Tag: Supreme Court

Even Little Platoons Have First Amendment Rights

Nathan Worley and three friends hold a weekly political discussion group in their hometown of Sarasota, Florida. In 2010, a ballot initiative for a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution prompted the group to pull together $600 and exercise their First Amendment rights. They soon found, however, that doing so wasn’t going to be quite so easy.

Under Florida’s campaign finance law, it’s illegal for two or more people to join together and spend more than $500 supporting or opposing a state ballot issue. Instead, the state forces even small groups like Worley’s to register and speak through a political committee, which is then subject to a vast catalog of vague, inscrutable regulations that are enforced by thousands of dollars in fines. To speak publicly about the ballot issue, Worley’s informal coterie would have to hire a specialized lawyer and accountant and include “disclosures” in their planned radio ads that would take up about 20 percent of the airtime.

Instead of remaining silent like most small groups do when faced with this type of prohibitive regime, the Worley crew joined with the Institute for Justice to challenge Florida’s laws and vindicate their right to free political speech in federal court. Despite the obvious speech-chilling effect of the regulations, however, the lower courts failed to rigorously scrutinize Florida’s laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in particular abdicated its judicial role in two ways.

First, instead of applying “strict scrutiny,” the court chose the more deferential “exacting” scrutiny, based on the notion that so-called “disclosure” requirements like Florida’s don’t prevent people from speaking. Second, the court hardly even applied the “exacting” standard — deciding, on its own, to all but ignore the facts of the case by analyzing it as a challenge to the entire campaign-finance regime rather than simply as-applied to small groups like Worley’s.

In light of the Eleventh Circuit’s refusal to meaningfully scrutinize Florida’s speech-restrictive laws, Worley and IJ have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato and the Center for Competitive Politics have filed a brief supporting that petition because rulings like the lower courts’ here demonstrate a clear need for the Supreme Court to clarify the correct standards to apply when evaluating campaign finance regimes like Florida’s.

Courts shouldn’t be able to get by without judging just because a state calls its speech regulation “disclosure,” or because the courts decide on their own to recharecterize the case as a “facial” challenge. A Supreme Court hearing would put needed pressure on the federal judiciary to actually scrutinize these types of speech regulations and hopefully prevent them from continuing to silence small groups with little funding — because even little platoons of politically interested citizens have First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to hear Worley v. Florida Secretary of State.

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

Higher Education at the High Court

At 1:00 p.m. this afternoon, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral argument on a simple question: may states ban racial discrimination in their public colleges and universities? Given that the U.S. Constitution, for 145 years, has said that “No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” one would think that an easy question to answer. But such is our convoluted equal-protection law today that last November the entire Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided, 8-7, that 58 percent of Michigan’s voters violated the Constitution when in 2006 they passed Proposition 2, amending the state’s constitution by prohibiting, among other things, discrimination by race in public higher education.

To understand why Prop. 2 was thought necessary in the first place, given the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, we have to consider the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. There the Court held, 5-4, that public universities may take race into consideration in their admissions decisions in order to promote “diversity” – at least as long as they consider race among other factors and don’t do so too explicitly. In that case the University of Michigan’s law school passed the test. In a companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the college failed because its discrimination was too blatant. Wanting no part of that social engineering scheme, Michigan’s voters passed Prop. 2.

What, then, was the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning (which generated five dissenting opinions from all seven dissenting judges)? Prop. 2, the majority said, disproportionately burdens minorities by requiring them not simply to appeal to admissions officers for special consideration – as those seeking, say, legacy preferences might – but to overturn a state constitutional amendment. Citing “political structure” precedents, which Cato’s brief before the High Court shows to be irrelevant in this case, the court below held that Prop. 2 “placed special burdens on the ability of minority groups to achieve beneficial legislation.” As my colleague Ilya Shapiro contends below, that argument is not likely to wash with the Supreme Court, not least because California’s Prop. 209, which prohibits racial preferences in that state’s public higher education, has been upheld by several courts, including the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Scalia’s Devilish Heart

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent interview with New York magazine has gotten a lot of attention, but for the wrong reasons. Many reactions center on his “shocking” revelation that he believes in the existence of the Devil. (Does it take a secular Jew to point out that this standard Catholic doctrine should be no more shocking than the belief that there’s a hell in addition to a heaven?) Better-informed observers will note with surprise the acerbic jurist’s repudiation of his “fainthearted originalism.” Nowadays, he said, he tries to be a “stouthearted” originalist, one who is willing to “take the bitter with the sweet.”

That approach to interpreting the Constitution would be a refreshing break with Scalia’s past, for his is not the track record of a consistent originalist. Yes, the good justice has been faithful and true to the original understanding of the Constitution’s terms in many cases – standing firm against Obamacare’s audacious expansion of federal power in NFIB v. Sebelius, for instance. Yet his heart was much less stout in the 2010 case of McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states. In that case, Scalia fell back on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause – and the very doctrine of “substantive due process” on which he has himself heaped such scorn – to “incorporate” the Second Amendment against the states.

A real originalist would have taken Justice Clarence Thomas’s tack, resurrecting the long-neglected Privileges or Immunities Clause. That Clause was widely understood at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1868 to empower the federal government to stop states from violating the rights of recently freed slaves, and by extension of all Americans. Yet in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clause didn’t restrict states’ police powers, but instead implicated only the rights attendant to U.S. (as opposed to state) citizenship.

That ruling, which unfortunately was never overturned, prompted later courts to resort clumsily to the questionable substantive due process doctrine to secure individual rights against the states. (To be sure, there has to be some substance to the Due Process – kangaroo courts don’t satisfy constitutional requirements – but that wasn’t the provision intended to secure natural rights.) By reviving the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Court could have put those rights on a much sounder textual footing and return federal constitutional law in this area to its original meaning. Instead, Scalia took the easy way out and “acquiesced” in a 140-year-old precedent “as much as I think it’s wrong” (quotes from the McDonald oral argument). The mind boggles.

Justice Scalia has written, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” If his jurisprudence is any indication, however, getting originalism’s loudest champions to adhere to it consistently seems to be no easier. 

H/t Josh Blackman, with whom I’ve previously written about Scalia’s weak heart and the proper way to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states.

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

Defending the Right to Public Presence

The essential distinction between “private” and “public” property is the egalitarian nature of the latter. There’s no true equality in private property: its owners are free to set whatever restrictions on its use they wish.

On the other hand, public property, especially public fora such as sidewalks, parks, and roads—which have traditionally been available for public speeches, protests, and rallies—is entirely different. Just as we’re all equal in a court of law, or at the ballot box, we’re all supposed to be equal in our freedom to use and enjoy public spaces.

In 2008, however, Massachusetts turned this understanding on its head, declaring that in certain public spaces, some people are more equal than others. The state passed a law making it a crime to physically come within 35 feet of abortion clinics unless you’re a clinic patient, staff member, or government agent, or are using a public road or sidewalk to travel past the clinic. By the state’s own admission, the law was designed to prevent anti-abortion advocates from engaging in “sidewalk counseling.”

When a group of peaceful anti-abortion advocates challenged the law as a violation of their free speech rights, the district and circuit courts accepted the state’s argument that the law was valid as a content-neutral regulation of the time, place, and manner in which the public may engage in free speech. The Supreme Court has now taken up the case, and the petitioners argue that a law designed to target one type of speech, in one type of location, cannot be considered content- or viewpoint-neutral.

While this is indeed an important test-case for the First Amendment, Cato filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners to present a separate point. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protects certain fundamental rights against government infringement: rights that are essential to the enjoyment of the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, or that are part of the meaning of “ordered liberty,” or that are part of America’s history and traditions.Regardless of your preferred formulation for these protected rights, we argue that one of them is the right to public presence: the right to peacefully use public property in any manner that doesn’t harm others or unreasonably restrict their freedom to use that same public space.

The First Amendment Is More than a Political Slogan

During the November 2010 election, a number of Minnesota voters were greeted at the polls with threats of criminal prosecution just for wearing hats, buttons, or shirts bearing the images, slogans, or logos of their favorite political causes (typically not relating to the Republican or Democratic parties).

Election officials cited Minnesota Statute § 211B.11, which makes it a misdemeanor to wear a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” to the polls on election days. While there is no definition of “political” in the statute, an Election Day Policy distributed before the election explained that the statute bans any material “designed to influence or impact voting” or “promoting a group with recognizable political views.”

After several of their members were forced to cover up or remove clothing or accessories deemed to be political — in the sole discretion of an election official — a group of organizations and individuals brought suit to challenge the state law on the grounds that it unlawfully stifles core First Amendment-protected speech. The federal district court dismissed the suit, finding that § 211B.11 satisfied the lesser degree of judicial scrutiny to which viewpoint-neutral speech restrictions are subject. On appeal, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the law’s constitutionality, citing precedent permitting bans on active campaigning at polling sites and extending that reasoning to allow prohibitions even on passive political expression.

Those challenging the law have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case. Cato joined the Rutherford Institute on a brief supporting them, arguing that the Minnesota law’s absolute ban on “political” materials at polling sites is an unconstitutional restriction of core First Amendment speech.

Protecting the right of the people to advocate political causes is one of the primary purposes of our constitutional protections for the freedom of speech, so government restrictions in this area must be narrowly drawn and for a truly compelling reason, regardless of the type of forum where the ban applies. While the Eighth Circuit relied on precedent permitting bans on campaigning at polling sites, prohibiting inert political expression at these locations doesn’t serve a similar interest; passive expression simply doesn’t pose the same threats to elections — intimidation and chilling of voters — that active campaigning can. Accordingly, § 211B.11 cannot pass strict scrutiny; in legal terms, the restrictions it imposes are simultaneously under-inclusive, over-inclusive, and overly broad.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Minnesota Majority v. Mansky late this fall.

Curbing Class Action Settlement Abuses

In 2007, Facebook launched the controversial “Beacon” program, which automatically broadcast purchases made by Facebook users. The disclosures revealed embarrassing movie choices, indulgent spending habits, and even ruined the purchase of a young couple’s engagement ring.

In the subsequent class action lawsuit, a $9.5 million settlement was reached in which Facebook would pay $3 million to cover attorneys’ fees and a remaining $6.5 million would be used to set up a new charitable organization—controlled by Facebook—whose mission would be to educate the public about Internet privacy. The millions of class members, however, would get nothing.

This redistribution of settlement money from the victims to other uses is referred to as cy pres. “Cy pres” means “as near as possible,” and courts have typically used the cy pres doctrine to reform the terms of a charitable trust when the stated objective of the trust is impractical or unworkable. The use of cy pres in class action settlements—particularly those that enable the defendant to control the funds—is an emerging trend that violates the due process and free speech rights of class members.

Accordingly, class members objected to the Facebook settlement, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in approving the agreement and failed to engage in the required rigorous analysis to determine whether the settlement was “fair, reasonable, and adequate.” The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the settlement, however, and expressed its unwillingness to inquire into the nature of the award because to do so would be “an intrusion into the parties’ negotiations.”

Now that the objecting class members have asked the Supreme Court to review the case, Cato filed an amicus brief arguing that the use of cy pres awards in class actions violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. Specifically, due process requires—at a minimum—an opportunity for an absent plaintiff to remove himself, or “opt out,” from the class. Class members have little incentive or opportunity to learn of the existence of a class action in which they may have a legal interest, while class counsel is able to make settlement agreements that are unencumbered by an informed and participating class.

In addition, when a court approves a cy pres award as part of a class action settlement, it forces class members to endorse certain ideas, compelling speech in violation of the First Amendment. When Facebook receives money—essentially from itself—to create a privacy-oriented charity, the victim class members surrender the value of their legal claims in support of a charity controlled by the defendant. Class members are left uncompensated, while Facebook is shielded from any future claims of liability.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take the case of Marek v. Lane.