Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Police Misconduct: The Worst Case in September

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website we have identified the worst case for the month of September.

The worst case goes to the still-unnamed police officer who shot John Geer in a Northern Virginia incident last year, and the police and federal investigators who have refused to release any information on the case a year after the shooting.

Fairfax County police officers responded to a call from Geer’s longtime girlfriend who called 911 because Geer had been drinking and throwing her possessions out onto the lawn after she told him she was moving out. When officers arrived, they trained their weapons at Geer as they spoke with him in the doorway of his home for almost 50 minutes. Friends and family gathered to watch the situation. One of Geer’s daughters shouted from a neighbor’s home “Don’t you hurt my daddy!”

Geer had been speaking calmly and holding his arms above his head, resting them on the doorframe from within, but when he moved his hands down the doorframe to about face-level, one of the officers abruptly fired a shot directly into Geer’s chest, as his best friend, father, and neighbors watched. Geer spun and closed the door before collapsing. The officers then waited an hour while Geer bled to death before sending in assistance. Over four hours later, Geer’s body was still left lying on the floor of his home.

Police handling of the incident and its aftermath haven’t improved in the year since the shooting. Geer’s family and friends still don’t know the name of the shooting officer—who has been on paid desk duty ever since—whether the shooting was declared justified or not, or why trained negotiators were not called. State and federal investigators have taken no substantial public action on the case, and the family, which exhibited incredible patience for the better part of a year, has finally had to resort to a lawsuit.

The refusal of the police to disclose even the name of the officer who shot and killed an unarmed man is just another example of the same troubling lack of transparency that we saw in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Police officers are human, and yes they make mistakes, but what possible excuse is there for circling the wagons and denying the public—and worse, the victims’ family and friends—the right to know what their public servants have done and which of them needs to be to held accountable? The resulting feeling among those affected, as Geer’s father described it, is “Frustrating to say the least—not knowing anything and having a feeling of helplessness, sadness, anger. Just wondering what’s going on and why nobody would tell us anything.”

This is a case of one man shooting another unarmed man in the chest in front of dozens of witnesses. No complication can justify forcing that feeling of helplessness and anger on John Geer’s friends and family for over a year.

Court Is Back in Session: No Huge Cases Yet, but Blockbusters Loom

While it seems like just yesterday that the Supreme Court went on vacation after its controversial (but correct) ruling in the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate case, summer is over even for The Nine. Today is First Monday, the traditional start of the new Supreme Court term.

As of this writing, the Court has 50 cases on its docket, which is about on par with recent practice, such that we can expect 70-75 opinions at term’s end once the Court sets more cases for argument later in the term. Here are some of the issues: whether a policeman’s mistaken belief that someone had committed a traffic violation can form the basis for a lawful search (Heien v. North Carolina – Cato’s brief); whether a prison can prohibit a Muslim inmate from growing a beard (Holt v. Hobbs); whether a fisherman can be prosecuted under Sarbanes-Oxley’s recordkeeping provision for throwing undersized fish overboard (Yates v. United States - Cato’s brief); whether Congress can force the State Department to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel on U.S. passports (Zivotovsky v. Kerry); the circumstances under which criminal charges can attach to Facebook posts (Elonis v. United States Cato’s brief); and whether an occupational-licensing board gets immunity from liability for anticompetitive behavior (North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC Cato’s brief). These cases don’t yet reach the high profile of recent terms, but if the Court takes up one of the same-sex marriage or Obamacare-subsidies lawsuits now at its doorstep, all bets are off.

For more detail on these and other cases, see the “Looking Ahead” essay in this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review, as well as these two previews.

Cato Maintains Opposition to IRS Lawlessness in Obamacare-Subsidies Case

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways.

As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of these new tax provisions, when combined with state decision-making and IRS rule-making, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem. The legislation’s Section 1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State”—as an incentive for states to create the exchanges—but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchanges, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where § 1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting § 1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance.  After the IRS expanded § 1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance. Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress.

The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of § 1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had. On appeal, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of the ACA precluded the federal government from subsidizing the premiums of insurance policies obtained through federally established exchanges. Later that same day, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell took the opposite position on the same question—from which ruling there is now a cert petition pending in the Supreme Court.

This circuit split did not last long, however, as the D.C. Circuit decided to vacate the panel opinion and rehear Halbig en banc (meaning all the court’s judges, not just a three-judge panel). Federal appellate rules say that such review “is not favored” and the D.C. Circuit has a particularly high bar, on average taking only one case per year en banc. Judge Harry Edwards, who dissented in the Halbig panel ruling, has taken great pains to reduce the number of en banc hearings. Even before he served as the D.C. Circuit’s chief judge, Edwards wrote in Bartlett v. Bowen (1987) that “the institutional cost of rehearing cases en banc is extraordinary” and that it “substantially delays the case being reheard, often with no clear principle emanating from the en banc court.” Nevertheless, the court took this step, vindicating President Obama’s strategy of packing the underworked D.C. Circuit after the Senate eliminated the filibuster for judicial nominees.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have filed a brief continuing our support for the plaintiffs on their appeal. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it’s neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention, or the invention of civil servants.

If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the ACA, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decision-making, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress, or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

The en banc D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Halbig v. Burwell on December 17.

Pruitt v. Burwell: A Victory for the Rule of Law

From Darwin’s Fool:

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma handed the Obama administration another – and a much harsher — defeat in one of four lawsuits challenging the IRS’s attempt to implement ObamaCare’s major taxing and spending provisions where the law does not authorize them. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides that its subsidies for private health insurance, its employer mandate, and to a large extent its individual mandate only take effect within a state if the state establishes a health insurance “Exchange.” Two-thirds (36) of the states declined to establish Exchanges, which should have freed more than 50 million Americans from those taxes. Instead, the Obama administration decided to implement those taxes and expenditures in those 36 states anyway. Today’s ruling was in Pruitt v. Burwell, a case brought by Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt.

These cases saw two appellate-court rulings on the same day, July 22. In Halbig v. Burwella three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the administration to stop. (The full D.C. Circuit has agreed to review the case en banc on December 17, a move that automatically vacates the panel ruling.) In King v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit implausibly gave the IRS the thumbs-up. (The plaintiffs have appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.) A fourth case, Indiana v. IRS, brought by Indiana attorney general Greg Zoeller, goes to oral arguments in federal district court on October 9.

Today, federal judge Ronald A. White issued a ruling in Pruitt that sided with Halbig against King, and eviscerated the arguments made by the (more senior) judges who sided with the government in those cases…

Read the rest.

The EEOC Loses (And Loses. And Loses.) In Federal Court Again

We keep reporting in this space about how federal courts have slapped down the long-shot lawsuits and activist legal positions advanced by the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the Freeman case last year, a Maryland federal judge used such unflattering terms as “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling” to refer to Commission positions, while in the more recent Kaplan case, in which Cato filed a brief, a Sixth Circuit panel was only slightly more polite about the systematic shortcomings in the commission’s case. Both of those cases arose from the commission’s controversial crusade against the use of criminal and credit background checks in hiring.

Since our report in April, the commission has extended its epic, cellar-dwelling record of federal court losses with at least three more defeats. 

* Yesterday a Second Circuit panel ruled on a case in which the EEOC had claimed that female and male lawyers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had not received equal pay for substantially equal work. The problems with the commission’s case were many, including a seemingly “random” choice of comparison employees that tried to dodge the significance of substantial differences between them based on how long they had been practicing law and had been at the Port Authority. Above all, the EEOC chose to rest its case on the notion that “an attorney is an attorney is an attorney,” which meant it was entitled simply to assume that Port Authority lawyers “in practice areas ranging from Contracts to Maritime and Aviation, and from Labor Relations to Workers’ Compensation” were all doing the “same” work meriting the same pay. The panel of appeals judges barely concealed its impatience with this unrealistic assumption – judges are if nothing else experienced lawyers themselves – and upheld the dismissal

Amtrak Shouldn’t Get to Write Its Own Ticket

Article One, Section One of the Constitution vests “all legislative powers” in Congress. The sovereign power to make laws comes from the people, so their representatives—Congress—should make those laws.

It sounds simple enough, but once the federal government started ballooning in size and regulating everything under the sun, that simple understanding had to go. There was too much governing for Congress to handle on its own, so the courts adjusted, allowing a proliferation of government agencies to exercise lawmaking power, within certain guidelines.&

We’ve now apparently gotten to the point, however, that there’s so much governing to do that it’s too much for the government to handle on its own. In a case now before the Supreme Court, Amtrak—the for-profit, quasi-public entity that the federal government has deemed private for these purposes—has been given a part to play in making laws to regulate its competitors in the rail transportation industry.

Halbig v. Burwell: House Oversight Committee Subpoenas IRS

This was a long time coming.

Those who follow Halbig v. Burwell and similar cases know the IRS stands accused of taxing, borrowing, and spending billions of dollars contrary to the clear language of federal law. The agency is quite literally subjecting more than 50 million individuals and employers to taxation without representation.

Congressional investigators have been trying to figure out how the IRS could write a rule that so clearly contradicts the plain language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, the agency has been largely stonewalling their efforts to obtain documents relating the the development of the regulation challenged in the Halbig cases.

Fortunately, finally, last week the House Committe on Oversight and Government Reform used its subpoena power to demand the IRS turn over the documents that show what whent into the agency’s decision.

We’ll see if the IRS complies, or if another of the agency’s hard drives conveniently crashes.

I’ve got a fuller write-up over at Darwin’s Fool.