Topic: Constitution, the Law, and the Courts

The Constitution and Parental Rights

Child custody is among the most fraught topics the law confronts. It is the area in which personal relationships and raw emotions must be reconciled with legal rules and court judgements. Such is the case of “Ann,” an eight-year-old girl at the center of a case now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Ann has periodically spent time with her paternal grandmother, but due to family squabbles, Ann’s mother stopped bringing Ann to visit. The grandmother filed a lawsuit saying she was entitled to visitation rights, which a Wisconsin statute allows grandparents to ask for in circumstances where they have a preexisting relationship with the child such that the severing of that relationship would not be in the child’s best interest.

Complicating matters, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that these familial relationships have a constitutional dimension. In the 2000 case of Troxel v. Granville, the Court struct down a Washington State law that granted grandparents visitation rights when to do so would be in “the best interests of the child.” This standard was constitutionally infirm, the Court held, because parents have important rights that cannot by overcome by a bare showing that the child would be better off being raised by someone else.

As the late Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out, a great number of children should be taken from their homes if the question is whether someone else might do a better job raising them. Wisconsin’s statute is somewhat different than the Washington law, in that it requires a greater showing before invading the parent’s decision-making. The question for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is whether that’s different enough to shift the constitutional calculus.

Subversive Patriotism: A Constitution Day Reminder

In Washington earlier this month, one person’s words in the New York Times were were deemed a threat to national security by those at whom they were aimed.

An anonymous Trump administration official was labeled “a seditious traitor who must be identified and prosecuted for illegal conduct” for exercising his or her 1st Amendment rights by publishing an op-ed in the September 5 edition of the New York Times. Vice President Pence stated that the op-ed writer’s actions inside the Administration—trying to limit what the writer believes is the damage President Trump is doing daily to the United States—is “an assault on our democracy”—a notion unhinged from any semblance of reality. 

Like everyone else working in the Trump administration, the author of the op-ed took the same oath I did when I served in the federal government, the text of which is federal law: 5. U.S.C. § 3331. Here’s the text:

I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

The oath makes no reference to pledging fealty to whoever happens to be President. It is a pledge of loyalty to our form of government, not an individual. The notion that the Justice Department even has a basis to prosecute the writer does not pass the laugh test, much less constitutional muster.

The anonymous Trump administration official—and if he or she is to be believed, many more working for Trump—views him as a domestic threat to the American people and the Constitution itself. Democrats and others on the political left have viewed Trump that way since he won the Electoral College vote in November 2016. Clearly others in the Administration now view Trump the same way.

Third Circuit Makes It Harder For Landlords To Exit Section 8

In principle, the federal housing-voucher program known as Section 8 ought to win points as a market-oriented alternative to the old command-and-control approach of planning and constructing public housing projects. While allowing recipients wider choice about where to live, it has also enabled private landlords to decide whether to participate and, if so, what mix of voucher-holding and conventionally paying tenants makes the most sense for a location. 

But there is another possibility, which is that Section 8 will in time bring with it onerous new restrictions on the private landlord-tenant relationship. For landlords, participation in the program has long carried with it some significant burdens of inspection, certification, and reporting paperwork. So long as participation was voluntary, these conditions were presumably worth it in exchange for the chance to reach voucher-holders as a class of potential tenants. When accepting Section 8 tenants stops being a voluntary choice, however, the balance is likely to shift. And one of the big policy pushes of the past decade – zealously promoted by the Obama administration – was the local enactment of laws and ordinances prohibiting so-called source-of-income discrimination, which in practice can mean making it a legal offense for a landlord to maintain a policy of declining Section 8 vouchers. Once that sort of control is in place, and landlords cannot opt out of the program, there will no longer be any natural check on Washington’s imposition of ever more burdensome conditions via Section 8 program rules on private landlords, including conditions that affect their relations with conventional non-voucher tenants. 

Now, in an en banc ruling, the Third Circuit has made clear another source of legal exposure for landlords participating in the program. A specialized portion of the program provides so-called enhanced housing vouchers to enable tenants to go on living in properties that once received “project-based” Section 8 support (akin to traditional low-income housing) but have been converted by their owners to conventional market-rate housing. Philip Harvey owned one such property a unit of which had long been rented to Florence Hayes. When Ms. Hayes died in 2015, Harvey sought to renovate the apartment for use by his daughter, while Ms. Hayes’s son wanted to take over as primary tenant. Litigation ensued and a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit ruled, over a dissent, that once her lease expired the law placed Harvey under no obligation to sign a new lease with her successor. 

On Aug. 31, however, the full Third Circuit by a lopsided margin overturned the panel opinion and ruled Ms. Hayes’s son had the right to take over as tenant and obtain lease renewals from Harvey under good behavior, and so did anyone else who had been on the lease (even as a child) at the time of such a property’s conversion. It construed language about how a tenant “may elect to remain” in a converted project as binding not just HUD in its obligation to provide assistance, but also as binding the landlord. Only Judges D. Michael Fisher and Thomas Hardiman, who had prevailed on the original panel, dissented. Various tenants’-rights amicus filers, as well as the City of Philadelphia, took the son’s side. 

Judge Fisher, in dissent, says the majority “overlooks the basic design of the enhanced voucher program as an incentive-based program, not a compulsory one.” But “overlooks” may not be the right verb. Maybe a better one is “takes another step to subvert.”

Google’s Problem and Ours

Content moderation remains in the news following President Trump’s accusation that Google manipulated its searches to harm conservatives. Yesterday Congress held two hearings on content moderation, one mostly about foreign influence and the other mostly about political bias. The Justice Department also announced Attorney General Sessions will meet soon with state attorneys general “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” 

None of this is welcome news. The First Amendment sharply limits government power over speech. It does not limit private governance of speech. The Cato Institute is free to select speakers and topics for our “platform.” The tech companies have that right also even if they are politically biased. Government officials should also support a culture of free speech. Government officials bullying private companies contravenes a culture of free speech. Needless to say, having the Justice Department investigate those companies looks a lot like a threat to the companies’ freedom. 

So much for law and theory. Here I want to offer some Madisonian thoughts on these issues. No one can doubt James Madison’s liberalism. But he wanted limited government in fact as well as in theory. Madison thought about politics to realize liberal ideals. We should too. 

Let’s begin with the question of bias. The evidence for bias against conservatives is anecdotal and episodic. The tech companies deny any political bias, and their incentives raise doubts about partisan censorship. Why take the chance you might drive away millions of customers and invite the wrath of Congress and the executive branch on your business? Are the leaders of these companies really such political fanatics that they would run such risks? 

Yet these questions miss an important point. The problem of content moderation bias is not really a question of truth or falsity. It is rather a difficult political problem with roots in both passion and reason. 

Now, as in the past, politicians have powerful reasons to foster fear and anger among voters. People who are afraid and angry are more likely to vote for a party or a person who promises to remedy an injustice or protect the innocent. And fear and anger are always about someone threatening vital values. For a Republican president, a perfect “someone” might be tech companies who seem to be filled with Progressives and in control of the most important public forums in the nation. 

But the content moderation puzzle is not just about the passions. The fears of the right (and to a lesser degree, the left) are reasonable. To see this, consider the following alternative world. Imagine the staff of the Heritage Foundation has gained potential control over much of the online news people see and what they might say to others about politics. Imagine also that after a while Progressives start to complain that the Heritage folks are removing their content or manipulating new feeds. The leaders of Heritage deny the charges. Would you believe them? 

Logically it is true that this “appearance of bias” is not the same as bias, and bias may be a vice but cannot be a crime for private managers. But politically that may not matter much, and politics may yet determine the fate of free speech in the online era. 

Companies like Google have to somehow foster legitimacy for their moderation of content, moderation that cannot be avoided if they are to maximize shareholder value. They have to convince most people that they have a right to govern their platforms even when their decisions seem wrong. 

Perhaps recognizing that some have reasonable as well as unreasonable doubts about their legitimacy would be a positive step forward. And people who harbor those reasonable doubts should keep in mind the malign incentives of politicians who benefit from fostering fear and anger against big companies. 

If the tech companies fail to gain legitimacy, we all will have a problem worse than bias. Politicians might act, theory and law notwithstanding. The First Amendment might well stop them. But we all would be better off with numerous, legitimate private governors of speech on the internet. Google’s problem is ours.

Brett Kavanaugh, Merrick Garland, and the Cohesion of the Federal Bench

In Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement at his hearing Tuesday, he praised Merrick Garland, with whom he serves on the D.C. Circuit, as “our superb chief judge.”

If you were surprised by that, you shouldn’t have been. When President Obama nominated Garland to the high court, Judge Kavanaugh described his colleague as “supremely qualified by the objective characteristics of experience, temperament, writing ability, scholarly ability for the Supreme Court … He has been a role model to me in how he goes about his job.”

In fact, it has been reported in at least one place that one reason Kavanaugh was left off Trump’s initial list of SCOTUS nominees was that he had been so vocal and public in praising Garland’s nomination.

Now, it would be understandable if neither side in the partisan confirmation wars chose to emphasize this bit of background to the story. Republican strategists might not be keen on reminding listeners of what their party did with Garland’s nomination, and might also worry about eroding enthusiasm for Kavanaugh among certain elements of their base. Democratic strategists, meanwhile, might see the episode as one in which the present nominee comes off as not-a-monster, and, well, you can’t have that.

The lesson, if there is one, might be that the federal courts are not as polarized and tribal as much of the higher political class and punditry at nomination time.

The Most Common Firearm in America is Not a ‘Weapon of War’

A Massachusetts statute prohibits ownership of “assault weapons,” the statutory definition of which includes the most popular semi-automatic rifles in the country, as well as “copies or duplicates” of any such weapons. As for what that means, your guess is as good as ours. A group of plaintiffs, including two firearm dealers and the Gun Owners’ Action League challenged the law as a violation of the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, federal district court judge William Young upheld the ban.

Judge Young followed the lead of the Fourth Circuit case of Kolbe v. Hogan (in which Cato filed a brief supporting a petition to the Supreme Court) which misconstrued from a shred of the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case that the test for whether a class of weapons could be banned was whether it was “like an M-16,” contravening the core of Heller—that all weapons in common civilian use are constitutionally protected. What’s worse is that Judge Young seemed to go a step further, rejecting the argument that an “M-16” is a machine gun, unlike the weapons banned by Massachusetts, and deciding that semi-automatics are “almost identical to the M16, except for the mode of firing.” (The mode of firing is, of course, the principle distinction between automatic and semi-automatic firearms.)

The plaintiffs are appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Cato, joined by several organizations interested in the protection of our civil liberties and a group of professors who teach the Second Amendment, has filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs. We point out that the Massachusetts law classifies the common semi-automatic firearms used by police officers as “dangerous and unusual” weapons of war, alienating officers from their communities and undermining policing by consent.

Where for generations Americans needed look no further than the belt of their local deputies for guidance in selecting a defensive firearm, Massachusetts’ restrictions prohibit these very same arms from civilians. Those firearms selected by experts for reliability and overall utility as defensive weapons, would be unavailable for the lawful purpose of self-defense. According to Massachusetts, these law enforcement tools aren’t defensive, but instead implements of war designed to inflict mass carnage.

Where tensions between police and policed are a sensitive issue, Massachusetts sets up a framework where the people can be fired upon by police with what the state fancies as an instrument of war, a suggestion that only serves to drive a wedge between police and citizenry.

Further, the district court incorrectly framed the question as whether the banned weapons were actually used in defensive shootings, instead of following Supreme Court precedent and asking whether the arms were possessed for lawful purposes (as they unquestionably were). This skewing of legal frameworks is especially troublesome where the Supreme Court has remained silent on the scope of the right to keep and bear arms for the last decade, leading to a fractured and unpredictable state of the law.

Today, the majority of firearms sold in the United States for self-defense are illegal in Massachusetts. The district court erred in upholding this abridgment of Bay State residents’ rights. The Massachusetts law is unconstitutional on its face and the reasoning upholding it lacks legal or historical foundation.

Partisan Gerrymandering: Another Supreme Court Showdown?

It would have been natural to assume that partisan gerrymandering would not return as an issue to the Supreme Court until next year at the earliest, the election calendar for this year being too far advanced. But yesterday a federal judicial panel ruled that North Carolina’s U.S. House lines were unconstitutionally biased toward the interests of the Republican Party and suggested that it might impose new lines for November’s vote, even though there would be no time in which to hold a primary for the revised districts. Conducting an election without a primary might seem like a radical remedy, but the court pointed to other offices for which the state of North Carolina provides for election without a preceding primary stage.

If the court takes such a step, it would seem inevitable that defenders of the map will ask for a stay of the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, as we know, the Court declined to reach the big constitutional issues on partisan gerrymandering, instead finding ways to send the two cases before it (Gill v. Whitford from Wisconsin and Benisek v. Lamone from Maryland) back to lower courts for more processing. 

In my forthcoming article on Gill and Benisek in the Cato Supreme Court Review, I suggest that with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’d been the swing vote on the issue, litigators from liberal good-government groups might find it prudent to refrain for a while from steering the question back up to the high court, instead biding their time in hopes of new appointments. After all, Kennedy’s replacement, given current political winds, is likely to side with the conservative bloc. But a contrasting and far more daring tactic would be to take advantage of the vacancy to make a move in lower courts now. To quote Rick Hasen’s new analysis at Election Law Blog, “given the current 4-4 split on the Supreme Court, any emergency action could well fail, leaving the lower court opinion in place.” And Hasen spells out the political implications: “if the lower court orders new districts for 2018, and the Supreme Court deadlocks 4-4 on an emergency request to overturn that order, we could have new districts for 2018 only, and that could help Democrats retake control of the U.S. House.”

Those are very big “ifs,” however. As Hasen concedes, “We know that the Supreme Court has not liked interim remedies in redistricting and election cases close to the election, and it has often rolled back such changes.” Moreover, Justices Breyer and Kagan in particular have lately shown considerable willingness to join with conservatives where necessary to find narrow grounds for decision that keep the Court’s steps small and incremental, so as not to risk landmark defeats at the hands of a mobilized 5-4 conservative court. It would not be surprising if one or more liberal Justices join a stay of a drastic order in the North Carolina case rather than set up a 2019 confrontation in such a way as to ensure a maximally ruffled conservative wing.

Some of these issues might come up at Cato’s 17th annual Constitution Day Sept. 17 – mark your calendar now! – where I’ll be discussing the gerrymandering cases on the mid-afternoon panel.