Gadflies Allowed:  Maine School Board Cannot Banish Parent Whose Speech Causes Them Discomfort


McBreairty v. School Board of RSU22, et al., No. 1:22-cv-00206-NT (D. Maine).  Order granting temporary restraining order entered July 20, 2022. 


Public Schools, Public Participation.  Public schools in Maine are managed through town participation in Regional School Units, here RSU22.  The public is invited to participate in school decision making through time set aside for public comment at town school board meetings.  That public participation is governed by guidance requiring common etiquette and forbidding speech in excess of three minutes, gossip, complaints about individuals, defamation, and vulgarity.

Violation of these policies may result in removal from the meeting. 

Trouble in RSU22. Beginning in the autumn of 2021, and continuing until early May, 2022, parent and Hamden town resident Shawn McBreairty spoke at meetings about his concern that school library materials included sexual material not appropriate for students.

At times McBreairty was said to exceed three minutes’ speech, on one occasion he made a brash accusation, and he was criticized for playing a recording describing a sexual act that gave rise to his concerns.

In May, 2022, the school board wrote to McBreairty’s counsel, providing notice that McBreairty was suspended from attending further school board meetings for eight months.  Upon arrival at a June, 2022 board meeting, McBreairty was precluded from attending, and was issued a criminal trespass notice forbidding his attendance at RSU22 school functions, whether in person or online.

McBreairty sued the school board in federal court alleging violation of his First Amendment rights and demanding immediate injunctive relief.

Injunctive Relief and the First Amendment.  Courts cannot compel action or restraint from action before trial unless a complainant can demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of his case, that irreparable harm would result if injunctive relief were not granted, that the balance of equities favors relief, and that the public interest would be served by relief.  

Irreparable harm is presumed when speech is restricted.  

Obscene speech is not protected by the First Amendment.  Here, however, the court found that McBreairty’s reference to a sexual act lacked prurience and was not, in the context, without merit.  Thus the speech found objectionable by the school board was nonetheless protected by the First Amendment.

Foraging through Forum Analysis.  The government must establish the constitutionality of any speech restrictions the government imposes.  Review considers the places where speech will occur and the purposes of any gathering.  “Forum analysis,” which proceeds from great liberality in speech to some restrictions upon speech, while superficially appealing, is nonetheless not infrequently something of a bog.

The federal court in Maine has provided a primer describing the degrees and kind of government restrictions that are n .  Traditional public forums, such as parks, streets, or other places historically used for public communications, are free from regulation except where a government can demonstrate that any restriction is neutral and narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. While time, place and manner restraints may be imposed, alternative communication channels must exist.  

Where a government has designated that a space be open to the public, the same rules as for traditional public forums apply. 

Limited public forums are open to certain groups or for certain topics, and speech may be restricted provided no permissible speech is restricted on the basis of viewpoint and that any restriction is reasonable in light of a forum’s purpose.  

Nonpublic government property not traditionally or by designation used for public conversations may be subjected to speech restrictions provided that the goal of any restriction is not the suppression of disfavored speech.  

Looking to Other Court’s Conclusions in the Absence of Controlling Precedent.  Neither the U.S. Supreme Court of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has decided what sort of forum a school board meeting is, suggesting that the court might look to the determinations of other courts, most of which have found that school meetings are limited public forums.  

The court rejected McBreairty’s argument that school boards are traditional public forums subject to only the most narrow government restrictions.  School boards meet for particular purposes to discuss particular topics:  as such, school boards may reasonably impose order on those proceedings.    

As a limited public forum, a school board may regulate access in light of the forum’s purposes but the state may not unreasonably exclude speech based on viewpoint.  

Distinguishing between content and viewpoint based restrictions allows a governing body to restrict speech as it relates to the purpose of the forum while forbidding excluding points of view on matters that are otherwise related to a forum’s purpose.  

There May Be Some Discomfort.  The court found McBreairty’s public comments concerned the school.  Even if at times unorthodox or provocative, the court perceived that in the main McBreairty did not violate school board policy, although he did do so by referencing school personnel and exceeding time limits in speaking to the board.  

While the warning letter issued to McBreairty might have carried the potential to chill speech, as McBreairty appeared undeterred as a matter of fact, that issue is not central to the decision. 

Having rejected the idea that McBreairty’s speech was obscene, the court pointed with concern toward what appeared to be an ad hoc and cumulative approach to McBreairty’s appearances before the board.  Any discomfort experienced by the board cannot justify restricting protected speech.

This Long is Too Long.  Even if viewpoint discrimination were not conclusively established, an eight month ban on McBreairty’s presence at school board meetings is unreasonable, the court found.  

Injunctive Relief Awarded.  The court found that there is a likelihood that McBreairty will prevail on his as-applied First Amendment challenge and ordered the school to refrain from enforcing the penalties contained in its letter and in the trespass notice.  While the school board has an interest in the orderliness of its meetings, that does not require months-long forfeiture of First Amendment speech rights.

McBreairty v. School Board of RSU22, No. 22-cv-00206 (D. Maine). Order granting TRO July 20, 2022

Coach May Take a Knee: Supreme Court Holds Termination for Private Prayer in Public at Public School Event Is Impermissible



Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.  Opinion released June 27, 2022


Joseph Kennedy, a football coach for the Bremerton School District in Washington, lost his job because he knelt in prayer at the football field midpoint after games.

No formal proceedings or games were underway at the time.  

Fearing violation of the Establishment Clause, the school district disciplined the coach because the school district believed that observers would think that the school district endorsed the coach’s beliefs.

The Court found the school district erred in its perception of the law.  Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch commenced:

Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.

After several years of what appeared to be unobjectionable prayer at practice, positive feedback from another school caused Kennedy’s school district to be concerned about the impression he was creating with ‘inspirational talks,’ on-field prayer, and locker room prayer.  The school forbade Kennedy to engage in any religious activity to “avoid the perception of endorsement.”  Slip Op. at 3.  The school opined that school employees’ Free Exercise rights must yield to the school’s interest in precluding a perception of endorsement.

The coach ended his prayer practices after receiving correspondence spelling out the school’s position.  Nonetheless, after a game, he return alone to pray on the football field because he sensed that he had broker his commitment to God.

No one was in the studio at the time.

Kennedy asked that the school district permit him to continue his post game solitary prayer practice.  

The school district denied his request, reiterating that the couch could not while on duty engage in activities that might suggest endorsement. 

Media coverage was sparked when the coach bowed his head at midfield after the game.  Others joined the coach in prayer, while the Bremerton team was occupied singing the school fight song.

The School District posted notices forbidding public access to the filed, while discussions among officials observed that the issue was changing from the coach leading the students to the coach engaging in private prayer.  

Several rounds of testing and resetting prayer limits and accommodations ensued.  The School District issued a public explanation of its choices and rationales.

Coach Kennedy’s annual performance evaluation for 2015 was poor and rehire was not recommended.  The evaluation said that the coach failed to follow policy and failed to supervise student athletes after games.  Slip Op. at 8.

Kennedy sued the school district.  He was denied injunctive relief on his Free Speech and Free Exercise claims at the trial and appellate level. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, cautioning that denial of the petition did not indicate agreement with the courts below. 

Another round of litigation ensued.  The coach’s free speech claim was denied and he was again denied relief for his Free Exercise claim at the trial and appellate level.  The trial court held that the school district had a compelling interest in prohibiting post-game prayers which if permitted would violated the Establishment Clause. Slip Op. at 9. 

The Ninth Circuit, observing that the coach was on the football field only because of his position with the school, held that the School District would have violated the Establishment Clause if it failed to stop the prayer.  Avoidance of Establishment Clause violation was seen as a compelling state interest. 

Rehearing en banc in the Ninth Circuit was denied, with concern that it was error to hold that had the school not disciplined the coach, the school district would have violated the Establishment Clause. Others dissenting from the denial of rehearing questioned the perception that the Establishment Clause comes into play in any case in which a “reasonable observer” could perceive endorsement. Slip Op. at 10. 

The Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy stresses that the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses work together, and that the Free Speech clause protects expressive religious activities, while the Free Exercise clause protects religious exercise as such. 

The added protection for free religious expression int he free speech clause reflects the Founder’s distrust of government attempts to regulate religion.

If a plaintiff meets his initial burdens, the state must show its justification is in compliance with case law.

The school district admitted its intent was to suppress Kennedy’s religious activity and its policies were not neutral. The performance evaluation included standards not generally applicable, such as post-game supervision of students.

Precedent recognizes that First Amendment rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Distinct, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).

Precedent also suggests a two-step inquiry will help to understand how free speech and government employment are to be approached.  At times, state efficiency in managing its services may outweigh a public employee’s free speech interests.  Slip Op. at 16.

Coach Kennedy’s prayers were not related to his public duties.  Any mantle of public investment in his role as a teacher had limits, including limits that would prevent private activity.  Slip Op. at 19.

Although generally the school district must satisfy strict scrutiny to justify its actions, in this case the school district could not prevail under a more lenient standard.

The Supreme Court has rejected the idea that the school district was justified in disciplining the coach, for to have forgone discipline, in the school’s view, would have violated the Establishment Clause.  Such a reading suggests a Constitution at war within its clauses, rather than acting in a complementary fashion. Slip Op. at 21. 

The Court announced that it has not only rejected Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), but also the extension of Lemon to an “endorsement” component featuring the perceptions of a “reasonable observer.”  Slip Op. at 22.  

The Establishment Clause cannot serve as a “hecklers’ veto” to proscribe religion based on “perception or “discomfort.”  Id.  

The government has no obligation to purge any material that an observer might consider to involve religion.  

History, practice, and understanding are to serve to analyze Establishment Clause claims in lieu of Lemon.  Slip Op. at 23.  

The Court was unpersuaded by what it perceived to be an 11th hour argument that petitioner coerced students to pray with him, as no support for this can be found in the record.  Slip Op. at 24-27.  Assertions of tacit or implied authority, relying on hearsay, offer no substantiation for such a claim.  Slip Op. at 27.  Coercion cannot be manufactured by ‘deeming’ any religious behavior to be coercive.  Slip Op. at 28. 

The Court vigorously rejected the nation that the First Amendment compels conflict among constitutional guarantees, concluding;

Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. 

Slip Op. at 31-32.

Justice Thomas concurred to question whether the Court ought to consider the limited “public concern” Free Speech protection accorded public employees.  The Court does not indicate what an employer must do to justify any restriction on religious activity.  As there was no need to do so because the Court found the school district  could offer no constitutionally sound reason for its behavior,  Justice Thomas questions the intimation that the “balancing” test applied in free speech cases might be imported to srve in free exercise claims.

Justice Alito concurred to observe that the decision at hand does not establish what standard ought to apply to expression under the Free Speech clause, only that retaliation for expression “cannot be justified on any of the standards discussed.” 

Dissenting Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan found no authorization in the Constitution which would permit the conduct at issue in this case.  Moreover, overruling Lemon in this decision is of great consequent, as in doing so the Court rejects decades of concerns about endorsement. 

The majoriey read the record far too narrowly, Justice Sotomayor writes, overlooking the real community disruption caused by the petitioner. 

The issue was incorrectly framed, in her view.  The question is not the protection of private prayer at work but whether persona religious beliefs may be incorporated into a public school event. Sotomayor, dissent, Slip Op. 13-14.

The majority has overlooked that the public prayer at a public school comes close to being speech within the coach’s official duties, winch view would cause the speech to lose any First Amendment protections without regard to the conflict between the  clauses.

Permitting an individual’s religious practice in the context described violates the Establishment Clause,  particularly where public schools must maintain neutrality to fulfill their obligations.

Failure to address the tension between the constitutional clauses silently elevates one constitutional interest over another, an undesirable practice.

The idea that the perceptions of a reasonable observer ought to be considered in evaluating Establishment Clause claims ought not be so handily dismissed, for it is that very perception that has give rise to much concern in public schools.  Nor should the question of coercion be dismissed, as it is not unreasonable to consider whether by their very nature public schools, in structure and administration, embody at least a modicum of coercion. 

21-418 Kennedy v. Bremerton School Dist. (06_27_2022)

 

Up in Arms! Supreme Court Holds New York’s Demand that Permit Seekers Demonstrate Special Need for a Gun Violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc., et al. v. Bruen, Superintendent Of New York State Police, et al., No. 20–843. June 23, 2022


The opinion of the Court issued today begins by reciting that Supreme Court precedent has established the right of “an ordinary, law-abiding citizen to possess a handgun in the home for self defense.”  District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570 (2008); McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742 (2010). While the parties to this suit agree that there exists a similar right to carry handguns outside the home, petitioners argue, and the Supreme Court has agreed, that New York’s handgun licensing scheme, which requires that an applicant make a showing of “proper cause” for issuance of a license, violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Handguns have been regulated in New York since the early 20th century.  To obtain a license to carry a handgun outside the home, New York requires an applicant to demonstrate that special cause exists that makes a license necessary.  The applicant must show that he or she needs special self protection beyond that which is needed by the general community.  

 

No statute defines the “proper cause” which must be found to exist for a license to be granted, the undefined standard appears to be high, requiring particular threats or danger.  

 

Judicial review of denial of a license is limited.

 

Most states mandate licensing where minimal criteria are met.  New York and six other states confer discretion in licensing.  The most common reason for denial of a discretionary license is failure to demonstrate cause or suitability.  

 

Both petitioners here were awarded limited licenses that forbade carrying a concealed weapon in public spaces.  Unlimited licensing was denied before of a perceived failure to meet the “proper cause” standing by demonstrating a “unique need for self-defense.”  Slip Op. at 7.

 

As the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had previously upheld New York’s “proper cause” standard as advancing an “important government interest,” petitioners failed to obtain relief in the Second Circuit.

 

Today the Supreme Court rejected the line of cases subsequent to Heller and McDonald that have applied history and means-end scrutiny in Second Amendment cases. 

 

Today the Supreme Court announced that the Second Amendment presumptively protects conduct covered in the plain text of the Second Amendment. Regulation –no matter how important the government cause – is impermissible unless it is consistent with historical firearm regulation.  Slip Op. at 8. 

 

Post-Heller, post-McDonald analyses have looked at whether a regulation falls outside core Second Amendment protection, through historical analysis.  Regulations not within this scope do not enjoy Second Amendment protection.  Where there is ambiguity or insufficient history to inform consideration, however, the courts look to whether a regulation addresses activity close to the core Second Amendment right and “how severely the regulation burdens that right.”  Kanter v. Barr, 919 F. 3d 437, 441 (7th Cir. 2019). 

 

The “core” Second Amendment protection is self defense in the home, the Circuit Courts of Appeal have conceded, with some exceptions.  Outside the home, regulations, if not seen as “core,” require strict scrutiny. Non-core regulation needs to meet only intermediate scrutiny.  

 

In today’s case, the Supreme Court rejects this analytical scheme notwithstanding tha the parties agree to it.  Ensuring that any asserted interest reflected in the text of the Second Amendment, in accordance with history, is correct. Any further analysis need not apply means-end dissection but the regulating government entity must show that the regulation under consideration is historically sound, refecting “the outer bounds of the right to keep and bear arms.”  Slip Op. at 10.  

 

The historically informed textual analysis reflects the Court’s determination that the Second Amendment is not novel but that it represents codification of an existing right.  Historic support for any analysis may be found in legal scholarship; 19th century case law, Congressional and public discourse, and post-civil war commentary.  

 

The Supreme Court today emphasized that the Heller decision, informed by history, focused on the extremity of a ban on all handguns.  

 

The difficulty with judicial means-ends testing is that the enumerated rights within the Second Amendment removes decision making power from the government, including the courts.  Slip Op. at 14. 

 

With respect to enumerated rights, “the Supreme Court observed in Heller:   “A constitutional guarantee subject to future judges’ assessments of its usefulness is no constitutional guarantee at all.” Heller, 554 U.S. at 634.  Judicial deference to legislative determinations in applying means-ends analysis overlooks, and in so doing overrides, the means-ends analysis the people already made in enumerating a Constitutional right.  Slip Op. at 17. 

 

Today’s opinion, without equivocation, makes clear that regulation of enumerate rights requires the government to prove that any action with respect to those rights is constitutional.  This will ordinarily call on history.  

 

The New York State Pistol and Rifle Ass’n decision does not shirk from undertaking the review of history that the Court today commended to the inferior appellate and trial courts.  

 

The Court’s review prompted the Court to conclude that prior to the Civil War, carrying firearms in public was regulated, sometimes included surety statutes that incentivized safety, and sometimes restricted carrying firearms provided carrying was generally permissible.  

 

The Court’s review did not find a home in history for New York’s imposition of a “proper cause” requirement:  law-abiding, ordinary citizens have not, historically, been precluded from carrying arms in public for self-defense.  Slip. Op. at 51.  Only a very few, ‘outlier’ laws and decisions would support New York’s position, and such laws and decisions, sometimes limited by the very transitory nature of the territories in which they were found, were not enough to counterbalance the overarching ordinariness of carrying arms for self defense.

 

Emancipation brought with it the recognition that all freed slaves must be able to access all rights enjoyed by others, a recognition often staunchly resisted in practice.  Yet this struggle, in the Court’s view, only underscored the importance of being able to bear arms for self defense.

 

The Court’s review compelled its conclusion that the state failed to meet its burden of finding a tradition that would justify the ‘proper cause’ requirement:  “The Second Amendment guaranteed to all Americans the right to bear commonly used arms in public subject to certain reasonable, well defined restrictions.”  Heller, 554 U.S. at 581.  

 

Valid restrictions include considering the intent accompanying carrying arms, the manner of carrying, or exceptions to carrying, such as before government officials.  Other than the outliers noted by the Court, governments have not required applicants for licensure to demonstrate a need for self defense that exceeds that of the public generally.  Slip Op. at 62. 

 

The Court stressed that the right to bear arms in public for self defense is not inferior to other rights, nor is the Second Amendment subject to rules not applicable to other guarantees in the Bill of Rights. No requirement exists that a citizen must demonstrate to a government a special need to exercise any such right.  Slip. Op. at 63.  

 

The “proper cause” requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment as it inhibits citizens form exercising Second Amendment rights, the Court has concluded.  

 

Justice Alito wrote a separate concurrence in counterpoint to the dissent, observing that the dissent seems to have wandered afar from the determination that central to the Second Amendment is the right to self-protection, within or without the home.

 

Recitations of catastrophic events or crimes involving guns is immaterial to the Court’s core concern in this case, nor is judicial arrogation of analysis of an enumerated right by means-end analysis of utility where the core principle is a guarantee against government intrusion, including intrusion by the courts.

 

Justice Kavanaugh, with Chief Justice Roberts concurred in the Court’s perception that the text, history, and tradition test iterated in Heller and McDonald is to be applied in determining whether  order to understand the  government regulation impedes exercise of the Second Amendment right to carry guns for self-defense. 

 

The two concurring justices noted that the instant decision does not disturb any mandatory licensing schemes.  Those remain intact.  In this case the discretion conferred by New York’s statute unconstitutionally impairs, by demanding special justification, exercise of a guaranteed right to self defense.  

 

Recognition of the right to self defense by carrying a gun does not prohibit recognition that some persons and some settings preclude possession and carrying of guns nor does it preclude imposition conditions on sale of weapons.  Finally, the two justices noted that the opinion concerns weapons that were in use at the time the Second Amendment was adopted. 

 

Justice Barrett concurred separately to note that the Court left open and unresolved proper approaches to post-ratification practices as they bear on original meanings of the Constitution.  Of equal significance is the Court’s failure to resolve in this case whether courts ought to rely on understandings of an individual right at the time of the Bill of Rights or at the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Readers ought not take the opinion to endorse “freewheeling” references to history across the 19th century in order to understand the original meaning of the Bill of Rights. 

 

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have dissented, lamenting the gun deaths that plague the United States.  The Court ought not to have opined in this case without a trial, without an opportunity to develop a record that would illustrate the state’s compelling need for regulation in order to prevent gun violence, or without consideration of the dangers of guns.  

 

The dissenters examine not only the perceived need to regulate gun carrying in an effort to restrain gun violence but also suggest, through the presentation of other historical views, that the majority’s review may have been incomplete.  

 

20-843 New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen (06_23_2022)

If Maine Subsidizes Secondary Schools, It May Not Exclude Sectarian Schools, Supreme Court Concludes


CARSON, AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF O. C., ET AL. v. MAKIN, No.  20-1088.  U.S. Supreme Court June 21, 2022.


Maine is the most rural state in the nation.  Some geographic “School Administrative Units” have no public secondary schools through which to provide the education promised by the state. To ameliorate the strain families who must make arrangements for their children, Maine offers tuition assistance to parents so that their children may access secondary education through qualified schools outside the geographic confines of the School Administrative Units.

At one time, Maine did not distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian schools for purposes of funding parents’ preferences.  In 1981, Maine determined that this practice was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Parents who selected schools with religious orientation challenged Maine’s denial of tuition assistance as violative of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, triggering what appears to be an annual (or at least semi-annual) head on collision between the Establishment Clause, which precludes government endorsement of religion, and the Free Exercise Clause, which forbids government interference with religious practice.

While the petitioners’ litigation was pending, the Supreme Court struck down a Montana statute that forbade aid to any church controlled school as offensive to the Free Exercise Clause.   Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, 591 U. S. ___ (2020).  While this removed from the consideration of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit any reliance on prior precedent that would affirm Maine’s refusal to provide tuition assistance that would permit students to attend sectarian schools.

Nonetheless, the First Circuit distinguished away Espinoza because Maine, unlike Montana, concerned itself with religious use of funds as opposed to a blanket prohibition based on religious identify. Moreover, the First Circuit perceived another distinguishable difference between Montana and Maine, because Maine intends to provide the equivalent of a public school education not otherwise available in a student’s location.  As public school education is secular, no constitutional harm is done by limiting tuition assistance to parents whose children will attend secular schools.

The Supreme Court’s majority has concluded that the Maine tuition assistance scheme fails to comport with the Free Exercise Clause because it conditions the availability of an otherwise available public benefit based on a requirement of ‘non-sectarianism’ within accredited schools.

That the Free Exercise Clause prohibits indirect burdens on religious exercise has recently been re-emphasized by the Court, not only with respect to participation in public contracts, as in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U. S. ___ (2017), but also with respect to providing funding assistance to private education, as in Espinoza, supra.  In neither case can religion be interposed as a disqualifier precluding access to benefits otherwise available to all. 

The Court noted that a state need not fund private education.  If a state chooses to do so, however, the state may not preclude participation because of religious affiliation. 

In dissent, Justice Breyer expressed fear that the majority view — which requires other citizens to subsidize, through taxation — aid to religious views they might find objectionable — threatens to foment the kind of discord that the tension between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses were intended to inhibit.  This is all the more so in this case, where not just religious affiliation but religious instruction within the curriculum is in issue. 

In Justice Breyer’s view, the Religion Clauses serve the nation well by precluding state involvement in religion and by prohibiting state restraint of religion.

Justice Breyer sees the majority’s decision as introducing religion into public education, the provision of which is contemplated by Maine’s statutory scheme.  

Notwithstanding the not infrequent tension between the religion clauses, their overall purpose is to function as complements in creating a government that is benevolently neutral. The Court has previously expressed that the Religion Clauses ”permit religious exercise..without sponsorship or interference,” as this would “insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited.” Walz v. Tax Comm’n of the City of New York, 397 U.S. 664, 669 (1970).  

Separately dissenting, Justice Sotomayor has expressed dismay that the Court has chartered a dangerous course, essentially eviscerating the Establishment Clause in service of the Free Exercise Clause.  Justice Sotomayor observes that, rather than stressing that the government need not fund religious activity, the Court has embraced the idea that the states may now be compelled “to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.”  Sotomayor, J., Dissent, Slip. Op. at 3.

Carson v. Makin, 596 U.S. ____ (2022)

Supreme Court Vacates Stay of Injunction Precluding Effectiveness of Texas’ Law Addressing Perceived Social Media Censorship

Net Choice, et al. v. Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, No. 21A720, 596 U.S. ____. Order granting emergency petition entered May 31, 2022.



Texas legislation prohibiting content-based deplatforming or deprioritizing of social media posts remains subject to an injunction precluding its effect pending determination of the merits of challenges of the constitutionality of the statute. The Supreme Court has vacated the Fifth Circuit’s stay of a district court injunction precluding the effect of the law. 

Justice Alito has dissented from the grant of the petition, stressing that the questions presented by the case invite the Court’s review, particularly as those questions do not fit squarely within First Amendment precedent.  Neither public event, publication, public marketplace, or common carrier provisions anticipate the advent of and market power of social media platforms.  

The dissenting justice notes that the state perceives impossible incongruity between the social media platforms’ position that they may enjoy immunities under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 for publication of others’ content while at the same time enjoying First Amendment protection for refusing to publish that content.

Justice Alito observes that the likelihood of success on the merits must be demonstrated as to all aspects of the injunctive relief provided, but this is not the case with respect to the disclosure requirements of the Texas law concerning social media platforms’ publication standards, which are to be reviewed under less stringent standards for constitutional review of commercial speech.

Of importance is that the Texas law applies only prospectively, a circumstance which, in a certain light, renders injunctive relief pending review somewhat superfluous, as no action against any social media company has yet occurred and any action remains open to constitutional challenge if and when it occurs. 

The novelty of the questions presented, while inviting exploration, does not justify federal interference in state sovereignty, which is the result where, as here, the Supreme Court serves as a source of preclearance authority.

Justice Alito’s dissent has been joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch.  Justice Kagan would deny the emergency petition, but has neither joined the dissent nor written her own opinion.

Netchoice, LLC v. Paxton, 21A720, 596 U.S. ____ , May 31, 2022

The Eleventh Circuit Opines that Much of Florida’s New Regulation of Social Media May Violate the First Amendment, in Contrast to Recent Orders of the Fifth Circuit to the Contrary Now Awaiting Emergency Review in the Supreme Court


NetChoice, LLC and Computer & Communications Industry Association, d/b/a CCIA v. Attorney General of the State of Florida, et al., No. 21-12355 (11th Cir.) Order and Opinion issued May 23, 2022, affirming in part and vacating in part an injunction issued by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.


Several states, including Florida and Texas, have enacted legislation aimed at compelling social media to be open to all, without banning, de-prioritizing, or de-platforming entities or posts because they present disfavored views. Texas’s law applies to the general practices of large social media sites, while Florida has addressed access by political candidates and journalists.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to enjoin the effectiveness of Texas’s statute, NetChoice and CCIA presented an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 13, 2022. Just as briefing closed on the emergency petition, the Eleventh Circuit issued its opinion, which has been added to the record of the emergency petition as supplemental authority.

Unlike the Fifth Circuit, holding its legal cards close to the vest, so to speak, and issuing a non-unanimous order without opinion, the Eleventh Circuit has published a 67 page opinion examining whether it is likely that NetChoice and CCIA will succeed in demonstrating that Florida’s law is unconstitutional. Concluding that it is likely that the law will be shown to be unconstitutional, and observing that ongoing infringements of First Amendment rights are presumed to cause irreparable harm, and noting that neither the state nor the public has any interest in enforcing unconstitutional law, the Eleventh Circuit has upheld most, but not all, of the injunctive relief granted by the Northern District of Florida.

Principles Endure. The Eleventh Circuit opened its opinion by noting that new principles are not necessarily needed when new technologies emerge. The First Amendment continues to prohibit government interference in speech while protecting the speech of private actors.

‘Not Really Private’ Private Entities. Florida asserts that social media platforms are not truly private entities and has enacted legislation prohibiting de-platforming political candidates, de-prioritizing messages about political candidates, or removing content provided by an “journalistic enterprises” because of its content.

The Eleventh Circuit Disagrees. The appellate court has found that social media entities are private actors that enjoy First Amendment protections. Editorial judgement about content are protected. That protection would be unconstitutionally burdened by Florida’s legislation, not only in its editorial and content-based directives but also in its demands for disclosure of a rationale supporting any and all content moderation decisions. These observations support enjoining aspects of the Florida law.

How It Works. The Eleventh Circuit has offered a ‘primer’ about what social media platforms are” collectors of others’ speech, broadly defined to include text, photography, and video “posts” published to others. Platforms may have billions of users or exist as smaller sites for specialized interests. Several social media platforms are household names: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Private Enterprises, Private Choices. No one is obliged to avail themselves of the content social media entities provide. The government cannot restrict citizens’ access to social media platforms but that right of access attaching to citizens does not include a right to compel the platforms to accept or consume any content.

Whose Speech Is It? Much, if not most, speech on social media platforms is not created by the platforms themselves, but some speech belongs to the platforms, as is the case with publishing terms of service or community standards defining what is permitted, or creating addenda or warning, or publish a platform’s own content.

Neither Conduits nor Storage Devices, but Curators. Social media enterprises are best seen as curators and arrangers of content according to users’ wishes, while at the same time removing content that violates the terms of service or community standards.

These activities make the platforms active intermediaries who have created virtual spaces where participants can be both speakers and listeners.

The Eleventh Circuit views content moderation as curation that promotes the creation and development of niches and communities, and promotes values and points of view.

Why Florida Sought Legislative Intervention. Florida’s social media legislation was intended to address perceived silencing of conservative views by technology ‘oligarchs’.

Florida perceives social media platforms to be akin to public utilities which, as common carriers, are to remain accessible to all and to viewpoints.

Sweeping and Problematic. The Eleventh Circuit notes that Florida’s law, while aimed at “big tech oligarchs,” as defined by size and revenue, does sweep in smaller sites, such as Wikipedia and Etsy. An initial specific exclusion of Disney Corporation was repealed.

Three features of the Florida legislation are problematic, in the appellate court’s view: content moderation, disclosure obligations, and user data retention.

Strict in Theory, Fatal in Fact. The Eleventh Circuit perceives that Florida’s legislation regulates speech within the meaning of the First Amendment, and its content moderation provisions are subject to strict scrutiny, making it unlikely the legislation will survive.

Pre-Emption Awaits Another Day. As the court based its analysis on the First Amendment, it is not necessary to consider the issue of federal preemption of the Florida law by 47 U.S.C. Section 230.

Gutting Editorial Discretion. Denying social media platforms the ability to prohibit some posts, as the Florida law does, impairs the very exercise of discretion that the First Amendment prohibits, the Eleventh Circuit observes.

Not an Indiscriminate Host. The notion that by opening a social media space to some — essentially serving as a host to speakers — a social media enterprise must open that speech to all, following historic decisions, failed to persuade the Eleventh Circuit with respect to the Florida legislation.

Social Media’s Own Speech. If the issue of mandating open doors and open access were not enough to impair the social media companies’ editorial discretion, and by extension, their First Amendment rights, the Florida law, in the court’s view, impedes the platforms’ capacity to exercise their own speech rights.

Common Carrier Analogy Fails. Seeking to minimize the impact of First Amendment review, the state has relied heavily on the notion that social media platforms are common carriers indefensible to society, an idea rejected by the Eleventh Circuit notwithstanding that the court was uncertain whether the state asserts that the common carrier status has already been attained or whether the state would legislate that status into existence.

Social media platforms do not behave as common carriers available to all to transmit communications of their own choosing, the Eleventh Circuit observes. Social media platforms may appear to be open to all but in fact users must accept the platforms’ terms and community standards. Moreover, Supreme Court opinions have not considered cable operators to be common carriers, and the Court has declined to place online media on the same footing as broadcast media for supervisory and regulatory purposes.

The Eleventh Circuit sees that online platforms as analogous to cable providers that retain editorial discretion over their offerings.

Finally, Congress has specifically distinguished and exempted internet services form other communications media in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and within the same legislation has protected social media from liability for publication in ways not extended to common carriers that must serve all, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned.

What Part of “Constitutional Guarantees” Did Florida Not Understand? If the social media platforms are not already common carriers, which the appellate court finds they are not, the state possesses no power to legislate the platforms’ First Amendment rights out of existence by nomenclature. Even if the social media platforms’ vast market powers suggest that they ought to be treated as common carriers, this would not carry the day. Legislation cannot create in social media the fundamental characteristics inherent in and required of common carriers to hold themselves out to the entirely of the public, without exception. While some entitles may come to be a means of rendering services of public interest, marketplace success in itself will not compel forfeiture of First Amendment rights.

The exercise of expressive editorial judgment by the social media platforms means that those platforms are not common carriers. Any imposition of limits on their First Amendment rights must survive strict scrutiny, which, with some exceptions, is not the case with Florida’s law.

The Nature of the Violations. Florida’s law would restrict editorial judgment through forbidding de-platforming political candidates, manipulating the presentation of content by or about candidates, and censoring or manipulating journalistic enterprises. Legislatively requiring consistency in decision- making and imposing time limits on restrictions present similar, if less obvious, impositions on social media platforms.

Permitting users to opt out of the platforms’ curation would interfere with the editorial processes and discretion exercise by the platforms to those users.

Compelled disclosures of platform activities inherently burden editorial judgment, but such commercial disclosures are subject to lesser scrutiny.

The Eleventh Circuit finds no First Amendment issues arise with respect to requiring platforms to permit users to access their stored records for at least sixty days after de-platforming.

Gimlet Eye or Casual Glance: Standards of Review. Content based speech regulations must survive strict scrutiny. While the state has admitted that the aim of its legislation is to address perceived mistreatment of conservatives and conservative views, this does not persuade the Eleventh Circuit to adopt the technology associations’ argument that this causes the entirety of the legislation to fail.

The state’s motivation in enacting legislation is not outcome determinative in review of an otherwise facially constitutional law. Moreover, the applicability of the law to some social media platforms and not others, while of concern, is insufficient to condemn the legislation in its entirety.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Reasoning. The appellate panel has concluded that NetChoice and CCIA may succeed on the merits of their content moderation claims. As some provisions refer specifically to content messaging, those trigger strict scrutiny, whereas de-platforming and opt-outs are neutral.

The “consistency” demanded of the social media platforms partakes both of content-based and neutral regulation. Because at their core they involve expressive activity, intermediary scrutiny is triggered, but even at that level, they are not likely to survive.

Disclosure of factual information in commercial settings need not meet even intermediate scrutiny, and may be reviewed on a rational relationship basis, making those regulations likely to survive.

The Eleventh Circuit has concluded that none of the content moderation measures would survive intermediate scrutiny and that the ‘explanatory’ disclosure requirements — why decisions were made — is likely unconstitutional. However,there is no likelihood of success on the merits of the rest of the legislation.

When intermediate scrutiny is applied to the legislation’s content moderation restrictions, the court is asked to consider whether the content moderation restrictions are narrowly drawn, that is, no greater than is essential, to further a substantial government interest unrelated to speech suppression.

The content moderation restrictions do not, in the court’s view, further any substantial government interest, which does not seem to have been seriously argued by the state. (Slip op. at 53.)

While it might be that the state, had they pursued such arguments, would claim an interest in curtailing private censorship, or in fostering use of of the internet, the government has no interest in “leveling the expressive playing field,” nor may it intervene where there is no right to a social media account.

The idea of restricting the speech of some to enlarge the voices of others is “wholly foreign to the First Amendment,” the Eleventh Circuit has concluded. (Slip op. at 59, quoting Buckley v. Valeo, 424, U.S. 1, 48-49 (1976)).

The assertion of a state interest in “promoting the widespread dissemination of information from a multiplicity of sources” would fail, as social media platforms do not act as gatekeepers, exercising control over most or all information. (Slip. Op. at 49, quoting Turning Broadcasting System v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 662 (1994).) A wealth of communications resources exist and are available to speakers Even if they are not of the magnitude of the social media platforms, this does not justify inhibiting the speech rights of private social media companies as the Florida law would do.

Moreover, the appellate court thinks it unlikely that the government has an interest in private utilities’ consistent application of rules or in prohibiting users from changing messages within certain time frames, in addressing sequencing of content, or in permitting or precluding participation in these processes.

Even if a substantial government interest were found, there is little likelihood that the preclusive restrictions and mandated activities are “no greater than is essential to the furtherance of interests.” (Slip op. at 61, citing United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968).

Prohibitions on “deplatforming, deprioritizing, or shadow-banning” would make it impossible to address obscenities or terrorist threats, and indeed raises the specter of minors’ access to pornography. (Slip op. at 62). This wide a sweep stands the narrowness constraints applicable to legislation of speech regulations on its head, the court concludes.

Compelled disclosures. Disclosure requirements will survive constitutional scrutiny if as commercial speech they are related to protection of consumers, which is a recognized state interest, and are not unjustified or unduly burdensome, effectively chilling protected speech. (Slip op. at 63, citing Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States, 559 U.S. 229, 250 (2010).

An exception to the likely unconstitutional disclosure requirements is requiring that information be provided to consumers about the terms of access to the platform and that the content moderation policies are not misleading. The court observed that there has not been a sufficient showing that publications of standards or that providing information about rules changes, views, and advertising information would be unduly burdensome.

The court has agreed with NetChoice that requiring detailed justification for and notice of each content moderation is likely unconstitutional even under commercial speech standards. The time constraints, compliance burdens, and prohibitive fines for insufficient “thoroughness” compound those burdens.

And in Conclusion. The remaining factors requiring review to substantiate injunctive relief are easily met, the Eleventh Circuit has determined. Ongoing First Amendment violations are presumptively irreparably harmful, and neither the state nor the public has any interest in enforcing an unconstitutional statute.

The district court’s order will be upheld in part and vacated in part, and the case remanded.

WHERE MATTERS STAND. JustLawful is not sage enough to know what the Supreme Court will do now that there is an apparent, if only partially articulated, conflict between two federal circuit courts of appeal. Others’ prognostications are welcomed.

In a Nutshell. Here is a link to the Eleventh Circuit’s synopsis of its parsing of the Florida statute.

Summary 11th Cir. Opinion

And in Full:

Here is the entire opinion.

NetChoice v. Florida No. 21-12355 (11th Cir.) Opinion May 23, 2022

 

Social Media Platforms Resist Regulation as Electronic Public Squares, Seeking U.S. Supreme Court Intervention in Ongoing Federal Appellate Litigation Against Texas

Netchoice, LLC and Computer and Communications Industry Association v. Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas, No. 21A720 (U.S. Supreme Court). Emergency Application filed May 13, 2022


When the state of Texas passed legislation that would limit the ability of internet social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others to remove or to ban content the sites deemed undesirable or outside the private companies’ internal rules and user agreements, those companies immediately sought to enjoin the legislation, arguing that Texas’s bill violates the corporations First Amendment rights, including but not limited to exercising editorial discretion over content provided by others. 

The associations advocating for the social media sites successfully obtained an injunction halting the operation of the Texas law.  Recently the United States Court of Appeals, without issuing an opinion detailing its reasoning, stayed the operation of the injunction, prompting the associations to seek the United States’ Supreme Court’s intervention to vacate the appellate court’s order.

Texas, by its Attorney General, observes that the massive online presences of social media sites has caused them to become modern public squares and, as such, when a site its open to some views, it must be open to all.  Alternatively, Texas asserts that the platforms’ conduct may be regulated much as the conduct of common carries is, and that it is not speech but the act of removal of content or banning of posts or accounts that is open to statutory intervention without concern for the First Amendment. 

Social media sites strenuously resist being required to offer appeals from removal of content or banning of accounts, and complain that that reporting requirements imposed by Texas are overwhelming.  The companies state that compliance with Texas’s regime would be prohibitively costly and would require remaking of the corporations business methods, actions which would take a decade to accomplish.

The sites are extremely concerned because active operation of the Texas legislation will impact all operations throughout the United States. 

The petitioning associations enjoy the support of more than a dozen industry-related entities, First Amendment advocates, and others with interest in online activity.

Texas, by comparison, is supported by other states and a few critical voices.

The timing of issuance of a decision on the emergency petition, addressed to Justice Alito as justice for the Fifth Circuit, but in light of the stringent briefing deadline imposed on the parties, it may be that a decision will be forthcoming very soon.

The legislation in issue:

Text of Texas H.B. 20

The emergency petition, Texas’s opposition, and petitioners’ reply:

21A720 Supreme Court Vacatur Application

21A720 Response to Application

21A720 Reply in Support of Emergency Application

Amicus Submissions for Applicants:

21A720 Amicus Brief of Christopher Cox

21A270 Amicus Brief of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of Professor Eric Goldman

21A720 Amicus Brief of Floor64 d/b/a/Copia Institute

21A720 Amicus Brief of Center for Democracy and Technology, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of TechFreedom

21A720 Amicus Brief of Chamber of Progress, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of The Cato Institute

Amicus Submissions for Respondent:

21A720 Amicus Brief of Philip Hamburger, et al.

21A720 Amicus Brief of Florida and 11 Other States

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Officials Cannot Evade First Amendment Constraints on Speech Suppression Through Intimidation and Collusion with Internet Platforms, or Creation of an Unauthorized Disinformation Governance Board, State Attorney Generals Assert in Suit Against an Array of Federal Officials


Missouri and Louisiana v. Biden, et al.., No. 3:22-cv-01213-TAD-KDM (W.D. La.).  Complaint filed May 5, 2022.

Missouri and Louisiana v. Biden, et al., No. 3 22-cv- 01213 (W.D. La.) Complaint filed May 5, 2022

Missouri and Louisiana Attorney Generals, claiming injury to state constitutional interests and to state citizens’ speech freedoms, have filed a complaint against President Biden and multiple executive officials and federal agency heads, asserting that the Biden administration has colluded with technology platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in order to suppress and censor information unfavorable to federal government aims.  The recent creation of a bureaucratic governing board to manage removal of disfavored speech only advances these unconstitutional practices, the state plaintiffs say.

Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief declaring the administration’s actions violate the First Amendment as well as injunctive relief forbidding further unconstitutional activity.

The First Amendment serves as the cornerstone of the free exchange of ideas of information, without which competent self governance is impossible, the states say.  The federal government is constrained by the First Amendment from interfering with the guaranteed freedoms embodied in the First Amendment, including speech freedoms.  The government cannot escape its obligation to refrain from inhibiting speech by engaging private entities to censor speech.

Although the First Amendment does not ordinarily reach private actors, acts undertaken at the behest of or in collusion with the government may violate the First Amendment.  This is particularly so, the plaintiffs state, where the federal government has coerced private entities to cooperate with the government by means of threats of antitrust proceedings or revocation of immunities enjoyed under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Truncating the flow of information to suit federal officials’ aims impairs states in protecting the interests of state citizens, particularly where state constitutions may secure more expansive speech protections that the United States Constitution, plaintiffs claim.

The Complaint filed on May 5 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana details instances in which, either directly or in collusion with technology platforms, federal officials have acted to suppress speech, serving their own political ends to the injury and detriment of the public, frequently cloaking their actions as attempts to guard against undefined and opaque “disinformation.”

Threats of antitrust actions or threats of loss of immunities have ensured technology companies’ compliance with federal officials’ dictates.   The adoption of facially private governing documents and policies that in fact are employed to serve the government, and which may operate in collusion with the government, cannot be interposed to shield either private or public actors from liability for suppressing and chilling speech.

An atmosphere of intimidation pervades social media sites, plaintiffs observe. Undertaken in fear of or in collusion with federal officials, the private companies’ practices of banning, shadow banning, limiting publication, and outright removal of social media account holders create unconstitutional prior restraints, chilling participation lest a similar fate ensue.

The state plaintiffs’ Complaint provides a chronicle of activity asserted to constitute First Amendment violations. If true, the plaintiffs’ allegations paint a picture of a government intent on serving its ends and not those of the public they were elected or appointed to serve.  Digital media fail to behave as an ‘electronic public square’ where those media represent an unparalleled “concentrated control” of speech.  Complaint, para. 53, citing Knight First Amendment Institute, 141 S. Ct. 1220, 1221 (2021).

Federal officials have conferred with private digital platforms to advise the platforms about content that ought to be flagged for removal, plaintiffs state.

Online platforms accomplish speech monitoring by means such as mechanical algorithms or outright speech suppression by permanent banishment of disfavored speakers, the plaintiffs offer, thereby denying the exiled any ability to communicate publicly.  Such measures not infrequently censor core political speech, to the detriment of political opponents and to the benefit of those directing the private companies’ actions.

Examples of digital platforms’ interference with First Amendment speech guarantees, undertaken to please or to appease federal officials have included suppression of information about location of the President’s son’s laptop, said to contain damaging information, on the eve of the Presidential election.

Plaintiffs aver that open discussion of the origins of the Covid-19 virus was precluded where, by agreement with a social media platform, a federal official who had been engaged in funding gain of function research abroad provided messaging favoring a government narrative which insulated the government and the official from review.

Relevant evidence that would permit public evaluation of the efficacy of face masks and government edicts demanding home confinement was also suppressed, plaintiffs submit.

The promotion of narratives favoring voting by mail, a methodology traditionally dismissed as inviting voter fraud, has also been alleged to involve social media.

Both the Executive and the Legislative branches have threatened technology companies directly and publicly, at times demanding removal of political opponents’ statements.

The recent creation of a board to govern “disinformation” is an Orwellian measure intended to withhold content from the public and to insulate the federal government from criticism, plaintiffs insist.   This has been done notwithstanding that there exists a constitutional guarantee of free speech, such guarantee not to be interfered with by curating and removing from public discourse that which disfavors the government.

Similarly dystopian, plaintiffs observe, is the view that speech is not speech but infrastructure, and thus susceptible of government regulation and oversight.  To this has been added the opinion that the public reacts emotionally and thoughtlessly to speech, and that speech is linked to violence, requiring online policing to protect the public.  One legislator has suggested that the public lacks the capacity to discern fact from fiction, a circumstance not to be addressed by providing more information, but instead, in the view of current federal officials, less information or none at all.

These activities, whether singularly or in combination, violate the First Amendment and severely damage public discourse, the plaintiffs say, causing sufficient danger to open discourse as to merit an injunction against further constitutional violations.

A Grand Old (Private) Flag at Boston City Hall: Supreme Court Clarifies Establishment and Speech Clause Interests


Shurtleff v. City of Boston, No. 20-1800, 595 U.S.      (May 2, 2022)


Private Flag Permitting at Boston’s City Hall Plaza.  Three flagpoles are situated on the public plaza surrounding Boston City Hall.  These flagpoles ordinarily display the flag of the United States and the flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  At times the flag of the City of Boston is displayed but the third flagpole is available, upon request and approval, for display of commemorative flags.

Until 2017 the City of Boston approved every application for a permit that was presented to it but stopped short of granting a permit to fly a flag showing a religious symbol where the name of the flag but not the flag itself, mentioned a religious faith.  

A Boston City Official thought granting a permit for that flag would offend the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the U.S. Court of Appeals culminated in favor of the City of Boston, and review in the United States Supreme Court was then sought and obtained. 

Constitutional Purposes and Constraints.  Broadly stated, the Constitution of the United States constrains the government from acting against the interests of the people of the United States.   The Establishment Clause checks the power of the state by forbidding the government from adopting a faith as the government’s own, coercing the adoption of a faith, endorsing a faith while excluding others, and other errors.  The Free Speech Clause requires that where the government opens up a space for public participation, the government may not exclude or inhibit otherwise lawful speech, including the expression of religious views, in that space without committing the error of “viewpoint discrimination.”   

Clauses on a Collision Course, or So It Sometimes Seems.  Although in error, it is easy to see how an individual such as the decision-making official in Boston could think that permitting the presence of a flag with a religious symbol would be in error.  However, the Establishment Clause applies only to government action.  Were the space at City Hall and the flagpole to be considered a public forum for non-government speakers, the Establishment Clause would not preclude, and the Free Speed Clause would require, that all views, including religious views, be permitted. 

Justice Breyer’s Judicial Opening Farewell.  Justice Breyer wrote the Court’s opinion which unanimously held that the petitioner had been subjected to viewpoint discrimination, requiring that the judgment of the First Circuit be reversed.  Perhaps as a parting gift to the nation and the law, the Justice began with clarity and thereafter applied his inquisitive style of jurisprudence.  

Government speech and government created forums must be distinguished, he wrote.  A government created forum must be open to all without restriction based on viewpoint.  Government speech is not so constrained, as the government must be able to provides views and opinions in order to function as a government.  

This is all very clear until it is not.  In this case, had the city adopted the flag permitting and display process as its own, the city would be engaging in government speech and would not, in the ordinary case, be subject to the First Amendment.  On review it did not appear that the city was engaged in government speech, and thus its refusal to permit the petitioner’s flag was viewpoint discrimination. 

Meaningful distinctions between government and private speech become blurred where private speech occurs at the government’s invitation, where it is not always clear whether the government has transformed private speech into government speech, or whether the government has simply created a forum for private speech. 

Today the Court has opined that a ‘holistic’ approach must be undertaken to determine whether “the government intends to speak for itself or to regulate private expression.”  Slip. Op. at 6.  Introducing its approach, the Court offered:

Our review is not mechanical; it is driven by a case’s context rather than the rote application of rigid factors. Our past cases have looked to several types of evidence to guide the analysis, including: the history of the expression at issue; the public’s likely perception as to who (the government or a private person) is speaking; and the extent to which the government has actively shaped or controlled the expression.

Slip Op. at 2. 

In this case, the Court found evidence favoring the government except that the city had invited all participants and had approved all applications except the one in issue in this case, which was denied because the name of the flag, not the flag itself, signified a religion.  The city’s self-perception that the program was government speech stands in contrast to its practice of unrestrained permitting except in this case. 

Boston’s position was further weakened, the Court opined, because Boston had no written policies or guidance concerning flag permits, a situation which Boston might choose to rectify in the future. 

A brief reiteration:  Justice Kavanaugh concurs.  This case arose, Justice Kavanaugh has noted, because a city official misunderstood the Establishment Clause. Speech principles, not the Establishment Clause, forbid the exclusion of religious speech in public activity.  All views, secular or not, must be treated equally in public programs, benefits, facilities and related settings and activities. 

The end may be all right, but the means, not so much.  Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, concurs in the judgment and criticizes the controlling opinion.   Justice Alito disfavors the application of facts such as history, public perception and government control as guidance in analysis. The core question is whether the government is speaking or regulating private opinion.  Enlisting government speech analysis in viewpoint discrimination cases may cause more distortion than clarity. 

Such distortion is dangerous, Justice Alito writes, as the government may claim to have adopted speech as its own to conceal favoritism among speakers.  The critical question is who the speaker is.  The Court errs, in Justice Alito’s view, in asserting that precedent has established a settled methodology to be applied to government speech analysis.  No such test can be found.  The totality of the circumstances, not limited by key factors, governs such cases and review of particular factors is helpful only to the extent that it aids in the identification of the speaker.  

Government control is significant in identifying who a speaker is because speech over which the government exercises no control is not government speech, yet the concept of government control is central to analyzing censorship.   Requiring or withholding government control of private speech can be censorship but granting permission to speak does not transform speech into government speech.  

…neither “control” nor “final approval authority” can in itself distinguish government speech from censorship of private speech, and analyzing that factor in isolation from speaker identity flattens the distinction between government speech and speech tolerated by the censor. And it is not as though “actively” exercising control over the “nature and content” of private expression makes a difference, as the Court suggests, ibid. Censorship is not made constitutional by aggressive and direct application. 

Alito concurrence in judgment, Slip. Op. 4

While history may aid in illustrating what was considered in the past, it cannot serve to dictate results in a particular matter.  An overemphasis on tradition in this case favors the government simply because governments traditionally use flags for government messaging, but this cannot be of the consequence the Court affords it where the government activity in question is unorthodox, not traditional. 

A focus on public perception yields no good result where it cannot be presumed that the public can know, from casual observation,  who is speaking, where fear of misperception of private speech or government speech could promote exclusion of views, and where the government may always make plain to the public that the views expressed are not its own. 

The issue is not simply one of fashioning an analysis, Justice Alito stresses.  Risks of error pervade the Court’s “factored” test, but the greatest risk is the risk of aggressive application of the concept of government controls in service of censorship. 

Finally, creating a three-factor test but applying only one factor to direct the outcome highlights the weakness of such an approach.

Justice Alito would analyze whether the government is purposefully presenting its own message through its own agent without abridging private speech.  There should be no confusion about government speech where private citizens are ‘deputized’ to speak on the government’s behalf or where a private entity cedes its platforms for government speech. 

The Unbearable Persistence of Lemon.  Justices Gorsuch and Thomas concur in the judgment, but join to point to the errors not rectified but instead introduced into Establishment Clause cases by the Lemon test, itself a factor analysis which only serve to underscore how aptly the test is named.

Reliance on original meanings rather than on the much-loathed Lemon approach would return the law and the courts which administer the law to clarity after decades of great confusion:

“The thread running through these [Establishment Clause] cases derives directly from the historical hallmarks of an establishment of religion—government control over religion offends the Constitution, but treating a church on par with secular entities and other churches does not.   

Gorsuch concurrence in judgment, Slip Op. at 12. (citation omitted.)

20-1800_Shurtleff v. Boston, 595 U.S. (May 2, 2022)

Last Rights:  Supreme Court Concludes Death Row Inmate May Succeed in Asserting Undue Burden of His Religious Exercise Because State Denied Request for Minister’s Presence, Audible Prayer, and Touch During Execution 

Ramirez v. Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, No. 21-5592, 595 U.S. ____ (March 24, 2022).  Opinion awarding petitioner Ramirez injunctive relief, reversing the decision of the Fifth Circuit affirming denial of a stay of execution, and remanding the case for further proceedings.


In 2004, John Ramirez stabbed Corpus Christi convenience store worker Pablo Castro twenty-nine times, an act that killed Castro and yielded $1.25 for Ramirez and his accomplice.

 

Ramirez fled the United States, but was apprehended near the Mexican border several years later, then was convicted of murder in the course of roberty, a capital offense.

 

Ramirez has assiduously yet unsuccessfully sought relief from his conviction.

 

Ramirez has sought to stay his execution because the State of Texas has denied him the presence of his spiritual advisor during his execution to provide audible prayer and to touch Ramirez during administration of lethal injections.  

 

Texas has promulgated several policies concerning the presence of religious advisors during executions. Although at times Texas has precluded all spiritual advisors from being present in the execution chamber, Texas has revised its protocols to permit the presence of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber.  

 

Ramirez grieved the state’s denial of his request that his spiritual advisor be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during Ramirez’s execution.  

 

Ramirez asked the United States Supreme Court to preliminarily enjoin the state from executing him prior to resolution of his claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA).

 

RLUIPA provides religious free exercise protections that, because of the act’s procedural structure, may be more adventitious to claimants than First Amendment claims.  RLUIPA requires the state to demonstrate that a substantial burden on the exercise of a sincere religious belief must meet “strict scrutiny” standards even if the law in question is one of general applicability.  

 

The Supreme Court in Ramirez’s case perceives that Ramirez’s request that his pastor be present, pray audibly, and lay hands on him as he is executed reflects a sincerely held religious belief.

 

The Court has concluded that Texas cannot substantiate its revocation of the time honored practice of vocal prayer because, as Texas asserts, there exists a compelling government interest in being able to minotaur sound within the execution chamber, which, the state posits could be hampered by audible prayer.  

 

The Court agreed that the interest exists but the state had not shown that a categorical ban on all audible prayer in the execution chamber is the least restrictive means of advancing that interest. 

 

Similarly, the Court acknowledged that Texas has a compelling interest in avoiding disruption in the execution chamber.  However, the Court found that because there exists in this case no indication that disruption might occur, a hypothesized fear could not meet the state’s burden. 

 

By tailor making the execution to suit the prisoner’s needs and to permit monitoring, to limit touch to areas that would not interfere with the procedure,  and to avoid disruption, the minister could be permitted to address the inmate only, subject to immediate removal upon any failure to comply with the rules.  These measures are less restrictive means through which Texas might advance the state’s interest.

 

Having concluded that Ramirez is likely to succeed on the merits of his case, the Court next concluded that if the Court failed to provide injunctive relief that Ramire would suffer irreparable harm, as he would be barred from exercising his faith in the last moments of his life. 

 

The public interest will not be harmed by granting relief in this case, as Ramirez does not seek an indefinite stay, and there is a strong public interest – as evidenced by the enactment of RLUIPA – in ensuring that prisoners subject to execution are not concomitantly subjected to undue burdens on their religious exercise. 

 

The Court dismissed Texas’s argument that Ramirez’s inequitable conduct should bar injunctive relief.  In the Court’s assessment, Ramirez has diligently asserted and pursued his claim and has not made a late claim on long known facts to manipulate or to cause delay rather than to seek redress. 

 

As RLUIPA claims are case specific, the Court has urged the states to adopt policies to address claims through a reasonable request process as well as to provide procedural training for spiritual advisors. 

 

As Ramirez succeeded in persuading the court that he is worthy of injunctive relief, the decision of the Fifth Circuit has been reversed, and the case has been remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.

 

Matters Would Go Better if All Played Their Parts Better.  Justice Sotomayor, having joined in the opinion, has written separately to emphasize that both inmate and prisons administration must comply with not only RLUIPA, but also, with particular emphasis on the prison’s obligations, with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  All concerned, but especially Institutions administering process and procedures, must ensure that redress is available and accessible and that delay not be permitted to frustrate proceedings unduly.  

 

Accommodate, Don’t Litigate.  Justice Kavanaguh concurred separately, noting the emergence of religious exercise and religious equality claims in death penalty case, and commenting upon the difficulties the Court faces in defining not only conpelling interest but also refining the relative restrictivess of measure os addressing compelling interests.

 

Justice Kavanaugh urged the states to realize that much could be accomplished and a good deal of harm could be avoided if the states were to accommodate inmenat’s requests where it is possible to do so without sacrificing the states’ “compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity,” as so doing would avoid litigation and aid in bringing closure to victims’ families. 

 

Doubting (Justice) Thomas. Justice Thomas dissented from the Court’s opinion, citing not only the violent nature of Ramirez’s crime, but also his evasion of responsibility, and what Justice Thoams perceived to be a strategic change in position to achieve delay.

 

Justice Thomas noted that Ramirez’s engagement in delay and manipulation has frustrated the state’s and the public’s interests in how justice ought to be served.  Moreover, Ramirez has caused repeated injury to victims, as each time a date of execution has been set, Ramirez has evaded it. 

 

Although Ramirez did not engage in a last minute flurry of filing claims, he did engage in piecemeal and persistent pursuit of claims, changing tactics as needed to seek his goal:  delay. 

 

Neither strategy is more or less inequitable than the other, in Justice Thomas’s view.

 

Justice Thomas found no merit in the view that Ramirez’s advancing a claim relating to a ‘traditional’ religions ritual supports the conclusion that is claim is sincere, particularly as the orthodoxy of a practice has no bearing on First Amendment protection.

 

Justice Thomas found Ramirez’s failure to comply with the Prison Litigation REform Act (PLRA) is fatal to his bid for relief before the Supreme Court.  Ramirez was obliged to, but did not, engage in informal resolution of his audible prayer claim nor did he mention the audible prayer claim in his grievance, precluding the state’s adjudication of his claim.  

 

21-5592 Ramirez v. Collier (03_24_2022)

 

Ramirez v Collier 10 F4th 561Mem 5th Cir 2021

 

The Times they are not a-changin’: awkward closing of Palin libel suit fails to provide path forward for standards governing publication of false statements about public figures

 

Palin v. The New York Times, No. 17-04853. 

Judgment for defendant entered February 15, 2022. 

Teleconference scheduled for February 23 at 4:00 p.m.  Public access at 888-363-4735 Access Code 1086415


In issue:  In 2017, Congressman Steve Scalise was shot while practicing with colleagues for an annual Congressional baseball game, causing news media to  echo concerns about gun violence that arose in 2011 when Arizona Senator Gabrielle Giffords sustained a gunshot wound to the head in a supermarket parking lot.

The New York Times opined that a perceived escalation of gun violence was traceable, in the Giffords case, of  incitement induced by a campaign document produced by Governor Palin which featured drawings of gun sight cross hairs on a map to indicate campaign targets.

The New York Times corrected itself but this did not, in Palin’s view, suffice to relieve the publication of liability for defamation.

While jurors were deliberating whether The New York Times ought to respond in damages to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for its publication of  an admittedly inaccurate, promptly removed,  statement in an opinion piece, the court granted judgment in favor of The New York Times.

Although jurors had been cautioned against accessing media while deliberating, jurors reported that they learned of the entry of judgment through telephone notifications received prior to the jurors’ verdict for the New York Times.

The court was of the mind that entry of judgment for The New York Times could provide efficiencies after appeal:  If the jurors found in favor of plaintiff Palin, and the Second Circuit reversed the trial court, judgment for Palin in accordance with the juror’s findings could be entered, obviating the need for another trial.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  

Civil procedure thumbnail.  Judges may dismiss cases before trial, after trial, and after jury determinations in the court’s discretion if the court is of the view that a litigant cannot and, if after trial, has not, as a matter of law, established a case.  Rule 50, Fed.R.Civ.P.  Entry of judgment as a matter of law in accordance with Rule 50  modernizes the common law judgment non obstante verdicto (judgment notwithstanding the verdict), permitting courts the flexibility of entering judgment at almost any time.

The court has augmented the record to include statements to the jurors about avoiding media as well as cases relied on by the parties concerning the motion for judgment by the court, and has invited the parties to discuss any issues presented by the court’s and the jurors’ conclusions by telephone conference.

By entering judgment for the New York Times, the court indicated that the former governor had not produced evidence meeting the heightened standard for defamation of public figures announced more than a half-century ago in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

Law thumbnail. To prevail in a  defamation claim, a public figure must prove that the publication of a defamatory statement was done with “actual malice”, defined as knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of whether the statement was false or not.  “Actual malice” does not mean subjective ill will but refers to publishing, as stated, with knowledge that a statement is false or with reckless disregard — more than negligence — with respect to truth or falsity.

This rarely met standard has provided insulation for publishers which some, including two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, now sense merits revisiting.  Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.  ____ (2021) (Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, writing separately, dissent from denial of certiorari).

At this writing there is no opinion concerning the final judgment on the docket for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and it is not known whether the court will issue one.

Recent case materials:

Order February 16, 2022

Order to Supplement Record February 16, 2022

Final Judgment February 15, 2022

Earlier case materials:

Palin v. New York Times (2nd Cir.) August 6, 2019

Palin v. New York Times, Opinion S.D.N.Y. August 29, 2017

Supreme Court Opinions:

Berisha v. Lawson, No. 20-1063, 594 U.S.___ (2021)

New York Times Company v Sullivan 376 US 254 11 L Ed 2d 686 84 S Ct 710 95 ALR2d 1412 1964

The New York Times, March 10, 1964

 

 

 

 

Disfavored, de-prioritized, and dismissed:  physicians’ association cannot sue congressman for working with media platforms on ‘misinformation’


Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and Kathleen Verelli, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated v. Adam Schiff, individually and as a member of Congress, No. 21-5080 (D.C. Cir.) (January 25, 2022).


 

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has affirmed dismissal of an action brought by a physicians’ association that provides information about vaccination online.  In its complaint, the association asserted that online platforms caused their site to lose preference in search results, as well as a beneficial comercial association, and that this was the result of agreement between the technology platforms and Representative Adam Schiff. 

In addition to allegedly disfavoring the physicians’ association, the association stated that government statements came to be incorporated in information offered online about vaccines.  Dispositive motions and the appeal did not establish whether the companies and the government worked together to present responses to the government’s inquiries or to fashion information presented on government websites.

The appellate court concluded that the physicians’ association lacked standing, a form of capacity, to bring suit, as the association cannot demonstrate a concrete injury traceable to the actions of the defendant which is redressable by a court.

The appellate court was dismissive of the physicians’ position that because its action is grounded in First Amendment concerns, the ordinarily stringent requirements of standing are not apt, as First Amendment injuries are presumptively damaging.  Deferential review of First Amendment claims applies to overbreadth challenges to statutes, not the willful acts of a government official to limit speech, as is alleged here.

The court observed that inquiries presented by the Congressman to the technology companies and their responses disclosing their policies does not provide any traceable source of harm to the petitioners.  Moreover, the technology companies stated that their policies and actions predated the government’s inquiries about their practices, further attenuating any inference that the two worked together to cause the physicians’ website to become disfavored.

Because the appellate court affirmed dismissal on jurisdictional grounds, the court found it unnecessary to consider either the legislative immunity enjoyed by members of congress or the statutory immunity enjoyed by technology providers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  

JustLawful note:  At the heart of the physicians’ associations’ case is the specter of the government outsourcing speech suppression, which is forbidden to the government by the First Amendment. Significant issues in maintaining open channels for speech could emerge were the government to encourage speech regulation by private entities not bound by the First Amendment as agents or proxies for the government, an undesirable situation made worse as the technology companies enjoy statutory immunity for as long as they are not providing content.  

Not long ago such an idea would be seen as the stuff of dystopian fiction.  However, cause for concern has become deeper and is now more frequently perceived to be grounded in reality.  Technology companies grow ever more active in removing materials from their sites, or in banning  participation on their sites, and enjoy immunity for doing so for so long as they are able to maintain that they are administering terms of service agreements rather than providing content.  

Providing content, which is not immune from suit, and providing site access, which is immune from suit, is a legacy of early days in internet development when courts were inclined to encourage the widespread adoption of online platforms. As a corollary, courts were inclined to discourage corporations from refusing to expand services for fear of defamation actions.  It was thought that Section 230 would take care of that, and by and large it has done so, but Section 230 immunity seems, to some, to grow ever more expansive as opportunities to be present online seem to grow ever less reachable or maintainable. 

The potential for government involvement in matters that impact opportunities to speak, whether directly with the entities, or indirectly through political financing, merits review and will likely invite additional challenges.  

 

Association of Physicians and Surgeons v. Schiff, No. 21-5080 (D.C. Cir) January 25, 2022

Rendering Unto Caesar, According to Caesar: Supreme Court Declines Review of City’s Revocation of Church’s Tax Exemption

Trustees of New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, No. 21-164 (S. Ct.) 525 U.S. _____. Order denying certiorari dated January 18, 2022.

Justice Gorsuch dissents from the court’s denial of certiorari of a dispute between local tax authorities and a church claiming tax exemption for a minister’s residence used not only as housing, but also as a gathering place for religious study and management of outreach works.

While acknowledging that state law permits tax exemption of a minister’s residence, the City of Fredericksburg denied the church this exemption. The city reviewed church governing documents and concluded that the church did not understand its own qualifications for “ministry”, and that, therefore, exemption must be denied.

The church rejected the city’s interpretation of the church’s views who might serve as a minister, relying on the church’s views of its governing structures.

A state court in Virginia agreed with the city. After the Virginia Supreme Court denied review, review in the U.S. Supreme Court was sought.

Justice Gorsuch is of the view that the First Amendment precludes the sort of deep dive into church governance that the City of Fredericksburg conducted in this case, finding the City’s claim that it may ‘verify’ church rules antithetical to established law rendering ecclesial considerations, which include church governance, outside the purview of civil authorities, including the courts.

History is clear that the United States was formed with escape from government oppression of religion firmly in mind, Justice Gorsuch opines. Thus, in the absence of fraud of deceit, civil authorities and the courts may not serve as interpreters of church law, but rater, church positions on ‘purely ecclesial’ matters are to be accepted as conclusive.

To the extent that this dispute appears to stand established law on its head, summary reversal would have been preferred, Justice Gorsuch concluded. Even if such an “obvious” error in what may be seen as a small case may be promptly corrected, Justice Gorsuch is of the view that permitting the error to stand is not the best way to proceed because “[b]ureaucratic efforts to “subject” religious beliefs to “verification” have no place in a free country.” Dissent, Slip. op. at 4.

Trustees of New Life in Christ Church v. Fredericksburg, Order dated January 18, 2020

Secular Semaphore:  Boston’s Sole Exclusion of Christian Flag in Otherwise Open Participation Program Faces Supreme Court Challenge


Shurtleff, et al. v. City of Boston, et al., No. 20-1800 (S. Ct.). Oral argument set for January 18, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Upon application, the City of Boston permits groups to utilize spaces owned or managed by the city for commemorative purposes.  Administered in conjunction with those spaces is a three flagpole display at Government Center, Boston’s City Hall.  

Applications appear to have been freely granted up until 2017, when a group called “Camp Constitution” applied to the city property manager for permission to raise a “Christian flag” at Government Center to commemorate the role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Massachusetts history.  

Boston had never before denied an application for use of the flagpoles, but Camp Constitution’s application was denied not on the basis of the appearance of the flag proposed to be raised, identical in material respects to the Bunker Hill flag, but on the basis of its name, “Christian.”

The city property manager feared that the brief display of the flag raised Establishment Clause concerns.  The city’s law department concurred, as did the United States Court of Appeals, following judgment on an agreed upon statement of facts in the United States District Court.

The First Circuit perceived the flagpoles and the flags displayed upon them to be government speech exempted from the First Amendment speech clause.  

Camp Constitution, by its leader, Harold Shurtleff, argues before the Supreme Court that the government speech construction offered by the First Circuit was in error.  The city spaces available for private use, open to all but Camp Constitution, are forums governed by the rules applicable to such spaces, which preclude the government from excluding views concerning religion. 

Boston argues that Shurtleff is wrong on the facts, notwithstanding that the case was presented on an agreed-upon statement of facts before the trial court.  The flagpoles are exclusively government property, Boston asserts, such that any use of the flagpoles is or becomes government speech excluded from First Amendment speech constraints.

The Solicitor General of the United States has joined the proceedings as amicus supporting reversal of the First Circuit decision, asserting that the questions raised in the case affect federally managed lands and federal agencies, such as the U.S. Park Service, upon which properties many groups frequently seek to hold events.

Oral argument will be held at 10:00 a.m. today.

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of Petitioners

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of Respondents

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Reply Brief of Petitioners

Shurtleff v. Boston, No. 20-1800 Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae

Supreme Court Stays Stays of Healthcare Workers’ Vaccine Mandate, Finding Federal Authority Within Regulation of Medicare and Medicaid Programs


Biden, et al. v. Missouri, et al., No. 21A240.

Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, et al. v. Louisiana, et al., No. 21A241.

Order and Opinion issued January 13, 2021.


The United States Supreme Court has granted the relief from stays entered in two United States District Courts enjoining the effectiveness of a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rule requiring Covid-19 vaccination of staff of facilities and providers receiving or participating in Medicare of Medicaid programs.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), administers Medicare insurance for the elderly and Medicaid insurance for low income persons.

A core feature of both programs, the Supreme Court has observed, is that participation in those programs is contingent upon compliance with HHS patient health and safety regulations.

Medicare and Medicaid regulation is extensive and longstanding and include measures to guard against transmission of infectious diseases, the Court has found.

In November, 2021, HHS added Covid-19 staff vaccine compliance to regulations governing those receiving federal reimbursement or funding (“covered” facilities or entities), attaching penalties for failure to comply as well as potential termination of participation in federal financing.

In demanding that all persons working in covered facilities be vaccinated, the Secretary of HHS made findings concerning viral contagion and the likelihood that contagion would be inhibited by requiring vaccination.

In addition, the Secretary found that fear of contracting Covid-19 has inhibited people from seeking needed health care.

The Covid-19 vaccine mandate was promulgated as Interim Final Rule without notice and comment.

The Supreme Court has concluded that the Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to condition receipt of federal funding upon compliance with health and safety regulations.

Although the Covid-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers goes farther than other healthcare health and safety requirements, vaccination as a condition of employment is routine.  As vaccination is ordinarily administered by the states, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic there has been no need for the federal government to step in to the process.

The Supreme Court rejected arguments that the Secretary failed to consider alternatives to vaccination or to support departure from previous ‘encouragement’ — but not requirement — of vaccination.

Even if the Secretary’s considerations and findings could be seen to be flawed, the Supreme Court observed, courts are not to disturb the Secretary’s determinations as arbitrary and capricious where the Secretary has proceeded “within a zone of reasonableness.”  Slip op. (per curiam) at 8 (citation omitted).

Objections to the Secretary’s excusing notice and comment are ill founded, the Court opined, because the arrival of the “flu season” has sufficient specificity to justify haste in implementing the Covid-19 vaccine rule  The Court found it unnecessary for HHS to confer with the states or to develop impact assessments before enacting its rule.

Finally, the vaccine mandate does not prohibit HHS involvement in the supervision or control of participants’ provision of services or the termination of employees, the Court concluded.  If the reading urged were adopted, almost all prior conditions of participation would fail.

A federal agency cannot act outside the power conferred upon it in an emergency, the Court reiterated.  This does not mean, however, that an agency is precluded from exercising authority that the agency has long been recognized to possess when  emergency conditions exist.

We disagree. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Barrett dissent.  The dissenting justices have been unable to locate within the provisions cited by the government the authority to require an estimated ten million workers to submit to an irreversible medical procedure.  Rule-making powers that may be exercised for the administration of Medicare and Medicaid programs have not been shown to have a nexus with vaccination.  Adding to such general management authorities scattered references to ‘health and safety’ in order local such a nexus fares no better.

Bits of this and that. The ‘hodgepodge’ approach, as the dissent characterizes the majority’s analysis,  is not sufficient to support the majority’s finding that authorization for the Covid-19 mandate for healthcare workers exists.  References to health and safety measures found here and there will not suffice to support the kind of global regulatory power exercised here, nor can authority for exercise of such power be implied through ‘catchall’ language referring to undefined “other requirements” relating to health and safety.

Residual authority cannot be creatively implied, for it is a basic rule of statutory construction that where specific terms precede general terms, the general terms must consider matters similar to the specific terms.

General administrative requirements such as the provision of 24-hour services or record keeping cannot support a finding of authority for vaccination of all healthcare workers associated with covered facilities.

The one regulation that the dissent concedes might be relevant concerns infection control in long term care facilities but this relates to general sanitation, not vaccination.

The majority’s reliance on general regulatory powers granted to CMS does not provide evidence that authority to require healthcare employee vaccination exists.  The existence of some regulations does not support the majority’s finding that authority to issue the regulations in issue here has been granted.  Even the infectious disease control provisions concern sterilization and housekeeping and discuss vaccination only in the context of patient request for and consent to vaccination, and have nothing to do with the requirement imposed on employees through the Covid-19 rule.

Success in the Future is not Certain. The dissenting justices are of the opinion that the government applicants for relief from the federal district court stays have failed to demonstrate a strong likelihood of success on the merits, for in such vast measures as are in issue here, Congress must speak clearly, and nothing provided to the Court thus far shows that Congress has done so.

We disagree all the more. Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Barrett, has provided a separate dissent.  Justice Alito opines that it is not likely that the federal government wil be able to show that there exists Congressional authorization to the Secretary to command that ten million workers submit to vaccination or lose their jobs.

The regulatory “hodgepodge” and scattered provisions as authorization was not forcefully argued by the government until its reply brief.  Stronger medicine than this is needed to cure the absence of any direct evidence to support legislative delegation to HHS to compel employee vaccinations.

Even if vaccination could be perceived to be authorized, the way in which HHS has conducted itself is fatally defective.  Administrative notice and comment, which is essential to ensuring public participation in rule-making, and which guards against lawmaking by unelected officials, has been undermined here.

Justice Alito, while recognizing that the majority has recognized only a likely hood of success on the merits, fears that the scope of the majority’s conclusions is dangerously broad.  The expansive view of regulatory powers embraced by the majority undermines fundamental principles of administrative law.  This in turn may induce extensive changes in executive branch behavior.

No good cause, no excuse. “Good cause” is necessary to excuse compliance with notice and comment provisions.  While no fixed standards supporting foregoing notice and comment exist, conditions excusing notice and comment require narrow construction.

The rationale for failing to comply with notice and commend procedures offered by the government fails to define what harm would ensue from the delay caused by notice and comment.  The ‘importance of vaccination’ will not in itself, define the harm to be avoided by suspending notice and comment.  It is not credible for HHS to argue that exigency excusing notice and comment exists where vaccines had already been in existence for ten months prior to the rule and millions of workers had been vaccinated by the time the CMS mandated issued.

No harm, yet still foul. CMS’ claim that no one was prejudiced by the failure to adhere to notice and comment  procedures obscures the fact that CMS must demonstrate good cause for doing so.  No requirement exists that respondents demonstrate a lack of good cause.  “No harm done” casts a backward glance that does not provide the good cause needed before suspending notice and comment.

Skipping the essentials bodes ill.  Notice and comment procedures are legislative limits on executive authority intended to ensure that executive agencies consider what they are doing “before restricting the liberty of the people they regulate”.  Alito dissent, slip op at 4.  (citation omitted). The majority’s adoption of CMS’ position endorses a regulate first, then listen approach which is especially dangerous where ten million workers must undergo an irreversible medical treatment or lose their jobs.

Biden v. Missouri, No. 21A240 and Becerra v. Louisiana, No. 21241. Order and Opinion January 13, 2022 (S.Ct.)

Supreme Court Stays OSHA Emergency Covid-19 Vaccination Regulation


National Federation of Independent Business, et al.  v. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, No. 21A244

Ohio, et al. v. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, No. 21A247

Order and Opinion issued January 13, 2022 (S. Ct.)


The United States Supreme Court has issued an order staying the effect of an Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring larger employers to adopt policies requiring and administer records concerning employees’ Covid-19 vaccination (the “vaccine mandate”).  OSHA’s regulation requires employers of more than 100 employees to require employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, or face termination.  Employers may offer weekly testing and continuous masking as an alternative to vaccination at the employees’ expense. 

The vaccine mandate is estimated to affect 84 million workers nationally.  Employers who fail to comply face fines.  

Why the Supreme Court intervened to stay the effect of the OSHA vaccine mandate. Applying established legal standards governing issuance of a stay, the majority of the justices have concluded that the employers and the states challenging the vaccine mandate are likely to prevail on the merits of their claims.

No authority to be found. Nothing in the statute creating OSHA or any measures relating to the Covid-19 pandemic reflects Congressional intent to expand OSHA’s powers to regulate and to administer workplace safety to include public health matters in general, the justices observed.  OSHA’s emergency Covid-19 measure purports to preempt public health concerns traditionally reserved to the states.

This is no small measure. The unprecedented scope of the OSHA emergency regulation, undertaken without notice and comment procedures as an emergency measure excusing compliance, indicates the need for clear congressional authorization of a measure which would exercise powers of vast economic and political significance. Slip opinion (per curiam) at 6, citing Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs., 594 U. S. ___, ___ (2021) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6).

OSHA is a  workplace, not a public health, administration. OSHA is authorized to implement measures to address workplace safety, but OSHA has no authority to act as a federal public health agency regulating daily life.

Some room to act may exist notwithstanding the stay.  Vaccination, the majority noted, cannot be undone at the work day’s end.  Although OSHA lacks the vast powers it has attempted to exercise, particular industry working conditions may indicate vaccination would support employee health and safety.  OSHA might develop targeted mandates, but the sweeping mandate before the Court is causally untethered to the workplace, and is without historic precedent that would indicate it to be apt. 

The balance favors the affected employers and employees. Not only is OSHA without authority to regulate vaccination, equity favors a stay, the Court’s majority noted, as billions in unrecoverable compliance costs and fines will be incurred by employers, and many would lose their employment because of the OSHA vaccine mandate.

Three justices concur.  Justices Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito joined in a concurrence outlining the importance of the Constitutional principles governing governance itself as applied to the OSHA vaccine mandate.

Constitutional constraints.  The Constitution cabins legislative powers by requiring any exercise of federal legislative power to be tied to an enumerated Constitutional power, as powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, as is true of public health regulation. Congress cannot elide its limits by conferring legislative powers on executive agencies.  Thus, when an executive agency undertakes vast new measures, its authority to take such actions must be clear (the “major questions” doctrine) and may not be indirectly assumed (the “nondelegation” doctrine).  

Fie on a burgeoning bureaucracy. These concepts are not mere academic footnotes, the concurrence asserts, but they act as fundamental guards against “government of bureaucracy supplanting government of the people.”  Concurrence Slip Op. at 6, citing Scalia, A. A Note on the Benzene Case, American Enterprise Institute, J. on Govt. & Soc., July–Aug. 1980, p. 27. 

The vaccine mandate is not good by any measure. Application of these principles supports the Court’s stay.  OSHA can locate no clear congressional authorization for its actions, and even if one were believed to exist, the vaccine mandate would violate nondelegation principles, as such authority would confer upon OSHA unlimited discretion without any meaningful specific limits.

Three justices dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan have dissented, opining that while examining the powers of coordinate branches, the Supreme Court has overstepped its limits as the majority has failed to recognize and to defer to agency expertise supporting the vaccine regulation, which regulation is of the very sort that OSHA exists to undertake.  

Up OSHA’s alley in any event. Workplace regulation is permissible even if similar hazards exist outside the workplace, and such regulation is apt where, as with the Covid-19 virus, workplace contagion is a recognized hazard which gravely threatens workers’ well-being.

The majority checks others’, but should also check itself. Although the majority focuses on the limits of legislative and executive powers, the majority fails to recognize that while executive agencies cannot act without legislative authorization, the Supreme Court may not read in or impose a limitation on agency action where none exists.  The Court has erred in issuing the stay, as the Court lacks the regulatory expertise that OSHA has.  Similarly, and also erroneously, the Court has incorrectly assessed the public interest served by OSHA’s undertaking measures to hinder the sickness and death the Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated. 

National Federation of Independent Business v. OSHA (01_13_2022)

Absent Administrative Notice and Comment, Amici Affected by the OSHA Vaccine Mandate Present Submissions to the U.S. Supreme Court Explaining Their Views


National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Department of Labor, No. 21A244,  consolidated with Ohio v. U.S. Department of Labor, No. 21A247. Oral Argument on  Applications for Emergency Stay of OSHA Vaccine Mandate set for Friday, January 7, 2022.

Biden v. Missouri, No. 21A240, consolidated with Becerra v. Louisiana, No. 21A241.  Oral Argument on Challenges to Stays of CMS Vaccine Mandate set for Friday, January 7, 2022. 


The principal parties will be heard on Friday, January 7, 2022 concerning whether the U.S. Supreme Court ought to intervene to stop the implementation of the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) mandating vaccination against the Covid-19 virus or testing/masking for all employers with more than one hundred employees.  Immediately thereafter, the Court will hear arguments concerning whether to dissolve stays imposed to halt the effect of a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Rule requiring vaccination of health care workers in federally supported settings.

The parties are also seeking certiorari before judgment in their respective cases.  Whether the Court will reach that issue at the same time that it addresses preliminary relief is not known.

What is known is that just as vaccination has engendered controversy nationally, interest groups, advocates, elected leaders, former officials, and professional associations have seized the occasion to submit their views to the U.S. Supreme Court in amicus briefs.

In broad brush, proponents of a stay of the OSHA vaccine mandate argue that OSHA does not have the authority to implement such a measure.  In the absence of explicit Congressional delegation of authority, OSHA cannot act outside known statutory parameters without clearly articulated guidance.  In addition, proponents of a stay assert that OSHA has no public health authority, as that is a police power reserved to the states.  OSHA has no authority to act on an emergency basiss where no emergency exists.  To like effect, OSHA erred in failing to permit notice and comment concerning its proposed vaccine mandate, as no actual emergency presenting a grave danger that requires intervention and excuses notice and comment exist.  

Proponents of a stay of the OSHA vaccine mandate argue that vaccination is ineffective concerning transmission of the Covid-19 virus and that the ‘vaccination’ itself is actually a gene-modifying medical treatment. 

In addition to the sweep of the OSHA measure, the federal intrusion on constitutionally protected individual interests in both bodily integrity and consent to medical treatment are implicated, requiring a hard look in advance of implementation.  

Finally, and not insignificantly, one amicus suggests that the imposition of vaccination or testing and masking measures within workplaces will precipitate medical segregation, an adverse social consequence. 

Those who applaud the arrival of the OSHA mandate assert that the Covid-19 pandemic is the most deadly viral infection event in U.S. history and that the workplace is a petri dish for contamination, making vaccination or masking and testing a valid first line of defense.  Some amici fear that if the mandate is not implemented, the consequences will spill over to their businesses to dismal effect. 

Presented below are thumbnails of the various amicus submissions concerning the OSHA vaccine mandate.  While the CMS Rule requiring health care provider vaccination is of great importance, limitations of time and space prevent development of those arguments here. 

 


 

Advancing American Freedom in Support of Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Review

Advancing American Freedom in Support of Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Review

These advocates for traditional values oppose the encroachment of the federal judgment and the administrative state.  There are grave dangers inherent in governmental invocation of emergency measures, particularly where, as here, the vaccine mandate does not address an emergency but presents a “work around” to avoid the necessity of Congressional action and/or administrative notice and comment.  OSHA’s emergency powers are to be used sparingly, and even as such, only one survived judicial challenge.  


 

America’s Frontline Doctors as Amicus Curiae in Support of Applicant

America’s Frontline Doctors as Amicus Curiae in Support of Applicants

Member physicians do not believe the vaccines prevent the spread of Covid-19, and, as result, there exists no basis for segregation of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.  

The current vaccines are mischaracterized as such.  They are gene-modifying treatments that may reduce symptoms. 

The proper legal analysis should be derived from the strict scrutiny considerations of personal rights to refuse medical treatment.  The OSHA mandate would not survive such analysis, as it is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.  They do not inhibit contagion, and thus do not serve the arguably compelling state interest in public health.  And the vaccine mandate is not narrowly tailored as the treatments do not consider risk factors or natural immunity.  There is evidence that natural immunity confers a long term benefit and there are also newly developed treatments to assist in addressing the virus.  


 

American Medical Association, et al.as Amici in Opposition to Applications for Stay 

American Medical Association, et al. as Amici in Opposition to Applications for Stay

These established medical professional associations perceive a severe risk to public health through higher workplace transmissions.  Vaccination can reduce the risk of contraction of the virus, result in less severe cases of illness, and less contagion. 

Testing offers no greater protection than nothing at all.  Masking may be helpful, but is not as good as vaccination. 


 

American Public Health Association, et al. as Amici in Support of Respondents

American Public Health Association, et al. as Amici in Support of Respondents

Public health associations observe that airborne viruses make the workplace particularly hazardous.  Covid-19 mortality is higher for in-person workers.  

Vaccination provides some insulation against transmission.  Moreover, vaccination diminishes transmission and therefore, mutation. 


 

Center for Medical Freedom, et al. as Amici in Support of Applicants

Center for Medical Freedom, et al. as Amici in Support of Applicants

Conservative groups opine that the vaccine mandate is”exactly what the Framers most feared when they established the federal government:  a raw exercise of arbitrary power.”  (Amicus Brief, p. 3).  

OSHA is a child of the commerce clause. There is no authority to regulate anything i the absence of commerce, and the impact of inaction on commerce is not a valid premise for commerce clause legislation.  

Reliance on Jacobson is misplaced, a statue measure was in issue there and as more than a century of subsequent law has been amassed, placing Jacobson’s vitality in question, and this is particularly so where Jacobson was conceived during the ascendancy of the eugenics movement. 

Justice Gorsuch has already rejected Jacobson as a premise for emergency extra-constitutional federal health measures.  

There is no federal police power that would support a vaccine mandate.  

Moreover, the premics of the mandate is flawed, as it is false to say the unvaccinated cause the pandemic.

Death attributable to the Covid-19 vaccines, which are ene therapy, suggest the vaccines themselves present substantial hazards.  

Separation of powers principles caution against implementation of the sort the OSHA vaccine mandate contemplates. 


 

Constitutional Accountability Center as Amicus Curiae in Opposition to Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Review

Constitutional Accountability Center as Amicus Curaie in Opposition to Applications for Stay 

This progressive think tank and advocacy center submits that delegation with intelligible, principled guidance is appropriate, and that here that intelligible and principled guidance is found in the directive that OSHA may issue emergency orders where necessary to address a grave danger.  

Just because a measure is broad, this does not mean it is unintelligible.  Where such guidance has been provided, there should be no second-guessing agency action. 


 

Defending the Republic in Support of Emergency Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Certiorari

Defending the Republic as Amicus Support Applications for Stay

Defending the Republic is engaged in challenging the vaccine mandate applicable to the Department of Defense, arguing that the mandate presents unconstitutional infringements on religious freedoms and the right to refuse medical treatment. 

The vaccine mandates represent unprecedented federal usurpations of power.  Nearly the entirety of the adult federal workforce is being conscripted to receive an experimental and irreversible medical treatment.  


 

Former OSHA Administrators Charles Jeffress, David Michaels, and Gerard Scannell as Amici in Opposition to Emergency Applications for Stay(or Injunction) Pending Certiorari Review

Former OSHA Administrators in Opposition to Applications for Stay

Three former Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials oppose a stay of the OSHA vaccine mandate, as it would impede implementation of measures intended to stop Covid-19.  

OSHA may regulate exposure to workplace hazards, including communicable disease, and may develop measures for immunization with religious exemptions.  OSHA can include the impact of workplace hazards on families, and has responded to concerns with bloodborne illnesses, hazardous waste, and respiratory conditions.  

Where the Secretary acts within statutory authorization, Chevon deference should be the norm.  

Simply because a condition exists outside the workplace does not mean that OSHA cannot address the condition within the workplace.  


 

IU Family for Choice, Not Mandates, Inc. in Support of Applicants

IU Family for Choice, Not Mandates, Inc. in Support of Applicants

An Indiana university coalition advocates for medical autonomy within the university community.  The group supports freedom of choice and opposes medical segregation or discrimination regarding access to education, employment, housing and community events.  

Covid-19 vaccines do not prevent infection and transmission.  The vaccines are better considered to be medical treatments ameliorating more serious aspects of Covid-19, but they are not a public health measure.  

OSHA does not have the authority to require unwanted medical treatment.  It is noteworthy that the Centers for Disease Control changed the definition of”vaccine” to conform to Covid-19 therapeutics. 

The OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard violates principles of bioethics concerning autonomy and choice in medical treatment.  

OSHA does not have police powers.  The states, not federal agencies, have police powers and those police powers are bound by the Constitution.  

OSHA cannot force the test/vaccine choice on the employee and pre-enforcement review requires a ‘harder look’ at such a measure.  Rigorous scrutiny is required where medical autonomy and consent are in issue.

Jacobson does not apply here because the OSHA mandate concerns a medical treatment, not a public health measure.  

A personal decision to refuse a medical treatment does not create a risk to others to whom disease might spread.  Refusal only impacts the person who refuses. 

The presupposition that vaccines would slow the spread of disease is in error.  


 

Jason Feliciano and the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers as Amicus in Support of Applications for Stay or Injunction

Jason Feliciano and the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers as Amicus in Support of Applications for Stay or Injunction

The individual and organizational amici provide credentialing for chaplains in the military.  The organization exists to promote religious free exercise.  

Amicus objects to the OSHA vaccine mandate as it is not a true vaccine, as the overwhelming survival rate of persons with Covid-19 infections suggests that there is no grave hazard, and as the mandate fails to consider religious concerns. OSHA does not have authority to impose measures where there is no hazard.  This is particularly problematic where the proposed measure does not inhibit transmission or contraction of the Covid-19 virus and associated illness.  Moreover, the fact that the Centers for Disease Control changed the definition of ‘vaccine’ to include the current injections is problematic.  

Those who resist vaccination are subject to punishment, either in the form of loss of their livelihoods, or, if masking and testing is chosen, in the form of fines, as the individual employee must bear the not insignificant costs of testing.  Further, testing does not provide valid information about contagion and thus is not helpful in curbing disease transmission, and a distinction between testing unvaccinated versus vaccinated individuals makes no sense, as both unvaccinated and vaccinated persons can transmit the Covid-19 virus.

Finally, the social costs of the vaccine mandate are difficult to calculate, as the mandate may usher in an era of medical segregation in which the vaccinated obtain a status superior to those who are not vaccinated.  


 

Liberty, Life and Law Foundation as Amicus in Support of Applicants

Liberty, Life and Law Foundation as Amicus in Support of Applicants

Concerned with constitutional liberties in the context of expanding federal powers, amicus foundation asserts that Jacobson was not a blank check.  Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).  Congress must use especially clear language where, as here, Congress intends to upset the balance between federal and state powers.

Emergencies cannot be pretexts for denials of civil liberties and usurpation of powers.  The measures in issue raise concerns about bodily integrity, informed consent, and refusal of medical treatment.  

Jacobson was a narrow ruling which recognized the potential for government overreach.  Current analysis should require a compelling government interest.  Even if a compelling government interest could be found, the government has not chosen the least intrusive means of serving that interest.  


 

Local Unions 1249 and 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Support of Emergency Applications for a Stay Pending Certiorari Review  

Local Unions 1249 and 97 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Support of Emergency Applications for a Stay Pending Certiorari Review 

The electrical workers’ unions think that unvaccinated members should not be forced to choose between vaccination and supporting their families.  The vaccine mandate is well outside OSHA’s traditional bailiwick.

Unions can work with management quite effectively to develop Covid-19 policy.  Particularly as the virus and infections will change over time, it is preferable to allow for hands on negotiation rather than to accept top-down demands. 

Traditionally, OSHA does not regulate employers and employees.  Here, there are significant personal cost consequences to employees and a demand that employees subite to an irreversible medical procedure that affects the individual both when working and when not working. 

Although it is true that a hazard need not be solely a workplace hazard for regulation to be proper, the federal government does not routinely impose costs on employees.  


 

Members of Congress as Amici Curiae in Support of Applicants

Members of Congress as Amici Curiae in Support of Applicants

One hundred eighty three members of both houses of Congress fer the disregard of separation of powers principles that th eOSHA vaccine mandate represents.  Congress has not authorized OSHA’s action:  theser exist no deletion of power nor an intelligible principle to support delegation of power to OSHA.  Public health care does not fall within OSHA”s emergency powers, yet OSHA wants to expand those powers outside the workplace.  There is no grave danger that OSHA might address nor is a virus a toxic or hazardous agent as contemplated in the OSHA act.  

The vaccine mandate lacks the ‘necessity’ the OSHA statute requires and the measure itself does not inhibit contagion and contamination.  A rule that does nothing to address a (non-extant) grave danger is not a measure that is “necessary,” as the OSHA statute contemplates.

Equally problematic is the absence of any limiting principles application to ASHA’s actions, which gives rise to non-delegation concerns.  The purpose of reducing the number of unvaccinated individuals on its face exceeds OSHA”s jurisdiction to regulate some workplace safety concerns.  And even if there were authority to act, the failure of Congress to state clearly the principles to guide OSHA causes ‘major questions’ doctrine problems as the vaccine mandate upsets the federal – state power balance. 


 

National Disability Rights Network and the Judge David L. Bazelon Mental Health Law Center as Amici in Opposition to Applications for Stay 

National Disability Rights Network and the Judge David L. Bazelon Mental Health Law Center as Amici in Opposition to Applications for Stay 

Advocates for the physically and mentally disabled support the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard because, they assert, the physically and mentally disapbled are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 workplace infection, and face higher mortality rates if they are infected.  Those who refuse vaccination or refusing masking and testing present a new workplace hazard.   Studies suggest that the Emergency Temporary Standard is a necessary measure in mitigation.  Enjoying the Emergency Temporary Standard would disproportionately affect medically vulnerable and disabled persons. 


 

National Employment Lawyers Association and Jobs with Justice Education Fund in Opposition to Emergency Applications for a Stay or Injunction Pending Review

National Employment Lawyers Association and Jobs with Justice Education Foundation Amicus Brief

Acceptance of petitioners’ arguments would open many existing workplace regulations to challenge.

If workers are given a liberty interest superseding federal regulatory powers, then workers may refuse to work. 

The federal government has regulated workplaces in the past, i.e., with drug testing, permitting physical qualifications for work, mandating retirement, and regulating the use of hard hats or the advisability of beards.

With respect to major questions, judicial line drawing between major and minor issues is not committed to the judicial branch.

Petitioners’ Commerce Clause argument would invalidate all federal employment legislation.  It is well established that federal regulation may be applied to noneconomic activity with economic consequences.  


 

Small Business Majority, et al. in Opposition to Emergency Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Certiorari

Small Business Majority, et al. in Opposition to Emergency Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Certiorari

Small businesses fear that a stay will cause them to lose the protections that would flow from large businesses’ compliance with the OSHA vaccine mandate.  As some states have interfered with eemployers’ efforts to require vaccination, federal intervention is needed.  


 

Standard Process, Inc. in Support of Emergency Application for Administrative Stay, Stay, and Alternative Petition for Stay Certiorari Before Judgment

Standard Process Inc. as Amicus in Support of Stay and Certiorari Before Judgment

This whole food nutritional supplementation manufacturer fears that the OSHA vaccine mandate will precipitate mass employee resignations,and that, owing to Standard Process’s rural location, those employees will not be replaced.

Testing is not accessible in the way that the government would like to believe.  Equally importantly, employer compliance costs are extraordinary and are neither private nor self-contained.  

In all, the vaccine mandate needlessly undermines both private and public interests. 


 

Texas Values, et al. as Amici n Support of Applicants

Texas Values, et al. as Amici in Support of Applicants

States’ ‘family values” policy advocates object to widespread regulation of employees without notice and comment and without proper concern for religious exercise.  The administrative state is particularly prone to disregarding religious liberty. OSHA has taken the position that employees’ religious interests are outside OSHA’s purview, but even with their ‘proper’ administrative nice, those concerns do not receive fair treatment, as employers may disregard religious concerns where addressing them would require more than de minimis costs.  The public has been denied a voice in the development of this sweeping measure, a measure which lies outside OSHA’s statutory authority.  


 

Tore Says LLC in Support of Petitioners

Tore Says LLC as Amicus in Support of Petitioners

This multimedia news outlet focuses on the thinking of the founding fathers with particular concern for the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Corporations have constitutional rights, and ought to be free from government intrusion, as the government has only those rights which are granted to it by the people.  The Ninth Amendment guarantees against federal intrusion and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees against state intrusion. 

Because of the Ninth Amendment, there is no authority for the government intrusion that the vaccine mandate represents, but even if there were such a power to intrude, that power would be reserved to the states.  

Public health traditionally is entrusted to the states.  No federal police power exist to support the board exercise of federal powers in issue here.  


 

Washington Legal Foundation in Support of Applicants 

Washington Legal Foundation in Support of Applicants

This foundation supports free enterprise, individual rights, limited government, and the rule of law.  The vaccine mandates are causing supply chain issues and rising prices.  The vaccine mandate is not within OSHA’s authority but if it were notice and comment would be needed, not an emergency measure implemented outside ordinary procedure.  

The mandate presente employees with a forced choice between vaccination,testing, or losing employment.  

The emergency measure is odd in that in June, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit observed that OSHA need not issue a mandate.  This is all the more curious because the nation is more than one year, and closer to two years, beyond the inception of the pandemic, and the government wants to use an ‘emergency’ measure.

This is a fitting case for granting certiorari before judgment, given the time constraints presented by the Emergency Temporary Standard, which will expire by its terms in six months.  


 

We the Patriots USA in Support of Emergency Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Review and for Certiorari Before Judgment

We the Patriots USA in Support of Emergency Applications for Stay or Injunction Pending Review and for Certiorari Before Judgment

This group defines itself as promoting constitutional rights and offers that the vaccine mandate represents the largest disruption of personal choice and bodily integrity in history.  

Since Jacobson, substantive due process rights have developed in recognition of individual fundamental unenumerated rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.  

Tiers of tests for unenumerated rights have been inconsistently applied, sometimes utilizing strict scrutiny, and sometimes not, depending on whether bodily integrity or self-determination is in issue.  Abortion is recognized as a fundamental right, while refusal of medical treatment requires balancing of personal and state interests, with the scales favoring the state.  This uneven treatment of similar questions needs to be addressed.  

The vaccination or testing/masking alternatives are not true alternatives because the costs of testing, which must be borne by employees, are so prohibitive that the average employee is forced to submit to vaccination.  

The Commerce Clause concerns economic issues only and is not concerned with non-economic public health activity, which belongs to the states.  

It is not proper to characterize any skepticism concerning the vaccines as an “anti-vax” position.  The reliance on inconsistent statements of “experts” about Covid-19 is of great concern.  

The OSHA vaccine mandate is a major question because mandatory medical treatment for vast portions of the population is a major political and economic question.

State power to administer public health measures should be retained.  The regulation of containment and remediation of viral transmission is a state matter, but in any case the regulation of a virus is not a regulation of activity within the Commerce Clause.

Upholding the vaccine mandate would open the door to unprecedented federal regulation of public health questions.  

Stay of OSHA Covid-19 Private Employer Vaccine Mandate Dissolved:  Sixth Circuit Panel Finds Employers Failed to Meet Standard for Granting Stay


In re:  MCP No. 165, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Interim Final Rule; Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard 86 Fed. Reg. 61402. No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Order dissolving Fifth Circuit stay entered December 17, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is now administering consolidated litigation from all federal circuits relating to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS)  issued November 5, 2021.

The Emergency Temporary Standard  mandates that employers with more than one hundred employees require that employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 or be tested frequently and masked.  

On December 17, a three-member panel of judges of the Sixth Circuit dissolved the stay of the ETS entered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals prior to multi-district litigation consolidation.  

Two of the three judges have published an opinion providing  a point-by-point refutation of the Fifth Circuit’s views  One judge has written a separate concurrence.  A third has dissented.  

No stealing bases. It appears that the courts may be experiencing ’emergency’ fatigue, and even if this is not so, skipping procedural steps has been discouraged. Earlier in the week the Sixth Circuit denied motions for initial review en banc.  This will serve to inhibit the litigants in seeking immediate review in the U.S. Supreme Court prior to seeking rehearing en banc and could aid the Supreme Court, if such immediate review is nonetheless sought, in remanding the case to the federal appellate court for further proceedings.  

          In procedurally unrelated but topically similar litigation, the United States Supreme Court has denied a petition to stay New York’s vaccine mandate pending review of a petition for certiorari which argues that New York’s failure to provide for religious exemption from vaccination violates the First Amendment.

The Opinion in the Multidistrict Litigation.  The Sixth Circuit perceives the Covid-19 virus to be an ongoing causative agent, one which has killed people and shut down the economy, which prompted employers to seek guidance from the Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which in turn, on November 5, 2021, issued an Emergency Temporary Standard requiring certain employers to require employee vaccination or face covering and frequent testing.

          The Fifth Circuit enjoined implementation of the ETS the day after it was issued.  The court affirmed its decision a week later.

          The Sixth Circuit now observes that OSHA may issue emergency orders bypassing public notice and comment proceedings where grave danger requires employee protection.

          The OSHA emergency measure does not require employee vaccination, the court has found, as employees may be masked and tested or work from home, but employers must maintain vaccination records or face penalties. 

The Sixth Circuit panel has examined the four established evaluative factors to be considered in staying any measure before litigation.

Petitioners’ Likelihood of Success on the Merits.

          Authority for OSHA’s Action Exists.  Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s determination, the Sixth Circuit perceives that OSHA may regulate infectious diseases within its statutory authority. 

          The “major questions” doctrine cited by the Fifth Circuit is an interpretive tool permitting exception from deference to agency authority, but it is vague and it is in any case inapplicable where agency authority has not been expanded, the court has explained.  

          Same emergency, different authority. The OSHA Covid-19 employer mandate can be distinguished from the eviction moratorium declared unconstitutional earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Centers for Disease Control lacks authority to regulate landlord-tenant relations, as the Supreme Court has found, but here, the Sixth Circuit panel has concluded, OSHA has established authority to regulate workplace safety.

          Moreover, OSHA gathered evidence substantiating its conclusion that an emergency exists.  The Sixth Circuit declined to find that any necessity permitting emergency intervention by OSHA be universal or absolute, but rather found that the persistence of workplace issues prompted issuance of the emergency temporary standard as the last arrow in the Secretary of Labor’s quiver. 

          The federal appellate judges dismissed attacks on the OSHA measure as over or under inclusive, finding that the efficacy of a measure, particularly an emergency measure, need not be perfectly calibrated or accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis.

          The panel dismissed the notion embraced by the Fifth Circuit that the OSHA mandate is in violation of the Commerce Clause, and impact on interstate commerce, such as viral contagion, is sufficient to establish a basis for federal law and federal preemption. 

          The Sixth Circuit judges found the non-delegation doctrine to be somewhat musty and in any case inapposite where it is well established that Congress may delegate to executive branch powers to act in the public interest or to protect public health. 

Whether Irreparable Harm Will Befall Petitioners in the Absence of a Stay. 

The Sixth Circuit explored the irreparable harm issue notwithstanding its view that its analysis of the petitioners’ assertions and arguments fail to demonstrate the likelihood of success on the merits, which could have ended the inquiry because the public interest analysis merges with the likelihood of success on the merits analysis where the government is a party.

The judges dismissed as “speculative” employers’ views of compliance cost, including loss of workers, and noted that if cited for non-compliance, an employer can always assert the impossibility of compliance as a defense.  The potential harm to the public of failure to implement Covid-19 contagion mitigation measures such as the OSHA employer mandate, in light of the harms already incurred by the nation, are staggering, and the risks to the public are only underscored where petitioners have not shown that they are likely to prevail on  the merits.  

Note well:  this panel’s opinion may not be within the judiciary’s bailiwick.

In a separate concurrence, Circuit Judge Gibbons has written to emphasize his view that the judicial branch ought not be as active in policy questions as this litigation has demanded.  The judge notes that questions of what the other branches might have done differently or “sweeping pronouncements” about constitutional law, themselves “untethered” to the present case, invite the judicial branch to exceed its limits.  Separation of powers principles preclude judicial second-guessing of coordinate branches.  Where a court concludes that an agency has acted within its authority and within constitutional bounds, the judge opined, the court ought not press further into realms committed to other branches’ expertise.  

Au Contraire:  Dissenting Judge Opines that Panel Analysis is Wrong

The dissenting member of the panel thinks the question of constitutional and statutory authority is squarely within the power of the judiciary.

The dissent wholly disagrees with the view that the OSHA emergency measure permits employers to decide how to manage workplace Covid-19 risks.  Employers must adopt written policies, demand that employees be vaccinated unless exempt, and pay employees who need time off to get vaccinated.  The mask and testing alternative was, by OSHA’s own admission, designed to be unpalatable as by its operation it imposes costs of testing on employers.

The dissent observes that it is not necessary that petitioners demonstrate a likelihood of success on each and every one of its theories in order to substantiate the need for a stay:  the potential to prevail on one theory would suffice.

Petitioners can demonstrate a likelihood of success, the dissent has concluded, because OSHA has exceeded its authority, which limits the promulgation of emergency measures to circumstances in which employees face grave danger and the emergency intervention is necessary to protect employees.

Where OSHA never made a finding that its rule was necessary, the rule cannot be upheld:  the insufficiency of extant measures, which is the justification offered by the Secretary of Labor, will.not meet the “necessary” standard. 

Moreover, effectiveness is a separate question that cannot be bootstrapped into a determination of necessity.

The dissenting justice rejects the notion that emergency measures, by their very nature, need not be as carefully crafted or supported as normative acts, and this is particularly so where OSHA has had nearly two years to consider protections and to evaluate alternatives.  Where no showing of necessity can be made, the emergency measure cannot be sustained.

Of similar concern is that the Secretary failed to locate a “grave danger” that would support the private employer vaccine mandate.  Although viral infection can be dangerous, there is no evidence showing that contracting the disease is a grave threat, as available data show varying levels of risk among different demographics.

There is no evidence linking contraction of Covid-19 to the workplace.  Those who are already vaccinated are not, by and large, imperiled.  Where a mortality rate of one in two hundred and two cases of infection is said to exist among the unvaccinated, OSHA has not met the “grave danger” requirement, particularly where no link to workplace harm has been shown.  

The dissent questions the panel’s minimization of the substance of the “major questions” concerns petitioners raise where OSHA has never issued an emergency measure of the scope of the Covid-19 employer mandate and, the dissent observes, the question is not simply one of the kind of measure OSHA may implement, but also its scope or degree (emphasis in text). 

Given the Supreme Court’s discussion of the “major questions” doctrine in declaring the CDC eviction moratorium to be invalid, it is not accurate to say, as this panel has, that the “major questions” doctrine is an arcane exception to deference to agency expertise.  

Finally, OSHA’s circumspection in other contexts supports similar caution here, and does not support promulgation of an expensive and unparalleled emergency measure.

Employers will be hamstrung by the costs of compliance and by the potential loss of employees that may ensue.  Similarly problematic is the loss that will result to individuals who submit to vaccination only to learn later, as they may,  that the command to do so was not supported in law. 

The dissent points out that OSHA cannot complain that petitioners have not substantiated their claims where by invoking emergency authority OSHA foreclosed the opportunity for notice and comment that would permit submission of evidence for agency consideration.  


Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Dissolving Stay of OSHA Mandate

In re. MCP No. 165. Sixth Circuit Order December 17, 2021

Correspondence and Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Denying Initial Hearing En Banc

In re. MCP No. 165, Sixth Circuit Order December 15, 2021

Order of the U.S. Supreme Court Denying Injunctive Relief with Dissenting Opinion

21A145 Dr. A v. Hochul, No. 21A 145 Order and Dissenting Opinion December 13, 2021

Federal Court Enjoins Enforcement of Mandated COVID-19 Vaccination of Healthcare Workers, Observing Not Only Authoritative and Procedural Deficiencies in CMS Order But Also Likelihood that Enforcement Would Exacerbate Crisis in Healthcare Access


Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 4:21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.)  Order and Opinion entered November 29, 2021.

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 4:21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.) Defendants’ Notice of Appeal filed November 30, 2021.


The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri has enjoined the federal government from implementing mandated COVID-19 vaccination for healthcare providers and other workers associated with facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid support.  The United States has filed a notice of appeal from the injunction ordered on November 29th.

The federal trial court observes that the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), lacks Congressional authority for the actions it has taken, which because of its sweep would require explicit and clear authority if it authority could be delegated at all in light of the federalism question that the federal intrusion on private citizens’ health care decisions and the disruption of federal-state balance that the vaccine mandate present.  

Moreover, CMS erred in abandoning notice and requirement provisions, as no excuse for having done so, including any alleged emergency, can be found.

Of particular significance to the court is not merely the shift from encouraging to demanding vaccination of healthcare workers and the application of a one-size-fits-all policy without respect to the institution involved but also the threat to access to care that the mandate provides.

Provider institutions already face a shortage in workers that began before but has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. As mandated vaccination may precipitate additional worker shortages, which in turn will impact access to care, the court agrees that the threat of harm to the public because of mandated vaccination merits injunctive relief.

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 4:21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.) Order and Opinion November 29, 2021

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 4:21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.) Notice of Appeal filed November 30, 2021

Litigation Contagion:  With Thirteen Vaccine Mandate Petitions Consolidated in the Sixth Circuit, OSHA Seeks Emergency Dissolution of Stay Entered by Fifth Circuit


Memoranda concerning the stay of the vaccine mandate, entered by the Fifth Circuit and consolidated in the Sixth Circuit, are due on November 30, with responses due December 7th and replies due December 10.  At this posting, no action has been taken on the government’s motion to expedite briefing.


All together now. With multidistrict litigation underway in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) seeks emergency dissolution of the stay of the Emergency Temporary Standard (the “Vaccine Mandate”) entered by the United States Court #v Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  Some petitioners object to the administration proceeding on an emergency basis, while others ask that the Sixth Circuit transfer all the proceedings to the Fifth Circuit.

Nationwide Vaccination or Testing Required of Certain Employers Stayed. The OSHA Vaccine Mandate, which requires employers of 100 or more employees to require employee vaccination or testing concerning Covid-19 or face significant fines, which would by its terms take effect on December 6, 2021, was stayed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on November 12, 2021.  

Ruling on retention, modification, or dissolution of the stay front and center. The Sixth Circuit, to which all petitions in twelve federal circuits were transferred by order of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, has invited briefing on whether the stay ought to be vacated, amended, or extended.  The federal respondents seek dissolution of the stay on an emergency basis.  Several petitioners seek initial hearing en banc before the federal appellate court.

Constitutional concerns about a measure said to be for the common good.  The Fifth Circuit entered a stay of the Vaccine Mandate based on its perception that the Vaccine Mandate is a sweeping national measure that presents grave constitutional concerns.  In ordering the halt of the mandate, the appellate court, among other determinations, found no statutory authority with which OSHA could create such a measure.  In the absence of explicit authority from Congress, the federal agency exceeded its statutory as well as Commerce Clause powers and encroached on public health rights reserved to the states.  Where OSHA has no authority, in the Fifth Circuit’s view, to regulate a hazard that is not confined to the workplace, OSHA cannot dictate the behavior of individuals using employers as a conduit.

Emergency action is necessary to address potentially lethal health consequences. OSHA argues that the Covid-19 virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people and that OSHA”s gathering of evidence supporting requiring vaccination is empirically sound, and that OSHA”s findings ought not be disturbed by the courts.  The federal government asserts that authority for monitoring contagious diseases was established decades ago with respect to blood-borne pathogens.

Employers hamstrung by compliance, particularly where resistant employees threaten to quit if vaccination required.  Opposing employers resist the government’s position that employers’ estimates of the costs of vaccine compliance are speculative.  Employers resent the government’s determination to proceed on an emergency basis before the Sixth Circuit has developed a comprehensive case management order or ruled on several pending motions for initial review en banc.  

Mandate’s impact not confined to employers and employees Employers stress that the impact of the vaccine mandate, if permitted to take effect, will force employees to choose between their work or their personal autonomy before the year end holidays.  As many essential workers are involved, the impact of the mandate will be felt by the public at large, as goods and services will not be manufactured and provided as planned.

Get litigation back to where it once belonged. While acknowledging that the Sixth Circuit has shown deference to the Fifth Circuit, some petitioners seek transfer of the consolidated multidistrict litigation to the Fifth Circuit, which has, it is argued,  already acquainted itself with the issues in the time sensitive vaccine mandate cases  

JustLawful Note:  Few would dispute that the reach of the vaccination mandate is historic, and it is hardly speculative to believe that the matter will reach the United States Supreme Court, nor is it unreasonable to think that the Sixth Circuit will promptly address the motions now before it. 


Case Materials

BST Holdings, et al. v. Occupational Health and Safety Administration, et al., No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.).  Opinion and Order November 12, 2021.

BST Holdings et al v. OSHA, No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.) Order November 12, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Docket as of November 28, 2021.

In re. MCP No. 165,, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Docket as of November 28, 2021

In re:  Occupational Safety and Health Administration Interim Final Rule:  COVID-19 Vaccine and Testing:  Emergency Temporary Standard, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, Issued November 4, 2021.  United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MCP No. 165.  Consolidation Order, November 18, 2021.

In re: Occupational Safety and Health Administration Interim Final Rule: COVID-19 Vaccine and Testing: Emergency Temporary Standard, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, Issued November 4, 2021. United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MCP No. 165. Consolidation Order, November 18, 2021.

Phillips Manufacturing and Tower Company, et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, No. 21-4028 (6th Cir.) Petition for Initial Hearing en Banc, November 17, 2021.

Phillips Manufacturing and Tower v. OSHA, No. 21-4028 (6th Cir.) Petition for Initial Hearing en Banc, November 17, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Initial Case Management Order, November 21, 2021.

Initial Case Management Order In re MCP No. 165 OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing

In re. OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021.

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re. OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Respondents’ Motion to Amend Schedule for Stay Briefing and to Set Schedule for Merits Briefing, November 24, 2021

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19, Respondents Motion to Amend Schedule for Stay Briefing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) November 24, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Job Creators’ Network, et al. v. OSHA, et al.  Opposition to Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021.

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Job Creators’ Network et al. Opposition to Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Transfer by BST Holdings, et al., November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Transfer by BST Holdings, et al., November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Hold in Abeyance Government’s Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re MCP 165 OSHA Rule on Vaccination and Testing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Motion to Hold in Abeyance Government’s Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Order, November 23, 2021.

In re MCP 165, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Order November 23, 2021

A Vaccination Compliance Cauldron: Ten States Insist Federal Covid-19 Healthcare Providers’ Mandate Is Constitutionally, Statutorily, and Procedurally Unsound

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.). Complaint filed November 20, 2021.


Ten states have joined in challenging the action of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in promulgating an Interim Final Rule with Comment Period (IFC) that conditions health care providers’ receipt of federal funding and reimbursement on employee or contractor vaccination against COVID-19.  

Providers and Employees Threatened. Health care providers whose employees fail to comply with the federally mandated demand that all health care workers be vaccinated against Covid-19 may lose federal funding,   As vaccination refusal will threaten employer compliance with the federal measure, unvaccinated employees may lose their jobs.

Exacerbation, Not Mitigation.  The states submit that this sweeping federal incursion on health care administration threatens to exacerbate an already extant crisis in health care provision, which crisis only deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing states to undertake drastic measures to ameliorate the deadly synergies of two crises which individually would have sufficed to cause health care services to crater. 

          To the extant shortage of workers and threat of harm from viral infection the federal government has added a compliance burden that, the states contend, violates the interests of the states, the healthcare providers and entities within the states, and the healthcare workers who must submit to vaccination or face termination. 

State Standing.  Having brought their complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, the states and their attorneys general assert standing premised on exercise of parens patriae powers or statutory authorizations. 

Effective Immediately.  The Interim Final Rule, also called  the CMS vaccine mandate, became effective on publication on publication in the Federal Register on November 5th.  Its protocol demands at least partial vaccination compliance by the first week of December, a deadline that only compounds the problems the rule has caused, the states note.  

          Most significantly, the states argue, the Interim Final Rule is not merely factually detrimental to the provision of health care services, the rule itself and the manner in which the rule was crafted is in violation of central components of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and the United States Constitution.

The CMS Vaccine Mandate Makes Matters Worse.  The complaining states assert that the sweeping federal incursion on providers’ rights will exacerbate and extant shortage of workers.  The federal scheme is an unconstitutional abridgment of rights traditionally reserved to the states, and is not only legally flawed but also is, as a practical matter, administratively disastrous, as the health care needs of densely populated urban areas are markedly varied from those of rural settings.  

The CMS vaccine mandate must be set aside.  The states ask that the federal court declare the CMS vaccine rule be declared invalid constitutionally and in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and other statutes, and that its enforcement be enjoined.

Not an overnight development.  Healthcare workforce shortages predate the COVID-19 pandemic by decades, the states recount.  Nursing shortages, already critical, have been made all the more so by the demands for urgent and other care precipitated by the pandemic. Many nursing professionals feel they cannot continue to work as they have been.  Many have been attracted to positions offering better working conditions are higher compensation. 

          Staffing shortages threaten the capacity of hospitals to administer care.  To address pandemic care needs, states relaxed standards for the provision of services, permitted workers to work without vaccination, and expanded telehealth services.

          The states are critical of the implementation of the administrative rule per see where doing so represents and Executive Branch about face from federal non-involvement in vaccination to a nationwide push for COVID-19 vaccination compliance that threatens workers with loss of employment and provider entities with loss of available federal funding.   

Reaching beyond providers.  Where health care workers cannot work, providers will be unable to provide services, and the patient public will be denied care.  Each of these outcomes, the states observe, is contrary to sound policies of health care delivery.

A diverse panoply of providers under a single rubric.   There are fifteen categories of Medicare and Medicaid providers, encompassing urban and rural clinics, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and home health agencies. 

          CMS reports that nearly all hospitals within the United States are connected in some measure to Medicare and Medicaid.  Although CMS has recognized the diverse purposes and practices of these categories of providers and suppliers, CMS has embroidered on all covered providers and suppliers the measures applicable to long-term care facilities, the states observe. 

          Moreover, CMS appears to recognize the adverse consequences of the vaccine mandate:  failure to comply will threaten health care workers with loss of employment, which in turn will deepen an already critical worker shortage, which in turn will impact access to care.

No comment.  The states point out that there has never before been a federal vaccination mandate, and that the newly-effective rule is unsound on multiple grounds.  The states notes that CMS abandoned the comment period ordinarily required for rules of the magnitude of the unprecedented healthcare vaccine mandate.  Moreover, CMS has failed to locate with accuracy its authority to promulgate the vaccine mandate.

Unauthorized rule-making. The states argue that there is no statutory authority for the CMS vaccine mandate, and that none of the authorities cited by the CMS as authorizing the mandate do so.  This legally unsupported rule will cause the states great economic harm, particularly as states will not only be threatened with loss of federal resources but the states’ own administrative resources have been conscripted to serve the federal government. 

Hindsight unavailing.  The states submit that the CMS has relied on post-hoc rationalizations to support the rule, an impermissible approach which renders the measure arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law. 

Constitutionally intrusive.  The states argue that compulsory vaccination is traditionally a power reserved to the states.  The federal expansion of power over the states violates the Tenth Amendment, the states submit.

Doctrinally unsound.  The states argue that the CMS vaccine mandate is unsound as it is a measure of national breadth and depth that is not supported by clear Congressional directive, and thus runs afoul of the major questions doctrine.   Similarly, the co of a Congressional articulation of an intelligible guiding principle, the CMS vaccine rule violates principles of non-delegation.

Outside professional bounds.  The states observe that the CMS vaccine mandate is precluded by the Social Security Act, which forbids supervision or control over the practice and provision of medicine and medical services.

Procedurally flawed.  The states submit that the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) is not inaptly named, and that no sound excuse exists for CMS’ failure to adhere to notice and comment procedures which permit interested persons’ participation in administrative processes.  

          CMS not only failed to adhere to these processes but its rule became effective on publication with initial compliance to be completed within thirty days.  Additionally, CMS failed to comply with the sixty-day pre-publication requirement of the Social Security Act.  

Input not sought.  CMS failed to confer with the states concerning the mandate as it is required to do.

Unconstitutional conditions imposed.   The federal government may not impose conditions on funding unrelated to the programs impacted or without notice to the states that vaccination would be required in order to obtain federal funds.  

State resources conscripted.  In enacting measures which threaten providers’ finances through demands on employees, the states observe that is is an infringement on state powers for the federal government to demand that state administrative resources be expended in service of federal aims.

Declaratory and injunctive relief sought: looking forward. The states have requested declaratory and injunctive relief which would nullify the CMS vaccine mandate and prohibit its enforcement.  At this writing the federal court has not issued any orders relating to the case, although in light of the abbreviated time frame for compliance with the CMS vaccine mandate, it is anticipated that there will be activity related to this case soon.  

Missouri, et al. v. Biden, et al., No. 21-cv-01329 (E.D. Mo.) Complaint






As Vaccination Regulation Litigation Erupts, the Fifth Circuit Stays Mandate Pending Expedited Briefing


 

BST Holdings, et al. v. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, United States Department of Labor, No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.). Per curiam order entered November 6, 2021.


 

On Friday, November 5, both the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published regulations in the federal register respectively governing mandatory Covid-19 vaccination or testing and masking for employees of certain employers and governing mandatory vaccination within health care providing entities, the failure to comply with which would threaten federal financial support.

The same day, litigation challenging the labor based regulations was filed in four federal circuit courts of appeal. At this time, there are no known proceedings challenging the CMS regulation, although some have promised that litigation will be commenced.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, perceiving that the litigation presents “grave” issues of statutory and constitutional law, today stayed the mandate pending expedited briefing, to be completed by Tuesday, November 9.

The challengers in the Fifth Circuit are private employers impacted by the federal vaccine mandate, which governs entities with one hundred or more employees These private entities have been joined by several states.

The challengers argue that the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard which is proffered as the premise for mandating vaccination does not and cannot support that demand, as the authority of OSHA is limited to workplace hazards and dangers which would place a virus beyond its scope.

Even if it could be seen that regulation might be possible, it would be constitutionally impermissible on these facts, the challengers assert, as the present federal vaccination scheme does not touch upon interstate commerce, as any exercise of such powers in the absence of a defined Congressional standard violates the non-delegation doctrine, and as the power to address questions of public health in the manner envisioned here is reserved to the states for administration under the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Moreover, the authority of the Department of Labor is constrained to administration of employment and work related matters, and it is beyond the scope of its powers to regulate individual health choices in the guise of imposing an obligation on employers.

Challenges to the new federal measures in other circuits raise additional claims, submitting to the courts that the vaccine mandate offends the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In that there is a limited period of time within which to challenge these regulations, it is likely that these cases will unfold quickly. It is less likely, however, that any of the litigation will ‘skip a grade’ and proceed on an emergency basis to the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent weeks the Supreme Court has on three occasions declined to hear petitions for emergency relief concerning vaccination mandates.

All this unfolds amid multiple challenges in other forums, not the least of which are challenges to regulations extending mandated vaccination beyond federal employees to employees of federal contractors.

The “headline power” of the private employer mandate discussed here ought not obscure the significance of any of the other litigation concerning the sweeping exercise of federal powers premised on a perceived public health emergency in itself has been called into question.

Order of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit:

BST Holdings, et al. v. OSHA, No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.). Per curiam order entered November 6, 2021_

Challenges to the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS):

BST Holdings, et al. v. OSHA, No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.) Petitioners Brief November 5, 2021

Commonwealth of Kentucky, et al. v. OSHA (6th Cir.) Petition Filed November 5, 2021

State of Missouri, et al., v. Joseph R. Biden, President of the United States, et al. (8th Cir.) Petition Filed November 5, 2021

State of Florida, et al. v. OSHA (11th Cir.) Petition Filed November 5, 2021

 

At the Hour of Our Death: Supreme Court to Consider Prisoner’s Plea for Prayer and Touch in Execution Chamber


Ramirez v.  Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, et al., No. 21-5592.  Oral argument set for November 9, 2021.   


The Supreme Court will soon consider whether Petitioner Ramirez, sentenced to death for a capital crime, may prevail in his claim that the State of Texas’ has violated the Religious Land Use and Religious Persons Act by refusing Ramirez’s request that his spiritual advisor not only be present in the execution chamber but also be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during the execution.

 

RLUIPA was enacted after the Supreme Court concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could not apply to the states.  Both statutes provide protections for religious exercise that may exceed the guarantees of the First Amendment, by shifting burdens of proof and persuasion and by permitting latitude in what may be considered a religious exercise.  

 

Thus a prisoner need not establish that a requested religious accommodation refers to a normative practice in any spiritual practice adhered to by the prisoner.  The state, however, must establish not only that its practices support a compelling government interest and that the state has employed the least restrictive means in furtherance of that goal.  

 

The presence of ministers in the death chamber has been permitted in Texas, in other states, and in the federal system.  At this time, Texas’ rules and regulations appear not to preclude such a presence, but interpretive guidance, some apparently issued in response to Ramirez’ requests, rule out vocalization and laying on of hands during and following the administration of lethal injections.

 

On its face Ramirez’s request appears compelling and its denial cruel.  What possible end could be served by denying a prisoner the solace of prayer and touch at death?  Safety and security, says the state.  

 

The state, through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice  opines that past procedures permitting religious attention at execution were supported by safety protocols permitting state employees, not volunteers, to provide religious support.  Sabotage and the creation of chaos in the execution room cannot be ruled out, the state argues, as such events are not without a basis in history and the likelihood of a disruptive occurrence is enhanced  if a volunteer minister would be so close to the prisoner that the disruption of the flow of medication or to removal of needles or restraints.  

 

Moreover,  the state argues that its practices and prohibitions respect the dignity of the prisoner by permitting audio surveillance from outside the execution chamber of the administration of lethal substances and the dying process.  Audible prayer would thwart that process, making it more likely that the state could not remediate the execution timely and enhancing the chance of an agonizing death.

 

Religious advocacy groups and scholars of religious freedoms have aligned with Ramirez, particularly in service of precluding interpretations of RLUIPA that would permit accommodations only if the state were affirmatively precluding a recognized religious practice.  

 

Several states have asserted that the states must be deferred to in fashioning acceptable execution chamber protocols.  The states fear a flood tide of litigation intended only to forestall executions, all in defiance of the Prison’ Litigation Reform Act, which would hamstring the state in administering sentences, thereby undermining the criminal justice system and principles of federalism. 

 

The United States has urged the Supreme Court to remand the case for resolution, particularly for further articulation of the parties’ interests.

 

Joining in advocating for bringing to a conclusion Ramirez’ litigation are the survivors of Carlos Ramos, who died after having been stabbed twenty-nine times by the Petitioner.   Ramos’ children, now grown, ask that the Court not be unmindful that at each stage of litigation the trauma of their loss is revived.  The Ramos family asks how it is that media attention appears to cast Ramirez as heroic, where their father was denied a sacramental death.  


JustLawful note:  This comment omits consideration of the exhaustion of remedies argument that is also presented in this case.

JustLawful Comment: Leaving aside the flood tides of dilatory claims, administration of justice, and federalism questions, which are not insignificant, it is difficult to believe that the requested ministerial presence and prayer and touch practices could not be accommodated through prison protocols protecting the interests of all.   “Accommodation” by definition suggests that each party yield — by inches if not by yards — to the other.  The parties seem disinclined toward such a perspective, yet the Court may order remand in furtherance of such a result, which would likewise aid the Court in avoiding unnecessary decisions.


Case Materials:

Brief of Petitioner Ramirez September 27, 2021

Brief for Respondents October 15, 2021

Reply Brief For Petitioner October 25, 2021

Ramirez v. Collier Joint Appendix Vol. I

Amicus Submissions in Support of Petitioner Ramirez

Amicus First Liberty Institute September 27, 2021

Amicus Scholars of the PLRA and Prison Grievance Systems September 27, 2021

Amicus The United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops September 27, 2021

Amicus Religious Liberty Scholars September 27, 2021

Amicus Becket Fund for Religious Liberty September 27, 2021

Amicus Christian Legal Society, et al. September 27, 2021

Amicus Spiritual Advisors and Former Corrections Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Former Prison Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Alliance Defending Freedom September 27, 2021

Amicus Protect the First Foundation September 27, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of the Respondents

Amicus Arizona, et al. in Support of Respondents October 15, 2021

Amicus Pablo Castro’s Children October 15, 2021

Amicus Criminal Justice Legal Foundation October 15, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of Neither Party

Amicus the United States September 27, 2021

Amicus Freedom from Religion Foundation et al. September 27, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Supreme Court Grants Realtors’ and Landlords’ Petition for Relief from Stay of Judgment Vacating CDC Eviction Moratorium as Unconstitutional

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, et al., No. 21A23. Order granting emergency petition for relief from stay issued August 26, 2021.

The Supreme Court has lifted the stay of the United States District Court’s judgment vacating the Center for Disease Control order imposing a nationwide mortatorium on evictions. 

It is not only rare that the Supreme Court would reach down to a trial court to vacate that court’s order during the pendency of appellate litigation, it is even more rare that the Court would so forcefully tip its hand concerning the likely outcome should the merits of the litigation be reached:   The CDC’s exercise of power in issuing the eviction moratorium was so far outside its authority that, with respect to the likelihood of success of the realtors’ and landlords’ challenge, “it is difficult to imagine them losing.”  (Per Curiam opinion, p.5).  

Should a nationwide eviction moratorium remain desirable, Congress must specifically authorize such a measure. 

Three justices dissented, citing changed conditions supporting the issuance of a new eviction moratorium and finding that the statute granting the CDC powers to act to control communicable disease support the eviction moratorium orders.

21A23 Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs. (08_26_21)

 

 

The United States Urges the Supreme Court to Keep the CDC Eviction Moratorium in Effect

Alabama Associaion of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, et al., No. 21A23.  Response of the United States submitted August 23, 2021.


Today the United States submitted to the Supreme Court its view that the judicial stay of an order vacating the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Eviction Moratorium must remain in place during pending litigation.  The government argues that the circumstances surrounding the August 3, 2021 order halting certain evictions differ from those presented during the first, and later extended, moratorium order. The government argues that equity favors the stability the stay provides, while the realtors and landlords impacted by the CDC orders cannot establish that they will be irreparably harmed by preserving the status quo.

Times Have Changed.  The United States disputes the conclusion reached by the United States District Court for the DIstrict of Columbia that the August 3, 2021 is materially the same as its predecessor, pointing to the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, which, the government submits, provided the impetus for issuing a new CDC eviction moratorium order days after an earlier order, determined to have been unconstituional, lapsed by its own terms.  In support of its position, the government points to a reported increase in illness subsequent to the issuance of the new moratorium.  

Neither the September, 2020 nor the August, 2021 CDC Orders Is Legally Flawed.  The United States, on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its component, the Centers for Disease Control, argues that the legislature conferred upon HHS broad powers to take measures to inhibit the spread of contagious diseases, including the implementation of the eviction moratorium.  Given that HHS may plainly issue orders of quarantine, it would be unseemly to conclude that HHS could not forbid landlords from evicting tenants during a pandemic.  

The idea that the legislature needed to be more specific in its delegation of powers cannot succeed, the United States observes, where the 2021 Appropriations Act relied upon the  legislation authorizing emergency public health measures in order to appropriate funding to make landlords whole.  This incorporation recognizes the aptness of reliance on the earlier legislation, making further legislative specificity unnecessary. 

Neither Commerce Clause nor non-delegation arguments can prevail where it has been established that measures inhibiting the interstate transmission disease are permitted and where broad powers to act “in the public interest” have been upheld.

The Moratorium Suits the Circumstances.  In ordering relief from forced evictions, the CDC observed that evictions would force persons and families into homelessness, causing them to be housed in temporary shelters or other places where crowding would increase the risk of contagion.  Most importantly, the government argues, the August 3, 2021 order applies only where there exist high risks of contagion and only to those unable to meet their obligations to their landlords.

The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number.  The government and the people will suffer greatly if the government’s current plan to freeze evictionsis disturbed.  Property owners, on the other hand, have not been able to provide reliable evidence of their losses, for which, in any case, the government has promised financial assistance. 

What Might Have Been Is Not What Is.  The United States resists the position taken by realtors and landlords that Judge Kavanaugh’s observation that he would have granted review earlier if he were not assured that the eviction moratorium would expire at the end of July now compels the Supreme Court to grant review and to vacate the stay.  Remarks made in support of denying review cannot now be transformed into an indication that review would have been granted had matters been otherwise.  Not only do new facts support the new CDC measures, but in the absence of a controlling opinion a litigant may not, by pointing to a concurrence in support of an earlier denial of review, later recast that concurrence as a vote supporting review. 

Time of Ruling Unknown. The case docket does not now disclose any activity beyond the present submissions of the parties.   

Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS, No. 21A23 Response in Opposition

Having Twice Failed to Uproot the Stay that Keeps the CDC Eviction Moratorium in Place, Realtors Association Again Seeks Emergency Relief in the U.S. Supreme Court

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 21A23.  Application to vacate stay submitted on August 20, 2021.  Government to respond by noon on August 23, 2021.


Applicants Alabama Association of Realtors have filed in the United States Supreme Court an application for emergency relief which would vacate the U.S. District Court’s May 14, 2021 stay of its May 5th order vacating the Center for Disease Control (CDC) moratorium on evictions.

The emergency application was submitted the same day that the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied relief from the stay for the second time.

Applicants argue that not only has the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found the CDC eviction moratoria to be unconstitutional, but also that the executive branch has admitted this to be true, but has nonetheless encouraged litigation as a delay tactic in the hope of distributing billions in rental assistance monies through the states.  

When the initial series of eviction orders lapsed on July 31, 2021, Congress failed to specifically authorize the CDC to exercise the power that it has, which legislative action Associate Justice Kavanaugh opined would be needed going forward when he denied review only because the government promised the Court that the eviction orders would end on July 31, 2021.  As this was clearly not the case, relief is now warranted, the applicants submit.

Permitting the stay to remain in place would undermine confidence in the federal government internally and in the eyes of the nation, as it would allow legislative inaction to promote admittedly unconstitutional administrative action and let the Court know its views are of no consequence.

The ongoing presence of a federal moratorium represents both an assault on the integrity of the system of government itself but also a tectonic shift in the exercise of powers affecting the rights and interests of property owners.  The eviction moratorium has been promulgated by a sovereign which is immune from suit and which will resist takings actions, provides benefits to those who are admittedly judgement-proof, and criminalizes landlords’ actions to protect their property through eviction proceedings.  Any financial benefit, in the form of rental assistance, has been lost in bogs of state bureaucracies charged with distributing the funds.

The realtors association argues that the same factors that warranted emergency relief that were present before are present now and then some.  Any reliance on ‘changed conditions’ manifested by the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus is misplaced, as the government was aware of the Delta variant when it permitted the CDC order to lapse on July 31, 2021, and the harms predicted from the variant have failed to materialize.

The applicants note that the idea that money damages will make landlords whole is not supported in law or fact.  The Administrative Procedures Act does not permit an award of money damages, and the costs of compliance with an unlawful regulatory regimen are incapable of being fairly compensated. 

 

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS, No. 21A23 Application for Emergency Relief August 20, 2021

The Stay Must Go: Realtors Seek Emergency Appellate Relief from Stay of Order Holding CDC Eviction Moratorium Unconstitutional

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 21-5093 (D.C. Cir).  Parties jointly request ruling on petition for emergency relief by August 19, 2021.


Plaintiffs/appellees seek emergency relief in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals from the federal district court’s May 14, 2021 issuance of a stay pending appeal of its order vacating as unconstitutional a CDC Eviction Moratorium. On June 2, 2021, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to disturb the district court’s stay, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in entering a stay pending appeal.

Last week the U.S. District Court determined that the newly-issued August 3, 2021 Center for Disease Control eviction moratorium is as defective as its predecessor, which lapsed on July 31, 2021. The court found that its earlier order of vacatur of the old CDC eviction order could embrace the new CDC eviction moratorium.  However, the  court concluded that it could not give life to its determination because the court could not vacate its own order staying its order of vacatur of the old CDC eviction order because the D.C. Circuit had concluded that the district court’s stay of its order of vacatur pending appeal was not an abuse of discretion. The appellate affirmance of the stay, the federal district court concluded, bound the court under the doctrine of the “law of the case.”. 

The realtors now argue that the “law of the case” does not apply to the stay in this case, as the doctrine concerns only matters actually decided in a case, not interim measures intended to preserve the status quo pending a determination on the merits or on appeal.  The government insists that “[T]he same issue presented a second time in the same case in
the same court should lead to the same result.” (Citation omitted.) 

Both parties have submitted previews of their merits arguments and have requested an expedited briefing schedule subsequent to the appellate court’s ruling on the emergency petition. 

Plaintiff/Appellees’ Submission Contains a Compilation of Previous Arguments and Rulings:

Alabama Associaton of Realtors et al v. HHS, No. 21-5093 Emergency Motion

The government’s response:

Alabama Association of Realtors et al v. HHS No. 21-5093 Opposition to Motion for Emergency Relief

New CDC Eviction Moratorium Is Defective, But Federal District Court Cannot Vacate Its Earlier Stay Where the Order of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Upholding that Stay Is the Law of the Case

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 20-0377-DLF.  Opinion and Order issued August 13, 2021.


The federal district court in the District of Columbia has compared the August 3, 2021 Order of the Centers for Disease Control imposing a nationwide stay of evictions until October 31, 2021 and found it to be not materially different from the order preceding it, which has been found to be, and has been admitted to be, constitutionally defective.  

Were it possible to do so, the federal district court said today, the court would enter an order similar to the order of vacatur issued previously.  The court cannot do so, however, because the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to disturb the district court’s earlier stay of its order of vacatur.  The appellate court’s refusal to grant relief, which left the district court’s stay of its order of vacatur in place, is the law of the case which the district court may not now ignore. 

The appellate court and the district court were not of the same analytical minds with respect to the initial stay, but this is of no moment at this time.  Plaintiffs’ recourse is in the appellate court or in the United States Supreme Court.  

There is Need for a Meta Crystal Ball.  It is not known at this time whether the plaintiffs will once again seek relief in the United States Supreme Court prior to seeking relief or continuing its current appeal in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  Although the United States Supreme Court denied plaintiffs’ earlier petition, Justice Kavanaugh opined that he would have agreed with the justices who would have granted relief but for the imminent expiration of the first Centers for Disease Control Order.   While plaintiffs in this case asserted that Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion in essence created a majority that would grant relief, the United States argued the concurrence in denying relief could not be transformed into one granting relief, as plaintits wished, a position with which the district court has agreed.  As the other justices’ votes are known publicly, but their analyses and opinions are not, assessment of a likely outcome if relief were sought first in the Supreme Court will no doubt provoke much discusson. 

JustLawful Observation: Whether in the present posture of the case plaintiffs will renew their request for relief in the United States Supreme Court rather than in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is, of course,  a matter of speculation.  While much of today’s ruling may have too much of a “yes-but-no” flavor, and seem to rely on jurisprudential concepts pleasing to judges and lawyers but confounding to the public, there may be some comfort in considering that it is likely that not too much time will pass before the next round of litigation begins.  

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS, No. 20-0377Memorandum Opinion and Order dated August 13, 2021

Nixxing Ipse Dixit: U.S. Supreme Court Finds New York’s Covid-Related Tenant Financial Hardship Self-Certification Provisions Deny Landlords Due Process

Chrysafis, et al., v. Marks, No. 21A8.  Order granting injunctive relief pending disposition in Second Circuit or of Petition for Certiorari entered August 12, 2021.  


New York’s pandemic related tenant protections preclude eviction if a tenant self-certifies to financial hardship.  Landlords may not challenge such self-certifications.  This, the U.S. Supreme Court has concluded, impairs landlords’ due process interests, as established law has observed that “no man may be a judge in his own case.”  Order of August 12, 2021, citing In re Murchison, 349 U. S. 133, 136 (1952).  

By order entered August 12, 2021,  the Court has enjoined the preclusive effect of tenant self-certifications pending further judicial activity but has left undisturbed the capacity of courts to make assessments of financial hardship in eviction proceedings.  Such assessments could permit receipt of pandemic-related financial aid and could preclude eviction.

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and  Kagan,  has dissented, opining that there is no basis in the law for the U.S. Supreme Court to reach the constitutionality of a state law measure which has not been enjoined by a state court, where there has been no determination in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where the emergency eviction measures will lapse of their own accord at the end of August, where there is available $2 billion dollars in federal rental assistance, and where landlords are not denied, but only delayed, a hearing, a circumstance which does not violate constitutional due process principles.  

Justice Breyer’s dissent notes that there is no First Amendment compelled speech issue presented by the state’s requirement that factual information be provided to tenants. 

While it is recognized that emergency measures are not wholly insulated from judicial review, it is Justice Breyer’s sense that in this circumstance, where any right to relief is not clearly established, where tenants may face displacement earlier than anticipated, and where the state must craft and administer many scientifically and medically complex emergency measures, the public interest would favor deference to the state.  

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision has been presented to the federal court in the District of Columbia for consideration in connection with the court’s anticipated ruling on a challenge to the new federal eviction moratorium.

U.S. Supreme Court docket showing entry of order:

21A8 U.S. Supreme Court Docket

Order entered August 12, 2021

CHRYSAFIS . v. MARKS, U.S. Suprerme Court Order with Dissent August 12 2021

Submission to U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia:

Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS, 20-03377, Notice of Supplemental Authority

Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS, 20-03377, Exhbit A.

20% Off Is Still 100% Unconstitutional: Realtors Argue that Novel Iteration of CDC Eviction Moratorium Is as Lacking in Authority as its Precursor

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 20-cv-03377 (D. D.C.). 


Emergency!  Last spring plaintiff realtors and related organizations were successful in persuading the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the September, 2020, Order of the Centers for Disease Control imposing a national moratorium on evictions was without authority.  The court found no authority for such a sweeping measure in the public health law that served as the order’s premise, nor could the court find any legislative delegation of authority that would permit the Centers for Disease Control to criminalize rental property evictions. 

The D.C. District Court vacated, yet stayed, its order pending review.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to disturb the federal district court’s determinations, and the United States Supreme Court denied emergency review.

The denial of review, however, came with Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring caveat: he agreed that the eviction moratorium order was unconstitutional but sensed that it was best to let the order lapse of its own accord at the end of July, as the Centers for Disease Control represented to the Supreme Court that the moratorium would not be extended further. 

Post-Moratorium Hubbub in the Executive and Legislative Branches.  The President of the United States stated publicly that he had been advised that the eviction moratorium was unconstitutional. A valid moratorium would require, as Justice Kavanaugh pointed out, legislative authority, which Congress failed to enact. 

The President begged the states to disburse the $45,000,000,000 that the federal government had provided in assistance to troubled tenants but which appears to have been bogged down in bureaucracies.  

This Time It’s Different.  On August 3, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control issued a new order prohibiting evictions in areas deemed to be highly affected by a variant of the contagious Covid-19 virus that prompted the initial moratorium.  This “Delta” variant, the Centers for Disease Control has predicted, is highly contagious and its threat to interstate transmission justifies federal intervention on a limited basis, which the Centers for Disease Control now sets at about 80% of all counties nationally or 90% of all rental housing in the United States.

Lack of Constitutional Authorization Remains. Plaintiffs argue that the fundamental lack of authorization for the Centers for Disease Control’s new order persists: no geographic or statistical tinkering can imbue the order with the constitutional soundness it lacks.  

It’s Not the Principle of the Thing, It’s the Money. That the Executive Branch is in accord with the view that the prior order was unconstitutional  makes the new order all the more curious except that the President has stated that he hopes that litigation will buy some time to move relief to intended recipients.  

Fuzzy Math.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of which the Centers for Disease Control is a component, has opposed emergency relief now because, the government argues, the plaintiffs’ assertion that the precedent it finds in Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence is not precedent at all.  The government argues that a concurrence that can be seen as aligned with those who would have granted relief cannot transform the minority of judges who would have granted review into a majority.  

As Then, So Too Now.  Defendants argue that as there is no Supreme Court precedent binding the district court the law requires that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion on the stay controls.  The district court should not disturb its earlier stay, the government argues, but the court must recognize that its earlier vacatur of the first CDC order is of no moment, either, as circumstances have so changed that the court’s initial conclusions would not apply now.  

Deference, Please. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control submit that the district court should abstain from any action to permit the Solicitor General of the United States to determine whether to seek emergency review in the D.C. Court of Appeals or the United States Supreme Court.

There May Be More to Come. The plaintiffs may file a reply to the government’s opposition by August 6, but at this time none is of record.

Centers for Disease Control Order Dated August 3, 2021:

CDC Eviction Order

Realtors’ Emergency Motion:

Emergency Motion to Enforce the Supreme Court’s RulingyDefendants’ Opposition

Defendants’ Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Emergency Motion

Order of U.S. Supreme Court Denying Review of Eviction Moratorium

Order Denying Application to Vacate Stay June 29, 2021

Fundamental Fairness Compels Cosby’s Release, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Concludes

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William Henry Cosby, Jr., No. J-100-2020.  June 30, 2021.  


A Life of Unprecedented Firsts and Widespread Public Acclaim. Bill Cosby enjoyed a career marked by achievements in comedy, in acting, and in education.  Following success as a stand up comedian, he was the first African American to star in a nighttime drama, I Spy.  Later, the long-running Cosby Show, in which he played a sometimes perplexed, but always lovable, sweater-wearing physician, endeared him to millions.  Cosby was not infrequently referred to as “America’s Dad.”

 

Dad Would Never. Surrounded by accomplishments and accolades, the notion that Cosby was anything other than that which he appeared to be in public was unthinkable until the early years of the new millennium.

 

Very Tough Love. Theretofore relentlessly anodyne, in 2004 Cosby lambasted African Americans for what he perceived to be life limiting choices and woeful parental skills.  Notwithstanding that Cosby asserted that his intention was to proffer help, his thoughts were not well received.  

 

Very Little Love (Or So It Would Appear). That same year Cosby engaged in a personal relationship with a woman at Temple University.   Although Cosby asserted that all his activity was consensual, the woman believed that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted, and was unable to consent. 

 

Concerned about the impact that the relationship with Cosby had had on her, Andrea Constand complained to local police. 

 

No Criminal Case. On review of Constand’s complaint and conduct, as well as a statement by Cosby, the District Attorney for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, concluded in 2005 that the available evidence was not sufficient to ensure a conviction.

 

But Perhaps a Successful Civil Suit. By his own account, the District Attorney believed that while he could not be certain of a criminal conviction against Cosby, he could facilitate a civil suit for money damages for Constand if he declared he would not prosecute Cosby.  If there were no possibility of prosecution, Cosby in turn would not be able to avail himself of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.  

 

Telling the World. With the idea of removing any Fifth Amendment protections from Cosby in a civil proceeding, the District Attorney issued a press release describing to the public his decision that his office would not prosecute Bill Cosby based on the investigation and the evidence then known.  

 

No Compliance with Statute or Protocols. The sole promise made by the District Attorney was in the press release. There was no court order of immunity sought or obtained, nor was three any writing describing any immunity conferred upon Cosby.

 

Testimony Under Oath. In later civil suits, Cosby was deposed on several occasions, during which he never asserted any Fifth Amendment privilege and during which he made statements that were self-incriminating.

 

A Decade Hence, Things Were Perhaps Not Exactly What Was Had in Mind. Ten years after the Constand complaint and the promise of non-prosecution, a new District Attorney reopened the case based on the public release by a Federal judge of Cosby’s previously sealed deposition testimony.  

 

#MeToo and #MeToo and #MeToo. As interest in Cosby’s conduct gained momentum, one woman after another disclosed that she believed that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby.  The allegations spanned decades, some reaching back to the 1960s.  Some, but not all, of the accounts were admitted in evidence at Cosby’s second trial. 

 

A Matter of Record. Cosby was convicted of aggravated indecent assault in 2018, in a second trial following a 2016 mistrial.  

 

And Now the Reversal.  Within recent weeks Cosby’s conviction has been vacated and he has been released from prison.  

 

Justice Delayed or Justice Denied. This latest result is no doubt unthinkable to those who believed that Cosby’s conviction represented a measure of justice, however belated, not only for those who felt themselves personally victimized by Cosby, but also for those persons everywhere who have suffered sexual assault, ofttimes in decades-long silence.

 

Justice is for the Next World: In this World, There is the Law. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, having reviewed all the proceedings, concluded that the District Attorney’s deliberate inducement caused Cosby to forfeit his constitutionally guaranteed right against self-incrimination. Moreover, the District Attorney had no power to bind those who would succeed him.  

 

Induced and Abandoned. The appellate court concluded that the District Attorney’s inducement, in the form of a press release announcing there would be no prosecution, which was relied upon by Cosby, so offended principles of fundamental fairness, which the law considers to be the foundation for all due process, that the only way to make Cosby whole was to set aside the conviction and set Cosby free.

 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s opinion was not unanimous.  Two judges concurred and dissented at once, opining that Cosby ought to be tried a third time, with any evidence introduced in error in the prior trials suppressed.  

 

One judge dissented from the result in its entirety, questioning the soundness of the court’s conclusion that the District Attorney made an unconditional promise by means of a press release.  Moreover, the Court’s speculation about the District Attorney’s intent to gull Cosby into forfeiting his Fifth Amendment rights was contrary to sound jurisprudence. 

 

Nonetheless, the dissenting judge agreed that were circumstances as the majority described them, prosecutors would have boundless capacities to trample on individuals’ constitutionally protected interests. 

 

In addition, the dissent perceived that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of prior assaults, as the evidence was unduly inflammatory, and the dissent would have been inclined to order a new trial on that basis.

 

The News May Be Bad, but the Law May Be Good.  Appellate decisions exist to refine the law.  While the release of Cosby may disappoint, the release had nothing to do with Cosby’s conduct, memorialized for all time in the opinion. 

 

The result had everything to do with the prosecutor. 

 

In this light the opinion is a clarion call to prosecutors everywhere to be prudent in their dealings with defendants, with the courts, and with the public, to be scrupulously truthful and trustworthy, and to be no larger than the office and the law allow.   

Commonwealth v Cosby (Pa. 2021). Wecht, J. for the Court

Commonwealth v Cosby (Pa 2021). Dougherty, J., Concurring and Dissenting.

Commonwealth v Cosby (Pa. 2021). Saylor, J., Dissenting.




Justices’ Disappointments Surround Supreme Court’s Decision that Free Exercise Clause Permits Exemption from Philadelphia’s Foster Placement Policies

Fulton, et al., v. City of Philadelphia, et al., No. 19-123.  Opinion of the Court by Roberts, C.J., issued June 17, 2021.


The Catholic Church has long been involved in providing services to children in need.  Until recently, Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia, under contract with the city, evaluated potential foster parents and made recommendations to the city for placement.  However, when Catholic Social Services disclosed that it would not certify same-sex couples for placements, Philadelphia determined that it would not enter into another contract with Catholic Social Services unless Catholic Social Services would agree to certify same sex couples for foster care service.

Litigation ensued, notwithstanding that no same sex couple has ever requested or been denied certification by Catholic Social Service.

A federal district court denied  Catholic Social Services request for injunctive relief, finding that the agency was unlikely to prevail on either a Free Exercise or Free Speech claim, as a neutral law of general applicability is not subject to Free Exercise challenges, and Free Speech principles were inapplicable where the social services agency was certifying for a government agency.

The Third Circuit agreed.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari, having in mind whether or not it ought to overrule Employment Division of the Department of Human Services of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

Employment Division of the Department of Human Services of Oregon v. Smith (“Smith”), supra, held that neutral laws of general applicability are not subject to Free Exercise challenges.

In this case, the Supreme Court declined to revisit Smtih, deciding instead that because Philadelphia’s contract with Catholic Social Services included the potential for exemption from same-sex services, the possibility of exemption removes the agreement from consideration as would apply to “neutral laws of general applicability”.  

The Supreme Court found it unquestionable that Philadelphia’s refusal to enter into an agreement with Catholic Social Services, and its retroactive rejection of certifications already made, substantially burdened religious exercise by forcing Catholic Social Services to exercise its faith and refrain from providing services to the city, or by abandoning its faith and providing those services.

The Court could find no compelling reason for rejecting Catholic Social Services, particularly as no harm could be envisioned from continuing to accept their services.  If a request for certification of a same-sex couple were presented, that request could be presented instead to another agency that could accept the couple. 

The Court rejected Philadelphia’s arguments that it ought to have more latitude and received more deference in Free Exercise matters when the city acts in a managerial capacity.  The Court found no basis in the law for abandoning constitutional principles on the basis of the City’s role.

Heckling the Umpire.  The Court’s narrow decision in this case precipitated the issuance of three separate concurrences, each reflecting the joining justices’ disappointment in not overruling Smith.  Justice Alito has published a 77-page history of Free Exercise jurisprudence, which includes a scathing assessment of the Court’s opinion, offering that it might as well have been written in disappearing ink.  All Philadelphia needs to do to avert the Court’s decision is remove the exemption language.  This would place petitioners back at the beginning, with another cycle of litigation ahead.

Fulton v. Philadelphia, No. 19-123 (S. Ct.) June 17, 2021  

 






Crisis Upon Crisis: Landlords Ask Supreme Court Justice to Vacate Stay of Order Staying CDC Order Staying Evictions


Alabama Association of Realtors, et al.  v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, No. 20A169.  Emergency application to Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and Circuit Justice for the D.C. Circuit John G. Roberts, Jr.  submitted June 2, 2021; Response submitted June 10, 2021. 


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), following lapse of a federal legislative order, issued and later extended an order suspending landlords’ powers to evict non-paying tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was thought that a potential for massive evictions existed which would precipitate, among other things, homelessness or forced overcrowding of housing, which would increase the likelihood of viral contagion and disease. 

The CDC order will lapse on June 30th unless it is extended.

Tenants Stay While Landlords Pay. The eviction moratorium, as it is called, has relieved qualifying tenants of the obligation to pay rent.  Landlords have not been relieved of the obligation to pay bills.  

Various calculations present various estimates of the value of lost rental income during this time.  There is no doubt that it is, simply stated, a lot, but how much, in millions or billions, is disputed, as is the ability of a Congressional appropriation of funds payable to the states and, in turn, through the states and to the landlords, to mitigate their losses.  Landlords argue that if federal funds become available, the money will be insufficient to cover all losses and will be so delayed as to diminish the value of payment.

Not Merely a Civil Matter.  Lost rents are not landlords’ only worry.  Violations of the eviction moratorium carry criminal penalties and substantial fines. 

Defeat Snatched from the Jaws of Victory. In an effort to stem the accrual of further losses, plaintiffs real estate owners, managers, and trade associations sought and received a favorable judgment in federal district court in the District of Columbia.  With the judgment came an order enjoining the operation of the CDC order nationwide.  Notwithstanding its judgment and order, relief was immediately stayed by the issuing court because the court perceived that the government presented significant legal questions for review.  The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to vacate the order.  Petition to the Circuit Judge of the United States Supreme Court ensued.

Power and Its Exercise. Plaintiffs submit that the trial court was correct in perceiving that the CDC’s eviction moratorium order was not within its statutory power and that staying that determination has only increased irreparable harms to landlords nationally.  Plaintiffs submit that the statute authorizing the CDC to issue orders to stop the spread of disease is limited to quarantine and inspection measures.  The CDC’s disruption of landlord-tenant relations, powers reserved to the states, presents constitutional questions that the U.S. Supreme Court must review, and that pending that review, the stay must be vacated to prevent greater harm to the landlords.

Plaintiffs need relief notwithstanding that the current order will expire on June 30th, they argue, for the failure to vacate the stay will render plaintiffs’ victory meaningless.  

The Department of Health and Human Services, on behalf of its component the Centers for Disease Control, insist that the CDC has plenary powers to issue orders to inhibit disease providing the CDC articulates its perception of a need to do so.  Such powers are not unlimited, as plaintiffs argue, nor are there questions of unconstitutional delegation, for no power committed to the Legislative Branch has been delegated, and Congress may delegate to HHS the power to act in the interest of the public.

Equity (in the Traditional Sense). The arguments for emergency action by the Circuit Justice by and large concern whether or not appropriate standards for issuance of the stay in the trial court, or denial of vacation of that stay, in the appellate court, were selected and applied.  These are equitable considerations which involve not only judicial discretion and deference on review,  but also a showing of demonstrable error. 

The federal government is supported by twenty-three state amici.  Their brief indicates that states will administer federal monies to landlords to compensate for lost rent, but doing so will require time.  

JustLawful’s Crystal Ball:  The proximity in time of the emergency petition to the expiration of the CDC eviction moratorium creates high drama.  However, Circuit Justice Roberts may not wish to decide more law than is necessary, particularly as judicial deference to agency determinations would counsel against an eleventh hour intervention, especially where doing so might, either directly or paradoxically, further destabilize already deeply distressed rental housing conditions.  

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS 20A169 SCOTUS Application to Vacate Stay

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS 20A169 Appendix – Lower Court Orders and Opinion

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS 20A169 Appendix – Provisions of Law

Association of Alabama Realtors, et al. v. HHS 20A169 Opposition

Alabama Association of Realtors, et al. v. HHS 20A169 Amicus Brief

Public Figures, Private Law: Facebook Oversight Board Upholds Initial Removal of President’s Statements and Presence but Condemns Facebook’s Failure to Articulate Standards or Time Limits


Case No. 2021 -001 – FB – FBR.  Facebook Oversight Board, May 5, 2021.


Facebook is an online social media platform that welcomes all except those determined to have acted badly according to its internal standards, which are described generally in its Terms of Service, with which users promise compliance.   For the errant poster, Facebook may administer rebukes, suspend or terminate service, as well as removing content it deems unsuitable. 

Facebook thus administers and enforces rules of its own making by its own employees.  In light of persistent concerns about this insularity, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg created a board of review, funded by Facebook but administered independently.  

This week the Facebook Oversight Board issued an opinion unsigned by its constellation of prominent international figures that concluded that Facebook did not err in removing statements of then-President Donald J. Trump at the time of and concerning violence that erupted on January 6, 2021 in the nation’s Capitol following a rally of Trump supporters.  

While correct in the immediacy of its removal and ban in light of the circumstances at the time, in which the then-President’s words were perceived to have incited insurrection, the Facebook Oversight Board condemned Facebook’s failure to articulate the reasons and applicable standards supporting the removal and ban and the apparent eternal silencing of Facebook account holder Trump.  

The Facebook Oversight Board sent the case back to Facebook for further proceedings. 

The decision is no small matter and some have deemed it a landmark of equal stature with Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), the first enunciation by the United States Supreme Court of its reason for being and its power of judicial review.  

This proceeding can be seen as a foundational attempt to provide some structure for review of platform provider’s decisions.  

This matters greatly (“bigly”, some might say) because internet service providers are almost entirely immune from suit for questionable decisions and at the same time the government of the United States cannot intervene to regulate online speech as it is constrained by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  

Section 230:  the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly. When widespread public adoption of the internet was in its infancy, Congress sought to inhibit unprotected speech while protecting internet service providers from liability for statements not of their own creation posted on platforms.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 preempts federal law and precludes suit against any platform provider who does not create content.  The platform is free to remove or to otherwise police its product without losing those immunities.  

This would leave a user without recourse unless the platform’s actions could be challenged in court in contract, which in limited measure can be done, or through internal review with the platform provider, as is the case in this week’s opinion.

The creation of an international body not necessarily bound by the laws of any one nation cannot be other than a major inflection point in modern law.  Prominent First Amendment authorities question whose law should govern such cases.  

It is far too soon to tell whether this new thing is a good thing, and much is lost in cheers and jeers attaching to personalities, whether that of the former President or of the founder and CEO of Facebook.  What is to the Facebook Oversight Board’s credit is that the reviewing body articulated not only the facts determined but also the standards embraced.  The virtue of its reliance on standards drawn from international human rights declarations, which remain aspirational domestically if not adopted by the United States, awaits further reflection.  

Links to the decision and to other materials are posted below. 

The Facebook Oversight Board opinion:  

2021 001 FB FBR Oversight Board Opinion

The Facebook Oversight Board announcement and overview of its opinion:

Oversight Board Upholds Trump Suspension While Finding Facebook Failed to Apply Proper Penalty

The composition of the Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board

A primer on the creation of the Oversight Board and a reflection on this week’s opinion:

Lawfareblog: About the Facebook Oversight Board

Lawfareblog: It’s Not Over: Oversight Board Trump Decision is Just the Start

Reflections on jurisprudential questions prompted by the Facebook Oversight Board determination:

Volokh Conspiracy: Whose Rules Should Govern How Americans Speak with Other Americans Online

Responses to announcement of the decision and opinion in the mainstream media:

Facebook Oversight Board Tells Zuckerberg He’s the Decider on Trump – The New York Times

Trump Is Still Banned on YouTube. Now the Clock Is Ticking. – WSJ

Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Decision was Marbury v Madison Moment – CNBC

Two recent cases discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996:

Daniels v Alphabet Inc ND Cal 2021

Murphy v Twitter Inc Cal App 2021

Discussions of United States’ positions on international human rights conventions:

Where the United States Stands on 10 International Human Rights Treaties – The Leadership Conference Education Fund

Human Rights and the United States

Public commentary on the controversy submitted to the Facebook Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board Public Comments

School Is Out! Or Is It? Supreme Court to Consider School’s Constitutional Capacity to Discipline Student’s Off-Site Online Speech


Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al., No. 20-255 (S. Ct.).  Oral argument scheduled for April 28, 2021 at 10 a.m.


Student B.L., who was all in on cheerleading activities, was distressed to learn that a less senior student had jumped the line to the varsity squad, while she, with a year’s experience to her credit, remained on the junior varsity squad.  As is normative among digital natives, B.L. made her views known online on the social media application Snapchat.  B.L. did not have a good word to say, and indeed she used some words that a grandmother might kindly term “unladylike.”

Soon thereafter the school was abuzz with the news of B.L.’s postings.  School administrators, displeased with her having posted material that it considered disrespectful and disruptive of school and school-related activities, determined that she ought to sit the cheerleading season out.  This was fiercely protested by B.L. and her family.  The school would not budge, and this case, which questions how much off-site speech a school may discipline, ensued.

During the Viet Nam War, students protesting the United States’ participation in that conflict came to school wearing black arm bands to signify their disagreement.  When a school tried to countermand this activity, the Supreme Court disciplined the school instead.  In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Court concluded that minor students are not without Constitutional rights, including speech and expressive rights.  Schools may not interfere with students’ speech and expressive activities except where the ordinary activity of the school or the rights of others may be substantially disrupted thereby.

Life today is no longer constrained geographically as in the past.  Communication is instant online and that communication may reach an audience any time and any where.   Boundaries as they once were known are no more, leaving schools to wonder how they might navigate the shoals of order and expression.

The petitioning school district argues that it was error for the trial and appellate courts to interpret Tinker as inapplicable to off-site activity.  Schools, responsible for so much of students’ lives in the day to day, must be able to maintain civility when offsite online behavior interferes with order or threatens others.

B.L. counters that the First Amendment rights recognized in Tinker would be meaningless if students, fearful of condemnation and harsh consequences from school authorities, were not able to communicate online as they would wish.

The United States, as amicus with a bit more clout than many other amici, while favoring the school’s position, suggests that there are several lenses with which to evaluate the interests of the parties, but asks the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower courts for further developments.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Joint Appendix

Mahanoy Area School District v B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Respondents

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Reply Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 United States’ Amicus Curiae Brief

Funny Things Have Happened on the Way to the Fora: Justice Thomas Proffers Adapting Common Carrier Law to Digital Media to Address Speech Concerns

Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, No. 20-197 (April 5, 2021).


Former President Trump petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari review of a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which held that his use of his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump for administration messages made the account a public space.  As such, the former president could not block others’ or their responses without violating the First Amendment. 

 

In view of the change in presidents, the Supreme Court granted the petition but remanded it to the Second Circuit to vacate its opinion and dismiss the case as moot.

 

While in agreement with the Court’s determination, Justice Thomas has written separately that subsequent events and a more careful analysis of the balance of powers between digital media platforms and its users calls into question the applicability of First Amendment analysis.  

 

Justice Thomas is of the view that the time has arrived for a close look at digital platforms, particularly where it now appears that extraordinarily broad powers reside in the hands of a few individuals and entities that control the internet. 

 

Twitter banned former President Trump from its platform, which Twitter may do, according to Twitter’s rules of use, for any reason or for no reason.  This, in Justice Thomas’ view, highlights how extensive the digital platforms’ powers are.  It is less readily apparent that an individual has created a public forum, traditionally defined as a ‘“government controlled” space, when a private individual or entity can unilaterally deny access to its digital platform.

 

If First Amendment analyses become an uneasy — if not wholly inappropriate — fit in such circumstances, Justice Thomas has suggested that resort to the common law and subsequent developments concerning regulation of common carriers may present opportunities for legislative action.  Where common carriers such as communications and transportation entities receive special privileges as a result of government regulation, they also must, as a result, adopt responsibilities, including limitations on a private entitiy’s rights of exclusion such that common carriers must treat clients and customers equally.  While market power has traditionally been a part of common carrier analyses, it is not a determining factor:  entities of differing sizes and contours may be “common carriers” responsible for transport, whether on highways or rails or telephone wires or otherwise.  



This framework, grounded in common carrier constructs as well as civil rights concepts applicable to public accommodations, might offer an opportunity to make inroads in the nation’s understanding of how best to adapt the law to the digital area. Perhaps best of all, Justice Thomas has observed, this approach could aid all concerned without requiring that digital platforms sacrifice their own First Amendment rights or be perceived to have endorsed any of the speech presented on its platforms.  


Supreme Court Determination 

20-197 Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia Univ. (04_05_2021)

Second Circuit Decision Regarding Rehearing en banc:

Knight First Amendment Inst at Columbia Univ v Trump 953 F3d 216 Mem 2nd Cir 2020

Second Circuit Decision on Appeal:

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 928 F3d 226 2nd Cir 2019

Opinion of the United States District Court

Knight First Amendment Inst At Columbia Univ v Trump 302 F Supp 3d 541 SD NY 2018


 



 

Pronouns and Principles: Sixth Circuit Holds that University Faculty Member’s Speech and Religious Beliefs Enjoy First Amendment Protections

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al, Jane Doe, and Sexuality and Gender Acceptance, No. 20-2389 (6th Cir.).  March 26, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, observing that the trial court had lost sight of fundamental First Amendment principles, has vacated dismissal of a professor’s case alleging that his employer, state university, impermissibly infringed on his First Amendment speech rights and impinged on his Free Exercise interests.  

 

Accepting solely for purposes of its review that plaintiff Meriwether’s allegations are true, the court recounted that in the course of teaching that Meriwether, a professor at Shawnee State University for 25 years, referred to a student as a male.  That student approached Meriwether after class and demanded to be referred to as a female.  Meriwether demurred based on religious principles and an inability to affirm that which he believes to be untrue.  The student uttered a coarse epithet and promised to have Meriwether fired.

 

After reporting the incident, one colleague opined that religion ought not be taught at the school, knowing that Meriwether had done exactly that for a quarter of a century.   The school insisted that Meriwether conform to its anti-discrimination policies by conforming his language to the student’s preference or by not using pronouns at all.  As Meriwether stated he could not on principle do the first nor in practice do the second, the school administrators attempted to reach a compromise in which Meriwether would address the student with neutral terms.  

 

The student complained repeatedly, prompting Title IX review, which concluded that Meriwether had created a hostile environment in violation of that law, which guarantees equal treatment in education.  Meriwether presented a grievance through the faculty union which prompted laughter from the hearing official, who would later be the reviewing official on appeal.  That reviewing official’s delegate determined that Meriwether was undeserving of an accommodation based on religious principles perceived to be bigoted, and therefore unworthy of legal protection. 

 

Meetings were held and memoranda were generated and the compromise offered to Meriwether was revoked.  He was instructed to conform to the school’s speech policies or face discipline, which might include termination or suspension without pay.  A written warning to that effect was added to his official file.  

 

Meriwether sued and lost in federal district court.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit has stressed that teachers at public universities do not lose First Amendment rights by virtue of that status. The university’s interest in administration, premised on inchoate fears, did not outweigh the faculty member’s speech rights.  Statutes and policies intended to ensure the fair treatment of all are not superior to all other statutes and policies, the court observed.  The finding of a violation of Title IX was in error where there was no pervasive culture making student life intolerable. 

 

The Sixth Circuit concluded that the school had compelled speech by demanding that Meriwether use pronouns deemed acceptable according to policy, and compelled silence in that speech without pronouns was impossible, and an explanation of his views on his syllabus was denied, as was his request for religious accommodation, none of which, subject to development of the record, may be constitutionally tolerable.  Equally problematic was the school’s failure to treat Meriwether’s beliefs even-handedly.  The court found the hostility displayed toward Meriwether troubling and contrary to Supreme Court precedent.  

 

The case has been remanded to the federal trial court for further proceedings.  

Meriwether v. Hartop, et al. No. 20-3289 (6thCircuit).Opinion March 26, 2021

From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Not Quite Down Pat: New First Amendment Bivens Action Emerges from TSA Employees’ Interference with Recording of “Pat Down” Search

Dyer v. Smith et al., No. 3:19-cv-921 (E.D. Va.) February 23, 2021


The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently denied transportation security agents’ motion to dismiss in a suit precipitated by the agents’ insistence that a travelling couple stop  video recording agents patting down — physically searching outside the clothes — one partner, and that anything already recorded be destroyed. 

The federal district court reviewed and rejected factors cautioning against expansion of Bivens actions, observing that the law is clear not only through decisions but also by custom that there exists a recognized First Amendment right to gather news and, as a corollary proposition, to record officials in the conduct of official business.  The court concluded that in the absence of any available remedy, the couple’s Bivens action may proceed.  

JustLawful Observation:  This straightforward summary may provoke an “of course!” response, but that response might be a bit hasty, given that the court recognized a new Bivens action, when in the wake of Hernadez v. Mesa, 528 U.S. ____ (2020), decided during the last Supreme Court term, it was thought that Bivens actions would soon be unicorns:  fanciful but imaginary.

Counsel for the transportation agents thinks so, too, and is pursuing interlocutory review.E.D. Virginia Opinion:

Dyer v Smith, No. 3:19-cv-921 (E.D. Va.) February 23, 2021

Request for Interlocutory Review:

Dyer v. Smith, No. 3:19-cv-921. Defendants’ Memorandum Supporting Motion to Certify Interlocutory Review

Recent U.S. Supreme Court Consideration of Bivens Actions:

Hernandez v Mesa, 528 U.S. , 140 SCt 735, 206 LEd2d 29 (2020)

Commentary on the Future of Bivens Actions

SCOTUS Sharply Limits Bivens Claims—and Hints at Further Retrenchment. Robertson, C. ABA Practice Points. April, 2020.

When Zeal Outstrips Reason: Second Circuit Upholds Judgment Stemming from Website’s Publication of Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Powell v. Jones-Soderman and Foundation for the Child Victims of Family Courts, No. 20-532-CV (2nd Cir.) February 26, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently upheld a Connecticut federal court judgment that the founder of a child advocacy foundation had libeled a Connecticut father when, during pending divorce proceedings, she published on her website allegations that the father had committed child sexual abuse. 

On appeal, Jones-Soderman argued that the trial court erred in finding her liable because proof of the falsity of her statements was lacking, and such proof was necessary to overcome her First Amendment defense. Moreover, she said that the trial court failed to give consideration to her good faith belief that she was publishing the truth.  

While the First Amendment may protect commentary on matters of public interest, no such protection extends to demonstrably false statements, which the appellate court found were amply examined by the federal trial court in taking testimony and in admitting to the record state court findings that the allegations of sexual abuse were without merit.  

Jones-Soderman is not entitled to reliance on an “actual malice” standard for publication of defamatory material, the Second Circuit found, but even if she were, that standard would have been met, and it would negate any qualified privilege she might have.  

That Jones-Soderman published statements about the plaintiff when in his ex-wife’s employ in a custody battle and with knowledge that clinicians, state authorities, and the state court had found the abuse claims without foundation.  No qualified privilege may serve as shield in such circumstances, nor may a “good faith belief” in the truth of the published statements be invoked where Jones-Soderman knew of evidence contradicting the claims.

Jones-Soderman’s status as a mandated reporter of child abuse is of no moment with respect to the facts in this case, particularly where no complaint to Child Protective Services was ever made.

Powell v. Jones-Soderberg, No. 20-532 (2nd Cir.)

Going to the Chapel (Again): Supreme Court Enjoins California’s Restriction on Indoor Worship, Chastising Ninth Circuit for Failing to Reach Result “Clearly Dictated” by Supreme Court’s Decision Just Days Earlier

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 (U.S.) February 26, 2021.

In early February the United States Supreme Court enjoined California’s wholesale preclusion of indoor worship, while leaving in place percentage of capacity limitations and restrictions on singing and chanting indoors during services. South Bay United Petecostal Church v. Newsom, No. 20A136, 592 U.S.       (February 5, 2021).   Four opinions issued, as outlined below

  • Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would grant all the relief sought by the church.  
  • Justice Alito would enjoin the capacity and vocalizing restrictions but would stay the injunction on percentage of capacity restrictions to give California an opportunity to demonstrate that only the restrictions in controversy could halt indoor contagion to the same degree as those in place in activities the state deems essential.  
  • Chief Justice Roberts wrote to reiterate the Court’s earlier expression of the importance of deference to political officials in fashioning pandemic relief, but concluded that “deference has its limits,” observing that the issue of singing indoors may be founded in public health but the conclusion that all indoor public worship is unsafe seems ill-considered.
  • Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh opined that the church had not established entitlement to relief from the singing ban, the scope and applicable tests for which are not, in their views, clear.
  • Justice Gorsuch, with Justices Thomas and Alito, would grant all injunctive relief as California’s imposition of more stringent restrictions on churches than on secular activities cannot survive Free Exercise challenge.
  • Justice Gorsuch opined that California could not demonstrate that its unequally applied measures — including a ban on all indoor worship — were the least restrictive means to achieve the government’s inarguably compelling interest in inhibiting the spread of disease.
  • California cannot demonstrate any cognizable difference between personal crowding and mingling in church versus commercial settings and cannot support a total prohibition of worship, Justice Gorsuch concluded.  
  • The inexplicable imposition of more stringent measures on religious activities than on secular gatherings cannot survive strict scrutiny, Justice Gorsuch opined, commenting that the present case ought not have come before the Court, as the Court’s earlier decisions on the same questions compelled the same results in this case.
  • Justice Gorsuch noted that the focus of the present order is on the wholesale preclusion of indoor worship and that additional challenges might be brought concerning other measures.
  • Justice Gorsuch cautioned against championing the singing exclusion as a reasonable deterrent to disease where the entertainment industry has obtained an exemption from it. 
  • Nor is the scope of the singing exclusion comprehensible:  even if an entire congregation singing together might raise risks, what of a single cantor?  California’s confusing regulations do not deserve particular deference. 
  • Whie California offers that some enterprises have adopted self-help in the form of testing requirements, Calfirnai fails to explain why such adaptations would not be permitted to churches. 
  • In all, Justice Gorsuch concluded, Californaita “must do more to tailor the requirements’ of public health to the rights of its people.”  Statement of Gorsuch, J., slip op. at 6.
  • The ”temporary” justification proffered by California rings hollow where “temporary” bans have been in place for months and the nation is entering a second year of restrictions.
  • Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor, dissented, observing that as justices they are neither scientists nor experts in public health, into which territory the majority wrongly ventured in this case. The state granted worship parity with similar secular assemblies:  the Court erred in compelling the state to apply rules to churches that apply to less risky gatherings. 
  • The dissenting justices observed that while those who are similarly situated ust be treated similarly, it is not true that those who are not must be compelled to conform to each other, as the Court has done here.  The dissenting justices assert that the same measures such as masking, distancing, singing, and capacity apply to religious and secular activities alike in California.
  • The determination that Free Exercise principles must prevail is faulty in fact, for some religious and secular gatherings are similarly treated, and in law, for the Court has impeded the state in meeting its obligation to promote the health and safety of its people  
  • The Court’s earlier decisions do not compel the present result, the dissent found, because no group was singled out here for inferior treatment  
  • Moreover, as a practical matter, the intrusion of the Court into California’s operations open up entirely new questions to be addressed when time and resources are scarce. If the Court has erred and lives are endangered, the Court will pay no price, the dissent observed, as the justices are insulated by lifetime tenure and physically protected against harm.  

One week after the order was entered in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, supra, the Ninth Circuit denied relief to Gateway City Church, upholding the ban on indoor worship, and concluding that where secular and religious entities were subject to the same restrictions, no constitutional violation could be found, particularly, where houses of worship were not singled out for unfavorable treatment.  Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 21-15189 (9th Cir.) February 12, 2021. 

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit found that there had been no showing that the prohibition on indoor gathering was other than a neutral and generally applicable law, requiring no more than rational basis review.  Id.  

Gateway City Church sought relief from the Ninth Circuit’s order in the Supreme Court.  The request was opposed but one day after the opposition was filed that state advised the Supreme Court that the challenged regulations would soon end.

The Supreme Court declined the tacit invitation to allow the church’s request to become moot, and issued an order declaring the Ninth Circuit to have erred, and in particular erred in denying relief to the church when a contrary result was “clearly dictated” by the decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church.  

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom No. 20A136 , 592 U.S. ___(February 5, 2021)

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, 9th Cir. Order February 12, 2021

Gateway City Church v. Newsom, No. 20A138 , U.S. Sup.Ct. Order February 26, 2021

Where Two Or More Have Gathered, Litigation Has Ensued: Maine Church Argues That Recent Decisions Compel The Conclusion That Maine’s Pandemic Capacity Restrictions On Assembly Violate The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment


 

Calvary Chapel of Bangor v. Mills, Governor of the State of Maine, No. 1:20-cv-00156-NT (D. Maine).

Calvary Chapel Church of Bangor, Maine has challenged pandemic-related capacity restrictions on church attendance since shortly after the state imposed those restrictions nearly a year ago.  

The church believes that Maine’s are now the most restrictive assembly limitations in the nation.

Following an appeal to the First Circuit and remand to the federal district court in Maine, Calvary Chapel now argues that recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court and the federal circuit courts of appeals compel the issuance of an injunction against the governor’s restrictions on church attendance.

The church asserts that the state’s pandemic related imposition of limits on church assembly, where similar limits are not imposed on secular entities and activities, unlawfully discriminates against Calvary Chapel of Bangor, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  Moreover, the state’s restrictions impermissibly interfere with the church’s management of its own affairs and, as the restrictions preclude participation in religious services, they violate the Establishment Clause.  

Calvary Chapel of Bangor differs from other congregations that have engaged in challenges to pandemic-related measures.   Calvary Chapel not only serves as a church for community congregants, but also operates a residential program for persons seeking to renew their lives and recover from life-limiting conditions through, among other things, participation in religious assembly.

The pastor of Calvary Chapel of Bangor notes that not only is assembly commanded by scripture, but also that greater fervor is commanded during times of trouble  

The pastor submits that because almost 50 residents are always in place at the residential program, when those residents are called to church services, then community congregants cannot attend, as the gathering would exceed the Governor’s order’s limits.  

Conversely, if congregants were permitted to attend services, the residents would be precluded from doing so. Such a choice diminishes the dignity of all and undermines the effect of the residential treatment program, which envisions full acceptance within the larger community after completion of the program.

The pastor states he finds himself in an untenable situation, as he must choose between violating the law, which has criminal penalties, and violating his beliefs and obligations as minister.

The pastor points out that this choice is an impossible one, and is particularly troubling in a nation founded on principles of freedom of religious worship.

The governor of Maine’s response to the newly filed motion for injunctive relief has not yet been submitted, nor is there any date for hearing established


What follows are links to the Calvary Church brief and the pastor’s declaration and copies of opinions considering challenges to restrictions on Church attendance during the pandemic.

 

Here are links to Calvary Church’s recent submission to the court:

Calvary Chapel v. Mills Renewed Motion for Injunctive Relief

Calvary Chapel v. Mills Declaration of Ken Graves, Pastor

And here are links to recent opinions:

South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 592 US (Feb.5, 2021)

Calvary Chapel Bangor v Mills 1st Cir 2020

S Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom (SD Cal 2020) (Dec.)

High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 592 U.S. ( ) Dec. 15, 2020

Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain v Sisolak 9th Cir 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v Sisolak 9th Cir 2020

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v Cuomo 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v Sisolak 140 S Ct 2603 2020

S Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom 140 S Ct 1613 207 L Ed 2d 154 2020

 

 

The Preacher Talked to Me and He Smiled: Supreme Court Upholds Injunction Permitting Minister’s Presence at Alabama Prisoner’s Execution

Commissioner v. Smith, No. 20A128, 592 U.S. ____ (February 11, 2021).


Justice Kagan, with three others, has opined that Alabama failed to meet the strict scrutiny test applicable under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Alabama’s global prohibition on ministerial presence at execution substantially burdens a prisoner’s religious exercise, and Alabama failed to demonstrate that this preclusion is the least restrictive means of advancing the compelling state interest in prison security.  As such, the injunction permitting the prisoner to have a religious presence at execution is proper and will not be dissolved.

Justice Thomas, without writing separately,  would have granted the petition to dissolve the injunction.

Justice Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts would grant the petition as reflecting a non-discriminatory policy, but would encourage states to implement measures that would fulfill requests such as the inmate’s here and thereby avoid protracted litigation. 

 

Commissioner v. Smith, 20a128, 592 U.S.__(February 11, 2021)




Pour l’instant, ils ne parlent pas: Federal Judge Denies Social Media Platform Parler’s Request that Amazon Web Services Restore Its Service

Parler LLC v, Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031-BJR (W.D. Wash). Order denying preliminary injunctive relief entered January 21, 2021.


A federal court in Washington has denied Parler’s request that Amazon Web Services (AWS) be  ordered to resume web hosting service to social media platform Parler.  

 

The court found that the standards for preliminary injunctive relief, particularly with respect to a likelihood of success on the merits, had not been met. 

 

First, the court found that Parler had not established that it would prevail on an antitrust claim, as neither an agreement between AWS and Twitter, nor a restraint of trade had been shown. AWS has insisted no contact between AWS and competitor Twitter had occurred.   

 

Second, AWS’s pursuit of lawful remedies, such as might be found in the parties’ agreement,  cannot support a claim for tortious interference with business.  

 

Third, Parler was not substantially likely to prevail on its contract claim where Parler was admittedly in breach of its agreement with AWS and suspension or termination was a consequence of a breach under the parties’ agreement.  

 

Counsel admitted at hearing that damages could make Parler whole, making it impossible to perceive that irreparable harm would ensue if an injunction was not issued.  

 

The balance of equities did not favor Parler, as it was admittedly in breach of its contract with AWS. 

 

The court noted that AWS had offered evidence that AWS did not treat Parler and Twitter differently on the same facts, for different services are provided to each company.  

 

Finally, the court noted that no policy supports compelling AWS to provide a platform for speech that might incite violence.

 

Parler LLC v Amazon Web Services 2 21-cv-0031 BJR Order Denying Preliminary Injunction

“Sure sounds like a termination.”–Judge in Parler Dispute With Amazon Web Services Appears to Appreciate Impact, But Questions Need for Injunctive Relief

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031(BJR) (W.D. Wash). Argument concerning injunctive relief held January 14, 2021.


Today the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington heard arguments concerning whether Amazon Web Services (AWS) ought to be ordered to restore service to Parler, LLC, whose site was deplatformed on short notice provided on January 9 because, AWS believed, Parler was not ably managing removal of unacceptable content in compliance with its agreement with Amazon.

 

Counsel for Amazon downplayed any non-compliance on Amazon’s part, asserting that Parler had not and could not comply with its obligations whether AWS  had suspended or terminated Parler.

 

AWS noted that as of January 6, 2021, what had been long feared became painfully real in the attacks at the U.S. Capitol. AWS perceived a need for action.  

 

Amazon Web Services noted that AWS’ actions respecting Twitter differ from its actions with Parler because Amazon Web Services does not access or engage with Twitter’s live feed as it does with Parler.

 

Parler submitted that losses to Parler are irreparable.  Advertisers, the site’s sole revenue source, no longer provide income, and fifteen million account holders no longer can access Parler.

 

Although Parler offered that just recently Parler had been discussing adopting AWS’ software and obtaining venture capital, no counsel present would opine concerning whether their respective clients would be interested in further discussions.

 

Parler has admitted that some harms might be remedied by money damages, but pointed to the immediate present losses of income and customers as worthy of injunctive redress.

 

On inquiry by the court, counsel for Parler did not articulate a present emergency which would justify injunctive relief.

 

The court, without elaboration, promised its order would issue promptly.

Parler Resists War of Words with Amazon Web Services and Insists Parler Will Likely Go Out of Business Absent Judicial Intervention

Parler, LLC v Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031-BJR (W.D. Wash,).  Telephone conference with court set for 10 a.m. PST on January 14, 2021.


In Reply to Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Opposition to Parler’s Motion for Injunctive Relief, Parler argues that AWS miscasts termination as suspension, a position negated by AWS’ statement to Parler that Parler could do nothing to be restored to service.

 

Parler offers that AWS never advised Parler what contractual obligation Parler had allegedly breached. Most significantly, AWS breached the contract by failing to adhere to the thirty day period before termination the agreement requires.

 

AWS has always been aware of, and never questioned, Parler’s proactive practices concerning problematic posts, which are reactive and use a jury system issues with posts.  Parler envisioned moving to prospective artificial intelligence screening in the coming year. Moreover, AWS expressed interest in Parler’s adoption of AWS’ proprietary software, an arrangement which, if consummated, would essentially marry the two entities.

 

Parler states that it has always responded to any posting issues presented to it by AWS.  When competitor Twitter terminated Donald Trump’s account and created a Parler account, mass migration from Twitter to Parler caused Parler not only to crash but to face a backlog of troublesome posts.

 

Parler worked diligently to address problematic material, advising AWS of its progress, and was all but finished with the backlog when AWS terminated service to Parler.

 

Parler notes that no one arrested in connection with the January 6th violence in the U.S. Capitol had a Parler account, An individual killed there had an account that was dormant since November.  The posting of videos by account holders does not establish that the poster was present at the Capitol.

 

Parler argues that AWS has succumbed to pressure to suppress conservative speech as well as to deny the President social media access. 

 

Parler further argues that AWS has unlawfully preferenced the bigger and wealthier Twitter, ensuring Twitter’s market dominance by forcing Parler out of business.

 

Surely AWS can be seen as having interfered with business relationships, Parler argues, as AWS’ termination of Parler interfered with Parler’s relationships with every one of its fifteen million users.

 

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not operate as a bar to an antitrust action:  Section 230 immunizes speech, not anticompetitive conduct, which the Ninth Circuit has recognized.

 

Parler states that AWS’ termination has made it difficult for Parler to find a new web hosting partner, making it likely that Parler will go out of business absent judicial intervention.  

 

If the court fails to enjoin AWS, Parler submits, AWS’ termination will likely be fatal to Parler, but an injunction will require only that AWS provide services as required in its contract with Parler, balancing the equities in Parler’s favor.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.). Parler Reply (2021-01-13)

 

It’s not us, it’s them: Amazon Web Services States Parler’s Breach of Agreement with AWS Permitted Suspension, Denies Antitrust Violation, and Claims Immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996

Parler, LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (BJR) (W.D. Wash.). Opposition to motion for injunction filed January 12, 2021.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) has opposed Parler’s motion for injunctive relief, asserting that its agreement with Parler permitted AWS to suspend or terminate Parler because of repeated troubling postings after the November election and after the January 6th eruption of violence in the Capitol.

 

AWS states that its agreement with Parler specifically permits the actions that it took. Amazon Web Services states that Parler was slow or failed to remedy threatening postings, and that when tens of thousands of posts went unaddressed, AWS was within its contractual rights to terminate or suspend Parler

 

Parler cannot state a claim for tortious interference with business relationships in the absence of a breach of contract, AWS reasons.  AWS states that Parler has not in fact been harmed, given Parler’s assertion that it would be offline for only half a day.

 

AWS argues that Parler cannot state a claim for violation of the Sherman Act where there is no evidence of any anti-competitive communication, let alone agreement, between AWS and Parler’s competitor Twitter.  Any difference in treatment between Parler and Twitter by AWS exists because of differences in AWS’s agreements with the two entities. 

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, AWS asserts that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 immunizes AWS from liability for any actions it has taken to remove offensive or harmful material from Parler, including suspension or termination..  The immunities conferred by Section 230 preclude Parler’s claims for breach of contract and anticompetitive conduct, AWS argues.

 

AWS states that injunctive relief is inappropriate where an injunction would inhibit or preclude AWS from entering into or policing its agreements.

 

AWS has submitted redacted copies of allegedly problematic postings from Parler and has submitted, with a request that they remain under seal, unredacted copies of such material.

 

Parler may submit a response today. At this writing no time for oral argument has been established.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2.21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.) Opposition to Motion for Injunction

David Versus Goliath (and Goliath). Parler Challenges Amazon Web Services’ Suspension as Anti-Competitive and in Breach of Contract

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No 2:21-cv-00031 (BJR) (W.D. Wash.) Verified Complaint filed January 11, 2021.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) has suspended webhosting services to Parler, a relative newcomer to the social media marketplace because, AWS has stated, AWS doubts Parler’s capacity to monitor postings that incite violence.

 

AWS suspended  Parler almost immediately after Parler’s competitor Twitter permanently terminated the account of Donald J Trump.  This  termination prompted a mass migration of customers from Twitter to Parler as well as a significant spike in new customers. 

 

AWS towers above other web hosting services globally.  By comparison with the shuttered Parler, Parler observes that AWS has promised Twitter timeline and enhanced services.

 

Parler asserts in its Complaint in federal court in Washington that because of the suspension, which Parler says has been presented like a termination, AWS has irreparably damaged Parler’s business and reputation.  

 

Even if Parler is able to find another platform, Parler avers, the time and other costs associated with rewriting Parler’s AWS-compatible code will be extraordinary.

 

Parler alleges that AWS’ agreement to enhance services to Twitter while forcing Parler from the marketplace violates the Sherman Antitrust Act. 

 

Parler also asserts that by effectively terminating Parler without the thirty day’s notice required by the agreement between the two, AWS has breached its agreement with Parler.  

 

Parler denies any breach of its agreement with AWS, stating that it removed any allegedly unacceptable comments that AWS brought to Parler’s attention.  Parler observes that similar content has been retained without comment on Twitter.

 

Briefing concerning injunctive relief will close January 13th.  A time for oral argument has not been set.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.) Verified Complaint

No Place Like Stay-at-Home for the Holidays: New York Continues to Defend Against Free Exercise Challenges to Restrictions Imposed on “Houses of Worship”


Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3571; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3520 (2nd Cir.) December 28, 2020.


New York continues to contest the application of strict scrutiny review to portions of an order entered last October singling out “houses of worship” for particular capacity restrictions notwithstanding the determination of the U.S. Supreme Court that this most rigorous review is apt for these circumstances. On Monday, the Second Circuit directed a trial court to enjoin enforcement of the restrictions and to conduct further proceedings in light of the Supreme Court’s and the Second Circuit’s determinations.

In conformity with the United States Supreme Court’s analysis, the Second Circuit found the New York orders are subject to strict scrutiny analysis and are not narrowly tailored to serve the important goal of deterring the spread of COVID-19.

Both Jewish and Catholic entities have challenged, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the New York Governor’s orders that are alleged to be unduly harsh toward religion while favoring “essential” secular enterprises and activities.

The state has limited attendance in churches or synagogues on either a fixed number of attendees or a fixed percentage of capacity basis Although the Governor no longer defends the fixed capacity limits, the percentage of capacity limits remain contested, as the Governor has recently asserted that building code calculations differ for certain activities and this may produce different results for secular and religious activities.

The Second Circuit noted that the Free Exercise Clause will not relieve religious groups or individuals from neutral general laws but where a law unduly burdens religion, that law must be subjected to strict scrutiny.

In these cases, the appellate panel held, the Governor’s action on its face singles out religion for different treatment in the absence of any reason for so doing, and there has been no evidence adduced that lesser risks predominated in designating activities as ‘essential.’

Both the fixed number and percentage of capacity measures failed in the Supreme Court’s view, as the distinction between religious and secular groups is premised on an impermissible view of religion as inessential.

The Governor has never argued that its orders are narrowly tailored to inhibit disease, the appellate court observed, and has conceded that the limits on houses of worship are more severe than needed. The absence of any relationship between the number of persons admissible to a house of worship and its overall capacity only underscores this deficiency in the

Governor’s policy.

The notion that the percentage of capacity rules may be salvageable under rational basis analysis has arisen late in the day and will be reviewed on remand.

Similarly consistent with the Supreme Court’s review of these cases, the Second Circuit stressed that Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), is not controlling. Not only were different interests involved in Jacobson, but Jacobson itself stressed that exercises of emergency powers must nonetheless be constitutional.

It is not the law that houses of worship are exempt from constraints during public health emergencies. They are subject to emergency regulations but religious entities cannot be subjected to regulations that are different from and more harsh than those that apply to other entities because of their religious nature.

Denial of First Amendment rights is presumptively harmful, the Second Circuit observed. Moreover, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in its earlier suggestion that observant religious persons could work around some of the restrictions. It is not for courts to interpret or to inject themselves into the meaning of any religious practices, or to suggest that religious groups ought to abandon their practices in favor of equivalents or substitutes in order to avoid constitutional harm.  Such intrusions by the courts would only compound harms to religious interests.

If the Governor’s arguments concerning percentage of capacity limitations are not persuasive on remand, the appellate panel noted, it will be fair for the trial court to presume there has been harm.

The Second Circuit concluded by noting that the public interest is not served by policies that deny constitutionally secured rights where alternatives exist that could avoid such injuries.

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020) December 28, 2020

From the Same Hymnal: Message of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuo to Be Adopted in Ninth and Tenth Circuits


High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, 592 U.S. ___ , December 15, 2020; Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir.), December 15, 2020.


This week both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the recent New York determination that pandemic restrictions on public gatherings cannot be more restrictive for religious gatherings than for others.  

In the Calvary Chapel case, the Ninth Circuit has concluded that petitioners are likely to succeed on the merits in their challenge to Nevada’s pandemic-related public gathering restrictions because the disparate treatment accorded to secular and religious groups cannot survive strict scrutiny analysis,  Permitting secular activities at 50% of capacity while limiting religious gatherings to 50 persons without reference to capacity unduly burdens religion.  Pending review in the federal trial court, the Ninth Circuit has granted injunctive relief ordering that no more harsh restriction than 25% of fire code capacity may be attached to in-person religious gatherings.  

The Supreme Court has reiterated that the decision and analysis applied to restrictions on religious services announced in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20A87, 592 U.S.  _____, November 25, 2020, and has directed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to address the challenge to Colorado’s pandemic-related restrictions accordingly.  

Three justices dissented because they believe that the case is moot, as Colorado removed the challenged restrictions following the Court’s November determination concerning New York’s emergency measures.  

JustLawful Observation:  Some may be consoled that Christmas and Chanukah gatherings may have been saved by the Supreme Court’s intervention in New York, which will be applied elsewhere, while others may question why it required the intervention of the nation’s highest court to do what custom and practice, even in a public emergency, once might have dictated.  The more comforting lesson may be that the Supreme Court has rejected the states’ arguments that the Court’s early 20th century views of states’ expansive emergency powers permits unequal treatment of religious and secular activities.   Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)  was and remains good law, but Jacobson did not decide the questions presented in the present cases, and the Court is not willing to expand states’ powers beyond the limits of the First Amendment. 

High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis 20A105 December 15, 2020

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir.) December 15, 2020

Roman Catholic Diocese of New York v. Cuomo 20A87 (U.S.) November 25 2020

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)