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SCOTUSBlog is running a series of video interviews with the ACLU’s Steven Shapiro. Part 4, posted this morning, is on amicus curiae briefs. As Mr. Shapiro undoubtedly knows, one of the most important assets that an organization like the ACLU has in advocating in particular issue areas is credibility. Unfortunately, the ACLU lost a lot of credibility this past Term because of its amicus curiae brief in support of neither party in McCullen v. Coakley. Were such a question appropriate in the context of these videos (and it is not, I think), it would have been interesting to ask Mr. Shapiro whether he regrets filing this brief.

Mr. Shapiro was counsel of record on what has to be one of the least speech-protective briefs ever filed by the ACLU in the Supreme Court of the United States. The longest portion of this brief’s defense of the facial constitutionality of Massachusetts’ public sidewalk speech restrictions argues that the law is a narrowly tailored time, place, and manner restriction. See Section I.B. The ACLU did not pick up a single vote for this position on the facial constitutionality of the Massachusetts law–not from Justice Ginsburg, nor Justice Breyer, nor Justice Sotomayor, nor Justice Kagan, nor the Chief Justice. Indeed, the Court held unanimously that the law was facially unconstitutional.

The ACLU’s McCullen brief did leave open the possibility that the Massachusetts statute could be invalid on an as-applied basis. But this portion of the brief probably would have been taken by the Justices and their clerks as a half-hearted attempt to save face rather than a serious attempt to protect freedom of speech. If this were not apparent from the Table of Contents alone, readers might have been tipped off by footnote 5, which explains the how the ACLU’s position “evolved over time.”

McCullen now sets the standard for serious narrow-tailoring scrutiny of content-neutral speech restrictions. This unanimous decision is likely to protect significant amounts of speech that otherwise would not have been protected without it. And the ACLU was on the wrong side.

There once was a time when the ACLU defended the First Amendment even when doing so conflicted with other (politically, not classically) liberal goals. See, for example, the ACLU’s brief (with Mr. Shapiro as counsel of record) in Hill v. Colorado. But the McCullen brief suggests that those days are over.

Not all evolution is progress.

Shame on the ACLU for abandoning free speech principles in McCullen v. Coakley.

(cross-posted at Mirror of Justice)

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A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today held that Virginia’s ban on certain alcohol advertising in college newspapers violates the First Amendment as applied to Collegiate Times (at Virginia Tech) and Cavalier Daily (at UVA). This holding of as-applied unconstitutionality comes almost three-and-a-half years after the Fourth Circuit upheld the same regulation against a facial challenge in Educational Media Co. v. Swecker, 602 F.3d 583 (4th Cir. 2010). The panel declined to decide whether to apply a form of heightened scrutiny to the Virginia speech regulation, but held that the regulation violated the fourth prong of the four-prong Central Hudson test for assessing the validity of commercial speech restrictions. The opinion for the court in today’s decision, Educational Media Co. v. Insley, was authored by Judge Thacker and joined in by Judge King. Judge Shedd (the author of the panel opinion on the facial challenge) dissented. (For more information and background, see the ACLU’s Press Release touting the victory and AP coverage in the Washington Post.)

As described by the Fourth Circuit, the Central Hudson test provides that “a regulation of commercial speech will be upheld if (1) the regulated speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the regulation is supported by a substantial government interest; (3) the regulation directly advances that interest; and (4) the regulation is not more extensive than necessary to serve the government’s interest.” The parties agreed that prongs (1) and (2) were satisfied, and the court held that its earlier analysis in Swecker established that prong (3) was satisfied. Turning to prong (4), the court held that “the challenged regulation fails under the fourth Central Hudson prong because it prohibits large numbers of adults who are 21 years of age or older from receiving truthful information about a product that they are legally allowed to consume.” In support of this conclusion, the majority observed that “roughly 60% of the Collegiate Times’s readership is age 21 or older and the Cavalier Daily reaches approximately 10,000 students, nearly 64% of whom are age 21 or older.”

Reading today’s opinion in light of the Fourth Circuit’s earlier opinion in Swecker, one should feel some sympathy for Judge Lauck, who has now been twice reversed in this case. Judge Lauck initially held that the regulation violated the First Amendment on its face, only to be reversed in Swecker. Judge Lauck then upheld the regulation against an as-applied challenge under Swecker, only to be reversed in an opinion that, as a practical matter (though not as a technical matter), reaches the same bottom-line conclusion as Judge Lauck’s initial decision. Moreover, the main evidence relied upon by the Fourth Circuit panel in its consideration of the as-applied challenge was before the panel that decided Swecker and was discussed in Judge Moon’s dissenting opinion in that case.  Although the opinion contains several passages discussing the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges, this is an area of the law that is as murky (or murkier) in the Fourth Circuit as it is elsewhere throughout the federal judiciary.

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Following up on Tom Berg’s post at MOJ about the Democrats for Life brief and Michael Moreland’s post about the McConnell/Inazu/CLS et al. brief, see here for another amici curiae brief in support of petitioners inMcCullen v. Coakley. This one is filed on behalf of several First Amendment scholars: Eugene VolokhRick GarnettMichael Stokes PaulsenTimothy ZickWilliam E. LeeAlan Chen, and Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr. The brief highlights the depth and breadth of academic criticism of Hill v. Colorado. The brief’s signatories have different views on the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence but agree on the importance of the First Amendment principles at stake in the case. Special thanks to Matthew Fitzgerald of McGuireWoods for taking the pen and for serving as counsel of record.

The table of contents for the brief provides a sense of the arguments:

I. EVEN STRONG SUPPORTERS OF ABORTION RIGHTS 
FAVORED FREE  SPEECH IN HILL v. COLORADO................... 6
A. Hill’s content-neutrality holding disagreed with the ACLU 
and drew immediate criticism from leading liberal scholars.............................. 8
B. Hill’s focus on protecting the unwilling listener was also widely 
doubted and criticized............................ 12

II. THE LOGIC OF HILL OPENED THE DOOR TO 
THE MORE RESTRICTIVE MASSACHUSETTS LAW HERE ................... 14

A. In the wake of Hill, scholars predicted trouble such as this 
ahead. ..................................................... 14

B. The courts have slid directly down 
Hill to McCullen..................................... 15

CONCLUSION ........................................................ 21

[cross-posted at Mirror of Justice]

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The Fourth Circuit issued its opinions yesterday in two pregnancy center compelled speech cases: Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County and Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Baltimore. The decisions tracked the tentative predictions I made after observing oral argument: a narrow, procedure-based decision to vacate and remand the permanent injunction against enforcement in the Baltimore case, and affirmance of the preliminary injunction against enforcement in the Montgomery case.

In the Baltimore case, Judge King wrote for an eight-judge majority (consisting of himself, Chief Judge Traxler, and Judges Motz, Gregory, Duncan, Davis, Keenan, Wynn, Floyd, and Thacker). Judge Niemeyer authored a dissenting opinion, in which Judges Wilkinson, Shedd, and Agee joined. Judge Wilkinson authored a separate dissent.

In the Montgomery County case, Judge King wrote for a nine an eleven-judge majority. Judge Gregory and Judge Davis, who did not hear the Baltimore case, joined the judges from the Baltimore case, as did Judge Wilkinson. In addition to joining Judge King’s opinion, Judge Wilkinson wrote a solo concurrence. Judges Niemeyer, Shedd, and Agee dissented. [Editorial note: This paragraph edited from the original version to correct error noted in the first comment.]

The combined opinions add up to about 140 pages and it’s July 4th, so detailed legal analysis will have to wait.

With respect to First Amendment law standing alone, my preliminary impression is that the decisions have the potential to inject confusion into what should otherwise be a straightforward application of First Amendment law for these ordinances. As Judge Wilkinson notes in his Greater Baltimore dissent, “[t]here has never been any dispute that the Ordinance forces organizations like the Center to communicate a message they would otherwise never utter. Given the dangers of compelled speech, this kind of mandated disclosure should be a last resort, not a first recourse.” Yet the majority opinion remands to allow Baltimore to try to establish that its ordinance was somehow a regulation of commercial speech. In support of this decision, the court provides a diffuse statement of the law surrounding commercial speech. The opinion does not endorse the application of the standard of review appropriate to commercial speech but instead asserts that the district court erred by rejecting application of this standard of review based on insufficient facts.

Instead of training its analysis on the speech actually regulated–the speech that takes place in the centers where the government-ordered messages must be posted–the majority opinion sweeps in the need for considering things like “the scope and content of [the Center’s] advertisements.” This focus apparently derives from Fargo Women’s Health Organization, Inc. v. Larson, 381 N.W. 2d 176 (1986), which the majority discusses in detail. But that case dealt with a preliminary injunction that prohibited deceptive advertising rather than legislation compelling delivery of the government’s message in conjunction with in-person speech about pregnancy. Indeed, the North Dakota Supreme Court struck out the compelled-speech portion of the underlying injunction in Larson even though–unlike the Baltimore and Montgomery County ordinances–that injunction directly regulated advertising rather than the in-person provision of information. (It may also be worth noting that this non-binding decision of the North Dakota Supreme Court predated the binding decision of the Supreme Court of the United States discussing the boundaries of commercial speech doctrine in Riley v. National Federation of the Blind, 487 U.S. 781 (1988).)

Although en banc rehearing is typically reserved for “questions of exceptional importance” (FRAP 35), it does not follow that en banc decisions actually resolve questions of exceptional importance. The Greater Baltimore decision does not. From the perspective of First Amendment law, its principal defect is failure to delineate the operative legal principles for separating commercial speech from non-commercial speech and explain why those principles called for the kind of discovery it thought necessary. To the extent that it does discuss these principles, the majority’s analysis drifts from focus on the nature of the speech directly burdened by the in-center positing requirement. But this drift is largely a consequence of its focus on discovery and procedure rather than elaboration of First Amendment law. Hopefully the opinion’s diffuse discussion of commercial speech doctrine may at least avoid doing serious damage to First Amendment law precisely because it is so diffuse.

Nor does the Centro Tepeyac decision resolve any questions of exceptional importance. Its affirmance of the district court’s conclusion that strict scrutiny applies to the challenged ordinance is noteworthy but uncontroversial. Had it not relied so heavily on the “abuse of discretion” standard of review, parts of that opinion would be more problematic. The challengers bore the burden of showing a likelihood of success on the merits, but once the court properly recognized that strict scrutiny was necessary, it should have required the government to demonstrate narrow tailoring. It did so, in part. But as Judge Niemeyer points out in dissent, this should have included consideration of less restrictive alternatives to compelled speech for both sentences of the compelled speech.

Given how little these decisions actually decided as a matter of First Amendment law, it seems the principal legal effect of the court’s en banc consideration in that area was to deprive the panel opinions in these cases of their precedential force. As someone who thinks those panel opinions were correctly decided in the first instance, that consequence is unfortunate. But the litigation will continue. And barring some surprising fact development or substantial change in governing law, I remain hopeful that the cases will ultimately end up yielding results close to the initial panel decisions.

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The Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari today in McCullen v. Coakley is important for First Amendment law, although likely to be overlooked in most of the reporting on today’s other important grants and opinions. One of the main items of interest from early reporting is what this grant might mean for the future of Hill v. Colorado, a terrible First Amendment decision issued by the Court in 2000. As much as I would like to see the Court overrule Hill, it does not need to do so in order for the petitioners in McCullen to prevail on their First Amendment challenge. And while I believe both that the McCullen petitioners should win and also that the Court should overrule Hill, I think it much more likely that the petitioners will win without the Court overruling Hill.

There are important differences between the Colorado law upheld in Hill and the Massachusetts law challenged in McCullen. These statutory differences could have significance for both the content neutrality and tailoring determinations, as laid out in the petitionHill addressed the constitutionality of a floating buffer zone that prohibited close physical approaches without consent in an area surrounding health care facilities. McCullen involves the constitutionality of fixed exclusion zones at freestanding abortion clinics. The law challenged in McCullen expressly exempts agents and employees of the abortion clinics from its reach, and operates to prohibit stationary handbilling and stationary speech from a conversational distance within the exclusion zone. Another state law already prohibits obstruction to clinic entrances, but that law preserves speakers’ “rights to engage in peaceful picketing which does not obstruct entry or departure.”

As explained in an  amicus brief in support of certiorari that I co-authored and  filed on behalf of Professors Richard Garnett, Michael Stokes Paulsen, and Eugene Volokh in this round of McCullen (as well as an amicus brief in support of certiorari on behalf of a slightly larger group of law professors in an earlier round of McCullen), the Massachusetts law fails narrow tailoring even if it is held to be content neutral. I think it unlikely that a majority of the Court would wish to further ensconce the dubious content-neutrality reasoning of Hill, but there may nonetheless be a majority of the Court in favor of leaving it undisturbed for the time being. Both goals can be accomplished by assuming without deciding that the challenged Massachusetts law is content neutral. While that would not be the optimal First Amendment outcome, it would also be an improvement over the legal status quo.

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For a comparison case that more closely tracks the analysis I suggested would have been proper in my prior post on Judge Sutton’s opinion for the Sixth Circuit in Platinum Sports Ltd v. Snyder, see Judge Kanne’s opinion for the Seventh Circuit in Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. v. Schober. The key reasoning is contained in the following four paragraphs:

Right to Life submits that the threat of enforcement inherent in the statute chilled its participation in the July 2003 special election and will continue to chill its speech unless the federal courts provide injunctive relief. “A plaintiff who mounts a pre-enforcement challenge to a statute that he claims violates his freedom of speech need not show that the authorities have threatened to prosecute him; the threat is latent in the existence of the statute.” Majors v. Abell, 317 F.3d 719, 721 (7th Cir. 2003) (internal citations omitted); see Virginia v. Am. Booksellers Ass’n Inc., 484 U.S. 383, 393 (1988). The instant case, however, presents a unique circumstance because the statute at issue has been declared unconstitutional by a district court and that ruling was not appealed.

Although it is highly unusual to seek injunctive relief when a judgment that was not appealed has already rendered a challenged statute unconstitutional, Right to Life’s argument in favor of Article III standing is not “frivolous,” as the Board contends. Right to Life presents a two-step argument. First, Right to Life points out that the injunction entered against the Board to prevent enforcement of the statute against theWisconsin Realtors Ass’n plaintiffs did not extend to Right to Life. Indeed, district courts lack the authority to enjoin the “enforcement of contested statutes or ordinances except with respect to the particular federal plaintiffs.” McKenzie v. City of Chicago, 118 F.3d 552, 555 (7th Cir. 1997) (quoting Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422 U.S. 922, 931 (1975)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(d) (“Every order granting an injunction . . . is binding only upon the parties to the action . . . .”). Right to Life is correct in asserting that the injunction against enforcement granted in the Wisconsin Realtors Ass’n case does not protect it, a non-party to the Wisconsin Realtors Ass’ncase.

The second step of Right to Life’s argument is that the declaratory judgment granted in the Wisconsin Realtors Ass’n case does not limit the power of the Board to bring prosecutions under the statute. Certainly, the statute cannot be repealed by a district-court opinion; only the Wisconsin legislature can repeal the statute. Furthermore, a district court’s declaration that the statute is unconstitutional does not automatically stop state officials from trying to enforce the statute. Coupled with the Board’s refusal to issue an advisory opinion, Right to Life reasons that this is enough to present a live controversy to the federal courts.

Right to Life’s argument, however, fails to tie this theoretical harm to an actual and imminent threat of enforcement. The Board did not appeal the Wisconsin Realtors Ass’n case. Implicitly, the Board has conceded that the statute is unconstitutional. The State’s Attorney General conceded before the Wisconsin Realtors Ass’n litigation that the statute was unconstitutional in its petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of Act 109. Right to Life makes no effort to satisfy its burden of persuasion by showing that any Wisconsin official, let alone the Board, has ever tried to enforce a statute in these circumstances.

The only seemingly relevant difference between this case and Platinum Sports is that the plaintiffs in the later cases in Platinum Sports were represented by the same lawyer. But this difference makes no difference. For a while, some circuit courts had applied a “virtual representation” doctrine under which representation by the same lawyer might have made a difference in the preclusion analysis. But the Supreme Court rejected the doctrine of virtual representation in Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008).

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Thanks to a recent post by Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy, I read with great interest last week Judge Sutton’s opinion for the Sixth Circuit in Platinum Sports Ltd. v. Snyder. The underlying claim was a First Amendment challenge to a Michigan ordinance restricting signs for sexually oriented businesses, but the opinion affirms dismissal on the non-merits ground of lack of standing. The decision addresses difficult issues surrounding “facial challenge” doctrine and standing to challenge a law that the relevant enforcement officials agree is unconstitutional and have agreed not to enforce. If this were a casenote outline, I would probably classify this decision as “right outcome; wrong reasoning.” But I’m not sure and it raises important questions worth considering, so here’s an analysis.

The basic situation consists of three cases: (1) Attorney A, representing Client X, files a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against Governor, alleging that a state law is unconstitutional–on its face and as applied–under the First Amendment; (2)  Attorney A, representing Client Y, files a second complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against Governor and Attorney General, making the same constitutional challenge; and (3) Attorney A, now representing Client Z and seeking to represent a class of approximately 400 similarly situated businesses covered by the claim, files a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against Governor and Attorney General, making the same constitutional challenge as in the first two cases.

The timeline of relevant events in these cases is as follows:

  • April 25, 2011: Complaint in case (1) is filed.
  • July 14, 2011: Hearing in case (1) on motion for preliminary injunction and motion to dismiss.
  • July 20, 2011: Complaint in case (2) is filed.
  • July 26, 2011: District court is case (1) grants preliminary injunction and denies motion to dismiss.
  • August 25, 2011, Case (1) and case (2) are terminated by a final judgment in Plaintiffs’ favor, together with injunctions against enforcement of the statute.
  • October 21, 2011: Complaint in case (3) is filed.

The Sixth Circuit held in Platinum Sports, Inc. v. Snyder that the plaintiff business in case (3) lacked standing because it suffered no cognizable injury. I think that bottom-line conclusion is correct, but for a different reason than provided in Judge Sutton’s opinion for the court.

Let’s begin with common ground. The mere “on-the-books existence” of a statute is not enough to create legally cognizable injury. The statute must have some kind of injurious effect that a federal court is capable of redressing. Federal courts do not take statutes off the books. They enter judgments and remedies that prevent enforcement of laws. Judge Sutton’s statement of these relevant principles seems just right: “[T]he question is whether the claimant has an ‘actual and well-founded fear that the law will be enforced against them.’ Virginia v. Am. Booksellers Ass’n, Inc., 484 U.S. 383, 393 (1988). Absent some ‘credible threat’ of enforcement, no injury exists. Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 298 (1979).”

The Platinum Sports opinion reasons that there was no credible threat of enforcement against the plaintiff in case (3) at the time the complaint was filed because the statute had already been declared facially unconstitutional and its enforcement had been enjoined in an order agreed to by the Governor and the Attorney General. The assessment that there was no credible threat of enforcement is probably right, but not for the reason given in the opinion.

The opinion’s analysis turns on an explication of facial challenge doctrine:

A party who brings a facial challenge to a law “seeks to vindicate not only his own rights, but those of others who may also be adversely impacted by the statute in question.” City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 55 n.22 (1999). A successful facial challenge invalidates a law in all of its applications, “forbidd[ing]” any enforcement of it. Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 613 (1973). The upshot is that a State may not enforce such a law against anyone.

But what constitutes a “successful facial challenge”?

Consider the order in case (2) (which is the same in all material respects as the order in case (1)): “IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that judgment declaring that M.C.L. 252.318a violates U.S. Const., Amend. I (the First Amendment to the United States Constitution) is entered for Plaintiff and Defendants are permanently ENJOINED from enforcing M.C.L. 252.318a.”

Suppose that the defendants believe that the district court’s understanding of the First Amendment in cases (1) and (2) is wrong. Do the judgments and injunctions in those cases protect all other SOBs in the state against enforcement of the law?

The Sixth Circuit found the answer to this question in facial challenge doctrine, stating: “[T]he district court’s orders [in cases (1) and (2)] declared the laws facially unconstitutional, necessarily prohibiting their enforcement against anyone, including the plaintiff [in case 3].” Judge Sutton’s opinion for the court appears to assume that the injunctions in these cases authoritatively prohibit enforcement against anybody else, but the reason for this assumption is unclear:

In this instance, the district court entered a stipulated final judgment declaring the two laws facially unconstitutional and enjoining the Governor and Attorney General from enforcing either law. Nor is there any reason to fear the Governor or Attorney General will sidestep these orders. They agreed to their entry. If any doubt remained about the point, the Governor and Attorney General eliminated it in this case. In their appellate brief, they have recognized the “provisions to be unconstitutional,” Br. at 22, and have promised that they “will not be enforced,” id. at 16. Anything in this world is possible, we suppose. But the legal possibility that this Governor or this Attorney General will enforce these laws in the face of these injunctions is: zero.

While the opinion states that the “legal possibility” of enforcement is “zero,” that is distinct from a claim about “legal permissibility.” The opinion appears to assume that facial challenge doctrine can somehow expand the binding legal effect of a judgment or remedy. But  facial challenge doctrine cannot expand the binding legal effect of a judgment or remedy because the theory of constitutional infirmity underlying a particular judgment does not itself bind except through embodiment in a remedy or through preclusion or precedent.  In order to know the binding legal effect of the district court’s ruling in cases (1) and (2), it is therefore necessary to know the preclusive effect of the underlying judgment and the terms and permissible reach of the injunction issued. The declaration of facial unconstitutionality can only reach as far as these other doctrines permit it to reach. (Another means by which judicial declarations of law can bind in courts is through stare decisis, but that doctrine has no application here because a district court ruling has no precedential effect for other cases.)

To see why this distinction is important, suppose that the AG (enjoined in cases (1) and (2) beginning in August 2011) had sent a letter in September 2011 threatening enforcement of the ordinance against Z (the plaintiff in case (3)). Would Z have had standing to file a federal lawsuit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on October 21, 2011? Yes, Z would have had standing. The injunctions in cases (1) and (2) protect X and Y (the plaintiffs in those cases), but these injunctions do not themselves eliminate the threat of enforcement against Z. See Doran v. Salem Inn, Inc., 422 U.S. 922, 931 (1975) (“[N]either declaratory nor injunctive relief can directly interfere with enforcement of contested statutes or ordinances except with respect to the particular federal plaintiffs, and the State is free to prosecute others who may violate the statute.”). (It may also be worth adding that, not only would Z have had standing, but that if Z had wanted a federal forum for its lawsuit, Z should have filed suit quickly after receiving the threat letter because the initiation of an enforcement action in state court can result in Younger abstention.)

There was no threat letter here, so why does any of this make a difference? The comparison reveals that the real legal basis for the absence of any threat of enforcement is not the “successful facial challenge” in case (1) or (2), but the defendants’ agreement that the statute is unconstitutional and their promise (rather than their legal obligation) not to enforce the statute. The fact that they made this agreement in connection with a stipulated judgment and an order to pay over $20,000 in attorneys’ fees makes their commitment to non-enforcement credible.

This discussion of the reasoning underlying the no-standing dismissal in Platinum Sports is not just idle nitpicking about a minor issue. The effectiveness of agreement about unconstitutionality to preclude standing by eliminating threatened enforcement goes to the very fundamentals of pre-enforcement adjudication of constitutional challenges to constitutionally questionable laws. Consider, for example, a pre-enforcement challenge to a State’s partial-birth abortion prohibition in which the sole theory of constitutional infirmity is that the statute is unconstitutional as applied to performance of the constitutionally protected D&E procedure. (Such a limited claim would be unusual but not completely implausible given the Supreme Court’s statement of a preference for as-applied challenges in this area.) Suppose the Attorney General’s position is that the statute does not criminalize the D&E procedure, but even if it did, the State would never use the statute to prosecute for the performance of a D&E because the Attorney General agrees that the statute would be unconstitutional as applied to D&Es. Suppose that no prosecutor can initiate a prosecution without the AG’s approval. If an agreement not to enforce precludes standing, then there would be no standing to bring this challenge. Or would there be?

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