Tag: amicus briefs

Enforcing Housing Codes Is Not Racist

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful “[t]o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”  Magner v. Gallagher addresses the question of whether the FHA’s ban on racial discrimination can be violated by someone who does not actually engage in racial discrimination:  Owners of rental properties in St. Paul, Minnesota brought this suit claiming that the city’s enforcement of its housing code — ensuring that rental units were safe and otherwise habitable — violated the FHA because the repairs and maintenance necessary to comply with the code would increase rents and price out many of their African-American tenants.

Unable to show that the housing code intentionally discriminated based on race, however, the owners argued — and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted — a “disparate impact” theory under which a plaintiff need only show that an otherwise neutral practice has a disproportionate effect on some racial group. Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute on an amicus brief supporting the city’s request for Supreme Court review and arguing that the statutory language and congressional intent of the FHA preclude disparate impact claims.

We argue that extending such claims to the FHA “would deeply intrude on the authority of state and local governments, and render much of their housing policies illegal,” and “would inappropriately alter the federal-state balance in far-reaching ways.” Indeed, disparate impact claims would preclude all institutions subject to the FHA — public and private — from implementing many practical policies. For example, “because [the FHA] applies to financial institutions, banks and mortgage companies would be pressured to provide loans to unqualified applicants in order to avoid disparate impact liability. Similar actions played a key role in triggering the mortgage crisis of 2007-2008.”

Moreover, the disparate impact doctrine directly conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees by forcing government agencies “to engage in unconstitutional race-conscious decision making” in order to avoid liability under the Act. In short, allowing disparate impact claims under the FHA would both lead to adverse economic consequences and create new constitutional tensions.

The Supreme Court will hear Magner v. Gallagher on Feb. 29.

Supreme Court Should Use Texas Redistricting Case to Reconsider Voting Rights Act

The decennial redrawing of electoral districts consistently produces extensive litigation. The most notable cases this cycle come, as they often have, from Texas.

A number of activist groups challenged the Texas legislature’s maps for state house, state senate, and congressional districts, alleging racial discrimination under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in a special three-judge federal district court in San Antonio. At the same time, Texas is seeking in another three-judge district court in D.C. the “preclearance” of its maps that it needs to implement them under the VRA’s Section 5.

Enacted in 1965 to combat pervasive discrimination against black voters in the South, the VRA has exceeded expectations in excising that shameful phenomenon. Its application now, however, stymies the orderly implementation of free and fair elections, particularly in jurisdictions subject not only to the general prohibition on race-based voter discrimination, but also the Section 5 preclearance requirement.

Originally conceived as a check on states where discrimination was prevalent in the 1960s, preclearance requires certain jurisdictions to obtain federal approval before changing any election laws. (The Section 5 list is bizarre: six of the eleven states of the Old Confederacy — and certain counties in three others — plus Alaska, Arizona, and some counties or townships in five other states as diverse as New Hampshire and South Dakota. Curiously, (only) three New York counties are covered, all boroughs in New York City. What is going on in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan that is not in Queens or Staten Island?) To obtain preclearance, proposed changes may not result in “retrogression,” a reduction in minority voters’ ability to elect their “preferred” candidates.

Section 5 was originally a valuable tool in the fight against systemic disenfranchisement, but now facilitates the very discrimination it was designed to prevent. Indeed, the prohibition on retrogression effectively requires districting that assures that minority voters are the majority in a set number of districts — an inherently race-conscious mandate. The law, most recently renewed in 2006 for another 25 years, is based on deeply flawed assumptions and outdated statistical triggers, and flies in the face of the Fifteenth Amendment’s requirement that all voters be treated equally.

In any event, because the D.C. court here had not yet ruled on preclearance, the San Antonio court felt obligated to draw “interim” maps for use pending final adjudication of both the Section 2 and 5 cases. Texas filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that the lower court insufficiently deferred to the Texas legislature’s maps. Now on an expedited briefing and argument schedule, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting neither side and arguing that this case demonstrates all that is wrong with the VRA as it currently exists — highlighting the tension between the VRA and the Constitution and the practical difficulties that conflict engenders for election administration.

Put simply, the VRA’s success has undermined its continuing viability; courts and legislatures struggle mightily and often fruitlessly to satisfy both the VRA’s race-based mandate and the Fifteenth Amendment’s equal treatment guarantee. We also point out that Section 5’s selective applicability precludes the establishment of nationwide districting standards, confounding lower courts and producing different, often contradictory, treatment of voting rights in different states — in large part because Sections 2 and 5 themselves conflict with each other. We note that regardless of the outcome of this litigation, it is unlikely that Texas will have fully legal electoral maps in time to administer the 2012 elections in a fair and efficient manner.

These difficulties — constitutional, statutory, and practical — disadvantage candidates, voters, legislatures, and courts, and undermine the VRA’s great legacy of vindicating the voting rights of all citizens. The Court should thus schedule this case for broader reargument on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act as presently conceived.

The Court will hear argument in Perry v. Perez on January 9.  See SCOTUSblog’s coverage for more on the case.

The IRS Can’t Overrule the Supreme Court

Since the foundational administrative law case of Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), courts have given significant deference to executive agency interpretations of federal law. United States v. Home Concrete & Supply tests whether there are any meaningful limits on such deference.

The case involves a group of taxpayers who initiated a number of transactions designed to reduce their tax liability by allowing a financial entity they created, Home Concrete, to increase its tax basis and reduce its taxable gain from the sale of certain assets. In June 2003, the IRS ruled that the taxpayers’ use of Home Concrete in this way was improper and issued an adjustment to their tax return (requiring payment of back-taxes). Having missed the standard three-year limit for such actions, however, the IRS argued that the adjustment was timely under a tax-code provision that extends the statute of limitations to six years if the taxpayer “omits from gross income an amount properly includible therein which is in excess of 25 percent of the amount of gross income stated in the return.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s having long ago held otherwise, Colony v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1956), the IRS argues that an overstatement of basis qualifies as an omission under that tax provision. Further, during the course of this litigation, the Treasury Department issued a new regulation “clarifying” the provision in a way that supports the IRS’s argument. The IRS now argues that this new regulation is controlling and should be retroactively applied to Home Concrete’s 1999 returns.

After (mostly) winning at the district court, the IRS lost before the Fourth Circuit and asked the Supreme Court to review the case—which involves one of many similar applications of the relevant tax provisions. The Court took the case and now Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business on an amicus brief supporting the taxpayers, arguing that sanctioning this sort of ad hoc rule-making would undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers.

We note that “[t]he government’s position is that this regulation is due judicial deference” but the Supreme Court has “consistently held that where a statute has an unambiguous meaning, an agency’s contrary interpretation is not entitled to deference.” As Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson noted in his Fourth Circuit concurrence, “agencies are not a law unto themselves” and the government’s position in this case “seems to [be] something of an inversion of the universe and to pass the point where the beneficial application of agency expertise gives way to a lack of accountability and a risk of arbitrariness.”

In deciding Chevron, the Supreme Court surely never intended to undermine the very structure of the Republic and unleash an administrative state wholly a law unto itself.

The Supreme Court will hear United States v. Home Cincrete & Supply on January 17.

The Government Must Compensate for Property Damage Even If Its Taking Was Only ‘Temporary’

Cato today filed an amicus brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review Arkansas Game & Fish Commission v. United States.  Here’s the case:

The Arkansas Game & 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 government released more water than authorized under the plan. AGFC repeatedly objected that these excessive 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 Federal Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the flooding of private land can never be a taking unless that flooding is permanent. It further held that, in determining whether the government’s intrusion on AGFC’s land 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.

AGFC is asking the Supreme Court to review its case; the Court itself has recognized that something less than a permanent invasion of land can constitute a compensable taking. Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on a brief urging the Court to hear the case and uphold the Fifth Amendment rights of property owners whose land is destroyed by the federal government. Our brief highlights the conflict between the Federal Circuit’s decision and both Supreme Court and lower court precedent. First, an invasion of land by flooding is no different from an invasion of land by any other means. Second, the government’s self-professed “intent” that a possible taking be “temporary” should have no bearing on whether a Fifth Amendment remedy exists when that taking has, in fact, occurred. Instead, the relevant inquiry should be whether the government caused permanent damage and, if so, how much.

The Federal Circuit’s new rule — that, so long as it might be “temporary,” no government flooding can be remedied under the Fifth Amendment — runs afoul of the letter and spirit of a constitutional provision meant to compensate property owners for government intrusions on their land. We urge the Court to grant AGFC’s petition and maintain constitutional protections for private property.

The Supreme Court will decide in the new year whether to take the case, and would hear argument in the fall if it does.

Should You Need a License to Help Someone Find an Apartment?

Kansas City Premier Apartments v. Missouri Real Estate Commission is quite similar to the occupational licensing case of Locke v. Shore, in which Cato also recently filed a brief, except that the speech-licensing regulation here concerns not artistic expression but rather the dissemination of consumer-demanded commercial information — specifically, rental property listings that are free to the public.

The Missouri Real Estate Commission, acting on a complaint by a licensed realtor, decided that Kansas City Premier Apartments, which provides local rental listings, was acting as an unlicensed real estate broker and was therefore subject to fine and even criminal prosecution. (Before KCPA began operations, it had asked the Commission whether it needed a license and did not receive a clear answer other than that it was a “grey area” of law.)

KCPA challenged the Commission’s decision on First Amendment grounds, but the trial court found it to be constitutional without giving a reason for its conclusion. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court after simply presuming the constitutionality of the speech restriction — contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp. that “[t]he party seeking to uphold a restriction on commercial speech carries the burden of justifying it” — and placing the burden of proving unconstitutionality on KCPA.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on a brief supporting KCPA’s request that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case. Our brief notes that “this case combines the nationally important commercial speech issue with the equally nationally important question of the extent to which the Constitution tolerates occupational licensing.” We explain the difficulties that the Court’s “commercial speech doctrine” has caused and argue for a movement toward greater protection for collective and commercial speech, and away from a confusing four-part test established in a 1980 case called Central Hudson.

As in Locke, this latest case raises the question of whether occupational licensing schemes that have an effect on speech are constitutional. Also as in Locke, an infinite array of professionals and ordinary people could get caught up in this regulation, including even a friend helping another friend find an apartment.

Beyond the technical legal points, the case implicates broader policy issues such as the right to earn a living and the impact that speech monopolies have on consumers. Indeed, the consumer impact may be even more apparent here than in other occupational licensing cases because so many people struggle to find affordable apartments and other rentals in this economy — not to mention over the course of their lives.

The Supreme Court will decide early in the new year whether to hear Kansas City Premier Apartments v. Missouri Real Estate Commission.

More on the Constitution’s Lack of a Drug-War Exception

Challenges to Florida’s unconstitutional drug laws continue to gain momentum. Following a successful federal district court challenge to the constitutionality of state statutes lacking a mens rea requirement (mental culpability, rather than, for example, incidental possession), people convicted under them have come forward en masse to ask Florida courts to reexamine their convictions.

As described in the background to a previous brief in the case of Florida Dept. of Corrections v. Shelton, the district court held that these sorts of laws offend the constitutional guarantee of due process. Florida’s Supreme Court has now consolidated over 40 appeals resulting from that federal court decision (which itself is now on appeal). Cato has once again joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, Calvert Institute for Policy Research, Libertarian Law Council, and 38 law professors on a brief supporting the rights of persons convicted under the “strict liability” statutes.

We urge the Florida Supreme Court to follow the federal district court’s lead and strike down laws prohibiting the sale, possession, or delivery of illicit substances without requiring mental culpability. That court now has the opportunity to reverse these unwarranted convictions and purge a nationally singular stain on civil liberties.

The name of the case is Florida v. Adkins.

Thanks to legal associate Paul Jossey for his assistance with this brief and blogpost.

Obamacare’s Footnote Four

This post was co-authored by Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon.

Freedom-loving lawyers everywhere recoil in horror at the mere mention of “footnote four.” In that infamous citation in the 1938 case of Carolene Products, the Supreme Court officially renounced judicial review of laws that infringe on economic liberty. This week, in his dissent from the D.C. Circuit opinion that upheld the individual mandate on Commerce Clause grounds, Judge Brett Kavanaugh added his own dubious “footnote four.”

Judge Kavanaugh’s 65-page dissent was devoted to his parsimonious reading of various provisions in the Internal Revenue Code, culminating in the conclusion that the Anti-Injunction Act robbed federal courts of jurisdiction to hear the case until the mandate penalty is actually enforced. As Judge Kavanaugh noted, “the Tax Code is never a walk in the park.” But the Tax Code is even more grueling when you are given lousy legal advice. And that is why footnote four – in which Judge Kavanaugh inexplicably decides to publicly thank former IRS commissioners Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen and their counsel for their amicus brief – is so troubling. Here is his footnote four:

Both sides before us want this case decided now and contend that the Anti-Injunction Act does not bar this suit. The amicus brief of former IRS Commissioners Mortimer Caplin and Sheldon Cohen, submitted by able counsel Alan Morrison, cogently argued the opposite position. The Court is grateful to amici and counsel for their assistance.

But it is entirely unclear why Commissioners Caplin and Cohen and Counsel Morrison deserve the court’s thanks. For starters, the Caplin and Cohen brief was not advocating either of Judge Kavanaugh’s nuanced readings – be they correct or not – of various provisions in the Internal Revenue Code. (It did, however, make one of Kavanaugh’s main arguments in response to one of the government’s arguments toards the end of the brief.) Rather, the Caplin and Cohen brief broadly asserts that the AIA “prevents courts from reviewing all claims involving payments under the Code, not just those labeled taxes.”

The problem is that, in support of this broad, sweeping assertion, the Caplin and Cohen brief misleadingly cites cases that do not support its claim. That is, almost all the cases cited by the Caplin and Cohen brief specifically relied upon the fact that the penalties at issue were found in chapter 68 of the IRC or were part of a larger taxing scheme (as in the Mobile Republican case). But you would not know that from reading the Caplin and Cohen brief.

Take, for example, the Caplin and Cohen brief’s citation to Shaw v. United States and Botta v. Scanlon as “perhaps the best illustration of the breadth of the applicability of” the AIA. What the Caplin and Cohen brief does not say is that both of these cases specifically rely upon provisions in the IRC that define the penalty at issue in those cases (under section 6672) as taxes for the purposes of the AIA. Those provisions, by their own terms, only apply to penalties under chapter 68 of the Code, and the penalty for violating the individual mandate is in chapter 48.

This is really green-eyshade stuff, we know, but that’s what this litigation has come to – and it’s why tax lawyers are not suffering the higher rates of unemployment of their peers in other specialties.

To make matters worse, Caplin and Cohen filed essentially the same amicus brief with the Supreme Court in one of the cases that the Court will take up at its cert petition conference this week. This is especially alarming because the government has urged the Court to appoint an amicus counsel to argue for the position that the AIA applies to the penalty for violating the individual mandate (even though the government now agrees with the mandate’s challengers that the AIA does not apply).

We think the justices’ clerks are fully capable of advising their bosses on the pro-AIA arguments, which in any event does not apply to the 26 state plaintiffs in the Eleventh Circuit case.  Plus the Court has the Fourth Circuit’s and now Judge Kavanaugh’s thorough “briefs.” If the Court does decide to appoint an amicus to argue that issue, however, let’s hope that it receives better legal advice than the D.C. Circuit got from Caplin and Cohen.