Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

And on the Seventh Day You Can Rest (If You Want)

For 122 years, the California Labor Code has said that employees in all industries are “entitled” to a day of rest “one day therefrom in seven.” The statute also provides that “No employer shall cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.” Mendoza, a former Nordstrom employee, is arguing to the California Supreme Court that the Labor Code should be construed as flatly prohibiting employers from allowing an employee to work on the seventh day of a workweek. To make that argument work he must also convince the Court that the Labor Code prohibits employees from voluntarily choosing to work on a day otherwise scheduled for rest. This radically paternalistic argument not only flies in the face of the plain language of the statute, but it would hurt employees who may wish work on the seventh day of a workweek for innumerable reasons. In a brief filed in support of Nordstrom, Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Reason Foundation, and a handful of California employees, argues that there are many legitimate reasons why an employee might want to work on the seventh day of a workweek: to meet financial goals, to accommodate personal schedules, or simply to maintain flexibility to work when he wants.

Mendoza also argues that employers must require written waiver from employees before allowing them to work on the seventh day of a workweek. But nothing in the Labor Code suggests that there is any requirement for a waiver to be in writing, or for employers to maintain records whenever an employee should elect to work on a day otherwise scheduled for rest. We argue that it would be improper to read language into the statute that would impose such burdensome requirements on employers—both because it would violate first principles of statutory construction and because it would open unwitting businesses up to lawsuits. Moreover, such a paperwork requirement would be wholly impracticable when, for example, an exempt employee might choose to check a few emails on a Sunday evening, something that could be construed to violate the day of rest law.

Finally, we argue that the plaintiff advocates a theory that would hold his employer liable for conduct that California state regulators had long permitted in official agency guidance. Just as there would be significant due process concerns with Congress passing a statute to retroactively hold businesses liable for conduct that was permissible at the time, there would be serious constitutional problems with giving a statute a retroactive interpretation that would impose ruinous penalties on individuals or businesses that acted in good faith reliance on best available guidance at the time. The California Supreme Court should not heed Mendoza’s paternalistic arguments and upset 122 years of treating California’s workers like responsible adults.

Fullerton California to Pay $4.9m for Wrongful Death of Kelly Thomas

In 2011, the Fullerton, California police violently beat Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man, who later died from his injuries. The arrest was recorded, and Thomas could be heard calling for his father as the officers relentlessly beat him into a coma.

Two officers were fired for the incident but ultimately acquitted of criminal charges in the case. As opening arguments were set to begin in the wrongful death suit, the City of Fullerton agreed to pay the Thomas family $4.9 million as a settlement.

Ron Thomas said at a news conference that while the city acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement, it was a clear indication to him of its liability and guilt in the death of his 37-year-old son Kelly Thomas. Thomas said he feels vindicated by the settlement.

It is not uncommon for municipalities to disavow any culpability in settlements like this. But lawsuits are important nonetheless because they bring some measure of closure to the families who do not find justice in the criminal courts and incentivize governments to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Over at, we track and catalog news stories like this one that take years to make their way through the administrative, criminal, and civil systems. It is vitally important that police officers and municipalities are held accountable for their actions.

On Tuesday, December 1, Cato will host “Policing in America,” an all-day conference dedicated to discussing the policies and impacts of law enforcement around the country. The event will be live-streamed on the Cato website. 

A version of this is cross-posted at

Courts Should Review Executive-Agency Interpretations of the First Amendment

Among the types of speech that the First Amendment protects is commercial speech, such as advertising. But commercial speech that’s false or misleading isn’t constitutionally protected: you may be liable for defrauding someone through various communications. But what is “false” or “misleading,” and who decides?

The Federal Trade Commission brought claims against POM Wonderful—you may know them as the producer of various pomegranate beverages in distinctive curved bottles—for consumer deceptive advertising. The agency determined that some of POM’s health-supplement ads were misleading. But this decision was appealable only to the FTC itself, which becomes judge, prosecutor, and jury in an arrangement blessed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That court declined to second-guess the FTC’s rulings on the ground that the agency should be given broad deference in its adjudicative factual and legal findings.

But when the standard of review for First Amendment claims varies between courts and administrative agencies, constitutional protections become vulnerable to inconsistencies. And even more concerning than inconsistencies are the conflicts of interest inherent in the FTC’s internal hearings, which lack substantial judicial review.

This situation leaves businesses subject to FTC actions with no viable means to check their accuser’s determination that its speech is misleading or fraudulent. It’s no coincidence that over the past two decades, the FTC hasn’t lost a single deceptive-advertising case it has administratively initiated.

To correct this state of affairs, Cato has joined the Alliance for Natural Health-USA on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take POM’s case. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that determining whether the Constitution protects particular speech is the quintessential function of Article III courts, not federal agencies. Yet this directive has become increasingly observed in the breach with respect to commercial speech, ever since the Supreme Court’s unsatisfying ruling in Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union (1984).

The POM predicament presents an optimal opportunity for the Court to address the question left open in Bose and wrest decisions regarding First Amendment doctrine away from the executive branch. 

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take POM Wonderful v. Federal Trade Commission early in the new year.

Not Everything That’s Unseemly Should Be Illegal

The explosion in criminal statutes is only a part of the problem of overcriminalization. The other side of the coin is prosecutorial discretion: a prosecutor’s official authority to charge certain offenses and not to charge others. The growth of criminal codes, state and federal, gives prosecutors more tools, which allows them to both “stack” charges and expand the reach of criminal code provisions to new, non-criminal facts.

Take for example several recent prosecutions under New Jersey’s official misconduct statute, a felony provision with a mandatory five-year, no-parole sentence.

On its face, the law simply prevents government officials from abusing their offices for personal gain. “Official misconduct” under the statute means an official’s act or omission “relating to his office but constituting an unauthorized exercise of his official functions, knowing that such act is unauthorized or he is committing such act in an unauthorized manner.” Prosecutors have used this broadly worded language in highly creative ways.

In one recent case, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Carlia M. Brady was charged with official misconduct and harboring a fugitive. Judge Brady went to the police on June 10, 2013 to report that her car was stolen and that her then-boyfriend, Jason Prontnicki, was likely involved. As it turned out, Prontnicki was wanted on an outstanding warrant for robbery. The police informed Judge Brady that she was obliged as an “officer of the court” to inform the police as to Prontnicki’s whereabouts. When Prontnicki showed up at her house for brief periods of time on June 10 and 11, Judge Brady informed Prontnicki that he could not stay with her and Prontnicki made clear his intentions to turn himself in with the help of counsel. After both incidents, Judge Brady called the police and left unreturned voicemails. On June 11, police arrested Prontnicki and Brady at her home.

Clearly Judge Brady had violated her duty to report the whereabouts of a wanted criminal suspect, right? The only problem is that such a duty doesn’t exist, either for citizens generally or for judges specifically.

Debating Police Practices

If you are an advocate for school choice, you must risk being called “anti-teacher” by the political left.  But did you know there is a similar phenomenon on right side of the political spectrum?  If you are an advocate for reforming police practices, you must risk being called “anti-police.”  I experienced this last week when I spoke at the National Convention of the Federalist Society.  In this post, I will briefly describe what happened.

I was invited to speak on a panel titled, “Ferguson, Baltimore, and Criminal Justice Reform.”  By way of background, I have spoken at Federalist Society events many times and the Fed Soc folks have always been professional and courteous.  The panels typically consist of speakers with a variety of viewpoints.  Last week, when it was my turn to speak, my goal was to highlight many reforms that I thought were worthwhile and to explain why.  Among the topics were civil asset forfeiture reform, municipal court reform, getting an accurate annual tally of persons who die in police custody, and a tally of persons shot by the police. 

Robert Woodson, President of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, was the final speaker on our panel.  He was mad.  He immediately complained about what we had “heard so far.”  That was a weird complaint.  Four panelists had just delivered their presentations.  Two defended the police against what they said were unfair criticisms.  And two offered ideas for police and criminal justice reform.  Woodson seemed upset that all of the of the preceding talks were not to his liking.

Time to Overhaul the Criminal Justice System?

This week I hosted a debate between two federal appellate judges on the question, “Does the American Criminal Justice System Need an Overhaul?”  Judge Alex Kozinski says it does; Judge Jay Harvey Wilkinson says it does not.  Watch it here and decide for yourself.

By way of background, Kozinski authored a much discussed article titled, “Criminal Law 2.0.”  One problem he identifies (among many others), is that federal prosecutors too often shirk their legal and ethical obligations.  The Department of Justice tried ignoring his criticism, but is now responding.  Here is a snippet from an article in the National Law Journal (November 16 – sorry, pay wall for this one).

Justice Department Rebuts Judge Kozinski’s Criticism of Prosecutors

In a rare public war of words, top officials at the U.S. Department of Justice are pushing back against recent criticism about prosecutors’ ethics from Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The thrust of the DOJ argument is the familiar, “Trust us – we’ll do the right thing.”  Kozinski rightly insists upon a “trust, but verify” posture as it relates to government promises.

Related items here & here.


The WellCare Case Provides an Example of Overcriminalization in Action

Overcriminalization is not a myth. Labyrinthine regulations often produce absurd outcomes, including prison sentences for individuals who do everything in their power, including consulting multiple attorneys, to comply with the law before acting.

A recent op-ed in The Washington Times illustrates the point, using a recent Medicaid fraud case that is currently in front of a federal appeals court:

Here’s a quiz: Which of the following is a federal crime: (a) A hamster dealer needlessly tilting a hamster’s cage while in transit; (b) subliminally advertising wine; or (c) selling a fresh steak with paprika on it?

Give up? The answer: all of the above.

Right now, there are approximately 4,500 federal criminal statutes and 300,000 administrative regulations that can be punished with imprisonment — and the list keeps growing. This is an invitation for our government to over-prosecute. Too often, federal prosecutors are accepting that invitation and rejecting more measured and effective administrative and civil remedies.


In a case that was recently argued before a federal appeals court, executives at WellCare, a managed health care company in Florida, were prosecuted based on their reasonable interpretation of a Florida statute. Federal prosecutors, however, disagreed with the company’s interpretation, even though Florida never issued any regulations contradicting the executives’ reading of the law.