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May 26, 2015

The Significance of the Supreme Court’s Williams-Yulee Decision Upholding Florida’s Regulation of Judicial Elections

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

A few weeks ago the Supreme Court handed down an important yet under-noticed case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, in which a 5-4 majority upheld a Florida law that forbids candidates running in contested elections for judicial office from personally soliciting campaign contributions, even though the state permits such candidates to raise money through surrogates (campaign committees) and also allows candidates to find out who contributed to their campaigns. In the space below, I identify four key takeaways from this "sleeper" ruling by the Court, a ruling that affords important insights about constitutional doctrine and also about the membership of the Roberts Court.

1. The Speech Clause Juggernaut May Be Losing Steam

The (unsuccessful) challenge to the Florida law was brought under the First Amendment; the defendant in Williams-Yulee argued that Florida's ban on personal solicitation was a regulation that singled out certain speech-a personal request for money-because of its content, in violation of free speech principles. The Court acknowledged that the Florida law was a content-based regulation of political speech (and, as explained in more detail below, thus purported to apply "strict scrutiny" to the matter), but nonetheless upheld the law because of the important countervailing interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.

In holding that public perceptions of integrity should carry the day, the Williams-Yulee ruling stands in contrast to the great majority of free speech cases decided by the Court over the last generation. Since the early 1990s, the overwhelming majority of plausible free speech claims (and the defendant's claim in Williams-Yulee was certainly plausible) that have reached the Court have prevailed, and expressive autonomy has regularly trumped competing constitutional and societal values. Over the last quarter-century, the Court has invoked the Speech Clause to invalidate federal, state, or local laws and regulations in well over fifty cases, averaging close to three cases each year, a substantial number given the Court's small yearly docket of between seventy and eighty cases for most of that period.

But a quantitative inquiry tells only part of the story. It is particularly noteworthy that First Amendment claims grounded in expressive autonomy rights have not just been winning, but have been winning against-and requiring significant sacrifices of-other values that traditionally have enjoyed high esteem in our legal, social, and constitutional traditions, including the efficient functioning of labor unions, the protection of military honor and military families, antidiscrimination laws and norms, election and campaign finance regulation intended to make elections more free and fair, parental control over the upbringing of their children, and consumer protections, among others.

Whether Williams-Yulee represents simply one exception to this great tide of free speech victories, or instead should be viewed as part of the beginning of a more balanced approach to free speech cases remains to be seen. There are at least two (and maybe more) other interesting and difficult free speech decisions yet to be decided this Term. The first is a case that considers the extent to which the First Amendment protects against prosecution individuals who utter words that cause objectively reasonable people to feel fear (Elonis v. U.S.), and the second is a case about how readily a State can discriminate among messages on personalized automobile license plates (Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans). It is possible that the free speech claimants in both of those cases (who assert plausible, if to my mind flawed, free speech arguments) will also lose. If that happens, commentators will begin to wonder whether the free speech juggernaut is indeed beginning to slow.

2. "Strict Scrutiny" Is in the Eye of the Applier

As I noted above, the Court in Williams-Yulee applied strict scrutiny-which requires the government to prove that the law in question is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest-to the Florida election regulation. But, as Justice Scalia remarked in dissent, "[although the Court] purports to reach [its] destination by applying strict scrutiny, . . . it would be more accurate to say that it does so by applying the appearance of strict scrutiny." In particular, the Court seemed quite tolerant of underinclusiveness in Florida's scheme, whereas significant underinclusiveness usually prevents a statutory scheme from being considered "narrowly tailored" in the way that strict scrutiny dictates.

For example, the defendant pointed out that Florida permits candidates to write personal thank-you notes to donors (guaranteeing that the candidates will know who the donors are) and also allows campaign committees to act explicitly on behalf of candidates in directly soliciting donations. If personal solicitations by candidates undermine "public confidence in judicial integrity," why do not these other practices create the same harm? The Court acknowledged that Florida does allow activities that might create some suspicion over whether judges are beholden to or favor donors, but concluded that "narrowly tailored" does not mean "perfectly tailored," and that the "First Amendment does not put a State to [an] all-or-nothing choice." For the Williams-Yulee majority, it was sufficient that Florida has targeted the "conduct most likely to undermine public confidence[,]" and that personal solicitations are "categorically different" from solicitations by campaign committees. The Court did not go to great lengths to explain this "categorical" difference, other than to say that while committee and personal solicitations may be "similar . . . in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public."

Importantly, though, the Court did not cite to, or seem to insist upon, any proof by the State that these two types of solicitations were viewed differently by the public. Indeed, when the Court said that a State "may conclude," it was using language most often associated with deferential review-where benefits-of-the-doubt about the real-world state of affairs are given to the government-not the language of truly strict scrutiny, in which the government must establish not just that its views are plausible, but that its views are grounded in actual fact.

3. Stare Decisis Is Often Not Very Powerful at the Court

The seemingly generous implementation of strict scrutiny brings up another important facet of Williams-Yulee-its tension with the most relevant Supreme Court case in the realm of judicial election regulation. There is, as one of the Williams-Yulee opinions put it, "only [one] prior case concerning speech restrictions on a candidate for judicial office"-the 2002 case of Republican Party of Minnesota v. White. And in that case the Court (in striking down Minnesota's judicial election regulation) applied a stricter version of strict scrutiny.

In White five Justices used the First Amendment to strike down a Minnesota law that prohibited candidates for judicial office from speaking out on controversial issues of the day. The law at issue prohibited a candidate for elected judicial office from "announc[ing] his or her views on disputed legal or political issues." The prohibition went beyond candidate "promises" and forbade, for example, a candidate from criticizing a past court decision and indicating a willingness to consider a different result in similar cases down the road.

Minnesota argued that it needed to regulate candidate speech to ensure that the public believes that judges are sufficiently open-minded about important matters that might come before them, an interest very similar to Florida's goal of "preserving public confidence in judicial integrity." But Justice Scalia's opinion for the majority in White rejected this justification for Minnesota's law because the scheme was woefully underinclusive, insofar as judicial candidates were not prohibited from voicing their views prior to the time they became declared candidates. The Court rejected the argument, made by dissenting Justices, that "statements made in an election campaign pose a special threat to open-mindedness because the candidate, when elected judge, will have a particular reluctance to contradict them." The Court said that the idea that judges feel particularly constrained by statements they make qua candidates is "not self-evidently true[,]" and thus cannot carry the day given the "burden [on the government] imposed by our strict scrutiny test to establish th[e] proposition that campaign statements are uniquely destructive of open-mindedness [or the appearance of open-mindedness]."

The tension between White and Williams-Yulee is clear. In the former, the State lost because it did not prove that campaign statements were "uniquely" destructive of the appearance of open-mindedness, but in the latter the State prevailed because it was allowed to "conclude" (without any proof) that personal solicitations "present markedly different" appearances to the public as compared to committee solicitations. Why Minnesota had to prove "unique" destruction of confidence whereas Florida could simply reasonably surmise "markedly different" problems of public perception is left unexplained.

Let me be clear here that I think the overall approach of Williams-Yulee is largely correct and that the analysis of the White majority was largely misguided. As I have written in law review articles and elsewhere, while the First Amendment protects one's right to speak about the bench, there is no right to to sit on it, and the Tenth Amendment gives states broad powers to regulate the process by which people become judges. The key point is not merely that judges are not supposed to be politicians; it is that throughout American history, we have often selected judges (but not legislators or chief executive officers) without the use of contested elections. And in these non-election processes, what would-be judges have said and done is held against them by government decisionmakers. Just as the president and the Senate certainly, and permissibly, may refuse to make someone a federal judge because of what that person has said, even though such refusals are undeniably "content-based" and indeed "viewpoint-based," and thus might, in other contexts, run afoul of basic First Amendment principles, a state should be generally available to deny judicial office to candidates who speak in ways that contradict certain judicial decorum norms set by the state. (There is the separate question, implicated in both White and Williams-Yulee, of whether the sanction for violating campaign rules can extend beyond mere disqualification for judicial office, which is a topic I save for another day.)

But my point here is not that Williams-Yulee's result is wrong-only that its application of strict scrutiny is not very authentic and that its leniency contradicts the approach in White.

4. Chief Justice Roberts Is no Clone of Chief Justice Rehnquist

How do we explain the tension between White and Williams-Yulee? The answer seems to rest largely on changes to the Court's personnel. White was a 5-4 case, with the majority consisting of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. The dissenters were Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.

In Williams-Yulee, the remaining White dissenters (Ginsburg and Breyer) are (predictably) in the majority, and the remaining members of the White majority (Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas) are (predictably) in the dissent. Between White and Williams-Yulee, Justice Alito replaced Justice O'Connor, and voted the same way as we would have expected her to vote, and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor replaced Justices Stevens and Souter, and voted the same way as we would have expected them to vote. So far, so good-an even swap.

But Chief Justice Roberts, who replaced Chief Justice Rehnquist, did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor here. So what was a 5-4 majority in favor of the First Amendment claimant in White became in Williams-Yulee a 5-4 majority in favor of the State. Chief Justice Roberts apparently has a different view of judicial elections (and the extent to which First Amendment protections for election-related speech apply to them) than his mentor and former boss. Whether there is a broader divergence between Chief Justice Roberts and his predecessor in First Amendment cases is a question that might be worthy of more attention now that the Roberts Court is finishing its first decade.

April 10, 2015

Some “Teachable” First Amendment Moments in the Supreme Court’s Oral Argument About Confederate Flags on Texas License Plates

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

In today's column, I analyze the Supreme Court oral argument held a few weeks ago in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, a case involving the First Amendment and Texas's regulation of license plates. Motor vehicles registered in the State of Texas must display a state-sanctioned license plate. Most vehicles use a standard-issue Texas plate that has a simple no-frills design and displays a random series of letters and numbers. Texas, like many other states, also permits individuals to submit personalized, or vanity, plates in which the numbers and letters on the plate form a message (such as "HOTSTUFF," a hypothetical example Justice Scalia used at oral argument).

In addition, Texas permits what are called "specialty" license plates, in which the overall design of the plate (but not the sequence of numbers and letters), is custom-made and might contain symbols, colors and other visual matter that is more elaborate than the relatively plain design of the standard-issue plates. Specialty designs may be adopted by the Texas legislature or proposed by private individuals or organizations. Specialty plate designs that come from outside the legislature must be approved (as must personalized vanity plates) by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board, and the Board by law "may refuse to create a new specialty license plate if the design might be offensive to any member of the public" (a term that Texas authorities construe as meaning offensive to a significant segment of the public.) At least some specialized designs, once approved, can be used by members of the general public. As of a month ago, there were about 450 specialty designs that had been approved in Texas, around 250 of which are usable by the public. Although the majority of license plates in Texas are the plain-vanilla non-specialty plates, it is not uncommon on the Texas roadways to see license plates that make use of one of the approved specialty designs.

Applicants who seek approval of specialized plate designs must pay thousands of dollars to have their designs considered, and people who use the already approved designs pay for the privilege, the proceeds going to various state agencies.

The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the memory and reputation of Confederate soldiers. SCV applied for a specialty license plate that featured the SCV logo, "which is a Confederate battle flag framed on all four sides by the words 'Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.'"

When this design was rejected by the Motor Vehicles Board (one of only a dozen or so designs that have been rejected), SCV sued, arguing (successfully in the lower court) that the State's decision to reject the design on the ground that the content of the design-in particular, the depiction of the Confederate flag-might be offensive to some observers constituted impermissible content- or viewpoint-based regulation of expressive activity insofar as the specialty license plate, while State property, is akin to a forum for speech that the government has created and opened up to people to use to express themselves. Texas, for its part, argues that because the State owns all license plates, and because the State of Texas name appears on all plates, including specialty plates, any expression on license plates constitutes "government speech" or at the very least a hybrid of government speech and private speech. Because the government is a (if not the) speaker in this setting, Texas argues, it necessarily has the authority to accept and reject whichever messages it chooses.

The case raises many fascinating and complex constitutional issues-far too many to meaningfully address in a single column. But in the space below, I use three particular kinds of questions that Justices asked at oral argument to illuminate important and often misunderstood aspects of First Amendment doctrine.

Less Can Be More (Important) Under the First Amendment

Let us first consider Justice Kennedy's questioning of the SCV lawyer. One of the things Justice Kennedy pointed out is that if Texas is not permitted to exclude Confederate flags (or Swastikas, or other potentially objectionable material) from license plates, it will almost certainly choose to abandon the specialty (and also the vanity) license plate design program altogether, and simply use old-fashioned, plain vanilla license plates. The result, said Justice Kennedy, is that we would end up with less, rather than more, speech, because individual expression that is currently taking place on specialty or vanity plates would no longer be permitted, and people would be forced to resort to things like bumper stickers, which they may not like or make use of as much as specialty plates. "If you prevail," Justice Kennedy asked SCV's lawyer, "you are going to prevent a lot of Texans from conveying a message. . . . So in a way, your argument curtails speech?"

Justice Kennedy's question is actually a profound but rarely explored one, in that the First Amendment's aversion to content- and viewpoint-based laws may indeed sometimes lead government to enact content-neutral counterpart laws that, quantitatively speaking, restrict far more speech. For example, a law that says "no pro-life rallies in the park after 6pm" is clearly unconstitutional, because it regulates speech on a matter of public concern in a traditional public forum in a viewpoint-based way. But if such a law is replaced with a law (that very well might be upheld) that simply prohibits all rallies in the park after 6pm-a so-called content-neutral regulation of time, place or manner-the result could be an even greater overall reduction in speech.

Of course, it is possible that by forcing government to regulate in a content-neutral way, we may actually make it harder for government to regulate speech at all, so that the end result could actually be an increase in the aggregate level of speech. In the example I gave above, perhaps it would politically difficult to pass a law prohibiting all rallies in the park after 6pm (because many kinds of groups may want to hold rallies, and overcoming the political opposition of all of these groups-as opposed to the merely the pro-life advocates-may not be feasible). If that is true, then striking down the law prohibiting pro-life rallies after 6pm will, in fact, increase rather than reduce the amount of speech.

But oftentimes (as in the SCV case) striking down a law on First Amendment grounds may in fact lead to less speech, but it still can be the right constitutional thing to do. The fact that sometimes we invalidate laws in ways that will create less speech overall tells us that maximizing the aggregate quantum of private speech is not the only thing the First Amendment is concerned with. Preventing the government from distorting the debate, by disabling some points of view, or by locking in majoritarian preferences (as is often the case when "offensive" speech is disfavored) is also an important objective. So too is making individuals feel that government respects them and does not act paternalistically and treat them the way parents treat children by telling them what topics they should be focusing on.

What's Good for the Goose. . . .

A second line of questioning of SCV's lawyer, this time by Justice Sotomayor, concerned whether the State should be given the same kind of free speech respect as individuals enjoy. Justice Sotomayor pointed out that that in the Court's most famous license-plate case to date, Wooley v. Maynard, the majority struck down a requirement that New Hampshire drivers make use of a state-issued license plate bearing the State's message "Live Free or Die." Justice Sotomayor then asked: "In Wooley we said we can't compel the individual[s] to put something on their plates that they disagree with . . . Why isn't the reverse true for the government [if it doesn't want to be associated with the Confederate flag]?"

Justice Sotomayor's symmetry instinct (which assumed arguendo that the Texas specialty license plate regime represents at least a hybrid of government and private speech) is very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, to me at least. There are lots of constitutional rules that protect individuals that do not protect government in a symmetrical way. For example, a criminal defendant is entitled to have access to all exculpatory evidence in the government's possession, but the government is not entitled to all incriminating evidence in the defendant's possession, even though both sides are trying equally hard to prove their case.

I think there is asymmetry here as well. Even though the government can operate as a speaker, it is not a specific beneficiary of the First Amendment, and certainly shouldn't enjoy all the same First Amendment protections individuals (like the individuals who litigated in Wooley) do. Ultimately, the reasons the drivers in Wooley could not be forced to bear the State's message were rooted in individual dignity and autonomy aspects of the First Amendment. Institutional and organizational actors, as opposed to individuals, can be forced to be a vehicle for government messages and are relegated to engaging in counter-speech as a way of distancing themselves from any government message they don't like. This was true in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), a case last decade that upheld (9-0) a federal law that required law schools to allow military recruiters onto campus facilities to recruit students, notwithstanding the law schools' opposition to the then-existing policy of the military to discriminate against gays and lesbians ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). Like law schools, the State of Texas does not have the same kind of dignity and autonomy attributes that individual motorists have, and so (even granting that Texas has the authority to act as a speaker) requiring Texas to live with the private message on specialty plates and disclaim any endorsement of the message or design on a specialty plate by adding something like "Views on this license plate do not reflect the views of the State" does not violate the Constitution the same way requiring individuals to promulgate such disclaimers would.

The Relevance (or Not?) of a Profit Motive

A third interesting exchange involved the overridingly important question of whether the specialty plates can properly be thought of as pure (or at least hybrid) government speech at all. The State's lawyer argued that the fact that the government has retained the right to veto all specialty designs from the get-go makes this a government speech case, but that factor standing alone surely cannot be dispositive. If a public airport withheld for itself the power to ban any leaflets whose message it found unattractive, that would not justify its excluding leaflets in favor of affirmative action while permitting leaflets against it. Control is, as many Justices pointed out, a circular kind of argument about government power. Deciding what is and is not government speech is much more complicated than that.

One potential factor was mentioned by Chief Justice Roberts a few times, and that is the profit motive by the State. Why, he asked, should we view these specialty plates as government expression at all when government's real goal here was not to raise awareness (about anything) but to raise money? This, too, is an interesting instinct. As with Justice Sotomayor's question, if we analogize to private individual speech, the government fares better; the fact that a private individual or corporation is motivated by a desire to make a profit does not make his/its expression any less constitutionally valuable: the New York Times newspaper represents classic First Amendment speech even though it is published in order to make money.

But as was true for Justice Sotomayor's symmetry argument, here too I am not sure we should treat the government the same as individuals. It does seem a bit untoward that the State would raise revenue by charging people thousands of dollars for the privilege of submitting license plate designs, and then reject those whose content it doesn't like. The idea that the State was (mis)using the specialty-design applicants, and the moneys they paid, for its own monetary gain was one of the most sympathetic aspects of the SCV's case, which was otherwise not very sympathetic given that the Confederate flag has historically been tightly associated with slavery and insurrection (not to mention the fact that SCV's lawyer took the position that the State could not, consistent with the First Amendment, reject designs with swastikas on them.)

The opinions that emerge from this case in the coming months could be very interesting.

April 7, 2015

Academic highlight: Johnson on the demise of immigration exceptionalism

For SCOTUSblog by Amanda Frost, Professor of Law at American University. Original blog post here.

Kevin Johnson, who covers the Court’s immigration docket for SCOTUSblog, has posted an article analyzing trends in Supreme Court immigration cases over the last five years.  Although the Supreme Court has frequently departed from the normal rules of constitutional and statutory interpretation in immigration cases, Dean Johnson’s study of the 2009 through 2013 Terms suggests that “immigration exceptionalism” may be on its way out.

One clear example of immigration exceptionalism is the “plenary power” doctrine, under which the Supreme Court has given Congress unusual leeway in regulating immigration.  The Court first invoked that doctrine 125 years ago in Chae Chan Ping v. United States to bar judicial review of federal laws excluding Chinese immigrants from the United States.  In recent years the Court has retreated from that position, but it has never explicitly abandoned the plenary power doctrine.  After closely analyzing the Supreme Court’s immigration decisions from 2009 through 2013, Johnson concludes that the Court has “slowly but surely moved away from anything that might reasonably be characterized as immigration exceptionalism,” including its previous reliance on the plenary power doctrine, bringing “U.S. immigration law into the legal mainstream.”

In addition to this insight, Johnson’s article provides a thorough review of the major immigration cases over the last five years, such as Padilla v. Kentucky (holding that a noncitizen could raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on an attorney’s failure to accurately inform him of the possible immigration consequences of a criminal conviction) and Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting and Arizona v. United States (addressing whether federal immigration laws preempt state laws regulating non-citizens).  Immigration constitutes a surprisingly large percentage of the Court’s docket — the Court heard five immigration cases in the 2011 Term alone — and thus Johnson concludes that the “Justices consider immigration to be an important national issue worthy of attention.”  Happily for readers of SCOTUSblog, he will continue to analyze the Court’s immigration decision for us in the years to come.

March 5, 2015

Opinion analysis: Court adopts broad standards for adjudicating what constitutes a tax discrimination under the 4-R Act

By Professor Darien Shanske. Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Neither side came away with a clear victory in the Court's decision in Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation, Inc., as the Court remanded the case to the Eleventh Circuit. Again. The clear loser in the case is the Eleventh Circuit, which has been given the specific task that the court of appeals had already eschewed as "Sisyphean." Justice Scalia wrote the majority decision. Justice Thomas wrote the dissent, with Justice Ginsburg signing on. This is the second time that Justices Thomas and Ginsburg dissented on the same issue in the same case.

The issue in the case was interpretation of Section 11501(b)(4) of the [4-R] Act, which prohibits a state from "impos[ing] another tax that discriminates against a rail carrier." Alabama imposes a general sales tax, which includes tax on the sale of diesel fuel to railroads, but motor and water carriers (i.e., trucks and boats) are exempt from paying this tax on their fuel.   The Court held that the appropriate comparison class for assessing discrimination under the Act can vary depending on the alleged discrimination. In this case, the Court found that CSX properly alleged that motor and water carriers, as competitors to railroads, were a proper comparison class.

The Court also held that "discrimination" in the statute requires some analysis of a state's overall tax system. It is not enough, as CSX argued, to look to the burden imposed by one tax in isolation when there could be another tax that demonstrates that there is, in fact, not an unlawful discrimination.   It is true that only the railroads pay the sales tax on their fuel, but Alabama countered that this did not amount to discrimination because motor carriers, but not railroads, had to pay an excise tax on diesel fuel. The Eleventh Circuit refused to consider this argument, but it will have to consider it on remand as the Supreme Court has now held that the statute requires an assessment whether there is a "roughly equivalent" tax that offsets an apparently discriminatory tax.

As for the issue of comparison class, oral argument already strongly indicated that a majority of the Justices were not going to accept the limitation on what can constitute the class that was proposed by the state and that had been proposed by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg in dissent the last time this case was before the Court. The anti-discrimination provision at issue is in subsection (b)(4), which does not explicitly state what the proper comparison class would be. However, subsections (b)(1)-(3) of the same provision do explicitly indicate such a class, namely "commercial and industrial" property. The majority found that this limitation does not carry over from the first three subsections to the last, primarily because the earlier subsections were specifically about the property tax and the final residual provision is not so limited.

Once the Court found that this limitation did not restrict subsection (b)(4), the question becomes just what does constitute a comparison class. Here the Court provided only broad guidance. On the one hand, the analysis as to what constitutes a comparison class cannot be the same as would be performed in connection with the Equal Protection Clause. This is because, as to economic matters, the Equal Protection Clause permits very fine distinctions. As the Court explained, importing this analysis into the analysis of the 4-R Act "would deprive subsection (b)(4) of all real-world effect, providing protection that the Equal Protection Clause already provides."  The right analysis as to proper comparison class must take into account the purpose of the 4-R Act, and here the opinion cites the statute: to "restore the financial stability of the railway system of the United States, [while] foster[ing] competition among all carriers by railroad and other modes of transportation." Given this purpose, the Court agrees that competitors, such as motor carriers, can be an appropriate comparison class. As for other possible comparison classes, the Court put that question to the side, exclaiming that "[s]ufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

As to how to do the discrimination analysis, the Court explained that "it does not accord with ordinary English usage to say that a tax discriminates against a rail carrier if a rival who is exempt from that tax must pay another comparable tax from which the rail carrier is exempt." In other words, how can there be an unlawful discrimination if in reality the railroads were no worse off than their competitors? The Court therefore "could not approve" the Eleventh Circuit's refusal to consider Alabama's argument that its fuel excise tax is the "rough equivalent" of its sales tax on diesel fuels. Though the Court was "inclined to agree" that this is not the kind of analysis that courts are likely to do well, it is nevertheless the duty of courts to try because that is the task Congress assigned them "by drafting an antidiscrimination command in such sweeping terms."

Both as to the question of comparison class and as to the question of the scope of analysis, the Court's opinion adopted an interpretation of the statute that requires courts to apply broad standards. Justice Thomas in dissent does more than just argue for his reading of the statute; he also needles the majority about reaching a "predictably unworkable" result.

A concluding observation. The dormant Commerce Clause also forbids discrimination in taxation, and thus the Court has already analyzed what constitutes discrimination in taxation at some length. And, in the dormant Commerce Clause cases, as noted very briefly in the opinion in this case, the Court has long accepted the possibility that states can defend themselves from a charge of discriminatory taxation by showing that there is some other compensating tax. By referring back to an early (1932) dormant Commerce Clause case, the majority opinion appears to accept that this piece of conceptual analysis is sound. Yet a lot has happened since 1932. In particular, the Court developed the so-called complementary tax doctrine, complete with its own three-part test, which has been applied fairly recently . The doctrine was also discussed in the briefs, including that of the United States, which appeared as an amicus in support of neither party. This is especially significant because the Court largely followed the disposition of this case proposed by the United States in its brief and at oral argument.

What does it mean that the complementary tax doctrine made no appearance in the majority opinion? Rather than reference the doctrine, the majority used a form of the phrase "rough equivalent" twice, along with "roughly comparable," to describe what the Eleventh Circuit must assess. Is this standard stricter or looser than the complementary tax doctrine? Is this doctrine not mentioned because the Court finds it unsatisfactory or only applicable to dormant Commerce Clause cases? The opinion does not answer these questions, but perhaps we will find out what the Court thinks if - when? - this case returns to the Court for a third time.

February 24, 2015

Argument analysis: Review of consular visa decisions for the twenty-first century

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the much-anticipated immigration case of Kerry v. Din. In that case, the U.S. government - in the face of strong academic commentary to the contrary - steadfastly defends the doctrine of consular non-reviewability and its bar to the judicial review of visa decisions of Department of State consular officers.

A consular officer had denied the visa application of Kaniska Berashk, a citizen of Afghanistan and the spouse of Fauzia Din, a U.S. citizen. The consular officer's denial merely cited the broad definition of terrorist activities in the immigration statute. Din sought judicial review of her husband's visa denial. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowed her that review and found that the consular officer's explanation of the visa denial was insufficient.

Office of the Solicitor General veteran Ed Kneedler argued the case for the United States. Relying heavily on much-criticized Cold War cases of Knauff v. Shaughnessy and Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei and frequently invoking the need to protect the national security, Kneedler argued that the U.S. government has the undisputed power to exclude aliens from the United States and that "[o]ur position is that there is no judicial review" in the case of the denials of immigrant visas by consular officers. Kneedler later elaborated: "This Court has said on a number of cases that when it comes to the exclusion of aliens, whatever process Congress provides is the process is due." At one point in the argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pressed Kneedler into conceding that the U.S. government's position was that there is no exception to the consular non-reviewability doctrine. Jarred by the government's absolutist approach, Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether a consular official could, for example, deny a visa for racially discriminatory reasons or because he thought husbands and wives should not live together. The answer apparently was "yes."

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Breyer and Ginsburg seemed sympathetic to Din's case. Among other things, these Justices feared possible erroneous denials of visas with no opportunity for correction through judicial review. Justice Sotomayor characterized the administrative process after the denial of a visa to a spouse as an "administrative nightmare."

Justices Sotomayor and Breyer (and to a certain extent Justices Anthony Kennedy and Justice Samuel Alito) were also troubled by the possibility of uncorrected mistakes by the government. When Kneedler assured the Court that the decisions were double-checked before denying a visa, Justice Sotomayor countered that "that's what we were told after September 11th," noting that the government had claimed that it had good reason for arresting and detaining foreigners, only to later admit that some alleged terrorists had been "erroneously identified."

The Justices generally seemed sensitive to the possible national security concerns at stake. A number of questions focused on the practicalities of judicial review if the government claimed that disclosure of the basis for the visa denial might jeopardize national security. (The U.S. government did not make this argument in Din's case.). One of the possibilities mentioned would be for in camera review by the judge.

At various times in the argument, the Justices asked questions about how Kleindienst v. Mandel applies to the case at hand. In that case, the Court ruled that a court could review the claim of a group of U.S. citizens who asserted that the exclusion of a Marxist journalist violated their First Amendment right to hear him speak. The Court found that the basis offered - that the applicant had violated the terms of visas on previous visits to the United States - was a "facially legitimate and bona fide reason" for the executive action. Justice Kennedy, the possible swing vote in the case, seemed to agree with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan that, under Mandel, Din has the right to demand an explanation for the visa denial.

Kneedler attempted to distinguish Mandel as involving a different decision than a visa denial. As a back-up argument, he claimed that a citation to the statute was sufficient to satisfy the deferential requirement of a facially legitimate and bona fide reason for the visa denial.

Mark Haddad of Sidley Austin LLP argued the case on behalf of Fauzia Din. While appropriately conceding that Congress has broad authority over immigration, he urged the Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that Mandel required a further explanation of the visa denial.

Much of the Justices’ questioning of Haddad focused on the scope of Din’s constitutional rights. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Alito worried about the prospect that the right to contest immigrant visa denials would be extended to relatives. They seemed wary of encouraging spouses and other family members to seek judicial review when their relatives are barred from entering the United States.

In this vein, several of the Justices raised the question whether, if the Court ruled in Din’s favor, a wife might hypothetically be able to challenge a criminal conviction even if her husband for whatever reason did not want to do so. However, if permitted by the case law, that issue could be addressed by allowing the visa applicant himself to seek judicial review. In this case, the decision was made to pursue judicial review based on an opening left by Mandel allowing a U.S. citizen to challenge the denial.

Another practical concern of some of the Justices was whether there might be a flood of appeals of visa denials if the Court were to allow judicial review of consular officer decisions. That relatively few cases have been appealed under Mandel, and in the Ninth Circuit where some kind of judicial review is currently permitted, suggests that there would not be a flood of appeals if the Court decided in Din’s favor.

Although always hazardous to predict a decision in a case based on the oral argument, it seems to me that the Justices are closely divided on this case. As frequently is the case with the Roberts Court, Justice Kennedy will perhaps determine the precise outcome.

Based on the argument, my prediction is that the Court will embrace the deferential Kleindienst v. Mandel framework. However, it is far from certain whether the Court will find that the denial in this case satisfied the facially legitimate and bona fide requirement.

February 18, 2015

Argument preview: The doctrine of consular non-reviewability – historical relic or good law?

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

The well-established doctrine of consular non-reviewability precludes judicial review of the visa decisions of State Department consular officers. It is a first cousin of immigration law's exceptional "plenary power" doctrine, which generally immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of Congress and the executive branch. In refusing to disturb the federal government's reliance on secret evidence to deny the non-citizen spouse of a U.S. citizen admission into the country, the Supreme Court in 1950 summarized the plenary power doctrine as follows: "[w]hatever the procedure authorized by Congress is, it is due process as far as an alien denied entry is concerned."

More recently, the Court has creatively avoided invoking the plenary power doctrine and instead ensured judicial review of immigration decisions. For example, in Landon v. Plasencia, the Court held that a lawful permanent resident seeking to return to the United States after a weekend in Mexico possessed a due process right to a hearing on the propriety of her exclusion from the country.

The courts, including the Supreme Court, have created a number of exceptions to the doctrine of consular non-reviewability. In Kleindienst v. Mandel, the Court ruled that a court could review the claim of a group of U.S. citizens who asserted that the exclusion of a Marxist journalist violated their First Amendment right to hear him speak. The Court found that the basis offered - that the applicant had violated the terms of visas on previous visits to the United States - was a "facially legitimate and bona fide reason" for the executive action.

Next Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Kerry v. Din, a case that provides it with the opportunity to provide much-needed guidance on judicial review of consular officer visa decisions. It also could offer some hints about the future of the plenary power doctrine.

Facts

The facts of the case could have been ripped out of the cable television series Homeland.

In 2006, Fauzia Din, a naturalized U.S. citizen, married Kanishka Berashk, a citizen of Afghanistan. A consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan denied Berashk's visa application. The denial simply cited a detailed, complex, and broad provision of the immigration law that bars the admission into the United States of non-citizens who have engaged in "terrorist activity." The consular officer failed to identify the alleged conduct that triggered the exclusion.

The district court dismissed Din's suit challenging her husband's visa denial. The Ninth Circuit reversed. A majority concluded that (1) "a citizen has a protected liberty interest in marriage that entitles the citizen to review of the denial of a spouse's visa"; (2) the reason offered for the denial was not "facially legitimate"; and (3) the consular officer should have explained "what [he] believed [Berashk to have] done" that justified the visa denial.

Arguments in the briefs

Relying heavily on plenary power precedent, the Solicitor General argues that Din lacks a constitutionally protected interest in her husband's visa application and that the Ninth Circuit erred in finding that she has a right to judicial review of his visa denial. The government seeks to limit Kleindienst v. Mandel to its facts and further contends that the State Department should not be required to offer a specific explanation in denying a visa on national security grounds.   The government specifically contends that judicial review à la Mandel will have "the steep cost of weakening the protections that keep terrorists from our shores."

This case is one of the few occasions in which the Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to deny judicial review of an immigration decision. Indeed, in recent years it has refused to defend two lower-court decisions - including one accepted for review this Term holding that the immigration statute barred judicial review of a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling.

Din emphasizes that, like the plaintiffs in Mandel, she is a U.S. citizen challenging the visa denial and a violation of her rights, rather than an alien on foreign soil seeking initial entry into the country. She claims (1) a constitutional right to marry and live with one's spouse; (2) that the denial of her spouse's visa infringed that right; and (3) that due process requires that the government provide a facially legitimate and bona fide reason for the denial.

Several groups filed amicus briefs, all in support of Din. In one brief, a number of former consular officers argue in favor of judicial review on the ground that many contemporary visa denials are not discretionary judgments, as was historically the case, but are instead based on whether the person appears on various database and other watchlists. And in another brief, seventy-three law professors question the conventional understanding of foundational cases of the doctrine of consular non-reviewability. They contend that Kleindienst v. Mandel requires judicial review and that such review is consistent with the immigration statute.

Analysis  

The Court in this case has the opportunity to narrow the doctrine of consular non-reviewability. Besides the possible doctrinal effects of a decision - including further limitations on the doctrine - the case has the potential for great practical significance. Consular officers stationed in U.S. embassies around the world annually deny hundreds of visa applications. The specific judicial review question is complicated in the case before the Court by the consular officer's blunt invocation of terrorism as the basis for denial of the visa application.

The ultimate outcome largely depends on how the Court applies Kleindienst v. Mandel. Given its contemporary inclination toward some modicum of judicial review of immigration decisions, the Court might be expected to find that judicial review of visa denials - even if limited in scope - is justified. But how limited should the scope be? Should courts accept the U.S. government's mere citation to the terrorist activity provision of the immigration law without any explanation, even if that would effectively deny an applicant a meaningful opportunity to rebut the charge? Or should the courts require further explanation from the government - for example, in this case, how and why the consular officer found Berashk inadmissible. How the Court resolves this issue may be the key to the case.

January 16, 2015

Argument recap: Mellouli v. Holder and removal for a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia (sock) conviction

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Mellouli v. Holder, a challenge to the removal of Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident from Tunisia, based on a Kansas misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction for possession of a sock used to hide drugs. The record of his conviction, the touchstone in removal proceedings, did not specify the controlled substance connected to Mellouli’s “drug paraphernalia.”

Section 237(a)(2)(B)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act provides for the removal of “any alien who at any time after admission has been convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State . . . relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21).” The immigration court, Board of Immigration Appeals, and court of appeals all found Mellouli subject to removal under the statute.

Much of the oral argument focused on the meaning of the statutory language. The Justices probed in detail the meaning of the language and how it applied to the case at hand. In my estimation, a majority of the Court seemed to side with the Mellouli’s interpretation that, in order for removal, a state conviction must relate to a substance controlled under federal law in “section 802 of Title 21.”

Justice Samuel Alito set the tone for the argument by interjecting a question at the tail-end of Jon Laramore’s introduction on behalf of Mellouli: “Can we begin looking at the text of the statute?” Justice Sotomayor, no doubt with deference under Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. in mind, told Laramore that, if the Court finds the statutory language to be ambiguous, Mellouli had “an uphill battle to fight.” Laramore emphasized that the statute is limited by its terms to federal controlled substances, and that a federal controlled substance was not identified in Mellouli’s record of conviction. He further emphasized that Congress always had controlled the substances that would give rise to removal and that a drug paraphernalia conviction should be no different.

Discussion ensued about the “categorical” and “modified categorical” approaches to state criminal statutes for removal and the idea that a non-citizen would be removable only if the state conviction related to a substance controlled under federal law. Justice Stephen Breyer, with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in apparent agreement, seemed to side with Mellouli.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed concern that a federal paraphernalia conviction could not be premised on the use of a sock to conceal a controlled substance. The incongruity between state and federal schemes meant that a drug paraphernalia conviction under state law could subject an immigrant to removal when a federal conviction for possession of the same paraphernalia could not be secured.

Arguing on behalf of the United States, Assistant to the Solicitor General Rachel Kovner seemed to make somewhat inconsistent arguments. Her primary argument was that the “relating to” language in the statute was sufficiently clear to justify removal on a drug paraphernalia conviction: at one point, she stated emphatically that “[w]e don’t think this text is – is ambiguous.” However, she also argued that Chevron deference was justified, thereby suggesting that the statute was ambiguous and that Congress had delegated the agency the authority to reasonably interpret the statute.

Justice Scalia expressed skepticism about the government’s textual argument: “Do you think a sock is more than tenuously related to – to those federal drugs?” Kovner responded in the affirmative. Justice Alito then pressed her on the “practical work [being] done by the phrase ‘as defined in Section 802 of Title 21,’” which lists the substances controlled under federal law. Chief Justice Roberts also seemed unconvinced by the government’s textual argument.

Kovner’s characterization of Mellouli’s argument provoked an emphatic response of “No, no, no, no, no” from Justice Sotomayor. It does not seem a stretch to conclude that her response to the government’s argument was an emphatic “no.”

In four minutes of rebuttal, Laramore was not asked a single question.

As the Affordable Care Act’s oral arguments taught us, it is at best hazardous to speculate from the oral arguments about the outcome of a case. Nonetheless, the Justices’ questioning focused on the meaning and application of the statutory language in question (with little mention of Chevron deference). A majority of the Justices seemed to agree that, because the particular removal provision incorporated by reference the federal controlled substances statute, Mellouli has the better of the statutory argument.

As discussed in the argument preview, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to impose the harsh penalty of removal on lawful permanent residents convicted of small-time drug offenses. This case falls into that category. Indeed, Justice Kagan generated laughter from the audience with her quip that, if Mellouli had been convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia for hiding a few tablets of Adderall, students on “half the colleges in America . . . just randomly pick[ed]” could be as well. Several of the Justices seemed troubled about the possibility that Mellouli’s removal – and separation from his fiancé – was based on a misdemeanor conviction for possession of a sock. Consequently, one might predict that a majority of the Court will side with Mellouli. If that is the case, a critical question will be one raised by Justice Sotomayor to Laramore: if he is correct, should the case should be remanded to the BIA? Counsel suggested that the BIA already had its chance, but time ran out before he could offer a fuller response.

January 6, 2015

Argument preview: Removal for a misdemeanor “drug paraphernalia” conviction

Cross-posted from SCOTUSBlog.

On January 14, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Mellouli v. Holder, one of several recent cases in which the Court has scrutinized the federal government's efforts to remove a lawful permanent resident from the United States based on a minor drug conviction. The frequency with which these kinds of cases recur reflects the focus of the Obama administration's removal efforts on noncitizens who have had brushes with the criminal justice system.

The case now before the Court specifically involves the government's efforts to remove a lawful permanent resident based on a state misdemeanor conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia - here, a sock used to hide drugs.

Facts

In 2004, Moones Mellouli, a native of Tunisia, entered the United States on a student visa and later became a lawful permanent resident. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor under Kansas law, he was sentenced to probation for "possess[ing] with intent to use drug paraphernalia, to wit: a sock, to store, contain, conceal, inject, ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance." As the court of appeals later observed, "[i]t seems surprising to call a sock 'drug paraphernalia,' but using a sock to store and conceal a controlled substance falls within the [Kansas] statute's literal prohibition." State laws vary widely on the regulation of drug paraphernalia; some states do not criminalize its possession.

The record of conviction, which is the touchstone in removal proceedings, did not indicate what controlled substance was connected to Mellouli's "drug paraphernalia." However, a document not part of the record of conviction alleged that, while in jail on a DUI charge, Mellouli had hidden four tablets of Adderall - a prescription medicine normally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - in his sock.

The U.S. government sought to remove Mellouli under Section 1227(a)(2)(B)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which provides for the removal of "any alien who at any time after admission has been convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State . . . relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of Title 21)." The immigration court ordered his removal. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which has found drug paraphernalia convictions to justify removal because they relate to "the drug trade in general" - language not found in the statutory provision at issue - dismissed the appeal. The court of appeals agreed with the BIA, noting that deference to the Board's interpretation was justified under Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.  Mellouli filed a petition for certiorari, which the Court granted last summer.

Arguments

In his briefs, Mellouli contends that the plain language of the statute requires the state conviction to be directly tied to a controlled substance under federal law; by contrast, the court of appeals effectively held that, contrary to the text of the statute, lawful permanent residents may be removed from the United States based on paraphernalia used in connection with substances that are not regulated by federal law. Mellouli further argues that, because the BIA ruling contradicts the text of the statute as well as the Board's inconsistency in interpreting the statutory provision in question, Chevron deference does not apply.

The United States counters emphatically that the conviction in fact is under a state law "relating to a controlled substance (as defined in section 802 of title 21)," and thus one that subjects Mellouli to removal. The government points out that Congress employed broad language to ensure that, even when federal- and state-controlled substances schedules are not identical, noncitizens who commit crimes related to drugs are removable. The United States also contends that the BIA interpretation is entitled to Chevron deference.

The significance of the case

The case raises two issues common to the run-of-the-mill contemporary immigration cases on the dockets of the federal courts: (1) interpretation of the complex immigration removal statute; and (2) the deference properly afforded the BIA's interpretation. Because the particular removal provision incorporated by reference the federal controlled substances statute, Mellouli has the better of the statutory argument and thus on the Chevron deference point as well (because deference to an interpretation contrary to the text of the statute is unwarranted). If the Court finds ambiguity in the statute, it might well invoke a version of the rule of lenity, as it has occasionally in recent years, to construe the statute against Mellouli's removal.

In interpreting the criminal removal provisions of the immigration laws, the Roberts Court has opted for bright-line rules (as advocated by Mellouli) as opposed to more flexible standards (as argued for by the U.S. government). In Moncrieffe v. Holder, for example, the Court rejected mandatory removal based on a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana and embraced the "categorical approach" requiring all crimes under a state penal law to qualify as an "aggravated felony" for a conviction under that statute to constitute such a felony. Similarly, in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, the Court would not mandate removal based on a misdemeanor conviction for possession of a single tablet of Xanax because the prosecutor had not adhered to the requirements of the statute necessary for the conviction to be treated as a felony. In neither case did the Court defer to the BIA's interpretation of the statute because the Board's interpretation conflicted with the statutory text. Indeed, the argument has been made that Chevron deference is not justified in instances like this one given that the BIA's expertise is in immigration, not criminal, law.

The Supreme Court has been reluctant to impose the harsh penalty of removal on lawful permanent residents convicted of small-time drug offenses. Despite being engaged to marry a U.S. citizen, Mellouli - who already has been removed - has been exiled from the United States. His misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction for concealing contraband in his sock has resulted in the possibility of permanent separation from his fiancé in the United States.

December 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two questions before the Court are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2014

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

Cross-posted from Justia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does It Matter Whether Federal Money Ever Enters State Coffers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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