Tag: amicus briefs

Government Can’t Censor Book Promotion

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Kathleen Hunker.

There’s a fine line between protecting the public from fraud and censoring unorthodox opinions—a line across which the government often stumbles. That was the case in September 2007, when the Federal Trade Commission filed a contempt motion against Kevin Trudeau, author of the best-selling book The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

The FTC alleged that Trudeau had misrepresented the contents of his book in several “infomercials” by describing it as “easy” and claiming that dieters, by the end of the regimen, could eat anything they wanted without gaining weight. Despite the fact that Trudeau merely quoted the book when making these statements, the district court upheld the FTC’s findings and smacked Trudeau with a staggering $37.6 million fine. The court also imposed a rare “prior restraint” on speech, demanding that Trudeau post a $2 million bond before running any future infomercials.

The district court imposed these sanctions even though the FTC never proved that Trudeau misled a single consumer or violated any part of the FTC Act. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that Trudeau’s book promotion constituted misleading commercial speech and was therefore not entitled to any constitutional protection. If left unchallenged, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would have a dire chilling effect on authors trying to promote their work and could give government officials broad censorial power, in effect permitting the FTC to tax fine through the backdoor what it could never regulate directly (sound familiar?).

Cato has thus filed an amicus brief supporting Trudeau’s request that the Supreme Court take the case and establish a constitutional standard that allows the FTC to protect consumers from fraud while respecting the First Amendment. We argue that courts should apply strict scrutiny to any government actions that restrict or punish advertisements that merely quote and summarize parts of a book (which enjoys full constitutional protection), as Trudeau’s infomercials did.

We note that the Supreme Court has held that commercial speech inextricably intertwined with otherwise protected speech deserves a high degree of First Amendment protection. Moreover, it is well-established that falsity alone may not remove speech from the shelter of the First Amendment.

Free speech loses its vitality when confronted with overzealous regulation; strict scrutiny of would-be government censors would give authors the necessary “breathing space” to publicize their work without the threat of exorbitant fines.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take the case of Trudeau v. FTC.

‘Temporary’ Takings That Cause Permanent Damage Still Require Just Compensation

This blogpost was co-authored by Trevor Burrus.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission owns and operates 23,000 acres of land as a wildlife refuge and recreational preserve; the preserve’s trees are essential to its use for these purposes. Clearwater Dam, a federal flood control project, lies 115 miles upstream. Water is released from the dam in quantities governed by a pre-approved “management plan” that considers agricultural, recreational, and other effects downstream.

Between 1993 and 2000, the federal government released more water than authorized under the plan. AGFC repeatedly objected that these excess releases flooded the preserve during its growing season, which significantly damaged and eventually decimated tree populations. In 2001, the government acknowledged the havoc its flooding had wreaked on AGFC’s land and ceased plan deviations. By then, however, the preserve and its trees were severely damaged, so AGFC sued the government, claiming damages under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

The district court awarded $5.8 million in lost timber and reforestation costs based on the substantiality of the government’s flooding and the foreseeability of the damage it caused. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed that decision, holding that flooding can never be a taking unless that flooding is permanent. It further held that, in determining whether the government’s flooding was permanent or temporary, courts must focus on the character of the policy behind the intrusion rather the effects of the intrusion itself. A taking cannot have occurred here because each deviation from the plan constituted a “temporary” policy, the court concluded, so AGFC had no constitutional remedy.

In December, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take the case, which it did. Now Cato again joins the Pacific Legal Foundation, as well as the Atlantic Legal Foundation, on a new brief urging the Court to uphold the Fifth Amendment rights of property owners whose land is destroyed by the federal government.

We argue that the length of time of the government’s physical invasion of property should not be used to determine whether a taking occurred, but rather only for calculating how much damage the taking caused. We further argue that the Federal Circuit’s focus on the “intent” of the government action—whether the flooding resulted from a “permanent or temporary policy”—is likewise irrelevant to whether a taking occurred. Instead, the inquiry should be whether the government caused permanent damage and, if so, how much. The lower court erroneously created a rule—that so long as it might be “temporary,” no government flooding can be remedied under the Fifth Amendment—that runs afoul of a constitutional provision meant to compensate property owners for government intrusions on their land.

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States in October or November.

Chief Justice Roberts Sold Out the Constitution for Less Than Wales

In the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons (an Oscar-winning adaptation of a play about the life of Sir Thomas More), an ambitious young lawyer named Richard Rich perjures himself so that the Crown can secure More’s conviction for treason.  (Sir Thomas More was the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who refused to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and resigned rather than take an oath declaring the king to be the head of the Church of England.)  Rich is promoted to Attorney General of Wales as a reward.  Upon learning of Rich’s connivance, More plaintively asks, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”

So it is with John Roberts, who like his namesake Justice Owen Roberts changed his vote on Obamacare in service to political considerations.  (That’s actually unfair to Owen Roberts because his so-called “switch in time that saved nine,” which provided the decisive vote to uphold the New Deal after years of reversals, came before FDR announced his Court-packing scheme.)

That is, at some point between the justices’ initial conference the Friday of Obamacare-argument week in late March and when the first opinions were circulated in early June, Chief Justice Roberts changed from striking down the individual mandate, and with it the whole law, to upholding on the flimsy reed of the taxing power.  Roberts’s opinion rewriting the law “construing” the mandate as a tax is unconvincing, to say the least – even the liberal justices weren’t so enthusiastic about it, though they were happy to go along with any ratification of federal power – but it’s now apparent that he was simply grasping at any way to uphold Obamacare while not expanding the Commerce Clause.

There are many theories on why he did this – I don’t think it’s because Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed, or even because President Obama and Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) made speeches – but they mainly boil down to the idea of wanting to preserve the Supreme Court’s reputation as an impartial arbiter, one that doesn’t get involved in highly charged political disputes during a presidential election year.

Now, let’s set aside the issue of whether Roberts’s split-the-baby opinion actually helps the Court’s institutional integrity – some polls already show a decline in approval for the Court from what was already a near-historic low – and consider why this sort of reputation-preservation matters and whether it’s worth torturing the law to accomplish it.  The way I see it, the federal judiciary (with the Supreme Court at its apex) is our system of government’s premier counter-majoritarian institution, holding the political branches’ feet to the constitutional fire.  Courts are supposed to decide the law and let the political chips fall where they may.  Implicit in the Constitution’s careful separation of powers –and made explicit in the foundational case of Marbury v. Madison – is the idea of judicial review, that federal courts have the obligation, when “cases or controversies” are brought before them, to review them against the Constitution and, if they go beyond enumerated federal power or violate protected rights, to strike them down.

That’s why it’s so important that courts be independent and free from political pressure.  Particularly with regard to major controversies that polarize the nation, courts – and especially the Supreme Court – need their reputation for dispassionate and independent legal reasoning so that their often unpopular opinions are followed and respected, rather than fomenting resistance and revolution.

The health care cases – or Health Care Cases, as they may become known – presented nothing if not one such singular moment.  People across the country were anxiously awaiting a ruling, and would have accepted (if bitterly) a 5-4 decision on Commerce Clause grounds.  I obviously think that upholding the mandate, and with it the rest of Obamacare, would have been wrong – and unpopular.  Striking it down would similarly have provoked heated and fervent criticism, albeit only from the minority of Americans (but a majority of legal and media elites) who support the law.  But in any event, the Court’s decision would have “simply” been a very high profile legal ruling, just the sort of thing for which the Court needs all that accrued institutional respect and gravitas.

What we have instead, however, is a political decision dressed up in legal robes, judicially enacting a law Congress did not pass and would not have passed, all to “save” the Court to live to fight another day.  But what is that other day?  I just don’t understand what Roberts is saving the Court for if not the sort of big, tough case that Obamacare exemplified.

In short, John Roberts, in refraining from making that hard balls-and-strikes call he discussed at his confirmation hearings, has sold out his legal soul for even less than Wales.

Relatedly, Cato’s forum on the Obamacare ruling is about to start.  You can watch it live.

Supreme Court Finally Resists Temptation to Cite Foreign Law When Interpreting the U.S. Eighth Amendment

The Supreme Court decided more than just the Arizona immigration and Montana campaign-finance cases yesterday; by a 5-4 margin, it struck down state laws that impose mandatory sentences of life-without-parole (LWOP) on juveniles who have committed murder.  The Court left open the possibility of discretionary juvenile LWOP sentences, provided that the sentencing judge takes into account the defendant’s youth and maturity.

I don’t have much to say about this ruling—Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is too hopelessly subject to national surveys, multi-factor balancing tests, and the whims of Justice Kennedy to begin to discuss here—other than to point out one glaring ray of light: unlike past such cases, the Court did not cite foreign law as support for its ruling.  I’ve pointed out the problems with doing that many times before, and Cato even joined a brief two years ago specifically on this issue in the case involving juvenile LWOP  for non-homicide crimes.  Suffice it to say, whatever you think about “cruel and unusual punishment,” the only society whose ”evolving standards of decency” are relevant to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment is the United States.

More on this point from Hans Bader over at CEI’s blog.

Can the Government Destroy Propety Values ‘Temporarily’ Without Compensation?

This blogpost was co-authored by Trevor Burrus.

A seemingly complicated legal case that has caught Cato’s attention, CCA Associates v. United States, boils down to a simple constitutional question: If the government reneges on a contract and forces a property owner to rent apartments at below-market rates for longer than originally agreed, does it constitute a taking under the Fifth Amendment (which would require the government to pay just compensation)?

In 1961, Congress amended the National Housing Act to create incentives for private builders to supply housing to low- and moderate-income families. Builders were given below-market mortgages backed by the federal government and, in return, the owners agreed to certain restrictions from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the most relevant being limitations on raising rent. Owners were also given the right to pre-pay the 40-year mortgage after 20 years, however, freeing them at that time from their rent-control obligations.

In 1990, as one 20-year period came to a close, Congress took away the owners’ right to pre-pay their mortgages. In 1996, however, Congress returned the property owners’ right to pre-pay. Therefore, between 1991 (when the original 20-year period would have lapsed) and 1996, the property owners were forced to rent at below-market rates.

CCA Associates is one of many similarly situated property owners who are suing the federal government for its clear act of duplicity. CCA Associates’ case, among many others, has been bouncing back and forth between the Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit for many years.

One of the key questions is how to determine the degree to which the government’s actions economically affected CCA Associates’ property. One view is that there was substantial economic impact during the five-year period between when Congress eliminated and then restored the pre-pay right – CCA Associates lost approximately 81% of the property’s possible value during those five years. Another view looks at the impact during the five-year period as fraction of the entire life of the property, not just the diminished value during the five-year period. Under this calculation, CCA Associates only lost 18% of the total value of the property.

The Federal Circuit adopted the latter formula and held that 18% is not a substantial enough economic impact to constitute a Fifth Amendment taking. Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and Professor Steven Eagle of George Mason University Law School on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take CCA Associates’ case.

We argue that adopting the Federal Circuit’s answer to the so-called “denominator question” – that is, whether the denominator in the “economic impact” fraction should be the entire life of the property or the shorter (here five-year) period during which the government temporarily took the owners’ right to rent at the market price – could preclude all possible claims that the government committed a “temporary taking.” By choosing a big-enough denominator, courts can always characterize an economic impact as being below the constitutional threshold.

We also argue that, in applying the Supreme Court’s factors in the famous 1978 Penn Central case (which set up the analytical framework for regulatory takings), the Federal Circuit incorrectly treated the factors as a magic formula and ignored other relevant factors. Finally, we point out how courts are obviously confused about the proper standards to apply in these cases, thus creating a perfect time for the Supreme Court’s guidance.

The Court will decide this fall whether to hear CCA Associates v. United States.

The Federal Government Can’t Give Itself More Power Just By Signing a Treaty

With ObamaCare, immigration, affirmative action, gay marriage, and the other hot-button issues rolling through our courts this year, some of you may have overlooked a little case on the Treaty Power, United States v. Bond, which was at the Court last year and may well make it back next year.

I’ve covered Bond before, and Cato has filed two amicus briefs in the case (before the Supreme Court and then in the Third Circuit on remand). As I described it last year, Bond is “your typical sordid tale of adultery, toxic chemicals, and federalism.” It’s a bizarre scenario you can read about in the previous links, but the issue that has drawn Cato’s attention—and that of Paul Clement, who remains Mrs. Bond’s counsel—is whether Congress can regulate the conduct of something solely because the United States is party to a treaty regarding that subject.

That is, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, the dominant reading of an old precedent called Missouri v. Holland is that its power increases beyond constitutional limits. 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. Cato’s briefs have taken issue with such an interpretation of the Treaty Power, tracking the argument made by new Cato senior fellow (and Georgetown law professor) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz in his magisterial Harvard Law Review article, “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Earlier this month, the Third Circuit upheld Mrs. Bond’s conviction because the statute under which she was convicted duly implemented the Chemical Conventions Act and a lower court can’t overrule Missouri v. Holland. The court cited Cato’s brief and Nick’s article, however, and a concurrence by Judge Thomas Ambro, after also citing John Eastman’s article about the case in the Cato Supreme Court Review, specifically called on the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will have an opportunity to do so, with Paul Clement currently preparing a cert petition, which Cato will again support. In the meantime, you can listen in on a teleforum the Federalist Society is having about the case, featuring Prof. Rosenkranz (Fed Soc membership required, which costs $5-50 per year).

College Applicants Should Be Judged on Their Merits, Not the Color of Their Skin

The Supreme Court has waded back into the affirmative action thicket, taking up the issue of the proper role, if any, of race in college admissions, in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which it will be hearing this fall, likely in October.

Abigail Fisher, who is white, was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin even though her academic credentials exceeded those of many admitted minority applicants. She challenged UT-Austin’s consideration of race in selecting its incoming freshmen but lost before the district court in light of the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger.

In Grutter, a divided Court held that using race as a factor (but not one tied to a set number of points or quotas) was justified in the name of diversity. But UT-Austin’s admissions program treats race in a different way, and gets different results, than did the admissions program Grutter upheld at the University of Michigan Law School.

The Fifth Circuit panel nevertheless affirmed the district court, but Judge Emilio Garza specially concurred to say that while he was bound by Grutter, that decision seemed to conflict with other precedent and with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Fifth Circuit then voted 9-7 against rehearing the case en banc (before all judges on the court), over a sharp dissent from Chief Judge Edith Jones that emphasized how the ruling would allow states to play fast-and-loose with Grutter’s narrow-tailoring requirement.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting Abby Fisher and arguing that the Fifth Circuit showed blind deference to UT’s policy rather than the constitutionally demanded strict scrutiny. The lower court explicitly declined to evaluate the merits of UT’s decision to consider race, instead assuming the institution’s good faith. Under this rule, a public university’s mere assertion of a diversity interest, irrespective of the university’s precise circumstances or actual motivations, trumps an applicant’s right to be treated as an individual rather than a racial specimen.

We also point out that the Fifth Circuit ignored the Supreme Court’s requirement (from the 1989 case of City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co.) that the government demonstrate a “strong basis in evidence” for racial classifications in order to smoke out the illegitimate motivations that can underlie such schemes. That is, Grutter upheld Michigan’s racial preferences because the school showed that minority enrollment would have plummeted to almost nothing without them, while UT had already achieved real diversity (beyond even that created by Michigan’s preferences) with a race-neutral law that guarantees admission to anyone graduating in the top 10 percent of a Texas public school.

Finally, we note that even if UT could show that racial preferences were necessary for some legitimate reason, its chosen paradigm for applying such preferences is arbitrary. For example, UT justifies preferences to Hispanics by pointing to the need for a “critical mass” of such students, even as it denies preferences to Asians, who comprise a smaller portion of the student body.

We urge the Supreme Court to reign in UT’s unbridled use of race in admissions decisions and take an important step toward ensuring that young Americans are judged on their qualifications and character rather than their skin color.