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September 4, 2018

McClatchy feature on policing in rural California echoes my theorizing of law's relation to rurality

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Trinity County, California, Courthouse, July 2018

Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt 

The headline is "Calling 911 in rural California?  Danger might be close, but the law can be hours away," and four Sacramento Bee journalists contributed to this major feature, which has been in the works since December, 2017.

 

I was gratified to see the story--which documents the reality (and consequences) of lack of effective law enforcement and high per capita violent crime rates in California's nonmetro counties.  To be clear, the news is bad, but I was gratified in that the story confirms work I have been doing for more than a decade now (some of it documented in this blog since September, 2007, 11 years ago this month).  That work has been theorizing the difference that rurality makes to law's operation and people's attitudes about law.  In other words, what is the legal relevance of rurality and, thus, why should legal scholars attend to rural difference?  why should "rural" be a category of analysis in the implicitly urbanormative field of law?

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, Yreka, California, July 2018

photos by Lisa R. Pruitt (c) 2018

 

Just a few years ago, I published a chapter on this issue in a volume of legal geography essays.  Mine was titled, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space."  My argument was that rural spatiality is in tension with law.  That is, the distance between homes and the distances that legal actors must traverse in order to exert law's authority--to make law meaningful--practically disables law.  Technology can help (that is, time can trump space), but it's costly and cannot always be a substitute for the presence of human law enforcement.  Further, rural residents' sense that they must be self sufficient is reinforced by this lived reality.  As academics express it, society, spatiality and law and all mutually constituting or co-constitutive.  If people know that legal actors such as law enforcement are effectively not present, then they know they must take care of themselves.  In a sense, the lack of efficacy of law promotes a sort of frontier justice or informal order.   

 

Now, the empirical work of these Bee journalists confirms my theorizing with hard data about the number of sheriffs deputies per 100 square miles in California counties--including those all across the state, not just in the northern third on which Sac Bee usually focuses.  These journalists also look at  violent crime rates, confirming that  many of the highest crime counties are "rural" according to the metric used by the reporters:  Alpine (with a population of just 1,175, the state's least populous county, in the eastern Sierra) and Lassen (in the northern Sierra) lead the pack.  Third is metropolitan San Joaquin County, home to Stockton.  

Plumas (again, northern Sierra) is next, followed by the state's most urban county, San Francisco, then nonmetro InyoShastaLake and Modoc.  Of course with populations as low as those of many of these nonmetro counties, the violent crime count doesn't have to be very high to rise to the top of the per capita heap.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see data on deputy sheriff per 1000 residents vs deputy sheriff per 100 square miles.  How different would the map and rankings look then?  And which is the more salient metric, given the significance that material distance plays in rural lives? 

 

The Bee story begins with information about a 2011 double murder in the Trinity County community of Kettenpom, nearer to Mendocino County than to Weaverville, the Trinity County seat.  In that case, Trinity County law enforcement asked the neighbors of a couple who called 911 to check in on that couple because sheriffs deputies coming from Weaverville were several hours away.  The incident ended badly, with the responding neighbors severely wounded and the assailant, who had killed the couple who initially called 911 by the time the responding neighbors arrived, also dead after a car chase.  The responding neighbors, Norma and Jim Gund, are suing the Trinity County Sheriff (in a case now going to the Supreme Court of California), and in the related story by journalist Ryan Sabalow observe, "Over here, we have to take care of ourselves."  Any trust they had in the sheriff's office has disappeared, the story reports.  (The separate story about this law suit is well worth a read, especially for legal eagles who will be interested in the arguments of the respective parties, including the assertion that the Gunds were effectively "posse comitatus," which happens to be the name of a far-right survivalist group).

Another quote from this McClatchy feature similarly speaks powerfully to informal order.  The man quoted is one whom Modoc County Sheriff's deputies knew was growing marijuana illegally.  Yet when they stopped him in a remote locale, they made an effort to calm his anger rather than confront him with the marijuana infraction.  The story reports that the deputies planned to return later with reinforcements rather than risk the consequences of his ire when they stopped him in a vulnerable location.  The man who was stopped, identified as Roberts, told the reporter who was on a "ride along" with the deputies:

We have freedom with responsibility out here.  We can do a lot of stuff. These guys [sheriffs deputies] referee.  

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Wow, law enforcement as referees for what residents want to do?  This is sounding like the wild west, indeed.  (As it happens, I am in the midst of reading about the wild west in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose, which features vignettes where vigilante justice takes over, much to the dismay of eastern transplants to places like Leadville, Colorado in the 19th century).  

Bieber, California (Lassen County), July, 2018 

Lack of tax revenue undermines rural counties' 

ability to finance public services

 

These somewhat harrowing vignettes from Trinity and Modoc County aside, what I consider to be the story's lede contrasts rural with urban:

As urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno grapple with discussions about use of force and the over-policing of minority communities, the state’s rural counties face a growing and no-less-serious law enforcement crisis: a severe shortage of staff that puts the public — and deputies — in danger. 

A McClatchy investigation found that large stretches of rural California — where county sheriffs are the predominant law enforcement agencies and towns often run only a few blocks — do not have enough sworn deputies to provide adequate public safety for the communities they serve.

Elsewhere the story provides this illustration, again contrasting rural and urban:

Del Norte Courthouse, Crescent City, July 2018  

While the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 160 deputies for every 100 square miles it covers, the tiny sheriff’s departments in Madera, Mariposa and Mendocino counties employ about four deputies for the same amount of turf. In Del Norte and Alpine, the counties make do with two deputies per 100 square miles.

Those figures include non-patrol personnel and those who work in county jails. 

Also, consider the role that the phenomena of distance and personnel shortage played in this tragic story out of Tehama County last fall.  Perhaps these Rancho Tehama events gave the Bee journalists the idea for this story.

Tehama County Sheriff's Office, Red Bluff, California, July 2018

The McClatchy story features a color-coded map that shows the number of law enforcement officers per 100 square miles (again, what would it look like if deputies per 1000 residents?).  It reminds me of maps I have helped to produce here showing lawyers per capita in California counties.  Guess what? As with law enforcement officials, nonmetro counties have shortages of lawyers.

 

Another interesting theme/revelation in the story is that no deputy actively patrols in some counties, e.g., Mendocino, for some parts of the night, though deputies are on call from their homes.  When I wrote something similar on Legal Ruralism about my home town in Arkansas a few years ago (see herehere and here), students in my Law and Rural Livelihoods class were shocked to imagine a place with no law enforcement on duty 24-7, yet it is happening here in California, too.

 

A third interesting theme:  population churn in rural areas, partly driven by low cost of living, has had an impact on how rural communities are policed:

Tex Dowdy, the sheriff-elect of Modoc County, said an influx of transient residents drawn to the low cost of living has made identifying suspects harder for Modoc’s deputies. 

The story quotes Dowdy: 

It isn’t the same place where we used to live.  You used to recognize the bad guy walking around the street because he was in the paper every week.

Alturas, California (Modoc County) July 2018

Note the lack of anonymity theme, about which I have written a great deal in the last decade, including here and here.  The sheriff basically confirmed what I have argued:  in rural counties, the "usual suspects" is as powerful a type of profiling as racial profiling, if not more so (and, of course, the two can overlap).

 

A fourth interesting theme--one also  articulated in my academic writing--is that some people seek our rurality for the privacy and effective seclusion from law that it provides.  (Think Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in rural Montana).  These folks are unlikely to call on law enforcement even when they need it.  Regarding this proposition, the story quotes Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in relation to this phenomenon:

Things go on in the hills all around us that go unreported.  We know that. Daily. It happens. It’s something that we’ve just gotten used to. There are shootings that occur in the middle of the night. ... We know that there’s kidnappings, we know there are people getting brutalized out in the hills, we know there are people getting robbed.

Honsal's quote reminded me of this feature by Reveal last fall, which I blogged about here, regarding wage theft and sexual abuse of "trimmigrants" in places like Humboldt and Trinity County.  Of course, immigration status can also make people reluctant to report a crime, a particular concern in places like the San Joaquin Valley.  The Chief Justice of California has, for that reason, criticized ICE for any presence in California courthouses.

 

A fifth theme relates to budgets, cuts to which have undermined a prior practice of deputizing people who lived in the remote reaches of a given county:

Until recent years, many rural departments had regional substations and hired “resident deputies” who lived in the remote areas they served. Those resident deputies knew their territories and most of the locals by name, making it harder for crime to go unnoticed, said multiple sheriffs. Resident deputies also allowed for quicker response times. 

Those in need “just come and knock on your door,” said Modoc’s Poindexter. “You just grab your gun belt and go out the door and try to fix it.”

July 2018, Bieber, California (far northern Lassen County), a sheriff station

at the local school, which is closer to Alturas, in Modoc County, than to Susanville,

the Lassen County seat.

Indeed, in my recent drive up California 299 from Burney (Shasta County) to Alturas (Modoc County), I saw a sign indicating such a remote outpost of the Lassen County Sheriff's office in Bieber, which is near the Modoc County line and also not far from Shasta County.   Yet it is technically in Lassen County, and how interesting that the Lassen Sheriff's substation should be at the school, of all places. (More photos from that journey are here and here with more to come in future posts on access to justice in rural California).  A few years ago, I also photographed a Siskiyou County Sheriff's substation in Dunsmuir.  Though it is at the southern edge of the county, it is hardly remote given its locale on I-5.

 

Siskiyou County Sheriff's

Substation, Dunsmuir July 2016

Another aspect of the economic situation is the inability of counties to tax public lands, both federal and state.  The story explains:  

The state compensates counties for protected lands, too, but that funding has been controversial and even less predictable. Since the 2015-2016 budget cycle, the state has given rural counties $644,000 for payments in total each year to be divided among them, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose coastal district spans seven counties from Marin to the Oregon border.

I have written previously here and here of the constraints that lack of tax revenue on federal lands place on local governments in rural areas, especially in the West, which has a much greater percentage of public lands than the rest of the country.  The impact of shrinking federal dollars on law enforcement in Southern Oregon has attracted media attention in recent years.  As for that state contribution, less than $700K/year spread among seven counties is pretty pitiful,  even in the context of a paltry rural budget. 

 

Sierra County Courthouse,

Downieville, California, July 2017

A sixth theme of the story is that the state practice of re-alignment (re: prisons and local jails) has not served nonmetro counties well.  The Bee story includes a few interesting quotes to illustrate the conundrum re-alignment has created for county law enforcement. 

 

A seventh theme is the lack of mental health support.

Rural counties have 0.9 psychiatrists for every 10,000 residents, about half the statewide average, according to California Medical Board data. Mariposa has been experimenting with “tele-doc” video technology to connect jail inmates with mental-health professionals in other counties.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Of course, telemedicine is being used to provide mental health and other services in rural counties generally, and not only to incarcerated populations.

 

An eighth theme regards reliance on other law enforcement agencies, including not just California Highway Patrol, but also both federal and state game and fish officers.  The photos show a sign at the California Highway Patrol office in Weaverville (Trinity County), which sits next to the DMV office.  I assume that the sign encouraging reports of vehicle theft responds to the reality that rural residents report crimes at lower rates than their urban counterparts, even when the perpetrator is a stranger.  The other photo I took in Weverville this summer is of a USDA vehicle, reprsenting the sort of law enforcement proxy that game and fish commissioners sometimes represent in rural areas. 

USDA Forest Service vehicle, Weaverville, California, July 2018 

Back to the budget/economics note, I'll close with this stunning data point:  rookie deputies in Modoc County earn $13/hour!  I assume baristas in Los Angeles are paid better than that, especially if you take into account tips.

 

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  

October 16, 2017

Opinion Analysis: California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland

By David A. Carrillo & Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from SCOCAblog]

This is a preview of a forthcoming article, California Constitutional Law: Interpreting Restrictions on the Initiative Power (2017) 51 U.C. Davis L. Rev. Online 65, David A. Carrillo and Darien Shanske. Reprinted by permission.

Overview

On August 28, 2017 the California Supreme Court decided California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, (Aug. 28, 2017, S234148) ___Cal.4th___ . Justice Cuéllar wrote the opinion, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Werdegar, Chin, and Corrigan. Justice Kruger wrote separately to concur in part and dissent in part; Justice Liu joined that opinion.

The basic facts of the case are these.[1] A local initiative in the city of Upland proposed to require marijuana dispensaries pay a city fee. The proponents wanted the initiative to be considered by voters at a special election. The city concluded that because the fee would exceed the actual costs, it constituted a general tax. To the city, this meant that the initiative could not be voted on during a special election; instead, under California constitution Article XIII C, section 2 the measure had to be submitted to the voters at the next general election. This provision of the constitution clearly requires that all (general) tax increases imposed by a local government be submitted to the voters at a general election.[2] So if a city council (like Upland’s) proposes a tax increase, then it must follow the Proposition 218 rule and wait for the next general election. The question posed by this case was whether this rule also applies to general tax measures put on the ballot by the voters. The court decided that this provision does not restrain voter initiatives. Therefore, if the voters propose the increase of a general tax, then a vote on the tax can occur at a special election.

Analysis

Debating the definition of “government” is unproductive.

The key question confronting the court was whether the phrase “no local government may impose . . .” also served to impose a limit on the voters of a local government acting through the initiative process. The majority thought that this phrase did not include the electorate; the dissent thought that it did. Though both sides made reasonable points, we think that the arguments based on the language of the provision are so evenly balanced that the heavy lifting is done by the majority’s presumption in favor of liberally construing the initiative power. The majority candidly says as much.[3] Indeed, the majority explains that when it comes to limiting the electorate’s initiative power, it will apply a “clear statement rule.” That is, unless the voters clearly intend to limit the initiative power, the court will not find that they did.

There is a strong case for this clear statement rule.

The dissent cogently asks what the majority’s basis is for applying a clear statement rule and making it a rule for future cases.[4] After all, a judicially crafted clear statement rule hamstrings a legislative body and hands power to judges to decide what is “clear enough.” A clear statement rule is particularly troublesome to the extent the drafters of legislation did not know their work would be evaluated on that standard.

The majority’s response is that a presumption in favor of the initiative power is not new. In 1991 the court applied that principle in a case involving Article XIII A, section 3 (added by Proposition 13), which at the time provided that “any changes in State taxes enacted for the purpose of increasing revenues . . . must be imposed by an Act passed by not less than two-thirds of all members elected to each of the two houses of the Legislature . . . .”[5] The court applied the presumption and found it did not apply to the electorate.

Only five years later, Proposition 218 aimed to clarify the interpretation of another section in the same article: Article XIII A, section 4 (added by Proposition 13), which reads: “Cities, Counties and special districts, by a two-thirds vote of the qualified electors of such district, may impose special taxes on such district, except ad valorem taxes on real property or a transaction tax or sales tax on the sale of real property within such City, County or special district.” It should be unsurprising that the court again applied the presumption in favor of the initiative in interpreting Proposition 218’s clarification of Article XIII A, section 4. In this context it is especially apt to charge the proponents[6] with knowledge of the law,[7] including knowledge of this presumption.

But this argument only goes so far if a presumption in favor of the initiative power is misguided. Consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s widely-criticized federal preemption clear statement rule. That rule is a restriction on federal power, imposed on federalism grounds. If Congress does not clearly preempt a state law, then the state law stands. Yet there is a good argument that after the Fourteenth Amendment’s adoption there is no good ground for tipping the scale in favor of state versus federal power. Another criticism is that federalism values, appealing as they are, should not receive special judicial solace at the cost of protecting individual rights, as often ends up being the case.[8] The fact that the federal clear statement rule is long established and fairly applied is no response to such points.

We considered whether a deeper justification exists for a presumption in favor of broadly construing the initiative power as a matter of California constitutional law. We think there is such an argument, as follows.

An initiative constitutional amendment that purported to prevent future electorates from undoing a past act, or otherwise placed substantive limits on the future electorate’s legislative power, would be invalid as a revision. The California electorate’s initiative power is a structural part of the state’s constitutional system. California’s constitution can be changed, of course, but structural changes are labeled “revisions” and revisions cannot be accomplished by means of the ordinary voter initiative. A revision requires a supermajority of the legislature and a majority vote of the electorate.[9] Consider also the fact that the initiative was created via the revision process. How the initiative power got into the constitution is not determinative, but it is suggestive.[10] If altering the state government to add the initiative was a revision, and if the litmus test for a revision is whether it changes the nature of the state government, then reducing or removing the initiative power is also a revision. As an extreme example, if the electorate by initiative constitutional amendment attempted to assume all taxing power, or claimed to renounce any taxing power, either act would be an invalid revision.

Thus, if Proposition 218 significantly impairs the electorate’s right of initiative, then it should be invalid to that extent because the initiative can only be substantively curtailed by a revision. The court has justified this rule on the principle that, although the state constitution is binding on future legislatures and electorates alike, the electorate cannot restrict its own future initiative power through the initiative process.[11] Only the legislature plus the electorate could do that with a revision.[12]

An initiative constitutional amendment that purports to prevent future electorates from undoing a past act, or otherwise placed substantive limits on the future electorate’s legislative power, would also be invalid as a separation of powers violation. Using the example above again, if the electorate by initiative constitutional amendment attempted to assume all taxing power, or claimed to forfeit any taxing power, either act would violate the separation of powers because the initiative is a core electorate legislative power, which cannot be substantively limited or reassigned.[13] The electorate cannot self-harm, just as the legislature cannot over-delegate, reduce, or give away its core powers.[14]

How does one know if a change is structural enough to become a revision, or a material enough impairment? Key questions include: Does it change the frame of government?[15] Does it substantively reduce the electorate’s legislative power?[16] Obviously the electorate (by initiative constitutional amendment) can prescribe substantive and procedural limits on the other branches of California government.[17] But the present electorate cannot by initiative constitutional amendment reduce the amount of legislative power held by the future electorate. This does not mean that the initiative cannot be used to constrain future initiative acts at all. Proposition 13 itself is an example of setting limits on future electorates, and absent any other action the future electorate is indeed constrained by the past electorate’s action. Yet the future state electorate can always use its initiative power to undo the past electorate’s act and change the rules.

Remember that the provision in question here is a restriction placed on the local initiative power by the state electorate. The dissent argued that this fact indicates that Kennedy Wholesale was not really about protecting the initiative power because the state voters could always change the provision.[18] Leaving to one side whether this is the best reading of Kennedy Wholesale (and the majority has a potent counter), we think that this point makes the argument for applying the clear statement rule stronger in this case. As to the state electorate, their initiative power would arguably not have been overly restricted by a two-thirds rule because a majority of the electorate could change the rule. But that is not the case for the local electorate and the local initiative power. The local initiative power is also constitutionally derived.[19] Based on the argument above, it is not at all clear to us if the state electorate could constrain the use of local initiative power absent a constitutional revision. It is at least a very difficult constitutional question. Consequently, it is certainly sensible to apply a clear statement rule to avoid that question. In this context, the clear statement rule functions more like a canon of constitutional avoidance.

We should be clear that the majority opinion did not rely on the argument we just outlined in its defense of the clear statement rule, although we believe that it did gesture to it at various points in its opinion, most particularly when the court explained that: “As Ulysses once tied himself to the mast so he could resist the Sirens’ tempting song (Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII), voters too can conceivably make the clear and important choice to bind themselves by making it more difficult to enact initiatives in the future.[20] We added the italics to the “conceivably,” and we think this comment shows that the court sees that self-binding in this way poses a hard question.

The Elephant in the Room

This case is about California constitution Article XIII C, section 2(b). The celebrity of the case has to do with section 2(d), which reads: “No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote. A special tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved.”

The language concerning the election rules construed in this decision (“No local government may impose, extend, or increase any general tax unless . . .”) is identical to the language concerning the required supermajority for special tax measures (“No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless…”). This strongly suggests that the local voters can, by initiative, increase special taxes by a simple majority because the supermajority limitation does not apply to initiatives any more than the general election requirement applies to initiatives.

The majority does not comment on this implication, which is appropriate, as that issue was not before the court. Perhaps some grounds for distinction between the two provisions might be found. Indeed, there is language in the majority opinion that suggests it thinks there might be such a distinction. The court says:

That the voters explicitly imposed a procedural two-thirds vote requirement on themselves in article XIII C, section 2, subdivision (d) is evidence that they did not implicitly impose a procedural timing requirement in subdivision (b).[21]

This language can be read to suggest that there is some difference between the election timing provision and the vote threshold provision. We do not actually think that this is what this passage means. Instead, it is part of an argument in favor of the majority’s interpretation of section 2(b) and the (minor) point the majority is making is that the electorate knows how to refer to itself.[22]

Nevertheless, the implication remains and was brought up by the dissent in a footnote:

The majority opinion contains language that could be read to suggest that article XIII C, section 2(d) should be interpreted differently from section 2(b). (See maj. opn., ante, ––– Cal.Rptr.3d at ––––, ––– P.3d at –––– [noting that the enactors of Prop. 218 “explicitly imposed a procedural . . . requirement on themselves in” art. XIII C, § 2(d), which “is evidence that they did not implicitly” do so in § 2(b) ].) I see no basis for construing the two provisions differently. Sections 2(b) and 2(d) are, in all pertinent respects, indistinguishable.[23]

If we are correct that the majority did not wish to introduce a difficult-to-understand distinction in this offhand way, then why did the majority not change the language or in some other way respond to the dissent? Perhaps the majority thought its implication was clear enough and that there had to be some end to the back and forth. Perhaps the majority was not displeased with the implication the tax threshold question was arguably open for the lower courts to consider.

Implications

The public response to this decision—both pro and con—suggests that it changes the possibilities of local government finance significantly.[24] Again, the focus has been on the decision’s supposed impact on the voting threshold for special taxes. We are skeptical that the impact would be so great even if this decision does ultimately result in the supermajority rule not applying to special taxes placed on the ballot by the voters themselves.

As a matter of political economy, we do not think there is a reservoir of pent up demand for tax measures. As noted in the post previewing this case, cities and counties can already subject general taxes to a majority vote[25]—along with a non-binding advisory measure on how any revenue collected is to be spent.[26] Thus, it is not clear how important this change will be for cities and counties. School districts, for example, have already been able to fund infrastructure with a 55% voter threshold, assuming certain conditions are met.[27] So we would predict that operational school district taxes passed by majority vote will be the main source of demand for this kind of voter initiative, if it were to be possible.

Even assuming that the court’s reasoning means that the two-thirds threshold does not apply to local special tax initiatives, how this area of the law develops from here is unclear. The initiative power extends to taxation,[28] but it is also the case that the initiative power is generally interpreted to be as broad as the legislative power of the underlying local government.[29] Charter cities have the inherent power to tax and therefore, presumably, their citizens have that right as well.[30] But general law cities and counties do not have the inherent power to tax.[31] Does that mean the legislature must explicitly permit local tax initiatives in these governments?[32] School districts have no initiative power at all—at least not granted by the constitution.[33] Thus, if school districts wanted to use this ruling, must the legislature grant the school district electorates the power to impose taxes by initiative? These are hard questions.[34] We note them here not to answer them, but to indicate that many thorny legal and political questions remain whatever this decision’s applicability to the tax threshold provision.

Conclusion

The majority describes the conflict in this case as between two constitutional provisions: sections 8 and 11 of article II (the initiative power), and article XIII C (limiting local governments’ ability to impose, extend, or increase general taxes). Because the latter provision was created by the former, we think that the court found that this is not a clash of two equally-matched California constitutional doctrines. Thus, in keeping with its past practice and sound doctrinal considerations, the electorate’s initiative power prevailed.

[1] For further description of the case see: http://scocablog.com/argument-preview-california-cannabis-coalition-et-al-v-city-of-upland/.

[2] Cal. Const., art. XIIIC § 2:

(b) No local government may impose, extend, or increase any general tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a majority vote. A general tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved. The election required by this subdivision shall be consolidated with a regularly scheduled general election for members of the governing body of the local government, except in cases of emergency declared by a unanimous vote of the governing body.

(c) Any general tax imposed, extended, or increased, without voter approval, by any local government on or after January 1, 1995, and prior to the effective date of this article, shall continue to be imposed only if approved by a majority vote of the voters voting in an election on the issue of the imposition, which election shall be held within two years of the effective date of this article and in compliance with subdivision (b).

(d) No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote. A special tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved.

[3] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *12: “Our analysis in those decisions consistently begins with the presumption that the initiative power is not constrained, then searches for clear evidence suggesting that electors could reasonably be understood to have imposed restrictions upon their constitutional power.”

[4] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *18.

[5] Kennedy Wholesale, Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, (1991) 806 P.2d 1360.

[6] The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association sponsored both Propositions 13 and 218. https://www.hjta.org/about-hjta/the-history-of-hjta/.

[7] See, e.g., In re Harris, (Cal. 1989) 775 P.2d 1057, 1060 (“[T]he voters who enact [an initiative] may be deemed to be aware of the judicial construction of the law that served as its source.”).

[8] See, e.g., Eskridge & Frickey, Quasi-Constitutional Law: Clear Statement Rules As

Constitutional Lawmaking, (1992) 45 Vand. L. Rev. 593, 643-44.

[9] Or a constitutional convention. Cal. Const. art. XVIII, § 2.

[10] See Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist. v. State Bd. of Equalization, (Cal. 1978) 583 P.2d 1281, 1285 (“We think it significant that prior to 1962 a constitutional revision could be accomplished Only by the elaborate procedure of the convening of, and action by, a constitutional convention (art. XVIII, s 2). This fact suggests that the term ‘revision’ in section XVIII originally was intended to refer to a substantial alteration of the entire Constitution, rather than to a less extensive change in one or more of its provisions.”).

[11] Rossi v. Brown, (Cal. 1995) 889 P.2d 557, 574. (“[T]hrough exercise of the initiative power the people may bind future legislative bodies other than the people themselves”). See also Cty. of Los Angeles v. State, (Cal. 1987) 729 P.2d 202, 209 n.9 (“Whether a constitutional provision which requires a supermajority vote to enact substantive legislation, as opposed to funding the program, may be validly enacted as a Constitutional amendment rather than through revision of the Constitution is an open question.”).

[12] Cal. Const., art. XVIII, § 1, 4; 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 744.

[13] Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist., (Cal. 1978) 583 P.2d 1281, 1286 (posing as a hypothetical example of an invalid revision an initiative constitutional amendment vesting all judicial power in legislature). For an explanation of the idea that a separation of powers analysis applies to electorate legislative acts, See Carrillo, Duvernay, & Stracener, California Constitutional Law: Popular Sovereignty (2017) 68 Hastings L. J. 731.

[14] For background on the unique features of the California separation of powers doctrine, See Carrillo & Chou, California Constitutional Law: Separation of Powers (2011) 45 USF.L.Rev. 655.

[15] Professional Engineers in California Government v. Kempton, (Cal. 2007) 155 P.3d 226, 245; Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist., 583 P.2d at 1286 (does the measure “accomplish such far reaching changes in the nature of our basic governmental plan as to amount to a revision”).

[16] 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 745–46.

[17] Rossi, 889 P.2d at 574; 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 744 and 753.

[18] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *19.

[19] Cal. Const, art. II, § 11(a): “Initiative and referendum powers may be exercised by the electors of each city or county under procedures that the Legislature shall provide. Except as provided in subdivisions (b) and (c), this section does not affect a city having a charter.”

[20] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *1.

[21] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *10.

[22] The opening sentence of the paragraph says as much: “Indeed, as we observed in Kennedy Wholesale, 53 Cal.3d at page 252, 279 Cal.Rptr. 325, 806 P.2d 1360, when an initiative’s intended purpose includes imposing requirements on voters, evidence of such a purpose is clear.”

[23] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *18 n.7.

[24] See, e.g., https://calmatters.org/articles/california-taxes-two-step/ (“The ruling ‘isn’t just a small crack in the protections that voters across the state have relied on—it is a sledgehammer,’ said [Assembly Member] Baker at a press conference.”). And, in fact, Republican members of the Assembly have introduced a constitutional amendment (ACA 19) to overturn the holding of this case. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180ACA19.

[25] Cal. Const. art. XIIIA, § 2(b).

[26] Coleman v. County of Santa Clara, (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 662.

[27] Cal. Const. art. XIIIA, § 1(b)(3).

[28] Rossi, 889 P.2d at 563.

[29] DeVita v. Cty. of Napa, (1995) 9 Cal.4th 763, 775.

[30] California Fed. Savings & Loan Assn. v. Los Angeles, (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1.

[31] Santa Clara County Local Transportation Authority v. Guardino, (1995) 11 Cal.4th 220, 247-48.

[32] Before one assumes the answer is yes, it must be remembered that, as the majority in this case explained, “we have held that the people’s power to propose and adopt initiatives is at least as broad as the legislative power wielded by the Legislature and local governments.” California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *4 (citing cases). If the initiative power is broader, then perhaps explicit permission to place a tax measure on the ballot by initiative is not necessary.

[33] But, again, perhaps the power of initiative is so broad that this power could be found to have been reserved by the people it being explicitly granted to the electorate of a school district.

[34] Another twist. Proposition 62, approved by the voters in 1986, placed limits on local government taxing power very similar to that of Proposition 218 into California statutory law. See, e.g., Cal. Gov’t Code § 53722 (“No local government or district may impose any special tax unless and until such special tax is submitted to the electorate of the local government, or district and approved by a two-thirds vote of the voters voting in an election on the issue.”). The Legislature cannot simply repeal a statute passed by initiative. See Cal Const. art. II, § 10(c); Cal. Gov’t Code § 53729. Presumably Proposition 62 does not bar local tax initiatives any more than Proposition 218 does, but this is another issue that will need to be litigated.

September 25, 2014

Yet Another (Judicial) Incursion Into A State’s Decisions About How to Structure Direct Democracy: The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling in Chula Vista Citizens for Jobs and Fair Competition v. Norris

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

The past year or so has been a rough period for people who support the design of the direct democracy process in California. Last summer, as I explained at the time, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote its Hollingsworth v. Perry ruling (involving Proposition 8, a California initiative banning same-sex marriage) using overly broad reasoning that makes it hard, if not impossible, for official proponents of an initiative to ever defend the measure in federal court when elected representatives decline to defend.

More recently, the California legislature, Governor and state judiciary have themselves all taken actions that violate the state's direct democracy scheme. The legislature passed, and the Governor earlier this month signed, a repeal of parts of an initiative concerning immigration policy, despite the fact that initiatives are not supposed to be subject to ordinary legislative amendment or repeal. To be sure, the initiative at issue in this instance-Proposition 187-deserved to be repealed (insofar as it was a misguided measure from the start). But, as I argued in an earlier column, the legislature and Governor lacked power to repeal it, and yet they did so anyway, without any convincing legal basis.

As for the California judiciary, last month the California Supreme Court, for reasons that I am not fully persuaded by, blocked (at least temporarily) voters from being able to weigh in on Proposition 49, a measure that would have solicited voter views on the desirability of amending the U.S. Constitution to undo the highly publicized Citizens United ruling concerning campaign finance.

In the space below, I describe yet another blow to the California statutes and constitutional provisions that set up the Golden State's direct democracy system. This time, the injury was inflicted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; in June, in Chula Vista Citizens for Jobs and Fair Competition v. Norris, that court invalidated state statutory provisions that require the identities of the official proponents of an initiative be disclosed to would-be signatories of the initiative petition (whose signatures are needed to qualify the measure for the ballot) at the time that signatures are sought.

In striking down the so-called petition-proponent disclosure requirement, the three-judge Ninth Circuit panel found that requiring disclosure amounted to a direct regulation of the content of political speech, and impermissibly burdened, in violation of the First Amendment, the free speech choices of initiative proponents to engage in political expression anonymously. The State of California has requested the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc, but unless something changes, the provisions in California law containing the petition-proponent disclosure requirement are unenforceable.

The Straightforward Case for the Permissibility of Disclosure Requirements

On the face of things, it is hard to understand why California cannot require disclosure of the identity of initiative proponents at the time signatures are sought. After all, the identity of proponents could be very relevant, non-misleading information that many would-be signatories might want to have in deciding whether a measure should be placed on the ballot. And, of course, California need not have an initiative at all; the greater power not to have initiative signature gatherers altogether would seem to subsume the lesser power of allowing them but regulating their activities. Of course, if state law required signature gatherers to disclose certain information in such a way as to create a partisan skew, or to disclose information that was false or misleading, or if the failure to comply with disclosure requirements subjected initiative proponents or signature gatherers to punishment, the First Amendment might very well be violated. But in the case of California's law, the petition-proponent disclosure requirement is not viewpoint based or skewed, and the only consequence of noncompliance with the requirement seems to be that the signatures do not count towards the requisite number needed to place a measure on the ballot; there doesn't seem to be a suggestion that the signature gatherers or initiative proponents would be punished in any other way for their failure to disclose.

Why, then, were these provisions struck down? The fault really lies not mainly with the Ninth Circuit, but rather with the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a few cases has mistakenly said that regulating signature gathering is regulating "petitioning," an activity singled out for protection by the First Amendment, rather than regulating access to the official election ballot, which is subject to much less judicial skepticism. Because of this category recognition mistake-the Supreme Court effectively has, as Justice Scalia put it in the context of a different case, been "faked out" by a label-the Court has subjected signature-gathering rules to "exacting" scrutiny under the First Amendment, rather than a much more generous "reasonableness" standard that normally applies to a state's decisions about how to regulate access to the official ballot. Because of these Supreme Court decisions (described in more depth in the following paragraphs), the three-judge panel really had little recourse but to apply rigorous scrutiny to the state laws. And under that searching review, the disclosure requirements did not survive.

The Misguided Supreme Court Rulings that Constrained the Ninth Circuit

One of the wrongheaded Supreme Court decisions that put the Ninth Circuit in something of a bind here is Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation (ACLF), a 1999 ruling addressing a challenge to Colorado's initiative procedures. Colorado law provided that when a certain number of voters sign up in support of a given state initiative, the measure is placed on the statewide ballot. In ACLF, the Court reviewed and invalidated three particular Colorado regulations governing this process. First, Colorado required that each signature gatherer wear a badge bearing her name and indicating whether or not she was paid to collect the signatures. Second, each gatherer had to be a registered Colorado voter. Third, initiative backers had to disclose monthly exactly how much each gatherer was getting paid.

The Supreme Court struck down all of these state law requirements as violating the right to "petition" government protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, presumably because initiative provisions often use the term "petition" in describing the beginning of the initiative process. The Court held that circulating an "initiative petition" is akin to distributing a handbill, and that Colorado's identity badge requirement was thus squarely foreclosed by a 1995 ruling in which the Court struck down an Ohio law banning the anonymous distribution of campaign handbills. Colorado's other rules met a similar fate; the Court found that requiring signature gatherers to be registered voters impermissibly limited the number of voices in the debate, and the Court held that the financial disclosure requirements impermissibly forced paid gatherers and their backers to surrender the anonymity enjoyed by their volunteer counterparts.'

In reaching these rulings, the Justices relied on Meyer v. Grant, another troubling case (from 1988) in which the Court invalidated another Colorado initiative provision which attempted to prohibit the payment of money to initiative signature gatherers altogether. As in ACLF, the Court in Meyer characterized the question as "involv[ing] a limitation on political expression subject to exacting scrutiny." From there, the Court quickly concluded that "[t]he refusal to permit appellees to pay petition circulators restricts political expression . . . [and that] [t]he First Amendment protects appellees' right not only to advocate their cause but also to select what they believe to be the most effective means for so doing.''

The Court's reasoning in these cases would be plausible if plaintiffs were in fact "petitioning" within the meaning of the First Amendment. But that label is inapt. The Colorado initiative process (like California's) is not about "petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances." It is about circumventing government by engaging in lawmaking itself. Thus, state law did not regulate "petitions" or "speech" at all. Instead, it merely provided that unless signatures were collected in a certain way, they would not count for purposes of qualifying an initiative for the statewide ballot.

In effect, citizens retained the right to collect signatures and present them to the government as a demonstration of the signers' views essentially as a handbill. None of the challenged provisions of Colorado (or California) law said otherwise. This right, however, does not include the right to have signatures count for purposes of triggering an election, when the signatures do not comply with the ballot access rules a state has put in place. No court would deny that I have the right to voice my preference for Jennifer Granholm for President, but I do not have a right to have my vote for Granholm count when that vote is made six months before the presidential election and for a person ineligible to hold the office because she is not a natural-born citizen. Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that content neutral, reasonable ballot access requirements designed to limit the number of candidates or the number or issues placed on a ballot are not subject to strict judicial scrutiny.

If the Court in ACLF (and Meyer) had seen the Colorado laws for what they were (ballot access rules) and not for what they were not (impediments to pure speech) then the Court likely would have come out the other way. It would have evaluated Colorado law, not with reference to the First Amendment's protection of core political speech, but with reference to the Tenth Amendment's protections, buttressed by those provided in the so-called Guarantee Clause, of the core right of the people of each state to structure their lawmaking processes as they desire, so long as they do not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, race, or some other illicit criterion.

The best outcome of the Chula Vista case from the Ninth Circuit would be for the Supreme Court to grant review (assuming that certiorari is, as it should be, sought) and to cut back or overrule altogether the erroneous decisions and reasoning of Meyer and ACLF. That is the only way to avoid future injuries to state direct democracy systems by lower courts.

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.

June 22, 2010

Contesting the Very Meaning of (Small-Town, Agrarian) America(n)

Main Street America scene
Small-town America
Photo by M. Jeremy Goldman

Anyone who is following the debate about immigration and its reform in the United States is familiar with rhetoric disputing what America's core values are as a means of supporting the competing visions for who gets to be an American—or, at least, who gets to be in America legally. Those opposing immigration talk about how the newcomers are changing America too much. Those in favor of more lax immigration laws remind us that the United States has always been a nation of immigrants.

Nowhere is this debate being waged more vigorously than in what might be thought of as America's heartland. I was reminded of that fact this morning when I read that 57% of voters in Fremont, Nebraska, population 25,576, voted in favor of an ordinance that will "banish illegal immigrants from jobs and rental homes." One of the things that makes the Fremont ordinance unusual among anti-immigrant activity by smallish local governments is that residents demanded this referendum—taking the matter all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court—after city officials voted against such an ordinance. Interestingly, the primary reason that the city's political leaders opposed the ordinance appears to be the litigation it is likely to prompt—litigation the municipality can hardly afford. Read more here and here.

The New York Times reporting on these Nebraska events is full of small-town imagery and associations, such as the lack of anonymity that has caused community division over the ordinance to play out in especially personal acts of violence and vandalism. (Don't miss a related multimedia feature here). But what struck me most in reading Monica Davey's story today was the small-town, American values rhetoric being used by both sides. On the one hand, immigration foes in Fremont "complained that illegal immigrants were causing an increase in crime, taking jobs that would once have gone to longtime residents, and changing the character of their quiet city, some 30 miles of farm fields from Omaha." On the other, an opponent of the ordinance said it tells "the Hispanic community that the Anglo community is saying they are not welcome here. They thought they were coming to a small-town community with small-town values."

This talk about "small-town values" and the "character of their quiet city" brought to mind the stasis and homogeneity that has typically marked many rural communities, even those like Fremont that have grown into micropolitan areas. It is not surprising that static and historically homogeneous populations would have a harder time than more cosmopolitan city dwellers adjusting to the changes immigrants bring with them. Current residents of places like Fremont may conveniently forget the Scandinavian or other European immigrants who founded these heartland communities a century and half ago. Others, however, see "small-town values" reflected in the charitable act of welcoming newcomers, of being good neighbors to them. These more welcoming residents often also appreciate the work ethic and family values that Latina/o immigrants in particular bring with them. (I have written some about these issues in the Harvard Latino Law Review here; related posts and news items are here and here).

Thinking about events in Fremont—about this culture clash in the context of the American heartland—reminded me of the agrarian roots of these "quintessentially 'American' spaces" (quoting Steve Striffler, Neither here nor there: Mexican immigrant workers and the search for home, American Ethnologist (2007)). Jim Chen has written of the extraordinary influence of our nation's agrarian past (as well as its evil consequences) on law, and Barbara Pini has written of the moral high ground that farmers enjoy in the Australian context.

In light of the power of the agrarian myth and its positive popular associations, isn't it interesting that so many immigrants are—in some ways—the heirs apparent of our agrarian past? They have become our agrarian present and future in the sense that they are doing so much of the back-breaking, low-paying work associated with intensive production agriculture and how and what we now feed ourselves—from picking crops to processing slaughtered animals. Read related items here, here and here.

Just as interesting (but also deeply troubling) is how America's heartland has become the terroir (and sometimes also the site of terror) for immigration enforcement. Two examples are the National Cattle Congress-turned-immigration court that "processed" detainees from the Postville, Iowa (population 2,273) raid and the raid on a Smithfield hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina (population 70). (More examples are here).

Obscure as rural America has become in our increasingly metro-centric nation, enforcement actions like these and anti-immigrant ordinances in places like Fremont, Nebraska have made rural America some of the most hotly contested terrain in our raging national debate over immigration.

Cross-posted to SALTlaw.org.