Tag: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Should Tell Courts to Stay Out of Global Warming Cases

The Supreme Court is finally starting to put some interesting non-First Amendment cases on this term’s docket.

Today, the Court agreed to review American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, in which eight states, some non-profits, and New York City are suing a number of energy companies and utilities for harms they allegedly caused by contributing to global warming.  This is the third major lawsuit to push global warming into the courts (another being Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, in which Cato also filed a brief).  It’s America, after all, where we sue to solve our problems – even apparently, taking to court the proverbial butterfly that caused a tsunami.

Mind you, you can sue your neighbor for leaking toxic water onto your land. Courts are well positioned to adjudicate such disputes because they involve only two parties and have limited (if any) effects on others. But it is a different case when, using the same legal theory by which Jones sues Smith for his toxic dumping (called “nuisance”), plaintiffs selectively sue a few targeted defendants for a (quite literally) global problem.  As I discussed with reference to a previous such case, global warming is the type of issue that should be decided by the political branches. The Second Circuit ruled, however, that this suit could go forward. (Justice Sotomayor was involved in the case at that stage and so will be recused going forward.)  

The Supreme Court has always recognized that not all problems can or should be solved in the courtroom. Thus, the issue in AEP v. Connecticut – which the Court will now decide – is whether the states meet the legal requirements necessary to have their suit heard in court, what lawyers call “standing.” Historically, issues of policy have been decided by the legislative and executive branches while “cases and controversies” have been decided by courts. Therefore, when litigants have asked courts determine matters of broad-ranging policy, the Court has often termed the cases “political questions” and dismissed them. The reasoning is that, not only do unelected courts lack the political authority to determine such questions, they also lack any meaningful standards by which the case could be decided (called “justiciability”).

Indeed, even if the plaintiffs can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make complex policy decisions — and this is true regardless of the science regarding global warming. Just as it’s unconstitutional for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s unconstitutional — under the “political question doctrine” — for courts to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed against each other in anything but a bilateral way.  

We pointed out in our brief supporting the defendants’ request for Supreme Court review – and will again in the brief we plan to file at this next stage – that resolving this case while avoiding those comprehensive and far-reaching implications is impossible and that the Constitution prohibits the judicial usurpation of roles assigned to the other, co-equal branches of government.   After all, global warming is a global problem purportedly caused by innumerable actors, ranging from cows to Camrys. This fact not only underscores the political nature of the question, but it has constitutional significance: In order to sue someone, your injury must be “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions. Suits based on “butterfly effect” reasoning should not be allowed to move forward.

Perhaps surprisingly, the federal government –which is involved because one of the defendants is the Tennessee Valley Authority – agrees with Cato . The administration aptly played its role in our constitutional system by asserting that global warming policy was a matter for the executive and legislative branches to resolve, not the judiciary. 

Hmmm, Cato and Obama on the same side in a global warming dispute… but I still won’t be holding my breath awaiting an invite to the White House Christmas party.

University Speech Codes, Reborn As “Anti-Bullying” Rules?

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is out with this timely warning about the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act,” a bill introduced in Congress by Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt, both New Jersey Democrats:

…the bill redefines [campus-based] harassment in a manner that is at odds with the Supreme Court’s exacting definition of student-on-student harassment, which successfully balances the need to respond to extreme behavior with the importance of free speech on campus. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999), the Court defined student-on-student harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” This definition has been relied upon by courts for more than a decade and has been adopted by many institutions across the country, including the entire University of California system.

Flouting the Supreme Court’s carefully crafted balance, the bill removes the requirement that the behavior in question be objectively offensive. The loss of this crucial “reasonable person” standard means that those most interested in silencing viewpoints they don’t like will effectively determine what speech should be banned from campus. Unconstitutional definitions of “harassment” have already provided the most commonly abused rationale justifying censorship, having been applied to a student magazine at Tufts University that published true if unflattering facts about Islam, a Brandeis professor who used an epithet in order to explain its origins and condemn its use as a slur, and even a student at an Indiana college simply for publicly reading a book.

Because this bill has the potential to be a powerful tool for censorship, it would likely be ruled unconstitutional were it to become law. Indeed, since 1989 there have been at least sixteen successful challenges to campus codes that included similarly broad and vague harassment provisions. Every one of those lawsuits has resulted in the challenged policy either being declared unconstitutional or revised as part of an out-of-court settlement. If passed, the bill is likely to violate students’ rights while leading colleges into expensive, embarrassing, and unsuccessful litigation.

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff points out, existing law gives universities (and civil authorities) ample authority to punish the serious breach of student privacy alleged in the Clementi case. Daniel Luzer of the Washington Monthly notes that Rutgers already had in place an anti-bullying policy of the sort envisioned by the bill.

Also of concern is the Lautenberg-Holt bill’s requirement that administrators move against off-campus or online student behavior. This provision, says FIRE, in practice “is likely to compel universities to monitor student behavior in unprecedented ways – including close and comprehensive monitoring of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter – in order to ward off potential lawsuits.”

Harlan Institute’s Innovative Approach to Constitutional Education

With the Constitution – and its limits on government – playing such an outsized role in Tuesday’s elections and American political discourse generally, this would be a good time to mention a new program that teaches high school students about our founding document. 

My sometime co-author Josh Blackman, who is the founder of the Harlan Institute (a constitutional education non-profit for which, full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors) recently launched this year’s version of FantasySCOTUS.org, a Supreme Court fantasy league that was featured (along with Harlan) in yesterday’s Washington Post.  In FantasySCOTUS, students learn about and make predictions for pending Supreme Court cases, including recent headliners Snyder v. Phelps (the funeral protest case) and Schwarzenegger v. EMA (the violent video game case).  The project, among other Harlan Institute initiatives, is already being used by teachers in over 100 schools across the country, and is growing rapidly. 

Anyone interested in getting involved should consider participating in the Harlan Institute’s “virtual mentoring program.” On November 11, Harlan Institute will be holding the inaugural SCOTUS Skype-Teach-A-Thon:

As a complement to FantasySCOTUS.org, the Harlan Institute has trained a group of Mentors to to deliver virtual lectures to classrooms using Skype video chats.

If you are an attorney or law student interested in volunteering with us, please fill out this form. The time commitment would probably be about 1 hour on November 11. Our mentors consist of attorneys, law professors, and law students who are all committed to raising awareness of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

For an entertaining and informative testimonial about Harlan and FantasySCOTUS, see this clip:


How Do I Overturn Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Tomorrow morning, the United States Supreme Court will hear one of the most important education cases in a generation: the appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling that would cripple or end Arizona’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program.

As you’d expect, commentators aren’t sure how the Supreme Court will ultimately rule: it may decide to overturn the 9th Circuit on the merits of the case, or it could overturn the 9th Circuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs never had standing to sue in the first place. Heck, there might even be people who think SCOTUS will uphold the lower court’s ruling… can’t actually find anyone who thinks that, but they could be out there… somewhere.

On the merits, the law and evidence are clear. Arizona’s program allows private individuals to donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship organizations and get a tax credit when they do–much as federal tax deductions are available for donations to non-profit charities. Since federal deductions for donations to religious organizations are Constitutional, the same applies to the credits in the AZ case. Respondents (those trying to kill the program) didn’t marshal a serious argument to the contrary. In fact, one of the cases they cite actually eviscerates their own argument, as I noted in Section II (b) of the Cato Institute Winn brief co-written by Ilya Shapiro and myself.

The rest of Respondents’ merits arguments are equally ineffectual, not only taking a form (relying on a moving statistical target) that has already been explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in Zelman and elsewhere, but actually being wrong on the facts as well (see Section IV of the Cato brief linked above).

But while I’ve been exclusively focused on the merits of the case, it seems that the legal experts defending Arizona’s tax credit program have been arguing that the Respondents (originally, the Plaintiffs) never had a right to sue in the first place (“standing”), because they cannot show, in the context of Supreme Court precedents, how they have been harmed.

Both the SCOTUS blog’s reporter and independent experts seem to think the Court will overturn the 9th Circuit on the standing issue before even considering the merits, and I’m confident that the Court will overturn on the merits if it ever gets that far.

If the ruling comes down in either of those ways, modern education tax credit programs will retain their perfect record of never having been overturned by a court–a record not enjoyed by any other private school choice policy. The reason that is so very important is explained in the final section (V) of our Cato brief.

Eminent Domain Shenanigans

Five years ago, in the landmark property rights case of Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court upheld the forced transfer of land from various homeowners by finding that “economic development” qualifies as a public purpose for purposes of satisfying the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.  In doing so, however, the Court reaffirmed that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”

State and federal courts have since applied that pretext standard in widely differing ways while identifying four factors as indicators of pretext: evidence of pretextual intent, benefits that flow predominantly to a private party, haphazard planning, and a readily identifiable beneficiary.  Moreover, since Kelo, 43 states have passed eminent domain reform laws that constrain or forbid “economic development” condemnations.

While many of these laws are strong enough to curtail abuse, in at least 19 states the restrictions are undercut by nearly unlimited definitions of “blight.”  The state of New York has seen perhaps the most egregious examples of eminent-domain abuse in the post-Kelo era, and now provides the example of Columbia University’s collusion with several government agencies to have large swaths of Manhattan declared blighted and literally pave the way for the university’s expansion project.  In this brazen example of eminent-domain abuse, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) reversed a decision of the New York Appellate Division that relied extensively on Kelo’s pretext analysis and thus favored the small business owners challenging the Columbia-driven condemnations.  The Court of Appeals failed even to cite Kelo and ignored all four pretext considerations, instead defining pretext so narrowly that even the most abusive forms of favoritism will escape judicial scrutiny.

Cato joined the Institute for Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a brief supporting the condemnees’ request that the Supreme Court review the case and address the widespread confusion about Kelo’s meaning in the context of pretextual takings.  Our brief highlights the need for the Court to establish and enforce safeguards to protect citizens from takings effected for private purposes.  We argue that this case is an excellent vehicle for the Court to define what qualifies a taking as “pretextual” and consider the weight to be accorded to each of the four criteria developed by the lower and state courts.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case later this fall. The name of the case is Tuck-It-Away, Inc. v. New York State Urban Development Corp and you can read the full brief here (pdf).  You can read more from Cato on property rights here.

Obamacare Suffers Another Legal Blow

Yes, Speaker Pelosi, the constitutional concerns people have with the health care legislation you rammed through Congress despite overwhelmingly negative public opinion are serious. The Florida court’s ruling, denying the government’s motion to dismiss the challenge to the new health care law brought by 20 states and the National Federation of Independent Business, mirrors the one we saw in July in Virginia’s separate lawsuit. These have been the most thoroughly briefed and argued lawsuits, so these significant and lengthy opinions conclusively establish that the constitutional concerns raised by the individual mandate and other provisions are serious. Nobody can ever again suggest with a straight face that the legal claims are frivolous or mere political gamesmanship.

And that should come as no surprise to those who have been following the litigation because the new law is unprecedented – quite literally, without legal precedent – both in its regulatory scope and its expansion of federal authority. Never before have courts had to consider such a breathtaking assertion of raw federal power – not even during the height of the New Deal. “While the novel and unprecedented nature of the individual mandate does not automatically render it unconstitutional,” Judge Vinson observed, “there is perhaps a presumption that it is.”

This means at the very least that “the plaintiffs have most definitely stated a plausible claim with respect to this cause of action.”

Just so – and the deliberate consideration that these district courts are giving to these serious constitutional arguments (unlike the Michigan judge’s perfunctory treatment last week) indicates that the probability that the Supreme Court will ultimately strike down the individual mandate continues to increase.

The Court Tackles a Hard Case: Implications for ObamaCare?

The Supreme Court hears oral argument today in an important pre-emption case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, which asks whether the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 pre-empts state law “design defect” suits brought against vaccine manufacturers. I’ve discussed this complex case more fully in an op-ed at the Daily Caller, but in a nutshell, Congress passed the Act to address the risks inherent in vaccinations through a federal no-fault ”Vaccine Court” rather than through the vagaries of state tort law. It did so because the inability to make vaccines entirely safe, plus uncertainty surrounding causation, coupled with the penchant of state juries to discount those issues in favor of sympathetic plaintiffs, had rendered most manufacturers unwilling to produce needed vaccines at reasonable costs.  

In drafting the statute, however, Congress left things unclear, to put it charitably. Thus, the Court will have to make sense of this language:

No vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine… if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.

Although the Act allows victims to sue over manufacturing defects, conduct that would subject a manufacturer to punitive damages, and a manufacturer’s failure to exercise due care, nowhere does it define “unavoidable”—and there’s the nub of the matter. In the case before the Court, a three-judge Third Circuit panel decided unanimously for Wyeth, as did the district court. But in another case five months earlier, a nine-member Georgia Supreme Court, facing similar facts, decided unanimously for the plaintiff.

And behind it all is the question whether Congress should have pre-empted state law in the first place. It probably should have here, but that’s a close call. And the implications for ObamaCare are not absent in this case, which could be a portent of the complex and uncertain litigation that lies ahead if the scheme is not repealed. As I say at the outset of my post, hard cases make bad law, but bad law too makes hard cases, and this is one. Does anyone think that ObamaCare is anything but bad law? We’ll know once we figure out “what’s in it,” as the lady said.