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December 10, 2014

Argument preview: When does a difference in tax treatment amount to a proscribed discrimination?

By Professor Darien Shanske, UC Davis School of Law. Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

On Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation, Inc. 

This case is about Section 11501(b)(4) of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (the "4-R Act"), which prohibits a state from "impos[ing] another tax that discriminates against a rail carrier." Wait, where are you going? This case, which has already been before the Supreme Court once, not only involves interesting questions of statutory interpretation, but also implicates fundamental questions about the meaning of "discrimination" in the tax context (and beyond). Indeed, the resolution of the case may require the Court to appeal to deep structural principles beyond tax. Both sides have reasonable arguments based on the text of the statute, legislative history, and policy. Thus the resolution of the case may turn on whether or not federalism concerns indicate that there should be a thumb on the scale in favor of a narrower construction of a statute that preempts state authority.

Put roughly, here are the facts. Alabama charges sales tax on the fuel purchases of railroads; it does not charge the sales tax on the fuel purchases of motor carriers - such as trucks. Because a federal statute bars discrimination against railroads, the railroad CSX Transportation, the respondent in this case, argues that the Alabama sales tax violates the 4-R Act. Not so fast, says Alabama, the petitioner in this case: Motor carriers pay a separate excise tax on their purchases of fuel, a tax that rail carriers do not pay. Surely, counters Alabama, when Congress prohibited "discrimination" it expected courts to be able to look at more than one section of a state tax code.

The provision in the 4-R Act at issue in this case is short and broad, barring "another tax that discriminates." CSX argues that this breadth is what Congress intended, while Alabama argues that Congress intended that the provision's meaning be filled out - and limited - by reference to earlier provisions of the Act and more general state and local tax jurisprudence.

The two questions before the Court are as follows:

1) When the statute forbids "discrimination," to which comparison class should the lower courts look? Should the Court read in a comparison class from the immediately preceding subsections of the 4-R Act, or did Congress specifically not wish to include that limitation?

2) If a court finds facial discrimination, can a state defend it by pointing to the operation of its larger tax system? The statute does not specify that such a justification could be availing. On the other hand, it would seem like there could not be a discrimination if the difference in treatment were justified.

Let's return to the facts. Alabama imposes a general sales and use tax which is based on the value of the item purchased. When railroads purchase diesel fuel, they must pay the tax. However, two competing businesses are exempt from paying the same sales tax on their purchase of diesel fuel: - motor carriers and interstate water carriers (that is, ships). The motor carriers pay a different tax, a per-gallon excise tax on their purchase of diesel fuels. The water carriers do not pay the excise tax; they have been exempt from the sales tax since 1959 because the state believed that the dormant Commerce Clause prevented it from imposing the tax.

The procedural history of this case indicates its difficulty. During its first trip up to the Supreme Court, the district court dismissed CSX's complaint; the Eleventh Circuit affirmed on the ground that subsection 11501(b)(4) of the Act cannot be used to challenge a sales tax "exemption" (as compared with a property tax exemption, which the Court had already held cannot be challenged under the Act).

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, held that a sales tax exemption could result in a prohibited discrimination, and remanded the case to the lower courts. Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from that disposition, on the ground that Alabama's scheme clearly did not violate the Act. These two Justices argued that there must be a comparison class implicit to subsection 11501(b)(4). They found that the relevant class was the comparison class established for property tax discrimination purposes in the immediately preceding subsections of the Act - namely, "commercial and industrial taxpayers."

On remand, CSX lost before the district court and won before a divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit.  Both the district court and the Eleventh Circuit found that the appropriate class to which to compare CSX was other competitors, rather than the broader class of commercial and business entities. That competitors constitute the appropriate comparison class is the position currently advanced by CSX before the Court. The district court, however, went on to find that the Alabama sales tax exemption for motor fuel did not amount to discrimination because of the complementary fuel excise tax. It found that, in fact, the charge paid by motor carriers was generally higher than that faced by railroads. As for water carriers, the district court found no discrimination because, among other reasons, the railroads had not shown that the water carriers were truly competitors.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed. Specifically, it held that Alabama could not justify its facial discrimination through the sales tax by appealing to the motor fuel excise tax. The court of appeals held that the statute does not indicate that courts should assess the treatment of railroads by looking at the tax system as a whole, and with good reason, because such an inquiry would amount to a "Sisyphean burden." The dissent countered that the there is no giant rock for courts to deal with, as a court need only compare the tax treatment of one industry to that of its competitors as to one tax.

Before the Court in this case, CSX and its amici defend and elaborate upon the opinion of the Eleventh Circuit.   Congress could have defined discrimination in subsection (b)(4) as relative to a specific class, as it did in the earlier provisions of the same statute, but it did not. Therefore, this kind of discrimination vis-à-vis competitors should be held to violate the statute. Furthermore, because one of the rationales of the 4-R Act was to protect the fiscal integrity of railroads, interpreting this provision in a way that protects the railroads from a tax provision that benefits their primary competition is consistent with the purpose of the Act.

The state counters that the correct comparison class is to commercial and industrial entities, as Justice Thomas had argued. This interpretation is also consonant with the purpose of the statute, as it protects railroads, as interstate entities, from being treated less well than the average in-state business entity. (Note that if a majority of the Court agrees with Alabama (and Justices Thomas and Ginsburg) on this question of comparison class, then the Court need not reach the second question as to the scope of the discrimination analysis.)

As to the scope of the discrimination analysis, Alabama argues that it does not make sense for courts to find a tax discriminatory without looking at the broader tax system - if there is an offsetting charge, then where is the discrimination? Furthermore, in the context of the dormant Commerce Clause, the Court has long accepted the possibility that the existence of a complementary tax could justify a seeming instance of discrimination. Not only does the complementary tax doctrine demonstrate the correct analysis of the concept of discrimination, but this doctrine was well established when the 4-R Act was passed and therefore Congress should be presumed to have assumed it would be applied.

CSX and its amici - including Walter Hellerstein, the leading state and local tax scholar, who is counsel of record for the Tax Foundation - strongly object to the importation of the complementary tax doctrine into the 4-R Act. First, the Act does not provide an opportunity for a state to justify its discrimination. Second, the Eleventh Circuit was correct that evaluating such a justification would be Sisyphean. In this case, for instance, because the two taxes are levied on different tax bases - the volume of fuel versus the price of fuel - the analysis would need to be updated regularly. Worse, other states have different sets of taxes and exemptions. Furthermore, if there is to be a more holistic analysis, why limit the analysis to a comparison of the sales and excise taxes? Railroads also pay more in property taxes and maintain their own rights of way, while motor carriers enjoy rights of way paid for by their motor fuel excise taxes as well as other taxes. Indeed, if the goal is to treat tax systems realistically, should courts not also consider which entity bears the true economic burden of a tax - that is, its incidence?  Yet tax incidence analysis is a shifting and tentative endeavor, even for trained economists.

Interestingly, the United States, in an amicus brief filed in support of neither party, proposes a Solomonic quasi-resolution of this case. The United States agrees with CSX that the proper comparison class is other competitors. However, the United States agrees with Alabama that the broader tax system should be taken into account, at least to the extent of considering whether the excise tax justifies the discriminatory application of the sales tax. Because the Eleventh Circuit eschewed this task as Sisyphean, the United States argues that the Court should remand the case to the Eleventh Circuit to give the task a try.

It would seem likely that the Court, as in the first go-round for this case, will try to resolve the questions here narrowly, grounding its answer in the text of the statute, such as it is. Nevertheless, given the import of the notion of "tax discrimination" to other federal statutes and to the dormant Commerce Clause in general, even a narrow answer could well have broader implications.

December 9, 2014

How Federalism Cuts Against the Challengers in King v. Burwell: Part Two in a Two-Part Series

Cross-posted from Justia.

In Part One of this two-part series, I contended that the reading of the Obamacare statute offered by the plaintiffs in the important King v. Burwell case pending in front of the Supreme Court was problematic for reasons grounded in federalism. In particular, I argued that even if the plantiffs' reading-that Congress, by using the phrase "established by the State" in certain places in the Act, intended that citizens of states that did not set up exchanges would not be eligible for federal tax credit health insurance subsidies-reflected the best overall interpretation of the statute, such a reading could not be accepted because it fails the requirement that Congress speak in a "clear voice" if it wants to condition the receipt of federal moneys on things that participating states must do. In the space below, I discuss possible counterarguments to my thesis, and also explain why I believe the federalism perspective I discuss adds an important element to the federal government's position in the King case.

Should the Clear-Voice Requirement Apply When There Is Only One Condition?

Perhaps the most forceful counterargument to my thesis is that the "clear voice" requirement on which I rely should not apply when the alleged congressional spending condition in question is the only condition in the picture, as distinguished from the more common instances in which everyone agrees that Congress imposed some conditions on states for the receipt of federal funds, but the question is whether one or more additional conditions were stated clearly enough by Congress. Why should this difference arguably matter? Because when everyone agrees Congress has clearly imposed some conditions, and participating states have already satisfied those conditions, participating states can be said to have already done something for the federal government. If those states are then confronted with additional, arguably unclear requirements they must also satisfy, the terms of the bargain seem to be changed. Since the Supreme Court has observed, first in the seminal case of Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, that "[l]egislation enacted pursuant to the spending power is much in the nature of a contract," when states take actions to satisfy some federal conditions, they could be said to have transferred "consideration" to the federal government (in the form of helping the federal government accomplish whatever policies are furthered by the conditions the states have met.) By contrast, if there is one and only one condition (and its clarity is in doubt), no states can be said to have given any consideration to the federal government in any respect.

But if the presence of consideration were necessary, a state faced with a statute that created a clear condition on federal funding alongside an arguable and in any event unclear condition would be unable, prior to the state's having done anything to satisfy the clear condition, to obtain a judicial declaration that the unclear condition is not valid on account of its lack of clarity. At most, a state could get a court to declare whether the unclear condition was in fact an actual condition. Yet I believe that a court in this situation would apply the "plain voice" requirement to free the state from having to satisfy any unclear conditions.

And remember too that the Court has said that conditional spending is "much in the nature" of a contract, not that it is a contract itself. And there is another doctrine, known as "promissory estoppel," that is "much in the nature" of a contract but that does not require consideration, and instead focuses on the reliance placed on a promise. Consider the following hypothetical. Congress promises a state $X of funding to be used for highway construction for each of the next three years. In Year Two, Congress's budget has provided for the expenditure, but now someone urges that there is the non-obvious requirement in the original statute that states that receive the funding raise their legal drinking age to 25. Could a state be allowed to object to this unforeseeable condition even though the state (up to this point) has not given the federal government anything beyond spending the federally disbursed money as directed? I think the answer is yes, because a state could have relied on the federal promise of funding in deciding how to budget its own state funds for roadwork. Or in deciding what roadway safety laws to enact or reject. And if this is true for road funding, the same would have to be true for money earmarked for healthcare. So if Congress promised three years' worth of federal funding to states for Medicaid (without requiring states to spend any matching funds during this period), and passed laws authorizing the federal expenditures, no one could try in Year Two to assert an unclear condition and apply it to the states, even if it were the only condition anyone had ever suggested was in the statute.

Now it is true, of course, that the states that accepted these (highway or healthcare) funds might not have actually relied on the federal promises when they built their own budgets or policies, and that these states would in fact be no worse off if an unclear condition were to be imposed after the statute was adopted than they would have been if the condition had been clearly expressed by Congress at the outset. But the same is true for the conditional spending mechanism struck down by the Court in the 2012 Obamacare case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, which I discussed extensively in Part One. When the Court there invalidated the Medicaid expansion provisions of Obamacare and said that states were not clearly on notice of the possibility of the conditions involved in the expansion when Congress first offered the states Medicaid money decades ago, the Court did not say, or even suggest, that had states actually been told way back when of a possible subsequent expansion that any states would have been likely to turn down the funding at the outset (even before the expansion condition was imposed). And, in fact, no one could suggest that states would have been likely to do that.

This tells us a couple of related things. First, the "clear voice" requirement is not about actual reliance, but rather even the mere hypothetical possibility of reliance on federal assertions. The "clear voice" requirement is a kind of a prophylaxis designed to avoid detrimental reliance before it occurs. And, like all prophylactic devices, it applies even to situations in which the evil to be avoided would not come to pass in any event. Second, and related, the "clear voice" requirement seems largely about showing respect for states by giving them all the information clearly up front to facilitate informed decision making, even if in the real world the decisions by states in such high stakes take-it-or-leave-it settings would not be likely to be affected much by additional clarity. In fact, this is precisely how the Court explained the "clear voice" requirement in Pennhurst, where the majority explicitly observed that "the crucial inquiry is not whether a state would knowingly [have acted differently if the condition had been clearly stated] but whether Congress spoke so clearly that we can fairly say that the State could make an informed choice." In the context of Obamacare, if the setting up of a state exchange was in fact a condition for a state to receive federal tax credit subsidies, respect for states required Congress to say this "clearly [enough] that we can fairly say that the State could make an informed choice" about whether to set up an exchange or not.

Does It Matter Whether Federal Money Ever Enters State Coffers?

But what about the fact that the federal subsidies under Obamacare are going not necessarily into state coffers, but rather directly to the healthcare consumers? Does this feature automatically remove the case from the conditional spending doctrinal category? At least in the context of the King plaintiffs' reading of Obamacare, I think not. The key facts are that, under their reading, tax subsidies are available to individuals as citizens of a particular state qua citizens of that particular state, and subsidy eligibility turns on the actions of that person's particular state government to set up an exchange or not. To see the point, imagine that Medicaid moneys were given not to state governments (conditioned upon the states expending matching funds and doing other things), but instead were given to the individual citizen beneficiaries, but only in those states that had expended matching funds and satisfied other conditions. I think the "clear voice" requirement should still apply. It is true that an individual's eligibility for federal tax benefits can sometimes depend on the particularities of state law in the place of one's residence, and that perhaps not all such interrelatedness between federal and state law triggers the a "clear voice" requirement. But when Congress intends (as the King plaintiffs assert Congress did in Obamacare) to give a state the direct choice of doing something the federal government wants it to do, in return for which the federal government will provide billions of dollars' worth of federal subsidies targeted towards the eligible persons in that state, the state must be able to see that choice easily.

Nor is the situation altered by the fact that the federal subsidies may take the form of tax credits rather than moneys actually disbursed. In fact, the federal government may advance money to Obamacare subsidy beneficiaries (in the form of payments to health care insurers) prior to an individual filing her federal tax return, but even if that were not the case, there should be no difference between a credit and a dollar disbursement; both kinds of programs are enacted pursuant to Congress's power to "tax" and to "spend" for the "general welfare," and are thus laws "enacted pursuant to the spending power," to use the Court's phrase. Indeed, go back to Medicaid. If, instead of affirmatively doling out money to states conditioned upon their doing certain things, Congress credited states (that satisfied certain conditions) with respect to fees or payments those states otherwise owed the federal government, the "clear voice" requirement would surely apply as to the conditions that would generate the credits. (It is true that the Court under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has distinguished tax credits from expenditures, but its reasoning there was limited to certain peculiarities of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.)

Does The Federalism Argument Add Much to Other Arguments Already in the Case?

Finally, I think it important to reflect on why this federalism "clear voice" requirement could prove especially important in the King case. For starters, this is an argument that was not really addressed by the two judges of the D.C. Circuit who (last summer) ruled in favor of the reading of Obamacare advanced by the King plaintiffs, so we don't know whether judges who are otherwise inclined to agree with the King plaintiffs would be unpersuaded by the "clear voice" line of argument. Indeed, even the Fourth Circuit that rejected the King plaintiffs' reading did not rule on this argument (though a form of this argument was made in the State of Virginia's amicus brief), so if observers believe (as many do) the Supreme Court's grant of review in King means that there are at least four Justices who were unpersuaded by the Fourth Circuit ruling, having an argument that was not addressed in the Fourth Circuit opinion is a good thing for the federal government.

The Fourth Circuit did rely on a related, but importantly different, kind of requirement of statutory unambiguity-the so-called Chevron doctrine (named after the 1984 Chevron, USA, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council case)-under which federal courts defer to an administrative agency's interpretation of an ambiguous statutory term, so long as the administrative interpretation is reasonable. But there are many reasons why one could reject Chevron deference in King and yet apply the "clear voice" requirement of Pennhurst. First, and most technically, Chevron deference applies only if Congress can be said to have delegated to the agency in question (here, the IRS) the authority to interpret the relevant provisions in the statute. Different Justices seem to require different levels of clarity in that initial delegation, and the 2013 Arlington v. FCC case (about which I wrote a Justia column) exposed unlikely rifts between ordinarily like-minded Justices on just how far Chevron should be extended. In particular, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, declined to read Chevron broadly, largely because of fears that the federal executive had become too powerful and that giving federal agencies broad interpretive authority is particularly dangerous. In the context of Obamacare, there may be disputes about whether the Chevron framework should be applicable.

Second, even if the Chevron doctrine governs, under it federal courts must give effect to the "unambiguously expressed intent of Congress"; deference to the agency comes into play only after it is determined that Congress has not expressed such an unambiguous intent. Now it may seem that "unambiguous intent," and "clear voice" capture the same idea, but I don't think that the two concepts in these two settings are identical. In other words, it is possible to say that Congress's intent was expressed unambiguously such that Chevron deference doesn't apply, and yet still say that Congress hasn't spoken in a sufficiently clear voice to satisfy the Pennhurst standard. In particular, many courts (including the Supreme Court) have used legislative history behind a statute, and also the way a statutory term may have been used in earlier statutes, to determine whether Congress's intent with respect a particular statute was expressed unambiguously for Chevron purposes. But I can't see how those extra-statutory sources could be used to decide whether Congress has spoken in a "clear voice" to put states on adequate notice in the conditional spending realm. On top of that, a provision whose meaning takes too much work for states to discern, even within the four corners of a single convoluted statute, might not be expressed by Congress in a "clear voice," even if in the end Congress's will is discernable to a high degree of confidence.

Relatedly, and more generally, Chevron is about separation of powers-the relationship between Congress, the federal judiciary and the federal executive. That is why the initial inquiry under Chevron is how much Congress delegated to the federal agency and how certain we can be about "the intent of Congress." By contrast, the "clear voice" rule is about federalism-the relationship between the federal government and state governments. That is why, in conditional spending cases, the Court says that "[w]e must view [a federal statute] from the perspective of a state official who is engaged in the process of deciding whether the State should accept [federal] funds. . . . " In conditional spending settings, we care less about how firm we are in our conviction of what Congress wanted, and more about what states would have necessarily understood.

Federalism and separation of powers push different buttons for folks. On and off the Court, many observers today seem to be (legitimately or not) concerned about broad assertions of federal executive authority. Recall that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Alito have recently (in the Arlington case) expressed qualms about the breadth of Chevron precisely because they fear federal executive power. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that administrative agencies today "as a practical matter . . . exercise legislative power, . . . executive power . . . and judicial power. . ." and that the "accumulation of these powers in the same hands is not an occasional or isolated exception to the constitutional plan [, but rather] a central feature of modern American government." These Justices (and it's hard to imagine the federal government prevailing in King without winning over at least one of them) may be more receptive (as all three were in the Medicaid expansion setting in 2012) to arguments that are grounded in the distinctive respect owed states, and the Simon-says-like rules we should employ to make sure states aren't duped or misled into making decisions without being able to be aware of the consequences.

October 10, 2014

The Supreme Court to Consider When Threats Can Be Punished Consistent with the First Amendment

Co-authored by Professors Vikram Amar and Alan Brownstein. Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

'Tis the season to begin looking carefully at the Supreme Court's 2014-2015 docket, now that the Justices have returned from their summer recess and are hearing cases again. One interesting case to be argued in a couple of months, Elonis v. United States, raises questions about how courts should define so-called "true threats" that fall outside First Amendment protection and thus are subject to punishment. Anthony Elonis was convicted of violating federal criminal statutes that prohibit the interstate transmission of communications containing threats to injure other persons, and his convictions were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Background Facts of the Dispute

Mr. Elonis allegedly posted threats on Facebook directed at, among others, his ex-wife, federal law enforcement officials, and school children. For example, in referring to FBI officials (who had visited his home to interview him about his activities), Elonis wrote (seemingly in rap-style cadence):

[T]he next time you know, you best be serving a warrant
And bring yo' SWAT an explosives expert while you're at it
Cause little did y'all know, I was strapped wit' a bomb . . .
I was jus' waitin' for y'all to handcuff me and pat me down.
Touch the detonator in my pocket and we're all goin' BOOM!

In another posting, Elonis wrote:

That's it. I've had about enough.
I'm checking out and making a name for myself.
Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous shooting ever imagined. . .
The only question is. . . which one?"

In posts about his wife, Elonis wrote: "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch . . . "

Throughout his prosecution, Elonis has challenged the definition of a threat to be used by the jury, namely, that "[a] statement is a true threat [subject to prosecution] when a defendant intentionally makes a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual." Elonis argues under the First Amendment (and also under the federal criminal statute he is charged with violating) that, before a person can be punished for expressing a threat, the government must allege and prove that the defendant subjectively intended to threaten his victim. Elonis does not (and could not) argue that the government must prove a defendant intended to carry out the threat, but he does assert that the government must prove that he intended to place the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.

The Third Circuit (along with a large number of other circuits) rejected this kind of subjective intent requirement. Instead, it held that statements that are reasonably construed as threats by the listener can be punished under the First Amendment. Conversely, the Ninth Circuit (and a number of state high courts) has required the subjective intent to threaten as a predicate to a prosecution for threatening speech. The courts that do require subjective intent often rely on the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Virginia v. Black, where the Court upheld the major portions of a Virginia statute making intimidating cross burning illegal. While the Court upheld the ban on threats expressed through cross burning, however, it also struck down a part of the Virginia law that made burning a cross itself prima facie proof of intimidation and relieved the state of having to offer any other evidence as to the meaning of the accused's symbolic expression. In reaching its decision, the Court observed that "'true threats' encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals . . . [whether or not] the speaker . . . actually intended to carry out the threat." The Court noted that prohibitions on threats protect individuals from the fear of violence and the disruption that fear creates, and not just from the likelihood of actual violence. The Court also observed that "intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person . . . with the intent of placing the victim in fear. . . ." Many of the arguments in Elonis focus on what this language from Black means.

The Issues Elonis Presents

Initially, we offer some relatively modest observations about First Amendment doctrine and Supreme Court practice illustrated by Elonis. First, this is a less-than-ideal vehicle to decide whether intent to threaten is statutorily or constitutionally required, since a reasonable jury might easily conclude that the evidence against Elonis establishes such intent in this case in any event. In other words, if Mr. Elonis wins at the Supreme Court, and the case is sent back for a new trial, a new instruction would be given to the jury but a conviction seems likely in any case. Certainly, the Court can (and will likely) reach the merits in Elonis if it wants to, but this is arguably not the best case for resolving the constitutional issue in dispute.

Second, the Court might avoid the constitutional question by reading a subjective intent requirement into the federal statute. If it does so, then it would still need to rule in a later case on whether the First Amendment requires subjective intent (in the context of a federal or state statute that clearly does not require it.)

Third, notice that much of the debate in this case revolves not around core First Amendment principles, but rather what the Court meant in Virginia v. Black. The Third Circuit's reading of the words in Black certainly seems plausible; the Court's description of "intimidation" as including the intent to instill fear could, as the Third Circuit held, refer to a subset of true threats, rather than a definition of the entire category of true threats. And we think the Ninth Circuit misreads Black to the extent that the Ninth Circuit believes that the Court's result in Black necessarily implies the existence of a subjective intent requirement. Whether or not there is a subjective intent requirement, the Virginia statute that made cross burning prima facie evidence of a threat would be constitutionally problematic because it would relieve the government of having to show, in a case where the defendant exercised his right not to present a defense, that a particular cross burning was, in context, something a reasonable person would perceive as threatening (which is certainly true of many but not all cross burnings).

But more generally, we are not sure the Court in Black was offering a general answer to the question of whether subjective intent in a necessary element the government must prove to convict someone for expressing a true threat. Indeed, we think that assigning so much weight to the precise words Justice O'Connor used in her Black opinion misses the forest for the trees. Determining whether subjective intent is a constitutional prerequisite to punishing a speaker for expressing a true threat is an issue the Court needs to discuss and evaluate on its own terms, not as a derivative discussion of the meaning of ambiguous language in a case where the question was never explicitly raised and thus may not have been on the minds of the Justices whose language is being parsed.

Comparing Threats to Other Types of (Potentially) Harmful Speech

Our fourth, larger point goes to the heart of the matter. If subjective intent is required to hold a person liable under a threat statute when a reasonable person would understand the accused's expression to constitute a serious threat, the speaker who places a victim in fear of bodily harm or death will escape sanction when the government cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the speaker intended to instill fear. But the First Amendment does not give speakers a right to cause, whether intentionally or not, this kind of fear and apprehension. The key free speech issue raised by this case is: When does the First Amendment prevent government from protecting people from speech that undeniably causes real harm because government action jeopardizes other important free speech interests?

We think the best way to analyze this question is to compare the treatment of threats with the treatment of other kinds of potentially harmful speech, such as incitement, defamation, and offensive speech. Threats are proscribed not just because they might lead to action, but because they inflict injury in themselves. Unlike, say, incitement, where the evil to be regulated is the possibility that a listener may be influenced to act on the speaker's words, threats wound by their very utterance. In this respect, laws banning threats are more akin to laws sanctioning defamatory speech. In providing civil sanctions for defamation, at least as to private figure victims, no subjective intent is required before government can regulate such expression, whereas in the former setting (of incitement), the First Amendment does seem to require intent to incite before punishment can be imposed. What accounts for this difference in treatment? The answer cannot be that society thinks incitement is necessarily less dangerous than defamation; the costs of incitement have always been recognized as significant.

One explanation for this difference in treatment is that the government's interest in punishing speech because such speech may influence the thoughts and actions of the audience goes to the very core of why we have a First Amendment. The foundation of free speech doctrine is the right to use speech to persuade others of the merits of our ideas. Thus, when speech is dangerous because it might be acted upon, we are more reluctant to regulate it, and we add the extra layer of a subjective intent requirement as protection against government overreaching. Where speech is dangerous because it causes harm directly, however, (as it does in defamation cases) the government's interests do not conflict directly with foundational free speech principles. Accordingly, we allow the civil sanctioning of defamatory speech without the extra buffer requirement of subjective intent.

Using this comparative analysis, we would ask whether speech that causes a reasonable person to fear that he or she is threatened with bodily harm or death is of sufficient constitutional value to justify courts adding the additional buffer of protection provided by a subjective intent requirement. We are not at all convinced that the value of such speech can justify allowing the harm it causes to go unsanctioned.

Another comparison-this one between threats, incitement and so-called offensive speech (use of vulgar and insensitive words, etc.)-may also be instructive. In the incitement realm we require government to prove intent and immediacy notwithstanding the harm that incendiary speech may cause not only because of our commitment to shielding persuasive speech from government prohibitions. We also recognize that there is a slippery slope with regard to punishing incitement. Every idea expressed with passion risks inciting its audience. And, accordingly, every idea that is critical of the government and its policies risks inciting anti-government behavior and violations of law. If we provide inadequate protection to incitement, all speech critical of government could be subject to sanction.

A similar analysis applies to the full protection we provide to offensive speech. Here too we recognize that offensive speech may cause its victims real harm and anguish. No one doubts that the grieving mourners at a soldier's funeral who were subjected to the disparaging speech of Westboro Baptist Church protestors suffered psychological torment. Yet in Snyder v. Phelps, the Court protected the protestors' right to express their hateful and hurtful message free from civil sanction. But here again we also recognize that tolerance of offensive speech is essential to the maintenance of a free speech regime. Every challenge to orthodoxy may offend some people who are comfortable with the status quo. We must vigorously guard against allowing speech to be punished simply on the ground that it offends people because restricting speech to serve this interest risks swallowing up a substantial part of the First Amendment.

Threats are arguably quite different. Unlike state interests justifying restrictions on incitement or offensive speech, the state's interest in protecting people from threats of physical violence that would instill fear in reasonable people seems more cabined and focused. We do not worry that core free speech principles would be undermined if speech that places reasonable people in fear of serious bodily harm or death is prohibited, whether or not the speaker intends his message to have such a frightening effect.

How Will the High Court Rule?

Some analysts predict the Court will reverse the Third Circuit and add a subjective intent requirement to the test for constitutionally proscribable threats. They say this because the current Court has been extremely protective of expression (even odious expression) in a variety of settings, and because so much speech today (especially in rap music and other popular forms of entertainment) is coarse and uses provocative and sometimes violent language. The notion would be that true threats should not be defined so broadly as to sweep too much of what people actually say in the real world within a category of unprotected speech. (Indeed, Mr. Elonis argues that the rap style of his Facebook postings makes his speech less threatening.)

We understand this argument, but aren't persuaded by it. The prevalence of violent imagery in music and other cultural venues in today's society should already be taken into account by the requirement (on which everyone agrees) that a listener's fear must be reasonable in context, and not based simply on some hypersensitivity to ugly, disturbing language. Unless there is a reason to fear that juries won't already factor changes in speech patterns into the definition of what reasonable people would experience as a threat, it is not clear, at least to us, that an extra element of subjective intent is needed here.

Before we conclude, we do note (circling back to our comparative analysis) that in the defamation setting, constitutional doctrine does require subjective intent (in the form of knowledge or recklessness as to falsity) when the victim is a public official. The case law is more protective of speech critical of our government officials than it is with respect to negative speech concerning private individuals. Perhaps the same should be true for threats; because we want citizens to be free to vent anger against their representatives, maybe we should allow them to engage in threatening speech except when they mean to instill fear. On the other hand, the requirement that a victim/listener feel reasonably threatened might itself be sufficiently flexible to protect vociferous ranting against officials, in that officials are less likely to be reasonable in feeling fear than are ordinary folks because officials should know that citizens may exaggerate their anger and rhetoric when it comes to government. In this regard, we emphasize that a reasonable-victim standard does not give juries carte blanche to punish speech whenever they desire; judges are perfectly capable of ruling that, as a matter of law, certain provocative words cannot, in modern and specific context, be understood by listeners as actual threats that put the listeners in reasonable fear of harm.

August 5, 2014

How to Read Justice Kennedy’s Crucial Concurring Opinion in Hobby Lobby: Part II in a Series

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In my last column, Part I of this Two-Part series, I argued that lower courts are justified in paying (indeed perhaps required to pay) close attention to Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion in this summer's blockbuster Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, even though the "Opinion of the Court" in that case had the support of five Justices. Because Justice Kennedy was one of the five in the majority in this 5-4 case, his understanding of the majority opinion-on which he based his decision to join and which is explained in his concurring opinion-essentially represents the narrowest common grounds on which a majority of Justices agreed.

In the space below, I suggest a number of significant ways in which Justice Kennedy's take on the majority opinion, which he says are among the "reasons . . . [he] join[ed] it[,]" counsels in favor of a narrow reading of what the Court decided. To see why this is so we must directly compare Justice Alito's majority opinion (and the language and tone it used) with Justice Kennedy's writing.

The Basic Structure of Justice Alito's Opinion of the Court

Justice Alito's opinion can be broken down into two big questions: (1) Does the Hobby Lobby corporation partake of protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?; and (2) Is the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulations the "least restrictive means" to accomplish the "compelling" government interest-that female employees receive contraceptive service insurance at no cost-as required under RFRA?

On the first question, Justice Alito reasons quite broadly, and rests statutory protection for Hobby Lobby on the ground that a for-profit closely held corporation is itself a "person" capable of the "exercise of religion" under RFRA (rather than resting protection on the idea that the persons whom RFRA protects are the owners of a corporation, and the fact that Hobby Lobby's owners are operating through the corporate form should not strip them of the statutory protection they have as individual human beings to practice religion). Because of this broad reasoning, and because Justice Kennedy did not say anything in his concurrence on this question, the Court (and lower courts) may find it difficult to deny RFRA coverage to publicly traded corporations whose managements try to assert claims for religious exemptions in the future.

But on the second question-concerning what RFRA protection means once RFRA applies-the breadth of the Court's ruling is more open to debate, because Justice Kennedy did say things that might diverge from what Justice Alito said. I mention four such possible divergences here.

Some Ways in Which Justice Kennedy's Understanding of the What the Majority Held Might Be a Narrow One

First, and perhaps least significant doctrinally but potentially important optically, while Justice Alito characterizes the test the government must meet to justify denying an exemption under RFRA as "exceptionally demanding," Justice Kennedy is content to call it "stringent" (citing his own opinion in a prior case). This subtle language difference may send slightly different messages to lower courts about how tough to be in evaluating arguments put forth by the federal government in future cases.

Second, on the question whether the government has a "compelling" interest (the kind of interest it needs under RFRA) "in ensuring that all women have access to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing," Justice Alito spends a great deal of space explaining why it is "arguable" that the government should lose on this question. In particular, he discusses how the exceptions the Affordable Care Act creates for existing health plans to be "grandfathered"-and thus not required to provide contraceptive coverage-undermine the notion that the government's interest is compelling. Justice Alito ultimately finds it "unnecessary to adjudicate this issue [because] [w]e will assume that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access . . . is compelling."

Justice Kennedy on this question writes in a way that suggests a much stronger likelihood that he would, if push came to shove, find (as the four dissenters did) the government's interest to be compelling, notwithstanding the grandfather exceptions. He says that is "it is important to confirm that a premise of the Court's opinion is its assumption that the . . . regulation here furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of the female employees." It is true that he uses the word "assumption"-which reminds us that the Court assumed but did not decide the government's interest was compelling. But one wonders why it is important to "confirm" an "assumption" unless the assumption is likely to be correct. Also, Justice Kennedy starts this part of his discussion by saying that the federal government "makes the case that the mandate serves . . . [a] compelling interest" (emphasis added). "Makes the case" is a term that can be read to mean simply "argues" or "contends," but more often it is used to mean "provides good reasons to think."

If Justice Kennedy is, in fact, sending a signal here that government-granted grandfather exceptions based on convenience and ease of transition do not undermine the compelling nature of a government interest, and if that is how lower courts read his tone here, then such a signal could have important consequences for the range of other government interests that are asserted in subsequent RFRA cases, and other cases in which the government needs to establish a compelling interest. Government often needs to grant exceptions to facilitate enactment of big new regulatory schemes, and if the inclusion of such exceptions jeopardizes the idea that the government has compelling interests on which it is acting, a great deal more government regulation would be vulnerable.

The Key Questions of What the Less Restrictive Alternative in Hobby Lobby Was and How Competing Interests Should Be Weighed

 Third, on the important question whether the Government should lose because it could pay for the contraceptive coverage itself (rather than requiring employers to provide it), and government payment is a "less restrictive means" to accomplish the government's (compelling) objective, Justice Alito seems to try to have his cake and eat it too. He says ultimately that "we need not rely" on this possible accommodation as a basis for Hobby Lobby's victory because the federal government could also simply tell insurance companies (rather than employers) to provide the coverage (as the government does for non-profit corporations), but this language comes only after Justice Alito had already spent a lot of ink explaining why the government-payment option seems to be required under RFRA. Indeed, Justice Alito observes that it is "hard to understand" the Government's argument to the contrary. Moreover, even though Justice Alito writes that the Court "need not rely" on this accommodation, he doesn't say whether he means simply that there are two possible accommodations that explain Hobby Lobby's victory (in which case neither of them is one that must be relied on), or instead that the second accommodation (having the insurance companies provide the coverage) is the statutorily required accommodation in this case, such that the Court doesn't decide whether, in the absence of such an option, the government would have to pay itself. Note that, unlike the language concerning whether there is a compelling interest, Justice Alito does not say the Court declines "to adjudicate" this issue.

Justice Kennedy, by contrast, does not equivocate here, and makes clear that, as he reads the majority opinion he is joining, the Court is not deciding the question whether the Government would have to pay itself if the insurance-company-accommodation were not available: "In discussing th[e] [government-payment] alternative, the Court does not address whether the proper response to a legitimate claim for freedom in the health care arena is for the Government to create an additional program [, because] [i]n these cases, it is the Court's understanding that an accommodation may be made to the employers without imposition of a whole new program or burden on the Government." For this reason, he says, the "Court does not resolve" the question whether creating a new government spending program could be required.

Fourth, and more generally, on the question of how much cost the government must be willing to bear to accommodate religious exercise, Justice Kennedy notes: "[T]his existing model [i.e., having the insurance company bear whatever cost may be involved], designed precisely for this problem, might well suffice to distinguish the instant cases from many others in which it is more difficult and expensive to accommodate a governmental program to countless religious claims based on an alleged statutory right of free exercise" (emphasis added).

And, importantly, he also says, apparently in response to concerns that federal sex discrimination workplace protection will go by the boards-a prospect that Justice Alito's opinion pointedly did not deny-that religious exercise, while important, cannot "unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling." Justice Alito does acknowledge that courts must take "adequate account of the burden a requested accommodation imposes on non-beneficiaries," but he makes this concession in a footnote that literally marginalizes the concerns of third parties.

Justice Kennedy's language makes clear that he will, in deciding when an exemption under RFRA is warranted, surely consider costs, both to the government and to third persons, as a counterbalance to any assertion of religious liberty. Indeed, in some ways, Justice Kennedy's opinion is eerily similar in substance to Justice Blackmun's writing in National League of Cities that I discussed in Part I of this series; Justice Kennedy recognized the right to an exemption in the case before him, but he indicated more directly than did Justice Alito that in future RFRA cases some kind of balance-rather than an absolute or near-absolute entitlement to exemption-is called for.

If this is so, and if (as I think they can and should) lower courts take their cue from the writing of this fifth Justice in the majority in Hobby Lobby, then Justice Kennedy's writing may go a fair ways in determining exactly how many companies can successfully use Hobby Lobby to obtain exemptions by suing under RFRA.

July 18, 2014

A Potential Guide to the Meaning of Hobby Lobby: Why Justice Kennedy’s Concurring Opinion May Be Key, Part I

Blog entry cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

Legal and political commentators have already spent thousands of hours on how best to understand Justice Alito's majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and whether Justice Ginsburg's dissent was accurate in saying the decision was of "startling breadth."

But to understand the scope of the majority opinion construing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), we may need to focus on the separate concurring opinion of Justice Kennedy, an opinion that seems to be getting little ink. Two important and complex questions need to be asked about this concurrence: (1) Why should we care what it says? and (2) What does it really say? In the space below, and in my next column in two weeks, respectively, I take up those each of those questions.

When There Are Five Votes for a Majority Opinion, Do (or Should) Concurring Opinions Matter?

The first question-why we should pay any attention to the content of Justice Kennedy's opinion-is fair to ask, and complicated to answer. After all, Justice Alito's opinion was an Opinion of the Court, which means an opinion for a majority of the voting Justices and not just for a "plurality" of them. In most circumstances, when there is an Opinion of the Court, lower courts (where battles over the scope of RFRA are going to be most meaningfully fought, at least until the Supreme Court decides another RFRA case) must look for meaning and guidance in that Opinion, without necessarily consulting the one or more additional concurring opinions that may have been filed. But, crucially, in Hobby Lobby, Justice Kennedy's was the fifth vote in a 5-4 case; without Justice Kennedy's joinder, Justice Alito's opinion would have lacked a majority. So to the extent that Justice Kennedy's separate opinion represents a narrowing gloss on Justice Alito's writing (and in Part Two of this series I will take up whether Justice Kennedy's opinion is indeed narrower), there is a plausible argument to be made that lower courts (and perhaps also future Supreme Courts) should view Justice Kennedy's opinion as the guiding or controlling one.

Certainly that would have been true had Justice Kennedy not joined (some or all of) Justice Alito's opinion, but instead had concurred only in Justice Alito's bottom-line judgment that Hobby Lobby should win, and written a separate opinion laying out his narrower reasoning. In that instance, everyone would agree there would be no Opinion of the Court (for the parts Justice Kennedy did not join), and Justice Alito's opinion would be for a plurality only. And in situations like these, the Supreme Court has held, in a somewhat well-known 1977 case, Marks v. United States, that lower courts should look for and be guided by the "position taken by those Members [of the Court] who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds" (emphasis added).

Which Matters More, a Justice's Vote (to Join a Majority Opinion) or His (Concurring) Voice?

Is the situation really so different if a Justice joins an Opinion of the Court (to make a fifth vote) but then writes separately to make clear the (narrow) understanding of the majority opinion on which he based his decision to join? There are first-rate legal minds (including, perhaps, some of my Justia ConLaw professor colleagues) who may say "yes"-formalities matter, and the act of being the fifth vote to join a majority opinion is all-important. There are no constitutional provisions, statutes, or judicial regulations that speak to this question; it seems to be a matter left to and determined by judicial practice. I am not aware that the Supreme Court itself has ever offered detailed views on how a situation like this should be handled, but I find it hard to see a big difference-in the context of a case whose result is determined by a 5-4 vote-between "concurring in the Judgment" and writing a separate opinion, on the one hand, and joining a majority opinion while writing the very same kind of separate opinion, on the other.

Because the writing of a separate opinion laying out a narrower view than that which might have been laid out by the majority opinion is a more specific and more fully explained act than is the general decision to join the majority opinion, I think attaching weight to the narrowing, specific concurrence makes good sense, especially if the concurring Justice is still on the Court (such that his separate writing bears on any prediction of how the Court would rule if another case were brought to it today.) I say this in part because a decision to join with other Justices to make an Opinion of the Court may have been made in part to keep peace at the Court or to avoid the direct insult of a colleague, and does not mean that there might not be important substantive differences among all those who join the Opinion.

The case for crediting the narrow understandings reflected in concurring opinions in this setting is especially strong when the majority opinion may itself be fuzzy (or silent) on the legal question at issue. In these circumstances, a fifth Justice who sincerely believes the majority opinion embraces the narrow reasoning that is on his mind does would not want to refuse to join (and concur only in the judgment) because of the fuzziness. Collegiality and harmony are better served by permitting him to join but to make clear (in a way that will be respected by lower courts) the expectations on which his joinder is based. If his separate concurrence is not given controlling weight in these circumstances, he will be encouraged in future instances not to join the majority opinion (but instead to concur in the judgment only), and this might create needless division and intra-Court friction if in fact the majority opinion embraced the (narrow) holding he thought it did but about which he was not completely sure.

Even when the majority opinion (which has five votes) is clear on the legal proposition in question and a concurring Justice's "understanding" of the majority opinion, on which his joinder is premised, is objectively unreasonable, there is still a forceful argument to place weight, in a 5-4 case, on a separate concurrence by a Justice within the majority. To the extent that a concurring Justice makes clear by his writing that he disagrees with this part of the Opinion of the Court, his narrower understanding of the law should control, regardless of whether he joined the majority opinion or simply concurred in its judgment.

In effect, we should read his actions/writing together to mean that he really didn't join with the part of the Court opinion with which he (apparently) disagrees, but he just decided (perhaps because he misread the majority opinion) not to formally opt out of any important sentences or paragraphs in the majority opinion that dealt with the legal proposition in question. It also bears mention that majority opinions often (usually?) fail to break up analysis of each legal question into a separate Section or Part. For this reason, Justices who agree with the bulk of an opinion's analysis, but who may disagree with a few key sentences, or even words, cannot easily register their nuanced mix of agreement/potential disagreement simply by declining to join whole subdivisions of the opinion.

A few hypothetical variants may help make my point. As I suggested earlier, everyone seems to agree that if a fifth Justice joins most of an opinion, but expressly declines to join a Part or Section of the opinion that included legal proposition X, we would say the Court has not embraced X. If, instead, the fifth Justice writes to say that he "join[s] all parts of Opinion of the Court, except to the extent that the Opinion says X," again there would be no Opinion of the Court as to the legal proposition X. Now imagine the fifth Justice writes separately to say: "I join the Opinion of the Court because it does not say X." Should that explicit statement be treated any differently? And, finally, how about: "I join the Opinion of the Court on the understanding that it does not say X"? To me, it would be formalistic without justification to treat the last two of these situations (regardless of the reasonableness of the concurring Justice's reading of the majority opinion) differently from the first two.

I do think the fact that a Justice joins a majority opinion should not be completely irrelevant in these kinds of situations. So, for example, if there is ambiguity in the meaning of the concurring Justice's separate writing, that ambiguity should be resolved in favor of harmonizing it with the majority opinion that she chose to join. But to the extent that the concurring opinion clearly disagrees with, or offers more details in narrowing, legal propositions asserted in the majority opinion, the concurring Justice's voice should control over her vote (to join the majority).

Perhaps the best counterargument, that is, the best argument in favor of not attaching controlling weight to the concurring opinion, is that the Marks-style analysis is often difficult to undertake, and sometimes lower courts make mistakes in trying to figure out what the narrowest common grounds are between multiple opinions. Deciding what is "common" between opinions, and discerning the "narrowest grounds" can be challenging. In the Marks setting, we have no choice but to undertake this tricky analysis because without comparing multiple opinions (no one of which had five votes) we lack any holding at all to guide future cases. By contrast, in the situation I describe in this column, there is an Opinion of the Court (that got five votes), and so telling lower courts to follow it only, and not to complicate matters by trying to incorporate the concurrence into the analysis, does not deprive the system of a holding to guide lower courts.

In the end, I find this counterargument unconvincing for three reasons. First, the Marks-style analysis may sometimes be difficult, but courts do perform this task regularly, and in some cases it may actually be easier to focus on clear limiting language in a concurring opinion than to resolve ambiguities within the majority opinion alone. (I should note that some appellate courts-including the U.S. Supreme Court during its early history-do not issue "Opinions of the Court," but rather issue individual opinions seriatim, leaving lower courts to figure out the rule(s) of law that were adopted.) Second, we employ Marks analysis not just because we want to generate a holding (we could to that by flipping a coin as between all the opinions that supported the judgment), but because it makes normative sense to seek to identify true common analytic ground between five or more Justices. If that is true in Marks, it is true here as well. Finally, as I noted earlier, if we don't attach controlling weight to a concurring opinion in the situation I posit here, then a Justice who makes the fifth vote in a future case will, instead of joining the Opinion of the Court, simply concur in the judgment and write a separate opinion anyway, and so we will be right back in the realm of Marks. If a Justice cares enough about an issue to write separately, she probably will do what it takes to make sure the concurring viewpoint is given as much weight as possible in future cases.

Historical Examples

I am not aware of a huge number of prominent instances in which a Justice provided a fifth vote for an Opinion of the Court and then also wrote separately to distance himself in a discernible way from at least some broad propositions in the majority's approach. But in well-known cases in this category that do come to mind, lower courts have tended to place controlling weight on the concurring views of a fifth Justice even though he also joined the majority. Maybe the most famous illustration of this is Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer, where Justice Jackson's concurring opinion has held tremendous sway in lower court (and also later Supreme Court) rulings, even though he also joined Justice Black's Opinion of the Court in this 5-4 case. Another significant decision is the 5-4 ruling in United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, where Justice Kennedy joined Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion (giving it a fifth vote), but also wrote separately to express views that were narrower than those expressed in the Chief's writing. And a Third Circuit case, at least (with then-Judge Alito part of the unanimous panel), found that Justice Kennedy's views controlled.

Perhaps the case most similar to Hobby Lobby in this respect is National League of Cities v. Usery. There, as in Hobby Lobby, powerful entities-States rather than corporations-sought exemptions from federal workplace regulations. And, similar to Hobby Lobby, a five-Justice majority opinion (authored in that case by Chief Justice Rehnquist) held that States were immune from the minimum wage regulations at issue there, laying out what on its face seemed like a rather broad principle of state immunity from federal regulation in areas of "integral" or "traditional" government functions. Justice Blackmun joined the majority opinion, but also wrote separately to make clear his narrow understanding of state immunity and what the majority opinion should stand for; in Justice Blackmun's view, state exemptions depended on the application of a balancing test in which federal interests were weighed against state autonomy.

In the wake of National League of Cities, at least some influential lower courts found Justice Blackmun's balancing test to be required by the Court, even though it was not mentioned explicitly in Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion. Indeed, even though there was an Opinion of the Court in National League (because Justice Blackmun did join the Chief's writing, giving it five votes), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia characterized the Chief's opinion as a "plurality" view, and focused instead on how best to read Justice Blackmun's separate writing. And when the Supreme Court itself was called upon to apply National League of Cities five years later in Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining, it observed that National League of Cities stood for some kind of balancing test, citing Blackmun's concurring opinion.

There may be (and probably are) counterexamples, but these high-profile cases, especially National League of Cities, suggest that there is at least a significant likelihood that lower courts will (justifiably) feel controlled by Justice Kennedy's Hobby Lobby writing and thus will parse it to see if his views narrow the scope of Justice Alito's opinion. So I will turn to that parsing in Part Two of this series.

June 9, 2014

Opinion analysis: Another stop at the Chevron station and deference to the BIA

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Focusing on interpreting the text of the notoriously complex Immigration and Nationality Act and the application of generally applicable doctrines of administrative deference, the Roberts Court's immigration decisions have demonstrated an unexceptional approach to immigration law.  The decision in Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio is the latest example.

Due to "per country ceilings" in the U.S. immigration laws limiting the number of visas issued annually to citizens of any single country, some noncitizens experience waits of many years - in some instances, decades - between when they file a visa application and when a visa is actually issued.  To address one problem caused by the delays, Congress in 2002 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act with the Child Status Protection Act (CPSA), which establishes rules for determining whether particular aliens who initially qualified for visas as "children" can obtain visas despite "aging out" - and no longer being children under the immigration laws - as derivative beneficiaries of family members' visa applications..

Natives of El Salvador, Rosalina Cuellar de Osorio and her family waited seven years for immigrant visas that would allow them to join her U.S.-citizen mother in the United States.  The family was notified that they were next in line for visas, but were also informed that the applicant's son, who had turned twenty-one while the application was pending and thus was no longer a "child" for purpose of the immigration laws, was not eligible for a visa and thus could not immigrate lawfully to the United States with the rest of his family.  The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) had interpreted the statute to permit the issuance of the visa to an "aged out" child for some, but not all, of the family visa categories.

An en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the BIA, concluding that the statute unambiguously grants relief to aged-out derivative beneficiaries; because the Board's interpretation conflicts with the language of the statute, it was not entitled to deference.  

Section 1153(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act provides that, "[i]f the age of an alien is determined . . . to be 21 years of age or older . . . , the alien's petition shall automatically be converted to the appropriate category and the alien shall retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition."  The issues presented to the Court in this case were (1) whether Section 1153(h)(3) grants relief to all noncitizens who qualify as "child" derivative beneficiaries when a visa petition is filed but age out of qualification by the time the visa becomes available to the primary beneficiary; and (2) whether the BIA reasonably interpreted the statute.

Justice Kagan announced the judgment of the Court and wrote the plurality opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg joined.  She began the analysis as follows:

Principles of Chevron deference apply when the BIA interprets the immigration laws.  See Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-844 (1984) . . . . Indeed, "judicial deference to the Executive Branch is especially appropriate in the immigration context," where decisions about a complex statutory scheme often implicate foreign relations.

After engaging in an exhaustive analysis of the statutory text, Justice Kagan concluded that it was ambiguous and subject to "internal tension mak[ing] possible alternative reasonable constructions."  She concluded that "[t]his is the kind of case Chevron was built for. . . . Were we to overturn the Board in that circumstance, we would assume as our own the responsible and expert agency's role.  We decline that path, and defer to the Board."

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Scalia, agreed that the BIA's interpretation of the statute was reasonable, but, unlike the plurality, found no conflict or internal tension in it.  In his view, the Board's reasonable interpretation is consistent with the ordinary meaning of the statute.

Finding the BIA's interpretation contrary to the statutory text and thus not entitled to deference, Justice Alito dissented.

Justice Sotomayor also filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer and Thomas (except as to a footnote) joined.  In her view, "because the Court and the BIA ignore obvious ways in which the provision can operate as a coherent whole and instead construe the statute as a self-contradiction that was broken from the moment Congress wrote it, I respectfully dissent."

Scialabba v. Cuellar de Osorio is an example of the bread-and-butter immigration cases being reviewed by the federal courts today.  The BIA is interpreting a complex immigration statute.  The reviewing courts are deciding, under generally applicable rules of administrative law and the standard modes of statutory construction, what amount of deference should be accorded to the agency.  While reasonable minds may differ on the results, the Roberts Court is consistently applying routine legal methods and doctrines to immigration law, which was once well-known for exceptional deference to the executive branch.

June 9, 2014

Three Recently Accepted Cases Shed Light on the Supreme Court’s Process for Granting Review

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

While many analysts this month are understandably focused on the blockbuster rulings that are due from the Supreme Court in June-the back end of the Supreme Court litigation process, if you will-in my column today I introduce and briefly analyze the front end of three cases on which the Court has granted review for the next Term, which begins this fall. Although the three disputes arrive at the Court from different kinds of lower courts and involve quite different kinds of questions on the merits, these cases taken together illustrate some nuances in the extremely important yet widely misunderstood principles that explain how the Court selects the 70-90 cases to review in full from among the thousands and thousands of requests for review each year. Quite often, the Supreme Court grants review because the lower court ruling in question (often from one of the U.S. Courts of Appeals) conflicts with other lower court rulings on precisely the same (and important) legal question, and the Court wants to provide guidance and uniformity. Indeed, one of the first things that incoming Supreme Court law clerks learn when they arrive at the Court is the fine art of differentiating true lower court conflicts from illusory ones. But the cases discussed below serve as helpful reminders that Supreme Court review involves much more than just resolving lower court conflicts.

The Boomerang of Zivotofsky v. Kerry and Respect for Congress

The first case is in the trio is one the Supreme Court has seen before. Zivotofsky v. Kerry involves an effort by Menachem Zivotofsky, a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem to U.S. parents, to have his U.S.-issued passport (and U.S.-issued Consular Report of Birth) indicate his place of birth as "Jerusalem, Israel." For many years, U.S. Presidents and U.S. State Departments (who issue passports and consular records) have scrupulously avoided taking an official position on the contentious question whether Jerusalem is a part of Israel. Executive branch practice concerning the birth of U.S. citizens in Jerusalem follows this policy of neutrality, and consistently has been to record the place of birth of such citizens on U.S. documents simply as "Jerusalem," without mention of any country.

In 2002, Congress passed a law that, among many other things, requires the Secretary of State, upon the request of a citizen or the citizen's legal guardian, to record the place of birth for citizens born in the city of Jerusalem "as Israel." President Bush signed the entire statute into effect, but (as he did from time to time) issued a signing statement to disclaim the legal effect of this particular part of the statute, because (he said) forcing the State Department to record Jerusalem births as being in Israel would impermissibly interfere with the President's constitutional power to formulate and speak on behalf of American foreign policy. The plaintiff in Zivotofsky seeks to force the executive branch to follow the terms of Congress's 2002 statute, notwithstanding the President's signing-statement disclaimer.

A few years back, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the plaintiff's efforts, but not on the ground that the Secretary of State was acting permissibly in declining to follow the statute. Instead, the D.C. Circuit held, the lawsuit presented a "political question" over which federal courts have no power to speak. In other words, the court purported not to be exercising jurisdiction to resolve the lawsuit on the merits at all, saying instead that regardless of who is right and who is wrong under the law, this kind of matter is not susceptible of judicial resolution.

The Supreme Court reversed this decision in 2012, holding that the political question doctrine does not bar review of this case. The key question whether the 2002 statute improperly invades the President's foreign affairs power to decide which countries to recognize-and is thus not a permissible exercise of Congress's power to regulate passports or any other congressional authority-is a legal one, not a political one. The Justices, rather than resolving the merits-which the Court had the power to do-then sent the case back to the D.C. Circuit to decide the merits, by "careful[ly] examin[ing] . . . the textual, structural, and historical evidence put forward by the parties regarding the nature of the statute and of the passport and recognition powers."

That is precisely what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did on remand, after which it concluded that the statute was indeed an impermissible invasion of presidential authority that he enjoys under the Constitution. Although the D.C. Circuit found the text of the Constitution less than clear, it found a strong historical record over the last two hundred years of the President asserting-and Congress seeming to allow-exclusive executive power to recognize foreign nations, which weighed heavily against the validity of the statute. And although the court conceded that Congress does have meaningful power to regulate passports, that power is not exclusively congressional in the way that the recognition power is exclusively presidential. Since the statute might be said to interfere with the President's foreign policy choice to remain neutral as to the legal authority over Jerusalem-indeed, challenging this neutrality policy was the reason Congress passed the provision-the statute conflicted with the President's foreign policy autonomy and thus could not be enforced.

Zivotofsky again sought Supreme Court review at the end of last year, and about a month ago the Justices agreed to hear the case again. Why would the Court choose to grant review on the merits, given that it consciously chose not to reach the merits in 2012? Part of the answer is that the Court in 2012 didn't have the benefit of full-fledged lower court analysis on the merits, and the Court's general practice is not to reach the merits of a dispute (even if it has the power to do so) when the courts below haven't. But that still doesn't quite explain why Zivotofsky is worthy of one of the Court's six- or seven-dozen precious slots for review in 2014-2015. After all, disputes over the validity of the statute are unlikely to recur very often, the D.C. Circuit opinion does not conflict with rulings from any other lower court, and there are no high financial stakes or life-death consequences of the ruling-the factors that most often account for a grant of review. On top of all that, the D.C. Circuit ruling was without a dissent, and appears to be carefully reasoned and likely (at least to many analysts) correct. Why grant, then?

I think the primary reason is that a federal appellate court has struck down a duly enacted congressional statute, and one way the Court shows its respect for Congress (even as it disrespects Congress in other ways) is to grant review in a high percentage of such cases, even when there is no likelihood of a lower court split and even when the ruling below is arguably quite solid. This may be especially true in separation of powers disputes. If the federal judiciary is going to side with the President against Congress, the least it can do is offer its "Supreme" forum to demonstrate it takes seriously Congress's interests and arguments and is not biased in favor of the President. The grant of review in this case may be as simple as that.

Comptroller v. Wynne: An Anomalous but Potentially Infectious Ruling

Comptroller v. Wynne comes to the Court not from a U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit, but from the Maryland state courts. They ruled that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives each taxpaying individual a constitutional right to reduce or eliminate the income tax he owes in his state of residence because of income taxes paid to other states on that same income. The Supreme Court granted review to take up this question a few weeks ago.

To understand why, let us begin by noting that the Supreme Court has already held that "a jurisdiction may tax all the income of its residents, even income earned outside the taxing jurisdiction." The Court reasoned that residents enjoy the privileges and benefits of living in their state of residence, and thus it is permissible to make them pay in that state even if the income was earned elsewhere. The Supreme Court has also held that a state can tax income of non-residents earned within that state. There is thus the possibility for income to be taxed multiple times, once by the state of the taxpayer's residence and again by the state(s) where the income was earned. The Supreme Court has intimated that this seeming unfairness is something states are free to redress by giving tax credits, but that the question is one of legislative grace rather than constitutional right.

In Wynne, the Maryland state courts (along with the taxpayers who were objecting to Maryland's tax) observed that the Supreme Court's consistent rulings upholding state tax regimes in this regard all involve challenges brought under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the Supreme Court has never spoken to whether the Commerce Clause of the Constitution permits multiple states to tax income multiple times in this way. Neither have the state supreme courts from states other than Maryland. For this reason, the ruling below in Wynne may not generate any clear conflict with other high appellate rulings. And yet the Supreme Court granted review. Again, the question is why. Part of the answer may be that the U.S. Solicitor General (SG)-invited by the Court to weigh in-urged the Justices to grant review. And why did the SG think review was warranted in spite of the absence of a clear split in lower court authority? Because the ruling below is most likely incorrect, because it introduces significant instability in at least one state's (Maryland's) tax regime, and because, if left unchecked, it has the potential to encourage a great deal of additional destabilizing litigation in other states. Once more, the absence of a clear lower court conflict does not make a case unworthy of review.

The Alabama Redistricting Disputes-Appeals Rather Than Petitions for Certiorari

The third case (or rather pair of cases) I will mention briefly arise out of the Alabama legislature's redrawing of election district lines throughout the state after the 2010 Census. The cases, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama, raise the question whether the State impermissibly considered race in the drawing of district lines by packing African American voters into districts so that these racial minorities would make up supermajorities in these voting districts. Such supermajorities would enable African American voters to elect candidates of their choice in those districts, but this would also would be the case with mere simple majorities. A second (and possibly intentional) effect of the redistricting is that it would reduce the influence African American voters have in other districts. The lower federal court (a so-called three-judge district court panel that Congress created to hear redistricting cases) upheld Alabama's line-drawing, and the Supreme Court accepted review. The questions raised on the merits under the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act are quite complex and potentially important, but as with Zivotofsky and Wynne,the lower court rulings in the Alabama cases do not conflict with rulings from other lower courts. Why, then, was Supreme Court review indicated? Here the answer is easier, but also more technical. These cases are among the kinds of disputes for which Congress has conferred so-called "appeals" jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, rather than the "certiorari" jurisdiction that accounts for the lion's share of the Court's docket. Unlike certiorari jurisdiction, which is entirely at the Court's discretion, appeals jurisdiction is mandatory. That is, persons who properly bring cases to the Court pursuant to an appeals route rather than via a petition for a writ of certiorari enjoy a "right" to have the Court to take their case and rule on the merits. Appeals cases today comprise a very small percentage of the Court's workload, but they used to be a much bigger component. When appeals are brought to the Court under one of the few remaining appellate access statutes that Congress has not repealed (and challenges to statewide apportionments decided by three-judge District Court panels are among the kinds of cases still to benefit from appeals jurisdiction), the Court must rule on the merits one way or another, and cannot simply deny review and express no view of whether the lower court properly applied the law. So the full briefing and oral argument ordered by the Court in the Alabama cases tells us little about how the Justices might feel on the merits, other than that the cases are difficult enough not to be susceptible to summary affirmance.

All three of these cases illustrate how complicated and multi-faceted the question of getting the Supreme Court to hear your dispute can be.

May 23, 2014

The Equality and Coercion Issues Inadequately Addressed in Town of Greece v. Galloway

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict. Co-authored with Prof. Alan Brownstein.

Earlier this month, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a closely divided (5-4) Supreme Court upheld a practice in Greece, New York (located upstate) of starting town board meetings with a short prayer. Under the practice (which goes back around fifteen years) the Town has invited local clergy to offer an opening prayer after the presentation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Prayer givers deliver their words over the Board's public address system, and many clergy have asked members of the audience to bow their heads, stand, or join in the prayer recitation. Christian clergy have given nearly all the prayers since 1999, and have been invited to do so by the Town, which often calls them "chaplain[s] of the month."

In upholding the Town's actions, the Court rejected both equality-based and liberty-based arguments that had been raised by the plaintiff challengers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had invalidated the Town's policy largely on the basis of equality concerns-because the prayers, in context, had to be understood as a public endorsement of Christianity, which violated the First Amendment's ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion. As we made clear in an earlier column, we agreed with this reasoning, but we also felt that the plaintiffs had good arguments that the prayers at board meetings implicated liberty concerns and were coercive, insofar as nonbelievers or persons of non-Christian faiths might feel compelled to participate (or feign participation) in a town's prayers, lest these minorities risk being viewed by the audience and, importantly, by the town board members themselves, as "outsiders" whose needs and interests might get less respect from local government on that account. For us, the coercion argument was much stronger here than it was in Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 case in which prayers offered at sessions of the Nebraska state legislature that were upheld against an Establishment Clause challenge. Importantly, because persons who attend local government sessions are likely to be participants rather than just spectators, the pressure to conform and participate is significantly higher here than in the state or national legislative arenas. Because of these differences, the decision in Marsh tells us very little about the coercive nature of government-sponsored prayer at city council/town board meetings. In the setting of a city council, citizens who wish to address the council are coerced when they are asked to stand or otherwise affirm the prayer that is being offered in their name. A failure to comply would risk alienating the very political decisionmakers whom they hope to influence.

In the paragraphs below, we offer our reaction to the reasoning employed by the Court in resolving these equality- and liberty-based arguments. Given space constraints, we necessarily focus only on the principal opinion in the case, but we recognize that other Justices expressed significant observations and analyses that we hope at some future point to explore.

Should the Town Practice Have Been Viewed as Discriminatory?

Justice Kennedy's opinion-which announced the judgment of the Court and which was joined in full by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito and in part by Justices Scalia and Thomas-was to us quite surprising and disappointing. As we read and reread it, we feel it does not adequately address and respect the core constitutional values of religious liberty and equality, and often characterizes factual matters in strained ways. The analysis ignores critical legal distinctions or assigns substantive meaning to facts that should not matter. And perhaps most problematically, Justice Kennedy's apparent understandings of social reality do not accord with our sense of human behavior, cultural meaning, and proper institutional functioning. In that respect, our disagreement is not just with Justice Kennedy's interpretation of constitutional law in this case; we see a different real world than the one he describes and to which he applies constitutional principles.

Justice Kennedy begins by characterizing the Town's prayer practice as nondiscriminatory, which explains his conclusion that the policy does not violate constitutional principles of religious equality. But as the Second Circuit found, the Town's policy is glaringly discriminatory. The Town reaches out and calls congregations listed in local directories, and invites them to provide someone to offer a prayer at meetings. True, the Town asserts that it would permit individuals not affiliated with these congregations to offer prayers at meetings if such individuals asked permission to do so, but the Town acknowledges that it takes no affirmative steps to notify anyone in the community that such requests would be granted. Reaching out to some religious adherents in particular, and ignoring others who may not be affiliated with established congregations, hardly seems neutral.

Nor is the equality problem limited to unaffiliated religious persons; other Town residents may be affiliated, but with congregations located outside yet nearby Greece. Justice Kennedy observes that the Constitution does not require a town "to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers," but it is common in modern America (especially outside big urban areas) for religious minorities in one town to worship in a congregation in a neighboring community. To formalistically ignore such persons is to deny them the same respect afforded to the members of established local congregations; the Town is simply not treating all of its denizens equally in this regard.

Justice Kennedy's focus on the latitude the government-invited clergy should enjoy to say what they want without constraint also seems to us to completely miss the unequal respect issue, and also the liberty of conscience problem. He observes that once the government "invites prayer into the public sphere . . . it must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates." But in the Town of Greece, prayer givers generally have not been expressing purely personal prayers. Instead, they have claimed to be leading a prayer made by the audience and the community. When government invites a prayer giver to speak on behalf of others, more than one individual's conscience is at stake, and the consciences of all of the people in whose name the prayer is offered must be given equal respect.

It is far from respectful to say, as Justice Kennedy does -- in response to concerns by audience members that they are being asked to stand and bow their heads and join in prayers -- that the clergy in question are used to "directing their congregations in this way." The key point is that the audience at a town board meeting is not a congregation -- a group of self-selected worshippers who decided to attend the prayer giver's church because they adhere to his beliefs and practices. Instead, audience members are a diverse group of citizens attending the board meeting on government business to address their representatives. They deserve to be treated as citizens, not congregants. Clergy who cannot distinguish between parishioners in the pews and the audience at a government meeting need to be reminded of this difference. The decision to attend a board meeting is not a decision to attend a church.

Justice Kennedy's Treatment of the Coercive Aspects of Town Prayers

Perhaps even more unconvincing and undeveloped is Justice Kennedy's response to the plaintiffs' contention that the prayer practice adopted by the Town of Greece is inherently coercive in nature because attendees will feel pressure to conform and participate in this religious exercise. Here, he argues that a town's practice must be understood in terms of the historical tradition of having legislative prayers, a tradition recognized and upheld in Marsh. But, as even Justice Kennedy curiously concedes, there is almost no evidence in the record establishing a long tradition of state-sponsored prayer at local government meetings. And this lack of tradition makes sense because, as noted above, Marsh is distinguishable insofar as citizens have no right, opportunity, or expectation to participate in state legislative or congressional sessions or to petition their representatives from the visitors' gallery the way they do at the local government level. Since passive spectators at state legislative and congressional sessions are not petitioning government, they could hardly complain that they feel compelled to join in state sponsored prayer out of concern that their petitions would be denied. Active participants at local government meetings, to the contrary, are attempting to influence their representatives and will be subject to pressure to conform to avoid alienating the very decisionmakers they are addressing.

Justice Kennedy offers precious little by way of substantial response to this crucial distinction. And what he does offer is so unrealistic, it is hard to accept that he truly believes these arguments himself. He begins this part of his opinion with the unlikely assertion that "the principal audience for the[] [Town Board] invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves." How can that be his interpretation of the facts? The individual clergy member offering the prayer generally faces the public audience with his or her back to the lawmakers. The clergy member asks the members of the public to stand, bow their heads, and join in prayer. The public -- obviously understanding the prayer as being directed at them -- stands and responds to the prayer giver's requests. The prayer giver often asserts that the prayer is being made on behalf of the audience and the community. Yet in Justice Kennedy's understanding, these prayers are primarily directed to the lawmakers and not to the public.

What's more, Justice Kennedy believes that there is a sharp distinction between the town board members asking the audience to stand and pray, and the invited clergy member who is offering the prayer telling the audience to do so. To us, this distinction has no significant relevance to the key question, namely, whether audience members reasonably feel pressure to join in state-sponsored prayers lest they offend or alienate the town board decisionmakers they will be petitioning a short time later. If a judge, employer or teacher were to invite clergy to offer a prayer in court, on the job, or at school, respectively, and then invited all persons in attendance to pray, the coercive nature of the circumstance would not be significantly mitigated by the fact that the prayer directive came from the invited clergy rather than the judge, employer or teacher.

Justice Kennedy also suggests that the fact that coercion may be intrinsic to these contexts is constitutionally insignificant as long as board members do not explicitly assert that they will take a person's refusal to pray into account in deciding matters before them, and so long as the citizens have no direct proof that board members have discriminated against residents who decline to pray. But basic constitutional law principles recognize that power is subject to abuse, including (perhaps especially) at the hands of petty functionaries. We structure many aspects of our system prophylactically to minimize the opportunities for abuse, particularly First Amendment abuse. Unfortunately, we simply cannot share Justice Kennedy's almost naïve sense that "should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy." For better or worse, in the real world, culture wars, friction between members of different faiths, and acrimony and retribution (whether conscious and unconscious) between religious and non-religious individuals and groups is very real. There is a reason Establishment Clause claims are sometimes brought by John or Jane Doe litigants.

Contested Views Regarding the Religious Nature of Prayer and the Relative Coercion in Different Settings

Most surprising and problematic of all is Justice Kennedy's seeming understanding of the nature of prayer and its meaning to the religious individual. To Justice Kennedy, public prayer at a town board meeting does many things and serves many functions, most of which are largely ceremonial in nature. He never suggests or even really acknowledges that prayer might be something else-that it is a personal, meaningful expression of the individual to G-d. But for many Americans that is precisely what prayer is, and its expression in a public meeting does not alter its fundamental nature. Indeed, the reason so many of the prayers offered before town board meetings in Greece are explicitly sectarian is that the person offering the prayer understands prayer as a meaningful communication to G-d and an expression of heartfelt faith.

Justice Kennedy's dismissal of the impact of these prayers on members of minority faiths or those who are not religious can be reasonably understood only if one accepts a watered-down definition and understanding of prayer. It is only in this sense that he can argue that if religious minorities and nonreligious citizens remain in the meeting room and stand along with everyone else for the prayer, no serious harm is done. He believes that their conduct would not "be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed." But this argument presupposes that these town board prayers do not serve the function of true prayer, and that the people standing and bowing their heads are not engaging in a meaningful religious act. If the majority of individuals participate in these collective prayers as authentic expressions of prayer, of course a nonreligious individual or member of a religious minority engaging in the exact same behavior would necessarily be perceived as engaging in a similarly authentic religious exercise. Why would anyone interpret that individual's conduct differently?

In the past, Justice Kennedy has been more attuned to the real-world position in which non-majority persons find themselves when dealing with religion in the public sphere. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Lee v. Weisman, where the Court struck down state-sponsored prayers at public middle and high school graduations. His sensitivity to context and to the coercive burden on students in that case stands in stark contrast to the ungrounded analysis that permeates his opinion in Town of Greece. Justice Kennedy asserts that the offering of state-sponsored prayer at a middle school or high school graduation is more coercive than the offering of prayers at a town board meeting. But in doing so, once again, his analysis misses the crux of the coercion argument in Town of Greece. Because they have completed their studies, graduating seniors at public school graduations no longer risk the exercise of discretionary authority by teachers and principals who might be offended if students refused to stand during a benediction. They are no longer subject to the control of school authorities. Residents seeking to influence town board members on one or more matters involving their personal needs and interests experience far greater coercion because they are subject to the discretionary decisions of the board that has orchestrated the offering of a prayer in which they publicly refuse to participate.

Nor was the challengers' claims in Lee stronger than those raised in Town of Greece simply because minors were involved in the former case. While it may be true that adults are more capable of standing their ground than are children, pressure is pressure whether or not someone gives in to it. For that reason, the fact that many adults might simply refuse to participate in town prayers and risk the alienation of the board-rather than sacrifice their religious principles-does not make their First Amendment claims any the weaker; coercion is impermissible because it violates the Constitution for the state to force someone to choose between adherence to one's religious beliefs or the risk of harm or loss, without regard to how the victim responds to the illicit pressure.

It seems that the world -- or at least Justice Kennedy's view of it -- has changed since Lee was decided.

May 10, 2014

How the Biggest Supreme Court Victory for Affirmative Action a Decade Ago Contributed to the Defeat for Affirmative Action Last Month in the Schuette Case

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

When the Supreme Court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action upheld the Michigan state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action (known as Proposal 2) a few weeks ago by a 6-2 vote, the overall message that emerged from the decision seemed sensible enough: While the federal Constitution permits states, under certain circumstances, to make limited use of race in allocating government benefits, nothing in the Constitution requires states to do so, and a decision by the people of a state to prohibit all race-based affirmative action preferences is permissible.

The Seattle Line of Cases on Which the Challengers to Proposal 2 Relied, Unsuccessfully

The problem with this straightforward message is that an earlier line of Supreme Court cases, running from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, held that while race-conscious programs may not be required, neither can they be terminated in certain problematic ways. The key decision in this line of authority is the intuitively attractive yet controversial and somewhat confounding 1982 ruling in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1. In order to cure widespread de facto racial segregation in Seattle-area schools, Seattle School District No. 1 adopted a voluntary integration plan that extensively used race-based pupil reassignment and busing to eliminate one-race schools. The Seattle program prompted the people of Washington to enact Initiative 350, a statewide measure that barred local school districts throughout Washington from reassigning or busing for the purpose of racial integration, but continued to permit local districts to reassign or bus for all other educationally valid reasons.

By a 5-4 vote, the Court struck down the plebiscite. The Court declined to rest its holding on a finding of invidious racist intent on the part of the electorate. Instead, the Court invalidated Initiative 350 because the measure singled out racial busing-a program of particular importance to racial minorities-and moved this issue from the control of local decision-making bodies to central management at the statewide level, where minorities were less likely to enjoy democratic success. This selective and unfavorable treatment of public programs that were distinctively beneficial to minorities, the Court said, denied such minorities the equal protection right to "full participation in the political life of the community."

In the Seattle line of cases, the Supreme Court laid out a two-pronged test: First, a challenger must show that the law in question is "racial" or "race-based" in "character," in that it singles out for special treatment issues that are particularly associated with minority interests. Second, the challenger must show that the law imposes an unfair political process burden with regard to these "minority issues" by entrenching their unfavorable resolution. (Mere repeal by the very body that had adopted a policy benefitting minorities would not be problematic.)

The challengers to Proposal 2 in Michigan relied directly on this reasoning. First, they argued, Proposal 2 was racial in character in that it dealt specially with an issue-race-based affirmative action-that is of distinctive interest and benefit to racial minorities. Second, Proposal 2 dealt with this racial issue by entrenching a policy that was unfavorable to minorities at a level of government-the state constitution-where minorities are less likely to succeed than they are at lower levels, such as local government or university administration. The argument was that although Michigan may be free to repeal affirmative action programs, it cannot repeal such programs at a level higher than the one at which they were initially adopted, just as the State of Washington could not repeal racial busing at the statewide level, rather than the local level.

How the Justices Dealt With Seattle

In turning away this challenge, Justices Scalia and Thomas acknowledged that the Seattle case controlled, but concluded that it should be overruled. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor (who dissented in the Court's outcome) likewise thought Seattle governed, but they would preserve and apply Seattle, and would have struck down Proposal 2. (Justice Breyer distinguished Seattle on rather technical grounds, and Justice Kagan did not participate.)

In an important opinion that many view as the pivotal one in the case, Justice Kennedy, joined by two other Justices, concluded that the Seattle case may have been correctly decided, but that it did not govern the Proposal 2 matter. According to Justice Kennedy, Initiative 350 in Seattle was bad because it prevented the Seattle School District from dealing with a racial segregation problem to which the government itself had contributed. As Justice Kennedy put the point: "The Seattle Court, accepting the validity of the school board's busing remedy as a predicate to its analysis of the constitutional question, found that the State's disapproval of the [local] school board's busing remedy was an aggravation of the very racial injury in which the State itself was complicit."

Justice Kennedy disavowed any broader reading of the Seattle ruling, and in particular declined to accept the two-part analytic framework that the Court purported to apply in that case. As Justice Kennedy wrote:

The Seattle Court . . . establish[ed] a new and far-reaching rationale. Seattle stated that where a government policy "inures primarily to the benefit of the minority" and "minorities . . . consider" the policy to be "'in their interest,'" then any state action that "place[s] effective decisionmaking authority over" that policy "at a different level of government" must be reviewed under strict scrutiny. In essence, according to the broad reading of Seattle, any state action with a "racial focus" that makes it "more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups" to "achieve legislation that is in their interest" is subject to strict scrutiny. . . . And that reading must be rejected.

As Justice Scalia pointedly observed, Justice Kennedy's recharacterization of Seattle has serious problems:

[Justice Kennedy's opinion] reinterprets [Seattle] beyond recognition. . . . As for Seattle, what was really going on, according to [Justice Kennedy], was that Initiative 350 had the consequence (if not the purpose) of preserving the harms effected by prior de jure segregation. . . . [T]his describes what our opinion in Seattle might have been, but assuredly not what it was. The opinion assumes throughout that Seattle's schools suffered at most from de facto segregation, . . . that is, segregation not the "product . . . of state action but of private choices," having no "constitutional implications."

(As an aside, I find it somewhat ironic that Justice Scalia criticizes Justice Kennedy's manipulation of precedent here. Although I agree with him that Justice Kennedy does not adequately engage, but rather hollows out, Seattle, the writing that Justice Kennedy's opinion reminds me of most is Justice Scalia's own opinion in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, the 1990 religious freedom case in which Justice Scalia guts but does not forthrightly overrule old free exercise cases.)

The Post-Seattle Cases That Eclipsed Seattle's Essence

So if Justice Kennedy's (re)reading of Seattle is less than convincing, is there a way to justify his bottom line? For me, the best defense of the outcome in Schuette comes not from creative interpretations of Seattle, but from judicial and societal developments that have emerged after Seattle was decided. As Professor Evan Caminker and I have suggested in academic writings, the argument (whether one finds it convincing or not) would be that elimination of affirmative action programs today does not as clearly disadvantage racial minorities as did the Seattle initiative. Modern affirmative action programs are double-edged-Proposal 2 backers would argue-because such programs inflict stigmatic harm on minorities and impose tangible disadvantages on certain minority groups, even as the programs attempt to confer tangible benefits on some minority groups. This argument challenges, as overly simplistic, the notion that the programs terminated by the Proposal 2 "inure[ ] primarily to the benefit of the minority."

This argument would build on more recent Supreme Court cases that assuredly support such an ambivalent characterization of affirmative action programs. Over the past two-plus decades, City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. and its progeny have justified strict scrutiny for purportedly "benign" race-conscious programs in part through renewed emphasis on certain costs that affirmative action programs threaten to impose on minorities (whether uniquely or along with others). According to the Court, such programs threaten to, among other things, embrace and "foster harmful and divisive stereotypes," which might "balkanize us into competing racial factions."

And this is precisely the basis on which Justice Kennedy declines to apply the Seattle framework. He reminds:

In cautioning against "impermissible racial stereotypes," this Court has rejected the assumption that "members of the same racial group-regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community in which they live-think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates at the polls." . . . It cannot be entertained as a serious proposition that all individuals of the same race think alike. Yet that proposition would be a necessary beginning point were the Seattle formulation to control. . . .

Let me be clear: the suggestion that contemporary affirmative action programs do not primarily benefit racial minorities cannot easily be squared with the holding of Seattle (which is why I think Justice Scalia was correct that either Seattle or Proposal 2 had to be rejected). Initiative 350 eradicated voluntary racial busing-a race-conscious affirmative action program that, in its day, was extremely controversial, as both the majority and dissent in the Seattle case recognized. Racial busing imposed both practical and emotional costs on African American schoolchildren, and it generated interracial divisiveness and even hostility. So modern affirmative action is not easily distinguished from the programs involved in Seattle.

But, again, Seattle's judicial attitude in this respect has been eclipsed by more recent cases expressing much more skepticism about race-based affirmative action. The Seattle analysis may simply not survive the more recent cases, and if this is true the Court should have said Seattle is no longer good law, rather than manipulate the 1982 ruling in inventive but unpersuasive ways.

An Unlikely Contributor to Seattle's Demise: Grutter v. Bollinger

No one should be surprised that cases from the last 25 years like Croson (along with Adarand Constructors v. Pena, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, among others)-all of which have made it considerably harder for states to engage in affirmative action-are in considerable tension with, and have effectively undermined, Seattle. What is surprising is that the single biggest judicial victory for affirmative action-the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case in which a 5-4 Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's race-based affirmative action program-also might have (unwittingly) undermined Seattle. Indeed, Seattle's demise may have been baked into the very cake of Grutter's analysis.

To see this, we need shift focus from the alleged costs of affirmative action to its benefits. Justice O'Connor's reasoning upholding the Michigan Law School's affirmative action policy in Grutter-and the larger diversity justification trend of which Grutter is an example-emphasizes the advantages affirmative action creates for non-minorities, and in so doing erodes the idea that affirmative action is especially beneficial for underrepresented groups. As a pair of law professors observed years before Grutter, diversity is an appealing justification that may "enable an educational affirmative action program to pass constitutional muster because democratic and dialogic educational benefits accrue to all students" (emphasis added). And hear the words of Justice O'Connor in Grutter, defending the Michigan Law School plan without regard to whether it helps minorities in particular:

The[] benefits [of diversity] are 'important and laudable, because 'classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting' when the students have 'the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.' . . . The Law School's claim of a compelling interest is further bolstered by its amici, who point to the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity. . . . In addition to the expert studies and reports entered into evidence at trial, numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and "better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals." . . . These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. . . . What is more, high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military assert that, "[b]ased on [their] decades of experience," a "highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps . . . is essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security." . . . [And] [i]n order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.

It is perfectly understandable that a "win-win" rationale for race-based affirmative action (that emphasizes how such programs benefit everyone) would be attractive, in both legislative and judicial arenas. But if affirmative action is styled in these terms only, then the Court could naturally think that the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action-the entire polity-should be empowered to decide whether they think the benefits outweigh the costs. Proposal 2 and measures like it are no longer as easily viewed as majorities cutting off programs that help minorities, since the elimination of affirmative action (on this view) hurts majorities as well.

Lest I be misunderstood, I should be clear that I do embrace the diversity rationale. But I wish it hadn't come about as a substitute for-as opposed to a supplement to-a remedial rationale that highlights the distinctive importance of access for certain minority racial groups. In the Croson ruling from a quarter century ago (involving a preference awarded to minority contractors in Richmond), the Court sent the message that the goal of remedying past discrimination was not one on which government should be able to act easily without detailed findings as to exactly what discrimination occurred, when, and by whom. No one denied that there had been overwhelming, pervasive, and persistent societal discrimination against African Americans in Richmond for generations. Yet the main opinion in Croson said, in dismissing the relevance of this history: "It is sheer speculation how many minority firms there would be [today] absent past societal discrimination." This is true, but to deny government officials the ability to redress past discrimination altogether, simply because the enormity of that task creates uncertainty about whether any proposed remedy is perfectly calibrated to the wrong, creates a perverse situation. The greater the past injustices, the more powerless the government is today to deal with their effects, which are undeniably real and lingering, but inevitably somewhat fuzzy in their particulars.

It is for this reason that the goal of remedying past discrimination has largely been abandoned as a legal justification for affirmative action programs, at least in the higher education setting, the area where debate remains most lively. Instead, diversity of the student body as a pedagogical asset is (understandably) the primary interest that universities assert (as they did in Grutter) to defend race-based programs. Again, I do not disagree with the idea that diversity can be a compelling interest. But I do think that most defenders of affirmative action, were they completely honest, would say that the remedial justification, especially in the case of African Americans, is the most natural, obvious, and compelling reason to maintain race-based programs. And this instinct explains why defenders of affirmative action generally believe that such programs are distinctively helpful to minorities, the very premise of the Seattle ruling that Justice Kennedy thinks cannot be acknowledged by government.

April 25, 2014

What Will the Supreme Court Do in the False Campaign Speech Case, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, Argued This Week?

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In the space below, I offer analysis of a campaign regulation case in which the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The case involves a challenge brought by a pro-life organization, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), against an Ohio statute that imposes criminal liability on persons or organizations that make "a false statement concerning a candidate [for any public office] knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it is false or not, if the statement is designed to promote the election, nomination or defeat of the candidate." The lower appellate court in the case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, held that SBA List did not present a "ripe" controversy concerning the constitutionality of the statute, and thus dismissed the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court will likely focus its ruling on the "ripeness" question as well, but-as I will explain below-questions of standing and ripeness are often tied up in complicated ways with the substantive question of whether a plaintiff has a winning constitutional claim on the merits.

How the Ohio Law Works and the Lower Court's Rejection of SBA List's Challenge

A little background on the way the Ohio statute operates is necessary to understand the issues before the Court. Under the Ohio law, if someone-anyone-complains that somebody has made a false statement within the meaning of the statute during an election campaign, a panel of the Ohio Elections Commission (an independent agency charged with implementing the State's campaign regulations) must make a prompt, preliminary determination of whether there is "probable cause" (i.e., some reasonable possibility but not necessarily a 50+% likelihood) to think that a statutory violation has occurred. If no probable cause is found, the Commission takes no further action. But if a panel concludes that probable cause exists, the case is referred to the full Commission, which then is charged with determining whether "clear and convincing" evidence supports the conclusion that a violation has in fact occurred. If it so finds, the Commission refers the case to the state prosecutors, who then have ordinary prosecutorial discretion (possibly overseen by the State Attorney General) to initiate a prosecution or not. If a prosecution is brought and a conviction (presumably requiring proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt) is obtained, a penalty (in the form of a fine or jail time) is imposed.

In the 2010 election cycle, SBA List sought to put up a billboard criticizing then-Congressman Steven Driehaus, who was running for reelection. The billboard read: "Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion." Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Commission, and a panel of the Commission found probable cause to suspect a violation of the statute and thus referred the Complaint to the full Commission. SBA List then filed suit in federal court challenging the Ohio scheme. After Driehaus lost the election, he withdrew his Commission complaint, so the full Commission never assessed the billboard message, and nothing involving this incident was ever referred to a prosecutor. But SBA List continued to press its federal lawsuit, asserting that it intended to engage in substantially similar conduct in the future and that Driehaus may run for Congress again. Driehaus then moved to Africa to work for the Peace Corps, and has not indicated any present intention to run for office again anytime soon.

Based on this record, the Sixth Circuit ruled that SBA List no longer has a ripe claim against the Ohio statute, for two reasons. First, there is insufficient reason to think that anyone will complain about SBA List under the statute in the future. As the Sixth Circuit put it, "SBA List does not say that it plans to lie or recklessly disregard the veracity of speech. Instead, it alleges the very opposite, insisting that the statement it made and plans to repeat-that [Obamacare] allows for taxpayer-funded abortions-is facially true." Because SBA List plans to speak only the truth, reasoned the Sixth Circuit, it hasn't shown that it is particularly likely to get ensnared by a statute regulating falsity.

Second, even if the Ohio statute is likely to be invoked against SBA List again, no criminal prosecution-let alone conviction-is sufficiently likely to ensue. Given all the steps that must precede conviction, it is simply too speculative to think that SBA List is in any real danger of having criminal sanctions imposed upon it.

What Will the Supreme Court Do?

While it is likely we cannot know the outcome of this case for a few months, a few observations are in order even now. Most important, the Supreme Court will probably reverse the Sixth Circuit. I say this in part because the Sixth Circuit's reasoning is open to serious question, and more so because the Court decided to grant review in the first place. The Sixth Circuit's opinion is unpublished, which means it can do no mischief in other lower court cases, yet still the Court granted review. To me that suggests a strong desire (by at least four Justices-the number needed to grant review) to correct error by the Sixth Circuit.

Why do I find the Sixth Circuit's reasoning troubling? Let us take the Sixth Circuit's first point, that SBA List is unlikely to be burdened by the Ohio law because SBA List disclaims any intent to lie. As Chief Justice Roberts sarcastically observed at oral argument: "[S]urely you don't expect them to come in and say, 'I'm going to say something totally false and I'm afraid I might be prosecuted for that." To put the Chief Justice's point more generally, a person challenging a statute for unconstitutionally restricting his speech should be able to do so provided he professes a specific intent to engage in speech that is reasonably likely to trigger punishment, regardless of whether punishment is actually warranted under (one interpretation of) the terms of the statute.

The second rationale of the Sixth Circuit-that criminal sanction is a remote possibility because of the number of steps involved-is on firmer ground, and is actually supported by the reasoning of recent ripeness cases by the Court such as Clapper v. Amnesty International USA (although I acknowledge that the 5-4 ruling in Clapper itself is in some tension with other cases, where the fact that there are multiple steps in a causal chain leading to enforcement is found not to be an insurmountable barrier to federal judicial review). But in any event, this "remote possibility of actual prosecution" argument it is undercut significantly by SBA List's assertion in its briefs that a probable cause determination by a panel of the Commission, all by itself, inflicts injury, whether or not any criminal prosecution is later brought. By making the probable cause finding, the government causes SBA List to suffer reputational injury, and harms the campaign that SBA List may be waging in favor of or against particular candidates. Because, SBA List argues, a probable cause determination was found with respect to the Driehaus billboard, it will also likely be found with respect to "substantially similar" speech that SBA List intends to utter. This kind of injury is cognizable and may indeed be ripe (as the Court seemed to suggest in Meese v. Keane), but as I will explain later, it raises its own complexities.

What Should the Court Do?

I suggested above that I expect the Court to reverse the Sixth Circuit. But is that the right result? Perhaps not. Though the Sixth Circuit's reasoning was flawed, its result may nonetheless have been correct. Even assuming that a probable cause determination by a panel of the Commission can cause injury that may be redressed in a federal lawsuit, there remains the question of precisely what speech SBA List plans to utter that might trigger such a determination. As the lawyer for Ohio pointed out at oral argument, the only forward-looking contention in SBA List's complaint is its statement that "it plans to engage in substantially similar activity in the future, but they don't identify any other candidates" whom they intend to criticize. If this is true, the vagueness of this statement should be a problem for SBA List. In past cases, the Supreme Court has said a generally stated intention to engage in some activity, without more details about the when, where, and how, can create ripeness problems. So, when a scientist who wanted to challenge under-enforcement of the Endangered Species Act contended that he desired to study a species that might be threatened by the under-enforcement, without indicating precisely where, when, and how he planned to conduct the study, standing/ripeness was denied (in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife). And when a leafletter who was punished for distributing anonymous leaflets criticizing a Congressman sued to enjoin future enforcement of the law because he intended in subsequent elections to distribute in the same place "similar anonymous leaflets" even though the particular Congressman who was the target of the prior leaflet had since left Congress for a judicial post, the Court said (in Golden v. Zwickler) there was not a ripe controversy because the likelihood of a future conflict between the leafletter and the statute was too uncertain.

To me, the facts of these cases-and the plaintiffs' vague statements of future intentions-sound somewhat like SBA List's assertions regarding "substantially similar" speech in which it plans to engage. What, precisely, does "substantially similar" mean, especially in a setting where SBA List in 2010 did not criticize all Congresspersons who voted for Obamacare in 2010, but rather (as Ohio's lawyer pointed out in oral argument) only a small subset of them-Democrats who first opposed but then voted for the healthcare law? Since Mr. Driehaus himself is not running again anytime soon, it remains to be identified against whom SBA List plans to speak out.

I found it interesting that the Justices didn't seem to focus on these points when the Ohio lawyer mentioned them. The liberal Justices generally don't agree with high standing and ripeness hurdles, so they can be expected to be open to SBA List's arguments. But the conservative Justices-who in other cases do set the standing/ripeness bar pretty high-should have been interested in this line of argument advanced by Ohio's counsel. Maybe when the opinion issues they will embrace this route, or maybe they will find ripeness because they are so troubled by the Ohio law and want to permit the federal courts to adjudicate its merits.

A Few Observations on the Merits

Let us turn, then, to the merits, although any remotely complete discussion of the First Amendment claims here will require one or more additional columns. For starters, it is somewhat troubling to me that a panel of the Commission found probable cause to think a billboard stating that Congressman Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortions was false. Incomplete, no doubt. Misleading, perhaps. But factually false? Even granting that executive regulations under Obamacare (and the Hyde Amendment law that may or may not apply to the Affordable Care Act) limit taxpayer-funded abortions to those involving rape, incest, or life of the mother, it's hard to say the law (for which Driehaus voted) does not, technically, involve some (albeit very limited) taxpayer-funded abortion procedures. And the concept of criminal falsity, to have any chance of surviving a First Amendment challenge in an election contest, will have to be assessed technically.

I should conclude by linking the ripeness and First Amendment merits questions. It may be that SBA List's best argument for ripeness focuses on the injury caused not by (somewhat speculative) prosecution, but by the specter of a probable cause determination, as discussed above. But if this is so, then-when the case is remanded to the Sixth Circuit-arguably the only ripe question is whether the probable cause aspect of Ohio's law (rather than the imposition of criminal sanctions themselves) violates the Constitution. And although an argument on the merits can be made that a state Commission's power to make a probable cause finding in a campaign-speech setting is itself problematic under the First Amendment, that seems a somewhat tougher argument than one challenging the imposition of criminal liability (because if the government is not imposing fines or jail terms, but only uttering its own view that someone's speech is or may be false, the government can claim to be more of a speaker itself). In other words, if the relevant injury is not the (real) threat of criminal liability, but the reputational harm caused by a government's (preliminary) characterization of possible falsehood, then the First Amendment challenge is itself harder to maintain. I will likely explore more of these merits questions in later columns.