by J. Amy Dillard, Associate Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law
Early next year, the Court will hear argument in Hall v. Florida, a case that many practitioners have awaited since 2002. That year, the Court issued its opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, wherein it held that “the mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution.” The 6-3 decision in Atkins marked the great divide between those on the Court who embrace the concept of evolving standards of decency and those who eschew itfor determining which defendants may be put to death and which should be categorically excluded. The Court declined to define the parameters of mental retardation and left that task to the states. Some state legislatures, like Florida, have adopted a constrained definition of mental retardation, relying heavily on an I.Q. of 70 as a bright line.
A fact often overlooked in Atkins is that the majority and Justice Scalia, in dissent, agreed that some people, due to their lack of cognitive capacity, should be excluded from the penalty of death. The majority reached its conclusion after a careful examination of the trends in state legislatures to exclude mentally-retarded defendants from execution. Justice Scalia reached his conclusion after several paragraphs of constitutional hermeneutics, whereby he ascertained that profoundly mentally-retarded defendants were excluded from execution at the time of the framing of the Constitution and its Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Where the majority and Justice Scalia were at odds was in defining which people fit into the category of defendants who should be categorically excluded from execution. But both the majority and Justice Scalia use the term “mental retardation” as a kind of marker to describe a group of people who must be excluded from the penalty of death.
In 2002, when the Court decided Atkins, the term “mentally retarded” had already fallen from favor among medical and educational professionals, who favored the term “intellectual disability” to describe a person with limited cognitive capacity and limited adaptive functioning. With the publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has jettisoned the now-pejorative “mental retardation” and replaced it with “intellectual disability disorder,” a subset of neurocognitive disorders, which include dementia. The APA first embraced the term “mental retardation” in 1961, in an effort replace older, pejorative terms such as “idiocy.”
Yet another appeals court has issued an opinion about a for-profit corporation’s challenge to the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The mandate requires employee health care plans to contain preventive care coverage that includes FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. This time, the D.C. Circuit ruled in Gilardi v. HHS that the Gilardis, two Catholic brothers who own Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics and oppose contraception, sterilization and abortion, are entitled to a preliminary injunction because they are likely to succeed on their claim that the mandate violates their free exercise rights as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.” The D.C. Circuit’s action is consistent with the Tenth Circuit’s ruling that the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby demonstrated that the mandate substantially burdened its exercise of religion, but at odds with rulings against secular, for-profit companies and for the government by the Third and Sixth Circuits.
One aspect of Gilardi is distinctive. Although the Third and Sixth Circuits, ruling for the government, decided that for-profit, secular corporations cannot exercise religion under either the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA, the Tenth Circuit, in support of Hobby Lobby, determined that such corporations are persons who can exercise religion under RFRA. The D.C. Circuit offered a hybrid. Although two judges – Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph – ruled that the Freshway Companies are not persons under either the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA, they nonetheless held that the Gilardis could bring suit because the Freshway Companies are closely held corporations with only the two brothers as owners and shareholders. In that context, the court decided, the brothers suffered a concrete and personal injury and could likely prove that their religion was substantially burdened by the mandate.
The diverse circuit court rulings risk turning the contraceptive mandate issue into a debate over corporate form and institutional rights. If corporations engage in speech under the First Amendment – Citizens United – why can’t they exercise religion?
The D.C. Circuit is unbalanced. Nine of the D.C. Circuit justices were appointed by Republican presidents, whereas only five were appointed by Democratic presidents. Some observers have misleadingly focused on the fact that of the eight active judges on the court, four were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. However, this metric fails to take into account the six senior status judges who play a weighty role in the court’s decision making. Except for participating in en banc hearings, senior status judges are full-fledged members of the judiciary and routinely impact the court’s decisions.
In a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Goodlatte (D-Va.) cited the six senior status judges as doing the work of an estimated 3.25 full-time active judges. Senator Grassley also stressed the senior judges’ relevancy on the court, saying that “it is clear that the senior judges on the court are contributing a significant amount of work, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
An example of senior judges’ participation in a high-profile case is Gilardi v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, decided on Nov. 1. The case was before a three-judge panel comprised of Judge Brown and two senior judges, Judge Edwards and Judge Randolph. Undoubtedly, senior judges wield significant power and are still active decision-makers on the court. Looking at the Court’s fall calendar, most cases will be heard by a panel that includes at least one senior judge, so not including them when describing the court’s composition is deceptive.
This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a First Amendment challenge to a New York town's practice of solemnizing its local board meetings with Christian prayer. The argument revealed the weak constitutional footing on which the town stands when it argues that it may invite local clergy, the vast majority of whom are Christian, to deliver official invocations that are overwhelmingly Christian. It also served as a stark reminder of how the Supreme Court has failed citizens who are non-believers when it comes to this issue.
Posing the first question of the day, Justice Kagan asked whether similar official prayers would be permissible at Court sessions or congressional hearings. The town's lawyer responded in the only way a reasonable person could. He conceded that such prayers – those that invoke explicitly Christian beliefs – would indeed be unconstitutional, but argued that the town's prayers were different because they reflect a long history of legislative prayer, which includes state legislatures and the First Congress. Pressed further by Justice Kennedy to provide a justification for the prayers other than tradition, the town's lawyer, not surprisingly, came up short.
In fact, as the ACLU argued in its friend-of-the-court brief, tradition -- standing alone -- is a poor reason for flouting a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: The government should remain neutral on matters of faith and may not promote religion over non-religion. When elected officials violate this maxim by imposing official prayer at meetings, especially local governmental meetings, it casts those who don't subscribe to the promoted beliefs as outsiders, second-class citizens who must pay a steep price in spiritual terms for daring to exercise the right of participatory democracy.
by Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Editor’s Note: This Thursday, November 7, the ACS Pittsburgh Lawyer Chapter and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Student Chapter will host a Supreme Court Preview featuring Professor Tushnet and Professor Jules Lobel of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. To hear more from Professors Tushnet and Lobel about Bond and the rest of the Court’s October Term 2013, please RSVP here.
The Roberts Court is properly described as a business-friendly Court. It’s also a Court that is sort of friendly toward federalism, as the commerce clause holding in the Affordable Care Act decision – though thankfully not the ultimate outcome – shows. But, federalism and business interests sometimes come into conflict. Businesses operating on a national scale often hope that Congress will preempt state regulations, so that they face only a single national rule rather than fifty or more regulations different in every state and sometimes in a bunch of cities. And, when Congress doesn’t make it clear that its statutes preempt state regulations, businesses want the Court to interpret federal statutes to be preemptive.
On Tuesday, the Court heard oral argument in Bond v. United States, a bizarre case on its facts that raises important questions about the scope of Congress’s power to enact statutes implementing treaties. The arguments suggested that some of the Court’s conservatives, and perhaps Justice Breyer, were inclined to say that Congress couldn’t use its power to implement treaties to reach truly local activities (although the precise formulation of the restriction they might adopt wasn’t clear).
Everyone seemed to agree, though, that the Bill of Rights limited the power to implement a treaty. And, whatever you might say about the treaty power and federalism, that does indeed seem to be a consensus position.
The consensus might be on a collision course with business interests, though, for the same reason that businesses sometimes favor preemption and national regulation over state regulation. In a forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review, Marvin Ammori describes what he learned from general counsels at major commercial disseminators of information over the internet. For them, Ammori reports, Congress is basically just one state legislature or city council trying to regulate their activity along with a whole bunch of other legislatures – parliaments in France and Japan, and everywhere else. And, just as with preemption, these businesses might want to replace a system of lots of different regulations with one regulatory system.