Other courts

  • November 7, 2014

    by Caroline Fredrickson, President, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Follow her on Twitter @crfredrickson. This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

    Many may despair -- believing the next two years in Washington will be a long slog of tiresome partisan fights with no positive action to improve the lives of Americans. But moping is the last thing progressives should be about.

    Let's talk judicial nominations. Federal courts are vital -- they decide pressing matters every day, whether they are challenges to employment discrimination, corporate malfeasance, or immigration appeals. Do we just throw our hands up on judicial nominations, buying into a lazy argument that nothing much can be done now with a Senate controlled by Republicans? There likely are many important policy matters that will be shelved. But it doesn't have to be that way with judicial nominations. On this front there's work to be done and it can be achieved with an energetic attitude -- not apathy.

    There are 64 vacancies on the federal bench and if we give up on the federal courts that number will spike and we'll have judges with outlandish caseloads and Americans with a sluggish, inefficient court system. Part of the Senate's job is to confirm judges to ensure our country has a well-running judicial system. We know all too well that for much of Obama's presidency, Senate Republicans have obstructed the process, slow-walked the president's nominations while arguing everything was just fine. Republican leaders who will take control of the Senate in the New Year are talking about cooperation and working with President Obama, but let's be ready to hold them to their words.

    Some of the current vacancies can and should be filled during the lame-duck session. Democrats in the Senate need to get over the outcome of the midterm elections in quick manner and fill 25 vacancies, which can be done -- with the right attitude. There are 16 judicial nominees who have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and are ready for up-or-down votes on the Senate floor. There's no excuse for letting those nominees languish. There are also nine nominees, who have had hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Committee should move those nominations to the Senate floor as soon as possible. This is doable in the lame duck.

    And then the next two years -- again no time for dwelling on what could have been. The Senate Republicans may turn back to their obstructionist ways -- let's hope not. Maybe they'll surprise us on the judicial nominations front and realize this is an area for cooperation. But if not, progressives must be ready to push back and keep up the pressure, reminding as many Americans as possible of the great importance our judicial system is to a well-functioning democracy.

  • August 20, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Robert N. Weiner, Litigation Partner, Arnold & Porter LLP

    *This post originally appeared on Balkinization

    Sometimes, lawyers are fortunate that an opponent does not get the opportunity to reply to their argument and they get the last, unchallenged, word on an issue. The Halbig case [D.C. Circuit Court panel opinion negatively impacting the federal government’s effort to help low-income persons obtain health care insurance] presents a prime example. On Monday, the plaintiffs seeking to nullify a key provision of the Affordable Care Act filed their response to the Government’s petition for rehearing en banc. The response takes full-- albeit not fair -- advantage of being the last word before the D.C. Circuit considers the petition.

    To begin with, the Halbig plaintiffs never cite Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, even though it is the controlling authority regarding en banc review. The Rule expressly recognizes that rehearing en banc is appropriate in order to avoid intercircuit conflicts, and that provision is directly applicable hereCurrently, there is a conflict between Halbig in the D.C. Circuit, denying tax subsidies to help low income families afford insurance in states with a Federal Exchange, and King in the Fourth Circuitallowing such subsidies. A grant of en banc review by the D.C. Circuit will automatically vacate the Halbig decision ending the intercircuit conflict and presenting the full court the opportunity to avoid one altogether if the D.C. Circuit ultimately agrees with the Fourth. If there is no conflict, the Supreme Court will have no compelling reason to take this rather narrow, yet overblown issue of statutory interpretation.

    The absence of a Government opportunity to reply may also have loosened the reins on the discussion of case law in the Halbig response. Arguing against rehearing en banc, the Halbig plaintiffs cite instances where the D.C. Circuit has denied such review in important cases. But the response fails to point out that most of those cases predate the amendment of Rule 35 in 1998 expressly identifying avoidance of a circuit split as a basis for en banc review and emphasizing in the Advisory Committee Notes the particular importance of such review in cases like this one, where rehearing could resolve the conflict. D.C. decisions that came before that change in Rule 35 shed no light on whether en banc review is appropriate on this ground.

    Of the post-1998 D.C. cases cited by the Halbig plaintiffs, one involved a situation where the Supreme Court had already granted cert on the issue. The other cases cited presented no conflict. Thus, none of these cases resolves whether en banc review is appropriate here, where the D.C. Circuit’s panel opinion is the source of the intercircuit split.

  • July 25, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Justin Marceau and Alan K. Chen. Marceau is an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former public defender in Arizona. Chen is the William M. Beaney Memorial Research Chair and Professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former staff attorney at the ACLU’s Chicago office.

    The State of Arizona’s recently botched execution of Joseph Wood is just the latest in a series of horrific events that have introduced the American public to a criminal justice problem that practitioners and legal scholars long have known about – lethal injections are an extremely troubling method for carrying out capital punishment.  Similar to the cases of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Wood reportedly endured extensive suffering during the hour and 52 minutes it took for the drugs administered by the state’s executioners to end his life.

    The Wood Litigation Seeking Access to Information about the Drugs and Executioners

    In the days preceding Wood’s execution, his attorneys mounted an impressive campaign to overturn a lower court order denying him access to basic information about the qualifications (but not the identity) of the executioners and the source of the drugs to be used. Wood argued that he had a qualified First Amendment right of access to such information. 

    On Monday of this week, things looked promising for Wood and his legal team. An erudite panel of the Ninth Circuit concluded that it was not too much to ask of Arizona to require it to turn over the information Wood sought, or to delay the execution. Behind such litigation is the reality that without such information, of course, it would be impossible to assess whether the execution might violate the Eighth Amendment and create too great a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.  In other words, in order to know whether their client had a colorable substantive claim that the execution would be cruel and unusual, the lawyers first had to gain access to the details of the execution procedures. The procedural claim at issue in the Ninth Circuit, then, was a necessary precursor to being able to litigate the substantive legality of Arizona’s execution system.

    The Ninth Circuit panel voted 2-1 that Wood had raised a serious First Amendment claim and would suffer irreparable harm if an injunction against his execution were not granted. To be clear, all the Ninth Circuit ordered was that Arizona either turn over the information and proceed to execution as planned on Wednesday, or delay the execution until full and fair litigation regarding the right to access this information was conducted. Instead, Arizona successfully petitioned the Supreme Court, which quickly overturned the stay of execution.

    Was this Just a Gimmick to Delay Litigation?

    Some might ask why, with a thirty year track record and tacit Supreme Court approval in 2008, lawyers were inquiring about lethal injection methods.  We hear about delays in executions – we even see California’s death penalty held unconstitutional, in part, because of delay. But the reason for the litigation is clear: lethal injection is not working. 

    With drug shortages for the previous three-drug execution cocktail of choice, states have begun to experiment with the doses and types of drugs, and the qualifications of executioners are not getting any better.  In a very perverse turn on Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous quote that states may “serve as a laboratory, and try novel . . . experiments” that the rest of the country might not, states are innovating in their execution methods.  In the rush to continue with executions, Arizona and other states are using their execution chambers as laboratories for human experimentation.  What combination will create the most aesthetically pleasing execution for public consumption is the question the Departments of Correction seek to answer. 

  • July 23, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Timothy S. Jost, the Robert L. Willett Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law

    July 23, 2014 was a momentous day in the history of the Affordable Care Act. Shortly after 10 a.m., a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued a split 2-1 decision striking down an Internal Revenue Service rule that permits federally facilitated exchanges to issue premium tax credits.  Two hours later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond released a unanimous decision upholding the IRS rule.

    The ACA authorizes the IRS to issue premium tax credits to uninsured lower and moderate income Americans through exchanges.  The ACA requests that the states establish exchanges, and sixteen states have done so.  The ACA also, however, authorizes the federal government to establish fallback exchanges in states that fail to set up their own exchanges, and it has done so in 34 states.  The IRS regulation allows premium tax credits to be awarded to eligible individuals by both state-operated exchanges and federally facilitated exchanges.

    Two subsections of the ACA, however, seem to provide that tax credits are available for months in which an individual is enrolled in a qualified health plan “through an Exchange established by the State under 1311” of the ACA. The plaintiffs argue that federal exchanges cannot issue premium tax credits tax credits to individuals who enroll through federal, as opposed to state-operated exchanges.

    The majority of the D.C. Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs, focusing narrowly on the “established by the State” language, but finding nothing in the ACA to clearly contradict the plaintiffs’ reading of the law. The Fourth Circuit found the law ambiguous, and thus under the Supreme Court’s Chevron rule, deferred to the IRS and its interpretation of the law.

  • May 19, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Mary Smith, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, President of the National Native American Bar Association

    On May 14, 2014, history was made with the confirmation of Diane Humetewa (pictured) to be a district court judge in the United States District Court for the District Court of Arizona.  Ms. Humetewa, an enrolled member of the Hopi Tribe, is the first Native American woman in the history of our nation to serve on the federal judiciary, and will be the only American Indian serving as an Article III judge in the federal judiciary. She previously served as the Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, and earlier in her career, she worked as an attorney on the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee under then Chairman John McCain and as an Appellate Judge on the Hopi Appellate Court. Ms. Humetewa was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate with a final vote of 96-0. 

    In addition to being the first Native American women, she is only the third American Indian to serve as a federal district court judge with the first two being men from Oklahoma. Judge Frank Howell Seay was appointed by President Carter in 1979. Billy Michael Burrage, the last American Indian appointed to the federal bench, was confirmed during the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, as of May 2014, there are 874 Article III federal judgeships in the United States—nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on the Courts of Appeals, 677 on the District Courts and nine on the Court of International Trade – and now only one of these judgeships is held by an American Indian or Alaska Native. The Honorable Derrick Watson, serving as a district judge in the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii, is Native Hawaiian and was confirmed on April 18, 2013. In addition, out of the population of federal magistrates in this country, only one – the Honorable Leo Brisbois in Minnesota – is Native American.