California Shouldn’t Be Able to Impose Regulations on Businesses Outside of California

One of the several failures of the Articles of Confederation was the incapacity of the central government to deal with trade disputes among the states. The Constitution resolved this problem by empowering the federal government to regulate interstate commerce. It has since become a basic principle of American federalism that a state may not regulate actions in other states or impede the interstate flow of goods based on out-of-state conduct (rather than on the features of the goods themselves).

That principle was axiomatic until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld one particular extra-territorial California regulation. California recently established a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (“LCFS”) that attempts to rate the “carbon intensity” of liquid fuels, so that carbon emissions can be reduced in the Golden State. California considers not only the carbon emissions from the fuel itself being burnt, however, but also the entire “lifetime” of the fuel, including its manufacture and transportation.

This has led to complaints from Midwestern ethanol producers, whose product—which is in all other ways identical to California-produced ethanol—being severely disadvantaged in California’s liquid fuel markets, simply because it comes from further away. Groups representing farmers and fuel manufacturers sued, arguing that the LCFS constitutes a clear violation of the Commerce Clause (the Article I federal power to regulate interstate commerce) by discriminating against interstate commerce and allowing California to regulate conduct occurring wholly outside of its borders. The Ninth Circuit recently upheld the LCFS, finding the regulation permissible because its purpose was primarily environmental and not economic protectionism (although judges dissenting from the court’s denial of rehearing pointed out that this is the wrong standard to apply).

The farmers and fuel manufacturer groups have now submitted a petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, Reason Foundation, California Manufacturers & Technology Association, and the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute on an amicus brief supporting the petition.

We argue that the lower court’s ruling provides a template for other states to follow should they want to evade Supreme Court precedents barring obstruction of interstate commerce and extraterritorial regulation. As the Founders fully recognized, ensuring the free flow of commerce among the states is vital to the wellbeing of the nation, and California’s actions—and the Ninth Circuit’s endorsement of them—threaten to clog up that flow. Not only does the appellate ruling allow California to throw national fuel markets into disarray, it invites other states to destabilize interstate markets and incite domestic trade disputes—precisely the type of uncooperative behavior the Constitution was designed to prevent.

The Supreme Court will likely decide whether to take Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey before it recesses for the summer. For more on the case, see this blogpost by PLF’s Tony Francois.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Should Companies Do What’s Best for Government, or Should They Do What’s Best for Workers, Consumers, and Shareholders?

I’m in favor of free markets. That means I’m sometimes on the same side as big business, but it also means that I’m often very critical of big business. That’s because large companies are largely amoral. Depending on the issue, they may be on the side of the angels, such as when they resist bad government policies such as higher tax rates and increased red tape. But many of those same companies will then turn around and try to manipulate the system for subsidies, protectionism, and corrupt tax loopholes.

Today, I’m going to defend big business. That’s because we have a controversy about whether a company has the legal and moral right to protect itself from bad tax policy. We’re dealing specifically with a drugstore chain that has merged with a similar company based in Switzerland, which raises the question of whether the expanded company should be domiciled in the United States or overseas.

Here’s some of what I wrote on this issue for yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

Should Walgreen move? …Many shareholders want a “corporate inversion” with the company based in Europe, possibly Switzerland. …if the combined company were based in Switzerland and got out from under America’s misguided tax system, the firm’s tax burden would drop, and UBS analysts predict that earnings per share would jump by 75 percent. That’s a plus for shareholders, of course, but also good for employees and consumers.

Folks on the left, though, are upset about this potential move, implying that this would be an example of corporate tax cheating. But they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re prevaricating.

Some think this would allow Walgreen to avoid paying tax on American profits to Uncle Sam. This is not true. All companies, whether domiciled in America or elsewhere, pay tax to the IRS on income earned in the U.S. 

The benefit of “inverting” basically revolves around the taxation of income earned in other nations.

Why Worry About Conspiracy When Incompetence Will Do?

Last week, the New York Times reported that the Census Bureau would be significantly changing the questions and methods it uses to determine who has health insurance. The redesign is an attempt to address some of the flaws in the current design that have long troubled the agency. A working paper from the Census Bureau had found that it provided an “inflated estimate of the uninsured” and was prone to “measurement errors” that diminished the reliability and usefulness of the measure.

The timing of this change could hardly be worse. The massive coverage provisions of the health care reform have just taken effect, and these new changes could make comparisons to past years difficult, or meaningless. Another document from the agency explains that the questions would elicit such different responses that “it is likely the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in the series for the health insurance estimates.”

As the Times reports, the differences in responses between the two sets of questions are significant; in a trial run last year, the percentage of people without health insurance was 10.6 percent with the new questionnaire, compared with 12.5 percent using the old version, with similar effects across all demographic groups.

Some defenders of the decision have pointed out that these new questions will also give data for 2013, so there will be at least one year of pre-ACA data to compare to. This is true, and having at least one data point will be helpful to some extent, but what we really want to evaluate when analyzing the law would be the longer term trend, for two reasons. One, there is a decent amount of variation in these surveys that make single data points less informative. Two, while the major coverage provisions of the law take effect in 2014, the law has already been influencing the insurance market in smaller ways since its passage, and more than half of the reduction in the uninsured will occur after 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office. This is why having a stable baseline would be useful, so we could examine the longer term trends in insurance coverage, and why now is close to the worst time to incorporate this change. The Census Bureau acknowledged as much in a paper, admitting that “[i]deally, the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data.”

Virginia Is for Gay Lovers Too!

In an attempt to prove that Virginia is indeed for lovers, two couples have recently gone to federal court to get their marriages recognized in their home state. One of the couples has been together for more than 20 years and the other got married in California and have a teenage daughter together, yet the Commonwealth of Virginia will not recognize their marriages because the couples are—you guessed it—same-sex.

These couples don’t see why their sexual orientation should keep them from enjoying the equal right to marry a partner of their choice, so they filed suit in federal district court to challenge the Virginia’s anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendment. They argued that the provision violates both equal protection and the fundamental right to marriage, as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. This February, the district court agreed with them, and now they’re defending that ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Following on the heels of last term’s Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor—which struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples—this case adds Virginia to the list of states (which now includes Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, and seems to grow with each passing week) that have the constitutionality of their marriage laws before a federal appeals court. 

Reprising our collaboration in Perry v. Hollingsworth—the California Prop 8 case in which the Supreme Court avoided ruling on the merits—and the Tenth Circuit gay marriage cases Kitchen v. Herbert and Bishop v. Smith, Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs’ fight for equality under the law in the Old Dominion. We argue that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause protects against the arbitrary and invidious singling-out that the Virginia gay marriage ban effects, that the clause’s original meaning confirms that its protections are to be interpreted broadly, and that the clause provides every person the equal right to marry a person of his or her choice.

We believe that the Virginia constitutional amendment conflicts with the equal rights of those same-sex couples whose unions are treated differently than those of opposite-sex couples. To the extent that states recognize marriage, every person has the right to choose whom to marry and to have that decision respected equally by the state in which they live.

Especially in the wake of Windsor, it is becoming clearer that laws that force same-sex unions into second-class status have no place in a free society. After the Fourth Circuit hears argument in Bostic v. Rainey later this spring, it should affirm the district court’s decision.

TV Broadcasters Should Have Same Rights As Everyone Else

Remember broadcast television? Amid the avalanche of new streaming services, DVRs, and Rokus, not to mention cable TV, some people may have forgotten—or, if they’re under 25, never known—that there are TV shows in the air that can be captured with an antenna. The Supreme Court certainly hasn’t forgotten, given that it maintains an outdated rule that broadcast TV gets less First Amendment protection than cable, video-on-demand, or almost anything else–a rule dating to the 1969 case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.

That lower standard of protection comes from the belief that the broadcast-frequency spectrum is scarce, and thus that the Federal Communications Commission is properly charged with licensing the spectrum for the public “interest, convenience, and necessity.” But if newspapers or magazines were similarly licensed, the First Amendment violation would be obvious to all but the most hardened censor.

Hence the case of Minority Television Project v. FCC. Minority Television Project is an independent, noncommercial license-holding TV station in San Francisco. Unlike most noncommercial license holders, Minority TV receives no PBS money. Because it’s an over-the-air broadcaster, however, it must comply with the restrictions placed on the licenses by Congress and the FCC, including prohibitions on paid commercials and political ads. Minority TV challenged these restrictions as violating the First Amendment.

Applying Red Lion’s lower First Amendment standard, the district court, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the en banc Ninth Circuit (11 judges rather than the usual 3) all ruled against Minority TV. On petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Minority TV argues that Red Lion’s rationale for reducing broadcasters’ rights is outdated and should be overruled.

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Minority TV, agreeing that it’s time to give broadcast TV full First Amendment protection. Just as we argued in 2011’s FCC v. Fox Television Stations—where the Court chose to evade the question—it’s time to update our law to fit current realities. The way that people consume information and entertainment has changed dramatically since 1969. Rather than three broadcast networks, we have hundreds of channels of various kinds, and increasingly people are forgoing traditional TV altogether. The FCC can still license broadcasters—that system isn’t going away anytime soon regardless of the next mind-boggling innovation—but the conditions it places on those licenses have to satisfy strict First Amendment scrutiny, especially when they pertain to political speech.

The Supreme Court should take this case in order to update its treatment of broadcasters’ speech rights, including a requirement that the government offer a truly compelling justification any time it wants to restrict them. 

Copyright on the (Cato) Docket May 7th

This week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced four upcoming hearings on issues raised in the Department of Commerce Internet Policy Task Force’s July 2013 paper, “Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy.” The hearings will be held in or near Nashville, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in May, June, and July.

Cato will host its own hearing early next month on Tom W. Bell’s new book Intellectual Privilege. That event will occur May 7th at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

In the book, Bell treats copyright as a statutory privilege that threatens not just constitutional rights, but natural rights, too. He argues for a new libertarian view of copyright that reconciles the desire to create incentives for creators with our inalienable liberties. Bell’s vision is of a world less encumbered by legal restrictions and yet richer in art, music, and other expressive works.

Register now for what is sure to be a lively discussion of this perennially interesting issue on May 7th!

Judge Rebukes Labor Department Over Shoddy Case

It seems every week or two another federal agency gets smacked down in court for trampling the rights of regulated parties in enforcement litigation. This week it’s the Labor Department’s turn:

The U.S. Department of Labor must pay more than $565,000 in attorney fees to an oilfield services company it accused of wage-and-hour violations totaling more than $6 million, a federal judge has ruled….

Officials, who opened their investigation in 2010, alleged the business [Texas-based Gate Guard Services, LLC] improperly classified 400 gate attendants as independent contractors.

The agency would have learned that the guards weren’t employees had it talked to more than just a few of them, [federal judge John] Rainey wrote in a 24-page order. Because the probe was not “substantially justified,” Gate Guard was entitled to recover its attorney fees, he said.

“The DOL failed to act in a reasonable manner both before and during the course of this litigation,” Rainey wrote.

Goaded by labor unions and other interested parties, the Obama Labor Department has made wage-and-hour law a big priority, with the President himself pushing the law into new ways of overriding private contractual choice. As for the overzealous enforcement, it’s coming to look less like inadvertence and more like systematic Administration policy.  Last year we noted an Eleventh Circuit decision rebuffing as “absurd” a Labor Department claim of authority regarding the H-2B guest worker program. The pattern extends to agency after agency, from the EPA (ordered to pay a Louisiana plant manager $1.7 million on a claim that hardly ever succeeds for defendants, malicious prosecution), to white-collar enforcement, to a series of Justice Department prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Probably the agency to suffer the most humiliating reversals is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominally independent but in fact reshaped in recent years into a hyperactive version of its already problematic self. You can read here about some of the beatings the EEOC has taken in court in recent years, including a case last summer where the federal judge dismissed the commission’s lawsuit over a Maryland company’s use of criminal and credit background checks using words like “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” And just last week, as reported in this space, the Sixth Circuit memorably slapped around the commission’s amateurish use of expert testimony in another credit-check case, this time against the Kaplan education firm. As I noted at Overlawyered

The Sixth Circuit has actually been one of the EEOC’s better circuits in recent years. For example, it reversed a Michigan federal judge who in 2011 had awarded $2.6 million in attorneys’ fees to Cintas, the employee-uniform company, and reinstated the lawsuit. In doing so, the appellate panel nullified what had been the lower court’s findings of “egregious and unreasonable conduct” by the agency, including a “reckless sue first, ask questions later strategy.” The commission hailed the reversal as one of its big legal wins — although when one of your big boasts is getting $2.6 million in sanctions against you thrown out, it might be that you don’t have much to brag about….

If you wonder why the commission persists in its extreme aggressiveness anyway, one answer may be that the strategy works: most defendants settle, and the commission hauled in a record $372 million in settlements last year. 

 Perhaps it is time for defendants to start settling less often.