Tag Archives: Supreme Court

More on Yesterday’s Decision in Zubik

Marc has posted a rundown of yesterday’s decision in Zubik v. Burwellthe ACA case. I’d like to add just a few quick observations.

Some commentators, including the New York Times, have decried the result as the inevitable consequence of having an eight-member Court, which prevents the formation of five-person majorities in close cases. If only the Senate had confirmed Merrick Garland, we wouldn’t be in fixes like this. But it’s worth noting that the Court’s opinion yesterday was unanimous. All eight Justices joined it in full. If Merrick Garland had been on the Court, it likely would have been 9-0. In fact, an unsigned, per curiam opinion like yesterday’s traditionally signals that the Court does not see a decision as particularly significant or controversial.

Now, it’s true that Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote a separate concurrence. But, in Supreme Court practice, a concurrence signals that the author agrees with the Court’s reasoning and wishes only to offer further support or highlight certain aspects of the case. And that’s what Justice Sotomayor did here. She went out of her way to highlight the fact that the Court was not ruling on the merits of the case. I’m not sure that was entirely necessary; the Court itself expressly said it was not ruling on the merits. But, anyway, her writing separately doesn’t reflect disagreement with the Court’s reasoning.

So the Court does not seem to have been divided at all. Now, it’s possible, as some speculate, that the Court did a quick vote after oral argument, saw that there would be no clear majority on the merits, and reached for a compromise that would preserve the Court’s credibility while allowing further consideration down the road, when the Court is back to nine members. But that’s more than we can know right now, and, at least to me, there seems another, more likely explanation for the Court’s unanimity. The Court determined that the whole dispute may well be unnecessary.

After oral argument and supplementary briefing in March, it became clear to the Court that there might be a way out of the conflict the lower courts had missed. It might be possible for employees to receive coverage for contraceptives without requiring employers to file the so-called “opt out form” — the form to which the petitioners had objected on religious grounds. As the Court explained:

Following oral argument, the Court requested supplemental briefing from the parties addressing “whether contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners’ employees, through petitioners’ insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners.” Both petitioners and the Government now confirm that such an option is feasible. Petitioners have clarified that their religious exercise is not infringed where they “need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception,” even if their employees receive cost-free contraceptive coverage from the same insurance company. The Government has confirmed that the challenged procedures “for employers with insured plans could be modified to operate in the manner posited in the Court’s order while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage.”

In other words, the parties might be able to reach a settlement that would satisfy everyone. The Supreme Court is not the place to hammer out such a settlement, though, so the Court remanded the dispute to the lower courts, which, it said, were in a position to “allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.” (Hint, hint). In that event, the dispute would be moot–and it is hornbook law that courts, including the Supreme Court, do not decide moot issues. As one commentator observed, what the Court is saying is, “We don’t need to decide this case right now. The parties should be able to work it out for themselves.”

Although the Court did not rule on the merits, it’s hard not to see this as a loss for the Obama Administration. A determination that the dispute may not have been necessary at all is, implicitly, a judgment on the Administration’s strategy in these cases. The Administration has taken a very hard line on the Contraception Mandate, harder than it needed to in order to achieve its stated goal of providing cost-free contraceptive coverage for women. Two terms ago, in Hobby Lobby, the Court ruled that the Administration could reach that goal without requiring for-profit corporations with religious objections to cover contraceptives in their health plans. Now, the Court has suggested the Administration can reach that goal without requiring religious non-profits like the Little Sisters to violate their religious convictions. So why did the Administration take such a hard line? Why didn’t it accommodate the concerns of people with religious objections to the mandate–an extremely small group, it must be conceded–especially as accommodation wouldn’t have changed the ultimate outcome? It’s almost as though the Administration had goals other than women’s health in mind.

Zubik v. Burwell Remanded

Today the Supreme Court issued a short per curiam opinion vacating the circuit courts’ respective opinions in the nonprofit contraception mandate cases and remanding them to those circuits, in light of the “substantial clarification and refinement” in the claimants’ and the government’s respective positions that the Court claims was generated by the supplemental briefing. To wit:

Petitioners have clarified that their religious exercise is not infringed where they “need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception,” even if their employees receive cost-free contraceptive coverage from the same insurance company….The Government has confirmed that the challenged procedures “for employers with insured plans could be modified to operate in the manner posited in the Court’s order while still ensuring that the affected women receive contraceptive coverage seamlessly, together with the rest of their health coverage.”

Disagreements as to implementation to be worked out below.No taxes or penalties on the claimants during the pendency of the new implementation for failure to provide adequate notice to the government. No opinion expressed on the merits (substantial burden, compelling interest, least restrictive means), other than by Justice Sotomayor, who concurred (joined by Justice Ginsburg) in the Court’s order essentially to make crystal clear to the government that she was sympathetic to its views.

Survey Finds a Majority Agree with the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Fight Against the HHS Mandate

On April 19, 2016, the Catholic News Agency reported on the results of a new Marist Poll survey relating to the Little Sisters of the Poor’s pending litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court. The article begins as follows:

A new survey says most Americans think the Obama administration’s federal contraception mandate is unfair to the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious groups defending themselves before the U.S. Supreme Court.

little sisters

About 53 percent of Americans said the process required by the government is “unfair,” while only 32 percent did not, according to a new Marist Poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

The federal government has exempted many other organizations’ employee health care plans from a requirement to provide contraception and drugs that can produce abortions. But it has no exemption for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who help run houses to care for the elderly poor.

The full text of the article appears here.

Justice Scalia and Conservatism

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This posting was originally a short speech given to students at the University of St. Thomas Law School on February 29.

We will all miss the unique and iconic personality of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Few if any Supreme Court Justices have been gifted with such charm, humor, charisma and pizzazz. He was a man of great faith; a brilliant and memorable writer; a witty raconteur; a powerful and bracing intellect. He argued law, as he lived life, with passion and gusto. In his impact on the American public, he was in a class of his own: among the Justices of the past, perhaps only Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall can be compared to him. One might even say, with all due deference to Senator Cruz, that Justice Scalia was the living epitome of New York values.

But we are here to discuss his influence on the law, especially on constitutional law. And for all his great and varied gifts, his long tenure on the supreme bench, and the vigor and clarity of his opinions, his influence on constitutional law, at least judged from our current perspective, was very limited.

The two doctrines one associates most closely with Scalia’s jurisprudence are, of course, originalism and textualism. Others on this panel will no doubt discuss them, and I will say something about them a bit later. But what I want to consider briefly here is another important but neglected strand in his jurisprudence: his use of custom or tradition in constitutional adjudication. This aspect of his jurisprudence is, in my view, the most distinctively conservative element of it. There is no inherent connection between textualism or originalism and conservatism, but there is such a connection between custom and conservatism.

Nineteenth century legal conservatives such as James Coolidge Carter went so far as to identify law with custom. Or more accurately, they identified the common law with custom. One could say, in that spirit, that the common law identifies, articulates, stabilizes, and occasionally revises and improves, custom. And much of American Continue reading

Grume & Caher, “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State”

In April, Chicago Review Press will release “The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel: The Rise of a Village Theocracy and the Battle to Defend the Separation of Church and State” by Louis Grume (former executive director of the New York State School Boards Association) and John M. Caher (Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications with the New York State Unified Court System). The publisher’s description follows:

Twenty years ago, in the middle of the night and on the last day of the legislative session, the New York State Legislature created a publicly funded school district to cater to the interests of a religious sect called the Satmar, an insular group of Hasidic Jews that objects to, among other things, female school bus drivers. The rapidly growing sect had bought land in rural Upstate New York, populated it solely with members of its faction, and created a village called Kiryas Joel that exerted extraordinary political pressure over both political parties. Marking the first time in American history that a governmental unit was established for a religious group, the legislature’s action prompted years of litigation that eventually went to the US Supreme Court. As today’s Supreme Court signals its willingness to view a religious viewpoint like any other speech and accord it equal protection, the 1994 case, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, stands as the most important legal precedent in the fight to uphold the separation of church and state. In The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel, plaintiff Louis Grumet opens a window onto the Satmar Hasidic community, where language, customs, and dress have led to estrangement from and clashes with neighboring communities, and details the inside story of his fight for the First Amendment and against New York’s most powerful politicians. Informed by numerous interviews with key figures such as Governor George Pataki, media accounts, court transcripts, and more, The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel not only tantalizes with a peek at cynical power politics driven by votes and Supreme Court justice squabbling and negotiation; it also provides an important demonstration of how a small, insular, and politically savvy religious group can grasp legal and political power. This story—a blend of politics, religion, cultural clashes, and constitutional tension—is an object lesson in the ongoing debate over freedom of versus freedom from religion.

“The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty” (eds. Schwartzman, Flanders, & Robinson)

In December, the Oxford University Press will release “The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty,” edited by Micah Schwartzman (University of Virginia School of Law), Chad Flanders (St. Louis University School of Law), and Zoë Robinson (DePaul University College of Law).  The publisher’s description follows:

What are the rights of religious institutions? Should those rights extend to for-profit corporations? Houses of worship have claimed they should be free from anti-discrimination laws in hiring and firing ministers and other employees. Faith-based institutions, including hospitals and universities, have sought exemptions from requirements to provide contraception. Now, in a surprising development, large for-profit corporations have succeeded in asserting rights to religious free exercise. The Rise of Corporate Religious Liberty explores this “corporate” turn in law and religion. Drawing on a broad range perspectives, this book examines the idea of “freedom of the church,” the rights of for-profit corporations, and the implications of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby for debates on anti-discrimination law, same-sex marriage, health care, and religious freedom.

Writeup of This Week’s Event on Religious Liberty

From the St. John’s Law School webpage, here’s a nice writeup of Tuesday’s event on religious liberty in Supreme Court jurisprudence. Thanks to Board member Richard Sullivan for participating and Board member Mary Kay Vyskocil for hosting. And to everyone who attended!

Event Tonight: Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court

Just a reminder that the Center will host a panel discussion in midtown Manhattan tonight on religious liberty at the US Supreme Court. The discussants will be myself and Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. Details and RSVP info are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Ballard and “Sincere” Religious Beliefs

Marc DeGirolami kindly referred me to United States v. Ballard on the question of how, or whether, courts should analyze a person’s “sincere” religious beliefs. The defendants in Ballard had been convicted of fraud. The misrepresentations concerned the religious “I AM” movement, which the Ballards had founded. The court instructed the jury not to consider whether the defendants’ beliefs were true or false, but whether the defendants believed them to be true. If so, they were to be acquitted. The jury convicted them of a scheme to defraud. The Court of Appeals reversed, arguing that the question of truth or falsity also needed to be presented to the jury.

The Supreme Court reversed, and found the district court had properly excluded the question of truth from the jury. The majority opinion (written by Justice Douglas) affirmed that “[t]he law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.”  Yet the majority found that the defendants could be convicted of fraud for not really believe what they said, even if the content of that belief was outside judicial notice. Justice Jackson, in dissent, stated that he could “not see how we can separate what is believed from what is ‘believable’” and warned of the potential for religious persecution. He would have affirmed the reversal of the conviction.

Ballard is regularly cited (for example in the contraceptive mandate cases) for the proposition that courts cannot question the sincerity of religious beliefs. That is true, but the result in Ballard was upheld nonetheless. The Supreme Court determined that a court could rule on the acts of the plaintiffs (there, misrepresentations) without caring whether their belief was true. Cases like the Third Circuit Zubik case are doing something similar when they hold that “free exercise jurisprudence instructs that we are to examine the act the appellees must perform—not the effect of that act—to see if it burdens substantially the appellees’ religious exercise.” There, the Court found that requiring religious institutions to fill out the accommodation form was not prohibited, because it disagreed that doing so interfered with the exercise of their religious beliefs, as the Court interpreted them.

So although the strict terms of the balance-shifting test may seem to support those seeking the accommodation, that is only a matter of drafting a statute that is better tailored to further government interests. The more basic question – who gets to decide “substantial burden” and on what grounds – still weighs against believers.

Another Mandate Defeat Teed up for the Supreme Court

Another defeat for the government. The Becket Fund is reporting that the Eighth Circuit, in two decisions released last week, affirmed a lower court’s grant of a preliminary injunction in favor of Dordt College and Cornerstone University, both religious nonprofits, among other entities, against enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, as well as the so-called “accommodation,” which permits religious entities not to comply with the direct provision of contraceptive coverage by signing a certification (the “Form 700”) that is then sent to a third-party administrator. That administrator then notifies the objecting party’s insurer, who then is supposed to arrange for coverage. This accommodation has its own problems, most clearly that many religious organizations do not feel comfortable appointing a third-party to do something which they themselves find objectionable.

The decision found that “by coercing Dordt and Cornerstone to participate in the contraceptive mandate and accommodation process under threat of severe monetary penalty, the government has substantially burdened Dordt and Cornerstone’s exercise of religion.” Because of that substantial burden, the government was required to show that the ACA mandate and accommodation served compelling government interests and did so through means least restrictive of the constitutional protection of free exercise. Relying on a similar, recent case, the appellate panel determined that the government had not used the least restrictive means, but did not rule on whether the government was furthering a compelling interest.

Significantly, the Court did not question Dordt and Cornerstone’s “sincere religious beliefs” that opposed them to the mandate and accommodation. This is in contrast to the case we looked at last week, where the dissenters argued that was precisely what the panel did in rejecting similar claims.

A number of religious non-profit petitions are now waiting Supreme Court review, though it is unclear whether the differing Circuit opinions are going to move the Supreme Court to take a case so soon after Hobby Lobby. However, the fault lines of the decisions are clear. It seems difficult to believe that the government would prevail on whether the ACA mandate and accommodation is the least restrictive means of achieving its interests, whatever the Court’s view of what those interests are. It is worth noting that those interests are not without challenge, including by federal appellate courts, as in a 2013 opinion by Judge Janice Brown, although they were assumed for the purposes of argument only in Hobby Lobby. Yet the stubborn, unknown fact on which the decision may hinge is not strictly a legal one: can the Justices understand that the accommodation itself can burden religious freedom, even if the government does not think it does? That in turn will require them to decide whether the challengers’ beliefs are sincere and given their place in the “scribal” hierarchy, that conclusion may be too much to expect.