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Archive for February, 2012

By my count, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops filed amicus curiae briefs in 22 cases during the Rehnquist Court. (For a spreadsheet showing USCCB amicus briefs and Justices’ votes for OT86-OT10, see here. Please let me know if the spreadsheet contains any errors.) Ten of the briefs dealt with religious liberty (encompassing statutory, Free Exercise, and Establishment Clause cases); six addressed abortion; three were about end-of-life issues; two involved the death penalty; and one addressed associational freedom. The chart below provides for crude comparisons among the Justices, placing them in an array of more or less agreement in their votes for the party (petitioner or respondent) supported by the USCCB’s amicus curiae briefs. Direct comparisons cannot be made among all the Justices due to the changing composition of the Court over this time period.

Justice Name

Agreement with Bishops’ Conference as Percentage of Cases

Agreement with Bishops’ Conference as Fraction of Cases

Justice White

100%

10/10

Justice Scalia (Catholic)

86%

19/22

Justice Kennedy (Catholic)            86%

18/21

Chief Justice Rehnquist

82%

18/22

Justice Thomas (Catholic)

79%

11/14

Justice O’Connor

77%

17/22

Justice Breyer

58%

7/12

Justice Souter

53%

8/15

Justice Brennan (Catholic)

43%

3/7

Justice Ginsburg

42%

5/12

Justice Stevens

36%

8/22

Justice Blackmun

20%

2/10

Justice Marshall

13%

1/8

The point of counting votes in this particular way is not to assess the influence of the Bishops’ Conference. It is highly doubtful that the Conference’s presence or absence as amicus curiae has had any effect on how the Justices voted. The point, instead, is to define the universe of cases in which the Bishops have an interest in the outcome and to see how hospitable various Justices have been to the claims advanced by the parties supported by the Bishops’ Conference amicus curiae briefs.

[Cross-posted at CLR Forum]

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During his time on the Rehnquist Court, Justice Brennan voted in seven cases in which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the “USCCB” or “Bishops’ Conference”) filed an amicus curiae brief. He voted for the party supported by the Bishops’ Conference in three out of those seven cases. By contrast, during his time on the Rehnquist Court, Justice White voted in ten cases in which the USCCB filed an amicus curiae brief (the same seven as Justice Brennan, plus three more). He voted for the party support by the Bishops’ Conference in all ten of those cases.

The low level of agreement between Justice Brennan and the Bishops’ Conference is notable given that Justice Brennan was the last beneficiary of a so-called “Catholic seat” on the Supreme Court.  And Justice Brennan’s voting pattern presents an interesting contrast with Justice White’s.  The contrast is noteworthy because President Kennedy appointed White. As the country’s first (and thus far only) Catholic President, Kennedy could not politically afford to nominate a Catholic to the Supreme Court.  By contrast, Brennan’s Catholicism was an important factor in making him an attractive nominee for Eisenhower.  Thus, one reason that Brennan was appointed is that he was a Catholic, while one reason White was appointed is that he was not a Catholic.  Yet White ended up consistently voting with the Catholic bishops on the Rehnquist Court, while Justice Brennan had one of the lowest rates of agreement during the same time period.

There were five other Justices who voted in all ten cases in which the Bishops’ Conference filed an amicus curiae brief and in which Justice White voted: Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Blackmun, Justice Stevens, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Scalia. Rehnquist and Scalia joined White in voting for the party supported by the Bishops’ Conference in all ten of these cases. Justice O’Connor voted for that party in eight out of those ten cases, Justice Stevens in three, and Justice Blackmun in two. In the first several years of the Rehnquist Court, then, the three Justices with the best track record from the point of view of the Bishops’ Conference consisted of two Protestants (Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice White) and one Catholic (Justice Scalia).

[Cross-posted at CLR Forum]

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For the next few weeks, I’ll be be guest-blogging over at CLR Forum, the blog associated with the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. Some of the posts will discuss various aspects of a paper I’ve been working on that I recently presented at a law and religion conference at Pepperdine. I’ve reproduced my first CLR post below, and will continue to cross-post during my guest stint there. (more…)

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Applying Virginia law, the Fourth Circuit today interpreted a commercial insurance policy that required the insurer to “pay for all loss resulting from a claim for a wrongful act” to include coverage for liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees that may be ordered in a FLSA overtime and backpay case. The court held that the insurer had a duty to defend its insured and a duty to indemnify beyond any payments due as back wages. (Back wages would not be “losses” “caused” by the FLSA violation, but rather payments that must be made according to a pre-existing duty.)  Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion for the court in Republican Franklin Insurance Company v. Albemarle County School Board, in which Judge Motz and Judge Floyd joined.

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Last Friday, the Fourth Circuit dismissed as non-justiciable the appeal of a judgment in a challenge to potential improvements to specific sections of I-81. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion for the Court in Shenandoah Valley Network v. Capkawhich was joined in by Judge King and Judge Keenan. The I-81 improvement project will take place in two tiers. This litigation arose at the end of Tier 1, before Tier 2 had run its course. The nub of the dispute was the extent to which decisions made at Tier 1 would foreclose consideration of alternatives at Tier 2. The court concluded that the appellants were mistaken about the extent of foreclosure at Tier 2. The court was satisfied that, once the parties’ positions were clear, there was no actual dispute giving rise to a case or controversy. Accordingly, dismissal was warranted: “Because such [an actual] dispute is lacking here–and because we cannot issue an advisory opinion–we have no authority to adjudicate this suit.” The court also cashed out its justiciability conclusion in standing terms: There was no injury or threat of imminent injury.

One interesting feature of the decision comes in a footnote at the end, in which the court notes that it would not order vacatur of the district court’s judgment: “The gist of the district court’s ruling is that the review process should be allowed to move beyond Tier 1 to Tier 2. Because vacatur is an equitable remedy, U.S. Bancorp Mortg. Co. v. Bonner Mall P’Ship, 513 U.S. 18, 29 (1994), and because the balance of factors reveals no good reason to vacate the district court’s ruling, we decline to do so.” This reasoning, and the court’s careful phrasing of the justiciability problem (i.e., “there remains nothing to dispute” and “no justiciable controversy lingers”) suggests that the justiciability problem was not a pure standing issue, but some combination of mootness (of claims about Tier 1) and ripeness (of claims about Tier 2) .

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit held today that BP could enforce a restrictive covenant in a deed against a purchaser who sought to use the purchased property for a gas station selling different gas than agreed to in the sale of the property. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion in BP Products, North America, Inc. v. Stanley, which was joined in by Judge Shedd. Judge Floyd authored a dissenting opinion.

From the majority opinion:

The parties agree that under Virginia law, covenants “restricting the free use of land are not favored and must be strictly construed.” Mid-State Equip. Co. v. Bell, 225 S.E.2d 877, 884 (Va. 1976). They disagree, however, regarding the test by which such covenants should be judged. Defendants argue that the restriction should be judged by the standard discussed in Omniplex World Services Corp. v. U.S. Investigations Services, Inc., 618 S.E.2d 340, 342 (Va. 2005), which applies to noncompete covenants in employment contracts. BP contends that restrictive covenants in deeds are judged by a different standard, namely the one discussed in Merriman v. Cover, Drayton & Leonard, 51 S.E. 817, 819 (Va. 1905), and that the Omniplex and Merriman tests are distinct from one another. We agree with BP.

* * *

BP advances multiple arguments challenging the ruling by the district court that the PR was overbroad as a result of its
application to the sale of these enumerated items. BP first argues that, as a petroleum refiner, it has a legitimate business
interest in prohibiting the sale of any products that would dilute the demand for BP’s petroleum. BP also maintains that
the PR should be read to prohibit the sale of kerosene, benzol, or naphtha only to the extent those products are used for the
sale of fuel for internal combustion engines. Finally, BP argues that it is not seeking to prevent the sale of lubricants and that any prohibition of such sales “is academic and represents far too slender a reed on which to invalidate the entire Petroleum Restriction, and thereby allow Stanley to use the Property to sell non-BP fuel, the very use the parties indisputably intended that the Property could not be put.” Appellant’s brief at 48.

From the dissent:

BP contends that we can enforce the PR regardless of any overbreadth simply by excising the offending language. And, since oral argument, BP purportedly has released Stanley from the overbroad portions of the PR. See Ante at 13 n.3. Nevertheless, I cannot conclude that the PR becomes enforceable through alteration by the court or BP. First, Virginia law disfavors judicial reformation of covenants through bluepenciling. See Strategic Enter. Solutions, Inc. v. Ikuma, No. CL 2008-8153, 2008 WL 8201356, at *4 (Va. Cir. Ct. Oct. 7, 2008) (“The Virginia Supreme Court has not directly ruled on ‘blue-penciling’ overly broad clauses in restrictive covenants[;] however it is clear from the restrictive covenant jurisprudence in Virginia that the Court does not entertain the notion that these disfavored restraints on trade should be reformed by the judiciary . . . .”); Daston Corp. v. MiCore Solutions, Inc., No. CL-2010-9318, 2010 WL 7375597, at *5 (Va. Cir. Ct. July 30, 2010); Better Living Components, Inc. v. Coleman, No. CH04-13,307, 2005 WL 771592, at *5 (Va. Cir. Ct. Apr. 6, 2005). More fundamentally, however, Virginia law supports narrowly drawn covenants that are reasonable, and general public policy encourages parties to draft precise language on which all participants to a contract can  rely. Allowing BP, a multinational, sophisticated corporation, to draft blatantly overbroad restrictions and then, when challenged, simply declare that such restrictions are a mistake and meaningless not only is contrary to basic contract principles, but also is detrimental to the public interest. Accordingly, I find that the PR’s overbreadth spoils its enforceability and dissent from the majority’s contrary conclusion.

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Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch contains an op-ed that I authored about the availability of a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for religious organizations that object to the contraceptives mandate. The policy changes announced Friday are certainly a step in the right direction. But the RFRA litigation will continue.

The ending of the op-ed–written earlier in the week and quickly revised immediately after the President’s announcement on Friday afternoon–is more tentative than I now believe is warranted. I wrote: “Should legal action continue to be necessary — and it very well could as more details of the administration’s changed plan take shape — the federal courts remain open for the enforcement of Congress’ broad understanding of religious liberty against an unreliable executive branch.”

If Friday’s announcement is the Administration’s “final offer,” continued litigation will be necessary. The reason why is captured well in the following statement by a group of distinguished legal scholars:

The reason for the original bipartisan uproar was the administration’s  insistence that religious employers, be they institutions or individuals, provide insurance that  covered services they regard as gravely immoral and unjust. Under the new rule, the government  still coerces religious institutions and individuals to purchase insurance policies that include the very same services.

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Comments by Vice President Joe Biden yesterday suggest a more conciliatory approach by the Administration toward religious liberty objections to the contraceptives mandate. The Vice President said that people have not focused enough on the additional year that the HHS gave objecting institutions for coming into compliance: “There’s going to be a significant attempt to work this out, and there’s time to do that. And as a practicing Catholic, you know, I am of the view that this can be worked out and should be worked out and I think the president, I know the president, feels the same way.”

The Administration has less time than it may think to “work this out.” Thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, the Administration will need to answer in federal court well before another year has expired. The operative regulation is an “Interim Final Rule” approved on July 28, 2011, effective August 1, 2011, and published in the Federal Register on August 3, 2011 at 76 Fed. Reg. 46,621. The “interim” label does not prevent this regulation from being final agency action that is challengeable in federal court under the Administrative Procedure Act. Moreover, the “interim” label does not control the standing or ripeness analysis in any of the lawsuits that have been filed to date.  To the extent that the Vice President’s comments might suggest a rope-a-dope rulemaking strategy for the Administration to avoid having to answer in federal court for its violation of religious liberty, that strategy should not succeed.

In any event, the Vice President’s interpretation of the purpose of the one-year cannot be squared with the HHS’s announcement of it (an announcement that coincided, but not coincidentally, with marking of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade). As the announcement makes clear, the one-year period is for religious objectors to come into compliance–a transitional period for the groups to accommodate themselves to the new legal order imposed upon them. The HHS announcement provided every indication of having made a firm decision and no indication that its position, rather than that of the objectors, would yield.

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Linda Greenhouse’s Opinionator column today addresses “the escalating conflict over the new federal requirement that employers include contraception coverage without a co-pay in the insurance plans they make available to their employees.” The most interesting aspect of the column is what is missing from its legal analysis: any consideration of all the other ways that the Administration could ensure widespread access to low-cost contraception without violating the religious liberty of religious objectors. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that the “tags” for the column are “birth control” and “Roman Catholic Church,” rather than “religious liberty” or “conscience.”

After beginning by criticizing the rhetoric of mandate opponents and noting the silence of mandate supporters on the question of conscience, Greenhouse states that “the purpose of this column is to examine the conscience claim itself, directly, to see whether it holds up.” But Greenhouse’s framing of the analysis reflects a basic misapprehension of the legal protections for religious liberty already embedded in federal law. Greenhouse writes that objecting religious institutions claim “a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law.” That is wrong: the objecting religious institutions claim that the mandate violates federal law. They do not argue that conscience “trumps law.” Far from placing conscience over law, the objecting institutions advance a claim under the law.

After misframing the issue as whether conscience trumps law, Greenhouse devotes two paragraphs to explaining why “that is not a principle that our legal system embraces.” These two paragraphs discuss the Supreme Court’s discussion in Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 decision authored by Justice Scalia. Only after discussing Smith does Greenhouse turn to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). In the journalism business, this is known as burying the lede. The RFRA is where the principal legal action will be in the lawsuits challenging the contraceptives mandate.

Having submerged the real legal basis for the objectors’ claims, Greenhouse then leaves out the part of the RFRA‘s test that will be hardest for the Administration to satisfy. The RFRA provides that the federal government cannot substantially burden the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest. Yet Greenhouse’s discussion contains no mention at all of the “least restrictive means” part of the test. Instead, Greenhouse says that a RFRA challenge “would pit the well-rehearsed public health arguments . . . against religious doctrine.” The omission is telling, because the weakest part of the government’s case will be this least restrictive means requirement. There are so many other ways for the federal government to accomplish its objectives that it should lose the RFRA claims on precisely this point.

Earlier in her column, Greenhouse notes the lack of a “full-throated defense” of the contraceptives mandate, “except on pure policy grounds.” The best explanation for the silence of the mandate supporters with respect to religious liberty may be the simplest: nobody likes to pick a fight that they cannot win.

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The Fourth Circuit issued two published opinions in argued cases today.

In McDaniel v. Blust, the court affirmed dismissal of several claims that arose out a bankruptcy proceeding. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Judge Gregory and Judge Wynn. The opinion addresses the contours of the Barton doctrine, which provides that “before another court may obtain subject-matter jurisdiction over a suit filed against a receiver for acts committed in his official capacity, the plaintiff must obtain leave of the court that appointed the receiver.”

In United States v. Sarwari, the court affirmed the convictions and sentence of a man who submitted passport applications for his stepchildren, describing himself  as their “father” even though he was neither their birth father nor adoptive father. Judge Motz wrote the opinion for the court, which was joined in by Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Keenan. The opinion focuses primarily on the Bronston defense. In Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 (1973), “the Supreme Court held that an individual cannot be convicted of perjury when the allegedly false statement was ‘literally true but not responsive to the question asked and arguably misleading by negative implication.” In Sarwari, the panel first assumed without deciding that the Bronston defense was available against the particular false statement charges advanced by the government. The panel then proceeded to hold that the facts of the case did not fit within the defense. The panel reasoned that the term “father” is not “fundamentally ambiguous,” and that the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude that the defendant understood the term in the same way that it was understood by the government.

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The Fourth Circuit today unanimously reversed the grant of habeas relief to a North Carolina capital defendant, Timothy Richardson, by Judge Boyle of the Eastern District of North Carolina. Judge Keenan wrote the opinion for the court in Richardson v. Branker, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Motz joined.

The decision, which relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision last Term in Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ,___ 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011), rests on the appellate court’s determination that the district court did not demonstrate adequate deference to the state court decision at issue. The opinion states that the “required deference to the MAR court’s adjudication of Richardson’s claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel was wholly lacking in the district court’s consideration of the habeas petition.”

Along with analysis of North Carolina law governing when it is necessary to submit to the jury the mitigating factor of the defendant’s age–the (f)(7) mitigation factor–the opinion also discusses Brady and Atkins claims.

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Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog has a post discussing the Solicitor General’s Supreme Court filing that requests additional argument time for the Anti-Injunction Act arguments and sets forth the various parties’ positions regarding the distribution of argument time on the other issues.

While the Solicitor General and the challengers to § 5000A agree that the AIA should not be interpreted to bar the present pre-enforcement challenges, they disagree on why. The DOJ has offered a narrow argument, focused on specific features of § 5000A. While the challengers agree with this narrow argument, they also offer broader arguments that the DOJ sees as a threat to its long-term institutional interest in the proper application of the Anti-Injunction Act:

The Government and both sets of respondents take the position that, contrary to the submission by the amicus, this suit challenging the constitutionality of the minimum coverage provision is not barred by the AIA. All the parties therefore seek the same bottom-line result on this issue – i.e., a holding that the AIA does not bar the Court from considering the merits of that challenge. But the Government, alone among the parties, has a critical long-term institutional interest in the sound application of the AIA, because the Government has been and will continue to be the defendant in numerous cases in this Court and the lower courts in which the AIA is at issue. It therefore is important that there be an opportunity for counsel for the Government to present, and for the Court to consider, a full explanation of the Government’s position, which will be afforded by our proposed allocation. By contrast, respondents’ primary interest in the AIA issue is that this particular case should be permitted to proceed – a position with which, as noted above, the Government agrees.

The nature of the arguments presented by the parties further supports the allocation of argument time proposed above. The Government argues that the text of 26 U.S.C. 5000A (Supp. IV) as added by the Affordable Care Act, when read together with other relevant provisions of the Internal Revenue Code, does not trigger the AIA’s bar. Respondents have not taken issue with that submission, and they will receive full relief on the AIA issue if the Court agrees with it, because the Court in that event would be able to consider the challenge to the constitutionality of the minimum coverage provision. But respondents also advance additional, and broader, arguments in support of the proposition that the AIA does not bar their suits. States Cert.-Stage Br. 14- 18; NFIB Cert.-Stage Br. 14-16. The Government does not agree with those additional arguments by respondents, which in the Government’s view are contrary to the text, purposes, and judicial construction of the AIA. See Gov’t Cert.-Stage Reply Br. 2-11. Counsel for the Government therefore must have sufficient time at oral argument not only to advance the Government’s position that the AIA does not bar respondents’ challenge to the minimum coverage provision and to oppose the amicus’s contrary position, but also to oppose respondents’ additional arguments against application of the AIA. Respondents, by contrast, will have no need to devote any of their argument time to opposing the Government’s argument for why the AIA does not bar their challenge.

SG Motion for Additional Time for Oral Argument and for Allocation of Argument Time Nos. 11-393, 11-398, 11-400 (emphasis added).

My own view–formed without the benefit of the anti-AIA briefs to be filed soon–is that the federal government and the challengers are both wrong and that the AIA does bar a pre-enforcement challenge to § 5000A of the tax code (a/k/a the individual mandate). The federal government properly opposes the challengers’ broader rationales for disregarding the AIA. But the federal government’s change of position on the AIA is difficult to square with the text of § 5000A and the congressional design that it reflects. And it is easy to see how both political and pragmatic considerations, rather than straight-on legal analysis, drove the federal government to switch from initially arguing that the AIA does bar pre-enforcement challenges to the present position that it does not.

It may also be worth noting that the push for both sets of challengers to have argument time on the AIA is yet another unfortunate consequence of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision not to address the States’ lack of a justiciable challenge to the individual mandate. (For argument in support of this claim, see my Eleventh Circuit amicus brief in Florida v. HHS or section II.D of The Ghost that Slayed the Mandate.)

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The papers from the “Everything But the Merits” symposium on the healthcare litigation held at the University of Richmond School of Law last November (11/11/11) will be published in the March 2012 issue of the University of Richmond Law Review. Draft versions of several are now available on SSRN. The paper with the most immediate relevance to the ongoing litigation is Edward Hartnett’s, which addresses the topic of facial and as-applied challenges.

Here are links to the currently available SSRN versions of the papers:

A. Christopher Bryant (Cincinnati), Constitutional Forbearance

Tobias A. Dorsey (Federal Practice), Sense and Severability

Edward A. Hartnett (Seton Hall), Facial and As-Applied Challenges to the Individual Mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Elizabeth Weeks Leonard (Georgia), The Rhetoric Hits the Road: State Resistance to Affordable Care Act Implementation

Kevin C. Walsh (Richmond), The Anti-Injunction Act, Congressional Inactivity, and Pre-Enforcement Challenges to Section 5000A of the Tax Code

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I recently posted to SSRN a draft version of the paper that arose out of my participation in the “Everything But the Merits” symposium on the healthcare litigation held at the University of Richmond School of Law last November (11/11/11). The papers from the symposium will be published in the March 2012 issue of the University of Richmond Law Review.

The title of my paper is The Anti-Injunction Act, Congressional Inactivity, and Pre-Enforcement Challenges to Section 5000A of the Tax Code.

Abstract below.

(more…)

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A wife obtained a domestic violence protective order in Alexandria (VA) Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court against her husband based on his aggressive behavior and threat to kill her (a threat made credible, in part, by her husband’s prior combat experience in the Navy). The order included a bolded, all caps warning stating that “while this protective order is in effect, you may be subject to a federal penalty under the 1994 amendment to the Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8), for possessing, transporting, or receiving a firearm.” Here’s what happened next:

Just over one hour after the court issued the order and an officer served it on [the husband], [he] entered the Sharpshooters firearms retail store and small arms range in Lorton, Virginia. There, [he] paid for a monthly membership, rented a Glock 22 handgun, and purchased two boxes of ammunition containing fifty rounds each. He proceeded to a firing lane for approximately thirty minutes of shooting, after which he returned the gun and left the range. Shortly thereafter, [the wife] contacted the police when she arrived home to find [the husband's] Sharpshooters membership card near the door inside her apartment.

The husband was convicted and sentenced on two counts of possessing a firearm or ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which prohibits possession by individuals subject to a domestic violence protective order. On appeal, the husband argued that his convictions violated the Second Amendment and that it was plain error to convict and sentence him on two separate counts for the simultaneous possession of a firearm and ammunition.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Wilkinson, and joined by Judge Wynn and Judge Floyd, the Fourth Circuit held in United States v. Mahin that the convictions did not violate the Second Amendment but that it was plain error to convict and sentence on two counts instead of one.

From the Second Amendment analysis:

[O]ur precedent indicates the district court is not required to speculate on a case-by-case basis what violent acts may have unfolded had the government failed to prosecute under § 922(g)(8). In Chapman we noted specifically that a conviction under § 922(g)(8)(A)-(B) and (C)(ii) is constitutional even if the statute’s “prohibitory net . . . may be somewhat over-inclusive” in reaching persons who would not misuse a firearm if permitted to possess one. Chapman, 2012 WL 11235, at *8. For intermediate scrutiny has never been held to require a perfect end-means fit. It is sufficient that § 922(g)(8) rests on an established link between domestic abuse, recidivism, and gun violence and applies to persons already individually adjudged in prior protective orders to pose a future threat of abuse. The obvious utility of Congress’ chosen means in advancing Congress’ indisputably important ends relieves trial courts of the need to ruminate in every case on what might have been if not for an indictment under § 922(g)(8).

From the plain error analysis and conclusion:

In United States v. Dunford, 148 F.3d 385 (4th Cir. 1998), we held that the defendant’s simultaneous possession of multiple firearms and ammunition supported only one count of conviction under § 922(g). Mahin’s indictment included two counts under §922(g)(8), one for the possession of a firearm and the other for the simultaneous possession of ammunition at the Sharpshooters firing range, which under Dunford constitutes only one violation. In light of Dunford, we agree with Mahin that the district court committed plain error in convicting and sentencing Mahin on both counts of the indictment. Because the court sentenced Mahin on each count and imposed a special assessment of $100 for each conviction, its rror affected Mahin’s substantial rights. We therefore affirm Mahin’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8) as to count one, reverse his conviction as to count two for possession of ammunition while subject to a protective order, vacate his sentence, and remand for the limited purpose of resentencing in accordance with this decision.

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A Maryland jury awarded $2 million for lead poisoning of an infant girl at a property in Baltimore. The award was reduced to $850,000 under a Maryland law limiting non-economic damages. The plaintiff sought to collect the full $850,000 from Penn National, an insurance company that provided liability insurance to one of the property’s owners for a portion of the period of lead exposure. Penn National filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court seeking a declaration that it was responsible for paying only the pro rata portion of the damages award corresponding to the months during the exposure period that its policy covered the property.

In Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance v. Roberts, issued today, the Fourth Circuit unanimously held that the insurer was responsible only for a pro rata  portion of the damages awarded and that the district court had improperly expanded the number of months that the insurer’s coverage was effective. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Duncan and Judge Gergel (D.S.C., sitting by designation) joined.

Some excerpts:

 

At bottom, an insurance contract is an agreement to accept a premium in exchange for a contractually defined risk. If an insurance company cannot limit its risk to a defined period, it will be unable to determine the precise risks assumed under a contract, which in turn will prevent it from accurately pricing coverage. Not only will this hinder rational underwriting, but the higher premiums necessary to compensate for this rising uncertainty will be passed on to policyholders everywhere. Because we do not wish to force “insureds to bear the expense of increased premiums necessitated by the erroneous expansion of their insurers’ potential liabilities,” see Bao v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 532, 541 (D. Md. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), we refuse to adopt Roberts’s approach.

* * *

We recognize that Roberts unfortunately may not be able
to recover her entire judgment from either [of the property's actual owners]. It is a dispiriting but inescapable fact that sometimes really bad things happen, and those responsible are either insolvent or inadequately insured. But that regrettable reality does not allow us to ignore Maryland law, to hold an insurance company to a contractual provision to which it never agreed, or to scramble together whole areas of law that are conceptually distinct. The district court was right to allocate Penn National’s liability using the pro-rata time on-the-risk approach.

* * *

The law may not be difficult here, but the human costs incurred are undeniably hard. It is sad that Roberts may recover only partially on her judgment. The jury obviously believed this child suffered significant brain damage from lead poisoning and that Attsgood and Gondrezick were liable. The condition of the property and the failure to procure appropriate insurance were the property owners’ responsibility. Roberts’s misfortune cannot be laid at Penn National’s feet, for that company has not disputed that it must pay that portion of the judgment to which its policy applied. To place the entire judgment on the insurer would be chaotic, rewarding those who decline to purchase adequate coverage and ultimately punishing those who do. This would lead in turn to more uncovered risks and lessened opportunities for the recompense of serious loss.

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A story by Ariane de Vogue of ABC News and a blog post by Steve Vladeck at Lawfare provide additional reporting and analysis of last week’s en banc Fourth Circuit oral argument in the Al-Quraishi and Al Shimari cases (links are to the now-vacated panel opinions). It is clear from the commentary that the federal government’s position is almost certainly understood differently inside the court than outside of it–perhaps deliberately so. If the Fourth Circuit does conclude that it lacks appellate jurisdiction, I would expect that the cases make their way back to the Fourth Circuit before they make substantial forward progress in the district court.

For those who have not been following these cases: The merits revolve around the potential tort liability of military contractors that assisted the United States military at Abu Ghraib. But the primary focus of the en banc court’s consideration was on appellate jurisdiction.

The appeals came to the Fourth Circuit based on the collateral order doctrine, which is an interpretation/implied exception to the finality requirement of 28 U.S.C. 1291. An alternative route to the Fourth Circuit’s reaching the merits of the appeal would be a remand for lack of jurisdiction (perhaps accompanied by a stay), followed by certification of a controlling question of law pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1292(b). In a deft tactical retreat, counsel for defendant L-3 Services at oral argument suggested such a path as an alternative to straight-up dismissal of the appeal.

 

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The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous published opinion today in Gentry v. Siegel looks to be important reading for bankruptcy lawyers and class action lawyers with putative class actions against a company that enters into bankruptcy before a class is certified. The decision arises out of notices of claim filed by lawyers who had filed putative wage-and-hour class actions against Circuit City. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Judge Shedd and Judge Davis joined.

I will leave it to subject-matter experts to digest the analysis, which begins with the following statement:

The Named Claimants’ efforts to pursue class actions in this bankruptcy case reveal gaps in the Bankruptcy Rules and raise some difficult procedural issues about the manner in which the Bankruptcy Rules provide for class actions in bankruptcy cases, as authorized by Rules 7023 and 9014.

The intrepid reader who continues onward will encounter some of these important-looking statements:

It is not completely clear that Civil Rule 23 could ever be applied to a contested matter. . . . For purposes of our holding, we assume, without deciding, that the Civil Rule 23 process could be applied to the resolution of a contested matter. [p. 8, n.1, emphasis in original]

* * *

[T]he Trustee’s construction of the Bankruptcy Rules is unduly cramped and unsuited for application by a court in equity seeking, by application of the Bankruptcy Rules, to accomplish the purposes of the Bankruptcy Act. The Bankruptcy Rules are tools, which include Rule 7023 and derivatively Civil Rule 23, by which the bankruptcy court as a court of equity is to accomplish the Act’s purposes. In the absence of some prohibiting rule or principle, the Bankruptcy Rules should be construed to facilitate creditors’ pursuit of legitimate claims and to allow Civil Rule 23 to be applied if doing so would result in a more practical and efficient process for the adjudication of claims. [10]

* * *

Because the Bankruptcy Rules accept the notion that class action rules may, in appropriate circumstances, be employed in a bankruptcy case, we conclude that they therefore necessarily embrace the notion that the proposal to represent a class is tentative pending approval. And with that notion comes the equally necessary propositions that if the proposal is approved, the approval relates back to when it was made, and if it is rejected, the putative class members must be given time after the court’s rejection to file individual proofs of claim. [11]

* * *

For the most part, Civil Rule 23 factors do not become an issue until the bankruptcy court determines that Rule 7023 applies by granting a Rule 9014 motion. The issue on such a motion centers more directly on whether the benefits of applying Rule 7023 (and Civil Rule 23) are superior to the benefits of the standard bankruptcy claims procedures. While some Civil Rule 23 factors could be relevant to resolving a Rule 9014 motion, extensive discovery related to class certification is not necessary.

* * *

In deciding the Rule 9014 motion, the bankruptcy court assumed that a class action could be certified, thus rendering discovery into certification irrelevant, and concluded nonetheless that the process of a certified class action would be more cumbersome and expensive than the bankruptcy process. Accordingly, the court found that in this particular case, class certification discovery was not necessary. It reached its decision on the Rule 9014 motion on the threshold question of whether the specific claims resolution process established in this bankruptcy case was superior to the resolution process in a class action, assuming that the proposed classes were to be certified. We conclude that this approach was not an abuse of discretion.

Distinct from the bankruptcy court’s denial of class action discovery, we cannot conclude that the court’s ruling on the merits of the Rule 9014 motion was an abuse of discretion. The court noted that approximately 15,000 claims had been filed against Circuit City as part of the claims process and that the structural mechanisms that the court had put in place to process claims were “well underway” and had been operating smoothly to date.

* * *

Because the bankruptcy court denied the Rule 9014 motion to apply Rule 7023, there was no requirement that unnamed class members be notified in accordance with the procedures under Civil Rule 23. The bankruptcy court would have to grant the Rule 9014 motion before the requirements of Civil Rule 23 could apply. Thus, the only notice required was that given by Circuit City for giving notice of bankruptcy procedures and the bar date.

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The Fourth Circuit today issued a published opinion affirming imposition of statutory maximum sentence of 240 months on an offender who started with an advisory Guidelines range of 57 to 71 months. The ultimate sentence resulted from two upward departures and an upward variance.

Judge King wrote the opinion in United States v. Rivera-Santana, which was joined in by Judge Wilkinson and Judge Diaz.

Judge Payne was the sentencing judge. In justifying the upward variance, Judge Payne observed of the defendant:

This man has proved for years that he is a danger to society. He has proved for years that he has no respect for the law. He was proved for years that it is necessary to take strong action to protect the public. A man who will kill his wife, pregnant wife, and kill his own child and molest his granddaughter has no respect for the law and is a menace and . . . a proven danger to the public, to the citizenry of the nation that he has chosen on multiple occasions illegally to invade, and when he comes here, he violates all kinds of laws, any kind of law that stands in the way of accomplishing what he wants to do.

If he wants to gratify himself, he plunders an eight-year-old child. If he wants to have some company or make some money, he smuggles illegal aliens. He gets deported, he comes right back. He drives drunk. He steals, he beats. He is, in short, an anathema to society.

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Michael Gerson has another powerful commentary on the illiberalism of the Obama Administration’s “final decision that Catholic universities, hospitals and charities will be compelled to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients.” Gerson writes:

 Obama is claiming the executive authority to determine which missions of believers are religious and which are not — and then to aggressively regulate institutions the government declares to be secular. It is a view of religious liberty so narrow and privatized that it barely covers the space between a believer’s ears.

Obama’s decision also reflects a certain view of liberalism. Classical liberalism was concerned with the freedom to hold and practice beliefs at odds with a public consensus. Modern liberalism uses the power of the state to impose liberal values on institutions it regards as backward. It is the difference between pluralism and anti-­clericalism.

(HT: Mirror of Justice)

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In 2001, an eighteen year-old lawful permanent resident of the United States, formerly of Vietnam, was convicted of distributing cocaine in D.C. In 2003, he successfully completed probation pursuant to D.C.’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, and his conviction was “set aside.” Five years later, he applied for naturalization five years later. The federal government denied his application.Although his drug conviction had been set aside, in the eyes of the District of Columbia, it still counted against him under federal immigration law.

In an opinion issued today, the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed the denial of the application for naturalization. Judge Diaz wrote the opinion in Phan v. Holder, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Wynn joined.

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Virginia’s FOIA allows “citizens of the Commonwealth” access to certain government records. A citizen of Rhode Island and a citizen of California tried to use the law to get records, but they were rebuffed because they were not Virginians. They sued, contending that Virginia’s FOIA violates the Privileges and Immunities Clause in Article IV and the dormant Commerce Clause. They lost.

Judge Agee wrote the opinion in McBurney v. Young, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge Gregory joined.

The challenge relied heavily on a Third Circuit ruling, Lee v. Minner, 458 F.3d 194 (3d Cir. 2006), that held unconstitutional a similar Delaware law. Judge Agee wrote that the decision in Lee extended the Privileges and Immunities Clause beyond what the Supreme Court has staked out, and that, in any event, the right at issue in that case was different from the right at issue in the Fourth Circuit case.

(Note: This is the second time that the case has been to the Fourth Circuit. The first appeal centered on standing. See McBurney v. Cuccinelli, 616 F.3d 393 (4th Cir. 2010).)

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America Magazine has a post by law professor Doug Kmiec setting forth how President Obama can “confess error” in requiring Catholic organizations, and others morally opposed to contraception, to provide insurance coverage for that to which they are morally opposed. The statement that Kmiec would advise President Obama to deliver includes the following:

Recently we made a mistake. While the constitution doesn’t mandate religious exemptions from general laws, I believe we should accommodate as many beliefs as possible and to the greatest extent possible without jeopardizing the purpose of the law.

The focus on the Constitution alone is curious. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, requires that federal laws and regulations adhere to something akin to the “belief” about accommodation that Kmiec would have President Obama articulate. The need to accommodate need not rest on anything as ephemeral as President Obama’s faltering beliefs about religious liberty. There’s a federal statute for that.

The RFRA claim should come as no surprise. It is the lead claim in the Belmont Abbey case brought by the Becket Fund. And as far as I can see, it’s not even a close question whether the HHS mandate runs afoul of the RFRA. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention, but I’m surprised at how little press the RFRA violation has received. For example, the recent Los Angeles Times article by David Savage that explains why the contraceptive mandate could face difficulties if it ever reached the Supreme Court discussed First Amendment jurisprudence but not the RFRA.

(In writing up this blog post, I came across several posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here) by Ed Whelan at National Review Online’s Bench Memos explaining why the mandate violates the RFRA. I’d be grateful for pointers to any responses, for as mentioned, I do not see how this is a close question.)

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The judiciary power of every government looks beyond its own local or municipal laws, and in civil cases lays hold of all subjects of litigation between parties within its jurisdiction, though the causes of dispute are relative to the laws of the most distant part of the globe. Those of Japan, not less than of New York, may furnish the objects of legal discussion to our courts.

Federalist No. 82 (Alexander Hamilton)

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