Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • July 1, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School

    Why would you pay for something if you can get it for free?  The obvious answer is that you wouldn’t.  And after this week’s decision in Harris v. Quinn (No. 11-681), if you work as a homecare provider in Illinois, you can get all the pay raises and benefits increases that the union negotiates without having to pay a penny to support those efforts.  According to the 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the First Amendment guarantees that outcome.  Here’s how he got there, and where he went off the proper constitutional track.

    In about half the states, employees who work for state agencies (including teachers) have the right to join unions, and those unions have the right to bargain with the state or its agencies over terms and conditions of work. Depending on both the state and the job, the union may be able to negotiate over pay and benefits, as well as working conditions. Many such contracts have grievances procedures in which the union represents workers in an effort to resolve disputes with the employer.  Negotiating and implementing contracts cost money, and to pay for those services, states authorize unions, where a majority of the workforce agrees to establish one, to charge all employees for those services directly related to collective bargaining.  In exchange, the union is under a legal obligation to fairly represent all individuals covered by the collective bargaining agreement. The right to organize for public employees is governed by state law, and there is another system for private sector employees that generally operates in the same way, albeit with some significant differences that were not relevant in Harris.

    The workers in Harris were paid by the state, but worked for Medicaid recipients who needed a variety of home care services. Under Illinois law, the recipients choose the person who would provide those services (many of whom are family members) and direct and control his or her assignments. There were many other distinctions between those workers and the typical state employee, but Illinois decided that it would be willing to allow those workers to form a union to bargain with the state over wages and benefits, if a majority of those who performed such services voted for a union, which would mean the mandatory payment of monthly dues to support its work.

  • June 26, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Peter M. Shane, the Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law. This piece is cross-posted on RegBlog, where it was originially published.

    As losses go, NLRB v. Noel Canning is going to be pretty easy for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and future presidents to live with.

    In a 5-to-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Article II’s Recess Appointments Clause empowers presidents to fill vacancies that occur at any time and during any recess—intra-session or intersession—of sufficient length. The Court did invalidate President Obama’s January, 2012, recess appointments of three NLRB members, but only on a narrow two-part rationale. First, a series of pro forma Senate sessions held between December 17, 2011, and January 23, 2012, were effective in dividing this 37-day break into periods of adjournment no longer than three days. Second, periods of intra-session adjournment shorter than 10 days are “presumptively” too short to count as recesses that trigger the president’s recess appointments power. (There is some ambiguity in the majority opinion whether the 10-day rule now applies even to intersession adjournments, which, as far as I know, no party ever argued.) Because of the pro forma sessions – which the D.C. Circuit had not addressed at all – the NLRB owes the Noel Canning Co. a do-over in its unfair labor practice proceeding.

    All in all, it was a good day for the legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall. The majority eschewed implausible claims for the supposed clarity of plainly ambiguous constitutional text, in favor of a constitutional reading that was guided by a history of interbranch practice. Marshall would have approved the Court’s framing of the intra- versus inter-session recess problem:

    The question is not: Did the Founders at the time think about intra-session recesses? Perhaps they did not. The  question is: Did the Founders intend to restrict the scope of the Clause to the form of congressional recess then prevalent, or did they intend a broader scope permitting the Clause to apply, where appropriate, to somewhat changed circumstances? The Founders knew they were writing a document designed to apply to ever-changing circumstances over centuries. After all, a Constitution is “intended to endure for ages to come,” and must adapt itself to a future that can only be “seen dimly,” if at all …We therefore think the Framers likely did intend the Clause to apply to a new circumstance that so clearly falls within its essential purposes, where doing so is consistent with the Clause’s language.

    In short, pragmatism trumped an overconfident textualism.

  • May 23, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Victor Williams, an attorney in Washington D.C. and clinical assistant professor at Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. Williams founded the American Institute for Disruptive Innovation in Law and Politics -- DistruptiveJustice.org.

    Partisans have purposely pushed our nation to the brink of fiscal default three times since 2011.  Each time, the Treasury Secretary warned Congress, bondholders, and the public that a “catastrophic” default was imminent. Credit markets shudder, financial houses take multi-million dollar risk precautions, and rating agencies balk. At the twelfth hour, partisans have granted a stay, but only temporary one. The current suspension expires on March 15, 2015 – thus the next battle is strategically scheduled  after expected GOP midterm victories. Beware the Ides of March. But how is Brown v. Board relevant to a debt limit disaster? 

    Facial Violations of the Fourteenth Amendment

    In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck-down segregation legislation as facially violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In May 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the unanimous Court that separate educational facilities were “inherently unequal.” The violation was so patent that “any discussion whether such segregation” was a factual violation of due process was “unnecessary.” As Harvard Law’s Richard Fallon notes in Fact and Fiction About Facial Challenges, Brown is a classic example of the judiciary’s assessing the constitutionality of legislation on its face, “not as-applied.”  

    Similarly, the debt limit statute facially and inherently contravenes a fundamental provision of the very same Fourteenth Amendment. Section Four guarantees not only that public debt will always remain valid, but also that the “validity” of such obligations will never be “questioned.”  A centerpiece of the three Civil War Amendments, the absolutist prohibition against debt questioning joins other post- bellum proscriptions against slavery, unequal protection of the law, due process violations, and racial voting barriers.  

  • May 8, 2014
    Guest Post

    by James C. Nelson, Justice, Montana Supreme Court (Retired)

    I am a non-believer. I became one late in my adult life because I was disgusted with the hypocrisy of religion in general and with the Catholic Church in particular. My decision was grounded in more hours of study and contemplation than I care to estimate. I do not believe in, much less pray to, any god.

    And my point with that opening is that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect my fundamental right to be a non-believer; they insure, among other things, that my various federal, state, county and local governments cannot require me – directly or indirectly – to participate in any religious exercise. Read together these religion clauses form the wall of separation between church and state that the framers intended. They keep – or at least they are supposed to keep – religion out of government and government out of religion.

    That is why I cannot not accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 5, decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that case the Court held that the town opening its  official board meetings with a Christian prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the First Amendment and does not discriminate against minority faiths or coerce participation with non-adherents. 

    The Court’s decision is flat wrong. It respects neither the history underpinning the adoption of the religion clauses, the wall of separation, nor the reality that “We the People” are a pluralistic and diverse society encompassing all degrees of sectarian believers, agnostics and athiests. Nonetheless, that decision is now the law of the land—created from whole cloth and judicially blessed by the right wing Christian majority of our Nation’s highest Court. And, that puts me in a box.

    For many years I have stood during opening prayers in public meetings of federal, state and local government. I did so out of a sense of respect for the beliefs of others and for decorum – notwithstanding my personal dis-belief in the prayer and the god prayed-to. But, while respect can be freely given, it cannot be compelled.  And, thus, The Town of Greece leaves me but one option.

    I will stand no longer for prayer! I will not, as the Supreme Court suggests, leave the room during the invocation. Rather, I will sit during the prayer in the meeting room in which I am constitutionally entitled to assemble. I will not be bullied nor will I be shamed into standing. After all, it is not I who is violating the constitutional separation of church and state. I cannot and will not be compelled to participate in any fashion in government sponsored prayer.

  • May 6, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Oklahoma lawmakers sparked debate over the death penalty and provoked a much-needed discussion about the importance of impartial courts last week when one of two planned executions went horribly awry.

    State officials, including Gov. Mary Fallin, pushed for the execution of two death row inmates even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court had stayed the executions arguing that more information was needed to determine whether the state’s new combination of drugs for killing death row inmates passed constitutional muster. That pressure led to the state supreme court lifting its stay and resulting in the bungled execution of Clayton D. Lockett. (Lockett died of a massive heart attack more han 40 minutes after state executioners attempted to kill him.) The second execution was temporarily put on hold.

    In a piece for the Tulsa World, Joseph Thai, the Presidential Professor of Law  and Watson Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, blasted lawmakers for working to keep the methods of execution secret.

    “Though I am both a law professor and a lawyer, I write as an Oklahoma citizen and taxpayer. Our state executes more of its citizens per capita than any other state. Because Oklahoma imposes capital punishment on behalf of its citizens, and because its taxpayers bear the costs, the state must not shroud its executions from public scrutiny.”

    Thai added that as “Oklahomans, we may disagree with each other – and with the rest of the country – on the morality, efficacy and fairness of the death penalty. But in a civilized society, hopefully we can all agree that, as long as our state puts human beings to death, it should do so without unnecessary pain and suffering.”

    Read Thai’s entire piece here and register for an ACS May 7 call featuring Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and death penalty expert Megan McCracken on how impartial courts can help ensure that state lawmakers carry out executions without trampling constitutional rights and principles.