Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Oregon Marijuana Policy

Part of Oregon’s Measure 91, passed in November and legally titled Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act, goes into effect today. The new law allows men and women, 21 and older, to grow limited amounts of marijuana on their property and to possess a limited amount for personal, recreational use. Specifically, an Oregonian can possess up to eight ounces of marijuana and grow up to four marijuana plants in their homes. Each adult can possess up to an ounce in public, but one may not use marijuana in public.  §6 of Measure 91 lists all the guidelines that one would need to know about what is now legally permissible personal and household use under the new law.

The personal use and cultivation of marijuana will not be overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). That agency will be tasked with overseeing the commercial use of marijuana, including licensing, taxing, and regulating. The review and acceptance of licenses will begin in January. Actual sale and purchasing of commercially grown marijuana will also begin sometime in 2016.

The fact that recreational use and private in-home ownership will now be legal has sparked some media interest. Particularly, the question has been asked: How can interested Oregonians begin their recreational use or home growing when there is no legal sale?  That’s a good question with respect to the lawful supply.  The underground market is fairly easy to find.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Cato Continues Win Streak at Supreme Court, Government Does Abysmally Yet Again

After several blockbuster terms, this year was supposed to give a bit of a breather to Supreme Court watchers – but of course all that changed in November, when RobertsCare and same-sex marriage landed back on the justices’ laps. Looking back on the term, we see a few trends: fewer unanimous rulings than the last few years; more results that experts classify as “liberal” than “conservative” (though that’s a function of the vagaries of the docket); the lockstep voting of the liberal bloc contrasted against the inscrutability of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy.

But despite the highs and lows of the last few decision days, when the dust cleared, there was one aspect of continuity that’s particularly gratifying to me: Cato continued its winning streak in cases in which we filed amicus briefs. While not as dominating as last term, we still managed to pull off an 8-7 record. I’m also proud to note that we were the only organization in the country to support the challenges to both the IRS rule on the ACA and state marriage laws.

Here’s the breakdown, in the order the opinions arrived:

Winning side (8): North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTCYates v. United StatesElonis v. United StatesCity of Los Angeles v. PatelHorne v. U.S. Dept. of AgricultureJohnson v. United StatesObergefell v. HodgesMichigan v. EPA.

Losing side (7): Heien v. North CarolinaPerez v. Mortgage Bankers Assoc.; U.S. Dept. of Transportation v. Assoc. of American RailroadsEEOC v. Abercrombie & FitchWalker v. Sons of Confederate VeteransTexas Dept. of Housing v. Inclusive Communities ProjectKing v. Burwell

Supreme Court to Consider Ending Forced Public-Sector Union Dues

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which asks the court to consider whether compulsory public-sector union dues violate the First Amendment right to free speech–which includes the right to be free from compulsory speech. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief supporting the petitioners’ request that SCOTUS hear the case.

In 26 states, public-sector unions can force non-members to pay dues anyway. As I noted last 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. 

Marriage Policy Is a Mess. Here’s How to Make Sense of It.

Give Rand Paul points for trying: His opinion piece about marriage policy in the wake of Obergefell did better than many other Republicans have done. He did not call for resurrecting the dead – and politically toxic – Federal Marriage Amendment. He would appear to be actually considering the issues at stake, which is a good start.

But contrary to the promise of the headline (which he probably didn’t write anyway), the measures that Senator Paul recommends would not get government “out of the marriage business altogether.” Judging by what he actually wrote, local government would still control entry and exit from civil marriage, and civil marriage itself would apparently still continue to exist. Many federal consequences, like Social Security survivorship and the ability to sponsor an immigrant spouse, would presumably continue to flow from marital status - and they’d still be unavailable in any other way.

This isn’t such a terrible thing, necessarily. Marriage policy is really, really complicated. As long as we have a government, and as long as it’s making important decisions about our families and property, at least some parts of civil marriage may actually be worth saving. Marriage can serve as a protection against the state, one that (among lots of other things) keeps families together and makes the Social Security system run marginally more justly: If anyone deserves to recoup some of what the government takes by way of the payroll tax, it’s the widow of the worker who “contributed.” And if anyone is competent to sponsor a new citizen, it must be that new citizen’s spouse.

Colorado Supreme Court Strikes Down School Vouchers

Earlier today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Douglas County’s school voucher program violates the state constitution. 

The Douglas County Board of Education unanimously voted to enact the Choice Scholarship Pilot (CSP) Program in 2011, making it the first district-level school voucher program in the nation. The program granted 500 school vouchers worth up to 75 percent of the district schools’ per-pupil revenue, which was approximately $6,100 in the last academic year. Students could use the $4,575 vouchers at the private school of their choice and the district retained the remaining 25 percent of the funding ($1,525 per voucher student).

However, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several local organizations that wanted to protect district schools from competition filed a legal challenge almost immediately. Although they won an injunction from a trial court, it was later overturned on appeal in 2013. Plaintiffs then appealed to the state supreme court.

In a narrow 4-3 decision*, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the voucher law ran afoul of the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which says:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

The court held that “aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does.” Even though “CSP does not explicitly funnel money directly religious schools, instead providing financial aid to student,” the court ruled that the Blaine Amendment’s prohibitions “are not limited to direct funding.”

Kennedy the Swing, Roberts Back on Reservation, Scalia Is Scalia

This morning I was on the steps of the Supreme Court, as I have been each of the decision days starting last Monday. It’s a real spectacle, with protestors and counter-protestors, interns running from the Court’s press office to give their media principals slip opinions, and phalanxes of TV cameras, bright lights, screens, and assorted technical accoutrements. For someone whose job includes digesting and commenting on legal opinions, this last week of the high court’s term is pretty much the Super Bowl.

Except today didn’t feel that way. After Obamacare on Thursday and same-sex marriage on Friday, today was the most anticlimactic “last day of school” since I’ve begun doing this.

That’s not to say that the three cases decided today were unimportant, either legally or politically. Indeed, until the Court took up King v. Burwell and Obergefell v. Hodges, each of them would’ve been considered among the “big ones” for what was, to that point, a low-key term. After all, we’re talking about the death penalty, redistricting, and major environmental regulations. (And also the Court announced that it will again take up Fisher v. UT-Austin, the racial-preferences case that is set to become one of next term’s blockbusters.)

Let’s take the cases in the order they came:

Does EPA’s Supreme Court Loss Doom Obama’s Climate Agenda?

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court struck down the Obama Administration EPA’s signature “Mercury and Air Toxic Rule,” which regulates emissions by fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Before regulating, EPA was obligated to decide whether regulation under one the Act’s most burdensome programs was “appropriate and necessary.” EPA interpreted that language to preclude it from considering the costs of regulation—some $10 billion per year, in exchange for $4 million or so in direct benefits. That interpretation, the Court decided, was ludicrous.

The decision may well leave the Obama climate agenda in tatters. Why that is requires a bit of explanation. In the usual case when the Court finds a rule to be unlawful, it vacates the offending action—in other words, deprives it of legal force. But that’s not what the Court did here. Instead, it sent the case back down to the D.C. Circuit for further proceedings, knowing full well that that court will follow its usual practice of “remand without vacatur”—in other words, let the agency fix any flaws in its rule while leaving the rule in place.

This is a very big deal. The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda is EPA’s so-called “Clean Power Plan,” which aims to cut power plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions by around 30 percent and force the phase-out of coal-fired generation. But the statutory authority that EPA claims supports this effort explicitly carves out any regulation of facilities that are already subject to regulations like the Mercury Rule. So if the rule remains in place—as seems likely—then the Clean Power Plan should be dead in the water.

But there’s a more subtle, and perhaps more important, reason to expect trouble ahead for the Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court’s failure to vacate the Mercury Rule reflects its recognition that the bulk of the rule’s costs—and it was one of the most expensive government regulations ever—has already been borne by industry. So there’s no urgency, at this point, to putting the rule on hold; to the contrary, doing so would be disruptive. But the flip side is that this means utilities and their customers spent tens of billions of dollars complying with a regulation that was always unlawful. One can imagine that the Court won’t be eager for that to happen again. And one can also imagine that the Court’s decision today is a shot across the bow of the D.C. Circuit: when the next billion-dollar rule comes up, and there’s any legal question about EPA’s authority, put the rule on hold so the courts have a chance to do their business. More reading-between-the-lines: if you don’t, we will.

The Clean Power Plan is expected to be finalized in late August, and challengers will ask the D.C. Circuit for a stay just as soon as they can. If that happens, the rule most likely won’t go into effect during the Obama Administration and, depending on the results of the next election, may never go forward.

And that’s why today may be the beginning of the end of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda.