Tag: supremacy clause

Is the Federal Government Bound by the Agreements It Makes With States?

The Interstate Agreement on Detainers, a compact authorized by federal statute, provides a simple procedure for transferring custody of prisoners between states. Because the federal government annually seeks to prosecute thousands of prisoners already in state custody, it joined the IAD in 1970 to get the benefit of this unified procedure. When it joined, it did so as a “state” for purposes of the agreement, and exempted itself from only two provisions (which aren’t relevant here). One of the provisions that the federal government decided not to exempt itself from, Article IV(a), allows the governor of the sending state to deny any request made by a receiving state to transfer a prisoner.

In September of 2010, Jason Pleau offered to plead guilty to robbery and murder charges in Rhode Island in exchange for life in prison without parole, the harshest sentence that state’s law allows. Pleau’s crimes also allegedly violated federal law, however, and the U.S. government wanted to prosecute Pleau itself in order to seek the death penalty. The federal government thus sought custody through the IAD by filing for the little-known writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum (“show me the body for prosecution”).

The governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, disapproves of the death penalty and used his authority under the IAD’s Article IV(a) to deny the federal request. A federal district court, later affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, overruled Chafee’s denial, stating that the Supremacy Clause prevented the governor from interfering with the federal government’s wishes.

The First Circuit found that the compact’s specific text and the normal canons of statutory construction were “all beside the point.” According to the court, what was important was that Congress could not possibly have meant to grant state governors the power to deny federal transfer requests—and thus the IAD didn’t affect the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The First Circuit thus granted the writ, and Pleau is now in federal custody.

The question presented here, whether the Supremacy Clause trumps a governor’s right to deny a request for transfer of custody under the IAD, raises two important issues: First, if the First Circuit is right, then the federal government may reap the benefit of interstate bargains without having to fulfill its own obligations under them. Second, the First Circuit’s opinion effectively treats the state courts as inferior to the federal courts, which upsets the system of concurrent sovereignty that the Founders designed.

Cato has joined the Independence Institute to file an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case, with a focus on the second issue. We argue that the U.S. legal system has always recognized the dual sovereignty of federal and state courts, dating back to Chief Justice John Marshall. As Chief Justice Marshall explained, that dual system requires that state courts not be considered inferior to federal courts, and thus federal courts have no independent authority to order prisoners under state jurisdiction to be transferred to the federal system.

Furthermore, when abrogating state sovereignty via the Supremacy Clause, Congress must demonstrate its intent to do so with “unmistakably clear language”—and none of the statutes applicable here contain any such language. Finally, we argue that the First Circuit has misinterpreted relevant Supreme Court precedent and that a proper reading of the relevant case law would establish that a state is well within its rights to treat the federal government like any other state under the IAD and deny its request to transfer a prisoner into federal custody.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case of Chafee v. United States and Pleau v. United States later this fall.

Immigration Laws at the Supreme Court: Constitutional but Bad Policy

For anyone suffering from post-Obamacare-argument Supreme Court withdrawal, this Wednesday the Court takes up Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill (“SB”) 1070.  See my blogpost from when the Court granted review for some background.

SB 1070 is much-misunderstood: it has nothing to do with sexy political issues like racial profiling and everything to do with boring legal ones like whether a given state provision is “preempted” by federal law.  That is, do the various parts of the state law – each one of which the Court will be evaluating independently – conflict with federal law (direct preemption) or intrude in an area exclusively reserved to Congress (implied preemption).

United States v. Arizona shows that there’s a difference between what’s constitutional and what’s good policy. SB 1070 was crafted to mirror federal law rather than asserting new state powers that interfere with federal authority over immigration.  That’s why lower courts only enjoined four of its provisions and why the Supreme Court would not be wrong to resurrect even those four.

But beyond this hyper-technical legal analysis, SB 1070 and copy-cat laws elsewhere – some of which go further than Arizona’s and thus are of more dubious constitutionality – highlight the dysfunction in our immigration system.  Given Congress’s failure to act in this area, state governments have spawned a host of federalism experiments.  Many of these laws are terrible policy for reasons ranging from economic effects to the misuse of law enforcement resources.

Legal scholars always enjoy the opportunity to point out laws that they think are constitutional but bad policy.  It makes them feel intellectually honesty (if they have reason to be defensive in that regard).  Well, immigration is the most obvious place where my constitutional and policy views diverge.  The ultimate solution here isn’t for the Supreme Court to strike down the states’ lawful if misguided legislation, but for Congress and the president to enact a comprehensive national reform.

For more on what’s at stake in the case, see my SCOTUSblog essay from last summer, my forthcoming law review article, and my new colleague Alex Nowrasteh’s recent op-ed.  For the briefs and other background materials, see SCOTUSblog’s case page.

Supreme Court Rules That Arbitration Provisions Should Be Enforced

A few readers have now asked me about the “libertarian” reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling that allows companies to use boilerplate contract provisions that require consumers to arbitrate any disputes individually rather than coming together as a class action for arbitration purposes (let alone being able to bring claims into court).  That is, where an individual claim isn’t worth that much money (about $30 in yesterday’s case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion), no lawyer will take the case and so only by having a class file collectively, the argument goes, will justice be served.

The ruling broke down 5-4 on “conventional” lines, with an opinion by Justice Scalia, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, holding that the Federal Arbitration Act trumped (“preempted” by operation of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause) California law that was more favorable to the plaintiffs.   Justice Thomas also filed a concurrence, noting that “state public policy against arbitration” is not enough to revoke a contract with an arbitration agreement.  Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, arguing that certain class action waivers are unenforceable.

Here’s some more background (edited from a useful summary I received in a Heritage Foundation email):  A cellular telephone contract between the parties provided for arbitration of all disputes, but did not permit classwide arbitration.  After the Concepcions were charged sales tax on the retail value of phones provided for free under their service contact, they sued AT&T, and their suit was consolidated with a class action alleging false advertising and fraud.  The district court denied AT&T’s motion to compel arbitration.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the Federal Arbitration Act, which makes arbitration agreements valid and enforceable except on such grounds as exist to revoke any contract, did not require arbitration because the prohibition on classwide proceedings was “unconscionable” under California law.  The Supreme Court reversed, stating that arbitration agreements must be placed on equal footing with other contracts and California’s rule was preempted by the FAA and its strong federal policy favoring informal arbitration.

I’ll leave it to my colleagues Walter Olson, our expert on civil litigation, and Roger Pilon, who has written and spoken extensively on preemption, to comment on the particulars of the opinion if they wish.  What I will say generally is that (1) we at Cato take the enforceability of contracts quite seriously, but (2) preemption is a very technical area of law that has to be examined on a case-by-case, statutory-provision-by-statutory-provision basis. See, for example, this Cato Supreme Court Review article from a few years ago, and also the relevant section of last year’s “Looking Ahead” essay that presciently previewed the Concepcion case (kudos to Erik Jaffe!).  Finally, Roger will be writing an article piece on this term’s preemption cases for the next Review – but you’ll have to wait till Constitution Day in September for that!