Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Religious Exceptions and the Deformation of the First Amendment

 by Michael C. Dorf

My latest Verdict column critiques Sidney Powell's motion to dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed against her by Dominion Voting Systems. Some of the news coverage of Powell's motion has suggested that she is making the argument that her statements about the election being stolen from Donald Trump were so transparently ludicrous that no reasonable person could have believed them. That's not far off, although it's not exactly accurate either. As I explain, the motion to dismiss makes contact with reality in a few places, but it should ultimately fail. If political speech can ever be defamatory--and the SCOTUS cases indicate that it clearly can be in at least some cicrucmstances--Powell's post-election attacks on Dominion should trigger liability.

During the course of my column, I note the irony that both Trump himself--through his suggestion that we "open up" defamation law--and right-wing ideologues--like Judge Silberman, whose call to overrule NY Times v. Sullivan I recently discussed--are in favor of greater liability for defamation, while Powell's motion to dismiss would nearly shut down such liability. Some readers will likely have a more cynical reaction; the juxtaposition is not simply ironic but hypocritical, they will think. I have no current interest in pushing back against that view.

Instead, I want to use the balance of today's essay to discuss another current flashpoint involving the First Amendment--about how to treat religiously motivated claimants seeking exceptions from general rules. For this topic, I'll take as my point of departure last week's Sixth Circuit ruling in Meriwether v. Hartop, which permits a First Amendment lawsuit by a professor at a state university who refused to call a trans student by her preferred pronouns.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Why Do Super-Elite Universities Produce So Many Awful Politicians?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I offered some observations about the pro-insurrectionist Senator Ted Cruz, drawing lessons from the one major life experience that he and I have in common: competitive college-level parliamentary debating.  I will not expand here on what I wrote in that column, but I want to use my two writing slots this week (today and Friday) to pick up on some issues that were raised on the comment board for that column.  In a pointed -- but refreshingly trolling-free -- discussion, three of our readers raised a number of interesting points.  Here, I want to take a stab at answering one reader's provocative question:
"Whenever I think of a Cruz, a Hawley, a Franken, or some other Ivy alumni, I want to find someone to tell me just what those universities think their academic missions are. To create comedy writers? Hedge fund managers? Elected officials? Or just to reproduce more of themselves? Whatever the weaknesses of the noblesse oblige of an Elihu Root, or Franklin Roosevelt, or a Henry Stimson, it seems to me less bad than the naked ambition and relentlessness that seem now to be the primary qualifications for admission."
I concede in advance that I am not a scholar of higher education or of its most selective and elite variants.  It is possible for people who have never gone to an elite institution to offer deep insights and trenchant critiques, just as the late sportscaster Howard Cosell admitted that he "never played the game" but was a keen observer of the world of sport.  My role here, to extend the analogy, is like a jock who had some success playing the game and who has direct experience with a lot of the people and institutions involved, but ultimately mine are still subjective and not deeply researched observations.

Having so stipulated, I want to suggest that the reader's query in the quote above ultimately leads to another one of those "it's the worst, except for all of the alternatives" defenses.  That is, American elite educational institutions do a lot of damage and have a lot to answer for, but the way it is now is better than what came before.  There might be better options, but I will limit myself here to comparing the new status quo with what it replaced.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Government Purchases of Sensitive Private Data

By Matthew Tokson

Carpenter v. United States held that the government must get a warrant before collecting an individual’s cellphone location data. Such data would allow the government to constantly track citizens, revealing their activities, associations, relationships, purchases, and countless other details about their lives. But what if the government can just purchase similar data from a private vendor? Does the Fourth Amendment regulate government purchases, or has the government found a valid way around Carpenter’s restrictions?

These are important and very new questions, and they've begun to attract a lot of scholarly attention. They arise because several government law enforcement agencies have purchased private location data from data brokers in the wake of Carpenter. The Department of Homeland Security, the IRS’s Criminal Investigations Division, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and several other federal and local law enforcement agencies have purchased location data drawn from cellphone apps for various law enforcement purposes. 

Lawyers at these agencies have argued that the purchase of such data does not implicate the Fourth Amendment, in part because Carpenter only directly addressed cell-site location data, not app-based location data. Further, app-based location data is sometimes collected with user permission and is often available for purchase in aggregate form by non-government entities. If a private corporation can purchase it, they say, the government should be able to purchase it too. On the other hand, a Treasury Department watchdog report casts doubt on this conclusion, stating that future courts may conclude that Carpenter precludes government purchases of app-based data. What is the law here?

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Perversely Fascinating Ted Cruz (It's Not About Cancun)

by Neil H. Buchanan

For someone possessing whatever is the opposite of charisma (repellency, maybe?), Ted Cruz has made it very far in life.  Cruz, moreover, has succeeded not in one of the areas in which being a jerk can be a positive, which is what allows Martin Shkrelli or Elon Musk or Roseanne Barr to enjoy at least temporary success.  No, he actually has somehow convinced millions of people to vote for him on multiple occasions.

That is not, of course, as uncommon as I made it seem just now.  There are plenty of politicians of national stature who are simply awful personally, from former Democratic congressman Barney Frank and still-Governor-for-now of New York Andrew Cuomo to Senator Rand Paul or the late Senator Strom Thurmond.  For as long as there have been parties, and especially in current Republican politics, winning general elections is not the real game.  All Cruz had to do was work behind the scenes to grab his party's nomination and, in a state like Texas, he was all but guaranteed to win and to keep winning.  And when it comes to the presidential stage, no one comes close to Donald Trump for treating people -- with special focus on women, people of color, and especially women of color -- like crap.  Of course, he lost the popular vote.  By a lot.  Twice.

Yet somehow, Cruz manages to rise to the top of the a--hole rankings, again and again.  Earlier this week, for example, he started to speak at a makeshift press conference, and he was not wearing a mask at the indoor event.  A reporter asked: "Do you mind putting a mask on for us?"  Cruz: "Yeah, when I'm talking to the TV camera, I'm not going to wear a mask. All of us have been immunized."  Note that "us" is the four (masked) senators standing behind Cruz, not the reporters.  Reporter: "It'd make us feel better."  Cruz: "You're welcome to step away, if you'd like."
So Cruz tells a working stiff to choose between doing his job or being potentially exposed to a deadly virus.  Cruz feels safe, so everyone else is on their own.  Way to own the libs!

My special fascination with Cruz, however, extends beyond his notorious ability to get people to hate him.  (The erratic Lindsey Graham once said, in essence, that all 99 of Cruz's U.S. Senate colleagues would be happy if someone killed the Texas senator.)  As both Professor Dorf and I have noted in passing a few times (e.g., here, here, and here), Cruz's principal undergraduate extracurricular activity was parliamentary debating, with which both of us also have some familiarity.

As I have been watching Cruz's increasingly extreme performative and content-free politics over the last few years, I have found myself thinking again and again about how his experiences on the debate circuit all those years ago seem obviously to have shaped the political black hole that he has now become.  What is going on with this guy?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

(At Least) Nine Conceptions of Common Law in One Takings Case

 by Michael C. Dorf

Monday's SCOTUS oral argument in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hasid implicated a bewildering array of conceptions of the common law of property. In today's essay, I hope to shed some light on what's at stake. I offer a few normative points, but my chief goals are analytic.

Here's how I summarized the legal conflict last fall when the Court granted cert: 

A longstanding regulation in California grants union organizers access to agricultural workers on private property. The rule allows such access for up to three hours per day for up to thirty days at a time for up to four thirty-day periods per year. Union organizers used the rule to gain access to privately owned strawberry fields and orchards growing grapes and citrus fruit. The owners of these properties complained that the access was disruptive and, more importantly for present purposes, unconstitutional. They claimed that the state, by empowering the labor organizers to gain access to their property, had affected an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment and/or a taking without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The property owners lost in the Ninth Circuit and then successfully sought review in the SCOTUS with respect to the takings claim.

The dispute in the Supreme Court is mostly over how to categorize the California regulation. When government simply exercises its power of eminent domain to take title to property, it clearly owes just compensation. The more complicated cases involve exercises of government power that limit the property owner's rights without taking title. To oversimplify a bit, a regulation is a taking if it (a) goes "too far"; (b) amounts to a permanent physical invasion; or (c) destroys all economically viable use of the land.

Category (a), which originates with an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 99 years ago, is most closely associated today with the Penn Central case. In this category, courts balance the burden on the property owner against the government's regulatory interest. Few regulations amount to takings under the Penn Central test or later refinements of it. Categories (b) and (c), by contrast, adopt per se rules. Cedar Point does not plausibly implicate category (c), because labor organizer access to farm property leaves the value of that property substantially intact. The legal battle involves whether the California regulation is a physical invasion--category (b) and most closely associated with the Loretto case--or something short of a physical invasion that thus relegates the property-owners/petitioners to relying on the Penn Central balancing test.

The case seems like something of a sport, because during the oral argument it appeared that a majority--perhaps even all--of the justices thought that the property owners should win even under the balancing test. Nonetheless, the property owners' attorney insisted that the Court should apply the per se rule. The stakes of that choice may be low for the parties here (given that the property owners will likely win either way), but potentially high in other contexts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Voter Fraud, Voter Suppression, and Attacks on Stacey Abrams: Weird Bothsideism

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the practitioners of the dark side of public opinion polling is Frank Luntz, who has for a long time been many reporters' go-to source as a "Republicans pollster."  Luntz is most famous within the small group of people who pay attention to these things as the inventor of the term "death tax" as a substitute for the estate tax.  Does it matter that the estate tax is not a death tax, or that there is no such thing as a death tax, or that even if there were such thing as a death tax (and if the estate tax were an example of it), it would actually be worse if wealth were taxable at any time other than death?

Not according to Luntz, who once summed up his basic approach with disturbing candor: "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth."  His oeuvre includes the usual run of Republican political correctness, from referring to the "Democrat Party" to calling environmental rules "Washington regulations."  If Orwellian DNA had been injected into the place where Mitch McConnell's heart should be, something like Luntz would have emerged.
More recently, Luntz has been trying to pretend to be nonpartisan, or at least trying to understand Trumpian partisanship.  After a recent set of focus groups and polling, Luntz reported that Republicans believe that the biggest problem facing the political system is voter fraud, with about 60 percent citing that non-problem and only about 20 percent citing voter suppression.  Democrats were the mirror opposite, with about 60 percent citing voter suppression and 20 percent voter fraud.  The remaining 20 percent were presumably "other" or "no answer."

But here is where Luntz cannot hide his true colors.  He claimed that both sides are wrong.  Why?  Republicans are wrong because there is no evidence of anything beyond the most minimal and inconsequential voting irregularities.  Democrats?  Why, golly gosh, they too are wrong, because the 2020 election had historically high turnout.  See?  No voter suppression!

This is pernicious in the extreme, not just on its own terms but also as a connection to the Republicans' lie that Stacey Abrams, one of the most famous victims of blatant voter suppression, never gave a concession speech -- just like Trump!  Both sides are equally to blame for political warfare.  Q.E.D.  Really?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Judge Silberman Laments Reality's Liberal Bias

 by Michael C. Dorf

Dissenting in Tah v. Global Witness Publishing last week, Senior DC Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman mostly disagreed with the way in which his colleagues applied New York Times v. Sullivan in favor of the defendant Global Witness--a human rights organization that was sued for defamation by two Liberian officials based on the defendant's publication of a report falsely implying that they had accepted bribes. The majority concluded that the plaintiffs' complaint did not allege facts sufficient to meet the "actual malice" standard that NYT v. Sullivan requires public officials to satisfy. Judge Silberman disagreed. Not content to explain why he thought the complaint ought not to have been dismissed, Judge Silberman also took the opportunity to say that he thought NYT v. Sullivan was wrongly decided and ought to be overruled. That portion of his dissent is, to put it politely, odd.

In a forthcoming Point/Counterpoint exchange with Berkeley Law Professor Orin Kerr in the journal Judicature, I'll argue that there's nothing inherently inappropriate about a lower court judge writing an opinion, concurrence, or dissent that criticizes Supreme Court precedent. Whereas Professor Kerr thinks lower court judges ought to restrict such criticisms to other fora (such as law review articles), I'll contend that occasionally it makes sense to call for the overruling of a precedent in the very case in which the judge must apply that precedent. I think that lower court judges calling for SCOTUS overruling of binding precedent is especially apt where the application of such precedent leads to unjust or otherwise unwise results.

But that's not what Judge Silberman did in Tah. He did not think that, as a matter of first principle or the best reading of the Constitution, the plaintiffs should win but reluctantly conclude that NYT v. Sullivan required him to rule for the defendant. On the contrary, he thought his colleagues had misapplied NYT v. Sullivan. Thus, his call for its overruling was gratuitous.

The call was also redundant. As Judge Silberman himself noted, Justice Thomas already has called for the overruling of NYT v. Sullivan, and for mostly the same reasons that Judge Silberman offers. That said, Judge Silberman's characterization of Justice Thomas's argument as "persuasive" is tendentious; "hypocritical" or "disingenuous" seems like a better characterization, given that Justice Thomas and Judge Silberman both criticize NYT v. Sullivan as a judge-made departure from the original understanding of the First Amendment but are perfectly fine with right-wing departures from the original understanding of the First Amendment, like those busting unions and invalidating campaign finance regulation (as I noted here).

In one respect, Judge Silberman goes (way) beyond what Justice Thomas wrote in his call for the overruling of NYT v. Sullivan. Judge Silberman argues that the press is pervasively biased in favor of Democrats and against Republicans and that for that reason it oughtn't to receive First Amendment protection against defamation liability.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Racist Roots of Originalism

 By Eric Segall

In an important new article in the American Political Science Review (behind a pay wall), Calvin TerBeek has uncovered substantial data to suggest that what we think of as modern originalism was motivated first and foremost by political and legal opposition to Brown v. Board of Education. Today's judges who self-identify as originalists will likely ignore this scholarship but originalist academics should not. They need to explain how a contemporary movement born in the racism of the 1950's and 1960's has evolved beyond that racism. At the end of this post, I'll offer a few tentative thoughts on race and originalism today.  

Friday, March 19, 2021

The Role of Fungibility in the Spending Clause Challenge to Restrictions on State Aid in the American Rescue Plan Act

 by Michael C. Dorf

Section 9901 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appropriates approximately $220 billion to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Most of those funds (over $195 billion) go to states, raising the question whether the conditions placed on how states use those funds are constitutional. Because of a highly dubious precedent of the Supreme Court, there is a substantial possibility that a key condition could be invalidated. Here I'll explain why one of the arguments for the invalidity of the condition is especially bad.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Democrats' Voting Reform Proposals Must Be Enacted, but Even That Might Not Be Enough

by Neil H. Buchanan
This week, Senate Democrats officially proposed their version of the For the People Act, which has already passed the House as H.R. 1.  That bill would substantially de-fang the two anti-democracy strategies that Republicans have been abusing for years: gerrymandering and voter suppression.  In 2021, both of those strategies are already being pushed even further by Republicans, as they plan to take away even more House seats when adopting legislative maps in response to the 2020 census, and as Republicans in state legislatures across the country advance an onslaught of voter suppression laws.

There are many moving parts in the Republicans' long-running strategy to disenfranchise non-Republican voters, one of which was Donald Trump's extensive, bare-knuckled effort to rig the census.  Running through the full list of Republican affronts to representative government would be both too time-consuming and beside my point here.
Nonetheless, it is worth bearing in mind that the Republicans have been absolutely shameless and relentless in pursuing their overall strategy, including voter purges (which were later blessed by the Supreme Court's movement conservatives), Texas's extreme limitation on voter drop boxes in 2020 (which, oh by the way, were imposed by that state's governor and approved by its supreme court, with no input by the state legislature), and on and on.  There has never been anything particularly subtle about any of this, and some Republicans now openly defend their actions as being necessary to remain competitive in elections, while others now readily admit that they think that some votes (that is, voters) are of higher "quality" than others.

This is an epic struggle, the outcome of which will determine whether we continue to enjoy even the hobbled form of democracy that has survived Republicans' attacks until now.  Or will it?  Is it possible that the die is already cast, that the Democrats and representative democracy itself are irreversibly doomed?  It would be sad if the answer to that question were even "possibly."  Unfortunately, it is worse, because the answer is "probably."
That is, although we are fortunate that Trump's 2020 defeat was not reversed by politicians or insurrectionists, it is hard to see how this will last -- even if Democrats do everything that they could possibly do right now.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Are the American Rescue Plan Act's Debt Cancellation Payments to "Socially Disadvantaged" Farmers and Ranchers Unconstitutional?

 by Michael C. Dorf

My latest Verdict column considers and rebuts the main critiques that Republicans have offered to justify their opposition to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (American Rescue). I argue that while everyone can find something objectionable in a large omnibus measure, the overall arguments are misguided. The law is needed despite the stock market boom, because of the uneven distribution of the recovery; it is unlikely to cause runaway inflation; most of the money does indeed target pandemic-related problems, but there is in any event, no obligation for Congress to address only one problem in any law; and although there will undoubtedly be some waste, fraud, and abuse, effective implementation of various safeguards can keep those to tolerable limits.

In this column, I want to consider one of the Republican objections to some specific provisions that I do not discuss in the Verdict column: its reliance on racial and ethnic categories for distributing some aid to framers and ranchers. Before doing so, I should clarify the question I'm asking in the title of this column. In asking whether the provisions are unconstitutional, I do not mean to ask whether they are unconstitutional under the all-things-considered-best reading of the U.S. Constitution (in particular, the so-called equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause). If it were up to me, I would implement the Constitution's equal protection guarantees in a way that gives legislatures substantial leeway to use racial and ethnic classifications to remedy what the Supreme Court has sometimes dismissively called "societal discrimination" (and what might better be termed "centuries of systemic racism"). Put differently, I agree with my co-blogger, Prof Segall, in what he wrote in his excellent two-part series criticizing the Court's affirmative action jurisprudence (Part 1 here; Part 2 here). However, for today's column, I am asking more of a doctrinal than a normative question: If faced with a challenge to the relevant provisions, how will our quite conservative judiciary apply the current precedents?

Before diving in, I shall add one further preliminary: I worried a little about writing the following for fear of providing conservative lawyers a roadmap for challenging what I regard as valid and socially beneficial legislation. I overcame that worry because I believe that my analysis below would be sufficiently obvious to any number of competent conservative attorneys that I am not giving anyone ideas. Indeed, although much of the public discussion of the provisions (both pro and con) has addressed the question whether they count as reparations, already Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey has asserted that they are unconstitutional.

Are they? For those interested in the bottom line: There is a path to upholding the key provisions under existing precedent, but I cannot predict with certainty that the current judges and justices of the federal judiciary will follow that path. Now onto the analysis.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Heroes of the Vaccine Miracle are the Scientists, not the Politicians (Least of All Trump)

by Neil H. Buchanan

A first dose of the Pfizer vaccine entered my arm at 9am today.  This is exciting, and I look forward to more and more people being fully vaccinated over the next few months.  Sooner is better, of course.  I do worry that people are taking the mere existence of the vaccines as an excuse to go back to normal too quickly, but having the vaccines is clearly better than not having them.

Having written a column just this past week about Donald Trump's absurd attempts to take credit for the existence of the anti-COVID vaccines, I want to add some thoughts here not only about the politics in play but about the underlying science as well.

Bottom line: The case for Trump-as-vaccine-savior is even weaker than it seemed, which is saying a lot.  Why?  Because science.  (And by the way, scientific research has been dismissed and chronically underfunded by Trump, Republicans, and even some Democrats).

Monday, March 15, 2021

Should Lady Justice be Blind to Identity When Judges Are Selected? A Response to Professor McGinnis

 By Eric Segall

At the Law and Liberty Website last Thursday, Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University posted an essay about the relationship between judicial nominations, identity, and Lady Justice. McGinnis seems quite troubled by President Biden's pledge to appoint more diverse judges to the federal bench and the "left's obsession" with "representativeness." There is a lot wrong with this essay, which covers numerous broad topics relating to judging but in the interests of time and space I will just point out a few of the more outrageous claims in McGinnis' post.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Taking Credit Where It Is Not at All Due: Vaccines

by Neil H. Buchanan

If we learned nothing else from Donald Trump's four excruciating years occupying the White House, it is that he refuses to own anything bad and tries to take credit for everything good.  As is so often the case with Trump, this is both "what all politicians do" and not at all like that.  In a world of shameless self-promoters, he stands alone in his insistence on saying with a straight face that he alone can fix things -- and that it is everyone else's fault when he fails to do so.

The latest example of this is Trump's Tweet-substitute statement insisting that he receive all of the credit for the existence of COVID vaccines.  Perhaps the best headline on this story was from The Independent: "Trump issues statement trying to take credit for 'China virus' vaccine: 'I hope everyone remembers.'"  (Of course he uses a racist framing.  Because Trump.)  The sub-headline helpfully adds: "Ex-president claimed that if it was not for him Americans may not have got shots for five years – if ever."

Of course, this is not new.  (And I will fight the urge to discuss Trump's years of feeding the anti-vaxxer insanity.)  As I discussed in a Dorf on Law column shortly after Trump lost the 2020 election, Trump even then was making the deranged claim that "[i]f you had a different administration with different people, what we’ve done would have taken, in my opinion, three, four, five years, and it would have been in the FDA forever."  (The link to that statement has disappeared from
In some ways, there is not much new to say here, but because this is a Friday, and because Trump and the Republicans will surely be pushing this line for the next three, four, five years, or maybe forever, it seems worth writing down a few responses to this claim.  Bottom line: Trump deserves exactly zero credit for the existence of the lifesaving -- indeed, life-changing -- vaccines.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The "Revival" Alternative to Test Legislation Like the New Arkansas Abortion Ban

 by Michael C. Dorf

A new law passed by the Arkansas legislature and signed by Governor Hutchinson banning nearly all abortions clearly violates governing Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, that is its point. Hutchinson and other pro-life politicians in Arkansas expect that lower courts will enjoin the law's enforcement but that they will then have the opportunity to seek review in the US Supreme Court, which, they hope, will use the case as the opportunity to fully overturn Roe v. Wade, rather than merely scale back that precedent's scope, as in other SCOTUS abortion cases over the last three-plus decades.

Is it legitimate for a legislature to pass and a governor to sign legislation that they know to be unconstitutional under existing precedents? That is not exactly a new question. I addressed it in a 2006 column, when South Dakota did more or less what Arkansas is doing now. As I observed then, if there is a reasonable prospect that the Court would change the precedent, then enacting legislation with the goal of teeing up a test case seems fair. I expressed doubts about the likelihood of the Court sustaining the near-total South Dakota ban in 2006--because Justice Kennedy would have provided a fifth vote to retain at least the core of Roe--but things may be different today. Chief Justice Roberts voted with the liberals last Term to invalidate a Louisiana measure identical to one from Texas that the Court had recently invalidated, but he did not commit to sustaining Roe against a frontal assault, and even if he had, following Justice Ginsburg's death and Justice Barrett's appointment, there may well be five votes to discard Roe completely, even if the Chief would not choose to do so.

I do not wish to use today's column to discuss whether the Court should retain a constitutional right to abortion, although I believe it should. Rather, I want to question a premise of my 2006 column and of the legislatures that enact new legislation to test existing precedent. Why do that? Why not simply try to enforce old laws that were unconstitutional under the old regime but could be valid under a new one?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Save the States: How Should the Federal Government "Help" Struggling State and Local Governments?

by Neil H. Buchanan 
One of the best bits of below-the-radar news recently is that the COVID relief bill contains $350 billion in direct aid for state and local governments.  That bill is not a law yet, but it should soon pass the House and make its way to the Rose Garden for a signing ceremony later this week.  The one-time $1400 checks and extended unemployment benefits have received most of the attention -- along with what was not in the final bill: a minimum wage increase -- and rightly so, but the sub-federal aid was an essential part of the package.
And the news is even better for state and local governments, because the bill also includes money to support local capital projects that would otherwise have been cut.  Moreover, with the Biden-led federal government now actually taking on pandemic-related responsibilities that had fallen to ill-funded states and cities under the Trump Administration's denialist approach, those governments will simultaneously receive direct funds and be relieved from continuing to make expenditures that they could not afford.  Add in the general economic boom that the bill will ignite, and state and local comptrollers everywhere must be feeling something other than panic for the first time in a year.

Am I -- from my perspective as an employee of a state government -- viewing this too parochially?  That cannot be right, because I hold the same views now about state/local finance that I did during the decades in which I worked at private universities; so this is hardly a foxhole conversion.  The fact is that states and cities are in need of aid, and the Democrats are finally giving it to them.

But what is the "right" approach to what econo-nerds call fiscal federalism?  Should the federal government be giving the states and cities any money at all?  If so, how should it determine the amounts to go to each state?  What is fair?

Monday, March 08, 2021

Old-School Intentions-and-Expectations Originalism in the Nominal Damages Case

 by Michael C. Dorf

Earlier today, in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to permit legal standing and against the argument that the plaintiffs' claim was moot. The plaintiffs were students at a state college that allegedly violated their First Amendment rights by pretty severely restricting where they could hand out religious literature or even discuss their religious views. But the college repealed the speech-restrictive policy and the plaintiffs had not sought compensatory or punitive damages. They had, however, sought "nominal damages," meaning some token amount of money--typically a single dollar--in recognition that their rights were violated. The question before SCOTUS was whether that request satisfied the constitutional requirement for standing. Under the Court's precedents, to establish standing, a plaintiff must allege (1) injury that is (2) traceable to the defendant's conduct, and (3) redressable by a favorable judgment. As Justice Thomas, who wrote for the majority, explained, there was no question that the plaintiffs satisfied (1) and (2). The issue was whether nominal damages redress an injury. The majority said yes. Chief Justice Roberts, in a lone dissent, thought the answer should be no.

The case leaves open an important question. In his dissent, Roberts says that to mitigate a potential floodgates problem, in future cases a defendant sued only for nominal damages can make the case go away by offering to settle for the nominal amount. He points to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68, which allows a defendant to offer a settlement amount and dare the plaintiff not to take it, lest the plaintiff be on the hook for costs that accrue after the settlement offer. Justice Kavanaugh, who joins the Thomas majority opinion, says in a brief concurrence that he nonetheless agrees with the Chief that a defendant sued only for nominal damages can accept the entry of judgment against it and moot the case.

I agree with CJ Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh that the majority opinion is open to the reading they offer, but it is at least a little odd that Justice Thomas doesn't even mention the possibility. Moreover, in stating that nominal damages cases were a kind of early version of the more modern declaratory judgment action, Justice Thomas arguably implies that perhaps a voluntary entry of judgment against the defendant does not redress a plaintiff's wrong as well as actual proof followed by nominal damages--and could thus be rejected. Accordingly, the practical significance of Uzuegbunam remains to be seen.

I won't venture a view as to who has the better of the argument about redress. Instead, I want to focus on the methodology that both the majority and dissent employ: old-school intentions and expectations originalism.

Institutional Racism, Affirmative Action, and Judicial Hubris: Part II

 By Eric Segall

Last Wednesday on this blog, I wrote about the efforts by Students for Fair Admissions (SFAA) to persuade the Supreme Court to rule that colleges and universities nationwide may not use race at all in their admissions decisions. SFAA is seeking review in the Supreme Court of the First Circuit's decision that Harvard University's admissions program does not unlawfully discriminate on account of race. Although the governing law pertaining to the use of race in university admissions stems from two decisions handed down the same day in 2003, both of those opinions effectively embraced Justice Powell's lone opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the first Supreme Court case on the subject.

In Part I of this series, I detailed how Justice Powell applied strict scrutiny to all classifications based on race, even those designed to foster racial equality. He also rejected all of the asserted compelling interests--except the school's desire for educational diversity--advanced by UC Davis to justify its quota of 16 seats out of 100 for its entering medical school class. Powell's rejection of UC Davis' broader interests in combating generations of society-wide discrimination and wanting more people of color to join the medical profession has been affirmed by later Supreme Court cases and has resulted in much harm to the goal of reducing institutional racism. 

In this post, I will show how Powell's discussion of the narrowly tailoring prong of the strict scrutiny test has led directly to harmful judicial overreaching as well as incoherent legal doctrines in subsequent affirmative action cases. Should this conservative Court take the Harvard case, it will almost certainly make the use of racial classifications by universities even more difficult, or perhaps illegal completely, and that would be a grave mistake, greatly compounding the errors made by Justice Powell in Bakke. There will be time enough to discuss that problem if the Court grants the petition for the writ of certiorari. For now, it is important to understand where Powell went grievously wrong.

Friday, March 05, 2021

A Preliminary and Barely Data-Based Observation About SCOTUS Polarization

by Michael C. Dorf

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down two opinions that divided the Court on ideological grounds (although Justice Kagan joined the Republican appointees in one of them). The cases involved immigration--which is often ideologically divisive--and the Freedom of Information Act--which sometimes is. My interest here is not so much in the merits of either case as it is on the evidence for increased polarization that they supply.

Justice Breyer authored the principal dissent in each of yesterday's cases. That's striking. Justice Breyer is not a frequent dissent-writer. The notion that he would write two dissents in one day in two relatively-low-temperature cases suggests something is up. That something, I would suggest, is increased polarization.

Consider (based on data available here) that in the Supreme Court terms from Justice Kagan's addition through Justice Kennedy's retirement, Justice Breyer dissented in, respectively 5, 5, 4, 4, and 3, or an average of just over four cases per Term. By that standard, two in a single day early in the Term is quite a lot. But it's not such an outlier when gauged against the more recent numbers. Since Justice Kennedy's retirement, we see dissents in 6, 7, 10, and 7 cases per Term, for an average of a little over seven cases per Term.

Now in one obvious sense, this is not evidence of increased polarization. Rather, as the Court moved right, Justice Breyer moved from the Court's center-left to its left. Without Justice Kennedy occasionally joining to form a liberal majority in a divisive case, Justice Breyer found himself more frequently in dissent and thus more frequently writing dissents. The trend should accelerate with Justice Barrett's having filled the vacancy created by Justice Ginsburg's death.

I acknowledge that mere median-shifting accounts for much or perhaps all of the increasing frequency of Breyer dissents, but I want to suggest another possibility: Perhaps he has given up on a certain kind of centrism.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Cuomo, Tanden, and Other Embarrassing Allies

by Neil H. Buchanan 
The political wheel of fortune has again put Democrats in a position where they have had to decide whether to stand by a few of their compatriots who are difficult to defend, or instead to jettison excess baggage and move on.  After weeks of backing his nomination of Neera Tanden to be his budget director, President Biden ultimately decided that she was not worth the fight.  Meanwhile, whether New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will survive his emerging scandals is currently impossible to predict.
Every political scandal is different, of course, yet there is a sameness to the genre.  Even so, there continues to be an enormous difference between the way that Democrats handle their embarrassing colleagues and the way that Republicans bulldoze through their much worse situations.  Are there any lessons here?

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Institutional Racism, Affirmative Action, and Judicial Hubris: Part I

 By Eric Segall

The pernicious and negative consequences of centuries of slavery, segregation, and formalized legal racial discrimination are still all around us. As I detailed here, institutional racism pervades our schools, police forces, governmental institutions, neighborhoods, and even our private markets. In my lifetime, just a few blocks from the law school where I teach, a hotel went to the Supreme Court arguing for the right to discriminate against people of color despite a federal statute prohibiting the same. Today, GOP legislatures in well over half the states are trying to deter people of color from voting. Just yesterday, the Court heard oral arguments in such a case. 

Against this backdrop of racism, educational institutions across the country now take account of race when selecting their incoming classes in order to achieve greater educational diversity that benefits people of all races. At the same time, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFAA) has been filing lawsuits attempting to prohibit public and private universities from taking race into account at all in their admissions decisions. These suits have challenged the use of affirmative action under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause as well as a federal statute (Title VI) that bars institutions receiving federal funds (virtually all colleges and universities) from  discriminating on the basis of race.

The Supreme Court will soon have to decide whether it will hear a lawsuit brought by SFAA against Harvard University seeking to end all use of race in university admissions. SFAA lost in the courts below, and last week filed a petition for certiorari seeking to have the Supreme Court reverse those decisions. This case is different from any the Court has heard before because SFAA is alleging racial discrimination against Asians, a traditionally disadvantaged group. But make no mistake, the effects of a ruling that racial considerations are off limits to admissions committees would seriously hurt Blacks and Hispanics and set back the efforts being made by universities nationwide to redress centuries of discrimination against all people of color. SFAA is surely thinking it will find a receptive audience among the six conservative Justices.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

I’ll Defend California’s Politics Over Texas’s Any Day

by Neil H. Buchanan

If nothing else, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's downward spiral should remind everyone that state-level politics can be messy.  As Virginians discovered a few years ago, when the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general simultaneously faced assorted scandals, people who look good one day can look bad the next (and sometimes bounce back again later, although I would not bet on that outcome for Cuomo).

Beyond personal scandals, the deeper political structures and cultures in the various states present a different set of questions.  It is not as though states cannot change.  For decades, Maryland was accurately reputed to have an insanely corrupt state government, most famously including former Governor Spiro Agnew's crime-a-palooza that ultimately ended his stint as Richard Nixon's first Vice President.  That reputation no longer fits Maryland today, although there are surely still many problems there.  Illinois has witnessed extensive political problems as well, but there is no guarantee at this point that reforms will take hold there to move it in the right direction.

The two most populous states in the nation present us with a unique comparison.  California has for the past few years solidified its position as the bluest of blue states, whereas Texas -- which has been ruled forever by a deeply conservative political class (first under Southern Democrats, then under converts to the other side like former Senator Phil Gramm, and now under the Trumpiest of Republicans) -- has been the ever-elusive "just about to turn purple and then blue" fantasy of those of us who view demographics as destiny.  Even if Texas ultimately flips, for now its government at all levels is still firmly in the grip of some of the most reactionary conservatives in the United States.

As things currently stand, then, California is run by Democrats and Texas is run by Republicans.  Given that both states have unsolved problems, should we conclude that neither party is capable of solving problems?  No, not at all.  In California, Democrats are trying to solve problems, whereas in Texas, Republicans are denying that problems even exist while doubling down on their own disastrous political agenda.