Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law
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Committees of the U. S. House of Representatives issued subpoenas seeking information about the finances of President Trump, his children, and affiliated businesses. The subpoenas were issued to financial institutions and the President’s personal accounting firm. The President in his personal capacity, his children, and affiliated businesses argued that the subpoenas lacked a legitimate legislative purpose and violated the separation of powers. The President did not argue that any of the requested records were protected by executive privilege. The Supreme Court vacated decisions by the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit and remanded. The courts below did not take adequate account of the significant separation of powers concerns implicated by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information. A congressional subpoena is valid only if it is “related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress” and serves a “valid legislative purpose.” Congress may not issue a subpoena for the purpose of “law enforcement,” because that power is assigned to the Executive and the Judiciary. While executive privilege protections should not be transplanted to cases involving nonprivileged, private information, a limitless subpoena power could transform the established practice of the political branches and allow Congress to aggrandize itself at the President’s expense. The subpoenas at issue represent not a run-of-the-mill legislative effort but rather a clash between rival branches of government over records of intense political interest. Separation of powers concerns are no less palpable because the subpoenas were issued to third parties. A balanced approach is necessary to address those concerns. Courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers. Congress may not rely on the President’s information if other sources could reasonably provide Congress the information it needs in light of its particular legislative objective. Courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective and should be attentive to the nature of the evidence that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose. Courts should assess the burdens imposed on the President and incentives to use subpoenas for institutional advantage. Other considerations may also be pertinent. View "Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP" on Justia Law

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The New York County District Attorney’s Office served a subpoena duces tecum on the personal accounting firm of President Trump, seeking financial records relating to the President and his businesses. The President, acting in his personal capacity, sought to enjoin enforcement of the subpoena. The Second Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of injunctive relief. Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude or require a heightened standard for the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President. The Court examined precedent concerning federal subpoenas, from Aaron Burr’s motion for a subpoena directed at President Jefferson, through Monroe, Clinton, and Nixon, and concluded that, with respect to the state subpoena, the President’s “generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.” The Court rejected an argument that a state grand jury subpoena for a sitting President’s personal records must meet a heightened standard of need because of the possibility of diversion, stigma, and harassment. The President conceded that the criminal investigations are permitted under Article II and the Supremacy Clause; the receipt of a subpoena does not categorically magnify the harm to the President’s reputation and grand jury secrecy rules aim to prevent the stigma the President anticipates. Although a President cannot be treated as an “ordinary individual” when executive communications are sought, with regard to private papers, a President stands in “nearly the same situation with any other individual.” Absent a need to protect the Executive, the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence. A President may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen, including the right to challenge the subpoena on grounds permitted by state law, such as bad faith and undue burden or breadth. A President can raise subpoena-specific constitutional challenges in either a state or a federal forum and can challenge the subpoena as an attempt to influence the performance of his official duties, in violation of the Supremacy Clause. View "Trump v. Vance" on Justia Law

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) requires covered employers to provide women with “preventive care and screenings” without cost-sharing requirements and relies on Preventive Care Guidelines “supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration” (HRSA) to define “preventive care and screenings,” 42 U.S.C. 300gg–13(a)(4). Those Guidelines mandate that health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods. When the Federal Departments incorporated the Guidelines, they gave HRSA the discretion to exempt religious employers from providing contraceptive coverage. Later, the Departments promulgated a rule accommodating qualifying religious organizations, allowing them to opt out of coverage by self-certifying that they met certain criteria to their health insurance issuer, which would then exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without any cost-sharing requirements. In its 2014 “Hobby Lobby” decision, the Supreme Court held that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened the free exercise of closely-held corporations with sincerely held religious objections. In a later decision, the Court remanded challenges to the self-certification accommodation so that the parties could develop an approach that would accommodate employers’ concerns while providing women full and equal coverage. The Departments then promulgated interim final rules. One significantly expanded the church exemption to include an employer that objects, based on its sincerely held religious beliefs, to coverage or payments for contraceptive services. Another created an exemption for employers with sincerely held moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage. The Third Circuit affirmed a preliminary nationwide injunction against the implementation of the rules. The Supreme Court reversed. The Departments had the authority under the ACA to promulgate the exemptions. Section 300gg–13(a)(4) states that group health plans must provide preventive care and screenings “as provided for” in comprehensive guidelines, granting HRSA sweeping authority to define that preventive care and to create exemptions from its Guidelines. Concerns that the exemptions thwart Congress’ intent by making it significantly harder for women to obtain seamless access to contraception without cost-sharing cannot justify supplanting that plain meaning. “It is clear ... that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The rules promulgating the exemptions are free from procedural defects. View "Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Montana grants tax credits to those who donate to organizations that award scholarships for private school tuition. To reconcile the program with the Montana Constitution, which bars government aid to any school “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination,” the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated “Rule 1,” which prohibited families from using the scholarships at religious schools. Parents sued, alleging that the Rule discriminated on the basis of religion. The Montana Supreme Court held that the program, unmodified by Rule 1, aided religious schools in violation of the Montana Constitution’s no-aid provision and that the violation required invalidating the entire program. The Supreme Court remanded. The application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution. Disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit “solely because of their religious character” imposes “a penalty on the free exercise of religion that triggers the most exacting scrutiny. Montana’s no-aid provision does not zero in on any essentially religious course of instruction but bars aid to a religious school “simply because of what it is.” The protections of the Free Exercise Clause do not depend on a case-by-case analysis. To satisfy strict scrutiny, government action must advance interests of the highest order and must be narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests. Montana’s interest in creating a greater separation of church and state than the U.S. Constitution requires cannot qualify as compelling. The Montana Supreme Court was obligated to disregard the no-aid provision and decide this case consistent with the Federal Constitution. View "Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue" on Justia Law

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Following the 2008 financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), was established by the Dodd-Frank Act as an independent regulatory agency tasked with ensuring that consumer debt products are safe and transparent. The administration of 18 existing federal statutes was transferred to CFPB. A new prohibition on unfair and deceptive practices in the consumer-finance sector, 12 U.S.C. 5536(a)(1)(B), gave CFPB extensive rulemaking, enforcement, and adjudicatory powers, including the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas and civil investigative demands, initiate administrative adjudications, prosecute civil actions in federal court, and issue binding decisions in administrative proceedings. CFPB is led by a single Director, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a five-year term, during which the President may remove the Director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance,” 12 U.S.C. 5491(c)(1),(3). CFPB issued a civil investigative demand to Seila, a law firm that provides debt-related legal services. The Ninth Circuit affirmed an order requiring that Seila comply. The Supreme Court vacated. CFPB’s leadership by a single individual removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers. Precedent has established two exceptions to the President’s unrestricted removal power: for a multi-member body of experts who were balanced along partisan lines, appointed to staggered terms, performed only “quasi-legislative” and “quasi-judicial functions,” and were not to exercise executive power, and for an inferior officer—an independent counsel—who had limited duties and no policymaking or administrative authority. Neither of those exceptions applies to CFPB. The Court declined to extend the precedents to an independent agency led by a single Director and vested with significant executive power. CFPB’s structure has no foothold in history or tradition and is incompatible with the Constitution, which—with the sole exception of the Presidency—avoids concentrating power in the hands of any single individual. The Director’s five-year term and receipt of funds outside the appropriations process heighten the concern that the agency will slip from the Executive’s control and from that of the people. The Court found the Director’s removal protection severable from the other provisions of Dodd-Frank that establish CFPB. View "Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" on Justia Law

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The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 limited the funding of American and foreign nongovernmental organizations to those with “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking,” 22 U.S.C. 7631(f). In 2013, that Policy Requirement was held to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech when applied to American organizations. Those American organizations then challenged the requirement’s constitutionality when applied to their legally distinct foreign affiliates. The Second Circuit affirmed that the government was prohibited from enforcing the requirement against the foreign affiliates. The Supreme Court reversed. The plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates possess no First Amendment rights. Foreign citizens outside U.S. territory do not possess rights under the U. S. Constitution and separately incorporated organizations are separate legal units with distinct legal rights and obligations. The Court rejected an argument that a foreign affiliate’s policy statement may be attributed to the plaintiffs, noting that there is no government compulsion to associate with another entity. Even protecting the free speech rights of only those foreign organizations that are closely identified with American organizations would deviate from the fundamental principle that foreign organizations operating abroad do not possess rights under the U.S. Constitution. The 2013 decision did not facially invalidate the Act’s funding condition, suggest that the First Amendment requires the government to exempt plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates from the Policy Requirement, or purport to override constitutional law and corporate law principles. View "Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioners solicited foreign nationals to invest in a cancer-treatment center. A Securities and Exchange Commission investigation revealed they misappropriated the funds. The SEC may seek “equitable relief” in civil proceedings, 15 U.S.C. 78u(d)(5). The SEC brought a civil action for disgorgement equal to the amount raised from investors. Petitioners argued that the remedy failed to account for their legitimate business expenses. The Ninth Circuit affirmed an order holding Petitioners jointly and severally liable for the full amount. The Supreme Court vacated A disgorgement award that does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits and is awarded for victims is equitable relief authorized under section 78u(d)(5). Equity practice has long authorized courts to strip wrongdoers of their ill-gotten gains; to avoid transforming that remedy into a punitive sanction, courts restrict it to an individual wrongdoer’s net profits to be awarded for victims. These long-standing equitable principles were incorporated into section 78u(d)(5). If on remand the court orders the deposit of the profits with the Treasury, the court should evaluate whether that order would be for the benefit of investors, consistent with equitable principles. Imposing disgorgement liability on a wrongdoer for benefits that accrue to his affiliates through joint-and-several liability runs against the rule in favor of holding defendants individually liable but the common law permitted liability for partners engaged in concerted wrongdoing. On remand, the court may determine whether Petitioners can, consistent with equitable principles, be found liable for profits as partners in wrongdoing or whether individual liability is required. The court must deduct legitimate expenses before awarding disgorgement. View "Liu v. Securities and Exchange Commission" on Justia Law

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In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows certain unauthorized aliens who arrived in the U.S. as children to apply for a two-year forbearance of removal to become eligible for work authorization and various federal benefits. Two years later, a related program, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), proposed to make 4.3 million parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents eligible for the same forbearance, work eligibility, and other benefits. States obtained a nationwide preliminary injunction barring implementation of both. The Fifth Circuit upheld the injunction, concluding that the program violated the Immigration and Nationality Act, which defines eligibility for benefits. The Supreme Court affirmed. In 2017, DHS rescinded the DAPA Memorandum. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Duke then rescinded DACA. Following decisions by the Second, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits, the Supreme Court held that DHS’s rescission decision was arbitrary and capricious. As a preliminary matter, the Court held that the decision is reviewable under the APA, rejecting an argument that DACA is a general non-enforcement policy. The DACA Memorandum did not merely decline to institute enforcement proceedings; it created a program for conferring affirmative immigration relief. The parties did not challenge any removal proceedings so that judicial review would be barred by 8 U.S.C. 1252. The Court declined to consider additional justifications for the decision that were offered nine months later. Judicial review of agency action is limited to the grounds that the agency invoked when it took the action. The later justifications bore little relationship to those offered originally and constitute “post hoc rationalization.” Acting Secretary Duke’s rescission memorandum failed to consider important aspects of the issue, such as eliminating benefits eligibility while continuing forbearance. In failing to consider that option, Duke failed to supply the “reasoned analysis” required by the APA. Duke also failed to address whether there was “legitimate reliance” on the DACA Memorandum. DHS has flexibility in addressing reliance interests and could have considered various accommodations. View "Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of University of California" on Justia Law

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Atlantic sought to construct a 604-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, crossing 16 miles of land within the George Washington National Forest. Atlantic secured a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, obtaining a right-of-way for a 0.1-mile segment of pipe 600 feet below a portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which also crosses the National Forest. The Fourth Circuit vacated the permit. The Supreme Court reversed. The Department of the Interior’s assignment of responsibility for the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the Trail land into land within the National Park System that is not eligible for a pipeline lease. The Forest Service had the authority to issue the special use permit. Under 16 U.S.C. 521, the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the National Forest. The National Trails System Act, 16 U.S.C. 244(a), applies to the Appalachian Trail; the Secretary of the Interior has delegated to the National Park System the authority to enter into “rights-of-way” agreements for the Trail. The Leasing Act enables any “appropriate agency head” to grant “[r]ights-of-way through any Federal lands . . . for pipeline purposes,” 30 U.S.C. 185(a), except lands in the National Park System. The National Park System is administered by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, 54 U.S.C. 100501. The Forest Service “right-of-way” agreements with the National Park Service for the Appalachian Trail did not convert National Forest “Federal lands” under the Leasing Act into “lands” within the “National Park System.” A right-of-way grant only nonpossessory rights of use. Although the federal government owns all lands involved, a right-of-way between two agencies grants only an easement, not jurisdiction over the land itself. View "United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association" on Justia Law

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Congress invoked its Article IV power to enact the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). PROMESA created a Financial Oversight and Management Board, whose seven voting members are to be appointed by the President without the Senate’s advice and consent. Congress authorized the Board to file for bankruptcy, to supervise and modify Puerto Rico’s laws and budget, and to conduct related investigations. President Obama selected the Board’s members. The Board filed bankruptcy petitions on behalf of the Commonwealth and five of its entities. Creditors moved to dismiss the proceedings, arguing that the Board members’ selection violated the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, under which the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . all . . . Officers of the United States.” The First Circuit held that the Board members’ selection violated the Appointments Clause. The Supreme Court reversed. Congress’ longstanding practice of requiring the Senate’s advice and consent for territorial Governors with important federal duties supports the inference that Congress expected the Appointments Clause to apply to at least some officials with supervisory authority over the Territories. A federal law’s creation of an office, however, does not automatically make its holder an officer of the United States. The Appointments Clause does not restrict the appointment of local officers that Congress vests with primarily local duties. Congress has long legislated for (non-state) entities by making local law directly and creating local government structures, staffed by local officials, who make and enforce local law. The history of Puerto Rico—whose officials with local responsibilities have been selected in ways inconsistent with the Appointments Clause—is consistent with the history of other entities that fall under Article IV and with the District of Columbia's history. The Board members here have primarily local powers and duties. PROMESA says that the Board “shall not be considered a department, agency, establishment, or instrumentality of the Federal Government.” Congress gave the Board a structure, duties, and related powers consistent with this statement. View "Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico v. Aurelius Investment, LLC" on Justia Law