ACSBlog

  • July 10, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Dan Froomkin

    Donald Trump's pick to succeed FBI director James Comey -- who he fired for being insufficiently compliant -- goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning.

    Christopher Wray is a relative unknown, having cast a remarkably small wake during two decades as a lawyer for the Justice Department and big-money law firm King & Spalding.

    But Wray has played some disturbing bit parts over the years that senators will surely want him to explain.

    And his willingness to accept the job under these circumstances raises a number of essential questions about what assurances he has gotten or given, how he sees his relationship with Trump, and what if any plan he has to restore even a veneer of nonpartisanship to the agency.

    Q. Do you see the FBI as a check on the president?

    Q. How are you going to support Bob Mueller's special counsel investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential election -- without interfering with it?

    Q. If President Trump asks you for your loyalty, how will you respond? Has he asked already?

  • July 10, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Bidish Sarma. Sarma is an attorney who represents individuals sentenced to death and other harsh punishments including life without parole. He previously worked as a clinical teaching fellow at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic and staff attorney and Deputy Director of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans.

    Near the end of the term, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Packingham v. North Carolina. The outcome was a slam-dunk victory for Mr. Packingham—a registered sex offender—and proponents of robust free speech protections around the country. The Court left no doubt about its commitment to protecting the First Amendment (all eight presiding justices agreed that the law at issue was unconstitutional), but it sent mixed signals about whether it would author a new chapter in its dealings with individuals convicted of sex offenses. This is an increasingly important question because for many years now sex offenders have been the target of unique, restrictive and hyper-punitive legislative schemes that raise deep constitutional questions. If the Court ducks these questions, similarly dubious laws may be used to target other groups, including individuals who have committed no crimes at all. Nobody seriously questions a legislature’s interest in protecting individuals from sexual violence. But, the time has come to ask whether society’s “war” on sex offenders who have already completed criminal sentences has gone too far.

    Packingham involved a North Carolina statute that prohibited registered sex offenders from accessing an astounding range of websites (including news websites, WebMD and Amazon). The defendant was arrested for violating the law after he posted a message on Facebook praising God because a court had dismissed a traffic ticket without imposing any fine or other punishment. In striking down the sweeping restraint on internet use, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion acknowledged the state’s interest in preventing sex offenders from using technology to facilitate crimes, but held that the “statute here enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens.” The law’s breadth and the Court’s robust protection of free speech may best explain the result. Thus, Packingham may well be “the rare case” in which the Supreme Court rules in favor of sex offenders.

    If, however, the Court is more broadly worried about laws that may infringe on the rights of people who have been convicted of sex offenses, the First Amendment is not the only amendment that requires judicial enforcement. Justice Kennedy’s opinion hints that the justices in fact harbor concerns. In a parenthetical note, the decision referred to “the troubling fact that the law imposes severe restrictions on persons who already have served their sentence and are no longer subject to the supervision of the criminal justice system,” and observed that this fact is “not an issue before the Court.”

  • July 10, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Joshua A. Douglas, Robert G. Lawson & William H. Fortune Associate Professor of Law, University of Kentucky College of Law

    While doom-and-gloom seems to dominate voting rights news these days, there is also positive work happening on the ground to enhance the right to vote. That is the goal of a lawsuit in Massachusetts, showing the importance of playing offense instead of defense in an effort to expand democratic participation.

    Voters in Massachusetts, along with the ACLU, are challenging Massachusetts’s 20-day registration deadline. Under the law, a voter may not cast a ballot on Election Day unless he or she has registered at least 20 days in advance of the election. The plaintiffs in Massachusetts argue that the government has no need for this registration deadline and that requiring people to register ahead of Election Day deprives those who do not comply of their constitutionally-protected right to vote. They literally cannot vote if they do not register ahead of the election and yet given modern technology, the state has no need for the 20-day requirement.

    The plaintiffs have already won, in part. Just before the 2016 election, state judge Douglas Wilkins found that Massachusetts had failed to demonstrate a “real reason, grounded in data, facts, or other evidence,” for the registration deadline. The court noted, “The right to vote is fundamental, as guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution.” The registration deadline deprived the three plaintiffs of this fundamental right. The court therefore allowed them to cast their ballots even though they had not registered in time. Yet that decision did not resolve the ultimate question of the constitutionality of a registration deadline before Election Day. The court is now considering that question, hearing testimony from voters, election experts, and state officials.

  • July 6, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on onlabor.

    by Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School

    On Friday, the Trump Administration finally took a position in the Fifth Circuit litigation over the validity of the Obama Administration’s rule to raise the overtime salary threshold to $47,476 from the $23,660 level that has been in place since 2004. On the eve of the rule’s implementation in 2016, Judge Amos Mazzant (E.D. Tex.) had issued a nation-wide injunction enjoining the Department from enforcing the rule. Judge Mazzant found that the Department lacked the authority under the Fair Labor Standards Act to impose a salary threshold for determining overtime eligibility – effectively invalidating every overtime regulation since 1938. Just prior to Inauguration Day, the Obama Administration filed a brief in the Fifth Circuit asking the appeals court to reverse the district court’s decision and lift the injunction, asserting both that the Department had the authority impose a salary threshold and that it had set the threshold at an appropriate level.

    The Trump Administration walked away from defending the new salary threshold while attempting to maintain its authority to issue in its own rule. In its reply brief, the Department of Labor continued to defend its authority to set a salary threshold in conjunction with a duties test. The Department rejected Judge Mazzant’s assertion that the statute compelled that the Department adjudge overtime eligibility strictly on the basis of a salaried employee’s duties. The Department did not, however, ask the Fifth Circuit to affirm the validity of the Obama Administration rule. Instead, the Department signaled that it was abandoning the Obama rule and that it would be revisiting the question of the appropriate salary threshold, telling the court that it “has decided not to advocate for the specific salary level ($913 per week) set in the final rule at this time and intends to undertake further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be.”

  • July 5, 2017

    by Kaiya Lyons

    At the 2017 ACS National Convention, Professor William Yeomans concluded the breakout panel on whether to serve in an unfriendly administration by emphasizing to the room of current, former and aspiring government lawyers that public service “really is a lawyer’s highest calling.” But for too many law students, the choice to pursue that higher calling comes at a high price, as student loan debt continues to rise well beyond most public interest wages. Later in the day, ACS Board member David Frederick had a simple solution—“make law school less expensive.”

    During the “Progressive Federalism” plenary, Frederick declared that massive student loan debt is the “number one impediment to law students going out and doing public service jobs.” To support his assertion, Frederick pointed to the time-honored tradition of public interest-minded grads spending two to three years in BigLaw to pay down their student loans before entering public service. Frederick explained that, instead of starting in public service, “law students are often forced into corporate law firms” for years to pay off their loans, a practice he characterized as a type of “indentured servitude.” While this image sparked laughter and jokes from the other panelists, Frederick maintained the veracity of his comparison and went on to stress that legal education must be more affordable in order for young lawyers to pursue public interest.

    Forgiveness in Exchange for Services Rendered

    However, much to our collective disappointment, law school tuition hikes show no signs of decreasing, nor does a decrease in tuition rates seem likely. Therefore, law students and recent grads have two options: (1) take the tried-and-true path of their predecessors and enter the corporate sector for a few years with the hope that they will be able to move into the public sector later, or (2) take advantage of the government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and be able to work in public interest law immediately after graduation and have their debt erased after ten years.