Thursday, January 29, 2015
Recall our discussion last August about the decision of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officials to rescind the offer of a tenured faculty appointment to Steven G. Salaita shortly before he was to begin based on his "tweets" on the subject of Gaza.
Salaita has now filed a 39 page complaint in federal court. The first count of the complaint alleges the First Amendment violation:
In sending "tweets" regarding Israel and Palestine, from his personal Twitter account from his home in Virginia in the summer of 2014, Plaintiff acted in his capacity as a citizen, and not pursuant to any official university duties. His tweets never impeded his performance of his duties as a faculty member, or the regular operation of the University. The subject matter of the tweets-Israel and Palestine-is a matter of public concern, and Professor Salaita's comments about the conflict were made in an effort to contribute to the public debate. Such conduct is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Plaintiff’s protected speech, and the viewpoint he expressed in those tweets, though greatly distorted and misconstrued by Defendants, was a motivating factor in defendant's decision not to recommend Professor Salaita’s appointment in the rejection of Professor Salaita 's appointment to the University faculty.
The second count alleges a procedural due process violation. Most of the other counts allege state law violations including promissory estoppel, breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and an interesting "spoilation of evidence" against Chancellor Phyllis Wise for allegedly destroying a two page document given to her by a donor.
ConLawProfs teaching First Amendment this summer might find the complaint makes for a good in-class discussion or problem.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Ohio AG Mike DeWine this week sued the federal government for levying an assessment against the state under the ACA's Transitional Reinsurance Program. DeWine argues that the federal assessment on the state violates the text of the ACA (which, he says, doesn't authorize the government to levy this assessment on the states), the Tenth Amendment, the anti-commandeering principle, and intergovernmental tax immunity.
Under the Transitional Reinsurance Program, the federal government collects a contribution from health insurers and self-insurers (or their administrators) in order to off-set the costs of high-risk individuals in the individual health insurance market and thus to stabilize premiums in the individual market. Part of the proceeds also goes to the general fund of the Treasury. The contributions are in effect from 2014 through 2016.
AG DeWine claims that the federal government wrongfully assessed his state $5.3 million. (Ohio self-insures its employees.) He claims that the ACA didn't authorize this, and that it violates various federalism principles in the Constitution:
71. Had Congress applied this tax directly against State and local governments, which it did not, such a tax would violate the "residuary and inviolable sovereignty" that the United States Constitution leaves to the several States in our federalism system . . . .
72. Especially here, where the tax is not imposed as a "user fee" on States or local governments and where the tax is specifically designed to raise more revenue for the federal government than will be allocated to the reinsurance program (with certain amounts of the tax revenues indeed designed as monies that "may not be used for the program established under this section," 42 U.S.C. Sec 18061(b)(4)), such a direct tax against the State and its instrumentalities would breach our federal Constitution's vertical separation of powers.
73. The federal government lacks authority under the United States Constitution to levy such broad-based, revenue-generating taxes against the States and their instrumentalities.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
In a Letter to the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley today, the Chief Justice of Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore (pictured) asked the Governor to continue to uphold the respect for different-sex marriage and reject the judicial "tyranny" of the federal district court's opinion last Friday finding the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. He writes grounds the sacredness of man-woman marriage in the Bible, and writes
Today the destruction of that institution is upon us by federal courts using specious pretexts based on the Equal Protection, Due Process, and Full Faith and Credit Clauses of the United States Constitution. As of this date, 44 federal courts have imposed by judicial fiat same-sex marriages in 21 states of the Union, overturning the express will of the people in those states. If we are to preserve that “reverent morality which is our source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement," then we must act to oppose such tyranny!
He argues that United States district court opinions are not controlling authority in Alabama, citing a case, Dolgencorp, Inc. v. Taylor, 28 So. 3d 737, 744n.5 (Ala. 2009), regarding a common law negligence claim rather than a constitutional issue. He does not argue the Supremacy Clause.
Justice Moore is no stranger to controversial positions, including promoting his biblical beliefs over federal law, and gained notoriety as the "the Ten Commandments Judge." Recall that Moore was originally elected to the Alabama Supreme Court with the campaign promise to “restore the moral foundation of the law” and soon thereafter achieved notoriety for installing a 5,280-pound monument depicting the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. See Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F.3d 1282, 1285 (11th Cir. 2003). After federal courts found that the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Glassroth v. Moore, 229 F. Supp. 2d 1290, 1304 (M.D. Ala. 2002), aff’d, Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2003), Chief Justice Moore was ordered to remove the monument. See Glassroth v. Moore, No. 01-T-1268-N, 2003 LEXIS 13907 (M.D. Ala. Aug. 5, 2003). After the deadline to remove the monument passed, Chief Justice Moore was suspended, with pay, pending resolution of an ethics complaint, which charged that he failed to “observe high standards of conduct” and “respect and comply with the law.” Jeffrey Gettleman, Judge Suspended for Defying Court on Ten Commandments, N.Y. Times, August 23, 2003, at A7.
January 27, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Recent Cases, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Supremacy Clause, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, January 26, 2015
The Brennan Center's Daniel Weiner recently released Citizens United Five Years Later, the Center's latest in an outstanding series of reports on Citizens United, campaign spending, and the 2014 elections.
Weiner writes that the case's biggest impact hasn't been increased corporate spending (although corporate spending has increased). Instead, Citizens United and other cases have led to a huge increase in spending by super-wealthy mega-donors:
Perhaps most important, the singular focus on the decision's empowerment of for-profit corporations to spend in (and perhaps dominate) our elections may be misplaced. Although their influence has increased, for-profit corporations have not been the most visible beneficiaries of the Court's jurisprudence. Instead--thanks to super-PACs and a variety of other entities that can raise unlimited funds after Citizens United--the biggest money (that can be traced) has come from an elite club of wealthy mega-donors. These individuals--fewer than 200 people and their spouses--has bankrolled nearly 60 percent of all super-PAC spending since 2010.
And while spending by this wealthy club has exploded, we have seen neither the increased diversity of voices that the Citizens United majority imagined, nor a massive upsurge in total election spending. In fact, for the first time in decades, the total number of reported donors has begun to fall, as has the total contributed by small donors (giving $200 or less). In 2014, the top 100 donors to super-PACs spent almost as much as all 4.75 million small donors combined.
A sobering picture.
Weiner's "can be traced" parenthetical gets some attention in the report, too, where Weiner discusses dark money, "independent" groups, and reporting requirements (or the lack of reporting requirements)--all features of a post-Citizens United world.
Friday, January 23, 2015
In a ten page Opinion and Order late Friday in Searcy v. Strange, Alabama District Judge Callie V.S. Granade entered an injunction against the enforcement of the state's constitutional amendment and statutes banning same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriages from other states.
Judge Granade found that Baker v. Nelson (1972) did not operate as a binding precedent.
She also mentioned that the Eleventh Circuit had not yet ruled on the issue and in footnote 1 acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court had granted certiorari on the issue.
She found that marriage is a fundamental right:
“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men” and women. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). Numerous cases have recognized marriage as a fundamental right, describing it as a right of liberty, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399, of privacy, Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), and of association, M.L.B. v. S.L.J., 519 U.S. 102, 116, (1996). “These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Planned Parenthood of SE Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992).
She articulated that laws that "implicate fundamental rights are subject to strict scrutiny and will survive constitutional analysis only if narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest." She considered Alabama's asserted interest of "protecting the ties between children and their biological parents and other biological kin," and concluded that the means chosen - excluding same-sex couples - was not narrowly tailored:
The Attorney General does not explain how allowing or recognizing same-sex marriage between two consenting adults will prevent heterosexual parents or other biological kin from caring for their biological children. He proffers no justification for why it is that the provisions in question single out same-sex couples and prohibit them, and them alone, from marrying in order to meet that goal. Alabama does not exclude from marriage any other couples who are either unwilling or unable to biologically procreate. There is no law prohibiting infertile couples, elderly couples, or couples who do not wish to procreate from marrying. Nor does the state prohibit recognition of marriages between such couples from other states. The Attorney General fails to demonstrate any rational, much less compelling, link between its prohibition and non-recognition of same-sex marriage and its goal of having more children raised in the biological family structure the state wishes to promote. There has been no evidence presented that these marriage laws have any effect on the choices of couples to have or raise children, whether they are same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples. In sum, the laws in question are an irrational way of promoting biological relationships in Alabama.
Judge Granade continued: "If anything, Alabama’s prohibition of same-sex marriage detracts from its goal of promoting optimal environments for children."
Judge Granade's opinion does briefly discuss the equal protection standard for reviewing sexual orientation classifications. But given her conclusion regarding fundamental right meriting strict scrutiny, the opinion does not contain an extensive or rigorous distinction between the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause analysis.
Judge Grande's Order ruled on cross motions for summary judgment, enjoined the state from enforcing the same-sex bans, and did not contain a stay.
One would assume that the attorneys for Alabama are drafting their stay petitions.
UPDATE: On Sunday, January 25, 2015, Judge Granade issued her Stay Order granting a stay until February 9, 2015. The judge found that the State did not warrant a stay under the standards, but
In its discretion, however, the court recognizes the value of allowing the Eleventh Circuit an opportunity to determine whether a stay is appropriate. Accordingly, although no indefinite stay issues today, the court will allow the Attorney General time to present his arguments to the Eleventh Circuit so that the appeals court can decide whether to dissolve or continue the stay pending appeal (assuming there will be an appeal.) The preliminary injunction will be stayed for 14 days.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
The Ninth Circuit ruled in Shinault v. Hawks that a state has to provide pre-deprivation notice and hearing before it freezes funds in an inmate's trust account to recover the cost of his incarceration. But at the same time, the court said that this rule wasn't "clearly established" at the time, so the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity. The court also rejected the inmate's Eighth Amendment claim.
The upshot is that prison authorities took more than $60,000 of an inmate's money--money from a settlement for a medical liability claim--in violation of procedural due process. But according to the Ninth Circuit, the inmate has no recourse against the officers.
Lester Shinault received a $107,417.48 settlement from a medical claim against a drug manufacturer who products (prescribed while Shinault was not in custody) caused him to develop diabetes. Shinault's attorney deposited the money in his inmate trust account.
Prison authorities then ordered Shinault to pay $65,353.94 to cover the cost of his incarceration. On the same day that Shinault requested a hearing, authorities transferred this amount from his trust account into a "reserved miscellaneous" sub-account in Shinault's name, but which Shinault could not access. An ALJ ruled against Shinault (in a hearing where Shinault didn't have an attorney and struggled mightily to represent himself), and about a year later authorities withdrew $61,352.39.
Shinault sued, arguing that the withdraw violated procedural due process and the Eighth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment against him.
The Ninth Circuit held that authorities violated procedural due process under the Mathews v. Eldridge balancing test, because they failed to provide a pre-deprivation hearing prior to freezing the funds. But it also held that the violation wasn't "clearly established" at the time (because it couldn't find precedent directly on point, and because it said that procedural due process questions were fact specific, that is, not determined until a particular case is litigated), so the officials enjoyed qualified immunity.
In other words, the court said it wasn't "clearly established" that authorities had to provide a pre-deprivation hearing before freezing over $60,000.00 that Shinault obtained from a settlement with a drug company whose products caused him to develop diabetes. Because this wasn't "clearly established," the defendants enjoyed immunity, and Shinault has no claim against them for return of his money.
The court also held that authorities did not violate Shinault's Eighth Amendment rights, because "no authority supports the notion that freezing or withdrawing funds from an inmate account constitutes deliberate denial of care under the Eighth Amendment."
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Rodriguez v. United States, the case testing whether an officer can prolong a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff, even if the officer lacks suspicion for the sniff.
After arguments--and maybe even before--it's clear that the problem is line drawing. On balance, that maybe more of a problem for the government than for Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, represented by Shannon O'Connor, argued for a bright line rule: when the purpose of the stop is over, any after-occuring dog sniff requires new individualized suspicion or probable cause, even if the Court has held that an officer may conduct a dog sniff during the stop. The government, on the other hand, represented by Ginger Anders, argued for a de minimis extension--that the Fourth Amendment permits a reasonable de minimis extension of a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff.
But when is the purpose of a stop over? And how to define a de minimis extension? Those problems dominated the arguments today.
O'Connor had trouble defending her bright-line rule, and even seemed to shift once or twice. She argued that an officer cannot detain a driver beyond the point when the purpose of the stop ends, even if it ends in a mere warning. But O'Connor received significant push-back from Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Alito, all of whom presented hypotheticals designed to show that that bright line wasn't always so bright. Moreover, it wasn't clear that O'Connor's bright line really mattered. For example, Justice Scalia pointed out that an officer can investigate all kinds of things during a traffic stop--whether a driver's license is valid, whether the car is stolen, etc., even a dog sniff--and wondered why then the officer couldn't also conduct a dog sniff after the purpose of the stop ended.
Justice Kennedy seemed to push O'Connor toward an even sharper bright line, that the purpose of the traffic stop ends at the issuing of a ticket. O'Connor at one time seemed to adopt it, but that only got her in more trouble. That's because the issuing-a-ticket position has obvious problems: traffic stops don't always end with tickets, or, as Justice Alito pointed out, any clever officer would simply delay handing over the ticket until after a dog sniff. Justice Scalia pounced, Chief Justice Roberts weighed in ("What if the officer says I need to think about this for a while?"), and even Justice Ginsburg expressed reservations with the issuing-a-ticket line.
So O'Connor backed off and reverted to her earlier position that the stop ends when the purpose of the stop ends. But that position fared no better.
But if the Court had problems with O'Connor's lines, it had maybe even more problems with the government's lines. The government argued that the Fourth Amendment permits a de minimis extension beyond the purpose of the stop. But defining "de minimis" proved difficult. It wasn't clear whether this position had the support of even Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia (although it may have had the support of Justice Alito). Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that a dog sniff will probably last longer than the stop itself--is that a de minimis extension? Justice Breyer pointed out that Anders's de minimis rule isn't easily enforceable--what do you tell the police to do? Justice Kagan argued that a dog sniff outside the bounds of the stop is something like an officer taking a cigarette break--unreasonable.
Part of the problem for the government is how the case came to the Court: the lower court said that a de minimis extension was reasonable. That holding assumes that there's a point at which the purpose of the stop ends, and a de minimis extension afterward. If so, and if the courts can define that point, then any extension really is beyond the purpose of the stop. And a Fourth Amendment violation for a de minimis period is still a Fourth Amendment violation. (And what's de minimis, anyway? That's hard to say, and, for dog sniffs, may run longer than the stop itself--as Chief Justice Roberts pointed out.) This problem seemed to trouble enough Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, that the Court may well go with Rodriguez.
The Constitutional Accountability Center published its most recent issue paper in its series on the Roberts Court at 10, this one on access issues. And it doesn't paint a pretty picture.
Brianne Gorod, the author of Roberts at 10: Roberts's Consistent Votes to Close the Courthouse Doors, looks at Roberts Court cases in four areas: standing, arbitration, pleading standards, and suits against states. Gorod concludes that the Court's record is mixed, but mostly negative:
Although most of the decisions of the Roberts Court in this area have limited access to the courts, there have been a few that have not, including most significantly the Court's 2007 decision, Massachusetts v. EPA, holding that Massachusetts could sue the Environmental Protection Agency to challenge its failure to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
But if the Court's record is mixed, Gorod says that Chief Justice Roberts's record is not:
He dissented in that 2007 case and in every other case during his tenure as Chief Justice in which the Court has refused to limit access to the courts, and he has always been in the majority when it has decided to limit such access.
Gorod says that Chief Justice Roberts's record is "not terribly surprising," given his pre-confirmation positions on access.
Check it out.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar involving a First Amendment challenge to a state rule of judicial conduct prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign contributions in a judicial election.
Recall that the Florida Supreme Court held that Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7C(1) (substantially similar to Canons 4.1(A)(8) and 4.4 of the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct), satisfied strict scrutiny, finding that there were two compelling governmental interests (preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public's confidence in an impartial judiciary) and that the provision was narrowly tailored to serve these interests (the prohibition of direct fundraising nevertheless allows for the establishment of "campaign committees" to raise funds). The Florida Supreme Court's opinion also pointedly noted that federal "judges have lifetime appointments and thus do not have to engage in fundraising" were divided on the constitutionality of the canon, while state judges were not.
In the arguments before the life-tenured Justices today, the problem of line-drawing was pronounced. The fact that the Florida rule was a compromise that allowed judicial campaigns to establish committees to solicit funds and allowed the candidate to know who had contributed and allowed the candidate to write thank you notes called into question whether the canon was narrowly tailored. But, as Justice Kagan noted, that might mean that the state would simply broaden the proscriptions, to include thank you notes for example, and asked whether that would be constitutional. Counsel for the petitioner ultimately answered in the negative, linking the election to the availability of money.
At the heart of this issue is whether judicial elections are like other elections or whether they are distinctly judicial.
Justice Ginsburg, who is decidedly in the camp that judicial elections are different, essentially urged her position at the beginning of the arguments ("the First Amendment allows the State to do things with respect to the election of judges that it wouldn't allow them to do with respect to the election of members of the legislature.")
Chief Justice Roberts seemingly leaned toward equating judicial and political elections, stating that "it's self-evident, particularly in judicial races" that "prohibiting a form of raising funds is to the great advantage of the incumbent" because the only way "incumbents are going to be challenged if you have somebody who can get their own distinct message out." Later he stated that the "fundamental choice was made by the State when they said we're going to have judges elected." This echoes Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, (2002).
Yet the issue of the coercion of the people being solicited, including attorneys as I have previously discussed, surfaced repeatedly. As Justice Sotomayor candidly revealed:
It's very, very, very rare that either by letter or by personal call that I ask a lawyer to do something, whether it's serve on a committee, help organize something, do whatever it is that I'm asking, that that lawyer will say no. Isn't it inherent in the lawyer/judge context that people are going to say yes?
Whether the Court "says yes" to the ability of a state to ban direct solicitation by judicial candidates will most likely result in a closely divided opinion.
In its unanimous opinion today in Holt (Muhammad) v. Hobbs the Court decided that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, RLUIPA, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one—half—inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.
The Court's conclusion is predictable from the tenor of the oral arguments. Writing for the Court, Justice Alito found that Holt/Muhammad easily met his burden of showing that the beard ban substantially burdened his exercise of religion under RLUIPA, after which the burden shifted to the Department of Correction to show that its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a 1⁄2- inch beard “(1) [was] in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) [was] the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest” under RLUIPA."
The Court rejected the Department of Correction's beard ban as the least restrictive way of furthering prison safety and security including hiding contraband (an argument that was "hard to take seriously" in the context of the 1/2 inch beard) and concealing identities (an argument that suffered in comparison to other institutions and the allowance of 1/4 inch beards and mustaches).
Justice Alito's 16 page opinion for the Court is a model of clarity and concision. It does beg the question, however, of why this was not the District Judge's opinion or the Eighth Circuit's opinion. As we previously discussed, the odds of this case getting before the Court were incredibly high, but the underlying pro se litigation exemplifies the difficulties of prison inmates vindicating their rights.
Indeed, Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to stress the role deference to prison administrators that should be afforded by courts. Prison officials must offer a "plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them," rather than adopt policies based on "mere speculation." Again, this begs the question of the reliance by the lower courts on the prison's arguments.
Finally, the very brief concurring opinion by Justice Ginsburg, and joined by Justice Sotomayor, distinguished the much more contentious Hobby Lobby:
Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. ___ (2014), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. See id., at ___, ___–___, and n. 8, ___ (slip op., at 2, 7–8, and n. 8, 27) (GINSBURG, J., dissenting). On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.
Thus, Justice Ginsburg makes clear that she is not opposed to religious accommodation per se, even under the strict scrutiny standard, when the rights of others are not part of the analysis.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Rodriguez v. United States, the case testing whether an officer can extend a traffic stop for a canine sniff, without additional individualized suspicion to justify the sniff. Here's my argument preview from the ABA's Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Just after midnight on March 27, 2012, Dennys Rodriguez and his passenger Scott Pollman were driving west from Omaha, Nebraska, to Norfolk, Nebraska, on Nebraska State Highway 275. Shortly into their trip, Officer Struble, who was patrolling the highway, observed the car’s passenger-side tires pass briefly over the line separating the highway from the shoulder. Officer Struble pulled the car over.
Officer Struble approached the vehicle and obtained Rodrigeuz’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Officer Struble asked Rodriguez why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez said he swerved to avoid a pothole. Rodriguez seemed agitated when Officer Struble informed him that driving on the shoulder was a traffic violation. Officer Struble also observed Pollman in the passenger seat and noticed that Pollman seemed nervous.
Officer Struble asked Rodriguez to step out of the vehicle. Rodriguez complied. Officer Struble then asked Rodriguez to accompany him to his patrol car so that he could complete some paperwork. Rodriguez asked if he had to go to Officer Struble’s patrol car; Officer Struble said “no”; and Rodriguez said that he would rather sit in his own car. Officer Struble later testified that “in his experience” declining to sit in his patrol car was a “subconscious behavior that people concealing contraband will exhibit.”
Officer Struble returned to his patrol car (without Rodriguez) and called in a request for a records check on Rodriguez.
Officer Struble then returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle, this time to talk to Pollman. Officer Struble asked Pollman for his identification; he also asked Pollman about their trip. Pollman told Office Struble that he and Rodriguez drove from Norfolk to Omaha to look into buying an older-model Ford Mustang. They decided against buying the car, however. Officer Struble asked Pollman if he saw a picture of the car before making the trip; Pollman said that he had not.
Officer Struble returned to his patrol car. Office Struble was suspicious that Rodriguez and Pollman would drive to Omaha to look into purchasing a car without seeing a picture of it first. He was also suspicious that Rodriguez and Pollman would drive the long distance from Norfolk to Omaha late on a Tuesday night. Office Struble had a drug-detection dog in his car, and, based on his suspicions, he decided that he would “walk [his] dog around the vehicle regardless of whether [Rodriguez] gave [him] permission or not.” But he wanted a second officer to act as a back-up, because there were two persons involved in the stop. Officer Struble requested a records check on Pollman and began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder.
Officer Struble returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle (for the third time). He returned the documents to Rodriguez and Pollman and issued a written warning ticket to Rodriguez. Officer Struble gave the ticket to Rodriguez at about 12:25 a.m. At this point, Officer Struble had taken “care of all the business” of the traffic stop and had “got[ten] all the reason for the stop out of the way.”
Nevertheless, Officer Struble did not let Rodriguez go. Instead, he asked Rodriguez if Rodriguez had an issue with Officer Struble walking his dog around the car. Rodriguez replied that he did have an issue with that. Officer Struble then directed Rodriguez to turn off the engine, exit the vehicle, and stand in front of the vehicle until a second officer arrived.
Officer Struble’s back-up officer arrived at about 12:33 a.m. About seven or eight minutes after Officer Struble issued the warning ticket to Rodriguez, Officer Struble walked his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. The dog alerted, the officers searched the vehicle, and the officers found a bag of methamphetamine.
Rodriguez was charged with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in violation of federal law. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his vehicle, arguing that Officer Struble violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him for a dog sniff without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The district court denied Rodriguez’s motion, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer can make a brief investigative stop, like a traffic stop, based on particularized and objective “reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity. For example, an officer can stop a vehicle after observing a driver violate a traffic law. But the stop must be related in scope to the officer’s justification for it. This means that the officer may detain the driver only for the period required to complete the tasks related to the original justification for the stop, for example, to run a records check, to interview a driver, to write a ticket, or even to conduct a dog sniff. The stop satisfies the Fourth Amendment if it is reasonable, that is, if it is reasonably related to the justification for the stop.
But state and federal courts split over what should happen after an officer completes the tasks directly related to the original stop. Some courts say that detention beyond this point constitutes a separate seizure, requiring independent and separate justification. Others, like the Eighth Circuit in this case, say that detention beyond this point is an extension of the original stop, so long as the nature and duration of the overall stop is reasonable, because the additional detention constitutes only a de minimis intrusion on the detainee’s personal liberty.
The parties wrangle over which approach is correct. They agree that an officer may conduct a dog sniff of the outside of a vehicle during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. The Supreme Court held as much in Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). But they disagree about whether a dog sniff can prolong a stop, even for a short period of time. Central to this dispute is the standard the Court should use to judge the prolonged stop—independent individualized suspicion of a different illegal activity (as Rodriguez would have it), or the overall reasonableness of the stop (as the government argues).
Rodriguez argues that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a traffic stop based, as here, on probable cause of illegal activity. But he claims that the stop must be reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first place and no longer than necessary to effectuate that purpose. Rodriguez says that an officer can use a drug dog to conduct a sniff if the sniff does not delay completion of the tasks related to the traffic violation. But he contends that an officer cannot expand the boundaries of a traffic stop in order to conduct a sniff. Rodriguez says that once the officer has completed all the tasks required during a lawful traffic stop, the driver is free to go, unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity.
Rodriguez claims that these principles establish a bright-line rule—that a traffic stop ends when an officer completes the tasks related to the traffic violation, and that any detention beyond that point, no matter how brief, is unreasonable (and thus violates the Fourth Amendment) unless the additional detention is independently justified by individualized suspicion. He says that this rule would provide guidance to officers in the field and protect innocent drivers from suspicionless intrusions while at the same time giving officers plenty of time to conduct valid dog sniffs during a lawful detention.
Rodriguez argues that the Eighth Circuit’s reasons for its de minimis exception to these rules are flawed. He claims that the Eighth Circuit wrongly assumed that the line marking the end of a traffic stop is “artificial,” and that under a legitimate reasonableness standard the Fourth Amendment would allow a dog sniff that could have occurred within the scope of the traffic stop to occur shortly after the stop. Rodriguez says that the line is a constitutional one, and not “artificial,” and that any other approach would allow the officers to determine the end of a traffic stop for Fourth Amendment purposes. Rodriguez also claims that the Eighth Circuit was wrong to say that a dog sniff is similar to ordering a driver out of a car during a stop—a valid de minimis intrusion under Pennsylvania v. Mimms. 434 U.S. 106 (1977). Rodriguez claims that ordering a driver out of a car during a stop justified by probable cause (as in Mimms) is far different than conducting a dog sniff after a stop based on no cause at all. He also says that a dog sniff is far more intrusive than an order to get out of a car. Finally, Rodriguez claims that the Eighth Circuit wrongly concluded that an officer may conduct a suspicionless search using a dog sniff, because a dog sniff is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Rodriguez says that the dog sniff in his case violated the Fourth Amendment, because it required his continued detention even after the justification for the stop expired (and not for any reasons having to do with the dog sniff as such).
Rodriguez argues that under his bright-line rule, the Court should reverse the Eighth Circuit’s decision. He says that Officer Struble had no objectively reasonable basis for detaining him after completing the tasks related to the justification for the initial stop. He claims that any additional facts that Officer Struble considered suspicious (and that might independently justify continued detention) are “consistent with innocent travel and easily explained by the circumstances of the stop.” Rodriguez contends that because Officer Struble had no independent justification for his continued detention after he completed the tasks related to the justification for the initial stop, the dog sniff violated the Fourth Amendment.
The government argues that Officer Struble’s dog sniff was a reasonable incident to the traffic stop, even if it briefly prolonged the stop, because the overall duration of the stop was objectively reasonable. The government says that under the Fourth Amendment an officer can conduct a number of inquiries before resolving a traffic violation, just so long as the stop does not run an unreasonably long time. For example, the government claims that an officer can conduct inquiries related to the traffic stop, like verifying the validity of a driver’s license and registration or conducting a background check. The government claims that an officer can also conduct inquiries into unrelated criminal activities, even without reasonable suspicion, like asking passengers about matters unrelated to the traffic stop or conducting a dog sniff. Again, the government says that the test for these inquiries, and their effects on the duration of the stop, is the overall reasonableness of the stop.
The government argues that the sequence of an officer’s permissible tasks during a stop should not matter. In particular, the government contends that an officer’s issuing a traffic ticket before a dog sniff does not alone render that dog sniff unconstitutional. Instead, the government claims that the Court should apply a test of overall reasonableness and look to the total duration of the stop (compared to the duration of stops under similar circumstances), the proportion of the stop dedicated to the dog sniff, and the officer’s diligence throughout.
The government contends that Rodriguez’s argument for a bright-line rule has several problems. For one, the government says that a bright-line rule prohibiting a dog sniff after an officer issues a ticket would not reduce delays in the stop; it would only force an officer to re-sequence his or her tasks related to the stop (by conducting the dog sniff before issuing a ticket). The government claims that this would unduly constrain officers’ discretion to conduct inquiries in the order warranted by the particular stop. For another, the government contends that a bright-line rule, in treating the motorist like a newly pulled-over motorist after the officer issues a ticket, ignores the fact that the officer previously detained the motorist on probable cause that he or she committed a traffic violation. The government says that its test, overall reasonableness, does not have these problems. The government claims that lower courts have applied this test without difficulties to dog sniffs conducted both before and after an officer issues a ticket.
Applying its overall reasonableness test, the government argues that the dog sniff in this case did not unreasonably prolong Rodriguez’s traffic stop. The government claims that the overall duration (about 29 minutes) was within the range of other similar traffic stops. It says that the seven- or eight-minute delay to conduct the dog sniff was not an unreasonably large portion of the stop. Moreover, the government contends that the delay was warranted by Officer Struble’s need for backup. And the government says that Officer Struble acted diligently throughout the stop.
Finally, the government argues that Rodriguez’s detention to conduct a dog sniff was independently justified by Officer Struble’s reasonable suspicion of other unlawful activity.
This case will resolve a split in the federal and state courts over whether the Fourth Amendment allows a de minimis detention beyond an officer’s original traffic stop. (Indeed, as Rodriguez points out in his cert. petition, the split reached this very case: Rodriguez’s case would have turned out differently if it had been tried in Nebraska state court instead of in a Nebraska federal court.)
On the one hand, the case goes to the duration of a traffic stop, and an officer’s ability to conduct additional investigations (like a dog sniff) after he or she completed the tasks directly related to the original stop. Rodriguez’s bright-line rule could potentially shorten stops and restrict an officer’s ability to conduct these investigations; the government’s overall reasonableness approach could lengthen stops (at least incrementally, as here) and give an officer more flexibility in conducting additional investigations.
But on the other hand, the case may not significantly affect either the duration of a stop or an officer’s ability to conduct a dog sniff in most cases. That’s because, as the government argues, even a ruling for Rodriguez might only force officers to re-sequence their activities during a traffic stop, for example, to conduct a dog sniff before the officer issues a ticket.
The Supreme Court today ruled that a prisoner sentenced to death had a right to assistance of substitute counsel in his federal habeas proceeding, when his original attorneys missed the AEDPA habeas filing deadline and couldn't themselves argue for equitable tolling.
The ruling, Christeson v. Roper, issued per curiam, and without briefing or oral argument, marks a victory for the right to counsel in federal habeas cases.
Christeson was sentenced to death. The federal district court appointed counsel pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3599(a)(2) (providing for appointment of counsel for state death row inmates). But Christeson's attorneys let lapse the 1-year filing deadline for federal habeas claims under AEDPA. Those attorneys then weren't in a position to argue for equitable tolling of the 1-year deadline, because they'd have to argue (against their own interests) that they dropped the ball. But they also failed to cooperate with new attorneys who sought appointment on the case (and who could make the equitable tolling argument). The district court declined to substitute counsel, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court said that the standard for substitute counsel for a Section 3599 appointed attorney under Martel v. Clair was a broad one, the "interests of justice," which included several factors. The Court said that one of those factors in this case was the original attorneys' conflict of interest in arguing for equitable tolling. The Court said that the lower courts applied the right "interests of justice" standard, but failed to account for the conflict of interest as a factor.
While not every case in which a counseled habeas petitioner has missed AEDPA's statute of limitations will necessarily involve a conflict of interest, [the original attorneys'] contentions here were directly and concededly contrary to their client's interest, and manifestly served their own professional and reputational interests.
Clair makes clear that a conflict of this sort is grounds for substitution.
Justices Alito and Thomas dissented. They argued that the Court shouldn't have decided the case without argument, and that the case involved only "an error, albeit a serious one, on the part of the [original] attorneys."
The ruling only means that Christeson will now have substitute attorneys to argue equitable tolling; it says nothing about the merits of the equitable tolling claim itself, let alone the underlying habeas petition. Still, it represents a victory for the right to counsel for federal habeas petitioners.
Monday, January 19, 2015
ConLawProfBlog's own Prof. Ruthann Robson (CUNY) recently published her thoughtful, creative, and compelling piece on Williams-Yulee, the case testing Florida's ban on campaign contributions by judicial candidates, on the Supreme Court's calendar on Tuesday. Robson's Public Interest Lawyering & Judicial Politics: Four Cases Worth a Second Look in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar is part of Vanderbilt Law Review's Rountable on the case.
Robson takes a refreshing look at the issue of judicial candidate campaign contributions through the eyes of a public interest attorney. Indeed, she starts the piece with a personal testimonial about being solicited herself--and the awkward position that put her in. (Tellingly, her position wasn't so awkward for other, non-public interest attorneys. They simply contributed.)
She argues that public interest lawyers have a special interest in this issue, and in this case. That's because
as public interest attorneys, we are less likely to be able to contribute to judicial campaigns, but may feel more likely to comply with a solicitation because we know our clients are already at a disadvantage. Additionally, our opposing clients and counsel are often those who are precisely in the position of being solicited and of answering those solicitations with substantial contributions.
She makes her case by persuasively arguing for a "second look" at four earlier decisions--newer and older, all touching on judicial integrity--that in different ways illustrate why a ruling for Williams-Yulee (overturning Florida's ban) "would have a disproportionately negative impact on the public interest bar." Those cases are Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (striking Minnesota's rule that prohibited judicial candidates from announcing their views on disputed issues); Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. (holding that the failure of a state high court judge to recuse himself from a case involving a major donor violated due process); Shelley v. Kraemer (holding that the judiciary is subject to the same constitutional constraints that the other branches are); and In Re Hawkins (Fl. Sup. Ct.) (upholding a sanction of removal from the bench after a judge sold her book to attorneys with cases before her).
Robson's "second look" cases together illustrate why an impartial judiciary, and the appearance of an impartial judiciary, are so important--to the public, to be sure, but especially to public interest attorneys and their clients. They also show how a ruling for Williams-Yulee (a former public defender herself) could so adversely affect the public interest bar.
Robson's piece brings a voice to this case--the voice of the underrepresented and their attorneys--that's all-too-often lost in sterile arguments about free speech. And she shows why the Court should pay attention to that voice.
[Public interest attorneys] should not have to worry whether [judges] think we "support" them, or whether our adversaries "support" them. We should not have to curry favor through financial contributions directly requested by a person who is hearing our client's causes. To do our work, we must continue to have faith that our judges, whether elected or whether appointed to the United States Supreme Court, are not mere politicians.
An excellent piece that adds to the debate. Check it out.
Friday, January 16, 2015
The ACLU and the federal government settled Al-Kidd v. United States, the case challenging the government's post-9/11 practice, pursuant to the Material Witness Statute, of imprisoning Muslim men as material witnesses without any basis for holding them.
The case was on remand from the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled in 2011 that then-defendant John Ashcroft was entitled to qualified immunity against Al-Kidd's Fourth Amendment claim. (All eight participating justices agreed that Ashcroft did not violate a "clearly established" Fourth Amendment right at the time of Al-Kidd's arrest and detention. Justice Kagan was recused.) However, four of the eight justices agreed that there were serious questions about the statutory claim, that is, "whether the Government's use of the Material Witness Statute in [Al-Kidd's] case was lawful." The Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings as to the remaining defendants.
The district court granted summary judgment to Al-Kidd on most claims; a defendant (an FBI agent) filed an interlocutory appeal with the Ninth Circuit; and the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in May 2014. The parties settled this week.
The government issued a statement: "The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your life that may have resulted from your arrest and detention." It also agreed to pay Al-Kidd $385,000.00.
On Friday afternoon, the Court granted certiorari in the Sixth Circuit consolidated cases in DeBoer v. Snyder from the Sixth Circuit. [Recall that a divided Sixth Circuit panel reversed the district court decisions in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee].
Here's the Court's grant:
The cases are consolidated and the petitions for writs of certiorari are granted limited to the following questions: 1)Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?
The remainder of the Order sets out the briefing schedule and oral argument:
A total of ninety minutes is allotted for oral argument on Question 1. A total of one hour is allotted for oral argument on Question 2. The parties are limited to filing briefs on the merits and presenting oral argument on the questions presented in their respective petitions. The briefs of petitioners are to be filed on or before 2 p.m., Friday, February 27, 2015. The briefs of respondents are to be filed on or before 2 p.m., Friday, March 27, 2015. The reply briefs are to be filed on or before 2 p.m., Friday, April 17, 2015.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
The Brennan Center issued a report this week concluding that very wealthy "independent" spenders are the primary beneficiaries of the five-year-old Citizens United. Daniel Weiner, the report's author, says, "This is perhaps the most troubling result of Citizens United: In a time of historic wealth inequality, the decision has helped reinforce the growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that democratic participation for the vast majority of our citizens is of relatively little value." Weiner explains that wealthy individuals spend through super-PACs and dark money group, "while often sponsoring candidates like racehorses."
The report also looks at other Citizen United legacies, including the increase in dark money election spending by publicly held corporations, weakening contribution limits, and trampling shareholder and employee rights (because shareholders and employees are often kept in the dark about corporate spending).
So: What to do? David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center has one idea. He argues this week in the LA Times that Congress should encourage political participation (campaign contributions) by small donors through contribution tax credits. Gans explains that Congress passed just such a tax credit in 1972, and that it lasted until 1986. But it is no more. He also explains why a tax credit should have bipartisan support (as it did in 1972). Gans elaborates on his argument in an issue brief titled Participation and Campaign Finance: The Case for a Federal Tax Credit.
Reversing the district court, the Third Circuit's opinion today in Flora v. County of Luzerne held that a public defender's complaint contained sufficient allegations to proceed with a First Amendment retaliation claim.
The unanimous panel held that the United States Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Lane v. Franks "clarified that '[t]he critical question under Garcetti [v. Ceballos] is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.” While the Third Circuit noted that the district judge did not have the "benefit of Lane" when it rendered its decision, it stated that "Garcetti alone should have steered it away from applying" the standard it did, a “related to” employment standard.
So what did Chief Public Defender Flora do that he alleges was protected by the First Amendment? First, after many unsuccessful attempts to procure what he saw as inadequate funding for indigent defense, he eventually initiated a class action lawsuit for the benefit of indigent criminal defendants in state court, and interestingly simultaneously sought relief in federal court from being terminated for this action. Second, the county's notorious "Kids for Cash" scandal had resulted in a 2009 order by the state supreme court of vacatur and expungement of thousands of delinquency adjudications and consent decrees, but in 2013 Flora learned that over 3,000 expungements had not yet occurred. He "brought that failure to the attention of the County, the District Attorney for the County, the Administrator of the Court of Common Pleas, the public interest law firm that represented the juveniles in the expungement proceedings, and Judge Grim," who had been the special master in the case.
Both the lawsuit and the reporting of the failure to expunge were obviously "related to" Flora's position as a public defender. But the Third Circuit rejected the "related to" standard in favor of the "ordinary duties" standard. In this light, its interesting that the court highlights Flora's allegations that
his obligations as an attorney, rather than as the Chief Public Defender, compelled him to make the statements at issue. [And that] the funding crisis and the expungement issue as extraordinary circumstances impelling him to extraordinary speech.
The Third Circuit concludes:
A straightforward application of Lane leads us to conclude that, given those allegations, Flora’s speech with respect to both the funding litigation and the expungement problems was not part of his ordinary responsibilities – it was not part of the work he was paid to perform on an ordinary basis. . . Flora’s ordinary job duties did not include the public reporting of lingering effects from government corruption or the filing of a class action suit to compel adequate funding for his office. Rather, he represented indigent clients in criminal court and in related proceedings . . . .To view it otherwise would unduly restrict First Amendment rights, because reporting malfeasance or misfeasance will regularly benefit an employee in the execution of his job duties by, presumably, removing impediments to proper government functioning.
The Third Circuit's opinion is another example of courts retreating from the broad brush of Garcetti and providing First Amendment protections for "whistleblowers," including attorneys who take action based on their ethical obligations.
On Tuesday, January 20, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in the closely-watched case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar involving a First Amendment challenge to a state rule prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign contributions in a judicial election. Our discussion of the grant of certiorari is here.
Vanderbilt Law Review has published its "Roundtable" symposium about the pending case. It includes:
The Absent Amicus: “With Friends Like These . . .”
Robert M. O’Neil · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 1 (2015).
Public Interest Lawyering & Judicial Politics: Four Cases Worth a Second Look in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar
Ruthann Robson · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 15 (2015).
Much Ado About Nothing: The Irrelevance of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar on the Conduct of Judicial Elections
Chris W. Bonneau & Shane M. Redman · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 31 (2015).
Williams-Yulee and the Inherent Value of Incremental Gains in Judicial Impartiality
David W. Earley & Matthew J. Menendez · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 43 (2015).
Judicial Elections, Judicial Impartiality and Legitimate Judicial Lawmaking: Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar
Stephen J. Ware · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 59 (2015).
The Jekyll and Hyde of First Amendment Limits on the Regulation of Judicial Campaign Speech
Charles Gardner Geyh · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 83 (2015).
What Do Judges Do All Day? In Defense of Florida’s Flat Ban on the Personal Solicitation of Campaign Contributions From Attorneys by Candidates for Judicial Office
Burt Neuborne · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 99 (2015).
Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the First Amendment, and the Continuing Campaign to Delegitimize Judicial Elections
Michael E. DeBow & Brannon P. Denning · 68 Vand. L. Rev. En Banc 113 (2015).
January 15, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Elections and Voting, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Scholarship, Speech, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
In its opinion today in Smith v. County of Suffolk, a unanimous panel of the Second Circuit reversed the grant of a summary judgment in favor of the Suffolk County Police Department.
Smith, a police officer, had presumably engaged in First Amendment protected activity, including unathorized communication with media: Smith corresponded with CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin over a period of three years; Smith exchanged emails with Newsday correspondent Christine Armario expressing concern that the Department’s policy of arresting unlicensed drivers led to ethnic discrimination.
These presumptions were made by the district court, not appealed by the Police Department, and so accepted by the Second Circuit as true. However, the district court's ruling that the third of the elements necessary to establish a prima facie case under Pickering v. Board of Education (1968): a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse action. Instead, the Second Circuit found that
The plain language of several of the disciplinary charges at the heart of the adverse actions directly implicates not only the fact that Smith had engaged in protected speech, but also the content of that speech. . . . The Department. . . characterized the content of the speech and cited that characterization as the basis for several disciplinary charges.
The Second Circuit then analyzed whether a summary judgment was warranted under Mount Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle (1977), if the Department "would have investigated, transferred, and suspended Smith absent his citizen-media speech." The court reasoned that the Mount Healthy defense requires specifics:
Much as plaintiffs are required at the prima facie stage to demonstrate not only the existence of protected speech but a causal connection between that speech and the adverse action, defendants asserting a Mount Healthy defense may not rely solely on the occurrence of unprotected misconduct: they must also articulate and substantiate a reasonable link between that misconduct and their specific adverse actions. A general statement that the employer would have taken some adverse action will not suffice.
(emphasis in original). Moreover,
Put simply, the evidence of record before us permits only inferences. Those inferences may be drawn in either party’s favor, and we require more than inferences from an employer seeking summary judgment based on the Mount Healthy defense.
Similar to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision last term in Lane v. Franks, the Second Circuit's opinion is another indication that courts should take First Amendment claims by public employees more seriously.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Oneok v. Learjet, the case testing whether the federal Natural Gas Act preempts state antitrust claims arising from a conspiracy among natural gas companies to inflate retail natural gas prices.
The dispute arose when natural gas companies reported false natural gas sales prices to industry publications used to set gas prices in retail and wholesale contracts, artificially inflating those prices, and resulting in the Energy Crisis in 2000 to 2002. Retail gas purchasers brought state antitrust cases in several states. The gas companies moved to dismiss, arguing that the Natural Gas Act preempted those claims.
Indeed, the Gas Act grants FERC authority to regulate wholesale sales of natural gas (called "jurisdictional" sales) and any practice that "directly affect[s] jurisdictional rates." So the question in the case is this: Does that authority reach, and preempt state-law claims based upon, the gas companies' false reporting of gas prices to industry publications, thus affecting retail and wholesale gas prices?
The arguments didn't reveal any significant new points (that weren't briefed), and revealed only a little about the Court's likely direction in the case.
The parties agreed that the Gas Act field-preempts state-law claims for some field, but the predictably disagreed about the scope of that field. Oneok, represented by Neal Katyal, argued that the field includes practices like false reporting of gas prices that affect retail sales, because the false reporting also affected wholesale sales (or jurisdictional sales, within FERC's bailiwick). Learjet, represented by Jeffrey Fisher, argued that the Act doesn't sweep that far, and that FERC's authority does not field-preempt the state-law claims here.
Oneok also argued that the Gas Act could conflict-preempt state-law claims (an issue, it said, that would have to be decided on remand), because state-law claims could conflict with the Act and the nationwide uniformity in reporting that FERC encourages. Learjet said that the state-law antitrust claims were congruent with a federal antitrust claim (that everyone says was available to Learjet and the other plaintiffs), so there's no conflict between the state-law claims and federal law.
Questions from the bench revealed little. The progressives on the bench were by far the most active, pressing Katyal the hardest (and seemingly least persuaded by his points), but also probing Fisher (especially Justice Breyer). Conservatives were largely silent, except that Justice Scalia seemed inclined to accept Katyal's point about how price reporting affects wholesale rates (and therefore preempts state-law claims as to retail rates), and Chief Justice Roberts seemed skeptical of Fisher's argument that a ruling for the gas companies would allow them to manipulate and transform any non-jurisdictional practice into one that "directly affect[s] jurisdictional rates."
Justice Kennedy seemed to straddle, and maybe hinted at a result. He asked Katyal whether the Gas Act would preempt a state-law claim that was "exactly the same as the Sherman Act." Katyal responded:
And I think that is complementary authority, which, Justice Kennedy, your opinion in Arizona v. United States decried. Once we're in the field, once Congress has said to a federal agency, as it is here, FERC is regulating the very practice that they are seeking to regulate three different ways, then you can't tolerate states in the area. Why? Because states will have all sort --
Justice Kennedy then asked if Katyal had a back-up conflict-preemption argument, in case his field-preemption point didn't pan out. Katyal: Yes, but for remand.
The outcome will obviously be important to the parties and anyone else worried about accountability for the Energy Crisis in 2000-2002, but probably won't be too important to anyone else. That's because Congress increased FERC's authority in 2005--prompting the government to argue against cert. in the first place.