Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Common Law Court and Other Myths

I’ve posted my latest law review article on SSRN.  The article argues that some of the same rules that apply to executive branch agencies, like the SEC and EPA, should apply to “class action lawmaking” in ordinary courts.  A warning:  much of it will seem rather dry and esoteric to non-lawyers.   

Even so, I hope it will help highlight a serious blind spot of many Hayek-flavored policy proposals advanced by fellow libertarians.  These flawed proposals go like this:  “Agency A has identified a regulatory problem and offered a command-and-control solution.  But command and control solutions often have unanticipated consequences.  By contrast, the incremental case-by-case approach of common law courts allows regulation to adapt to unexpected problems as they arise. Hence, it’s better not to regulate and leave the issue to the common law process.”  (If you search through Cato policy analyses, you may find a few arguments that fit this mold.) 

Here’s the problem with that argument:  Over the last 50 years, courts have rejected the utility of incremental case-by-case decisionmaking, now seen as too “costly” for a mass industrial economy, and have instead patterned their proceedings after administrative agencies.  Now trial judges use procedures like the class action and mechanisms for case consolidation to put hundreds of thousands of recurring disputes raising similar facts before a single “expert” judge or special master tasked with sheparding these disputes into one global settlement.   As a result, in many cases, a choice between courts and agencies is a Hobson’s choice:  both courts and agencies are forums for the sweeping, centralized, one-shot regulation that Hayek so distrusted. 

Unfortunately, many libertarians ignore the sea change in the way our courts run themselves, envisioning that beyond the hulking canyons of Southwest D.C.’s alphabet gulch, there is a pristine land of 19th century “common law” courts, preserved in amber, waiting to rescue us from our zest for central planning.  The persistence of this myth shields us from the difficult libertarian trade-offs between modern-day judicial and administrative regulation. 

My article doesn’t venture an answer to these complicated trade-offs.  (I’m just a humble caveman lawyer.)  Instead, I  suggest a far more modest first step:  That courts start talking about class action law and administrative law in the same legal language, using the same legal concepts, putting us all on notice about the essential similarity between modern judicially managed and agency-managed regulation. 

A Modern-Day James Madison

As summarized over at the To the People blog, a Congressional Quarterly article (sorry, no link) on a proposed flag burning amendment includes this priceless passage:

Before approving the resolution, the committee rejected by voice vote an amendment by Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., that would have prohibited burning, mutilating or trampling U.S. flags with an exception for disposing worn or soiled flags. Biden said he believed the resolution as written is too vague.

Supporters, including Hatch and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said the language is intentionally vague to leave the task of writing more precise language to a future Congress.

“What’s necessary here is to grant the broadest possible authority to Congress to legislate,” Kyl said.

Ah, yes. I believe it was in the long-lost, little-known “Federalist 86” that Madison conveyed the importance of a Constitution that grants the “broadest possible authority to Congress to legislate.” 

Word has it that Sen. Kyl owns the only surviving copy.

Rapanos, Raich, and Agency Discretion

One interesting question lurking in the background of some recent Supreme Court cases is the scope of discretion executive agencies receive when they assert very broad power over areas that are traditionally committed to state authority. Traditionally, under the Court’s landmark 1984 decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, courts are supposed to defer to an agency’s “reasonable” interpretation of its authority when the statute does not clearly speak to the question at issue. The question is, what happens when an ambiguous statute buts up against the outer boundaries of federal constitutional power?

After Gonzales v. Raich, the question was all the more pressing. Raich held that Commerce Clause concerns are at a low ebb when Congress regulates an interstate market “comprehensively.” In that context, when Congress finds that regulating local conduct is essential to the larger regulatory scheme, the majority in Raich said it will defer to Congress’s judgment. As Cato’s amicus brief in Rapanos argued:

If, after Raich, agencies can use legislative history, statutory purpose, or context to manufacture ambiguity nowhere apparent from the text of a statute, and if, in turn, agencies interpreting their power under “ambiguous” statutes are granted both the full quantum of deference owed to Congress under Raich and under Chevron, the potential for agency aggrandizement is immense, indeed.

In light of these and other concerns, we argued, Congress (at a bare minimum) must clearly state in the text of the statute that it intends to push the envelope of federal power before agencies can assume the power and discretion to step into an area traditionally regulated by states.

Scalia appears to take these concerns seriously. First, he notes: “Even if the phrase ‘the waters of the United States’ were ambiguous as applied to intermittent flows, our own canons of construction would establish that the Corps’ interpretation of the statute is impermissible.” In other words, the Court’s constitutional concerns trump agency discretion under an ambiguous statutes–even one that constitutes comprehensive regulation under Raich. This is an important qualification of the traditional Chevron test, one that reigns in the worst excesses of Raich.

Second, in footnote 9, Scalia underscores that before an agency can reach local conduct under a comprehensive regulatory program, Congress must clearly authorize it to do so in the statutory text. Only then will the Court consider whether the agency’s authority is consistent with the Constitution’s division of power between the federal government and states.

The troubling thing about Roberts’ concurrence is that, on one reading, he would appear to take a far more expansive view of agency discretion. He says:

Agencies delegated rulemaking authority under a statute such as the Clean Water Act are afforded generous leeway by the courts in interpreting the statute they are entrusted to administer. See Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837, 842-845 (1984). Given the broad, somewhat ambiguous, but nonetheless clearly limiting terms Congress employed in the Clean Water Act, the Corps and the EPA would have enjoyed plenty of room to operate in developing some notion of an outer bound to the reach of their authority.

The proposed rulemaking went nowhere. Rather than refining its view of its authority in light of our decision in SWANCC, and providing guidance meriting deference under our generous standards, the Corps chose to adhere to its essentially boundless view of the scope of its power. The upshot today is another defeat for the agency.

Its far from 100% clear what kind of test Roberts envisions here. But the best reading is this: If the agency deliberates about its constitutional and statutory authority in a “limiting way” in the context of public notice and comment procedures, he would give the agency “generous” deference, even the EPA would draw lines different (and more expansive) than those that Scalia’s plurality opinion draws. In effect, Roberts would give an agency treading close to the constitutional boundary the same deference that the Court grants to Congress under Raich if the agency draws any limits, no matter how slight, on its authority–precisely the interpretive method we raise red flags about in our brief.

Supreme Court Trims Reach of the Clean Water Act, For Now

As noted, the Supreme Court decided the much anticipated consolidated Commerce Clause-flavored challenges to the Clean Water Act, Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. United States, trimming back the scope of federal wetlands regulation. (Cato filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in Rapanos, which you can access here.) The decision is a mixture of equal parts good news and not-quite-so-good news.

The good news is Justice Scalia’s opinion for the court, joined by three other justices: the Chief, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito. The not-quite-so-good news is the concurrence, written by Justice Kennedy–the all important fifth vote–which significantly qualifies Justice Scalia’s plurality decision, and the concurrence written by Chief Justice Roberts.

First, a bit of background.

 The Clean Water Act, among other things, regulates point source pollution (pollution discharged through a drain of some sort). The Act says regulators can impose criminal sanctions for any pollution into “navigable waters,” defined as “waters of the United States.” But one bit of the Act, imposing reporting requirements and such on state dredging programs, refers to federal waters “adjacent to” navigable water. Federal environmental regulators suggest, based on this apperance of the word “adjacent,” that the Act covers some non-navigable waters.

Indeed, federal regulators go much, much further than that. They argue that any land with a “hydrological connection” to navigable water is within federal regulatory authority. That means even a trickle of surface water or ground water that might eventually wend its way off a land-locked piece of property, trickling drops into a navigable body of water scores of miles away, or more, is within federal power. Hence, the prosecution of John Rapanos: A Michigan commercial developer, Mr. Rapanos dumped sand on one parcel of land in preparation for a real estate development. He was slapped with criminal charges–and threatened with jail time–because grains of that sand may be carried by rainwater through on old run-off drain and, after an epic journey through culverts, creeks and ditches, end up in the Kawkawlin River, twenty miles or so away.

Needless to say, this reading of the Clean Water Act stretches its text past the breaking point. Says Scalia’s opinion:

The extensive federal jurisdiction urged by the Government would authorize the Corps to function as a de facto regulator of immense stretches of intrastate land-an authority the agency has shown its willingness to exercise with the scope of discretion that would befit a local zoning board. We ordinarily expect a “clear and manifest” statement from Congress to authorize an unprecedented intrusion into traditional state authority. The phrase “the waters of the United States” hardly qualifies.

Likewise, the Corps’ interpretation stretches the outer limits of Congress’s commerce power and raises difficult questions about the ultimate scope of that power. Even if the term “the waters of the United States” were ambiguous as applied to channels that sometimes host ephemeral flows of water (which it is not), we would expect a clearer statement from Congress to authorize an agency theory of jurisdiction that presses the envelope of constitutional validity.

In sum, on its only plausible interpretation, the phrase “the waters of the United States” includes only those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water “forming geographic features” that are described in ordinary parlance as “streams[,] … oceans, rivers, [and] lakes.” The phrase does not include channels through which water flows intermittently or ephemerally, or channels that periodically provide drainage for rainfall.

Read by itself, the upshot of Scalia’s opinion is a significant victory for federalism. It rejects environmental regulators’ “hydrological connection” test for federal jurisdiction over wetlands and, furthermore, requires that regulated wetlands have a continuous, standing surface connection to navigable water. It recognizes, moreover, that the Clean Water Act is at the periphery of federal commerce power.

Unfortunately, the Chief Justice’s and Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinions muddy the water (bad puns not intended).

First Kennedy. Kennedy says the Clean Water Act doesn’t raise difficult questions of federal commerce power. Instead, based on a simple interpretation of the Act’s text and legislative purpose, he contends only that regulators lack control over any water–surface or ground, continually running or intermittent–without a “significant nexus” to navigable water. What this means exactly we don’t know. Kennedy wants the lower courts to come up with a significant nexus text–one more bite at the apple, in other words.

Chief Justice Roberts, moreover, invites the EPA to engage in formal notice and comment rulemaking (that’s legalese for a regulatory proceeding that announces a new rule after public input) about the scope of federal power over wetlands and suggests that if it engages in such rulemaking, it would deserve great leeway in the lines it draws. This is a very significant qualification, as it suggests he would be less inclined to second-guess the agency in such a case, even if it draws lines around federal authority that are different than the Court’s preferred lines. Roberts’ concurrence deepens my suspicion that he is more committed to a broad theory of agency discretion than any other justice on the Court, including Scalia.

Wetlands Ruling

As Jerry notes, today’s ruling is welcome news.

Justice Scalia writes the main opinion and here are a few gems: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers exercises the discretion of an enlightened despot.” The Corps’ power to grant property owners a permit to do things on their own property relies upon “such factors as “economics,” “aesthetics,” “recreation,” and “in general, the needs and welfare of the people.” Scalia notes “the average applicant for an individual permit spends 788 days and $271,596 in completing the process.”

Full Supreme Court ruling here. Cato brief in the case here. For more evidence of the despotism, go here or here.

It should be noted that the Bush administration was once again pushing a wildly expansive view of federal power in this case. Fortunately, it lost this one.

Supreme Court Deep-Sixes Federal Wetlands Regulation

From a news bulletin I just received from the enviro trade publication Greenwire:

Supreme Court limits reach of Clean Water Act in 5-4 ruling

A divided Supreme Court ruled this morning that Clean Water Act protection of “waters of the United States” is limited to “permanent, standing or continuously flowing” water. The ruling limits protection for wetlands separated from “navigable waters” or their tributaries.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cast the swing vote in the 5-4 ruling in the joint case, Rapanos v. United States and Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This is a big win for the good guys!

More here.

Gambling Advocacy Now Illegal in Washington State

Earlier this month, I posted about a disturbing new law in Washington State that would impose up to a five-year prison term for people who gamble online. The law’s supporters said not to worry: no one would be breaking into homes to arrest individual gamblers (though even before the law took effect, there was some evidence to the contrary). Now we find out that not only are Washington State authorities willing to go after individual gamblers, they’re using the law to go after people who merely write about gambling. A Seattle Times columnist writes:

The first casualty in the state’s war on Internet gambling is a local Web site where nobody was actually doing any gambling.

What a Bellingham man did on his site was write about online gambling. He reviewed Internet casinos. He had links to them, and ran ads by them. He fancied himself a guide to an uncharted frontier, even compiling a list of “rogue casinos” that had bilked gamblers.

All that, says the state — the ads, the linking, even the discussing — violates a new state law barring online wagering or using the Internet to transmit “gambling information.”

“It’s what the feds would call ‘aiding and abetting,’ ” says the director of the state’s gambling commission, Rick Day. “Telling people how to gamble online, where to do it, giving a link to it — that’s all obviously enabling something that is illegal.”

Uh-oh. This is starting to get a little creepy.

I’ll say. It gets worse. The state’s puritans anti-gambling cops also lashed out at the Seattle Times itself:

Gambling officials told me The Seattle Times may be afoul of the law because we print a poker how-to column, “Card Shark,” by gambler Daniel Negreanu. He sometimes tells readers to hone their skills at online casinos. And at the end of each column is a Web address, fullcontactpoker.com, where readers can comment.

If you type in that address, you whiz off to Negreanu’s digital casino based in the Antilles.

It’s a tangled Web, isn’t it? The state says we’d best do our part to untangle it.

“My suggestion to you is to remove from your paper any advice about online gambling and any links to illegal sites,” Day said.

So even this column could be illegal?

Unfortunately, columnist Danny Westneat closes the piece by arguing that the state’s law against online gambling is “legitimate;” it’s only the act of extending it to people who write about gambling, he asserts, that crosses the line. But as we’ve seen with the drug war, once you’ve given the state the power to enforce consensual crimes that take no victims, it’s only a matter of time before government makes the case that it can’t enforce those laws unless it’s given the power to encroach on other civil liberties.