Congress can do under the guise of regulating interstate commerce, the government can force “inactive” people into a particular action, namely buying health insurance.

That is, while cases like Wickard  (Congress can force farmer to meet quota and bring crops to market) and Raich (Congress can stop wholly intrastate growth and consumption of marijuana) – moving from wheat to weed – are disconcerting for those of us who see limits on federal power, there is a qualitative difference between regulating or prohibiting existing economic activity and mandating that someone engage in such activity.  When Randy Barnett (who argued Raich) first articulated that distinction and labeled the new assertion of federal power “unprecedented,” that’s what he meant: Congress has never forced people to engage in economic activity.  Not during the New Deal – nobody had to become a farmer or buy wheat – nor during the Civil Rights Era – if you didn’t want to serve blacks, you could shut down your restaurant or hotel.

The “activity/inactivity” distinction thus becomes the last straw holding back a general federal police power that would allow Congress to require anything of the citizenry so long as it was part of a national regulatory scheme.  No enumerated power to require people to buy Chevys?  No problem, we’ll have a full-scale auto bailout that only works if people have to buy Chevys.  No enumerated power to require people to take out Fannie Mae mortgages?  No problem, we’ll have a “National Housing Market Recovery Act” that only works if people have to do just that.  You don’t have to invoke broccoli or asparagus to make the point; the “broccoli mandate” is used so often only because, if anything, requirements to buy healthy foods and join gyms would be more closely connected to the goal of reducing taxpayer spending on health care than the individual health insurance mandate.

In any case, I won’t go on about activity vs. inactivity because you can read all about it in our latest brief and also in a fascinating  Volokh Conspiracy debate among Orin Kerr, Jon Adler – both of whom will be contributing to this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review – and Randy Barnett:

  1. Orin notes that the Fourth Circuit judges were “baffled” by the activity/inactivity distinction;
  2. Jon replies that he’s baffled that anybody could be baffled by that;
  3. Randy offers a different take on the judges’ concerns;
  4. Orin discusses a possible analogy of the definition of “activity” to its common-law equivalent, the “actus reus”;
  5. Randy issues a rejoinder to Orin’s analysis;
  6. Orin clarifies the issue.

Fascinating stuff, and a discussion that will continue – and not just on the VC.