Tag: Supreme Court

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.

Snyder v. Phelps: The Constitution Protects ‘Outrageous’ Speech Too

I’ve resisted commenting on Snyder v. Phelps, the “funeral protest case,” because, as the old saying goes, hard cases make bad law.  And in this instance, really weird and repugnant speech makes for a lot of sound and fury signifying very little.

Still, the bizarre and inflammatory facts of the case – protestors show up at soldiers’ funerals to make the point that these deaths are God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuality – have gained plenty of media interest, particularly during this relatively uneventful term at the Supreme Court.  So I have commented a few times on the radio and yesterday attended the oral argument, the transcript of which you can read here and audio for which should be released on the Court’s website tomorrow.

At the end of the day, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues but the First Amendment is almost tangential to it.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing – but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests – but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like – but the Phelpses’ protests are neither loud nor involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer (and church member) put it during oral argument.  In short, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas – or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries—but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended.  Eugene Volokh has a more detailed analysis in the Wall Street Journal.

Oh, and as for predicting how the Court will rule, I’ll say 8-1 for the Phelpses in a narrow opinion, with Justice Alito dissenting (as he did last year in United States v. Stevens, the “depictions of animal cruelty” case).

The Next Step for SpeechNow

The plaintiffs in the SpeechNow.org case have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to decide “whether, under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the federal government may require an unincorporated association that makes only independent expenditures to register and report as a political committee.”

You can read all about this important case here.

Another New Supreme Court Term, Another New Justice

Today is the first Monday in October, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term.  While we have yet to see as many blockbuster constitutional cases on the docket as we did last term—which, despite the high profile 5-4 splits in McDonald v. Chicago and Citizens United actually produced fewer dissents than any in recent memory—we do look forward to:

  • Two big free speech challenges, one over a statute prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors, another the offensive protesting of a fallen soldier’s funeral;
  • An Establishment Clause lawsuit against Arizona’s tax credit for private tuition funds (an alternative to educational voucher programs);
  • Regulatory federalism (or “preemption”) cases involving:
    • safety standards for seatbelts;
    • an Arizona statute regarding the hiring of illegal aliens; and
    • the forbidding of class-arbitration waivers as unconscionable components of arbitration agreements;
  • Important ERISA and copyright cases;
  • A case examining privacy concerns attending the federal government’s background checks for contractors; and
  • A criminal procedure dispute regarding access to DNA testing that may support a claim of innocence.

Cato has filed amicus briefs in several of these cases—and in various others which the Court may decide to review later this year—so I will be paying extra-close attention.

Perhaps more importantly, we again have a new justice—and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court.  While her confirmation was never in any serious doubt, Elena Kagan faced strong criticism (including from me) on a variety of issues—most importantly on her refusal to “grade” past Court decisions or identify any specific limits to government power.  The 37 votes against Kagan were the most ever for a successful Democratic nominee, which is emblematic of a turbulent political environment in which the Constitution and the basic question of where government derives its power figure prominently.  

Given Kagan’s political and professional background, it is safe to assume that she’s not the second coming of Clarence Thomas.  And because she replaces the “liberal lion” Justice Stevens, her elevation from “tenth justice” (as the solicitor general is known) to ninth is unlikely to cause an immediate change in issues that most divide the Court—particularly because she is recused from nearly half the cases this term.  She could, however, add an interesting and nuanced perspective on a variety of lower-profile issues.  Only time will tell what kind of justice Kagan will be now that she is, seemingly for the first time in her ambitious life, unconstrained to speak her mind.

Here’s to another interesting, varied, and (hopefully) liberty-enhancing year!

Another Judicial Takings Case Headed to the Court

The Montana Supreme Court overturned more than 100 years of state property law concerning navigable waters by effectively converting the title in hundreds of miles of riverbeds to the State. The majority of that court ruled that the entirety of the Missouri, Clark Fork, and Madison rivers were navigable at the time of Montana’s statehood, producing a broad holding that eradicates property rights to the rivers and riverbanks that Montanans had enjoyed for over a century.

Before this case, the hydroelectric energy company PPL Montana and thousands of other private parties exercised their property rights over these non-navigable stretches that the state never claimed.  Today, Cato joined a brief filed by the Montana Farm Bureau Federation supporting the PPL Montana’s request that the U.S. Supreme Court review the Montana high court’s ruling for possible Takings Clause violations under the Fifth Amendment.

We argue two main points.  First, that the Court should adhere to its standard for navigability rights set out in Utah v. U.S. in 1933. Unlike the approach taken by the Montana Supreme Court’s majority — that entire rivers were navigable simply because certain reaches of the river were navigable — the U.S. Supreme Court in Utah used an approach of meticulously analyzing the rivers at issue section-by-section. Second, this arbitrary ruling against rights long protected by Montana law amounts to a “judicial taking,” as explained last term Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection (in which Cato also filed a brief). There, a plurality of the Court held that there is no “textual justification” for limiting takings claims deriving from executive or legislative action, thereby extending it to a judicial action of the same nature (and two other members of the Court found potential relief in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause). Here, the Montana court did exactly that, violating due process rights that the Montana legislature could not and further violating the procedural due process rights of the thousands harmed by the decision in not affording them notice or a hearing.

The U.S. Supreme Court should thus review the case to reinforce its Utah precedent and ensure that arbitrary judicial takings of this sort cannot continue.  The name of the case is PPL Montana, LLC v. Montana.  The Court will decide later this fall whether to take it up.