Tag: amicus briefs

More on AEP v. Connecticut: Sue the Butterflies or Regulate Them?

During Tuesday’s oral arguments in American Electric Power v. Connecticut—the global warming lawsuit that Walter Olson recently discussed here and Ilya Shapiro here, and in which Cato filed amicus briefs at both the certiorari stage and the merits stage—the justices concentrated their inquiries on a few technical legal doctrines in order to answer one question: should states even be allowed to sue power companies for the damage that global warming has allegedly done to their lands and citizens?

There are multiple ways this question could be answered, and how it is answered in the final opinion could have important ramifications for future environmental litigation.

Connecticut and five other states, plus New York City and three land trusts, brought the suit against five power companies. Their claim is based on the age-old tort of nuisance, the same ground that lets you sue your neighbor if his contaminated water seeps onto your land. Essentially, the states argued that if courts can solve that kind of dispute, then a dispute over global warming is only slightly different—bigger in scope, certainly, but not different in kind.

But at oral argument, the justices did not seem persuaded. Arguing against the states, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal opened by pointing out that “[i]n the 222 years that this Court has been sitting, it has never heard a case with so many potential perpetrators and so many potential victims…[T]he very name of the alleged nuisance, ‘global warming,’ itself tells you much of what you need to know.” Chief Justice John Roberts later asked the states’ attorney, New York solicitor general Barbara Underwood, if she had any rebuttal to Katyal’s claim—if there was “any case where it has been as broad as it is here?” Her answer? “Well, of course it depends on what you call broad.”

Indeed.

But how much broader could it be? Taking the scientists at their word, we’d have to include at least every car owner, every coal power plant, every natural gas power plant, every cement producer, every forester, and the fabled effects of bovine flatulence. And not just every one of these in America, but every one in the world. The scope of this case and the numerous trade-offs involved make it utterly inappropriate for judicial resolution.

The supposed link between the power companies’ emissions and the alleged global warming harms resembles a Rube Goldberg device of conjectures that stretches back millions of years. In our brief we analogized this to the famous “butterfly effect”: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas.

A few theories were offered as to why the case should not go any further. The most far reaching of these theories, the political question doctrine, is one we advanced in our amicus briefs. The political question doctrine directs courts to stay out of disputes that are better left to the other branches of government. A decision along those lines would go far in the future toward keeping such suits out of courts.

But many environmental lawyers are hoping, and predicting, that the states will “lose well”—that is, the suit will be dismissed because it has been “displaced” by the “regulatory cas­cade” underway at the EPA, not because it is a fundamentally impossible and illegitimate lawsuit. Dismissing the suit on these grounds would leave the door open for large-scale suits to be brought whenever an agency is thought to be shirking its regulatory duties. Such suits are already a problem for administrative agencies, particularly those brought by environmental advocacy groups trying to force agencies to live up to the groups’ idea of sound environmental policy. The NY Times, for example, reported recently on the “barrage [that] has paralyzed the listing process” for the Endangered Species Act.

Not wanting to totally foreclose the possibility of large-scale suits being brought in the future, at least three justices, Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg, seemed partial to the displacement theory. One hopes that the other five justices will rule, on either prudential standing or political question grounds, that no amount of regulatory action or inaction can make these suits justiciable. If regulation is called for here – a dubious proposition – it should be undertaken by the political branches, not the courts.

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date II

As I wrote last week, a decade ago in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that those who buy property subject to burdensome regulations lose the right the seller otherwise has to challenge those regulations.  The Court ruled that the Takings Clause does not have an “expiration date.”  Sadly, not all government authorities or courts took Palazzolo to heart, and now we have a second such case meriting Cato’s involvement in the span of a week.

In 2000, after the EPA issued a Record of Decision concerning limiting access to a “slough” (a narrow strip of navigable water) on its Superfund National Priorities List, CRV Enterprises began negotiations to buy a parcel of land next to the slough across from a site once occupied by a wood-preserving plant.  CRV hoped to develop that parcel and others it already controlled into a mixed-use development, including a marina, boat slips, restaurants, lodging, storage, sales, and service facilities.  The company eventually bought the land with notice of the EPA’s ROD but the EPA later installed a “sand cap” and “log boom” that obstructed CRV’s access to the slough.

CRV sued the United States in the Court of Federal Claims, which dismissed the case for lack of standing. The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that CRV’s claim “is barred because [the company] did not own a valid property interest at the time of the alleged regulatory taking.”  The Federal Circuit thus turned two Supreme Court precedents on their head and put that “expiration date” on the Takings Clause.  It did so despite the fact that multiple federal courts have upheld Palazzolo’s rule and that longstanding California common law recognizes that a littoral (next to water) owner’s access to the shore adjacent to his property is a property right.

Cato, joined by Reason Foundation, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and the National Federation of Independent Business, filed an amicus brief supporting CRV’s request that the Supreme Court review the Federal Circuit’s decision and reaffirm Palazzolo.  We argue the following: (1) when post-enactment purchasers are per se denied standing to challenge regulation, government power expands at the expense of private property rights; (2) a rule under which pre-enactment owners have superior rights to subsequent title-holders threatens to disrupt real estate markets; (3) the Federal Circuit abrogated the rule of Palazzolo; and (4) this case — viewed in the context of other courts’ rulings — indicates the need for the Supreme Court to settle the spreading confusion about Palazzolo.  Otherwise, the existence of a “post-enactment” rule will create a “massive uncompensated taking” from small developers and investors that would preserve and enhance the rights of large corporations.

Palazzolo put to rest “once and for all the notion that title to property is altered when it changes hands.”  The ability of property owners to challenge government interference with their property is essential to a proper understanding of the Fifth Amendment; the Court must reestablish the principle that transfer of title does not diminish property rights.  Significantly, the Federal Circuit isn’t alone in its misapplication of Palazzolo; the Ninth Circuit in Guggenheim v. City of Goleta (in which Cato also filed a brief) recently issued an opinion severely narrowing Palazzolo’s scope and deepening a circuit split.

Thanks to legal associate Nick Mosvick and former legal associate Brandon Simmons (acting as our outside counsel in this case) for their work on this case, CRV Enterprises v. United States.

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.

The Takings Clause Has No Expiration Date

Just a decade ago in Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that those who buy property subject to burdensome regulations lose the right the seller otherwise has to challenge those regulations. The Court ruled that the Takings Clause does not have an “expiration date.”

Sadly, not all government authorities or courts took Palazzolo to heart. In 1997, Daniel and Susan Guggenheim bought a mobile home park that, at the time of purchase, was in “unincorporated territory” of Santa Barbara County, California. The Guggenheims did not challenge the county’s 1979 rent control ordinance but instead challenged the 2002 adoption of that ordinance by the City of Goleta when the city incorporated the Guggenheims’ land.

The Ninth Circuit essentially limited Palazzolo to its particular facts and circumstances, deciding to convert the established three-factor test for regulatory takings (Penn Central) into a one-factor test focused solely on “investment-backed expectations.” The court did this largely on the premise that the Guggenheims did not present an “as-applied” challenge — as Palazzolo did — to the ordinance’s application to their mobile home park, but instead filed a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the ordinance itself. As a result, the Ninth Circuit turned two Supreme Court precedents on their head and put that “expiration date” on the Takings Clause in this case.

Significantly, the Ninth Circuit isn’t alone in its misapplication of Palazzolo; the Federal Circuit in CRV Enterprises v. United States (in which Cato will also be filing a brief) also recently issued an opinion severely narrowing Palazzolo’s scope and deepening a circuit split.

Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the Guggenheims’ request that the Supreme Court review the Ninth Circuit decision and reaffirm its decision in Palazzolo. The brief argues the Supreme Court should review the case because: (1) a rule that allows the transfer of title to immunize government regulation from constitutional or other legal challenge expands government power and diminishes property rights; (2) the Ninth Circuit “flouts” the rule of Palazzolo; and (3) this case — as well as CRV Enterprises — indicates the need for the Supreme Court to settle the spreading confusion about Palazzolo.

Otherwise, the existence of a “post-enactment” rule will create a “massive uncompensated taking” from small developers and investors that would preserve and enhance the rights of large corporations. The ability of property owners to challenge government interference with their property is essential to a proper understanding of the Fifth Amendment; the Court must reestablish the principle that transfer of title does not diminish property rights.

Thanks to legal associate Nick Mosvick and former legal associate Brandon Simmons (acting as our outside counsel in this case) for their work on this case, Guggenheim v. City of Goleta.

Even University Presidents Are Bound by the Constitution

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 did not take kindly to that criticism and endeavored to retaliate against Barnes — ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators.  Zaccari even ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office!

The district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had indeed been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions. Now on appeal, Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity is inappropriate here given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process.  As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.”  The brief thus asks the Eleventh Circuit to affirm the denial of qualified immunity on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

First, the immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights.  Second, Zaccari knew or should have known that his actions violated Barnes’ rights and were illegal retaliation against constitutionally protected speech. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights. A denial of qualified immunity here would vindicate those rights and reinforce school administrators’ obligation to protect and abide by them. 

The case of Barnes v. Zaccari will be heard by the Eleventh Circuit this spring or summer.  Thanks to legal associate Nicholas Mosvick for his help on the brief and with this post.

Does Virginia Even Have Standing to Challenge Obamacare?

As I described yesterday in the context of Cato’s latest brief, Virginia’s challenge to the constitutionality of the individual mandate is now on appeal before the Fourth Circuit (the federal appellate court that covers Maryland, Virgnia, and the Carolinas).   Before the court even considers the constitutional merits, however, it must confirm that the state has standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place. 

Indeed, two amicus briefs filed by some law professors argue that the state does not have the legal power to challenge the constitutionality of Obamacare.  But Pacific Legal Foundation attorney and Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur filed a brief responding to those briefs and arguing that Virginia does have standing to bring the case.

Here’s the issue:  Article III of the Constitution only lets federal courts hear “cases and controversies,” which means that a plaintiff – whether an individual, a state, a corporation, or any other entity – must have been actually harmed in a way that courts can address.  For example, courts can’t review abstract political arguments or give advisory opinions.  Here, Virginia argues that it’s been injured because it passed a Health Care Freedom Act that prevents citizens from being forced to buy health insurance – which is obviously in conflict with the individual mandate.

The professors say, in contrast, that states can’t pass laws that conflict with federal law as a means of getting in court and challenging the constitutionality of the federal law.  They point to Massachusetts v. Mellon, a 1923 decision that said states don’t have the “duty or power to enforce … [citizens’] … rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.  In that field it is the United States, and not the State, which represents them as parens patriae….”  They argue that the “the state’s interest in enforcing its legal code must necessarily give way to federal law whenever a conflict arises,” and that “[m]anufacturing a conflict with federal law cannot of itself create an interest sufficient to support standing.”

PLF’s brief explains, however, that states have had the power to do precisely that since at least McCulloch v. Maryland, the 1819 case that upheld the constitutionality of the national bank (and which is central to the Necessary and Proper Clause analysis at the heart of the larger constitutional debate over Obamacare).  In McCulloch, Maryland passed a law taxing the bank simply to give it the ability to challenge the bank’s creation in the Supreme Court.  Although the Court found the bank constitutionally kosher, it never denied that the state couldn’t raise its claims.  And the Supreme Court has allowed states in many other cases to challenge federal laws that intrude on their constitutionally retained sovereignty.

In South Dakota v. Dole (1987), for instance, the Court allowed the state to challenge the constitutionality of laws that infringed on the power to regulate alcohol consumption (by tying federal highway funds to states’ raising their drinking age to 21) – a power that the Twenty-First Amendment leaves to states.  If states can defend powers retained by the Twenty-First Amendment, why can’t they defend powers retained by the Tenth Amendment? 

And states should have the power to bring these lawsuits, because the Founders intended for states to serve as a check against Congress going beyond its constitutional authority.  In Federalist 46, for example, Madison assured skeptics that states would have “means of opposition” against federal overreaching, and those means would include “the embarrassments created by legislative devices.”  States are supposed to defend their turf in the federal constitutional scheme.  As for cases like Mellon, PLF argues that these cases involved “political questions” and so were not rulings about standing: in those cases the states weren’t really exercising their sovereign powers.  But in this case, Virginia has clearly exercised its sovereignty by passing the Health Care Freedom Act.

Interestingly, one reason PLF argues that states should have standing to bring these cases is because there’s some question whether individual citizens are allowed to bring Tenth Amendment challenges.  That question will be resolved this term in Bond v. United States, a case in which Cato filed an amicus brief in December.  If individuals are hard-pressed to defend the federalist structure, then states certainly should be able to.

In short, PLF’s brief (which was also filed on behalf of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine and Matt Sissel, PLF’s client in a different Obamacare case) makes a complicated but crucial argument supporting states’ ability to defend federalism by challenging the constitutionality of federal overreaching.  More at PLF’s blog.

Cato’s Latest Obamacare Brief: Congress Cannot ‘Commandeer the People’

A recent poll showed that 22% of Americans believe Obamacare has been repealed and 26% aren’t sure.  Yet here at Cato, we’re all too aware that the massive, unconstitutional, and fundamentally unworkable overhaul of our health care system still looms on the horizon.

While two lower courts have struck down Obamacare in whole or in part, three others have ruled it constitutional, including a D.C. District Court opinion that claimed for the federal government the right to regulate the “mental activity” of decision-making.  As litigation progresses to the appellate level, this latter decision has proven to be more a hindrance to Obamacare’s supporters than a help, its Orwellian pronouncement being hard to ignore while the government downplays the significance of the power Congress is asserting.  Nevertheless, Obamacare’s constitutionality—with a focus on the individual health insurance mandate—remains an open question until ruled upon by the Supreme Court. 

Cato’s latest amicus brief is in the Fourth Circuit, in the case brought by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.  In this case, unlike in the Sixth Circuit (in which we also filed a brief), it is the federal government that appealed an adverse district court decision that struck down the individual mandate.  In our brief, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Prof. Randy Barnett (the intellectual godfather of the Obamacare legal challenges, and also a Cato senior fellow), we argue that the outermost bounds of existing Commerce Clause jurisprudence prevent Congress from reaching intrastate non-economic activity regardless of whether it substantially affects interstate commerce.  Nor under existing law can Congress reach inactivity even if it purports to act pursuant to a broader regulatory scheme.  

Allowing Congress to conscript citizens into economic transactions is not only contrary to existing Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clause doctrine—as broad as that doctrine is—but it would fundamentally alter the relationship between the sovereign people and their supposed “public servants.”  The individual mandate “commandeers the people” into Congress’s brave new health care world.  If Obamacare is allowed to stand, the only limit on federal power will be Congress’s own discretion.

The case will be argued before the Fourth Circuit in Richmond on May 10.  Read more from Prof. Barnett on Obamacare here and check out the half-day event we recently held on the legal and economic problems with the law.  Finally, though his name isn’t on our brief because he hasn’t yet become a member of the bar, many thanks to legal associate Trevor Burrus for his work on it.