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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.

April 11, 2014

The Narrow (and Proper) Way for the Court to Rule in Hobby Lobby’s Favor

Blog entry cross-posted from Justia’s Verdict. Co-authored with Professor Alan Brownstein.

The Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores case argued before the Supreme Court last week raises the question whether the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores is entitled, under the Constitution or the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to be exempt from the requirement in Obamacare that employers who provide health insurance to their employees include in the insurance policy certain forms of contraceptives, the use of which for some persons (including the owners of Hobby Lobby) is forbidden by religious principles. Many commentators, ourselves included, predict that Hobby Lobby will win the case, and be found to be exempt from the Obamacare requirements by virtue of RFRA.

Yet at the oral argument, many Justices, especially Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor but also Chief Justice Roberts, pressed Hobby Lobby’s lawyer, Paul Clement, on just how far his religious-exemption argument might extend. Right out of the gate, Justice Sotomayor asked him about religiously-inspired objections to vaccines and blood transfusions. Moving beyond healthcare mandates to other federal regulations of employers, Justice Kagan asked, a few moments later: “So another employer comes in and that employer says, ‘I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws’; and then another employer comes in, ‘I have an objection to minimum wage laws;’ and then another, child labor laws. And [under] all of that [the federal government can win only if it satisfies] the exact same test [for RFRA you describe today,] which you say is this unbelievably high test?

If, as we expect, Hobby Lobby prevails, it will be very important for the preservation of other important legal principles and public policies that the Court not rule in Hobby Lobby’s favor on too broad a basis. In the space below, then, we try to identify how an opinion in Hobby Lobby’s favor should—and should not—be crafted.

Do Corporate Entities Enjoy Protection Under the RFRA?

Let us turn first to one key question under RFRA—whether its protections extend beyond natural persons to corporate entities like Hobby Lobby (a closely held for-profit “S” Corporation owned by the Green family.) We think RFRA can be found to apply, but that the Court should make clear that RFRA is designed to protect religious freedom of conscience and that a corporation itself does not have a conscience in the same sense that human beings have a conscience.

Some commentators argue that just as the Supreme Court held that corporations are persons for freedom of speech purposes in the Citizens United case, corporations must be considered persons in free exercise or RFRA cases as well. We think that analogy is mistaken, and that grounding a decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on this analogy would be unnecessarily expansive. Freedom of speech in the context of political expenditures by corporations is an instrumental right. We protect it because of its utility for democratic decisionmaking. In Citizens United, the Court held that corporations are persons for free speech purposes for explicitly instrumental reasons—because corporations can present voices or perspectives that should be part of the marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of religion and conscience are dignitary rights. Our society protects them not because doing so serves some instrumental goal, but because accepting and living one’s life based on religious beliefs, or deciding not to live a religious life, is part of what it means to be human. Government must respect the right of human beings to make self-defining decisions and to live their lives authentically in light of those choices.

Corporations have no such dignitary rights. They do not love. They do not feel guilt or shame. They have no conscience. They will not stand before G-d to answer for their sins after they die, because they are not human. They are artificial entities that exist in perpetuity. We are inclined to agree with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of California (a compelled speech case), where he wrote: “Extension of the individual freedom of conscience decisions to business corporations strains the rationale of those cases beyond the breaking point. To ascribe to such artificial entities an ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality.” Bluntly, if we are talking about corporations in a formal sense, corporations do not have religious liberty rights.

However, in many cases corporations can be viewed as the representative of or—as our UCLA colleague Eugene Volokh has suggested—a “proxy” for individual persons and groups. Whatever protection society provides to the corporate form is intended to recognize and protect the dignity not of the entity but, of the entity’s owners or managers. An incorporated church or a religious non-profit organization satisfies this criterion. A closely-held corporation like Hobby Lobby that is not publicly traded, and that is owned by a small number of actual individuals, does so as well.

Thus, the Court could hold that RFRA protects the conscience of the owners of Hobby Lobby notwithstanding their decision to do business in a corporate form. But it should make it clear that no such argument justifies protecting the conscience of publicly-traded corporations such as General Motors or Exxon. While Justice Roberts intimated that closely-held corporations could be distinguished from publicly-traded corporations, and that the protection provided to the latter by RFRA need not be decided in this case, a more prudent and limited opinion, and one that reflects the proper understanding of dignitary rights, could resolve this question in definitive terms once and for all.

The Strict Scrutiny Test, and (the Very Limited) Relevance of Statutory Exemptions in Assessing the Weight of the Government Interest

The most important issues that the Court will have to navigate in drafting a narrow opinion relate to the standard of review imposed by RFRA. To satisfy RFRA, the government must justify its regulations under strict scrutiny; that is, the government must demonstrate that its regulations are the least restrictive way to further a compelling governmental interest. Hobby Lobby wins its case if the government fails on either prong of this rigorous standard of review.

It is important in this case to examine each of these prongs separately. Several arguments presented to the Court attempt to establish that the government lacks a compelling interest to require the cost-free provision of medical contraceptives to employees who are provided health insurance. We think these arguments are wrong on the merits, in part because they are extremely broad and expansive in their implications. If the Court concludes that the government lacks a compelling interest in Hobby Lobby, many religious claimants might successfully challenge a very wide range of laws under RFRA.

In response to the somewhat obvious intuition that women need access to contraceptives for important birth-control and health reasons, and the fact that often the safest and most effective contraception is also among the most expensive, Hobby Lobby argues that Obamacare’s preventive medicine regulations are so underinclusive that the government interests can’t be compelling. The fact that businesses that employ fewer than 50 full-time employees are not required to offer any health plan to their employees, and the fact that many current health plans that do not include cost-free preventive medicine coverage are “grandfathered in” under Obamacare so that they continue to operate without change are said to demonstrate that the government itself does not treat the public health interest it is asserting as if it were a particularly important concern.

We think Solicitor General Verrilli effectively challenged this contention during oral argument. The fact that a law is underinclusive often has little bearing on whether the government’s goal that it furthers is compelling. Important civil rights laws, such as Title VII (which prohibits race discrimination by employers), often exclude small businesses from their coverage. Indeed, most laws have more exceptions to them, or limitations to their applicability, than their basic purposes might suggest. It is common for government to serve very important interests while moving forward in a piecemeal fashion to accommodate other non-trivial interests, particularly when it is breaking new regulatory ground. And new legislative programs serving compelling interests, such as the American with Disabilities Act, may be phased in to their operation without the phase-in suggesting that the interest being served is unimportant. It is hard to argue that the government lacks a compelling public health interest in making preventive medical services more available because—in the herculean task of transforming the provision of health care in the United States—it has grandfathered in some existing plans to protect important reliance interests and to facilitate a smoother transition to the new health care system. Most problematically, if the Court holds that the government lacks a compelling state interest in Hobby Lobby, all laws with exclusions, exemptions, limitations in applicability or phase-in periods would be vulnerable to similar RFRA challenges.

Narrow Tailoring—and A Plausible Narrow Way Out in the Hobby Lobby Dispute

The second prong of the RFRA standard—which asks whether the preventive medicine regulations are the least restrictive means to accomplish the government’s compelling state interest—provides a much narrower foundation for ruling in Hobby Lobby’s favor. Here, one arguably less restrictive means by which the government could achieve its goals that seemed to generate support from several Justices at oral argument was for the government to exempt employers asserting religious objections from the regulations, while arranging for the employees of such exempt employers to receive medical contraceptive insurance coverage from an alternative source—with either the insurance company providing the coverage or the government itself incurring the cost of these benefits. Indeed, the government already grants an accommodation to religious non-profits (recall that Hobby Lobby is for-profit), and requires health care insurers to provide the disputed coverage to the employees of the accommodated non-profit employers at the insurer’s own cost. A similar accommodation could be extended to closely held for-profit employers who object to the regulations on religious grounds.

It is important to note here that this alternative would be unavailable in most cases where a for-profit business seeks a religious exemption from a general regulation; the preventive medicine insurance coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act is an unusual regulatory scheme in important respects. The benefits provided by the Act—generally available and affordable health insurance—are fungible, intangible goods that can be provided by either the public or private sector. And the Act’s beneficiaries have no reason to care about the source of the insurance.

This is not your ordinary workplace regulation. Both the goal and the operational design of the Affordable Care Act are directed toward providing affordable health insurance to all Americans, whether they are in a workplace or not. Employers are used simply as a convenient instrument to distribute healthcare to many Americans—but that is incidental to the ultimate purpose of the legislation. Indeed, for many Obamacare backers, providing these benefits through the healthcare plans of private employers was the second-best alternative. A government health insurance (“single payer”) program was thought by some to be the most desirable and efficient way of guaranteeing affordable health insurance in our society.

In other circumstances, including many mentioned by the Justices at oral argument, if the government has to bear the cost of providing religious accommodations to employers, the price tag might be prohibitively high. Or any meaningful accommodation might involve interventions that are unacceptably complex and individualized. Or, as Paul Clement pointed out, in some cases—such as RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination—the unavoidable harm caused by granting an accommodation would simply be too great. But none of those problems would arise if the government provided supplemental insurance coverage (or required health plan insurers to do so) to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations like Hobby Lobby. Indeed, if the government provided the insurance coverage, it could limit its costs in doing so by requiring any accommodated business (e.g., Hobby Lobby) to contribute whatever funds it saved by not providing the contraceptive coverage to some other public good identified by the government that would be consistent with the employer’s faith, and on which the government would otherwise be spending the public’s money. (Exempt employers would be required to offer alternative contributions to satisfy their civic obligations, in much the same way that a religious pacifist exempted from conscription as a conscientious objector would be required to perform alternative service as a condition to receiving an accommodation.)

A decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on these “least restrictive alternative” grounds would not be completely sui generis. It would apply to some other cases. But it would be the narrowest basis for a holding in Hobby Lobby’s favor. At a minimum, it would guarantee that the Court’s decision would provide no direct support to RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws.

Would Granting Hobby Lobby an Accommodation Violate the Establishment Clause?

There is one final issue about the scope of any opinion the Court will issue that has to do with a constitutional question concerning the scope of RFRA. Several commentators and amici have argued that it will violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the Court rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor. They argue that the Establishment Clause imposes a cap or limit on religious accommodations. An accommodation violates the Establishment Clause if it goes too far and imposes too heavy a burden on third parties or the general public. Such a violation will occur if Hobby Lobby is exempt from the medical contraceptive regulations, the argument runs, because Hobby Lobby’s employees will not receive valuable public health benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled. Religious exercise cannot be privileged by accommodations if doing so imposes such a heavy cost on third parties.

One expansive rejoinder to this argument challenges the contention that the employees of an exempt employer will be harmed by the accommodation. The employees had no “right” to these benefits, after all. The government was not obligated to mandate the provision of no-cost health insurance for preventive medicine to these employees or anyone else. Indeed, the benefits are available only because of the very law to which Hobby Lobby claims to be exempt. The government isn’t harming or taking something away from employees if it (through the enactment of RFRA) decides not to provide as many benefits as it might, in order to protect religious liberty.

We think this rejoinder is overly broad and mistaken on the merits. An analogy to an early religious freedom ruling by the Court might help make the point. In some ways, the Establishment Clause argument here is the flip side of the Free Exercise claim upheld in Sherbert v. Verner, the seminal case in which the Court held that the state violated the free exercise rights of a Seventh-day Adventist when it denied her unemployment compensation because she refused jobs that required her to work on the Sabbath. In that case, as in the Affordable Care Act setting, the government was under no obligation to provide unemployment benefits to anyone, and therefore might be thought to have been free to deny benefits to persons who refused appropriate job offers. The fact that the state created the benefit scheme through an act of political discretion made no difference to the Court’s free exercise analysis in Sherbert, however, and we think it should make no difference to the application of the Establishment Clause in Hobby Lobby.

As a general matter, we believe that the loss of generally available benefits to which one would otherwise be entitled is a cognizable harm for both Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause purposes. Thus, denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled, in order to accommodate some other person’s religious practice, is a cognizable harm for Establishment Clause purposes. And denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled if she obeyed the dictates of her faith is a harm for Free Exercise purposes.

There is, as should be clear from our earlier analysis, a narrower ground for rejecting the argument that a judicial finding in Hobby Lobby’s favor will violate the Establishment Cause. If the Court finds in favor of Hobby Lobby, it will basically hold that if the government wants to provide medical contraceptive insurance coverage for the employees of religious employers, it will have to choose some way to do that other than by substantially burdening the employer’s religious liberty. The Court may then conclude that this holding, standing alone, does not violate the Establishment Clause because the government still retains alternative ways to accomplish its goals without burdening either the religious exercise of objecting companies or third parties. The government, as we suggested, could pick up the cost of the insurance coverage itself, and provide coverage to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations directly, or it could assign that obligation to health plan insurers—as it has done with the accommodations for religious non-profits. (And again, if it wanted to, the government could seek—and then redistribute—money from the exempt for-profit companies who are saving dollars by not offering the coverage.) This rejoinder to the Establishment Clause concern might not be available in many cases, but it is available in Hobby Lobby, and therefore should be invoked as a basis for narrowly deciding this case.

 

February 28, 2014

Consistency in the Treatment of Religious Liberty Claims: Hobby Lobby and Town of Greece Viewed Side by Side

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

In the space below, we offer some unconventional thoughts about the highly-anticipated Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. cases that will be argued in the Supreme Court next month, and that involve challenges under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers must provide contraceptive services in their healthcare policies offered to employees. In particular, we try to lay the Hobby Lobby disputes alongside the other big case this Term that raises religious liberty issues, Town of Greece v. Galloway. That case was argued last Fall but hasn't yet been decided, and involves the permissibility of state-sponsored prayers before town board meetings. (Town of Greece involves important religious equality issues, as well as religious liberty concerns, but we limit our discussion in this column to plaintiffs' religious liberty claims.) By comparing the two settings and the way advocates in each of them have framed their religious liberty arguments, we hope to identify more common ground than has previously been acknowledged in these religious skirmishes at the Court. At the same time, we try to convince readers and other commentators that with regard to certain issues, in all fairness their approaches to the two disputes should be more consistent. (One of us has previously expressed this perspective in other fora.)

The "Liberal" and "Conservative" Take on the Two Lawsuits

Although few analysts have been looking at the two lawsuits together, the two cases have much in common. Neither dispute is particularly easy to resolve, in part, we believe, because both controversies raise serious religious liberty issues. As a matter of law and social reality, the plaintiffs in both lawsuits assert serious religious liberty claims that deserve our attention, empathy, and respect. Indeed, we think that important parallels between the two settings suggest that some of the main arguments raised against the religious liberty claims in each case would apply with roughly equal force in the other case as well.

We start by noting that the gist of the commentary among church-state scholars, including many colleagues we greatly admire and respect, seems sharply split and polarized on these cases. Generally speaking (and obviously there are exceptions to our claim here), liberal commentators see a significant religious liberty issue in Town of Greece, but are dubious about, if not dismissive of, the plaintiffs' claims in the Hobby Lobby set of cases. Conversely, conservative commentators tend to see a significant religious liberty issue in Hobby Lobby, but are dubious about, if not dismissive of, the plaintiffs' claims in Town of Greece. Perhaps we are wrong to see parallels between these two cases, but we worry that political and cultural polarization is making it harder for everyone to appreciate the similarly legitimate concerns of claimants who, from one perspective or the other, are on the wrong side of the culture-war dividing line. And the protection of religious liberty is itself undermined if we choose to protect it only when nothing that we value personally is at stake.

Liberals (again, as a general matter) place special value on gender equity, and see universal access to medical contraceptives as an important public health and women's rights concern. For them, protecting religious liberty in a situation that creates even small risks to women's health and equality is a hard sell. Conservatives, by contrast, attach important value to government-sponsored religious activities, such as state-sponsored prayers during public events. If protecting religious liberty requires placing some limits on such religious activities, conservatives will experience the price of religious freedom in this context as being particularly costly.

But (and this is really our big suggestion) if we expect other people to bear what they experience as real and significant costs in order to protect religious liberty, then we have to be prepared to demonstrate that we are willing to accept costs to interests that we ourselves value as well. In Town of Greece, liberals seem willing to protect religious liberty when something they do not value, public prayer, may be burdened, but are disinclined to protect religious liberty in Hobby Lobby. And conservatives are willing to protect the religious liberty of Hobby Lobby, but assign little, if any, weight to the religious liberty interests of the Town of Greece claimants.

The Dismissive Attitude of Opponents to the Religious Claimants in Each Case 

Indeed, in each case opponents of the plaintiffs/religious claimants seem incredulous, wondering what the religious adherent can possibly be complaining about. In Hobby Lobby, the suggestion seems to be that there is no reason to think that the plaintiffs' rights are burdened there at all. If a large corporation is engaged in commerce, it is subject to hundreds of regulations regarding working conditions, hiring, salaries, health plans and retirement plans. The benefit plans it provides to its employees may cover thousands of health and retirement topics. Being in commerce and employing hundreds or thousands of people means that a lot of things out of your control are going to happen. That is the way the world is, and how it has to be. In Town of Greece, the argument is made against the claimant there that town board meetings necessarily involve exposure to a lot of disagreeable expression from both board members and the public. If you attend such a meeting, you will have to sit through a lot of speech that you find objectionable. That's the way the system works. Learn to live with it.

But when we ask "What can they possibly be complaining about?" in religion cases, we must remember that a meaningful commitment to religious liberty means that burdens relating to religion must be treated specially; they must be evaluated differently than other costs or consequences. A business regulation requiring a business to engage in conduct that the owner or manager's religion prohibits requires a different analysis than the analysis that would apply to other regulatory burdens that owners and managers dislike. Similarly, having to sit through a state-sponsored prayer is different than having to sit through a politically- or ideologically- annoying discussion of fiscal or other policy issues. What is key here is that if religious liberty claims deserve attention in either of these contexts, regardless of the way things generally work, then religious liberty claims deserve respect in both situations.

The Inconsistency in the Treatment of Risk-Based Arguments

Consider some more focused and sophisticated arguments against the plaintiffs in each case. Some liberal commentators argue that an employer objecting on religious grounds to insurance coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act may simply decline to continue to offer a health insurance plan to its employees. To be sure, the employer will have to pay a penalty for doing so, but that payment will probably be far less than the savings it incurs by ending employee health care benefits. It may be that there are other costs (say, in recruiting and retaining employees) associated with discontinuing employee health insurance coverage, but it is unclear whether, and in what circumstances, those costs would constitute a substantial economic burden on businesses declining to offer health plans to their employees. Because the economic consequences of declining to offer health plans is indeterminate, and may in fact be modest or negligible, courts should not consider claimants like Hobby Lobby to be subject to a substantial burden on their religious liberty.

It is easy to understand, however, why an employer would legitimately worry that terminating the existing health plans it offers its employees might have significant negative consequences on its bottom line. Most employees would not look kindly on having their existing health plans terminated and being told to purchase insurance through exchanges developed under the Affordable Care Act. So rejecting the notion that employers are burdened here would in effect reject the idea that a risk of adverse consequences constitutes a cognizable burden on religious liberty. No one knows for sure what will happen if the employer protects its religious liberty interests by terminating the health care plans for its employees, but the risk and reason for concern are there. The employer's worry can hardly be characterized as mere speculation.

Conservatives see that in Hobby Lobby, but seem to ignore similar concerns raised by the claimants in Town of Greece. Plaintiffs there also identify a significant risk-based burden on their religious liberty: They worry that the town board members whom they will be petitioning for support or assistance when the business part of the town board meeting is conducted will be alienated by the claimants' refusal to stand, bow their heads, or otherwise participate in the state-sponsored prayers that open the board meeting. Of course, no one knows whether or not board members will be alienated by or annoyed at audience members who choose not to participate in the prayer, or whether or not those board members will allow their feelings about claimants' not participating in the offered prayer, or publicly disassociating themselves from it, to influence the way the board members hear and decide the matters on which the claimants offer public comment. But here again, the risk and reasons for concern are present.

We believe that a significant risk of adverse consequences, that is, a reasonable ground for worrying about adverse consequences, should be understood to impose a legally-cognizable burden on protected interests. Certainly, the chilling effect arising from the risk of being exposed to penalties from overbroad laws is recognized as constitutionally-significant for freedom of speech purposes. But in Hobby Lobby, liberals seem unwilling to accept that indeterminate burdens on the religious liberty of employers deserve recognition, and in Town of Greece, conservatives seem unwilling to accept that indeterminate burdens on the religious liberty of individual non-adherents should be recognized, and steps taken to alleviate them. We think that the question of whether the risk of adverse consequences should be recognized as substantial burdens on religious liberty should be answered the same way in both cases.

Inconsistency in the Treatment of Attenuation and Misattribution Arguments

A separate criticism of plaintiffs' claims in the two cases focuses on arguments about attenuation, perception and attribution. In cases like Hobby Lobby (and perhaps more so in the related cases brought by religious non-profits), claimants are concerned that they will be complicit in sinful behavior. In addition, religious nonprofits in particular are concerned that they will be misperceived as supporting or acquiescing in sinful behavior, or that support for such behavior may be attributed to them. These concerns transcend material subsidy and emphasize the expressive dimension of being associated with unacceptable conduct. These concerns for us bring to mind the Catholic idea of "scandal." Liberals dismiss such claims based on complicity as being too attenuated. Concerns about misattribution are also deemed insignificant since they can be so easily remedied by the religious nonprofit's publicly distancing itself from religiously objectional behavior by proclaiming its opposition to the conduct at issue.

A similar problem with misperception-indeed, we suggest an arguably more powerful example of it- also arises in the Town of Greece litigation. Commonly, the prayer giver at the Town of Greece board meetings offered what may be called a "we" prayer rather than an "I" prayer. The member of the clergy who is offering the prayer purports to be speaking to G-d in the name of the whole audience and the community. Sitting silently by, and certainly standing or bowing one's head, while someone claims to be praying in your name creates the perception that you acquiesce or support his doing so. We consider this to be just as clear a misperception burden as the concern of religious individuals and institutions that they will be perceived as supporting the use of medical contraceptives or abortion-inducing pills when such services are covered by the health care plans they provide to their employees. Accordingly, in our judgment, if either misperception argument deserves to be taken seriously, then the misperception arguments in both cases deserve to be taken seriously.

Yet here, again, liberal commentators who sympathize with the misperception concerns of claimants in Town of Greece seem less concerned with the misperception concerns of claimants in the contraceptive mandate cases. The problem is even more acute for conservatives who recognize misperception and misattribution as a problem in the contraceptive mandate cases, but seem unconcerned about the claimants in Town of Greece. In the contraceptive- mandate cases, there is no risk of a penalty or adverse consequence if employers very publicly condemn the mandate and express their lack of support for the use of medical contraceptives. Misattribution can be somewhat mitigated by their public rejection of the government's requirements. In Town of Greece, however, by publicly disassociating themselves from the state-sponsored prayers (either prior to, or in the wake of, the board meeting) dissenters risk alienating the very decisionmakers on the board to whom they are directing their petitions. The risk of adverse consequences is thus increased by their attempts to avoid misperception and misattribution.

We recognize, of course, that Town of Greece is a constitutional law case and that the contraceptive mandate litigation involves statutes and public policy for the most part. Thus, one might plausibly argue that town-board prayers are constitutional, while also believing that, as a public policy matter, they are a bad idea, or at least should be carefully structured in ways to minimize their coercive impact. But we don't hear conservatives making this argument; they seem to ignore the burden on religious liberty both for constitutional and policy purposes.

There may be other powerful arguments that could be mustered to support our suggestion that people who take religious liberty seriously should be respectful of plaintiffs' claims in both Town of Greece and Hobby Lobby and related contraceptive-mandate cases (and, conversely, that people who reject religious liberty should do so in both cases). But our key point is that we have to work hard at not seeing religious liberty issues through the red and blue prism of contemporary culture wars. Most importantly, we should be careful not to allow our sympathies for interests that are aligned against particular claims for religious liberty to prevent us from acknowledging and empathizing with plaintiffs whose concerns warrant our respect. Recognizing the reality of the religious liberty concerns asserted by claimants in Town of Greece and Hobby Lobby (and related cases) does not mean that we must agree with the remedy sought in either case. But it does reflect a willingness to take such claims seriously, even when we are uncomfortable in doing so.

February 14, 2014

The Ninth Circuit, in SmithKline v. Abbott Labs, Bars Lawyers From Removing Gay/Lesbian Jurors: Part Two in a Two-Part Series

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

In Part One of this series, we began to analyze the recent decision from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories. The three-judge panel there held that, in light of the Supreme Court's decision last summer in United States v. Windsor (invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA), all government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is subject to "heightened scrutiny" under the Equal Protection Clause and that, accordingly, it violates the Constitution for lawyers to use peremptory challenges to strike would-be jurors on account of the juror's sexual orientation. (For background on the Abbott case and the general topic of peremptory challenges, readers may want to consult Part One.) In particular, we discussed whether the Ninth Circuit was right to read Windsor to have signaled a decision by the Supreme Court that intermediate level scrutiny governed DOMA, and that intermediate level scrutiny should also govern all other sexual-orientation-based discrimination.

The Abbott decision is already influencing litigation involving discrimination against gays and lesbians far beyond the issue of jury selection. Earlier this week, for example, as a result of the Abbott court's reasoning and holding, the Governor and Attorney General of Nevada announced that they would no longer defend the state's ban on same-sex marriages in federal court because the arguments supporting the ban were "no longer defensible." In the space below, however, we limit our analysis to the implications of Abbott for peremptory challenges generally and sexual-orientation-based peremptory challenges in particular.

Do Peremptory Challenges Threaten to "Exclude Entire Classes of Individuals?"

As one of us has noted in earlier writings, including a column posted here, courts have been reluctant to expand the list of juror attributes on which peremptories may not be exercised in part because of a concern over slippery slopes. If peremptories cannot be used on the basis of race, and gender and (now) sexual orientation, then what about disability, age, or alienage, etc.? While Judge Reinhardt's Ninth Circuit opinion in Abbott never really addresses this question directly, he implicitly suggests that limiting prohibitions on peremptories to only those groups that benefit from "heightened scrutiny" will arrest the slippery slope. In this regard, he analogizes to and quotes heavily from the cases the Court has handed down prohibiting race- and gender-based peremptories. He says, for example, drawing on the gender-based peremptory case, J.E.B. v. Alabama ex. rel. T.B., that "striking potential jurors on the basis of their gender harms 'the litigants, the community and the individual jurors' because it reinforces stereotypes and creates an appearance that the judicial system condones the exclusion of an entire class of individuals."

From one perspective, this kind of analysis is overblown particularly in cases like J.E.B. Peremptory challenges, even if used aggressively on the basis of gender, don't necessarily threaten to remove "an entire class of individuals" from juries, because both sides of a case get the same number of peremptories. If one side is removing women (as in J.E.B.), perhaps there is reason to believe the other side would be attempting to remove men. If these opposing uses of peremptories are equally effective, then there may be no reason to believe there would be fewer women on any particular jury, let alone across all juries.

The Special Case of Numerical Minorities, and Minorities Without a Natural Majority Counterpart

There are forceful responses to this suggestion, however, that may support Justice Reinhardt even though he doesn't really address this issue (or the nitty gritty of applying heightened scrutiny at all, for that matter.) First, the neutralizing effect of the opposing use of gender-based peremptories arises, if at all, only because men and women are roughly equal in number in most jurisdictions and (somewhat less so) in the draw of the would-be jurors and replacement jurors for any particular jury. But this neutralizing or offsetting effect is not present where the bases on which peremptories are exercised involve (numerical) minority and majority groups.

A simple numerical example may help drive the point home. Suppose a jurisdiction had a demographic makeup of 75% whites and 25% racial minorities. And suppose that the initial draw of twelve would-be jurors exactly mirrors these percentages-that is, nine whites and three non-white minorities are drawn. Suppose further that each side is given three peremptory strikes, and that each side uses its peremptories to aggressively remove people based on their white or minority race, respectively. So one side (perhaps the side of a Title VII minority plaintiff) uses its three strikes to remove three white would-be jurors, and the other side uses its three strikes to remove the three people of color who were initially drawn for the jury.

So now we are left with six whites, six slots to fill, and no peremptory challenges. Those six empty slots are then filled, and again, if we are assuming a draw that reflects the demographics of the larger pool, on average only 1.5 (or 25% of six) minority jurors would be selected, and 4.5 whites (75% of six) would join the group. The overall makeup of the jury after all is said and done would be 10.5 whites and 1.5 minority folks-half the number of minority persons who were initially drawn before each side was allowed to engage in a racial peremptory war. Because this scenario could repeat itself across many or most juries, allowing each side to use race to strike prospective jurors could very likely diminish minority jury participation writ large. This systemic effect is what makes the race-based peremptory-challenge cases easy to defend for those of us who care about inclusion and fair representation of the community on juries.

And what is true for race is also true for sexual orientation, insofar as gays and lesbians are, like persons of color, numerical minorities. Indeed, peremptory challenges, if allowed on the basis of sexual orientation, may be particularly likely to reduce participation of gays and lesbians on juries, writ large, because unlike race and gender, in the sexual orientation setting, it is less natural to think about "opposing" uses of peremptories. In the racial setting, if one side excludes blacks, the other may find it advantageous to remove whites. And the same is true for removing women and men. But even if one side tries to remove one or two would-be jurors because they are gay, the other side is less likely to think to remove other jurors because they are straight.

The problem here is that equal protection doctrine both legally and intuitively doesn't always operate with the kind of symmetry that the Court has developed in race and gender discrimination cases. In race and gender cases, the Court justified its application of heightened scrutiny initially by examining past discrimination against the class of racial minorities and women. Over time, however, the Court shifted its attention in these cases away from a suspect class and toward a suspect classification. The Court's focus was no longer on whether a law disadvantaged racial minorities or women, but rather on whether the challenged law employed a racial or gender classification.

But this shift from suspect class to suspect classification seems more counterintuitive when other equal protection cases are considered. Thus we think more about discrimination against aliens than we do citizenship classifications, more about discrimination against non-marital children than marital children classifications, and more about discrimination against gays and lesbians than sexual orientation classifications. Accordingly, it would hardly be surprising to discover that lawyers might not engage in any affirmative effort to identify and remove straights from a jury, generally speaking, the way they might identify and strike men, women, blacks, whites, and gays. So if sexual-orientation peremptories are permitted, then Judge Reinhardt's concern about the exclusion of an entire group must be taken seriously.

Implementing Abbott's equal protection ban on sexual-orientation-based peremptories might not be easy in practice, however. As Kathryne Young and others point out, unlike a person's race and sex, sexual orientation isn't obvious to an outside observer, so policing sexual orientation-based discrimination may raise distinctive problems. It is often difficult enough to prove that an attorney who is striking African-Americans or women is doing so because of their race or gender when the racial or gender identity of the stricken jurors is apparent. Objections to peremptory strikes based on sexual orientation may also involve placing some would-be jurors in the uncomfortable position of having to affirm or deny their membership in an LGBT group. The Ninth Circuit began to discuss these problems, but the implementation of this new rule will require more care and attention as it is applied in practice, which is often the case after cutting-edge constitutional decisions are rendered.

The Link Connecting Jury Service and Voting

Besides practical concerns, there is a more fundamental, theoretical objection to the constitutional doctrine developed by the Supreme Court and the lower courts in this area of law. That is whether the Equal Protection Clause is the appropriate prism through which to view the problem of juror exclusion in the first place. A different set of constitutional provisions, the provisions dealing with voting and other political rights, may provide a better foundation for helping courts to decide how skeptical to be about peremptory challenges. Jury service has traditionally been tied, and analogized, to voting, and this linkage makes sense: jurors, like individuals casting ballots for members of Congress or the President, exercise their power by voting for particular results; jurors implement policy when they decide cases, just as voters help shape policy by electing representatives or adopting initiatives. Indeed, until the later Twentieth Century, voting and jury service were considered "political rights" governed not so much by the Fourteenth Amendment, but more directly by the voting rights amendments, including the Fifteenth (which prohibits race discrimination in voting); the Nineteenth (which prohibits gender discrimination in voting); the Twenty-Fourth (which in effect prohibits wealth discrimination in voting), and the Twenty-Sixth (which prohibits age discrimination in voting.)

If we take the juror-as-voter analogy seriously, then removing people from juries becomes more problematic, because certainly we would not allow governmental actors (at least not since the Supreme Court decided important voting rights cases dating back to the 1960s) to prevent any would-be voter from participating in any particular election unless there were to be a compelling justification for doing so. This may partly explain why some Justices (most notably Justice Breyer) have, over the last few decades, been unmoved by the prospect of a slippery slope regarding peremptories, because these Justices think that the Court should reconsider whether any peremptory challenges can be constitutionally exercised.

But for those who are not yet ready to dispense with all peremptories, toeholds on the slippery slope are needed. One such toehold is hinted at in the analysis above-at the very least, the groups that receive textual protection in the Constitution from discrimination in voting (groups defined by race, gender, wealth and age in the voting rights amendments) should also be protected from discrimination in jury service. So far, the Supreme Court has embraced protection for the first three kinds of groups. Prospective jurors identified by race or gender are protected under explicit equal protection holdings, and jurors identified to some extent by economic class or status have been protected more ambiguously pursuant to the Court's general supervisory powers over the federal courts, The Court has not yet ruled on whether the fourth group, defined by age, should receive comparable protection.

On this analysis, peremptories that are used to exclude gay or lesbian persons wouldn't seem to implicate the voting rights amendments (unless we shoehorned sexual orientation discrimination into sex discrimination-an analysis with persuasive force in some circumstances, but not others.) But the political-rights paradigm (as distinguished from the equal protection framework) does help to explain why one group that is protected by equal protection doctrine from state-level discrimination-aliens-have no right to avoid exclusion from juries. Indeed, through most of modern American history, non-citizens have been ineligible to serve on juries (just as they have been ineligible to vote.) California has recently considered legislation that would allow non-citizens to serve on juries (and there would be no constitutional problem with such experimentation), but it is unlikely that courts will protect their access.

From this perspective, Judge Reinhardt's reasoning correctly recognizes that while the application of heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause to laws disadvantaging a particular class is certainly relevant to the review of peremptory challenges directed at class members, it cannot be a sufficient ground for holding that these challenges are unconstitutional. The alienage cases demonstrate that a class protected by heightened scrutiny review may still be excluded from jury service. Ultimately, it is necessary to return to our earlier points about what it is, exactly, that seems so problematic about certain kinds of peremptory challenges. Peremtory challenges directed at LGBT persons are problematic because they run a particularly high risk of eliminating a distinct set of voices from juries writ large. That is the kind of harm that requires a constitutional remedy.

Will the Supreme Court Review Abbott?

It is possible that the Ninth Circuit as a whole, en banc, will decide to review the three-judge panel's decision in Abbott. What about the Supreme Court? Shortly after Abbott came down, the thoughtful New York Times legal analyst Adam Liptak suggested there might be a split between Abbott and a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which opined that sexual orientation is not an invalid basis for peremptories, and that such a split may be of interest to the Supreme Court. We think the Court is unlikely to exercise its discretion to review Abbott for several reasons. For starters, there really is no split with the Eighth Circuit. The language in the Eighth Circuit case suggesting that sexual orientation is a permissible basis for peremptories was dicta, since the court in that case found that the lawyer did not base the peremptory in question on sexual orientation in the first place. Moreover, the Eighth Circuit case predates Windsor, so there is no split on the precise question Judge Reinhardt's opinion answered-whether Windsor fundamentally changed the constitutional standard of review regarding discrimination against gays and lesbians. . The Eighth Circuit hasn't weighed in on that question yet, so we don't know if the two circuits really disagree.

But even if another Circuit were to disagree with Abbott in the near future, we still would not expect the Supreme Court to grant review. The Court decided Windsor inscrutably (and dodged the merits altogether in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California Proposition 8 case) because the Court wasn't ready yet to resolve the basic same-sex marriage question, let alone whether all sexual-orientation discrimination is problematic. Taking review in Abbott would require the Court to resolve the very kinds of questions it has been trying to avoid. Last year, the Justices, as a group, seemed to want to buy some time to allow political deliberation to move forward on gay rights issues, and one year is simply not long enough for that to happen. Even though things have changed a great deal of late (with many more states embracing same-sex marriage), the times are still changing. Until the landscape begins to settle down, we would not expect the Court to reenter the picture if it can avoid doing so.

December 11, 2013

Argument recap: Another immigration case? Another argument about statutory interpretation and agency deference

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Yesterday, the Court heard oral arguments in Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osorio, a case raising a technical issue of statutory construction of the complex U.S. immigration laws.

The specific question presented by the case is whether a provision of the Immigration & Nationality Act, as amended by the Child Status Protection Act (2002), allows children of all family immigrant visa applicants (or only for some family immigrant visas) who turn twenty-one ("age out") while waiting for a visa, to be issued a visa with their parent when the visas are issued.  8 U.S.C. § 1153(h)(3) provides that, for an "aged out" child, "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 Board of Immigration Appeals has interpreted the statute to cover only certain, rather than all, family immigrant visas.

Assistant to the Solicitor General Elaine Goldenberg argued the case for the United States.  Mark Fleming of WilmerHale argued the case on behalf of the respondents,

Much of the Justices' questioning of both advocates focused on the precise meaning of the statutory language, especially the phrase "automatically . . . converted."  There also was some back and forth about the propriety of deference to the relevant Board of Immigration Appeals ruling, Matter of Wang (2009).

Taking the podium first, Goldenberg was quickly interrupted with a question from Justice Ginsburg about the harsh impact on the "aged out" child under the government's interpretation.  Justice Alito also seemed to have similar concerns.  Later in the argument, Goldenberg admitted that "Congress's overarching concern" was with "administrative delays" but failed to fully articulate how the respondents' broader interpretation failed to fulfill that purpose better than the government's rather wooden one.

Testing the government's claim that the respondents' interpretation would substantially disrupt the statutory visa scheme, Justice Breyer pressed for an estimate of the number of aged out children who may benefit from that interpretation.  Goldenberg ultimately was forced to admit that the government "can't quantify exactly how many [people], but we have reason to think that the number is quite large."  As a last resort, Goldenberg stated that the Court had recognized that "deference is particularly appropriate in immigration contexts."

Fleming began his argument by dismissing the government's claim that the statute is ambiguous.  He further emphasized that the Court should exercise "a modicum of common sense" in deciding whether Congress would have delegated the question before the Court to the agency.

To better understand the operation of the statute, Justice (and former law professor) Breyer offered a hypothetical using his name (but Steven with a "v"), his brother's (Charles), and his nephew.  This moment added a bit of levity to the proceedings.

In questioning Fleming, Justice Kagan suggested that the statute was ambiguous and that deference to a reasonable interpretation of the government might be justified.  Fleming argued that, in that circumstance, the government's position was not rational.

The government's rebuttal returned to the same ground generally covered in the arguments.  Interestingly, Chief Justice John Roberts, who intervened little in the argument, during rebuttal appeared to be dubious of the government's interpretation of the statute.

As the oral arguments in the Affordable Care Act case made clear, it is at best hazardous to predict how the Supreme Court will rule from oral arguments alone.  While the government seems to be facing an uphill battle in this case, one never knows for sure.  Nonetheless, it does seem clear that the Court, in deciding the case, will apply traditional tools of statutory construction and agency deference.  This would be entirely consistent with the rather unexceptional nature of the Court's immigration jurisprudence in recent years.