Tag: right to earn an honest living

Scalia the Unlikely Swing Vote in Big Workers Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris v. Quinn, the case regarding the forced unionization of home healthcare workers in Illinois (and by extension the 10 other states with similar laws). To me this is a pretty easy case: just because the state is paying these workers through its Medicaid program doesn’t mean it employs them – just like my doctor isn’t employed by my health-insurance company – which means that it can’t force them to pay dues to a union that negotiates Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Like most of the labor cases in recent years, however, this one is likely to go 5-4. The so-called “liberal” justices were all openly hostile to the workers’ position, so the challengers will have to sweep the rest of the bench of to win. Fortunately, such an outcome is more than possible – though much will depend on the thinking of Justice Scalia, who was hostile to everyone.

The argument began in a frustrating manner, with a focus on the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and whether a union asking for a pay increase was different from an individual public-sector employee (a policeman, say) asking for the same raise. Justice Scalia correctly pointed out that this wasn’t really the right at issue here, but he further confused the matter in distinguishing the right to petition from the First Amendment (when in fact that right is found in that amendment). He meant to invoke the First Amendment right to the freedoms of speech and association, but also indicated that he was prepared to give the government plenty of leeway when it was acting as an employer.

Justice Alito was the most skeptical of the union/government position, pointing out that unions don’t necessarily act in all workers’ interest, even when they succeed in negotiating certain “gains.” For example, a productive young worker might prefer merit pay to tenure provisions or a defined-benefit pension plan. Chief Justice Roberts was similarly concerned about administering the line between those union expenses that could be “charged” even to nonmembers (because related to collective bargaining) versus those that can’t because they involve political activity. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, noted that in this era of growing government, increasing the size and cost of the public workforce is more than simple bargaining over wages and benefits; it’s “a fundamental issue of political belief.” In no other context could a government seek to compel its citizens to subsidize such speech. A worker who disagrees with the union view on these political questions is still made to subsidize it. 

It was also heartening to see that the continuing vitality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) was in play. That case established that, in the interest of “labor peace,” a state could mandate its employees’ association with a union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. (Abood simply assumed, without further analysis, that the Supreme Court had recognized labor peace as a compelling interest.)

Justices Breyer and Kagan were particularly concerned that so many employers and unions had relied on the Abood doctrine over the years, so touching it would implicate significant reliance interests. But overruling or severely limiting Abood would only be one more step in the Court’s trend of protecting individual workers from having to support political activities. More workers could thus opt out of supporting a labor union – but if unions truly provide valuable services for their members, few workers would do so.

Of course, the Court could shy away from touching Abood and simply rule that being paid by state funds alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a state employee. Such a position might more easily attract Justice Scalia’s vote – and that of Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to rule narrowly – even if it leaves unresolved some of the contradictions at the heart of the jurisprudence in this area, such as the duty of courts to police the murky line between “chargeable” and “nonchargeable” union expenses.

For more on the case, see George Will’s recent op-ed and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial.

Supreme Court Should End Advertiser’s Kafkaesque Nightmare

Douglas Walburg faces potential liability of $16-48 million. What heinous acts caused such astronomical damages? A violation of 47 C.F.R. § 16.1200(a)(3)(iv), an FCC regulation that enables lawsuits against senders of unsolicited faxes.

Walburg, however, never sent any unsolicited faxes; he was sued under the regulation by a class of plaintiffs for failing to include opt-out language in faxes sent to those who expressly authorized Walburg to send them the faxes. 

The district court ruled for Walburg, holding that the regulation should be narrowly interpreted so as to require opt-out notices only for unsolicited faxes. But on appeal, the Federal Communications Commission, not previously party to the case, filed an amicus brief explaining that its regulation applies to previously authorized faxes too. Walburg argued that the FCC lacked statutory authority to regulate authorized advertisements. In response, the FCC filed another brief, arguing that the Hobbs Act prevents federal courts from considering challenges to the validity of FCC regulations when raised as a defense in a private lawsuit. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recognized that Walburg’s argument may have merit, it declined to hear it and ruled that the Hobbs Act indeed prevents judicial review of administrative regulations except on appeal from prior agency review. 

In this case, however, Walburg couldn’t have raised his challenge in an administrative setting because the regulation at issue outsources enforcement to private parties in civil suits! Moreover, having not been charged until the period for agency review lapsed, he has no plausible way to defend himself from the ruinous liability he will be subject to if not permitted to challenge the regulation’s validity. Rather than face those odds, Walburg has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case, arguing that the Eighth Circuit was wrong to deny him the right to judicial review without having to initiate a separate (and impossible) administrative review. 

Cato agrees, and has joined the National Federation of Independent Business on an amicus brief supporting Walburg’s petition. We argue that the Supreme Court should hear the case because the Eighth Circuit’s ruling permits administrative agencies to insulate themselves from judicial review while denying those harmed by their regulations the basic due-process right to meaningfully defend themselves. The Court should hear the case because it offers the opportunity to resolve lower-court disputes about when the right to judicial review arises and whether a defendant can be forced to bear the burden of establishing a court’s jurisdiction.

These are important due-process implications raised in this case, and the Court would do well to adopt a rule consistent with the Eleventh Circuit’s holding on this issue—one that protects the right to immediately and meaningfully defend oneself from unlawful regulations. Otherwise, more and more Americans will end up finding themselves at the bad end of obscene regulatory penalties by unaccountable government agencies, with no real means to defend themselves.

The Court will decide whether to take Walburg v. Nack early in the new year.

You Shouldn’t Have to Ask Your Competitors for Permission to Start a Business

Occupational licensing laws make it harder and more expensive for people to get jobs or to create innovative businesses that might not fit into to conceptual box designed by last generation’s regulators. Worse, while these laws are supposed to be about protecting consumers against dangerous or inept practitioners, they’re often exploited by existing businesses to bar newcomers from competing against them.

But these problems are nothing compared to “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity” laws, also called “Certificate of Need” or CON laws. Unlike typical licensing rules, CON laws don’t have anything to do with whether a person is educated or qualified. Instead, they prohibit you from going into business unless you first prove to bureaucrats that a new business is “needed.” And these laws rarely define “need,” or explain how to prove it. Still worse, such laws usually allow existing firms to block a newcomer from staring a competing business. In short, CON laws bar you from going into business until you get permission from your own competitors. (It sounds like something from an Ayn Rand novel, right?)

Last week, Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur and his colleagues at the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a motion with a federal judge in Kentucky asking the court to strike down that state’s CON law for moving companies. The details are here, and they’re telling.

There have been 39 applications for new moving licenses since 2007. Those that were not “protested” by existing moving companies were approved without incident. But in 19 cases,  existing firms did object. And in all of those cases, one of two things happened: either the applicant gave up and abandoned the application, or the government denied it on the grounds that existing moving services were “adequate.” The state never approved an application that was protested by existing firms, no matter what. In one case, an applicant who’d been working for moving companies for 39 years was denied a license in a decision that declared him fully qualified–but said existing companies didn’t need the competition. No wonder Sandefur calls the law “the Competitor’s Veto.”

Federal Judge to Kentucky Bureaucrats: Stop Prohibiting Free Competition

Last Thursday, a federal district court judge issued an injunction blocking the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet – the genteel name given the Bluegrass State’s department of transportation – from enforcing the state’s anti-competitive licensing law for movers.

In Bruner v. Zawacki, which is being litigated by Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur and our other friends at the Pacific Legal Foundation, small business owner Raleigh Bruner argues that the licensing laws, which allow existing moving companies to file “protests” to block new companies from opening, create a “Competitor’s Veto” that has no rational basis. Judge Danny Reeves ordered the state not to enforce those laws, at least until he has the opportunity to issue a complete opinion – but he strongly indicated that he already thinks those laws are unconstitutional:

The Sixth Circuit has held that “protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate governmental purpose.” And it appears that the notice, protest, and hearing procedure in the statutes – both facially and as applied – operate solely to protect existing moving companies from outside economic competition. The defendants have admitted that they know of no instance where, upon a protest by an existing moving company, a new applicant has been granted a certificate … .  [O]ver the past five years, no protest filed has been regarding an applicant’s safety record. Likewise, no applications have been denied on the grounds that the applicant was a danger to public health, safety, or welfare.

You can read more about the case at PLF’s Liberty Blog.

Casket Case Shows Economic Liberty to Be Alive and Well

Last week, the Institute for Justice scored a resounding victory for the right to earn an honest living in an unlikely case that pitted woodworking monks against the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.  The New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – where I clerked – ruled in a final, unanimous decision (including one Obama-appointed judge) that Louisiana violated the St. Joseph Abbey monks’ economic liberty when it forbade them from selling the caskets they make to support their religious order.

Significantly, the court ruled that the Constitution doesn’t allow the government to enact laws simply to shield industry cartels from honest competition.  Although IJ was already assured of victory, given that Fifth Circuit had issued a divided preliminary opinion in October, that ruling left open some tricky questions that this latest decision definitively settled.  

Last Wednesday’s ruling makes clear that laws having no purpose but to enrich certain protected interests are unconstitutional, using reasoning that should be a model for courts across the country.  

Louisiana now has 90 days to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court – which supporters of economic liberty should welcome because IJ’s previous litigation created a split in the federal lower courts that can only be resolved, for the nation as a whole, by the Supreme Court. 

For more on St. Joseph Abbey v. Castille, see IJ’s case page and this Wall Street Journal op-ed by IJ’s Chip Mellor and Jeff Rowes. And if you’re a law student interested in using your legal skills to promote liberty this summer, you should apply to IJ’s epic public interest boot camp (of which I’m a graduate, though in my day there wasn’t any skydiving or aikido).

We Support Gay Marriage but Oppose Forcing People to Support It

Elane Photography, a Christian-identified business in Albuquerque, N.M., declined to photograph Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony based on the business owners’ personal beliefs. New Mexico law prohibits any refusal to render business services because of sexual orientation, however, so Willock filed a claim with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission.  She argued that Elane Photography is a “public accommodation,” akin to a hotel or restaurant, that is subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law.

The commission found against Elane and ordered it to pay $6,600 in attorney fees.  Elane Photography’s owners appealed the ruling, arguing that they are being denied their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion (and a similar provision in the state constitution).  Furthermore, New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act defines “free exercise” as “an act or a refusal to act that is substantially motivated by religious belief” and forbids government from abridging that right except to “further a compelling government interest.”

The state trial and appellate courts affirmed the commission’s order.  Elane Photography v. Willock is now before the New Mexico Supreme Court, where Cato has joined UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter—who, like Cato, support gay marriage—in filing an amicus brief siding with Elane Photography on free speech grounds.

Our brief explains that photography is an art form protected by the First Amendment because clients seek out the photographer’s method of staging, posing, lighting, and editing.  Photography is thus a form of expression subject to the First Amendment’s protection, unlike many other wedding-related businesses (e.g., caterers, hotels, limousine drivers).

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled in Wooly v. Maynard that photography is protected speech—even if it’s not political and even if the photos are used for commercial value—and that speech compulsions (forcing people to speak) are just as unconstitutional as speech restrictions.  The First Amendment “includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”  Moreover, unlike true cases of public accommodation, there are abundant opportunities to choose other photographers in the same area.

The New Mexico Supreme Court should thus reverse the lower court’s ruling and allow Elane Photography to be free to choose the work it desires.

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.