Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Republic of Gilead Is Not Nigh

If you were judging only from the outraged reaction  online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby had just mandated the adoption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the blueprint for American society.  Yet as my colleague Ilya Shapiro notes, there’s a profound disconnect between all the rhetoric about “denial of access” to contraception and the substance of the ruling.

At the heart of the majority’s opinion is this: The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees’ contraception coverage.  In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees.  Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers.  The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren’t being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions.  Which, one would think, is a win-win.

Against this background, the Court simply held that since HHS has already found a way to achieve the government’s aim of ensuring employees have access to free contraception without compelling non-profit employers to act against their profound religious convictions, they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is “closely held.”  The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government’s ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions. As Justice Alito’s opinion emphasizes:

Hobby Lobby, Harris, and Stealing Each Others’ Clothes

Legal issues have a way of changing form over the years in such a way that the liberal and conservative teams, such as they are, each periodically migrate over to occupy the positions the other formerly held. Examples from today’s two big cases: 

  • In 1990, when the Court decided Employment Division v. Smith, the Indian peyote case, it seemed clear that the liberal stand was to sympathize with religious believers seeking exemption from otherwise applicable general laws, while the conservative position – expressed by Justice Scalia in a majority opinion over a dissent by Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall – was that sorry, but asserting religious scruples doesn’t place you above the law. Congress then proceeded to adopt by way of RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a mechanism using statutory means to achieve much the same ends as the liberals had sought to locate in constitutional law. Two decades later, where are we? The analogy with Hobby Lobby is by no means exact – one might decline to constitutionalize religious conscience rights yet still favor their vigorous statutory application, and the Smith case involved individuals rather than family corporations. But still: by prevailing back then, Scalia and the conservatives shaped a more favorable terrain for what to become the liberal position in Hobby Lobby, while the position embraced by Brennan and Marshall back then, had it prevailed, would have given the religious objectors in Hobby Lobby stronger ground to stand on.
  • Protection for the speech and expression rights of public-sector employees is a specialized area of constitutional law and, under existing Supreme Court precedent, a bit of a balancing act in which the interests of the government-as-employer in maintaining an orderly and efficient workplace often outweigh the expression rights of individual public employees. Not that long ago, it would have been a plausible generalization that liberals on the Court were enthusiastic about guarding and expanding the individual expression rights of public-sector workers, while conservatives tended more to stress management prerogatives. But in today’s Harris v. Quinn, it was the conservative majority that demanded respect for individual employees’ expression rights even where doing so might tend to destabilize an overall public policy, while the dissenting liberals led by Justice Kagan deprecated those same individual expression rights as all very nice in their way but needing to yield to the rights of management. 

Has anyone tried to compile a list of all the various issues in which liberal and conservative blocs have traded positions with each other over living memory? I suspect it would be a long one.

Liberty at the High Court: Not Just (A) Hobby

As someone observed, the pundit world showed deep interest in Harris v. Quinn for about twenty minutes, after which Hobby Lobby was announced and it seemed everyone wanted to talk about that and nothing else. 

My own opinion is that Harris was the more important decision today and Hobby Lobby the less, because constitutional law endures. When Congress sooner or later gets around to amending RFRA, Obamacare, or both, Hobby Lobby, a case of statutory interpretation, will become a footnote of purely historical interest. That doesn’t happen with a First Amendment case, unless of course it is overruled, overturned by Constitutional amendment, etc.

It’s surprising how many commentators are referring to today as a double win for the First Amendment. But Hobby Lobby, while an important case in its way, never reached the First Amendment. Harris did.

The Practical Impact of Harris v. Quinn: A Major Blow to Organized Labor

As noted in this previous post, the Supreme Court’s decision today in Harris v. Quinn does not remake private-sector labor law but does put an end to one of the labor movement’s greatest hopes for expansion: commandeering dues payments by recipients of state subsidies. While the decision may be narrow—the Court, after all, did not rule that no public workers may be forced to support a labor union—its impact will be anything but that.

The Illinois law at issue here in Harris was at the leading edge of a nationwide movement over the past decade to organize home-based care workers, including medical assistants and even family child-care providers, and thereby to “reinvigorate organized labor.”

Though a recent phenomenon, the use of sham employment relationships to support mandatory union representation has spread rapidly across the nation.  In just the decade since SEIU waged a “massive campaign to pressure [] policymakers” in Los Angeles to authorize union bargaining for homecare workers, home-based care workers “have become the darlings of the labor movement” and “helped to reinvigorate organized labor.”  From around zero a decade ago, now several hundred thousand home workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements.

Of Course Government Can’t Violate Religious Liberty for No Good Reason

Hobby Lobby is a much simpler and less important case than it’s been made out to be, for reasons the Court clearly spelled out today. Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate had to fall under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (without even getting to the First Amendment) because it didn’t show – couldn’t show – that there’s no other way of achieving its goal without violating religious beliefs. Moreover, the fact that a for-profit corporation is asserting the statute’s protections is of no moment because neither the corporate form nor the profit motive undermines RFRA’s solicitude for the rights of humans – including owners, officers, and shareholders. In short, the mandate fell because it was a rights-busting government compulsion that lacked sufficient justification. Nobody has been denied access to contraceptives and there’s now more freedom for all Americans to live their lives how they want, without checking their freedom at the office door. 

For more on how the “corporate rights” issue in the case was really a misnomer – because the free exercise of individual humans is at issue regardless of how you style the legalese – see Cato’s amicus brief

Harris v. Quinn: A Win for Workers’ First Amendment Rights

Enough is enough, the Supreme Court ruled today in Harris v. Quinn regarding the power of government to force public employees to associate with a labor union and pay for its speech. Although the Court did not overturn its 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, allowing states to make their workers contribute to labor unions, it declined to extend that principle to reach recipients of state subsidies—in this case, home-care workers who receive modest stipends from the state of Illinois’ Medicaid program but are not properly considered “employees” of the state.

The Court is right that Abood is “something of an anomaly” because it sacrifices public workers’ First Amendment rights of speech and association to avoid their “free-riding” on the dues of workers who’ve chosen to join a union, the kind of thing that rarely if ever is sufficient to overcome First Amendment objections. But Abood treated that issue as already decided by prior cases, which the Harris Court recognizes it was not–a point discussed at length in Cato’s amicus brief. Abood was a serious mistake, the Harris Court concludes, because public-sector union speech on “core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues” and cannot be distinguished from other political speech, which is due the First Amendment’s strongest protection. A ruling along those lines would spell the end of compulsory support of public-sector unions, a major source of funds and their clout. 

It was enough, however, in Harris for the Court to decline Illinois’ invitation “to approve a very substantial expansion of Abood’s reach.” Illinois claimed that home-care workers were public employees for one purpose only: collective bargaining. But these workers were not hired or fired by the state, supervised by the state, given benefits by the state, or otherwise treated as state workers. And for that reason, Abood’s purposes, which relate only to actual “public employees,” simply do not apply. Were the law otherwise, the Court observed, “a host of workers who receive payments from a governmental entity for some sort of service would be candidates for inclusion within Abood’s reach.”

While Harris is not a watershed opinion that remakes labor law consistent with First Amendment principles, it does put an end to the forced unionization of home-based workers, a practice that has spread to nearly a dozen states and had provided a substantial number of new workers to the labor movement in recent years. Harris also lays the groundwork for a challenge to what it calls “Abood’s questionable foundations.” If recent Roberts Court precedents like Shelby County and Citizens United are any guide, Harris is a warning shot that the Abood regime is not long for this world and that the next case will be the one to vindicate all public workers’ First Amendment rights. 

Court Tosses D.C. Tour Guide Licensing Scheme

Since there isn’t any other legal news this or next week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today decided to strike down D.C.’s absurd licensing regulations regarding Uber food trucks raw milk guns campaign finance tour guides. Believe it or not, until today District law required people to pay the government $200 and pass a 100-question test on 14 subjects, covering material from no less than eight different publications, before they can give city tours—all for the purpose of “protecting” tourists from misinformation. If you didn’t comply, you faced a fine and 90 days in jail.

I previously wrote about this case when Cato filed a brief last fall, so I’ll just provide some key excerpts from the court opinion (written by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, whom we had the honor to publish in the Cato Supreme Court Review the first year I edited it). Here’s how it starts:

This case is about speech and whether the government’s regulations actually accomplish their intended purpose. Unsurprisingly, the government answers in the affirmative. But when, as occurred here, explaining how the regulations do so renders the government’s counsel literally speechless, we are constrained to disagree.

The court later describes the reason for its disagreement:

The District’s reliance on a Washington Post article dating from 1927 to justify the exam requirement is equally underwhelming. [Citation omitted.] The article merely establishes that, nearly a century ago, the newspaper expressed concern about unscrupulous or fraudulent charitable solicitation and that an unidentified number of persons said self-styled tour guides were overly aggressive in soliciting business. Reliance on decades-old evidence says nothing of the present state of affairs. Current burdens demand contemporary evidence. [Citations of last term’s big voting right case, Shelby County v. Holder, and other cases are omitted.]

Continuing the theme that D.C. failed to justify its speech regulation, the court says:

Even if we indulged the District’s apparently active imagination, the record is equally wanting of evidence the exam regulation actually furthers the District’s interest in preventing the stated harms. Curiously, the District trumpets as a redeeming quality the fact that, once licensed, “[t]our guides may say whatever they wish about any site, or anything else for that matter.” [Citation omitted.] But we are left nonplussed. Exactly how does a tour guide with carte blanche to—Heaven forfend—call the White House the Washington Monument further the District’s interest in ensuring a quality consumer experience? [Footnote omitted.]