Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

What to Look for in the Gorsuch Confirmation Hearings

The moment has arrived: this week, we finally have Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is the culmination of a series of unusual political events that took place after Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death in February 2016.

Indeed, when Scalia died, President Barack Obama had almost a year left in office, so it seemed likely that he would get to select the Court’s next justice. But it was an election year—and the last time that a Senate controlled by the party not in the White House confirmed a Supreme Court nominee to a vacancy that arose during a presidential election year was 1888. Accordingly, Republicans vowed not to consider any high-court nominee until after the election. In a politically polarized nation that had reelected a Democrat to the presidency in 2012 and then gave Senate control to the GOP in 2014, they were determined to let the people have another say regarding who would get to appoint the next justice.

Nevertheless, Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland, a seemingly uncontroversial pick designed to pressure Senate Republicans to cave. As Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and the electoral winds blew harder against the GOP, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s #NoHearingsNoVotes gambit (which I supported) seemed increasingly ill-advised. But the unlikely happened: Trump not only won the presidency, but he picked his nominee from a gold-plated list of 21 candidates that he had issued during his campaign.

Since Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit was nominated on January 31, his chances of joining the high court have only improved. A recent survey showed that 91 percent of Democratic congressional staffers expect him to be confirmed, as Democratic senators have failed to find any salient items that would merit disqualification. Sure, activists will attempt to tar Gorsuch as anti-women, anti-worker, anti-this-that-and-the-other, but the mild-mannered originalist is anything but the cartoon Monopoly Man this caricature tries to paint. And the argument about how this is a #StolenSeat isn’t going anywhere because that was litigated at the election.

Court Rules the President Violated the 1965 Law with Executive Order

Last year, I put forward a statutory argument that President Trump’s proposal to ban immigrants from several majority Muslim countries was illegal because it violated a 1965 law that specifically banned discrimination against immigrants based on race, gender, nationality or place of residence or birth. On the night that the original executive order was released, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times laying out the case again.

Now, finally, a ruling from a federal district court judge in Maryland addressed the issue, agreed with me in part, and partially stayed the executive order on this basis. This afternoon, the Trump administration appealed the ruling to the Fourth Circuit. The portion of ruling relevant to the statutory argument states:

Plaintiffs argue that by generally barring the entry of citizens of the Designated Countries, the Second Order violates Section 202(a) of the INA, codified at 8 U.S.C. 1152(a) (“1152(a)”), which provides that, with certain exceptions:

No person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of his race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.

House Moves Forward On Tort Reform — And With A Nod To Federalism

As I note in a post at Overlawyered, the House of Representatives has been moving quickly on litigation reform, both on perennial measures long stymied by Democratic opposition and on others of newer vintage (more). Of particular interest, two measures track recommendations Cato scholars have been making for years, while a third has been scaled back in a way that at least nods to concerns Cato scholars have expressed.

The new 8th edition Cato Handbook for Policymakers contains a chapter on tort and class action law prepared by Robert Levy, Mark Moller, and me. Its first federal-level recommendation is that “Congress should restore meaningful sanctions for meritless litigation in federal court.” On March 10, by a largely party-line vote of 230-188, the House passed the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (LARA), H.R. 720, which would restore the regime of strong Rule 11 sanctions in federal litigation that were gutted in 1993 (committee report here). LARA has been proposed in one form or another for many Congresses and has passed the House more than once before stalling in the Senate; more on it here.

Our handbook chapter also recommends that Congress “implement further reforms for class actions that cross state lines,” a type of suit that often enables state courts to assert their power over transactions and parties in other states. While our recommendations are multi-faceted, many of them overlap with provisions in the pending H.R. 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act (committee report; passed the House March 9, 220-201). FICALA in turn adds other provisions of its own; attorney Andrew Trask, author of multiple essays on class action law for the Cato Supreme Court Review, takes a relatively favorable view of its overall impact.

Negatives of Restricting Speech, Child Pornography Edition

Even when it comes to protecting children, good intentions are not enough. Backpage.com is

a website that grew rich on classified ads for services like escorts, body rubs and exotic dancers. Far from being a marketplace for consensual exchanges, Backpage, the authorities said, often used teasers like “Amber Alert” and “Lolita” to signal that children were for sale.

In the midst of a Senate investigation, a federal grand jury inquiry in Arizona, two federal lawsuits and criminal charges in California accusing Backpage’s operators of pimping children, the website abruptly bowed to pressure in January and replaced its sex ads with the word “Censored” in red.

And the consequences? 

Tiffany — a street name — did not stop using the site, she said. Instead, her ads moved to Backpage’s dating section. “New in town,” read a recent one, using words that have become code for selling sex. “Looking for someone to hang out with.” Other recent dating ads listed one female as “100% young” and suggested that “oh daddy can i be your candy.”

And,

For Tiffany, 18, the demise of Backpage’s adult listings has made things far more unpredictable — and dangerous, she said. The old ads allowed her to try to vet customers by contacting them before meetings, via phone or text message. With far fewer inquiries from the dating ads, she said, her first encounters with men now take place more often on the street as she gets into cars in red light districts around the Bay Area.

For an earlier Cato discussion of the relevant First Amendment issues, see here.

A Victory for Disability Rights and the Constitution

For months, we’ve been following the saga of a misguided agency regulation that would have deprived some of the most vulnerable Americans of their basic due process rights. In May of last year, the Obama administration proposed a rule designating everyone who uses a “representative payee” (usually a friend or relative) to aid in filing social security disability forms as “mentally defective.” The practical consequence of such a change is that those deemed “mentally defective” (itself a vague and insulting term from a bygone legal era) will automatically fail their federal background check if they attempt to buy a gun. This presumption of unfitness can only be overcome after a lengthy, years-long bureaucratic process to prove one’s own competency. 

We’ve written extensively on why this rule is prejudicial and unfair. During the rule’s “notice and comment” period, Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies submitted its first-ever public regulatory comment, objecting to the rule on 10 different grounds. We pointed out that the rule is vastly overbroad, since those filers who use a “representative payee” include anyone the Social Security Agency believes “would be served thereby … regardless of the legal competency or incompetency of the individual.” Moreover, the rule is counterproductive even when applied to those who do suffer from a psychiatric disability, because those people are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes rather than the perpetrators. Finally, we explained that the rule violates constitutional due process; the burden of proof must fall on the government before it can deprive an individual of a constitutional right.

But despite these efforts, the Obama administration forged ahead, finalizing the rule two days before President Trump took office. This seemed to be the final chapter of the story. Now, however, we can report a much happier ending, thanks to a vital law called the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

The CRA was enacted in 1996 to preserve the legislature’s role in American policy-making when agencies try to unilaterally create sweeping national rules. The Act requires that agencies must submit every newly promulgated rule to Congress for review. Once a new rule has both been submitted to Congress and published in the Federal Register, Congress has a period of 60 legislative days—about six months of real time in practice—in which both houses can pass a disapproval resolution by simple majority vote (no Senate filibusters or parliamentary stall tactics are allowed). If such a resolution is passed by both houses and signed by the president, the rule in question is abolished, and no similar rule can be enacted in the future except by statute.

Please Stop the Tyranny

While the newest federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), has been controversial for many reasons, its most troubling feature may simply be its unconstitutional structure. Its sole director reports to no one but himself, and, under the terms of Dodd-Frank, can be removed by the president only for cause. And it receives its funding not through Congress, but through the Federal Reserve. Not even the Fed has the authority to challenge its spending, however. Instead, the law says the Fed “shall” give the CFPB the funds it requests, up to 12 percent of the Fed’s total operating expenses. As of 2015, that meant the CFPB could demand up to $443 million in one year.

Ending the Reign of the Administrative Law Judge

The system of checks and balances that the Constitution established is an essential safeguard against government overreach. Yet, the ever growing administrative state often undermines fundamental checks and balances. “Fourth branch” agencies frequently take on legislative, executive, and judicial roles simultaneously. And to make matters worse, administrative officials are much less accountable to the people than their counterparts in the traditional three branches.

One especially alarming example of the breakdown of essential separation of powers within the administrative state is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of administrative law judges (ALJs). ALJs adjudicate most of the SEC’s enforcement actions. They have the authority to impose significant civil penalties and can bar respondents from working in the securities industry.