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Posts Tagged ‘Motz’

The Fourth Circuit today unanimously affirmed the piracy and piracy-related convictions of Mohammad Shibin, a negotiator for Somali pirates in connection with the seizure of the American sailing ship Quest and the German merchant ship Marida Marguerite. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion in United States v. Shibin, in which Judge Motz and Judge Floyd joined. (For news coverage of the oral argument, see here.)

This summary begins the opinion:

On May 8, 2010, Somali pirates seized the German merchant ship the Marida Marguerite on the high seas, took hostages, pillaged the ship, looted and tortured its crew, and extorted a $5-million ransom from its owners. Mohammad Saaili Shibin, while not among the pirates who attacked the ship, boarded it after it was taken into Somali waters and conducted the negotiations for the ransom and participated in the torture of the merchant ship’s crew as part of the process.

On February 18, 2011, Somali pirates seized the American sailing ship the Quest on the high seas. A U.S. Navy ship communicated with the pirates on board in an effort to negotiate the rescue of the ship and its crew of four Americans, but the pirates referred the Navy personnel to Shibin as their negotiator. When the Navy ship thereafter sought to bar the pirates from taking the Quest into Somali waters, the pirates killed the four Americans.

Shibin was later located and arrested in Somalia and turned over to the FBI, which flew him to Virginia to stand trial for his participation in the two piracies. A jury convicted him on 15 counts, and he was sentenced to multiple terms of life imprisonment.

On appeal, Shibin contends that the district court erred by refusing (1) to dismiss the piracy charges on the ground that Shibin himself did not act on the high seas and therefore the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over those charges; (2) to dismiss all counts for lack of personal jurisdiction because Shibin was forcibly seized in Somalia and involuntarily removed to the United States; (3) to dismiss the non-piracy counts involving the Marida Marguerite because “universal jurisdiction” did not extend to justify the U.S. government’s prosecution of those crimes; and (4) to exclude FBI Agent Kevin Coughlin’s testimony about prior statements made to him by a Somali-speaking witness through an interpreter because the interpreter was not present in court.

We conclude that the district court did not err in refusing to dismiss the various counts of the indictment and did not abuse its discretion in admitting Agent Coughlin’s testimony. Accordingly, we affirm.

In the course of explaining why jurisdiction was proper over the non-piracy counts regardless of the presence or absence of universal jurisdiction, the Court explains that “Shibin was involved in hostage taking on the Marida Marguerite and was later found in Virginia, where he was prosecuted.” This is something of an understatement in normal parlance, but makes sense in legal parlance. As the court explains earlier in its opinion, Shibin’s presence in the United States satisfies the “found in” requirement even though that presence was involuntary on his part.

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1. In a previous post, I criticized the Fourth Circuit’s habeas grant in MacDonald v. Moose. The Fourth Circuit held in that case that one textual provision of Virginia’s more encompassing “crimes against nature” statute was facially unconstitutional under Lawrence v. Texas. As my post indicated, and as some comments to the post discussed in detail, the Fourth Circuit was not making this determination de novo but rather under AEDPA’s deferential standard of review for claims adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings.  The relevant state court determinations in MacDonald were that the statute was constitutional as applied to petitioner’s conduct and that he lacked standing to bring his facial challenge. Here is the reasoning with respect to the facial challenge:

MacDonald contends the sodomy statute, Code § 18.2-361(A), is facially unconstitutional because it violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In accord with our previous decisions, we hold that MacDonald lacks standing to assert this claim. See McDonald v. Commonwealth, 48 Va. App. 325, 329, 630 S.E.2d 754, 756 (2006) (“[W]e will only consider the constitutionality of Code § 18.2-361(A) as applied to appellant’s conduct.”); Singson v. Commonwealth, 46 Va. App. 724, 734, 621 S.E.2d 682, 686 (2005) (defendant lacks standing to challenge statute generally); Tjan v. Commonwealth, 46 Va. App. 698, 706, 621 S.E.2d 669, 673 (2005) (same); see also Grosso v. Commonwealth, 177 Va. 830, 839, 13 S.E.2d 285, 288 (1941) (“It is well settled that one challenging the constitutionality of a provision in a statute has the burden of showing that he himself has been injured thereby.”); Coleman v. City of Richmond, 5 Va. App. 459, 463, 364 S.E.2d 239, 241 (1988) (“generally, a litigant may challenge the constitutionality of a law only as it applies to him or her”).

According to the Fourth Circuit panel opinion, however, one discrete textual provision of Virginia’s statute was facially unconstitutional, and “the state court’s standing determination, as endorsed by the district court, was contrary to and involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” (emphasis added).

2. Nine days after the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion in MacDonald v. Moose, the court issued an opinion in Woollard v. GallagherWoollard was a Second Amendment challenge to Maryland’s “good and substantial reason” permitting requirement for gun possession outside one’s home. The district court in Woollard had held that this requirement was facially unconstitutional. In addition to rejecting Woollard’s claim that the permitting requirement was unconstitutional as applied to him, the panel opinion held that Woollard lacked standing to bring his facial challenge:

Because we conclude that the good-and-substantial-reason requirement is constitutional under the Second Amendment as applied to Appellee Woollard, we also must reject the Appellees’ facial challenge. See Masciandaro, 638 F.3d at 474. As the Supreme Court has explained, “a person to whom a statute may constitutionally be applied will not be heard to challenge that statute on the ground that it may conceivably be applied unconstitutionally to others, in other situations not before the Court.” Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 610 (1973); see also Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 168 (2007) (“It is neither our obligation nor within our traditional institutional role to resolve questions of constitutionality with respect to each potential situation that might develop.”).

On its face, this reasoning looks just like the reasoning that the Fourth Circuit held was “contrary to and involved and unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” when that reasoning was used by Virginia’s Court of Appeals in MacDonald.

3. The tension between the two cases cannot be explained on the grounds that the Woollard panel was unaware of the recent MacDonald decision. According to the date listed on the opinions, the two appeals were argued on the same day and two out of the three judges were the same in both cases (Judge King and Judge Diaz). And most importantly, Judge King authored both opinions.

4. The doctrine surrounding facial and as-applied challenges is notoriously murky. Some may view it as complex; others may view it as simply confused. In my view, the labels “facial” and “as-applied” hurt more than they help insofar as each lacks a stable meaning across cases. But to the extent that MacDonald’s facial challenge was an overbreadth-type (“bottom-up”) challenge, in which facial unconstitutionality depends on the proportion of unconstitutional applications to constitutional applications, then the reasoning used by the Virginia Court of Appeals in refusing to adjudicate the challenge seems unimpeachable (as the Fourth Circuit’s use of that reasoning in Woollard would seem to indicate). (For a discussion of the distinction between valid-rule  (or “top-down”) facial challenges and overbreadth-type (or “bottom-up”) facial challenges, see Richard H. Fallon, Jr., Fact and Fiction about Facial Challenges, 99 Cal. L. Rev. 915, 931 (2011), a law review article cited by Judge King’s majority opinion in MacDonald.)

5. According to the portion of the appellant’s brief quoted by the panel opinion in MacDonald, the facial challenge in that case was an overbreadth-type challenge:

MacDonald maintains that he possesses standing to pursue his facial challenge under the Due Process Clause because the anti-sodomy provision was rendered unconstitutional by Lawrence. He relies on established Supreme Court authority for the proposition that standing exists: “where the statute in question has already been declared unconstitutional in the vast majority of its intended applications, and it can fairly be said that it was not intended to stand as valid, on the basis of fortuitous circumstances, only in a fraction of cases it was originally designed to cover.” Br. of Appellant 14 (quoting United States v. Raines, 362 U.S. 17, 23 (1960)).

6. Virginia’s petition for en banc review is pending at the court. Its principal focus is the application of 2254(d) with respect to the state court’s as-applied understanding of Lawrence v. Texas. If the Fourth Circuit does grant en banc review, perhaps it will also take the opportunity to clarify the law surrounding facial and as-applied challenges more generally.

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[UPDATE: Additional discussion at Woollard, MacDonald, and Standing to Raise a "Facial Challenge" and here.]

A split panel of the Fourth Circuit yesterday granted habeas relief to a forty-seven year-old Virginia man convicted of criminally soliciting oral sex from a seventeen year-old girl. (HT and with link to AP coverage: Howard Bashman at How Appealing) The court held that the conviction was invalid because the predicate felony of sodomy was based on an unconstitutional provision of state law. Judge King wrote the opinion for the court in MacDonald v. Moosein which Judge Motz joined. Judge Diaz dissented.

The panel majority reasons that the Virginia “anti-sodomy provision” is facially unconstitutional under Lawrence v. Texas because of Lawrence’s reasoning about Bowers v. Hardwick, which the Fourth Circuit describes as having involved a facial challenge to a materially indistinguishable Georgia statute. According to the panel opinion, “the invalid Georgia statute in Bowers is materially indistinguishable from the [Virginia] anti-sodomy provision being challenged here.” And although the Supreme Court upheld the materially indistinguishable Georgia statute against a facial constitutional challenge in Bowers, the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas “recognized that the facial due process challenge in Bowers was wrongly decided.”  In other words (as Judge Diaz fairly reconstructs the majority’s argument in his dissent), “the majority reasons that MacDonald’s facial challenge must succeed just as–according to Lawrence–the facial challenge in Bowers should have.”

This decision is obviously mistaken about Bowers and Lawrence, and profoundly mistaken about the nature of constitutional adjudication.

To begin with, Bowers did not involve a “facial due process challenge.” The opinion for the Court in Bowers explicitly states: “The only claim properly before the Court . . . is Hardwick’s challenge to the Georgia statute as applied to consensual homosexual sodomy. We express no opinion on the constitutionality of the Georgia statute as applied to other acts of sodomy.” This mistake alone renders the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning unsustainable on its own terms. The panel opinion reasons that the Virginia statute is facially unconstitutional because the Georgia statute is facially unconstitutional, but Bowers simply did not deal with the alleged facial unconstitutionality of Georgia’s statute.

The Fourth Circuit’s majority opinion is also wrong to describe Lawrence as resolving a claim of facial unconstitutionality. The panel majority’s misapprehension of this decision can be seen in the way the panel describes the three questions presented in Lawrence:

(1) whether the criminalization of strictly homosexual sodomy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) more broadly, whether criminalization of sodomy per se between consenting adults contravened the fundamental liberty and privacy interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause; and (3) whether Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which upheld against facial challenge a Georgia statute criminalizing all sodomy, should be overruled.

The panel opinion’s paraphrase of the first two questions presented materially changes both of those questions (and I have already explained what is wrong with the description of the third question). The Supreme Court actually undertook to address the narrower questions “[w]hether petitioners’ criminal convictions” violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirements of equal protection or due process. Under the Supreme Court’s formulation, the alleged violations of the Constitution inhere in petitioners’ convictions, not in the state’s legislation. And the Court’s supporting reasoning throughout the opinion is all about the petitioners’ personal interests in liberty and privacy.

As if to underscore the personal nature of the rights at issue and the importance of this as-applied understanding to its framing of the analysis, the portion of the Lawrence opinion for the Court that describes the questions presented concludes: “The petitioners were adults at the time of the alleged offense. Their conduct was in private and consensual.” And in concluding the opinion as a whole, Justice Kennedy highlights again that “[t]he present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused.” Instead, the case involved “two adults” who engaged in sexual practices “with full and mutual consent from each other.”

Mr. MacDonald’s criminal solicitation did not involve two adults, but did involve a minor in a relationship “where consent might not easily be refused.” Yet the Fourth Circuit’s misreading of Bowers and Lawrence as involving facial invalidation permits what Virginia law has forbidden.

In light of the panel majority’s mistaken characterizations of both Bowers and Lawrence, the panel majority should not have been “confident” that Virginia’s “anti-sodomy provision, prohibiting sodomy between two persons without any qualification, is facially unconstitutional.” And at the very least, the panel majority should not have dismissed Judge Diaz’s conclusion that the Virginia courts had not made a decision that was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The panel majority’s reasoning would not have been sufficient to reverse a federal district court on direct appeal, much less displace a state appellate ruling under AEDPA’s standard of review.

There is more that could be said in criticism of the panel majority’s opinion (such as with respect to its misapplication of Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood). But I hope such criticisms will be rendered unnecessary by the grant of en banc rehearing.

The odds of such rehearing are never good, of course, and Virginia has an even steeper uphill climb given the panel composition and the composition of the en banc court. Yet it is no small thing for the Fourth Circuit panel to do what it did here, and the defects in analysis are not difficult to see. Moreover, there are both narrower ways (like Judge Diaz’s) and also broader ways of affirming the district court’s denial of habeas relief.

Whether or not the Fourth Circuit grants rehearing, however, it is worth mentioning a more fundamental problem with the panel majority’s conception of constitutional adjudication, a problem that will remain even if this opinion’s particular manifestation of the problem is deprived of legal effect by the grant of en banc rehearing. That problem is the legislative conception of judicial review inherent in its description of the effect of constitutional adjudication.

In the panel majority’s view, the so-called anti-sodomy provision in Virginia law “does not survive the Lawrence decision.” The panel reasons that– because Lawrence killed this provision–the underlying prosecution was not for solicitation of a felony but rather for solicitation of “an act that is not, at the moment, a crime in Virginia.” Indeed, the panel majority states, ” [t]he Commonwealth may as well have charged MacDonald for telephoning Ms. Johnson on the night in question, or for persuading her to meet him at the Home Depot parking lot.” But this is all wrong. Supreme Court decisions about constitutional matters do not decriminalize acts or change state legal codes. Supreme Court decisions may render certain state actions unconstitutional. But such judicial decisions (whether by the Supreme Court or any other federal court for that matter) cannot and do not change what is and is not criminal under state law. Yet that is precisely the effect attributed by the panel opinion to the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence.

The panel opinion is right that “the Commonwealth cannot simply wave a magic wand and decree by fiat conduct as criminal . . .” But the Commonwealth did no such thing. It declared conduct criminal through ordinary legislation, and the Fourth Circuit has now erroneously set aside a conviction for violation of that ordinary state legislation through an extraordinary exercise of the federal judicial power.

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After seeing the link from Howard Bashman’s How Appealing and some of my prior posts about the Fourth Circuit pregnancy center cases , my friend (and CUA lawprof) Mark Rienzi sent me the plaintiff’s memorandum of law in support of summary judgment in the Montgomery County, Maryland pregnancy center compelled speech case. That case, argued the same morning as the Baltimore case, has proceeded through full discovery and to summary judgment briefing while the appeal of the preliminary injunction has been pending at the Fourth Circuit. This summary judgment record is not before the Fourth Circuit in the en banc appeal, but it is the record to which the legal standard identified by the Fourth Circuit will be applied by the district court.

I am not an impartial observer, as I was already convinced that the Montgomery County and Baltimore ordinances were unconstitutional and I have long supported the pro-life mission of the pregnancy centers targeted by the ordinances. But I believe that an impartial observer would share my assessment that the record in the Montgomery County case firmly establishes the unconstitutionality of the Montgomery County ordinance.

Reviewing this summary judgment memorandum reminds me of two episodes in the oral arguments over the Baltimore and Montgomery County ordinances.

First, near the end of the argument over the Baltimore ordinance, Judge King and Judge Wilkinson had an interchange in which Judge King advocated more discovery while Judge Wilkinson asserted that discovery is not the friend of the First Amendment (his point being that the time it takes to engage discovery is time during which protected speech may be unconstitutionally silenced). The discovery set forth in this brief shows that both judges are right and wrong in different ways. At least as far as the Montgomery County ordinance is concerned, discovery has been the friend of the First Amendment in the sense that it establishes the unconstitutionality of the ordinance. I expect discovery will establish the same about the Baltimore ordinance if that is the disposition ordered by the Fourth Circuit. But extensive discovery was not necessary. Under strict scrutiny, it is not the burden of the challengers to adduce evidence showing that the ordinance is unconstitutional. It is the burden of the government to show that the ordinance is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest. And the evidence on which the legislature acted should have been set at enactment such that extensive discovery is unnecessary.

Second, near the end of the argument over the Montgomery County ordinance, Rienzi as counsel for the challengers emphasized that the case was “fully teed up” for decision by the district court. In my estimation, this brief makes clear why he thought that was worth emphasizing.

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Something has been bothering me for a while about the en banc oral argument last month over a Baltimore ordinance that requires “limited-resource pregnancy centers” to post a notice that they do not refer for abortion or birth control services. I’ve now done some follow-up research. Others may view the results of this research differently, but in my view, counsel for Baltimore’s artful characterization of an advertisement in the record probably misled others present at the argument in the same way that it (temporarily) misled me.

At the argument, counsel for Baltimore asserted that the city was trying to combat “consumer deception in the offer of pregnancy services.” A powerful part of this argument came just two minutes in, when counsel pointed the court to an “Option Line” advertisement in the Joint Appendix that she described as “clearly and inherently misleading.” Counsel argued that the advertisement  was misleading because it offered “medical services” including “abortion” and “morning-after pill,” even though none of the centers actually offered abortions or the morning-after pill. Until near the end of the argument, none of the judges questioned counsel’s characterization of the Option Line advertisement even though she pointed to the page in the Joint Appendix where this “clearly and inherently misleading” advertisement could be found. And by the time one judge asked about it, it seemed as if the rest of the judges had already accepted the characterization.

This has been bothering me because, shortly after the argument, I googled “Option Line” and I could not see how someone scanning the Option Line website would get the impression that one could use the referral service to obtain either an abortion or the morning-after pill. I thought then that, unless Option Line’s advertising had changed substantially between passage of the ordinance (when the Baltimore City Council was allegedly concerned about deception) and the afternoon of the oral argument (when I reviewed the Option Line website), there was a real possibility that counsel for Baltimore had artfully and somewhat misleadingly characterized the advertisement in the JA.

I recently listened to the audio to verify my notes, and I pulled the Joint Appendix off of PACER to check the actual advertisement.  I’ve posted the relevant JA page here. The advertisement contains the words “abortion” and “morning after pill” and “medical services.” But, in my view, the advertisement cannot reasonably be viewed as offering the “medical services” of either “abortion” or the “morning-after pill.” In relevant part, the advertisement states:

Our consultants will connect you to nearby pregnancy centers that offer the following services:

  • Free pregnancy tests and pregnancy information
  • Abortion and Morning After Pill information, including procedures and risks
  • Medical services, including STD tests, early ultrasounds and pregnancy confirmation
  • Confidential pregnancy options

There is an obvious difference between offering information about abortion and the morning-after pill, on the one hand, and offering medical services such as the provision of abortion and the morning-after pill, on the other hand. Baltimore’s argument glides right over this difference. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s artful characterization of this advertisement mattered to the oral argument. Approximately 35 minutes into the argument, for example, Judge Shedd mentioned to counsel for the centers that “we’ve heard about the website that contained the false information,”thus suggesting that he accepted counsel’s artful characterization of the Option Line website.

Near the very end of the argument (around the 1:14:00 mark on the audio), Judge Niemeyer asked counsel whether Baltimore had any evidence that the clinics regulated by the ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” She responded “yes,” pointing to the Option Line advertisement. The argument continued:

Q (Niemeyer): What does it say, it says, “we provide abortion”?

A (Counsel): It says we provide medical services, quote, and then it also, quote, abortion and morning-after pill. . . .

* * *

Q (Wilkinson): That’s false advertising, isn’t it? It can be addressed in a variety of ways . . .

A (Counsel): It’s false. It is. . . .

As I’ve previously observed, the drift of this argument seemed to be that the case would be sent back for more discovery. If that happens, I would be surprised if Baltimore is able to show that any of the clinics regulated by their ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” As I read it, and as I suspect most other fair-minded readers would read it as well, the advertisement featured by counsel for Baltimore at oral argument does nothing of the sort.

In light of all this, it will be interesting, regardless of the outcome, to see what use the judges of the Fourth Circuit make of the record that is already before them.

[UPDATE: The companion case from Montgomery County has gone through discovery, although that record is not before the Fourth Circuit at this time. A link to the plaintiff's memorandum of law in support of summary judgment, which contains a discussion of the evidence in that case, is in the post above.]

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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.

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The Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in two argued cases today. The result in each case was to vacate and remand a decision out of the Eastern District of Virginia. That may be all that the decisions have in common, however. The first decision left the central issue open for resolution on remand after articulating the legal test for the district court to apply, while the second decision resolved the central issue while seemingly adopting a newly constrictive test.

In Oberg v. Kentucky Higher Education Student Loan Corporation, the court addressed whether corporations organized by Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Arkansas were “persons” subject to suit under the False Claims Act, or instead “state agencies” not subject to suit under the False Claims Act as interpreted in Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 787-88 (2000). The appeals court held that the district court applied the wrong legal test in deciding that the corporations were not subject to suit. The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded for district court application of the test developed under the test that is also used for the “arm of the state” prong of sovereign immunity analysis. Judge Motz wrote the opinion for the court, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Keenan joined.

In Friends of Back Bay v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the court held that the Army Corps of Engineers improperly issued a permit without completing an EIS under NEPA. Among other things, the court near the end of its opinion aligned the Fourth Circuit with the Second Circuit in stating that “the policy goals underlying NEPA are best served if agencies err in favor of preparation of an EIS when . . . there is a substantial possibility that the [proposed] action may have a significant impact on the environment.” I am not a NEPA expert, but the appellate court’s application of the various EIS factors and its adoption of the Second Circuit’s “substantial possibility” test seemed somewhat casual. Judge King wrote the opinion for the court, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Floyd joined.

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