Tagged: Constitutional Law

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Reviewing The Oral Argument in Hosanna-Tabor (Part Two)

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is the first ministerial exception case to make it to the Supreme Court, even though the Fifth Circuit first recognized the exception in 1972. The ministerial exception is a court-created doctrine that requires the dismissal of lawsuits by ministerial employees against religious organizations. At last Wednesday’s oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor, Justice Samuel Alito asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, how the exception has worked since its inception.

Justice Alito’s question arose soon after Justice Sonia Sotomayor had asked Laycock whether the ministerial exception should apply to “a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.” Justice Sotomayor’s question was probably based on Weishuhn v. Catholic Diocese of Lansing, which has a cert. petition pending before the Court. Weishuhn, a teacher at a Catholic elementary school, alleged violations of the Michigan Civil Rights Act and Whistleblowers’ Protection Act in being fired because she reported possible sexual abuse of a student’s friend to the authorities without first informing her principal. Justice Alito asked if there have been “a great many cases, a significant number of cases, involving the kinds of things that Justice Sotomayor is certainly rightly concerned about, instances in which ministers have been fired for reporting criminal violations and that sort of thing?”

Laycock gave a confusing answer by suggesting that Weishuhn would lose her case on the facts. He said there is a “cert. petition pending [undoubtedly Weishuhn] in which a teacher with a long series of problems in her school called the police about an allegation of sexual abuse that did not happen at the school, did not involve a student of the school, did not involve a parent at the school, someplace else; and — and called the police and had them come interview a student without any communication with — with her principal. And the Respondents tried to spin that as a case of discharge for reporting sexual abuse. But if you look at the facts it’s really quite different.”

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Reviewing the Oral Argument in Hosanna-Tabor (Part One)

Lost in the muddled oral argument of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v EEOC was the case’s central question: Are religious groups entitled to disobey the law?

The contested issue in Hosanna-Tabor is whether Lutheran elementary schoolteacher Cheryl Perich can sue her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, for retaliation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school fired Perich after she threatened to report the school’s disabilities discrimination against her to the EEOC. The specific legal question is whether the ministerial exception, a court-created doctrine that holds that the First Amendment requires the dismissal of many employment discrimination cases against religious employers, applies to schoolteacher Perich because the church considers her to be a minister.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor identified the important legal issue early in the oral argument when she asked the church’s lawyer, University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock, “doesn’t society have a right at some point to say certain conduct is unacceptable, even if religious?” That is what the ministerial exception is all about: at what point do religious organizations have to obey the law?

Justice Sotomayor was concerned about “a church whose religious beliefs centered around sexually exploiting women and children,” which Laycock did not defend. But how can courts determine which laws must be obeyed and which may be flouted? In the past, lower courts have held that Baptist churches’ religious, Scripture-based belief that men are heads of households and therefore entitled to higher pay than women did not allow them to violate the equal pay laws; that the Shiloh True Light Church of Christ’s religious belief in children’s vocational training did not permit it to violate the child labor laws; and that the Quaker tradition of hospitality to the stranger did not allow Quakers to ignore the alien worker requirements of the immigration laws. Those cases focused on how strong the government’s interest was in enforcing the laws. The courts concluded that the government’s interest in enforcing the equal pay, child labor and immigration laws was strong enough to overcome important religious beliefs.

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One Person, One Vote in Mississippi: Maybe Next Year . . .

The decennial redistricting cycle always creates some interesting litigation. While it is still quite early in the cycle, one of the more interesting opinions issued thus far is Mississippi NAACP v. Barbour. Barbour involves the equal protection principle of one person, one vote that requires state legislative districts to have roughly equal population numbers.

Mercifully, the basic facts are fairly simple. Mississippi last redrew its district lines in 2002. In February of this year, the State received census data showing that its current state legislative districts clearly violate one person, one vote. Despite having this data, the Mississippi legislature adjourned without revising the legislative district lines. Mississippi has legislative elections scheduled for this year (a primary in August followed by a general election in November). For this reason, the Barbour plaintiffs rather sensibly went to the district court and asked for relief that would require the elections this year to be held from districts that complied with one person, one vote.

If you had presented me with this situation in a law school hypothetical, I would have said the answer would seem to be fairly clear: on these facts, Mississippi needs to have a redistricting plan that complies with one person, one vote before it holds elections this year. It should come as no surprise, then, that three federal judges think the exact opposite and have decided to allow Mississippi’s legislative elections to go forward based on a plan that everyone agrees violates one person, one vote. Read More

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The Obama DOJ and the Voting Rights Act

Thanks to Gerard for the introduction and to all the folks at Concurring Opinions for providing me with this blogging outlet.

As Gerard mentioned, I write in the area of the law of democracy and the next 12-18 months is a busy season for those in this area—sort of the law of democracy equivalent of early April for tax preparers. The reason for all the commotion is the phenomenon of redistricting that commences soon after release of the decennial census statistics.

One of the things to keep an eye on during this redistricting cycle will be how the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration enforces the Voting Rights Act. Because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires a significant number of state and local governments to get approval for their redistricting plans from the federal government, the Obama Administration will have a lot of influence over how the Voting Rights Act gets enforced this time around.

In some ways, the Obama Administration has a tough job ahead if it. From a legal perspective, the Obama Administration has to be careful about what the federal courts might do with the Voting Rights Act if the Obama administration becomes too active for a conservative court. Indeed, in an opinion issued a couple of years ago, the Supreme Court telegraphed its skepticism about the constitutionality of the portions of the Act that allow for federal oversight over state and local election rules. From a political perspective, the Obama Administration might be under pressure to use every tool available to help its natural political allies—the civil rights groups and minority voters—achieve the goal of creating more districts that give minority voters control over who gets elected.

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A Tale of Two Writs

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial, “A Right without a Remedy,” finally shines a spotlight on what anyone familiar with the Guantanamo detainee habeas corpus litigation already knows: the steady erosion of the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Boumediene v. Bush, and the open disdain for that decision exhibited by several D.C. Circuit judges, most notably A. Raymond Randolph.

The upshot is that we now have two very different conceptions of habeas corpus at Guantanamo: one as a meaningful judicial check on executive power; the other as a legal proceeding in which the judiciary remains powerless to remedy unlawful executive action.

In Boumediene, the Supreme Court held that Congress’s effort to strip Guantanamo detainees of the right to habeas corpus violated the Constitution’s Suspension Clause and ordered the district courts to conduct prompt hearings into whether the petitioners were being lawfully held. Since then, district courts in Washington, D.C., have issued merits decisions in 59 habeas cases, finding no legal basis for the detention in 38 of them.

The D.C. Circuit, however, has taken increasingly narrow view of district court’s power to inquire into the government’s evidence, reversing or vacating and remanding habeas grants in three cases and affirming habeas denials in four of six cases (the other two denials were vacated and remanded). To date, the Circuit has not affirmed a district court grant of habeas nor outright reversed a district court denial.  Along the way, Randolph, along with Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, have suggested that the government might satisfy its burden merely under a “some evidence” standard, as opposed to the higher, preponderance of the evidence standard the Department of Justice is advocating.

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Ward Churchill and the Future of Public Employee Speech Retaliation Litigation

The Colorado Court of Appeals released its decision in Ward Churchill’s appeal in his First Amendment retaliation case against the University of Colorado last Wednesday (which must be one of the slowest news days of the year). A few years ago, the University terminated Churchill, a tenured professor in the University’s Department of Ethnic Studies, after concluding that he had engaged in several incidents of research misconduct, including evidentiary fabrication, plagiarism, and falsification. These conclusions were reached after several years of internal investigative and adjudicative proceedings to examine allegations of Churchill’s research misconduct. As most everyone is aware, the University did not launch its investigation until after a public outcry arose from controversial statements in an essay that Churchill wrote comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” in reference to the notorious Nazi war criminal. The perhaps forgotten larger point of the essay was an argument that the 9/11 attacks were provoked by American foreign policy actions.

Churchill sued the University, arguing that both the investigation and the termination violated his free speech rights under the First Amendment because they were undertaken in retaliation for his protected expression on matters of public concern. At trial, after the evidence was submitted, the University moved for a directed verdict on the claim that the investigation (as distinguished from the termination) was an adverse employment action that constituted unconstitutional retaliation, and the trial court agreed. The termination claim went to the jury, which held for Churchill, concluding that the University’s decision to fire him was substantially motivated by his protected speech. The jury also rejected the University’s defense under Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977), finding that the University had not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have fired Churchill for reasons other than his speech. The jury then awarded Churchill only $1 for his economic loss.

In an unusual move, the parties had agreed prior to trial that the University would waive its sovereign immunity defense in exchange for Churchill’s agreement that the University could assert any defenses that its officials or employees could have raised and that those defenses could be presented after the jury’s verdict. Pursuant to this agreement, the University submitted post-verdict motions asserting that despite the jury’s ruling, the University was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity for its officials’ actions. Churchill filed a motion asking that he be reinstated to his faculty position based on the jury’s finding of unconstitutional termination. The trial court ruled in favor of the University on both claims and entered judgment for the defense, from which Churchill appealed. Read More

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An Appeal to Reason

In good news for LGBT rights, a federal court recently enjoined enforcement of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, the government may appeal the decision; a recent New York Times article notes that “The Department of Justice, however, is required to defend laws passed by Congress under most circumstances.”

My colleague Bryan Wildenthal, who teaches constitutional law, disagrees, writing that: Read More

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On the Colloquy: The Credit Crisis, Refusal-to-Deal, Procreation & the Constitution, and Open Records vs. Death-Related Privacy Rights

NW-Colloquy-Logo.jpg

This summer started off with a three part series from Professor Olufunmilayo B. Arewa looking at the credit crisis and possible changes that would focus on averting future market failures, rather than continuing to create regulations that only address past ones.  Part I of Prof. Arewa’s looks at the failure of risk management within the financial industry.  Part II analyzes the regulatory failures that contributed to the credit crisis as well as potential reforms.  Part III concludes by addressing recent legislation and whether it will actually help solve these very real problems.

Next, Professors Alan Devlin and Michael Jacobs take on an issue at the “heart of a highly divisive, international debate over the proper application of antitrust laws” – what should be done when a dominant firm refuses to share its intellectual property, even at monopoly prices.

Professor Carter Dillard then discussed the circumstances in which it may be morally permissible, and possibly even legally permissible, for a state to intervene and prohibit procreation.

Rounding out the summer was Professor Clay Calvert’s article looking at journalists’ use of open record laws and death-related privacy rights.  Calvert questions whether journalists have a responsibility beyond simply reporting dying words and graphic images.  He concludes that, at the very least, journalists should listen to the impact their reporting has on surviving family members.

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Return of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Just in Time for Health Care)

The Congress shall have Power . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.  U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8.

The big news last week concerning the fate of the federal health care legislation was not the entrance of new plaintiffs into the litigation challenging the statute or the government’s filing its opposition brief in the suit brought by Virginia.  The big news was United States v. Comstock and the continuing resurgence of the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution (quoted above).

The constitutional challenges focus on the so-called individual mandate, taking effect in 2014, which will require that most people either own health insurance or pay a penalty.  Legally, the arguments against the legislation lack merit.  As I have argued elsewhere, under contemporary Commerce Clause doctrine, Congress can impose the individual mandate as part of its comprehensive regulation of the interstate market in health insurance.  Further, the provision is structured as a tax on those who fail to purchase insurance, thus falling within Congress’s even broader taxing authority.

Rhetorically, however, the opponents’ arguments may have some appeal.  How, the critics insist, can Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce extend to regulating the non-commercial activity of doing nothing (i.e., not buying insurance)?  Doing nothing is not commerce, the law’s opponents proclaim.  Can you make a federal case out of taking a nap?

The answer to this rhetoric comes from the Court’s great rhetorician, Justice Antonin Scalia.

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Immigration Federalism: Red and Blue

In a previous post, I discussed some of the federalism implications of Arizona’s recent legislation concerning immigrants.  I noted that in immigration, as in other areas, it is difficult to define enclaves of exclusive state or exclusive federal jurisdiction.  Rather, contemporary federalism entails a dynamic interaction of state and federal authority.

If Arizona’s law constitutes an example of “red state” federalism, a recent announcement by New York’s Governor David Paterson illustrates the “blue state” version of immigration federalism. 

Under federal immigration law, conviction of certain state crimes constitutes grounds for deportation.  But, in many circumstances a subsequent state pardon removes the threat of deportation.  In what The New York Times termed “a major rebuke of federal immigration policy,” Governor Paterson created a panel to assist him in evaluating pardon requests from immigrants subject to deportation based on state convictions.  The Governor characterized some federal immigration laws as “embarrassingly and wrongly inflexible.”  “In New York,” Paterson explained, “we believe in renewal.”

So, now New York has joined Arizona in rebuking federal immigration policy, though from a very different perspective.

Even the United States Supreme Court has gotten into the immigration federalism act.  In Padilla v. Kentucky, decided in March, the Court held that defense counsel’s failure to advise a state criminal defendant that a guilty plea carries a risk of deportation constitutes ineffective assistance in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  In what will be one of Justice Stevens’ last majority opinions, he explained that as a matter of federal law, deportation is an “integral part” of the penalty for the state crime.

Padilla confirms the obvious: In immigration, state and federal law are closely intertwined.  What are we to make of this feature of our federal system?  If some are troubled by Arizona’s inhospitable voice, they might find solace in New York’s dulcet tones of “renewal.”  That counterpoint provides cold comfort to immigrants in Arizona, but then the United States Constitution provides some protection for all people throughout the country. 

Complicated? Yes, but simple would be superior only if we all agreed on the answers.  And we do not.  In the meantime, New York seeks to vindicate its immigrant heritage.