Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Road to Cordray’s Removal Just Got Longer

The plot thickens in the ongoing battle for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the controversial agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  Yesterday, a federal appeals court decided it would grant rehearing of last year’s case, PHH v. CFPB, which held the agency’s structure to be unconstitutional.  The decision issued last year not only ruled the agency’s structure to be unconstitutional, but also placed the director under the president’s authority, giving the president the power to fire the director at will.  Now that the court will rehear the case, its earlier decision is no longer binding, meaning the president can no longer rely on it if he wishes fire Director Richard Cordray.

Why Judicial Independence Matters

Late yesterday The Hill posted a short op-ed I wrote on President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neal Gorsuch to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. As often happens, a couple of editorial changes, especially in the title, muted somewhat the central point of the piece. But even were that not so, that point is worth further attention.

It concerns judicial independence. As I wrote, facing a nominee with impeccable qualifications, Democrats are now crafting an indirect assault against Judge Gorsuch. Thus, they’re pointing to the president’s outrageous attacks on the judiciary, among other things he’s said, and contending that he’s imposed a “litmus test” on the nominee. So they’re demanding that Judge Gorsuch “very explicitly and directly” disavow the president’s remarks, which he has already done respectfully, but in addition that he “very specifically” make his own policy views known in the upcoming confirmation hearings (which we’ve just learned will begin on March 20).

Freedom of Association Takes Another Hit

To see how little is left of one of our most important rights, the freedom of association, look no further than to today’s unanimous decision by the Washington State Supreme Court upholding a lower court’s ruling that florist Baronelle Stutzman was guilty of violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) when she declined, on religious grounds, to provide floral arrangements for one of her regular customer’s same-sex wedding. The lower court had found Stutzman personally liable and had awarded the plaintiffs permanent injunctive relief, actual monetary damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.

This breathtaking part of the Supreme Court’s conclusion is worth quoting in full:

We also hold that the WLAD may be enforced against Stutzman because it does not infringe any constitutional protection. As applied in this case, the WLAD does not compel speech or association. And assuming that it substantially burdens Stutzman’s religious free exercise, the WLAD does not violate her right to religious free exercise under either the First Amendment or article I, section 11 because it is a neutral, generally applicable law that serves our state government’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination in public accommodations.

We have here yet another striking example of how modern state statutory anti-discrimination law has come to trump a host of federal constitutional rights, including speech, association, and religious free exercise. It’s not too much to say that the Constitution’s Faustian accommodation of slavery is today consuming the Constitution itself.

Consider simply the freedom of association right. That liberty in a free society ensures the right of private parties to associate, as against third parties, and the right not to associate as well—that is, the right to discriminate for any reason, good or bad, or no reason at all. The exceptions at common law were for monopolies and common carriers. And if you held your business as “open to the public” you generally had to honor that, though you still could negotiate over services.

Slavery, of course, was a flat-out violation of freedom of association—indeed, it was the very essence of forced association. But Jim Crow was little better since it amounted to forced dis-association.  It was finally ended, legally, by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But that Act prohibited not simply public but private discrimination as well in a range of contexts and on a range of grounds, both of which have expanded over the years. The prohibition of private discrimination was probably necessary at the time to break the back of institutionalized racism in the South, but its legacy has brought us to today’s decision, where florists, bakers, caterers, and even religious organizations can be forced to participate in events that offend their religious beliefs.

Court’s haven’t yet compelled pastors to officiate at ceremonies that are inconsistent with their beliefs, but we have heard calls for eliminating the tax-exempt status of their institutions. Such is the wrath of the crowd that wants our every act to be circumscribed by law—their law, of course. And they’re prepared, as here, to force their association on unwilling parties even when there are plenty of other businesses anxious to serve them. As I concluded a Wall Street Journal piece on this subject a while ago:

No one enjoys the sting of discrimination or rejection. But neither does anyone like to be forced into uncomfortable situations, especially those that offend deeply held religious beliefs. In the end, who here is forcing whom? A society that cannot tolerate differing views—and respect the live-and-let-live principle—will not long be free.

Amen.

Washington Supreme Court Unanimously Treads on Important Freedoms

Today the Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld the fines against florist Baronelle Stutzman for refusing to sell flowers to a long-time customer for his same-sex wedding. Even though the court acknowledged that Stutzman “has served gay and lesbian customers in the past for other, non-wedding-related flower orders,” it found that she had violated the state’s public-accommodations law. In doing so, it rejected her claims regarding the freedom of speech, association, and religious exercise in the face of a legal requirement that businesses not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

I’m still working through the opinion, but it’s all pretty standard – and disappointing – stuff. Notably the court cites and rejects Cato’s brief regarding the freedom of expression, indeed rejecting even the idea that floristry is an expressive art. As I wrote in a blog post explaining this point:

Although floristry may not initially appear to be speech to some, it’s a form of artistic expression that’s constitutionally protected. There are numerous floristry schools throughout the world that teach students how to express themselves through their work, and even the Arts Council of Great Britain has recognized the significance of the Royal Horticultural Society’s library, which documents the history, art, and writing of gardening.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment protects artistic as well as verbal expression, and that protection should likewise extend to floristry—even if it’s not ideological and even if it’s done for commercial purposes. The Supreme Court declared more than 70 years ago that “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). And the Court ruled in Wooley v. Maynard—the 1977 “Live Free or Die” license-plate case out of New Hampshire—that forcing people to speak is just as unconstitutional as preventing or censoring speech.

Also notably, Washington lacks a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which is what saved the claims in recent high-profile cases Hobby Lobby and Zubik/Little Sisters of the Poor), so it’s not surprising that Stutzman’s free-exercise claim failed in the face of a generally applicable law. Of course, even a state RFRA failed to save a New Mexico photographer who had similarly worked for gay clients but didn’t want to work a same-sex wedding.

This isn’t the last that we’ll hear about the case; Stutzman’s lawyers have already announced that they’ll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take it up.

But legalisms aside, these sorts of developments aren’t healthy for our society. There are scores of florists, photographers, and other vendors who would be happy to work all sorts of ceremonies; why do we need to bend every last minority dissenter to the wheel of prevailing ideology? Why can’t we be tolerant and just live and let live?

You Shouldn’t Be Criminally Liable If You Don’t Have a Guilty Mind

Todd Farha, CEO of WellCare Health Plans, was convicted of knowingly executing a fraud by submitting false expenditure reports to the state. However, the district court decided that “knowingly” didn’t actually have to mean that Farha knew that the reports were false, but only that in submitting the reports Farha acted with “deliberate indifference” as to whether they were accurate. Essentially, a non-lawyer was convicted for being insufficiently cautious in adopting an interpretation of an ambiguous regulatory statute.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld Farha’s conviction even in the absence of the required statutory mental-state element (what lawyers call mens rea). The appellate court decided, in agreement with the district court, that deliberate indifference toward falsity may stand in for knowledge of falsity. The practical implication is that the court lowered the mens rea standard and used a civil standard of liability to a criminal case. (You can be liable in a civil lawsuit even if you’re not guilty for criminal-punishment purposes.)

Cato has now filed a brief supporting Farha’s request that the Supreme Court review his case. The lower court’s holding is out of step with precedent, with bedrock principles of statutory interpretation regarding the mental-state elements of a criminal offense, and with common sense notions of justice. The most egregious aspect of the ruling is that mens rea elements are seen as so crucial to the criminal law that the Supreme Court has been willing to read them into a statute when the statute is silent regarding necessary mental state.

Yet the Eleventh Circuit took the opposite approach and read out of the statute mental-state elements that make the crime too hard to prosecute. This decision is especially troubling in an era of over-criminalization, with an estimated 300,000 separate federal crimes. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of the crimes are inherently complex, leading to ambiguity in underlying regulatory-compliance requirements that makes it incredibly challenging for people to understand what they must do to avoid liability.

Unfortunately, instead of attempting to rectify some of this ambiguity, the court here added more ambiguity—because arguably any crime can have a lower mental-state requirement added by the court at trial. This ruling has given prosecutors more weapons and made it even harder for businesses to comply with rampant regulations and made their owners and officers subject to arbitrary legal jeopardy. Many people will now be stripped of their liberty simply on the grounds of an incorrect interpretation of complex and ambiguous statutes. With the deck already stacked in favor of the government—and with myriad civil remedies available—there’s no logical reason to add the weapon of a diluted mens rea to the government’s arsenal.

For further discussion of Farha v. United States and other issues attending regulatory crimes, tune into this Federalist Society teleforum today at 3pm ET (and the audio recording should appear at that link later).

Trump’s Executive Orders on Crime

Yesterday, President Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was sworn into his office. Trump used the occasion to sign three executive orders relating to crime.  In this post, I want to briefly scrutinize these orders and explain what impact they may have on our criminal justice system.

One order calls for the creation of a task force on crime reduction.  The new Attorney General will appoint people to the task force and they will meet and discuss ideas and make recommendations for Trump. A second order is titled “Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers.” This order is also about exploring new ideas and strategies to “enhance the protection and safety” of law enforcement officers.  The third order concerns enforcing federal law against transnational criminal organizations that employ violence and derive revenue “through widespread illegal conduct.”  Working groups will be established to discuss ideas and make recommendations to Attorney General Sessions and President Trump.

Police Executive Order Invites Overfederalization

Yesterday, President Trump signed three executive orders to focus federal resources on fighting drug cartels, increasing overall public safety, and preventing violence against law enforcement officers.

Perhaps the most worrisome of these is the directive to “pursue appropriate legislation…that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

While law enforcement officer safety is important, there is no evidence that local or state officials have been reluctant to capture and punish those who commit violence against police. Moreover, there is little empirical evidence that more punitive sentences deter crime generally.

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