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Archive for July, 2013

I suspect that the government lawyers who successfully defended the HHS contraceptives mandate against RFRA and Free Exercise claims in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. HHS really would have preferred to win on different grounds. That is because the basis for the Third Circuit’s decision is legally insubstantial. On an issue that will be decided by the Supreme Court, it would be better for the government to have won on a more defensible basis than the conclusion that a “for-profit, secular corporation” cannot “exercise religion.”

The dissenting opinion by Judge Jordan convincingly demonstrates that the majority’s ultimate conclusion is wrong and that its supporting reasoning is defective. Will Baude at Volokh Conspiracy and Marc DeGirolami at Mirror of Justice have also raised questions about the panel majority’s analysis. Over the next couple of weeks, I aim to provide additional critical commentary that elaborates on criticisms previously raised and offers new angles of analysis and criticism. While some of these criticisms will be based on arguments advanced in the amicus brief that I co-authored in Conestoga, I aim to expand beyond the targeted set of arguments advanced there.

For now, I will begin with Marc DeGirolami’s argument about the short shrift given RFRA in the panel majority’s analysis. The majority opinion states: “Our conclusion that a for-profit, secular corporation cannot assert a claim under the Free Exercise Clause necessitates the conclusion that a for-profit, secular corporation cannot engage in the exercise of religion. Since Conestoga cannot exercise religion, it cannot assert a RFRA claim.” DeGirolami argues that the court should not have simply assumed “that a term as used in the Constitution must mean exactly the same thing as a term used in a statute.”

DeGirolami is right that there cannot be a one-to-one relationship between RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause as interpreted by the Supreme Court. The purpose of RFRA was to replace the legal standard for evaluating Free Exercise claims adopted in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). But given the stated intention of RFRA, there should be a close correspondence between the pre-Smith reach of the Free Exercise Clause and the reach of RFRA. One of the purposes declared in the legislation is “to restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) and to guarantee its application in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(b)(1).

If the panel majority’s analysis had started with RFRA instead of the Free Exercise Clause, it is less likely that its analysis would have led to the wrong conclusion. To begin with, there is more textual guidance in the U.S. Code. As DeGirolami points out, Congress has declared that the protected “exercise of religion” “includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” That language suggests an expansive understanding of “exercise of religion,” and it invites further inquiry into how “exercise of religion” should be understood.

As I have previously argued in connection with the Third Circuit’s earlier mistaken decision on the contraceptives mandate, “a religiously based refusal to do something otherwise required by law is an ‘exercise of religion.'” Consider the facts of Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), one of the two cases singled out in RFRA. The exercise of religion in that case was Adele Sherbert’s religion-based refusal to work on Saturday. See id. at 403 (describing the relevant conduct as “appellant’s conscientious objection to Saturday work”).

A corporation can engage in this kind of “exercise of religion” if a corporation can refuse, for religious reasons, to do something otherwise required by law. And it plainly can. Suppose a federal law requiring fast-food restaurants located near interstate highways to be open seven days a week. Chick-fil-A’s religion-based refusal to operate on Sundays in violation of this law would surely be an “exercise of religion” akin to Ms. Sherbert’s refusal to work on Saturdays.

The profit-making character of the corporation does not change the analysis of whether the corporation can make a religion-based decision. Chick-fil-A is a profit-making business. Yet it foregoes the profits it would otherwise make through Sunday operation because its religion-based corporate policy controls the manner in which it seeks to make a profit. Similarly, Ms. Sherbert was working for money (and later seeking unemployment benefits). Yet her religious obligation not to work on Saturday conditioned the manner in which she could go about earning money.

The panel majority opinion simply does not address this line of argument. One way in which its failure to address RFRA independently may have contributed to this failure to analyze what counts as a protected “exercise of religion” emerges from a word search for that phrase. It does not appear until page 28, after the majority has already concluded its Free Exercise analysis. In the course of its Free Exercise analysis, the Third Circuit panel majority does not ask whether a corporation can engage in the “exercise of religion” (RFRA’s words), but rather whether corporations can “engage in religious exercise” [11] or whether corporations can “exercise religion” [15]. The wording shift is subtle and almost certainly unintentional, but it nevertheless tends to lead analysis in the wrong direction. For the panel majority’s rephrasing suggests asking whether a corporation can engage in religious exercises like prayer, worship, participation in sacraments, and so on. But that is not what the governing law requires.

One might try to distinguish the exercise of religion in Sherbert on the ground that the underlying basis of the refusal to work on Saturday was so that Ms. Sherbert could engage in the religious exercise of attending worship services. The problem with this distinction is that it is sufficient for the religion-based refusal to be sincere and religion-based. It does not need to be tied to some other “religious exercise.” Consider Thomas v. Review Board, 450 U.S. 707 (1981). The exercise of religion in that case was Mr. Thomas’s refusal to participate in the production of turrets for military tanks. This refusal was based on Mr. Thomas’s beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. It did not matter that this religion-based refusal conditioned Mr. Thomas’s pursuit of money. The Supreme Court found it sufficient that “Thomas terminated his employment for religious reasons.” Similarly, the Third Circuit should have found it sufficient that Conestoga objects to compliance with the mandate for religious reasons. That religion-based objection is an “exercise of religion” within the compass of both RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause.

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Over the past week, Mirror of Justice has had links to three Commonweal essays on various aspects of the same-sex marriage decisions: Marc DeGirolami, “Why Standing Matters: Same-Sex Marriage & the Role of the Courts,” Rick Garnett, “Worth Worrying About? Same-Sex Marriage & Religious Freedom,” and Michael Perry, “Right Decision, Wrong Reason: Same-Sex Marriage & the Supreme Court.” All are worth reading in full.

Perry’s stood out for me because his perspective on Justice’s Scalia dissent in United States v. Windsor differed from that of many commentators who spoke or wrote about that decision right after it came down. These others commentators harshly criticized the tone of Scalia’s dissent. Perhaps the most prominent in this category was Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, who used his day-of-decision SCOTUSBlog symposium commentary “to highlight the extraordinary character of [Justice Scalia’s] particularly vitriolic and internally inconsistent dissent.” In contrast with Tribe, Perry writes that “Scalia’s indignation was understandable.”

Perry’s perspective is refreshing because criticisms of passionate judicial expression often track, and are often just another way of reinforcing, critics’ views of the underlying legal merits. Not so in Perry’s Commonweal essay. Perry believes that DOMA is unconstitutional, but he also recognizes that there are (as Scalia put it): “good people on all sides.” Indeed, Perry criticizes Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority, which in his view “should not have put any weight on the alleged ‘animus’ of those opposed to same-sex marriage.” That approach, Perry says, is “demeaning to all those who for a host of non-bigoted reasons uphold the traditional understanding of marriage as an essentially heterosexual institution.”

 

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A divided three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit held today that three of President Obama’s appointments to the NLRB were invalid because they did not take place during an intersession recess of the Senate. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote the opinion for the majority in NLRB v. Enterprise Leasing Co. SE, LLC (the lead case on the caption). Judge Duncan joined in full and wrote a separate concurrence. Judge Diaz dissented from the constitutional holding (but concurred in other matters).

Although Judge Hamilton and Judge Duncan were appointed by Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43, respectively, while Judge Diaz was appointed by President Obama, the best explanation for the differing outcomes tracks methodological rather than partisan political differences. The majority and dissenting opinions exhibit vastly different approaches to constitutional interpretation. The majority emphasizes text and history while the dissent is avowedly pragmatic and functional (indeed the most explicitly functionalist opinion by Judge Diaz that I can recall).

The Fourth Circuit’s decision bodes poorly for the Administration when the Supreme Court addresses these issues next Term in NLRB v. Noel Canning. This assessment is based not simply on the bottom-line conclusion reached by the Fourth Circuit, but on how the opinions were reasoned. On issues like these, the majority of the Supreme Court is methodologically closer to Judge Hamilton than Judge Diaz. It is difficult to see a majority of the Court hewing to the reasoning and conclusions reached by Judge Diaz in this case.

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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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The Fourth Circuit last week unanimously affirmed the dismissal of a Free Speech and related civil contempt claim brought by a Confederate veterans’ group who wish to fly the Confederate flag on city-owned flag standards in Lexington, Virginia during the group’s Lee-Jackson Day parade. Judge King wrote the opinion for the court in Sons of Confederate Veterans, Virginia Division v. Lexington, in which Judge Diaz and Judge Floyd joined. (For prior coverage, including links to early news stories, see How Appealing.)

Based on the facts described in the opinion, the Fourth Circuit’s decision seems to reach the right outcome on the First Amendment and civil contempt claims (although it would have been helpful to know a little bit more about the wording of the earlier consent decree). 

The interesting First Amendment issue raised by the case is the extent to which government motive matters when the government converts a designated public forum to a nonpublic forum. The relevance of legislative motivation is one of the most vexing issues in constitutional law, but the panel opinion does not provide too much discussion of this issue. 

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[Update 1: With commendable quickness, NPR has posted a correction to the web version of the story discussed below. Even the new version would benefit from additional qualification in contrasting the reaction between “political conservatives” and “academic and judicial conservatives,” but no point in nitpicking now.]

[Update 2: Nina Totenberg has posted a classy apology and explanation for her listeners/readers. She explains that the misattribution of the quotation resulted from a mix-up in her notes on the excellent (but lengthy) panel. My memory of the quotation and context may have been more vivid than other listeners’ because the lawyer sitting next to me (whom I do not know) nodded and muttered agreement when Professor McGinnis explained that Windsor‘s failure to articulate a rule of decision can be seen in the fact that the separate dissents of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia both provided plausible but vastly different accounts of the import of the majority’s holding.)]

Even Totenberg nods.

Nina Totenberg’s end-of-the-term review (HT: How Appealing) includes an extended rip on the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Voting Rights Act decision in Shelby County v. Holder, highlighting criticism by “academic and judicial conservatives.” The quoted critics are Charles Fried, Michael McConnell, and John McGinnis.

One of the most stinging quotations is attributed to McGinnis. Totenberg’s story characterizes McGinnis as arguing that “the court’s conservatives let their own policy disagreements with Congress trump the clear meaning of the Constitution and the post Civil War amendments.” She then quotes McGinnis’s comments at a recent judicial conference: “I’m sorry to say I think this opinion was as singular a failure as I’ve seen in the history of the Supreme Court.”

The quotation comes from McGinnis’s comments on the Supreme Court review panel at the Fourth Circuit Judicial Conference. McGinnis did utter those words, but he was not talking about Shelby County. Instead, he was talking about Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in United States v. Windsor. That’s a big difference.

A video clip of McGinnis’s remarks is available at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/clip/4457472. McGinnis’s comments are from roughly the 1:40 to 3:30 marks. The “singular failure” quotation is near the conclusion of those comments. McGinnis argues that Windsor is troubling “as a matter of craft” because it fails the “basic requirement of the rule of law . . . to articulate a rule of decision.”

McGinnis did comment on Shelby County during the same panel, but his comments were not nearly as critical as those on Windsor. In fact, McGinnis described the decision in rather sympathetic terms. He appealed to McCulloch‘s “pretext” limitation on congressional power and contended that the preclearance requirement decreased the competitiveness of elections by resulting in the “packing” of districts and reducing the ability of states to experiment with districting. The video of the full panel is available at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/313594-1. McGinnis’s comments on Shelby County begin around 19:45.

In the NPR story as it aired, the McGinnis clip on Windsor follows directly after the NPR story’s misquotation of his views on Shelby County. It is difficult to understand how this kind of mistake was not only made initially but also not caught in fact-checking.

Totenberg’s other critical quotations about Shelby County seem correct given their content and context. But while it may be true that “two out of three ain’t bad” in some circumstances, this is not one of them.

The idea that “academic and judicial conservatives” think Shelby County is wrong has already begun to spread. Rick Hasen’s influential Election Law Blog, for example, posts an extended excerpt from the Totenberg story under the post title, “Conservatives Criticize Shelby County Reasoning.”

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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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