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)

The Constitution Is Not Under Quarantine: U.S. Supreme Court Enjoins New York’s Pandemic Restrictions on Religious Gatherings



Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No 20A87; Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20A90, 592 U.S.  _____. Injunctions pending appeal entered November 25, 2020.


The Supreme Court has enjoined the operation of New York’s executive orders limiting religious gatherings pending resolution of Free Exercise challenges in the Second Circuit or regulation of any petition for certiorari.  The court’s ostensibly per curiam opinion is accompanied by two separate concurrences and three separate dissents.

Executive Orders concerning public health have been issued and been modified and remain in effect or subject to further modification since the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic.  These emergency measures, in board brush, are an admixture of geographic zones of danger combined with purportedly correlative restraints on public gatherings for secular or religious purposes.  The measures may be enhanced or relaxed as the perception of prevalence or risk changes. 

Both Orthodox Jewish and Catholic organizations have challenged the imposition of restraints on attendance at religious services in New York during the Covid-19 pandemic as violative of the  Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The restrictions apply to the religious entities more harshly than the more liberal constraints on ‘essential’ or commercial entities, they have argued.  The measures have no bearing on reality, the petitioners submit, as there is no reason for limiting the numbers of those who may attend services to an inordinately small number where in fact churches and synagogues have the capacity to accommodate hundreds.  

There is no question of compliance and there have been no known incidents of illness relating to the operation of the synagogues and services. 

Both petitioners were denied relief in the district and appellate courts.  Decision on the merits in the Second Circuit awaits briefing and argument in December.

Immediately after petitions were filed in the United States Supreme Court, the Governor relaxed restraints that had applied.  

The Governor has argued that the pandemic restrictions favor churches and that no relief is necessary as the measures complained of are no longer in effect.

The Supreme Court has disagreed.  

The Supreme Court has concluded that strict scrutiny must be applied to the emergency measures, and that these measures cannot withstand this scrutiny, as there is no doubt of the impact on religion and no support for the capacity of the measures to serve the government’s ends.  Because the measures recently relaxed may be just as suddenly enhanced, the threats to the religious groups remain real and palpable.  As the groups have established a likelihood of success on the merits, and as the harm to first amendment interests is present and ongoing, relief pending review in the Second Circuit is appropriate. 

The Court’s per curiam opinion makes plain that the latitude accorded the political branches to act to ensure public health during crises is not unlimited:  “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” particularly where the restrictions in question strike at core constitutional concerns.  Slip Op. at pp. 5-6.  

Justice Gorsuch wrote separately to stress the vitality of the Constitution during the pandemic, stressing that “Government is not free to disregard the First amendment in times of crisis.”  Slip. Gorsuch dissent  at 2.  The particular orders in issue, subject by their nature to strict scrutiny analysis, merit the observation that public health has uncannily allied with secular convenience.  If the Constitution  has “taken a holiday” during the pandemic, this may not be permitted to become “a sabbatical.”  Gorsuch dissent at 3.  

Justice Gorsuch takes particular aim at the Supreme Court’s and the lower courts’ reliance on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11  (1905 ) as support for plenary emergency powers during crises that must be accorded judicial deference.  Jacobson involved different rights and offered the affected a range of options, which the restrictions upon churches do not.  As the current restrictions involve core constitutional concerns, Jacobson does not control.  Even if deference is due the political branches, all emergency measures must measure up to Constitutional commands.  

Justice Kavanaugh wrote a separate concurrence, noting that New York’s restrictions are more stringent than those of other locations.  Once discriminatory measures are imposed, it is not good enough to not that they apply to others, he observed.  Once a favored class is created, the state must say why those who are less favored are excluded.  

Justice Kavanaugh takes a programmatic view of the Court’s offer of relief.  If the recently relaxed regulations are abandoned, the petitioners will be protected but if there is not change there is no impact.  The petitioners will at least be permitted some clarity during the pending appellate process.

Chief Justice Roberts has dissented, opining that there is no injunctive relief required where the challenged measures are no longer in effect.  If that were to change the petitioners could return to the court. An order instructing the governor not to do what is not being done cannot be said to meet the standards required for awarding injunctive relief.  

Justice Breyer, with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have joined in dissent to emphasize that there is no present need for intervention and that if intervention was needed, the parties could return and the need for relief could be promptly assessed and addressed.  The justices opine that it is not clear that the restrictions violate the Free Exercise clause and that the interests of public health  and  safety must be balanced against religion.  The courts have and must continue to recognize that assessments and interventions affecting public health crises, with their concomitant likely needs for prompt action, are the province of the political branches.  

Justice Sotomayor, with Justice Kagan, wrote a separate dissent, expressing fear that further suffering may follow from the Supreme Court’s order.  The worry is that success of the stringent measures has rendered them inapplicable, yet because of the court’s intervention, the more stringent measures may not be revived if they are needed. In Justice Sotomayor’s view, New York’s actions fall comfortably within the confines of prior analyses that hold that a law is not necessarily constitutionally infirm if it impacts religion provided there is reasonable parity with secular restrictions.  

Here, where it has been shown that New York has preferred religious gatherings over others, neither intervention nor heightened scrutiny appears apt, the justice offers.

Disregarding or second guessing the governor with respect to matters of public health is a “deadly game,” in this dissenting view.  And the mere reference to religion within the measures will not suffice to make them discriminatory.  Any statement by the governor mentioning a particular religion likewise cannot establish discrimination, where statements by the President about a religious or ethnic group were set aside by the Court in reviewing the neutrality of travel measures in their entirety.  

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 20A87 Order November 25, 2020

Agudath Israel et al. v. Cuomo 20A90 Order November 25, 2020

Keep Your Shirt On! Wisconsin Students Successfully Argue that the First Amendment Protects Wearing Controversial T-Shirts in School


N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend, No. 20-C-227; Lloyd v. Kaminski, No. 20-C-276 (E.D. Wis.) November 6, 2020.


Two Wisconsin students attending separate schools came to school wearing clothing advocating individual gun rights.  School authorities took action against the students for violating the schools’ dress codes.  One school rejected a parent’s attempt to provide an alternative t-shirt advocating patriotism.  

In 1969, the Supreme Court recognized that students have some protected expressive rights, the denial of which must be supported by evidence that the expression in question materially interferes with school functioning.  Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 509 (1969). 

In this case the schools did not focus on disruption but argued that the shirts were not protected because no particularized message was conveyed and some messages were advertisements.

The students assert that even if the shirts were commercial they nonetheless merit First Amendment protections.

While clothing itself is not generally protected, the court has rejected the school’s view that a particular and recognizable message must be present for First Amendment protections to attach.  The court noted that while one shire did contain commercial elements, the message concerning the right to bear arms was clear.  The court also rejected the argument that the message was not clear because the messages themselves are what precipitated the school’s intervention.

The shirts are entitled to First Amendment protection, the court concluded, but not absolute protection. The dimensions of any proper time and place restrictions remain open for exploration, but judgement that constitutional protection is lacking is denied.  

N.J. ex rel. Jacob v. Sonnabend (E.D. Wis. 2020)

Never Can Say Goodbye: Judge Mulls Dismissing Flynn Proceedings with Room for Prosecution by “A New Administration”


United States v. Michael T. Flynn, No. 1:17-cr-232 (EGS).  Hearing on government’s motion to dismiss on September 29, 2020.



A hearing was held today on the government’s motion to dismiss proceedings against Gen. Michael T. Flynn, and in particular whether the government may deny it, notwithstanding that the government has represented that there is no case against General Flynn.  The court, persuaded that he had discretion to deny the government’s motion to dismiss, wanted to know from counsel where that discretion began and where it ends.  The court mused about whether dismissal might be granted without prejudice, allowing room for further proceedings by  “a new administration,” or, the court quickly added, perhaps in a continuation of the current administration.

The court’s amicus urged the court not to succumb to the importuning of a coordinate branch, stating that the court ought not tarnish its chambers with dismissal because “the President wants Flynn off the hook.”   

With respect to defendant’s arguments that the government sought to create circumstances in which it would appear that Flynn had lied, amicus offered, “Where ya been?  That’s what they do!”  

[JustLawful aside:  Perhaps amicus, by virtue of his experience in the law, and as a judge, has grown deaf to the appearance of such remarks to those who may be unacquainted with investigative pressures.  “That’s what they do!” suggests that, simply by virtue of a thing being done, it were acceptable.  Were this so, of course, there would be no criminal law at all, and while custom and usage go far in the law, custom and usage are always bounded by the Constitution.]

Amicus assured the judge that the judge had done a good job in summarizing the case.  

Counsel for the government argued the law as well as for the moral dignity of the Department of Justice in its prosecutorial functions.  Counsel argued strenuously that prosecutors may cease prosecution on discovery that there was no basis to proceed, and that this was so in this case, as the facts disclosed to the court revealed.  A senior counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s office expressed distress that the office had been accused of behaving with political motivation, assuring the court that the Department of Justice  acts with integrity, and that includes review if a prosecution seems to have gone awry.

Counsel for General Flynn was last in line for the court’s inquiry, which was preceded by the court’s intimating that counsel had behaved unethically in communicating with the Attorney General when initially retained.  In addition,the court was particularly interested in counsel’s contacts with the President, which counsel disclosed.  Thus the threat of bar disciplinary proceedings was made before counsel was permitted to advocate.  

Counsel for General Flynn asserted that there is no basis in law for the court’s appointment of a private prosecutor in this matter in the guise of an amicus, and noted that the court’s intention to orchestrate the possibility of future prosecutions provided yet more evidence of bias, and moved for recusal of the judge, with written motions to follow.

There will be additional filings by counsel for the defendant as well as by the United States, as the court has asked the Department of Justice to look into what was done with evidence concerning texts between an FBI official and a private attorney.

The court took the matter under advisement, noting how voluminous was the record before him. 

 

Sound at the Time: Federal Court in Massachusetts Upholds Initial Pandemic-Related Eviction Moratorium with Exception for Compelled Referrals to Landlords’ Adversaries


Baptiste, et al. v. Kennealy, et al., No. 1:20-cv-11335 (MLW) (D. Mass.) (September 25, 2020).  Conference concerning future proceedings set for October 2, 2020.  


The court has released a 100 page opinion articulating all of its reasons for concluding that at the time that the statewide prohibition on evictions and eviction proceedings was a valid use of the state’s emergency powers to protect public health.  The court cautioned that under differing tests of constitutional sufficiency the state’s action would not survive constitutional scrutiny and stressed that changed conditions could affect the court’s determination.  The court urged  the governor of Massachusetts to bear the federal and state constitutions in mind when determining, upon the expiration of the emergency measures in mid-October,  whether further prohibition of eviction activity is necessary.

The court struck down the state’s regulation requiring any landlord notifying a tenant of rent arrearages to provide written referrals to tenant advocates to aid in countering the landlord’s position, as such provisions were unconstitutional compelled speech, as held in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140 (June 26, 2018).  

The court stated that if the state agreed to abandon the regulation, the court would not enter judgment against the state.  

The opinion is encyclopedic in its review of the law applicable to the use of emergency powers, particularly with reference to the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause and the First Amendment.  This indicates that the court was concerned not only with the opinion of courts of appeals reviewing the opinion but also with respect to the lens of history, noting Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).  

The court stated that it is possible that its denial of injunctive relief will effectively terminate the case but has ordered counsel to confer and to inform the court by October 2 of contemplated further proceedings.

2020 09 25 Baptiste et al v. Kennealy et al. No 11335 (MLW)

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140 (June 26, 2018)

Trump v. Hawaii, No. 17-965 (June 26, 2017)

Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S.Ct. 193, 89 L.Ed. 194 (1944)

Referrals to Potential Adversaries Not Required: U.S.D.C. in Massachusetts Strikes Down Landlord’s Compelled Speech, Opines that Injunctive Relief Will Be Denied, Declines to Opine Further, and Promises a Written Opinion

Baptiste et al. v. Commonwealth, No. 1:20-cv-11335 (D. Mass.). Hearing on September 10, 2020.

_________________________________________________

Today the court declined to deliver an opinion on injunctive relief and dismissal orally, offering that the issues were sufficiently complex that doing so would be ill-advised, and promising to deliver a written opinion, admittedly still in draft.

The court noted that it would deny injunctive relief except that it had found the Commonwealth’s requirement that any landlord notifying tenants of nonpayment must provide referrals to representation was unconstitutional compelled speech under National Institutes of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 585 U.S. ____ (2018). Applying principles of severability, that determination would not extend to other portions of the regulations promulgated in connection with the eviction moratorium enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The court noted that much of the law imposing the moratorium would not survive strict scrutiny analysis, but the court is inclined to the view that strict scrutiny analysis is not warranted.

The court indicated that counsel should discuss how they wished to proceed going forward, bearing in mind changed conditions since the beginning of the moratorium and impending state action concerning continuation or cessation of the moratorium on evictions in mid-October.

The court offered that it would deny injunctive relief and that its reasoning on injunctive relief and dismissal would be presented all in one decision. The admonition to counsel to consider the future is some indication that dismissal will not be granted.

The court appeared to be focused on precedent from Chief Justice Stone of the Supreme Court who relied on Justice Holmes for the principle that it is within a court’s purview to consider whether an exigency that prompted state action has ceased to exist. Notwithstanding that the court seemed inclined to the view that the exigencies apparent last spring may no longer be present, the court also indicated fear that any action might be perceived in hindsight as being of a caliber of the now discredited Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).

Private Property, Public Problems: Landlords Challenge Massachusetts’ Eviction Moratorium in Federal and State Proceedings

Baptiste, et al. v. Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, et al., No. 1:20-cv-11335 (MLW) (D. Mass.).  Oral argument on motions for preliminary injunctive relief and for dismissal or stay held September 2 and 3. 

Matorin and Smith v. Executive Office of Housing and Development, No. 2084CV01134 (Sup. Ct.).  Memorandum and Order on Motion for Preliminary Injunction entered August 26, 2020.


Massachusetts’ Eviction Moratorium. In response to the health and economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 virus, last spring the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law suspending processes of eviction and foreclosure.  Regulations governing this moratorium forbade many communications between landlord and tenant except as dictated by the state, including advising tenants in obtaining financial and legal aid.  

Originally intended to expire in mid-August, the moratorium has been extended into mid-October.  It is not known whether or for how long the suspension will remain in effect, but it may, potentially, extend up to a year beyond the culmination of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Massachusetts act prohibits initiation of eviction proceedings as well as processes in aid of those proceedings occurring at or after the time the legislation and regulations became effective.  Although it is specifically stated that the moratorium does not relieve tenants of the obligation to pay rent, in practice the measures have been interpreted to permit exactly that.

Landlords Respond. Small landlords have launched state and federal challenges, asserting that the state law and regulations unconstitutionally inhibit property owners’ access to the courts, violate First Amendment rights both by proscribing and prescribing speech, constitute physical and/or regulatory takings, and violate the Contracts Clause.

No injunctive relief in state court, but ruling on motion for injunctive relief in federal court promised for September 9th. Having lost their motion to enjoin the act in state court, this week two days of argument were had in federal court, at the close of which the court invited commentary on issues arising during proceedings.  The federal court has scheduled a hearing on September 9th and has promised a ruling on injunctive relief at that time.  

Private enterprises, not public agencies. Plaintiffs assert that the state has demanded that landlords have been conscripted, without consent and without compensation, to act as state housing authorities by providing free lodging indefinitely to individuals who have no right to be on the landlords’ properties.  Plaintiffs further assert that the moratorium decimates leases and other contracts.  The Commonwealth denies that the landlords face the hardships they described as the state has enacted only temporary measures, the impact of which may be less than landlords perceive.  

Only temporary. The state has responded to plaintiffs’ claims by asserting  immunity and by arguing that the moratorium is a valid exercise of the state’s plenary emergency powers for the general welfare, and that no rights have been deprived or infringed by its temporary measures.  The Commonwealth has argued that no taking has occurred, that there is no right to injunctive relief in takings cases.  

No end in sight. Just as there is no certainty concerning the duration of the eviction moratorium, so too is there no certainty concerning resolution of this litigation, which has attracted the attention of advocacy groups seeking to serve as amici.  

Post argument submissions. Plaintiffs have submitted two post-argument memoranda of law, the first addressing the proper standard of review for deprivations of rights of petition, arguing that scholars perceive that some rights are so fundamental that only strict scrutiny will suffice. 

The Commonwealth’s response is that there can be no deprivation of rights of access to the courts where, in the Commonwealth’s view, there is no underlying case for adjudication.  A temporary interruption of enforcement mechanisms during an emergency works no harm where those remedies will become available when the emergency is over. 

Plaintiffs observe that the emergency is all but over and that the successful implementation of social distancing and other recommendations make the state’s draconian prohibitions unnecessary now if ever they were.  

Plaintiffs point to Massachusetts precedent finding significant deprivations of rights of access to the courts to have occurred over a period of weeks, and that the indefinite nature of the moratorium only enhances deprivations already suffered.  

The Commonwealth has commented on the state’s favorable view of statutory and regulatory severability which would permit the court to excise any portion of the moratorium provisions found to be unconstitutional while leaving the remainder intact.

The Center for Disease Control Weighs In. Plaintiffs point to a newly promulgated federal prohibition on evictions as proof that the state’s measures are needlessly harsh.  The federal measure permits evictions while permitting tenants to avoid eviction by submission of proof of financial difficulty and/or ability to obtain new housing, thus demonstrating that the state’s perceived link between access to the courts and public health is ill-founded.  

Ruling on Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in Superior Court 

2020 08 26 Matorin-v-Commonwealth-of-Massachusetts-Decision-on-Preliminary-Injunction

Memoranda of Law Submitted in Federal Court

2020 07 15 Memorandum of Law in Support of Preliminary Injunction

2020 07 24 Memorandum of Law in Support of Dismissal or Stay

2020 07 25 Opposition to Motion for Preliminary Injunction

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Preliminary Injunction

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum Addressing Newly Raised Issues

2020 09 03 Supplemental Memorandum Addressing CDC Order

Centers for Disease Control Order

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/09/04/2020-19654/temporary-halt-in-residential-evictions-to-prevent-the-further-spread-of-covid-19

Monitoring the Unblinking Mechanical Eye: Unlimited Static Pole Camera Surveillance of Personal Residence Requires Probable Cause and Warrant Under Massachusetts Constitution, State Supreme Court Concludes

Commonwealth v. Nelson Mora, SJC-12890 (August 6, 2020).

In investigating a drug distribution network, Massachusetts police installed video cameras on telephone and electric poles (“pole cameras”), some of which faced the homes of alleged drug distributors. 

Evidence from the video cameras, as well as other evidence, resulted in indictments.  Several defendants moved to suppress the pole camera evidence and the fruits thereof, arguing that evidence garnered in this way violated Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  

On interlocutory appeal from denial of defendants’ motion to suppress, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts concluded that protracted warrantless video surveillance violated the state constitution.  Having done so, the court declined to address the U.S. Constitutional issues.  

The court remanded the case to permit the trial court to determine whether probable cause supported the installation of the cameras surveilling the personal residences from the outset.

How it happened.  A confidential informant identified defendant Mora as a drug dealer. After a staged purchase of drugs, cameras were installed outside Moran’s and another defendant’s houses.  The cameras provided a view of the front of the house as well as the sidewalk and the adjacent street.  The cameras recorded continuously — for five months in Mora’s case –without audio and were static except for the capacity to zoom in and out.  The interior of homes could not be seen and no particular features permitted nighttime surveillance.  

The trial court found the surveillance unexceptional.  The trial judge denied defendants’ motions to suppress because the cameras captured only information in plain public view.  The cameras aimed at a fixed point and were not capable of capturing detailed activities and associations.  Observation of matters on public display traditionally does not carry a reasonable expectation of privacy and does not require a warrant.  The court concluded that pole cameras did no more than that.  

In de novo review of the central question whether the pole cameras’ surveillance were unconstitutional warrantless searches, the Supreme Judicial Court asked first whether there was a search.  A search may be unconstitutional if it intrudes upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, but no such expectation is ordinarily found where the observation is of matters in plain view of the publix. 

Pole cameras have been in use for several decades.  Other courts’ reviews have yielded mixed results. 

The court found it unnecessary to address federal issues and noted that the Massachusetts Constitution may afford more protections than the U.S. Constitution.  The court framed the central question is whether a defendant had a reasonable subjective expectation of privacy and whether society would recognize the expectation as unreasonable.  

The appellate court recognized that defendants had subjective expectations that their homes would not be subjected to extended surveillance.  There was no need to create barriers around the property to obtain constitutional protection.  Such a requirement would make the constitutional resource dependant, and an impermissible result, as the home is a castle no matter how humble.  (Slip Op. at 14.)

What society may recognize as objectively reasonable is a large and difficult question, the court opined, but noted that case law has recognized that extended surveillance without probable cause and judicial supervision is problematic.

Location, location, location…and duration. The duration and location of surveillance matters, the court found, making it possible to extend protection to protracted video recording of houses but not to public places, particularly as surveillance cameras are abundant there and in commercial venues.

The Founders’ Prescience. Protecting the home from government intrusion is the reason that federal and state constitutions were drafted as they were.  The promise that the sanctity of the home will not be needlessly or recklessly breached is historically significant, and the framers may be thanked for a prescience that precludes a contemporary Orwellian state.  (Slip. Op. at 22.)

The argument that pole cameras outside the home catch no more than a police officer might see must faile, as the very inexhaustibility of the machines negates comparison.

As heretofore it has not been thought necessary to obtain a warrant to conduct pole camera surveillance, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that remand to determine whether propane cause for use of the cameras existed at the time of installation, which might be established by review of existing evidence submitted in support of warrants that were obtained or by supplementary evidence if needed.  If probable cause existed for installation of all of the cameras, suppression of evidence must be denied, but if probable cause did not exist, suppression as to the cameras surveilling the homes only may be allowed. 

Commonwealth v. Mora, SJC 12890 (August 6 2020)

  

 

 

 

 

Sectarian Versus Secular Civil Rights: Supreme Court Permits Church Employers Latitude in Defining Employee Roles and Rights

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 (July 8, 2020); St. James’ School v. Biel, No. 19-348 (July 8, 2020).


In this challenge to churches’ capacity to determine their own rules of employment, Justice Alito wrote for the Court’s majority; Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separately in concurrence; and Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.


Teachers at the religious schools in the cases now before the Court have responsibilities similar to those described in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).   These teachers do not, however, have titles associated with professed religious persons or functions.

Mid-twentieth century precedent established that religious institutions have the capacity to decide matters of church governance without state interference.  Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).

Here, one elementary school teacher who taught all subjects, including religion, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) that the school administration’s determination to change her to part-time status was age discrimination.  The other plaintiff claimed discrimination in discharge because of her need for breast cancer treatment.  Both responding employers stated that their decisions were bawsed on employee performance.

The question is how the principles of independence constitutionally assured in church governance apply to church autonomy in employment decisions, in which churches enjoy a “ministerial exception” to otherwise applicable laws for religious positions.  An individual’s role in conveying the church’s mission and the trust conferred on that individual are significant, but the title “minister” in itself will not require exemption nor is it necessary to confer exemption.  Where both teachers in these cases were entrusted with performance of religious duties, the ministerial exception appropriately applies. The determination whether the exception applies cannot be made by rote review of titles and checklists as ultimately a court, unschooled and unskilled in religious matters, must look to what an individual does, not what he or she is called.

The hiring exemption permitting churches to prefer members of their religion in hiring decisions is of a different character than the ministerial exception, and the principle applicable there do not need to be imported to the ministerial exemption.  Judicial inquiry into who is a member of a faith and who is not would impermissibly intrude on a church’s definition of participation.

A rigid formula for characterizing employment as religious is inapt.  “When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teachers threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”  (Slip Op. at 26-27.)

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concur.  Justice Thomas asserts that courts must defer to church determinations of what is ministerial, as this is inherently a theological question that cannot be answered by civil law.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissent.  The dissenting justices point to the predominantly secular functions performed by the teachers in these cases, their lack of religious training, and the absence of any religious requirement attaching to their positions.  Employers are required to conform to generally applicable laws and Congress has created exemptions where appropriate.  The ministerial exception is judge made law.  Because of its sweep, which would permit religious animus, the exception must be narrow, as it is subject to abuse.  It is to be preferred to make constitutional determinations on a case by case, holistic, basis.  The “functional status” analysis adopted here, focused on what an employee does, rewrites Hosanna-Tabor, making a two justice concurrence in that case into the prevailing opinion.

Where the civil rights of thousands of employees in religious organizations are in issues, analytical vagueness and deference to religious entities determinations invites abuse, permitting religious bodies to determine for themselves what the law is ad absolving the institutions of responsibility for religious animus.  Justice Sotomayor’s application of Hosanna-Tabor would lead to a conclusion contrary to that of the majority.  Biel was a teacher who participated in religious functions with a half day’s training in religious pedagogy. Morrissey-Berru taught various subjects and taught religious matters from a workbook chosen by the church.

Neither plaintiff ought to have bee barred from asserting claims based on a ministerial exception.  Neither was a minister, neither was trained as such, neither had a leadership role in the faith community, and both function predominantly as academic teachers. Depriving them of civil rights based o a small amount of time engaged in religious activity is harsh, especially where no religious reason was proffered for the churches’ acts concerning plaintiffs’ employment.

Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, No. 19-267 July 8, 2020