Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Tax Notes Praises Law-Review Article that Got Halbig Cases Rolling

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is often referred to as the second-highest court in the land, is expected to rule any day now on Halbig v. Burwell, a legal challenge that “may actually crush,” “kill,” and “wreck” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

The tax-law journal Tax Notes has chosen the law-journal article that got Halbig and similar cases rolling – Jonathan H. Adler and Michael F. Cannon, Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA, Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine 23, No. 1 (2013): 119-195 – as one of “the 10 law most noteworthy law review articles on employee benefits and executive compensation issues published in 2013 that a broad audience of employee benefits professionals would find relevant and worthy of attention.” Tax Notes calls the Adler-Cannon article “innovative and thought provoking” and one that “practitioners should have read” in 2013.

To read the Adler-Cannon Health Matrix article, click here. For more on the Halbig cases, click here.

The End of Forced Union Dues?

Defenders of the status quo in education have long used lawsuits to protect themselves from competition and force state legislatures to increase funding. Lately, rather than merely play legal defense, some education reformers have turned to the courts to push reform. In some cases, the long-term prospects of positive reform through litigation are slim, even when the court’s ruling is favorable.

However, one lawsuit currently making its way through the court system has the potential to remove a major obstacle to reform: compulsory union dues. In 19 states, would-be government school teachers are forced either to join the teachers union or to remain a non-member but pays dues anyway—sometimes more than $1,000 per year.

The unions contend that these compulsory dues are necessary to overcome the free rider problem (non-union members may benefit from the collectively-bargained wages and benefits without contributing to the union), but plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association point out that numerous organizations engage in activities (e.g. – lobbying) that benefit members and non-members alike without giving such organizations the right to coerce non-members to pay. That’s especially true when the individuals who supposedly benefit actually disagree with the position of the organization. Indeed, the plaintiffs argue that the compulsory dues violate their First Amendment rights because collective bargaining is inherently political:

Current federal law allows union workers to opt out of the political portion of union dues — for California teachers that usually amounts to between 30 and 40 percent of the total dues automatically taken from their salaries each year — but in closed-shop states such as California, workers cannot opt out of the rest of the dues, predominantly designated for collective bargaining. However, the plaintiffs argue that collective bargaining is inherently political, involving such debated issues as school vouchers and teacher tenure.

“Since my first years of teaching, I’ve been bothered by the fact that a large portion of my mandatory dues goes to pay for political endeavors of a union whose political positions have nothing to do with my job and have nothing to do with improving education for me, for my students, or for their parents,” Friedrichs tells me. “In fact, often these policies have negative effects.” 

The legal justification for compulsory union dues rests primarily on a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But as Andy Smarick noted last week, the recent majority opinion in Harris v. Quinn displayed a willingness to revisit and perhaps overturn Abood:

The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then. 

For example:

Abood failed to appreciate the difference between the core union speech involuntarily subsidized by dissenting public-sector employees and the core union speech involuntarily funded by their counterparts in the private sector. In the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues, but that is generally not so in the private sector. 

Justice Alito also wrote that “preventing nonmembers from freeriding on the union’s efforts” is a rationale “generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections.”

The Friedrichs case, resting as it does on a First Amendment objection based on the premise the collective bargaining in the public sector is inherently political, appears to match perfectly the majority’s objections to Abood in Harris. It very well may spell the end of compulsory public sector union dues.

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.

Supreme Court Grants Cert In Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act Case

Should courts allow the federal government to ignore time deadlines for filing suit on the grounds that there’s a war on, even though it’s been 70 years since the end of the war on which such a delay was premised? On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in a case raising that question, Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter. I wrote about the issue last year; an excerpt:

War is the health of the state,” wrote Randolph Bourne a century ago—from the special war taxes that can linger for a century, to the mohair subsidy program from Korean War days, to New York City’s wartime emergency rent controls, to the many incursions on civil liberties that don’t get rolled back afterward. War, it now turns out, can even give a boost to the lawyers who represent the federal government in civil litigation, magically transmuting losing cases into winners….

In 1942, not long after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Congress passed the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA), providing that the statute of limitations would be suspended (or “tolled”) on claims of defrauding the federal government until hostilities had ended. When the Japanese surrendered three years later, Congress left WSLA on the books, where nearly everyone forgot about it. …

A few years ago the U.S. Department of Justice decided that the old law entitled it to file various civil fraud lawsuits for which the ordinary statute of limitations had passed, because we were after all at war in Iraq and Afghanistan – even though the original statute applied on its face to criminal rather than civil cases, although the newer wars unlike World War II do not call for all-consuming national focus that might pre-empt the ordinary course of business, and although the subject matter of most of the cases has nothing whatever to do with national defense or war or Afghanistan or Iraq. A couple of appeals courts have agreed with DoJ’s excuse, which has emboldened the government to roll out the theory to many other cases. That leaves business lawyers to fret, as I wrote last year, about “when, if at all, they can safely advise clients that a potential dispute is too old to worry about. If truth is the first casualty of war, perhaps the fairness of dispute resolution is the next.”

The Supreme Court now offers them a ray of hope – and in a more sensible world Congress would do so as well, by agreeing to revisit WSLA.

Hobby Lobby’s Aftermath—and Its Implications for Freedom

Not to be missed, the Wall Street Journal offers us two house editorials this morning plus the always colorful online thoughts of James Taranto, all on the Left’s hysterical reaction to Monday’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. With his usual wit, Taranto presents a rich catalog of the “aggressively ignorant commentary” while the first of the editorial board’s offerings is a clear-eyed statement of the raw politics behind this “ignorance.” It starts with White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s initial remarks—conveniently ignoring that the decision rested not on the Constitution but on a statute that Congress passed all but unanimously—then continuing to Hillary Clinton’s remarkable outburst—likening the result that flows from the statute her husband promoted as president to the treatment of women that we see in the worst Middle Eastern despotisms.

But it’s in its second offering, “The Political Ginsburg,” that the Journal takes off the gloves. The justice’s “hyperbolic dissent is a political call to arms unworthy of a junior judge, much less the nation’s highest Court,” the editors write. Indeed,

The excess begins with her first sentence: “In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations … can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” She goes on to say that the Court’s “radical purpose” may unleash “havoc,” among other flourishes that distort the opinion to the point of intellectual dishonesty.

Summing up its assessment:

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent is so far removed from the legal reality that it doesn’t qualify as a judicial opinion. It is a political opinion whose purpose seems to be to mobilize opposition to the Court and perhaps even motivate Democrats to turn out at the polls. Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes unleashes his rhetorical ferocity on decisions he dislikes, but his dissents are rooted in the law. Justice Ginsburg’s is a flight from the law.

And yet, for all her gross distortion of Justice Alito’s narrow, statutory opinion for the Court, Justice Ginsburg has pointed, doubtless unwittingly, to how far we’ve strayed from our first principle, freedom—something to reflect on as we prepare to celebrate our independence. As I wrote in this space a while back, after oral argument in Hobby Lobby, religious liberty is treated today as an “exception” to the general power of government to rule—captured, indeed, in the very title of the statute on which the Hobby Lobby decision rests: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That Congress had to act to try to restore religious freedom—to carve out a space for it in a world of ubiquitous, omnipresent government—speaks volumes. So completely have we come to assume that it’s government first—supplying us with all manner of goods and services—liberty second, that Justice Alito himself was at pains to stress how narrow his opinion was (properly, from a consideration of the scope of judicial authority).

Yet that was not enough for his critics, who have so distorted his opinion. Although most don’t say it, their real beef is with the Act itself. They pit a woman’s “right” to “free” contraceptives, including the abortifacients at issue in this case, against the claim of an employer that he has a right not to provide those (in principle, on religious or on any other grounds). And they add that employers have no right to “interfere” with a woman’s reproductive choices—as if that’s what employers are doing. It’s “reasoning” like that that has undermined our freedoms. And no one has employed it more often than the man now in the White House, who repeatedly tells us that “We’re all in this together.” If we are, then it’s far more than religious liberty that needs restoring.

The Right to Own Includes the Right to Rent Out

Since 2005, the city of Winona, MN will not grant rental licenses to property owners if more than 30 percent of the lots on their block already have rental licenses (the 30% “rule”). The rule contains a “grandfather clause,” however, that allows property owners who had licenses prior to the rule to continue renting even if their block has already reached the 30 percent threshold. Therefore, many blocks in the city violate the rule, which the Minnesota Supreme Court is now reviewing.

Cato has filed an amicus brief, joined by the Minnesota Free Market Institute at the Center of the American Experiment, supporting the property owners challenging the rule. We argue that the rule is an arbitrary, inefficient, and unconstitutional restraint on an essential and fundamental property right because it strips property owners of their right to manage and enjoy their property at the result of actions of their neighbors. The rule also damages communities by reducing property values and creating inefficiencies in the local economy and housing market without a substantial government interest.

First, the rule is a significant intrusion into the fundamental rights of residential property owners because it denies the right to rent—one of the three principal ways to use a property—and significantly limits the right to sell. In addition, since the rule restricts fundamental rights, it needs to be tailored to achieve a legitimate government interest to be held valid—but the rule is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.

Second, the right to rent is too important to restrict with an arbitrary limit on rental licenses. The rule isn’t an effective way to protect “community character”—its purpose according to the city—especially given the fact that the law has many exceptions and is applied arbitrarily. For example, the rule favors currently licensed property owners and encourages them to add rental properties to their lots, thereby defeating the asserted goal of avoiding rental clustering. Finally, the rule harms communities by artificially depressing property values and increasing the probability of vacancy. It further fails to rationally address the city’s other concerns. For example, one of the rule’s ostensible purposes is to reduce student-housing-related nuisance complaints, but it still allows large groups of students to live together in “theme houses.”

For these reasons, the Minnesota high court should reverse the lower courts’ ruling and protect the full constitutional rights of Minnesota property owners.

(Full disclosure: My condo building established a similar rule a few years ago because, due to federal regulation, it’s hard to get lenders to approve mortgages to finance purchases in buildings with a high rental quotient. Because I’m one of the original owners in my 7-year-old building, my unit is grandfathered in—except the condo board is now trying to apply the rental cap even to owners who predate the rule. It hasn’t come to litigation yet and the issue here is contractual rather than constitutional or statutory—and I don’t plan to rent out my place any time soon—but this episode just reinforced for me the practical importance of the high-fallutin’ principles Cato defends.)

Cato Went 10-1 at Supreme Court This Term

And so another term has come and gone at the marble palace at One First Street NE. Like last year, Cato did swimmingly, compiling a 10–1 record in cases where we filed an amicus brief. Notably, we again vastly outperformed the solicitor general’s office, which went 11–9 on the year. Perhaps the government would be better served following our lead on constitutional interpretation, advocating positions that reinforce our founding document’s role in securing and protecting individual liberty.

Cato was also the only group in the country to file on the winning side of this term’s three highest-profile 5-4 cases: McCutcheon v. FEC (campaign finance), Harris v. Quinn (workers’ rights), and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (HHS mandate). This again matches our performance last year, when we were the only ones to file on the winning side of Fisher v. UT-Austin (racial preferences), Shelby County v. Holder (voting rights), and United States v. Windsor (DOMA). There’s an obvious reason why it’s become a “best practice” among elite Supreme Court advocates to solicit an amicus brief from Cato; while our denial rate is lower than the Supreme Court’s, it’s been growing steadily given increasing requests without a commensurate growth in manpower.

For the record, here’s a record of cases in which we filed this term (in order of argument):

Winning side (10): McCutcheon v. FEC; Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action; Bond v. United States; Noel Canning v. NLRB; Brandt v. United States; McCullen v. Coakley; Harris v. Quinn; Burwell v. Hobby Lobby; SBA List v. Driehaus; Riley v. California

Losing side (1): Kaley v. United States

To learn more about all these cases and the views of Cato-friendly scholars and practitioners, register for our 13th Annual Constitution Day Symposium, which will be held September 17 to review the term just past and look ahead to the next one. (This year’s conference features P.J. O’Rourke, Miguel Estrada, and Judge Diane Sykes, among others.) That’s also when we’ll be releasing the latest volume of the Cato Supreme Court Review. Speaking of which, I’d better get editing…