Tag: amicus briefs

Vague Laws Defy the Rule of Law

Following Enron’s downfall, the federal government charged company CEO Jeffrey Skilling with “honest services fraud” connected to the alleged manipulation of Enron’s market value (and other securities irregularities).  This charge — also at issue in two other cases before the Court this term — is based on a statute which says, in its entirety: “For the purposes of this chapter, the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

Skilling was convicted, and his conviction was upheld by the Fifth Circuit.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the application of the “honest services fraud” statute to Skilling (as well as the issue of potential jury bias stemming from pretrial publicity in Houston).  Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation, filed an amicus brief supporting neither party, arguing simply that vague statutes such as the one at issue here offend due process.

We take no position on whether Skilling committed a crime, or even the crime at issue here (whatever that may be).  Instead, we argue that the Court should clarify that the constitutional prohibition on vague laws protects sophisticated and unsophisticated defendants alike in the realm of economic regulation, as well as in criminal law.  The due process requirements of fair warning and definiteness apply equally in the contexts of white collar business crimes, business torts, and civil regulations.

Vague laws involve three basic dangers:  First, they may harm the innocent by failing to warn of the offense.  Second, they encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement because vague laws delegate enforcement and statutory interpretation to individual government officials.  Third, because citizens will take extra precautions to avoid violating the law, vague laws inhibit our individual freedom.

For more on this issue, see Tim Lynch’s posts here and here, Gene Healy’s op-ed, or the related policy forum and podcast.

Use Your Law Deferment to Work for Liberty!

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations. Cato has been running a deferred associates program for the last few months and we are now extending it for as long as top-notch candidates want to ride out the economy with us.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies. This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review. Start and end dates are flexible. Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, availability of stipend, etc.) to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato [dot] org.

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues. For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato [dot] org (jcoon [at] cato [dot] org.)

Cato’s Legal Arguments Worry U.S. Government

Last month, Cato (joined by Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett) filed a brief in United States v. Comstock, a case regarding the constitutionality of a law authorizing the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers.” Moreover, the government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8), “is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely ‘carries into execution’ the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section.” The commitment of prisoners after their terms end simply cannot fit into one of the enumerated powers.

While we of course hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to our brief, we know that Solicitor General Elana Kagan, at least, is concerned enough about our arguments to spend several pages of the government’s reply brief addressing them (see pages 5-9). 

For more on Comstock, see its case page on SCOTUSwiki, which now has all the briefs and will around the Jan. 12 argument date be populated with argument previews and reviews, as well as links to media coverage.

A Special Kind of Eminent Domain Abuse

In federal eminent domain cases, the “scope of the project” rule requires that in determining “just compensation” under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, any increase or decrease in property value caused by the federal project be disregarded.  As it turns out, the federal government had discussed the idea of expanding Everglades National Park for over 30 years, and also induced the local government to enact tougher zoning standards that decreased the value of the property that was to be taken for this purpose.  This type of behavior is a special kind of eminent domain abuse called “condemnation blight.”

The Everglades-related federal actions forced Gilbert Fornatora to watch the value of his South Florida property decline until the federal government finally condemned it – and paid him much lower compensation than he would otherwise have received.  Then, once condemnation proceedings began, the government manipulated the hearing schedule by front-loading ill-prepared owners who lacked counsel, thereby setting a low valuation precedent that would then be applied to the later parties with representation, like Fornatora.  The Eleventh Circuit sided with the government, so Fornatora petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case.

Cato filed an amicus brief supporting this petition, arguing that property owners have virtually no “scope of the project” protection if they must prove that the government’s sole or primary purpose for pre-condemnation action was to depress property values for later eminent domain proceedings.  A more workable test, consistent with due process, is merely to require evidence of a nexus between the government’s actions and the depressed property value.  The Court should also hear this case to ensure that just compensation proceedings comport with the due process, equal protection, and general fairness standards the government is required to follow in a variety of other settings.

The Court will be deciding early in the new year whether to hear the case, which has the ungainly name of 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

Heller Counsel Argues for an Originalist Revolution

Alan Gura, who successfully defended the individual right to keep and bear arms under Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller has now filed his brief in the case that seeks to apply that right to the states, McDonald v. City of Chicago.  (Cato earlier filed a brief supporting Alan’s cert petition, the background to which you can read about here.)

The question presented in this case is: Whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated as against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities or Due Process Clauses.  Remarkably, only 7 of the brief’s 73 pages are devoted to the Due Process Clause, which is the constitutional provision by which almost all the the Bill of Rights has been “incorporated” against the states.  Indeed, the brief argues that the Due Process Clause “has incorporated virtually all other enumerated rights” and so there is no reason to make the Second Amendment an exception.

The rest of the brief is far more interesting, arguing for overturning the ill-fated Slaughter-House Cases, which eviscerated the Priviliges or Immunities Clause in 1873.  Slaughter-House forced the Court to start protecting natural rights and fundamental liberties under the oddly named “substantive due process” doctrine – and it remains a bugaboo for legal scholars of all ideological stripes.  Overturning it would potentially open the door to challenges against legislation that violates a host of unenumerated rights, such as the right to enter into contract or to earn an honest living. 

Understandably, libertarians are excited at the prospect of Privileges or Immunities’ revival.  But so too are liberals, at the thought of potentially filling an empty constitutional vessel with positive rights (to health care, education, pensions, etc.).  I believe this to be an overstated threat from the perspective of constitutional interpretation – as opposed to legislation – and have an article coming out with Josh Blackman in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy in January making this point.  (The article, titled “Opening Pandora’s Box? Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Incorporating the Second Amendment,” will shortly be up on SSRN, but for now you can read the abstract/introduction here.)

In any event, P or I (as it’s known) is a vastly superior way of giving people in the states the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. But it’s ambitious to argue this way rather than settle for the traditional jurisprudence.  As Orin Kerr says at the Volokh Conspiracy, “It’s certainly an attention-getting way to brief the case. It’s not just arguing for a win: It’s arguing for a revolution.”

For further discussion of Alan’s McDonald brief – which Cato will be supporting with an amicus brief next week – see Lyle Deniston’s write-up at SCOTUSblog.

The Right to Speak in Non-Government-Approved Ways

School officials denied student Pete Palmer the right to wear a shirt supporting John Edwards’s presidential campaign at his Dallas-area high school. They cited the district’s dress code, which prohibited messages on student clothing except for those that supported school activities or district-approved organizations, clubs or teams.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the school district that this was a reasonable “time, place and manner” speech restriction. Applying the test from United States v. O’Brien, the court found that the dress code was content- and viewpoint-neutral, and served an important governmental purpose. Palmer now seeks Supreme Court review, citing seemingly contradictory precedents from the Second and Third Circuits and arguing that the regulation here flies in the face of the protection afforded to student speech by the famous case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus brief supporting Palmer’s petition and urging the continued use of Tinker. We argue that the Court should clarify its jurisprudence in this area to stop schools from applying broad restrictions in an attempt to avoid controversy and debate—and thereby threaten the very political and religious speech at the First Amendment’s core.

To prevent the chilling of student speech, the Court should solidify Tinker’s central tenet, reaffirming that so long as speech doesn’t “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The case is Palmer v. Waxahachie Independent School District. The Court will be deciding early in 2010 whether to hear it.

Defending Civil Rights and Suing Rogue Prosecutors Is Left-Wing Lawyering?

The National Law Journal and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog note an apparent legal curiosity: Paul Clement, superstar head of King & Spaulding’s appellate group and Bush-administration solicitor general, now “flirts with liberalism” and has “embrace[d] left-leaning causes” to grow his practice.  Is this another case of a conservative lawyer “growing” in office or “drifting” to the left, seduced by the cocktail parties and press attention of the Washington elite?

Hardly.  The two cases that prompted this gnashing of teeth (or cautious optimism, depending on where the commentator resides on the political spectrum) are Perdue v. Kenny A. and Pottowattamie County v. McGhee.  In Kenny A., Clement represented a group of public interest attorneys who won a big case on behalf of mistreated foster children and argued that they should be entitled to the enhanced fees the trial court awarded them for exceptional performance.  In McGhee, Clement’s clients are two men who were framed by overzealous prosecutors and served 25 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit – the convictions for which were based on the prosecutors’ fabricated evidence.

To say that these are left-wing positions is to consider the Left to be the only possible champion of justice and constitutional rights, and to paint the non-Left as standing for limitless, unaccountable governmental power.  Neither of these positions is accurate, to say the least.  If anything, Clement’s positions are solidly libertarian.

Indeed, Cato filed briefs in both cases, and I signed both of them.  You can read our brief in Kenny A. here and in McGhee here – Clement actually called me to make sure Cato got involved in this one – and you can read my blog posts about the cases here and here, respectively.

In short, if Paul Clement has gone red, well then so have I – and trust me, there won’t be any kumbaya confabs at my place any time soon.  My car’s new vanity plate does say FED 51, however – short for Federalist 51 – so feel free to call me out for flirtations with Madisonian political theory.

H/T: Manny Klausner