Category: General Law

5

Disclaimers & Promissory Estoppel

Imagine that, rather than because of his speech, but for no reason at all, University of Illinois Chancellor Wise decided not to present Prof. Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees. Also assume that the facts are as they’ve been publicly described – there is no documented backchannel communication assuring that the appointment was a “rubber stamp,” and the Board had no knowledge of the offer’s existence before the summer. Finally, assume that the Illinois Chancellor has not failed to forward on a hiring proposal to the Trustees since, say, 2010.

These assumptions strip away the political and constitutional questions,* and leave us with a clean problem: does an express reservation of authority in an offer of employment make it unreasonable to rely on it, where the current institutional practice is for such authority to be confirmed later? Dorf thinks “no.” I, and Steven Lubet, think “yes.”

In my first post, I cited a number of cases in which promissory estoppel claims by prospective faculty members under circumstances like these were denied, including some that rested on the conclusion that the ultimate authority lay with the Board of Trustees.  This post continues that research.  I have found no cases directly on point in Illinois. Nor have I found a single case outside of Haviland v. Simmons where a plaintiff successfully asserted a PE claim under these circumstances.  In addition to the cases I cited in the original post, see also Drake v. Medical College of Ohio, 120 Ohio App.3d 493 (1997) (representation by college president that a faculty member would be hired and trustees would be a “rubber stamp” didn’t give rise to PE Claim);  Broderick v. Catholic University, 365 F. Supp. 147 (D.D.C. 1973) (representation of prospective wage equality in president’s letter not reasonably reliable in light of several factors, including reservation of power to Trustees).  Of the dozen or so cases I have found in this vein, Oja v. Blue Mountain Community College, 2004 WL 1119886 (D. Ore. 1994) comes closest to the Salaita facts:

 

“Defendants argue that McCarrell, the interim president, stated in the June 18, 2002 letter to plaintiff that McCarrell would recommend that the Board agree to employ plaintiff. I agree with defendants that a close reading of the letter and the contract show that McCarrell did not agree to employ plaintiff but rather stated that he would recommend that the Board employ plaintiff. This is indicated by contract’s blank signature line for the Chair of the Board.
Plaintiff knew that Board approval was legally required, but argues that this as a mere formality. Plaintiff cites alleged statements by Shea to the effect that the job was secure, which Shea denies. Assuming Shea did make such statements, casual or unauthorized comments cannot create a binding employment agreement. See Butler v. Portland General Elec. Co., 748 F.Supp. 783, 792 (D.Or.1990)aff’d sub nom. Flynn v. Portland General Elec. Co.,958 F.2d 377 (9th Cir.1992) (table, text in Westlaw). The promissory estoppel claim fails because it was not reasonable for plaintiff to believe that he had a binding contract with Blue Mountain based on McCarrell’s statement that McCarrell would recommend plaintiff’s employment to the Board.”

Now this isn’t precisely on point. The letter to Salaita did offer employment, subject to the condition listed.  So it’s a better case for reliance than Oja. But the similarities are otherwise striking, including the alleged side representations of security. There is also a line of cases in which  general disclaimers of intent to contract in university policies defeat promissory estoppel claims.  See Ishibashi v. Gonzaga University, 101 Wash. App. 1078 (2000). That said, contract authorities (like Farnsworth and Perillo) state that some courts have given promissory estoppel relief notwithstanding disclaimers of intent to be bound, especially where the disclaimers are general (in an employment manual) and the promises specific. There’s a case like this in every casebook, and they tend to turn on how unjust the conduct ends up feeling.  See, e.g., Spooner v. Reserve Life Ins. Co., 47 Wash. 2d 454, 287 P.2d 735 (Wash. 1955) (denying relief).

Given this caselaw, and the general trend against promissory estoppel I earlier identified, the best thing that Salaita would have going for him – in the unlikely event that he were to litigated in federal or state court** – are the side representations and academic custom. The question of whether parol evidence is barred in PE cases is notoriously complex. In Illinois, PE can’t defeat the statute of frauds, and it would be a further complex issue to decide whether the writing – which is not signed by the ultimate authority to be charged – satisfies the statute, as Larry Cunningham has pointed out.  My own gestalt is that the side representations would not be admissible,though if they were in writing they might be more likely to color the court’s analysis.

As for custom and practice, I agree with everyone who has said it is relevant.  But, as a district court stated in dismissing evidence of custom of providing a six year tenure clock,

Custom is an area of contract law through which the courts must travel prudently. Only upon a clear showing of custom, nigh universally understood, should a court impose obligations based on custom . . . This Court will not enforce contractual obligations based on a custom which at best finds only tenuous support in the facts.” Marwill v. Baker, 499 F.Supp. 560 (D. Mich. 1980).

*As I originally wrote, I think that there are serious constitutional infirmities in the University’s position, as well as substantial academic freedom arguments. Rescinding the offer was a bad decision.

**Mike Dorf’s assumption that federal courts will exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the promissory estoppel claim assumes that the University of Illinois isn’t immune under sovereign immunity.  Cf. Kaimowitz v. Board of Trustees of Univ. of Illinois, 951 F.2d 765 (7th Cir.1991) (holding that it is immune unless certain exceptions are met). I think this issue would turn on whether the PE recovery is seen as a “present claim” or not, but I’m not an expert.

 

17

Steven Salaita’s Promissory Estoppel Claim is Weak

Not a good fact for PE claim: Salaita's tween that "Zionists: transforming 'anti-semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948"

Not a good fact for PE claim: Salaita’s tweet “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948″

Mike Dorf has written something about the Steven Salaita case which I can’t agree with. Acknowledging that Professor Salaita had no actual contract with the University of Illinois, Dorf turns to promissory estoppel:

“Like many other states, Illinois law offers protection to people who, in reasonable reliance on an offer that falls short of a fully enforceable contract, take actions to their detriment. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed this principle of “promissory estoppel” as recently as 2009, in the case of Newton Tractor Sales v. Kubota Tractor Corp.

Salaita has an almost-classic case of promissory estoppel. He was told by Illinois that trustee approval was essentially a rubber stamp, and in reliance on that representation he resigned from his prior position on the faculty of Virginia Tech.

To be sure, a party who sues for promissory estoppel rather than suing under a formal contract typically only recovers to the extent of his reliance, rather than in strict accordance with what he expected to gain under the contract. But here, there is no real difference between what contract law calls the reliance interest and the expectancy interest: By giving up his position at Virginia Tech, Salaita gave up a job in which he had academic freedom; thus, recognition of his promissory estoppel claim should mean that Illinois must afford him academic freedom.”

Mike is an enormously decent person, and he knows more about constitutional law (and debate!) than I ever will. But if Mike really believes that Salaita has a strong case for promissory estoppel recovery, well, he’s wrong.

 The Illinois Supreme Court’s last statement on promissory estoppel is Newtonwhich endorses the Restatement (2nd) of Contracts Section 90.  (Notably, Newton recognized that there a live cause of action for PE in Illinois, but the case strongly suggests that the issue had been in doubt — as of 2009!) The elements of promissory estoppel are consequently familiar:

 “A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise. The remedy granted for breach may be limited as justice requires.”

Let’s take them one by one, as if this were a law school exam.

1.  There was a promise, but it didn’t unambiguously assure employment. It did so contingent on board approval. There are tons of cases out there (including some from Illinois, e.g., Board of Education South Stickney School District No. 111, Cook County v. Murphy, 56 Ill.App.3d 981 (1978)) holding that under the Rst.2d, a promisee can’t estop a promisor’s denial of obligation when the promisor lacked legal authority to conclude a bargain. Under the facts as they’ve been reported, the offer letter was sent by Brian Ross, U. of I.’s interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and explicitly stated that it was contingent on final board approval.

2.  Would the promisor reasonably expect the promise to induce action? Salaita knew the Interim Dean lacked the authority to make a promise that could be relied upon. Dorf argues that Salaita was told by “Illinois” that Board approval was a rubber stamp. But that’s a figure of speech: Salaita was told by the same person who wrote the letter, who, again, lacked decisional authority. (At least, based on what’s been reported.) If an agent tells you that he doesn’t have authority but that his principal will surely back him up, is it reasonable to rely on that representation? I think probably not.  In the classic PE case of Hoffman v. Red Owl, the promisor is bound by an agent’s promises in part because the principal knew about them. What did the relevant University executives know about the hire before the letter was sent out? It’s my impression that at most universities, Department chairs are approved to hire someone, and the President/Board don’t know who until the final package arrives on their desks.  The only winning case that I can find on facts remotely like this one is Haviland v. Simmons, 45 A.3d 1246 (Rhode Island 2012). In Haviland, “upper echelon of Brown’s administration—including the Dean, the Provost, and the Interim President” made promises, and Brown was thus “precluded from denying that its administrators had the authority to provide plaintiff with employment security because the University has failed to produce any probative evidence establishing that those officers lacked such authority.” Is that the case here? 

3.  Can injustice be avoided only by enforcement of the promise? I teach this provision as a catchall – a way for courts to avoid enforcement if they dislike plaintiffs and permit it if they do. Here, I think a court would focus heavily on the language in the letter and inquire about relevant practices at the University. How many times have job offers been extended only to have met board resistance? How much does the court think that a university’s right to control who works for it is trumped by the benefits of academic freedom. (This obviously ties the injustice prong into a first amendment analysis.) My gut feeling is that unlike many liberal law professors, who increasingly treat Israel as a pariah, and who think that there’s “clearly only one defensible side to take on this case,” elected state court judges in Illinois might not think that justice requires enforcement of this non-contract claim. Those tweets would make mighty fine campaign fodder. 

Why am I so skeptical when Mike Dorf is not? I think it’s largely because I’ve read alot of promissory estoppel cases, and a lot of promissory estoppel articles. And the consensus is that over the last generation, promissory estoppel has waned as a theory of recovery. As Bob Hillman famously concluded, it’s a “remarkably unsuccessful” cause of action, which, in my experience, is brought largely in weak cases as a last-ditch shot to push through to discovery and thus motivate settlement.  I think that most contracts professors spend time on the doctrine these days largely because it’s so darn fun — the facts are wonderful! — but not because it’s a regular part of the business lawyer’s arsenal. Promissory estoppel cases are losers. This case would be a loser.  See, e.g., Awada v. University of Cincinnati, 3 Ohio Misc.2d. 100 (1997) (particle group promises of employment not binding); Daniel v. University of Cincinatti, 116 Ohio Misc. 2d 1 (2001) (reliance on faculty promises not reasonable given final trustee approval);Suddith v. Univ. of S. Miss., 977 So.2d 1158  (Miss.Ct.App.2007) (no injustice when after-acquired information about candidate changed president’s mind).

Now, nothing said here in any way suggests I know a thing about the first amendment claim’s merits.  I don’t.  Professor Salaita might have a good constitutional claim, or under some other regime of law. And I agree with Steven Lubet that a settlement is the modal outcome. But, to be snarky, Dorf is right: it’s “an almost-classic case of promissory estoppel.” A weak one.

 

Update: Mike Dorf responds.  My reply follows after the jump:

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2

“Congress” Versus “the Congress”

Since it is the weekend, let me offer this rather trivial observation about the constitutional text:  The Constitution appears to take a stylistically erratic approach to the word “Congress,” sometimes introducing it with the definite article “the,” and at other times introducing it without any article at all.  Looking at this GPO edition of the document, I count 22 references to “the Congress” and 3 references to “Congress” in the first seven Articles, along with 12 references to “the Congress” and 12 references to “Congress” in the subsequent amendments.  There is also one reference to “a Congress” in the Vesting Clause of Article I, although that one makes pretty good sense to me in context.

(By the way, I have no doubt that someone has made this observation before, but the topic turns out to be frustratingly difficult to Google, so I’m unable to provide a reference.  If you have addressed the issue previously, though, feel free to let me know, and I’ll be sure to give credit where credit is due.)

Some of these “Congress”/“the Congress” discrepancies might well be justified, but others seem to me pretty obviously inconsistent.  Compare, e.g., Article I, Section 10, Clause 2 (“No state shall, without the Consent of the Congress…”), with its immediately ensuing clause, Article I, Section 10, Clause 3 (“No state shall, without the Consent of Congress…”).  Compare also the Enforcement Clause of the Thirteenth Amendment (“Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”), with the Enforcement Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment (“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”) and Fifteenth Amendment (“The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”).  So unless there are some deep and subtle messages that I’m supposed to be picking up on, these (and other) discrepancies look to me like the product of accidental oversight.

All of which prompts from me one question and one observation:  The question, which I pose for those more learned than I, is whether it was ever customary, at least in a colloquial sense, to refer to the Constitution’s legislative branch as “the Congress” rather than just “Congress.”  And if so, when did customs change?  I don’t normally say things like: “I wonder if the Congress will shut down the government,” or “I’m looking forward to those debates in the Congress this week,” and I don’t often hear other people using formulations of this sort.  (But see these examples.)  On the other hand, the original Constitution’s heavy reliance on the term “the Congress” makes me wonder whether practices were different earlier on.  (Also, for whatever it’s worth, both “the Congress” and “Congress” make regular appearances in the Federalist Papers.  But that’s the full extent of my meager primary-source research on this vitally important subject.)

The observation, which I offer mainly to myself, is that it’s really, really tough to put together a written document that is totally lacking in stylistic inconsistencies.  That such inconsistencies appear in the constitutional text itself—a short text, whose provisions have been carefully reviewed and edited by lots of smart people—seems to me a pretty good indicator that small-scale deviations of this sort are virtually impossible to eliminate altogether.  That’s something I’m going to keep in mind the next time I find myself fretting about stylistic inconsistencies in my own work.  (E.g., “Did I accidentally use the un-hyphenated ‘decisionmaking’ in Part I, while later using the hyphenated ‘decision-making’ in Part VI???”)  Not that I shouldn’t try to be consistent, but to the extent that I do end up erring, at least I’m not alone…

3

The Incorporation of the Seventh Amendment

Recently a federal district court held that the Seventh Amendment applies to that territory and to the states.  While I am uncertain if this will stand up on appeal (it’s not clear that the issue need even be reached in this case), I did want to offer two thoughts about the opinion.

First, it’s disappointing (though not that surprising) that the Court said nothing about Reconstruction in its analysis.  There is a lot of talk about the importance of the civil jury to the Framers, but none about how that right was seen by John Bingham and his colleagues when they ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.  What that evidence would show (beyond Bingham’s view that the Seventh Amendment should be incorporated) is one thing, but to ignore it is wrong.

Second, I am unclear about how incorporating the Seventh Amendment against the States would change civil practice.  (Puerto Rico has a more unusual constitution, so the impact would be greater there).  In other words, to what extent can you not get a civil jury trial in a state nowadays?  Granted, the Seventh Amendment’s outdated money threshold ($20) may wipe out higher amount-in-controversy requirements that states have, but otherwise would incorporation matter?  As an aside, why twenty dollars?  There must be a story there.

 

1

Dr. King on the First Amendment & the right to protest

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 11.21.51 PMMartin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968:

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you what you say on paper.” If I lived in China or even in Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. 

See YouTube clip here.

→ See also the following books and articles:

  1. Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First Amendment (1965)
  2. David Garrow, Protest at Selma:Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (1978)
  3. Andrew Mach, “Martin Luther King Jr.: 8 peaceful protests that bolstered civil rights,” Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 15, 2012
  4. Burke Marshall, “The Protest Movement and the Law,” 51 Virginia L. Rev. 785 (1965)
  5. Clark McPhail, David Schweingruber & John McCarthy, “Policing Protest in the United States: 1960-1995” in Policing Protest (1998) by  Donatella D. Porta, et al, eds.
  6. Lewis F. Powell, Jr., “A Lawyer Looks at Civil Disobedience,” 23 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 205 (1966)
  7. Nicholas Katzenbach, “Protest, Politics and the First Amendment,” 44 Tulane L. Rev. 439 (1970)
  8. Ronald Krotoszynski, Jr. “Celebrating Selma: The importance of context in public forum analysis,” 104 Yale L. J. 1411 (1995)
0

Now may be the moment . . .

Heed their rising voices.

heed-rising-voicesIn light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, that admonition seems as relevant today as it was when it was when it appeared on March 29, 1960 in a New York Times political advertisement directed at the Montgomery, Alabama police. Of course, it was that advertisement that gave rise to the celebrated ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).

The analogy to the events surrounding the killing of young Michael Brown and the famed First Amendment case is more apt than may first appear. How so?  Well, let us start here: It is important to remember that the First Amendment victory in Sullivan emerged against the backdrop of intense racial strife. What is remarkable about the case is how it blended the liberty principle of the First Amendment with the equality principle of the Fourteenth Amendment to forge a landmark opinion. Perhaps at no other time in American history have the two been so wonderfully wed as to serve the high principles of both constitutional guarantees.

Know this: Racial injustice cannot endure the light of the First Amendment; police abuse cannot continue unabated when subjected to the scrutiny of a camera; and governmental indifference cannot persist when the citizenry assembles in a united front to oppose it. Put another way, the link between free-speech liberty and racial equality is vital to the health of our constitutional democracy.

Frank Pasquale’s recent post (“The Assault on Journalism in Ferguson, Missouri) ably points out why citizens of all political stripes should be concerned about what has been going on in Ferguson. His sober post is a timely reminder of the importance of the First Amendment in the affairs of our lives, be they in Ferguson or Staten Island or elsewhere.

(CNN) — The New York City medical examiner’s office Friday confirmed what demonstrators had been saying for weeks: A police officer’s choke hold on a man being arrested for selling loose cigarettes killed him. (Aug. 2, 2014)

So, now may be the moment to reunite the liberty and equality principles. What does that mean? Among other things, it must mean this:

  1. The press — traditional and modern — must be free to continue to exercise its rights in a robust manner.
  2. Citizens should be able to freely exercise their constitutional right to peacefully assemble and protest.
  3. More transparency should be demanded of government, be it in matters concerning the investigation of the killing of Michael Brown or the need for police identification badges to be plainly visible.
  4. And demands must be made of state and local officials that clear and specific measures be taken to respect and protect the lawful exercise of any and all First Amendment rights.

To that end, press groups, civil rights and civil liberties groups, along with political and religious groups should seize this opportunity, borne out of tragedy, to reinvigorate our First Amendment freedoms employed in the service of racial justice. In that way, perhaps some of the admirably defiant spirit of New York Times v. Sullivan may find its way back into the hearts and minds of people of good will who refuse to sit silent while law-abiding citizens of Ferguson stagger through clouds of teargas.

5

Alternatives to the “Living Constitution”

Nonoriginalist theories of constitutional law are often associated with the idea of the “Living Constitution.”  In a rough sense, the metaphor captures the notion that the Constitution can and should evolve to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of our modern society.  Therefore, the theory goes, judges should be permitted to engage in “dynamic” or “loose” readings of the constitutional text so as to ensure that a very old document remains able to meet the needs and challenges of today’s world.

The living Constitution metaphor often prompts the following sort of rejoinder: “Wait a minute!  Article V of the Constitution prescribes a specific and (arguably) exclusive set of procedures for changing the document’s meaning.  And if a changed world does in fact demand changed constitutional law, then those are the procedures that we should use to achieve the requisite changes.”  Judges, on this view, should not be allowed to circumvent the Article V process by informally according a “living” meaning to the constitutional text.  To permit judicial updating of this is sort is to license judicial infringements on popular sovereignty: “We the People” are the authors of the Constitution, so only “We the People” should be able to amend it.   Let’s call this argument the “Article V Objection.”

To me, the Article V Objection to the “living Constitution” is both powerful and weak.  It’s powerful in that it identifies some very real problems with the notion of a freely changing constitutional text.  But it’s weak in the sense that it doesn’t resolve the questions of whether and to what extent judges may change the content of constitutional law .  In other words, the Article V Objection doesn’t so much destroy the idea underlying the “living Constitution” metaphor as it suggests some alterations to its framing.

Here, then, I want to present three alternative re-framings of the “living Constitution” idea, each of which (a) countenances at least some forms of judicially-initiated changes to constitutional law; and (b) offers, to my mind, a more adequate (though not necessarily definitive) response to the Article V Objection.  Each of these re-framings, moreover, carries with it different a set of implications regarding the sorts of constitutional reforms that judges should be permitted to pursue.  In that sense, then, the re-framings may afford us the added benefit of teasing out some internal subtleties and disagreement points that lie lurking within appeals to the “living Constitution,” full stop.

Thus, without further ado, let’s meet our contestants:

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0

FAN 27 (First Amendment News) — Humanitarian Law Project petition before High Court

Seventeen and a half years for translating a document? Granted, it’s an extremist text.                                                                                      — David Cole

Tarek Mehanna may not be a very nice person. But the narrowing of his liberties has consequences for us all.                             — Rachel Levinson-Waldman

The case is: Mehanna v. United States.

Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna

The issue is: Whether a citizen’s political and religious speech may constitute provision of “material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) under the “coordination” rubric of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, when the government conceded that petitioner was not instructed by the FTO, and the evidence showed that he did not interact with the FTO, but rather viewed, translated, and disseminated materials of his own choosing, while expressing moral support for certain views of the FTO, and associating on the Internet with persons who the government claims had themselves associated with the FTO.

→ Summary of relevant facts as stated by the appellate court: “In 2004, the defendant, an American citizen, was 21 years old and living with his parents in Sudbury, Massachusetts. On February 1, he flew from Boston to the United Arab Emirates with his associates, Kareem Abuzahra and Ahmad Abousamra. Abuzahra returned to the United States soon thereafter but the defendant and Abousamra continued on to Yemen in search of a terrorist training camp. They remained there for a week but were unable to locate a camp. The defendant then returned home, while Abousamra eventually reached Iraq.

“The second cluster of activities was translation-centric. In 2005, the defendant began to translate Arab-language materials into English and post his translations on a website — at-Tibyan — that comprised an online community for those sympathetic to al-Qa’ida and Salafi-Jihadi perspectives. Website members shared opinions, videos, texts, and kindred materials in online forums. At least some offerings that the defendant translated constituted al-Qa’ida-generated media and materials supportive of al-Qa’ida and/or jihad.”

→ The charges against the Defendant included:

  • one count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qa’ida;
  •  one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists knowing or intending its use to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956 and  § 2332
  • one count of providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists, knowing and intending its use to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956 and § 2332
  • and one count of conspiracy to kill persons in a foreign country

→ ACLU of Massachusetts press release re trial verdict: “Mehanna Verdict Compromises First Amendment, Undermines National Security,” Dec. 20, 2011: “Under the government’s theory of the case, ordinary people–including writers and journalists, academic researchers, translators, and even ordinary web surfers–could be prosecuted for researching or translating controversial and unpopular ideas. If the verdict is not overturned on appeal, the First Amendment will be seriously compromised.”

Op-Ed Commentaries 

On Appeal before First Circuit

In an opinion by Judge Bruce Selya, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit denied the Defendant Tarek Mehanna‘s First Amendment challenge. Here is how Judge Selya (former chief judge of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review) began his opinion:

Terrorism is the modern day equivalent of the bubonic plague: it is an existential threat. Predictably, then, the government’s efforts to combat terrorism through the enforcement of the criminal laws will be fierce. Sometimes, those efforts require a court to patrol the fine line between vital national security concerns and forbidden encroachments on constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association. This is such a case.

And here is how Judge Selya closed his opinion in ruling against the Defendant Tarek Mehanna:

Cases like this one present a formidable challenge to the parties and to the trial court: the charged crimes are heinous, the evidentiary record is vast, the legal issues are sophisticated, and the nature of the charges ensures that any trial will be electric. In this instance, all concerned rose to meet this formidable challenge. The lawyers on both sides performed admirably, and the able district judge presided over the case with care, skill, and circumspection. After a painstaking appraisal of the record, the briefs, and the relevant case law, we are confident — for the reasons elucidated above — that the defendant was fairly tried, justly convicted, and lawfully sentenced.

→ Amici on behalf of the Petitioner in the First Circuit included:

  • Alex Abdo, Hina Shamsi, Matthew R. Segal, and Sarah R. Wunsch on brief for American Civil Liberties Union and American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
  • Pardiss Kebriaei, Baher Azmy, and Amna Akbar on brief for Center for Constitutional Rights
  • Nancy Gertner, David M. Porter, and Steven R. Morrison on brief for National, Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • E. Joshua Rosenkranz and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP on brief for Scholars, Publishers, and Translators in the Fields of Islam and the Middle East
Judge Bruce Selya

Judge Bruce Selya

The government was represented by Elizabeth D. Collery, Attorney, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice.

→ Sabin Willett is the counsel of record representing the Defendant Tarek Mehanna in his petition to the Court. In his petition, Mr. Willett’s First Amendment arguments include the following:

  1. “In Humanitarian Law Project, the Court addressed the important question of whether speech could be criminalized as provision of material sup- port in the form of a “service” to an FTO. Deciding that such speech can be unlawful when it takes the form of directly-interactive teaching, the Court interpreted §2339B as imposing criminal liability for speech that is a “service” if that speech is sufficiently “coordinated” with the FTO. This Court did not further define ‘coordination,’ nor hold that all “coordinated” speech could be criminalized consistent with the First Amendment. . . . Outside the narrow factual context of Humanitarian Law Project, the legal contours of ‘coordination’ remain a riddle. The word does not appear in any relevant section of the statutes. The decision uses “coordination” to describe the specific conduct found unlawful in that case, but provides no general definition, and leaves open that some levels of ‘coordination’ may be lawful.”
  2. “Petitioner argued below that a constitutional definition of ‘coordination’ requires an inquiry into the relation of the speaker to the FTO, and cannot be based in the content of his speech. If an FTO directs the defendant to write, the defendant’s compliance might provide a service that the Constitution does not protect, but that service would lie in compliance, not content.”
  3. Certain counts of the Petitioner’s conviction violated his right of association.

→ The government’s brief in opposition can be found here.

Historical Aside re Humanitarian Law Project

The case for the government was argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan

The case for the Humanitarian Law Project was argued by Professor David Cole

Transcript of oral argument here

Interview with Robert Post re his latest book Read More

2

Magna Carta and Anti-Semitism

Many sacred constitutional texts have unfortunate provisions.  The Constitution countenanced slavery (while using euphemisms for the word).  The Declaration of Independence called Native Americans “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”  And the Act of Settlement of 1701 barred anyone who “shall profess the Popish Religion or shall marry a Papist” from the Crown.

Magna Carta’s embarrassment is its description of Jews.  One provision stated: “If anyone who has borrowed from the Jews any sum of money, great or small, dies before the debt has been paid, the heir shall pay no interest on the debt so long as he remains under age.”  Another added that “if any man dies indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt.”  This latter provision adds that “[s]o shall it be done with regard to debts owed persons other than Jews,” which makes you wonder why Jews were singled out earlier.  At that time, the Church took a strong position against loaning money at interest, which in practice made Jews the only creditors, so Magna Carta could have just said “anyone who has borrowed money” or “if any man dies indebted” to achieve the same result.  I would be curious to hear more from medievalists or English legal historians on this point.