Tag: Supreme Court

The Constitutional Dimension of Your Morning Commute

Over the last few years, D.C.-area drivers may have noticed the continual increases in toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, the highway going through the Northern Virginia suburbs past Dulles Airport.  Indeed, since 2005, the toll for the typical round-trip commuter has more than quadrupled from $1.50 to $7.00, with more increases coming. These extra toll dollars haven’t been going for upkeep or expansion of the highway, however, but instead have been funding the over-budget and under-performing construction of the Metro’s Silver Line extension.

While originally slated to fund only 25% of that cost, commuters are now looking at paying more than half of the $5.6 billion (and counting) total cost, with years of construction still to come. The entity in charge of the construction project (and of gouging the toll road’s commuters) is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a public body established to govern Dulles and Reagan National airports at the behest of the Department of Transportation. But who’s actually in charge of the MWAA, and to whom can beleaguered commuters turn for relief? Although created by an interstate compact between D.C. and Virginia, the MWAA was granted all of its authority by an act of Congress, and the highways and airports that it oversees are federal property.

In many ways, the MWAA acts like a federal agency—in nearly all ways, in fact, except one important aspect: oversight. If federal assets and lawmaking power are being delegated to the MWAA, then there must be a means for the executive branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The MWAA, however, is governed by a board of individuals whom the president has no meaningful ability to appoint, oversee, or control. This means that the MWAA has no political accountability for its decisions.

Having no other meaningful recourse, a group of Dulles Toll Road users sued the MWAA, arguing that its decrees violate the separation of powers. (Full disclosure: my wife and I just bought a house in Falls Church and will likely be using the road every now and again, though not on my commute to Cato.) The federal district and appeals courts—two of them, in an unusual development whereby the Federal Circuit transferred the case to the Fourth Circuit—decided that the MWAA’s nature as a state-created entity required the case to be dismissed. Moreover—get this—because the MWAA has no meaningful executive-branch control, there is no separation-of-powers issue. (This despite the federal government’s appearance as an amicus to argue that the MWAA exercises federal power and is subject to separation-of-powers scrutiny.)

Undeterred, the plaintiffs have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato has joined the American Highway Users Alliance and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on a brief supporting their petition. We argue that the Court should take the case because (1) there is a critical violation of the separation of powers, (2) there are already manifest harms resulting precisely from that violation, and (3) the federal government sees and treats the MWAA as a federal agency—but one without any meaningful accountability whatsoever.

It isn’t every day that a separation-of-powers case is as squarely presented as it is here, where commuters are being railroaded, so to speak, by a runaway agency whose conductor is absent. The executive branch has to take the blame not only for the MWAA’s policies, but its corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Corr v. Metro. Washington Airports Authority later this fall.

The First Amendment Protects Random Ugly Rap Lyrics

To ensure that public discussion remains “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the First Amendment protects speech that is “vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” While nobody will argue that Anthony Elonis’s speech—the subject of a Supreme Court case this coming term—was anything but “vituperative, abusive, and inexact,” there is considerable disagreement over whether his speech should be protected by the First Amendment. 

Elonis’s chosen form of speech was a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie.” Many of the lyrics were violent and lurid, and some of those violent images were made in reference to Elonis’s estranged wife, who took them as a threat to her life. As a result of his crude posts, Elonis was fired, his wife obtained a protective order against him, and he was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”

Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. The federal district court hearing his case didn’t see it that way. The judge rejected his request that the jury be instructed to consider his actions based on whether he expressed a subjective intent to threaten and instead instructed the jury to judge his speech based on whether a reasonable person would have interpreted the lyrics as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily injury. Elonis was thus convicted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also rejected his argument that a subjective intent to threaten is required before speech loses First Amendment protection.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato has joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship on a brief supporting Elonis’s position. We argue that Supreme Court precedent shows that (1) a subjective intent to threaten is an essential element of a “true threat,” (2) requiring a finding of subjective intent is in line with First Amendment principles, and (3) drawing the line between threat and protected speech carefully is particularly important given the rise of the Internet as a forum of communication—one where it can be easy to take things out of context.

As a matter of most people’s taste, the Internet may well be better off without violent rap lyrics like Anthony Elonis’s. But that shouldn’t matter to this case or how it’s analyzed under the First Amendment, which requires a high standard of proof regarding incitement or threats of violence before individuals can be jailed for their speech. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to speak that truth freely across all mediums.

Elonis v. United States will be argued at the Supreme Court in November or December.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Industry Groups Cloaked with State Power Shouldn’t Get Antitrust Immunity

Under a 1943 Supreme Court decision called Parker v. Brown, state governments and private parties who act on state orders are typically immune from prosecution under federal antitrust laws. Thus, while private parties who create cartels face severe penalties, state governments can authorize the same anti-competitive behavior with impunity. 

Still, the Supreme Court has held that this kind of immunity only applies if the private parties who engage in cartel behavior are “actively supervised” by state officials. A case now before the Supreme Court, N.C. State Board of Dental Examiners v.FTC, presents an opportunity to expand on that directive.

Beginning in about 2003, the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners issued cease-and-desist orders to beauticians and others who were offering “teeth whitening” services (in which a plastic strip treated with peroxide is applied to the teeth in order to make them brighter). Although teeth-whitening is perfectly safe—and can even be done at home with an over-the-counter kit—the state’s licensed dentists want to limit competition in this lucrative area.

The Board is made up entirely of practicing dentists and hygienists and is elected by other licensed dentists and hygienists—with no input from the general public—and evidence later revealed that the Board issued orders on this subject in response to complaints from dentists, not consumers. The Federal Trade Commission charged the Board with engaging in anticompetitive conduct. Although the Board argued that it should enjoy Parker immunity, the FTC, and later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, rejected that argument, holding that the Board was not “actively supervised” by the state, but was instead a group of private business owners exploiting government power.

Is There a Libertarian Center at the Supreme Court?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “The Supreme Court’s Libertarian Moment,” perhaps mostly though not entirely from Ilya Shapiro. A detailed analysis of the 2013-14 Supreme Court term in the Washington Post provides some evidence for that, if you read to the very end. In an article on the rising number of unanimous decisions this term, Robert Barnes notes at the end:

Criminal cases are often ones where the lines between the court’s liberal and conservative wings are blurred.

“There’s been a lot of talk in progressive circles about how you want to avoid taking cases to this particular Supreme Court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel with the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “One of the areas we’ve seen the Roberts court taking what might be called liberal positions are areas where there are a liberal-libertarian alliance.” [A point that two of her colleagues had made at length in the Post a few days earlier.]

Noel Francisco, a Washington lawyer and former Scalia clerk who represented challengers in the recess appointments case, said there is the same gravitation on the right.

“I think one of the most interesting phenomenon we’ve seen on the court over the last 30 or 40 years is what I would call the evolution of the conservative instinct,” Francisco said. It no longer means “a thumb on the scale for the government.”

Roger Pilon explored the revival of libertarian legal thought in the Chapman Law Review last year.

The Republic of Gilead Is Not Nigh

If you were judging only from the outraged reaction  online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby had just mandated the adoption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the blueprint for American society.  Yet as my colleague Ilya Shapiro notes, there’s a profound disconnect between all the rhetoric about “denial of access” to contraception and the substance of the ruling.

At the heart of the majority’s opinion is this: The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees’ contraception coverage.  In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees.  Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers.  The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren’t being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions.  Which, one would think, is a win-win.

Against this background, the Court simply held that since HHS has already found a way to achieve the government’s aim of ensuring employees have access to free contraception without compelling non-profit employers to act against their profound religious convictions, they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is “closely held.”  The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government’s ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions. As Justice Alito’s opinion emphasizes:

The Practical Impact of Harris v. Quinn: A Major Blow to Organized Labor

As noted in this previous post, the Supreme Court’s decision today in Harris v. Quinn does not remake private-sector labor law but does put an end to one of the labor movement’s greatest hopes for expansion: commandeering dues payments by recipients of state subsidies. While the decision may be narrow—the Court, after all, did not rule that no public workers may be forced to support a labor union—its impact will be anything but that.

The Illinois law at issue here in Harris was at the leading edge of a nationwide movement over the past decade to organize home-based care workers, including medical assistants and even family child-care providers, and thereby to “reinvigorate organized labor.”

Though a recent phenomenon, the use of sham employment relationships to support mandatory union representation has spread rapidly across the nation.  In just the decade since SEIU waged a “massive campaign to pressure [] policymakers” in Los Angeles to authorize union bargaining for homecare workers, home-based care workers “have become the darlings of the labor movement” and “helped to reinvigorate organized labor.”  From around zero a decade ago, now several hundred thousand home workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements.

Of Course Government Can’t Violate Religious Liberty for No Good Reason

Hobby Lobby is a much simpler and less important case than it’s been made out to be, for reasons the Court clearly spelled out today. Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate had to fall under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (without even getting to the First Amendment) because it didn’t show – couldn’t show – that there’s no other way of achieving its goal without violating religious beliefs. Moreover, the fact that a for-profit corporation is asserting the statute’s protections is of no moment because neither the corporate form nor the profit motive undermines RFRA’s solicitude for the rights of humans – including owners, officers, and shareholders. In short, the mandate fell because it was a rights-busting government compulsion that lacked sufficient justification. Nobody has been denied access to contraceptives and there’s now more freedom for all Americans to live their lives how they want, without checking their freedom at the office door. 

For more on how the “corporate rights” issue in the case was really a misnomer – because the free exercise of individual humans is at issue regardless of how you style the legalese – see Cato’s amicus brief

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