Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

First-Reaction Thoughts About Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn

I haven’t read the opinions, concurrence, or dissents in either Hobby Lobby or Harris v. Quinn, so these comments are based on news summaries and quick commentaries by others.  But the biggest surprise in Hobby Lobby, I think, is the express approval, in the opinion and in Kennedy’s concurrence, of HHS’s on-the-fly setup devised in (I think) 2012 as a workaround to allow nonprofit religious organizations (e.g., Catholic colleges) to avoid directly providing the insurance coverage while still enabling the employees to receive the coverage.

The 5-4 outcome of the case apparently relied on this; it was not dictum. Kennedy’ concurrence makes that clear.  (Which is itself a surprise, given Kennedy’s virulent dissent two years ago to Roberts’ opinion upholding much of the ACA itself.)

This is really important, not just as it applies to the contraception issue but also because the HHS-devised workaround has, of course, been attacked by the right as exceeding the authority of the ACA.  As have the other several HHS-promulgated tweaks to the substance of the statute and to its implementation (for example, delays in requiring certain mandates). The Hobby Lobby opinion effectively accepts as legally permissible these substantive and timing HHS-created modifications by HHS to the ACA.

The other thing that strikes me is that, although one commentator writing a few minutes after the release of the opinion thinks otherwise, the opinion does, I think, open the door to diminished corporate-veil protections.

The opinion did not address the First Amendment free-exercise-of-religion clause.  Instead, it interpreted a statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration ACT (RFRA) as protecting closely held for-profit corporations.  The statute provides that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”  The opinion holds that corporations are “persons” within the meaning of the statute.

The commentator–one of the SCOTUSblog folks writing on their live blog as the Court was in session this morning; I can’t remember who, though–pointed out in answer to a question that the opinion interprets a federal statute and that corporate-structure/corporate-veil statutes are state statutes. The opinion doesn’t alter those state statutes.

But it does, I would think, enable and even invite other incursions through the corporate veil, via federal or state statute or state-court interpretation of rights of potential litigants.

The opinion also apparently tacitly acknowledges, without actually deciding, that First Amendment rights of corporations are solely derivative of their owners’ First Amendment rights, and therefore cannot be treated as though delegated to the personal choices of the CEO.  Thus, the ruling in Hobby Lobby is limited to very-closely-held for-profit corporations.  This obviously is a concession to the dismay expressed by many, many people (certainly myself included, here at AB) at Citizens United’s cavalier delegation of individual publicly-held-corporate shareholders’ First Amendment speech rights to the corporation’s CEO for purposes of donating corporate money to political campaigns. Corporate shareholders, including pension funds, are now entitled to sue to block corporate political donations.

Although Alito wrote the majority opinion in both Hobby Lobby and the other case decided today, Harris v. Quinn, neither opinion reflects what he had hoped for.  Harris, like Hobby Lobby, was decided on as narrow grounds as possible–on grounds that avoid constitutional interpretation and that are decided on other grounds limited in scope to, really, the specific facts in the case.

In my post yesterday on Harris, I suggested the possibility (albeit remote, I thought) that Harris could follow somewhat in the footsteps of an opinion in a case called Bond v. United States, decided on June 2.

The majority voted to hear Bond, intending to use it to make a sweeping Conservative-Movement-cause constitutional pronouncement and overrule a longstanding Supreme Court precedent.  But instead, somewhere along the way after the case was argued and John Roberts had assigned himself to write the opinion, one of the five Republicans–I suspect that it was Roberts himself–had a change of heart. Roberts’s opinion has vestiges of the original draft, but decides the case on other (liberal, actually) grounds.  What was intended initially as a major federalism (i.e., states’ rights to violate federal constitutional rights that the political right don’t care about) ruling based upon the alleged structure of the Constitution ended up as a blow to rampant abuse of prosecutorial discretion.  Hooray.

In Harris, the Conservative-movement cause was not neo-federalism but instead the decimation of labor unions, especially of public-employee ones.  The mechanism was to be the First Amendment speech clause, and Alito, who openly coveted the assignment to write the opinion–earlier, in another case, he said he wanted to overrule a 1977 Court opinion, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that was the foundation of the relevant aspect of current labor law–had indicated at the argument in January that he thinks the very existence of public-employee unions violate the First Amendment.

But the best-laid plans went somewhat awry again, and this time apparently it was Scalia (of all people) who threw the first wrench. Scalia reportedly made it known at the argument that the First Amendment speech challenge to the “agency fee” concept in union representation of non-union employees in “union shops”  just doesn’t make sense, in his opinion, even if the union is a public-employee one.

My guess is that Scalia originally agreed only with the bare outcome, but on the limited grounds on which Alito’s opinion ultimately rests: that under the specific Illinois law at issue, the 1977 opinion that approved the “agency fees” didn’t apply to the employees at issue in Harris–home healthcare employees paid by the state’s Medicaid system–because they are employees partially of the state and partially of the customer. My guess also is that somewhere along the way, Alito lost another vote for what was to be his four-justice plurality opinion; one of the four jumped ship and joined Scalia. Alito then was compelled to effectively adopt Scalia’s concurrence as the bottom line–the ruling–in his opinion, but was not compelled to remove the reams of dictum from it that Kagan, in her dissent reportedly mocks at length.*

If my speculation is correct, the substance of the Harris opinion bearing Alito’s name was dictated, literally, by Scalia. In any event, this wasn’t quite the day of victory for Alito & Friends that they had envisioned.  Really, it wasn’t even close to that.

—-

*Typo in sentence corrected, 7/1 at 1:34 p.m. 

UPDATE: Most of what I wrote in this post based on the early summaries and analyses of the opinions, but before I had read the opinions themselves, holds up surprisingly well, I think.  I don’t think you can read the opinion in Harris without recognizing the real likelihood that most of Alito’s opinion was written as one overturning Abood, maybe as a plurality or maybe as a majority opinion, and then one or two of the justices who had signed on to overturning Abood changed his mind.

I hope to write an update post later today, though. 7/1 at 1:37 p.m.

Tags: , , , , , , , Comments (9) | |

Shaken, Not Stirred: The Supreme neo-Framers (likely) will continue their perversion of the First Amendment speech clause tomorrow.

In an email this morning, Bill H asked me whether I know much about a case called Harris v. Quinn, in which the Supreme Court will announce the likely 5-4 majority’s ruling tomorrow.  I responded:

I know LOADS about it, Bill, and wrote about it–and about a bizarre comment by Alito during the argument on the case–right after the argument back in Jan. and have mentioned it two or three times since then.  It is really striking that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to consider the claim: that requiring public employees to pay a fee (not the full union dues, but instead some small percentage of the membership dues as compensation for the union’s legal obligations by which employees who opt out of membership nonetheless gain the benefits of the union contract (pay, benefits, job protections), violates the employee’s First Amendment speech rights.

But what’s downright stunning is that at the argument, Alito said he believed that the very existence of public-employee unions violates the First Amendment because–seriously; he said this–the non-member union-contract beneficiary might want small government.  This, from someone whose first official act as a justice was to join Kennedy (the opinion’s author), Scalia, Thomas and Roberts in ruling that a district attorney did not violate an assistant district attorney’s First Amendment speech rights by retaliating against him for writing an internal memo saying that he believed that a cop had falsified some evidence in obtaining a search warrant.  That opinion, in a case called Garcetti v. Ceballos, was and remains extremely controversial–it was shocking, really–and played a key role in a case, called Lane v. Franks, that the Court decided two weeks ago.

I suggested in my posts about Harris and about that comment by Alito’s during the argument that the non-union beneficiary of a public-employee union contract had the option of quitting his job or refusing the negotiated benefits in order to reduce the size of government.

I had predicted from the outset that the opinion in Harris would be issued on the same as the opinion in Hobby Lobby, so that news coverage of Hobby Lobby would overwhelm coverage of Harris, and I was right. Because of the way in which the Court divvies up majority-opinion-writing among the justices, it is clear that Alito was assigned to write the opinion in Harris.

There is a (very) outside chance that one justice changed his mind since the week of the argument (when the vote was taken and the majority-opinion-writing was assigned), and that someone other than Alito therefore is writing a 5-4 opinion rejecting the outrageous First Amendment claim.  Something sort of like that happened in a case called Bond v. US, argued last Oct. and decided [on Jun. 2], a case that they planned to use to advance their states’-rights juggernaut but instead ended up making an important statement about abuse of prosecutorial discretion–a ground on which they never, ever, would have even considered agreeing to hear the case (okay, maybe they would have, but only because the prosecutor was a federal one, not a state one; but even so, probably not).  In that case the actual outcome didn’t change, nor did the author of the opinion (Roberts), but the basis for the ruling, and the statement of law, changed significantly.

I call Bond the Stirred, Not Shaken opinion.  I have a theory about the reason for Roberts’ late change of heart, and I’ve been intending to post in-depth about it but haven’t yet.

I do expect an outrageous 5-4 opinion by Alito in Harris, though.

Yes, the undermining of public-employee unions–like state-courts’ rights to baldly violate individuals’ non-gun-ownership, non-religious, non-real-estate-regulation-er-takings constitutional rights, and to supersede Congress’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment powers to buttress, say, individuals’ voting rights–is definitely on the List of Circa 1983 Movement Conservative Legislation-via-Supreme-Court-Pronouncement THINGS TO GET DONE.

And done, these things will get. Now that the chief justice has expressly conceded that their end game has been all along a Court-mandated plutocracy in which legislators’ constituents are those who pay to become one, irrespective of any connection between the location of the constituent/benefactor’s voting residence and the legislator/beneficiary’s legislative district–now that these five justices have used the First Amendment speech clause to formally institute a poll tax, and redefined the term “constituent,” and therefore “democracy,” beyond former recognition*–it’s time for them to get back to other uses of the newly reconstructed First Amendment speech clause.  In the name of the Framers.

The original ones, of course!

—-

*In his Apr. 2 opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC, Roberts redefined “constituent” as an American who, irrespective of place of residence, donates to a political campaigns in sufficient amounts to buy the candidate or incumbent’s proxy vote on legislation, and “democracy” as plutocracy.  The specific statement is:

[C]onstituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and respon­sive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.

Ergo–voila! It’s official; we have a plutocracy.

Just in case you were wondering.

[Clarification added 6/29 at 5:08 p.m.]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Comments (3) | |

AWESOME opinion today by Roberts in Bond v. United States!

I’ve written extensively here at AB about a two-time Supreme Court case called Bond v. United States, first three years ago when the case was heard the first time, then in the last few months as the case was heard there again.  My most recent post on it, from May 15, was called “The Supreme Court’s opinion in Bond v. U.S. will be about separation of powers.  But about separation of WHICH powers?”  I updated that post on May 17 to include an exchange between reader Mike Hansberry and me in the Comments thread to the post.

In that exchange of comments, I outlined exactly what I hoped the Court would do in the case–and how, and why.  I haven’t yet read the opinion and the concurrences in the judgment* and won’t have a chance to until later today, but SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe and Tom Goldstein summarized it briefly on the live blog of the Court’s actions this morning, and it appears that the opinion, written by Roberts and joined by Kennedy and the four Dem appointees, is exactly what I said in that post and exchange with Hansberry that I hoped–but did not expect; no one did, best as I could tell–that the Court would do and say.  Here’s their summary from the live blog:

  • Here’s Lyle again. The third and final opinion is Bond v. US. The decision holds that Section 229 does not reach Bond’s simple assault. It is by the Chief Justice.
    by Amy Howe 10:11 AM
    Comment
  • The decision of the Third Circuit is reversed. There are no dissents; there are multiple opinions, however. Scalia has concurred in the judgment, joined by Thomas and in part by Alito. Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Scalia joined and Alito joined in part. Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
    by Amy Howe 10:12 AM
    Comment
  • The Court seems to avoid a major ruling on the Treaty power by limiting the federal criminal statute under which the defendant was charged.
    by tgoldstein 10:13 AM
    Comment
  • The opinion makes clear that the Court does not interpret the scope of the international weapons treaty at issue. The state laws are sufficient to prosecute an assault like the one in this case. There is no indication in the federal law that Congress intended to abandon its traditional reluctance to define as a federal crime conduct controlled as criminal by the states.
    by Amy Howe 10:13 AM
    Comment
  • The separate opinions by the other conservatives likely argue that the Treaty Power should be limited. But the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy do not join them.
    by tgoldstein 10:13 AM
    Comment
  • A quote from the Court’s opinion: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard.”
    by Amy Howe 10:14 AM
    Comment
  • Here is the opinion in Bond.
    by kborkoski 10:16 AM

The surprise basis for the ruling–an actual honest consideration of what Congress’s purpose was, and the breadth Congress actually intended, in enacting the statute at issue–is similar to a ruling on May 19, in an opinion by Ginsburg, concerning a procedural statute.  This is a very good, new development for the current Court (although the three dissenters in that case, a Copyright Act case, called Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, were Roberts, Kennedy and Breyer).

The other big news from the Court this morning–and this is VERY big news–is that the Court agreed to hear two cases filed respectively by the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, both which lost in the lower federal courts.  Amy Howe writes:

The questions at issue in the Alabama redistricting cases involve packing black voters into districts to concentrate their voting strength. In 13-1138, there is a subpart in the question that the Court agreed to hear about whether these plaintiffs have standing to bring their claims of racial gerrymandering.

And, a few minutes later:

Here’s Lyle [Denniston, at the Court]. We have one grant (technically noting of probable jurisdiction), in the two Alabama redistricting cases, Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama (is limited to question one), Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama (question two only).

I probably will write a detailed post on Bond, hopefully tomorrow.  I don’t think I’ll have time today.

—-

*Corrected to say “concurrences in the judgment” rather than “dissents.”  I was really rushed this morning when I inadvertently misstated  that these were dissents, despite Amy Howe’s clear statement that these were concurrences in the judgment, not dissents–a particularly important distinction in this case, and one that highlights the importance of the grounds the majority did choose versus the grounds that they rejected. 6/2 at 8:42

Tags: , , , , , , , , Comments (0) | |

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Bond v. U.S. will be about separation of powers. But about separation of WHICH powers?

Update appended. 5/17 at 1:37 p.m.

—-

I’ve written several times in the last three-plus years about a Supreme Court case called Bond v. U.S. Actually, to be precise, Bond v. U.S. is two Supreme Court cases, although it’s only one lower-court case. This is not unusual, but the case itself is; both the facts and the legal issues are downright weird.

The case first came to the Court in 2010 as a “federalism” (states’ rights!) case, albeit a highly unusual one: Unlike virtually every other criminal-law-related case ni which federalism is at issue, the criminal defendant in this case was prosecuted not in state court but in federal court.  She argued, successfully, to the Supreme Court, on “direct” rather than “collateral” review–a distinction that gives federal criminal defendants an actual shot at Supreme Court review in order to clarify, broaden or narrow criminal or constitutional law; state-court defendants have virtually no chance, and are (very) effectively precluded, by the Supreme Court’s extreme (absurd) interpretation of a federal “jurisdictional” statute, from any such opportunity in the lower federal courts–that she herself had “standing” under the doctrine of federalism to challenge the constitutionality of her federal prosecution. Notwithstanding that she is not a state. But she had been prosecuted under a ridiculously broad reading of a federal anti-terrorism statute, of what should have been a state prosecution.

You have “standing” to sue if there is a direct, actual or imminent injury to you that could be rectified by a favorable court ruling on the issue you want to raise.

Kennedy wrote the opinion, in which he wrote: See, I told you that federalism equals freedom! (Okay, I’m paraphrasing. But you figured that out by yourself.)  Federalism , Kennedy said, is the separation of powers between the federal and the state governments.  Which makes us freer.  Even when it means that state courts (in criminal and civil cases) and prosecutors are free to violate individuals’ constitutional rights. (Okay he didn’t say that latter in that opinion, but he and his colleagues say it regularly in other opinions.)

The Court send the case back to the lower federal appellate court for review of Bond’s substantive claim: Was her prosecution under a ridiculously broad reading of a federal anti-terrorism statute instead of as a run-of-the-mill assault under state criminal law unconstitutional under the doctrine of federalism?  And while her case was in the lower appellate court, she argued that the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act–the statute under which she was prosecuted, and which Congress had enacted under it’s “enumerated” constitutional power to enforce and interpret treaties– was unconstitutional because, well, the part of the treaty that Congress had enacted the statute to enforce, at least as interpreted by Congress in enacting that statute, was an unconstitutional power grab by the executive branch, which had negotiated the treaty.  At least as interpreted by Congress in enacting that statute.

Something like that. I am, I hope it suffices to say, not an expert on international law.  I’m, I just say, way more comfortable discussing the usual federalism (states rights!) controversies than even mentioning, say, treaty law. But I will note that the Constitution’s Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, enumerates that the President “shall have Power, by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”

Bond lost in the lower court on both her grounds, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case again.  The case was argued last November, in the same group of argument “sittings” as Town of Greece v. Galloway.

I had assumed until last week, when Town of Greece was released, that Kennedy would write the opinion in Bond–another ode-to-federalism-because-it-means-freedom opinion–and that Roberts would write the opinion in Town of Greece. (They sort of balance things that way.)  But I was wrong about that. Kennedy wrote Town of Greece and Roberts is writing (or has written; the opinion might be issued on Monday) Bond.  And Vanderbilt law prof. Ingrid Wuerth, who is an expert on international law, writes that she expects it to be a blockbuster.

Wuerth says, if I understand her correctly, that she expects that the opinion will substantially rewrite (i.e., limit) the extent of the federal government’s treaty powers–under some theory of the “structure” of the federal government under the original Articles.

I think it will use a different part of the original Constitution, though, than the one that structures the federal government so that Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, and the habeas corpus provision in the Constitution’s Article I and much of the Fourteenth Amendment (as necessary), are largely nullities. This part of the Constitution, I expect, will have been written not by James Madison, or by Oliver Wendell Holmes (to whom credit will be given, nonetheless), but instead by the Koch brothers, who await this ruling.  The purpose of which will have nothing much to do with terrorism–except the environmental kind that Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and coal-fired power plants perpetuate.

—-

UPDATE: Reader Mike Hansberry and I exchanged the following comments in the Comments thread to this post:

HANSBERRY:  Your comment puzzles me. If the Court rules that the federal government overreached in prosecuting Ms Bond, that will strengthen Reid v. Covert, which teaches that the Treaty clause does not empower the Pres. and Senate to override Const,. protections, rather than weaken it. In my opinion, the court ought to expand on Reid and say that the Treaty clause does not empower the Pres. and Senate to violate structural principles any more than it allows them to violate enumerated protections.

Moreover the Court could simply say that the treat power extends as far as Missouri v Holland, but no further. So there is no need whatever to for this ruling to have an impact on the law as it stands.

ME:  Your comment indicates that you understand perfectly the point of my post, Mike.  Reid v. Covert indeed teaches that the Treaty clause does not empower the president and Senate to override the Constitution’s protections guaranteed to individual American citizens, in that case, to a U.S. citizen living abroad and tried and convicted, by a military tribunal, of murdering her husband.

I do understand that a major part of the Conservative Legal Movement is to privilege states’ alleged rights over the rights of the federal government and the rights of individuals who aren’t rightwing culture warriors, and attribute this to, as I put it in a new post on this blog, “the Constitution–by its structure, its history, its … whatever.  Whatever, usually being some comment by one of its framers (almost always James Madison, the unwitting mascot of today’s far right), or a pre-Civil War Supreme Court opinion.”

You acknowledge that a ruling in Bond that expands Reid’s “teaching” that the Treaty clause does not empower the president and Senate to override the Constitution’s protections guaranteed to individual American citizens–a ruling that expands it to a “teaching” that the Treaty clause does not empower the president and Senate to override the Constitution’s alleged sovereignty guaranteed to individual states American citizens–would be a clear expansion of Reid’s teaching.  It would, in fact, be not just an expansion but an alteration of the purpose Reid’s teaching, which was to protect individuals, not states, from evisceration of the Constitution’s direct guarantees to individuals.

The question is not whether a treaty can supersede the Constitution’s structure, but instead the right’s claim that the Constitution’s structure is, in essence, the right’s legislative agenda.  That is, the question is: What actually is the Constitution’s structure. In this case–and, really, this case only–a ruling for Bond based on the right’s claims about the Constitution’s structure also would reflect the left’s idea of the Constitution’s structure, but in an entirely different respect.  Carol Bond should win, but because her own individual constitutional rights were violated by a bizarre application of a federal statute.  She should not have to piggyback on some rightwing claim that states, and especially state courts and state prosecutors, are sovereigns whenever they choose to be, including whenever they choose to violate a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights.

THAT would avoid a de facto reversal of what Holmes actually wrote in Missouri v. Holland, as I read that opinion.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , Comments (11) | |

The Supreme Court’s Runaway AEDPA Train–And What Can Be Done About It Via Collateral Judicial Review. (Yes, this is technical language, but bear with me. I explain it.)

UPDATE: Elena Kagan served as an Associate White House Council in the Clinton administration in 1995-96, when AEDPA was being drafted and negotiated.

 

—-

“Freedom” does not include actual physical non-imprisonment; to the contrary, “freedom” means states’–or actually, state courts’–and prosecutors’ freedom to violate criminal defendants’ constitutional rights, to their heart’s content.

— Me, Angry Bear, Apr. 5

For about 24 hours this week, specifically between Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning, I thought that might be about to change.  The issue in Tuesday’s big affirmative action case, Scheutte v. BAMN, was not actually affirmative action.* It was instead whether a state voter initiative that amends the Constitution and that singles out minority races erects unconstitutionally high barriers to racial minorities’ practical ability to obtain a change in that policy, because it removes the possibility of gaining a change through the normal political and governmental processes.

Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion for himself, Roberts and Alito. Roberts also wrote a separate concurring opinion.  Breyer joined only in the outcome, writing a separate opinion only for himself. Scalia, joined by Thomas, wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg, wrote a dissenting opinion.  Kagan did not participate.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Comments (10) | |