This morning’s lively en banc proceedings at the Fourth Circuit in abortion-counseling-related First Amendment challenges did not produce clear signs of a winner, but raised questions (at least in my mind) about what legal issues the court took the cases en banc to address. There was virtually no discussion of commercial speech doctrine, and no judge or set of judges developed a line of questioning that would seemingly lay the foundation to displace strict scrutiny as the appropriate standard of review. That said, oral argument reveals only so much. After all, the panel dissent in one of the cases contained an analysis of commercial speech that was surprisingly detailed in light of the dissenting judge’s failure to lay the predicates for that analysis in oral argument before the panel. It is possible that something similar could happen here–though it is much harder to make that kind of move when writing for a number of judges rather than just for oneself.
The en banc court heard back-to-back oral arguments in First Amendment challenges to Baltimore and Montgomery County (MD) ordinances requiring certain pregnancy counselors to post signs about the limited nature of the services that they offer. The court’s decision to take these cases en banc vacated panel decisions that granted First Amendment victories to the challengers. (For my earlier coverage of the panel decisions, see here; for my earlier coverage of the oral argument to the panel, see here.) Judge Niemeyer authored those vacated panel decisions, which Judge Agee joined, while Judge King dissented. That configuration of a Niemeyer majority with a King dissent produced back-to-back en banc arguments earlier this year in cases involving the liability of military contractors for activities at Abu Ghraib and other locations in the Iraq war zone. Those arguments resulted in procedural holdings about the lack of appellate court jurisdiction rather than definitive merits rulings. Something similarly limited with respect to the merits may result from this morning’s arguments as well.
As the panel dissenter, Judge King was one of the most vocal questioners at oral argument in both cases. In the Baltimore case, Judge King (along with a few other judges) emphasized the need for more discovery and a better developed record. Given the substance of his dissent in the Baltimore case and the tenor of questioning by other judges, my best guess is that the en banc court will vacate the district court decision in the Baltimore case and remand for further development of the underlying facts. That is not to say I think that is the best decision, only that I think it the most likely decision in light of the limited information revealed at oral argument.
In the Montgomery County case, Judge King returned repeatedly to the “abuse of discretion” standard for appellate review of a decision to grant or deny a preliminary injunction. Even when counsel for Montgomery County correctly noted (against interest) that legal issues were to be reviewed de novo within the context of the abuse of discretion standard for the ultimate decision to grant or deny, Judge King continued to highlight the abuse of discretion standard. Some of Judge King’s questions dovetailed in some respects with Judge Wilkinson’s repeated invocations of “balance” in First Amendment analysis. These emphases, together with some other indicators from oral argument, may suggest a narrow affirmance of Judge Chasanow’s decision. That decision identified a difference between the two sentences that the ordinance compelled centers to include on their signs, and split the difference between the two. Judge Chasanow upheld the portion of the ordinance requiring centers to state that they do not have a licensed medical professional staff, but enjoined the requirement to state that the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider. Judge Wilkinson thought this split-the-difference approach was a sensible balance, and he may not have been alone in that view.
While I have more confidence with respect to the guess about the Baltimore case than the Montgomery County case, I do not have a high level of confidence in either guess. The military contractor en banc cases earlier this year provided much clearer indications of where the center of gravity was on the court at the time of argument. By contrast, there were a number of cross-cutting issues and interventions in these argument. During portions of the second argument, for example, Judge Gregory and Judge Motz seemed more skeptical of Montgomery County’s ordinance than Judge Wilkinson, who in turn seemed more speech-protective than some of the other judges during argument of the Baltimore case.
Because both of these appeals addressed the issuance of a preliminary injunction, the merits issue of the constitutionality of both ordinances was one step removed from straight-up consideration by the court. Issuance of a preliminary injunction depends on a court’s assessment of the moving party’s likelihood of success on the merits. This is a predictive judgment. If the Fourth Circuit were to hold that the district court in the Baltimore case should not have found a likelihood of success on the merits without allowing for further factual development, while the district court in the Montgomery County case made a reasonable split assessment of the movant’s likelihood of success in that case, that would still leave open the possibility that both ordinances could be completely enjoined down the road.
In my view, that would be the correct ultimate outcome in both cases. The reason for this assessment is the First Amendment standard of review. Both district courts, as well as all three judges on the original panel, thought that strict scrutiny was the appropriate merits standard of review for the preliminary injunction in the Montgomery County case. They were right. Judge King thought that discovery would have helped clarify the appropriate standard of review in the Baltimore case. He argued that Baltimore might have been able to develop evidence to show that the Baltimore ordinance regulated commercial speech. In my view, this argument is based on legal error.
At least as far as the questioning at today’s oral arguments is concerned, the possibility that commercial speech doctrine should apply on remand is the dog that didn’t bark. The qualifier “at least as far as the questioning reveals” is an important one. While Judge King’s questioning at the panel argument was largely favorable to the City, Judge King did not develop lines of questioning to support the analysis that his dissenting opinion ultimately contained. Perhaps a narrow procedural holding would be just an opening move in a push to ultimately apply the standard of review appropriate to regulations of commercial speech. If there is support for that kind of change in the doctrine, it was not revealed at oral arguments today. That is not to say that it did not exist, only that the arguments provided no evidence of the existence of such support. After this morning’s arguments, it remains difficult to see how either Baltimore or Montgomery County can avoid the application of strict scrutiny under First Amendment doctrine as it currently stands.