Tag: due process

Supreme Court Wastes Time, Money, and Opportunity to Protect Property Rights and Due Process

Yesterday the Supreme Court released its first four opinions in cases argued this term, the latest first-opinion release in recent history.  The only one that interests me – and it’s not Justice Sotomayor’s maiden effort – is the civil forfeiture case, Alvarez v. Smith.

Civil forfeiture, the practice in which the police seize cars, money and other kinds of property that they say has some connection to crime, can raise various legal and policy issues — from property rights to due process.  The question in Alvarez was the basic one of whether people seeking to get their property back are entitled to a prompt hearing before a judge.

I blogged about the case here, and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin wrote about it here. Cato’s also filed a brief in the case supporting the individuals whose property was seized.

Unfortunately, because all underlying disputes had been resolved by the time of oral argument – cars had been returned and the individuals have either forfeited their cash or accepted the state’s return of some of it – the Court determined the case to be moot.  It thus vacated the lower court’s opinion and remanded with instructions for that court to dismiss the case.

And that’s a shame.  While the dispute does seem to be moot with respect to the particular petitioners, this is obviously a situation “capable of repetition” but “evading review” – along the lines of that little-known case of Roe v. Wade.  That is, just like the case of a pregnant woman is moot within nine months, disputes over civil forfeiture get resolved one way or the other long before the slow turn of litigation reaches the Supreme Court.  By avoiding the merits of this case, the Court guarantees that the important constitutional questions presented by this case remain perpetually unresolved.

What is more, by vacating the Seventh Circuit’s opinion – an extraordinary remedy – the Court deprives Illinoisans of a well-reasoned and just ruling that could be used as precedent in future cases.  It also – and this is no small matter – wastes the time, effort, and resources of the parties and their attorneys, taxpayers (who obviously paid for the petitioners’ legal work here, as well as that of the judiciary), and, of course, amici (including Cato).

Justice Stevens was correct in his partial dissent: if the Court disagrees with the argument I made in the preceding paragraph, it should have applied the general rule against vacating judgments that have become moot because the parties settled.  The proper disposition here would have been to DIG the case – dismiss the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted (which allows the lower court ruling to remain on the books undisturbed).

Likely Supreme Court Tie Would Be a Loss to Property Owners

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).

Essentially, Florida’s ”beach renourishment” program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had – exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the “mean high water mark,” etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into “beachview” property.  After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court – “SCOFLA” for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio – reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.

As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless.”

I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat.  That is, Justice Stevens recused himself – he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program – and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly.  And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.

By my reckoning, Justice Scalia’s questioning lent support to the property owners’ position, as did Chief Justice Roberts’ (though he could rule in favor of the “judicial takings” doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here).  Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice.  Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights.  With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote.  Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.

For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog.  Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

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.

Cato Files Brief to Extend Second Amendment Rights, Provide Protections for Privileges or Immunities

Last year, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court confirmed what most scholars and a substantial majority of Americans long believed: that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. Heller led to the current challenge to Chicago’s handgun ban, which raises the question of whether the Fourteenth Amendment protects that right against infringement by state and local governments. The Seventh Circuit answered the question in the negative, finding itself foreclosed by 19th-century Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case – after Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the cert petition – and specifically consider whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause or its Privileges or Immunities Clause is the proper provision for incorporating the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms as against the states.

Now Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation, has filed a brief supporting those challenging the handgun ban – who are represented by Alan Gura, the lawyer who successfully argued Heller – and calling for an overruling of the Slaughter-House Cases, which eviscerated the Privileges or Immunities Clause in 1873. Slaughter-House narrowly circumscribed the rights protected by the Privileges or Immunities Clause, contrary to the intentions of the Amendment’s framers and in direct contradiction to the developments in legal theory that underlay its adoption.

We also argue that in addition to ignoring the history surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment, the Slaughter-House majority violated basic rules of constitutional interpretation. Finally, restoring the Privileges or Immunities Clause would not result in the demise of substantive due process because the idea at the core of that doctrine – that the Due Process Clause imposes something more than mere procedural limits on government power – was widely accepted when the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted and its authors rightly believed that the Due Process and the Privileges or Immunities Clauses would provide separate but overlapping protections for individual rights.

Again, go here to read Cato’s brief in McDonald v. City of Chicago.  Related, Josh Blackman and I have put up on SSRN our article, “Opening Pandora’s Box? Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Incorporating the Second Amendment,” which comes out in January in the Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy.  I will be blogging more about “Pandora” – and, of course, the McDonald case – in future.

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 Constitutional Right to Save Lives

Our friends at IJ have filed an exciting new lawsuit, one that, if successful, could save the lives of more than 1,000 people a year: people who die needlessly of assorted blood diseases (including leukemia) because the federal government criminalizes the offering of even modest compensation for bone marrow donation.

That is, the National Organ Transplant Act – which outlawed the sale of kidneys and other organs – for some reason included bone marrow.

NOTA’s criminal ban is unconstitutional because it arbitrarily treats bone marrow like nonrenewable solid organs instead of like other renewable or inexhaustible cells – such as blood or sperm – for which compensated donation is legal.  (That makes no sense because bone marrow, unlike kidneys, replenishes itself in just a few weeks, leaving the donor whole. )

The ban also fails constitutional muster because it irrationally interferes with the right to participate in safe, accepted, lifesaving, and otherwise legal medical treatment.

As Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, said in a press release announcing the case:  “Bad things happen when the federal government exceeds its constitutional authority.  In this case, people actually die.  The Institute for Justice intends to stop that and to restore constitutional constraints that prohibit arbitrary limits on individual liberty.”

IJ brought this suit on behalf of adults with deadly blood diseases, the parents of sick children, a California nonprofit, and a world-renowned medical doctor who specializes in bone marrow research.  You can find more information here.  Perhaps more interestingly, IJ senior attorney Jeff Rowes is guest-blogging about the case all week at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Here’s his first post.

Contempt of (Secret) Court?

At last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the PATRIOT Act, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) raised an interesting question I haven’t seen discussed much: What happens to someone who willfully violates an order of the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? (FISA)

Generally, courts have the right to enforce their own orders by finding those who disobey in contempt, and a line from a rare public version of an opinion issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review suggests that the same holds here, noting that a service provider who challenged the (now superseded) Protect America Act “began compliance under threat of civil contempt.” (There is, interestingly, some redacted text immediately following that.) Contempt proceedings normally fall to the court that issued the original order.

A finding of civil contempt will typically result in the incarceration of the offending party until they agree to comply—and on the theory that the person “holds the keys to their own cell,” because they’ll be released as soon as they fall in line, normal due process rules don’t apply here. Of course, there are ways of violating the order that make it impossible to comply after the fact, such as breaching the gag rule that prevents people from disclosing that they’ve been served with orders, or (getting extreme now) destroying the records or “tangible things” sought via a Section 215 order. In those cases, presumably, the only recourse would be criminal contempt, for which you’re supposed to be entitled to a jury trial if the penalty is “serious” and involves more than six months incarceration.

That obviously raises some interesting problems given the extraordinarily secret nature of the FISA Court. In the public version of the opinion I linked above, the name of the petitioner and all identifying details are redacted, even the ruling was released six months after it was handed down, so as to avoid tipping off targets about specific providers that have received orders.

Now, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume we’re not at the point of “disappearing” folks off our own streets, but it is a puzzle how you’d actually carry out enforcement and penalty, if it ever came to that, consistent with the secrecy demanded in these investigations.