Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: Because Apparently a Dispute Over Cake is a Perfect Microchasm of 2017

Bad facts make bad law, which is why the Supreme Court erred in granting certiorari in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Rights Commission. Regardless, the court hears argument in the case on Tuesday, so let’s preview it.

As a reminder, Jack Phillips, a baker in Denver, refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. When he was predictably sued, he claimed that his First Amendment rights protect him from anti-discrimination statutes. For more of a legal analysis of the merits, I have reviewed the case here. In a nutshell, Phillips does not have a legitimate claim, because one cannot discriminate at will simply because he sells things which happen to contain aspects of expression. Otherwise, anti-discrimination statutes would cease to have meaning or teeth.

Despite this fact, the court granted cert, notably in unusual fashion, where it re-listed the case eighteen times only to finally grant the case. And naturally, the U.S. government joined the baker.

As I have made clear, the court should not have taken this case, but not for the reasons one might think. I do not have a problem with Phillips claiming that his cakes are expressive; most of them probably are. Rather, the problem is that the facts fail to raise close questions of what constitutes compelled speech in the context of commercial goods and services.

Unfortunately for Mr. Phillips, he refused to bake a cake without even knowing what the cake would be, and his protestations of being a “cake artist” miss the point entirely. If Jackson Pollock (or Duff Goldman) himself refused to sell his art to African-Americans, he would not be protected by the First Amendment, even though Pollock was undoubtably an artist and his pieces were certainly expressive. If Phillips refused to sell a plain white cake to for an interracial wedding, his claims would have no chance. Changing “interracial wedding” to “same-sex wedding” makes no difference constitutionally, yet here we are.

Obviously, anti-discrimination statutes have limits. When minority actors were cast as all of the leads in Hamilton, I could not legitimately claim that my rights were violated, even though I have “Guns and Ships” down pat. These casting decisions are made for purely expressive purposes, they are critical to the artwork, and they are protected by the First Amendment. Now, if Hamilton refused to sell tickets based on race, that is where the show would lose First Amendment protections. To put it in dad-humor form, Hamilton’s First Amendment rights would lose the duel to the audience’s anti-discrimination protections.

The gay couple in Masterpiece Cakeshop was Hamilton’s ticket-buying audience, not the auditioning actor. Refusing services to specific classes of people is one of our most historically pernicious practices, and one which finds no shelter in our (current) constitution. Phillips did not even bother to ask what kind of cake the couple wanted. This was not about the cake, it was about Phillips not liking gay marriage and denying his goods and services – in any form – on that basis. This case should be easy.

Now, I doubt that respondents’ time at oral argument will be a cakewalk (sorry again). Of the eight talking justices, two will certainly be against them. Justice Alito will surely offer pointed hypotheticals designed to expose flaws in the couple’s argument; that’s what he does, and he is quite good at it. Justice Gorsuch will arrogantly offer hanging curveballs – which he thinks are 101mph fastballs – to the couple’s counsel and the liberal justices. But other than those two plus Justice Thomas, I just dont see Phillips’ argument gaining traction. He has no chance with the four liberal justices, and Justice Kennedy will take umbrage with the plain white cake scenario and the racial analogies. At best, Chief Justice Roberts might vote for Phillips on a narrow basis, but that still gets Phillips to four votes, not five.

In the end, the Supreme Court could and should have taken a true compelled speech case in order to tease out of interplay between the First Amendment and anti-discrimination statutes. But it didn’t, and now the Justices are left with egg (and sugar, and butter, and flour) on their faces.

“Some Group of Computer Experts” and Their “Sociological Gobbledygook”: Oral Argument In Gill v. Whitford

Gill v. Whitford involves the most blatant, egregious instance of political gerrymandering that our country has seen in a very long time. This is ironic, because while the facts at issue may compel five justices to take action, they will probably be irrelevant to the Court’s ultimate holding.

Last term, I wrote about the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Gill v. Whitford, a momentous political gerrymandering case involving redistricting of the Wisconsin state house districts. Over the summer, merits briefs were filed and the Court heard argument on Tuesday morning. The respondents – citizens of Wisconsin – have demonstrated unimpeachable evidence that the GOP-controlled Wisconsin State Assembly intentionally drew maps with the express intent to disproportionately maximize the number of GOP districts, in the most aggressive, brazen ways possible (resulting in winning 60% of the assembly seats with only 47% of the vote). Their facts are based on concrete scientific and mathematical findings, as well as unprecedented evidence of intent to redraw lines for purely political ends. This much is really beyond dispute, which is probably why the case is before the Supreme Court in the first place.

The Court has two much bigger legal questions before it, neither of which actually require discussion of any facts: 1) are political gerrymandering claims justiciable at all, and 2) if so, what is an appropriate, manageable standard with which to analyze those claims? In a way, the case is so appealing because the facts approach the logical conclusion of this issue – if there ever is to be a finding of an unconstitutional political gerrymander, this is it.

But that is essentially where the facts end and the legal issues begin. In a prior case, Vieth v. Jubilerer, four justices found that political gerrymandering cases were non-justiciable and four justices said that they were justiciable and that a workable standard existed. Then there was Justice Kennedy, who found that no manageable standard had been presented, but left open the possibility that one might exist in the future. A prior case held that such claims were justiciable, but the court in that instance fractured on the specifics of the standard.

Predictably, finding a manageable standard was on everyone’s minds at oral argument. The Wisconsin Solicitor General began her argument by stating, “This Court has never uncovered judicial and manageable standards for determining when politicians have acted too politically in drawing district lines.” Counsel for the Wisconsin State Senate also began her argument by proclaiming, “Plaintiffs have not identified a workable standard…” They might as well have stared directly at Justice Kennedy.

Justice Breyer, for his part, cut even further to the heart of the issue, explaining why all the mathematical mapping models on earth could not help the plaintiffs unless they identified a workable standard: “Because I think the hard issue in this case is are there standards manageable by a Court, not by some group of social science political ex — you know, computer experts.” Put differently, again by Justice Breyer, “When I read all that social science stuff and the computer stuff, I said, well, what — is there a way of reducing it to something that’s manageable?”

That is why, at oral argument, the actual facts of the case were barely discussed.  True, the justices did thoroughly address S-curves, Efficiency Gaps (EG) and other mathematical modeling, but mostly in the context of determining the judicial manageability of using those tools. Chief Justice Roberts aggressively attacked the Plaintiffs’ reliance on mathematical modeling, calling it “sociological gobbledygook” and forcefully asserting that, “It is just not [] a palatable answer to say the ruling was based on the fact that EG was greater than 7 percent.  That doesn’t sound like language in the Constitution.” Plaintiff’s counsel struggled to parry attacks as to this issue, particularly when he attempted to use statistical modeling in establishing a manageable legal standard. There appear to be four justices who reject the use of mathematical modeling in evaluating a political gerrymandering claim.

Ultimately, however, Justice Kennedy seemed quite skeptical of Wisconsin’s argument that no act of political gerrymandering could ever be unconstitutional, no matter how brazen. He repeatedly questioned counsel for the Wisconsin State Senate on whether a state could amend its constitution to mandate that district maps would be drawn to maximize votes for a particular party. He seemed thoroughly dissatisfied with counsel’s answer, which suggests that he believes that political gerrymandering could run afoul of the constitution, albeit possibly in only the most blatant cases.

But no matter how this case comes out, the actual facts involved likely will not play a major role, beyond simply convincing Justice Kennedy to come off the sidelines and adopt a workable standard. For example, if political gerrymandering is held to be non-justiciable, then the facts would never have mattered. On the other hand, if Justice Kennedy can agree to a manageable standard, then the case will most likely be remanded back to the lower court to re-apply the facts to this new standard, albeit with the understanding that these facts probably clear whatever hurdle the high court implements. If the court adopts the standard implemented by the District Court, then the District Court’s decision will be affirmed.

So, again, as compelling as the facts may be, they do not really matter once they have cajoled Justice Kennedy onto the field.

SCOTUS Takes Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

On the last day of the term, the Supreme Court granted cert in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It shouldn’t have. Objectively straightforward, the case involves First Amendment claims made by Masterpiece Cakeshop and its owner, Jack Phillips, which are foreclosed by existing precedent and have been rejected by every court, judge and agency to consider them.

The facts are simple and unfortunate. Jack Phillips owns a suburban Denver bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop. Charlie Craig and David Mullins are a same-sex couple that married out of state and then returned to Colorado to celebrate their nuptials with friends and family. For the occasion, they sought a wedding cake. Unfortunately, they went to Masterpiece Cakeshop and were met by Phillips in the store. That’s where things went south. Craig and Mullins indicated that they wanted a cake for their wedding, without providing any additional details whatsoever. However, Phillips refused to serve them, without knowing any details about the cake they wanted. Phillips explained that he had a policy of not selling cakes for same-sex weddings, but that they could purchase something else there if they wanted. Oh.

Colorado has an anti-discrimination statute (“the Act”) barring discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry. Phillips and his bakery violated this statute by their behavior towards Craig and Mullins – that much is not disputed.

Craig and Mullins then filed a charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which conducted an investigation and found that Masterpiece Cakeshop violated the Act. The Colorado Attorney General then filed an administrative action, wherein summary judgment was granted against Masterpiece Cakeshop. The company then appealed to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and then to the Colorado Court of Appeals, losing all along the way. The Colorado Supreme Court denied the company’s petition for review. The company and its owner, Phillips, then petitioned for cert to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the petition last week after a whopping 14 re-lists. Phillips and his company make two claims: that the decision violates their rights of free speech and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

The free exercise claim is straightforward. In Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 885 (1990), an individual was denied unemployment benefits after he was fired for the religious use of peyote. In rejecting the former employee’s Free Exercise claim, the Court found that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” Id. at 879. Thus, a generally applicable law such as one banning peyote does not violate the Free Exercise claim just because it happens to bar conduct that some engage in for religious reasons. Likewise, non-discrimination statutes such as the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act do not target religion, they simply prohibit discrimination on the basis of a protected class. Said statutes are valid, neutral, and of general applicability. Countless similar anti-discrimination statutes across the country have been validated on that basis.

That Phillips, the store owner, doesn’t want to follow the law is irrelevant. Phillips argues that he believes that god would be displeased by Phillips’ participation in a same-sex wedding. That’s his right to believe that, but it doesn’t exempt him from anti-discrimination statutes. Some misguided people believe that god is displeased when a woman has a full-time job instead of being a housewife; but if a manager at Fedex Office refused to print all married women’s resumes on that basis, the Free Exercise claim would grant him no reprieve.

Jack Phillips is essentially asking the Supreme Court to punch a religion-sized hole in all anti-discrimination statutes, for everyone. This would have disastrous consequences. For example, a CEO buys into the disgusting stereotype that women are of inferior intellect and therefore he refuses to hire them? Well, under Phillips’ logic, as long as the CEO’s beliefs stem from his religious preferences, suddenly he would be free from the shackles of non-discrimination statutes. A restaurant doesn’t want to serve African-Americans? As long as his religion proscribes the mixing of races, then he is in the clear. Or, if Phillips wanted to refuse making cakes for interracial marriages, under his logic he could do that too. Obviously, this position is untenable.

Lastly, Phillips argues that various prior rulings in other cases by the Colorado Civil Service Commission render its application of the Act no longer one of neutral applicability, thus requiring strict scrutiny review. That argument was rejected repeatedly in the lower courts. Even if it is valid, however, the Supreme Court is not a court of error correction. Even if the Supreme Court was concerned regarding the Colorado Civil Service Commission’s past application of the otherwise lawful Act, this is hardly a reason to take the case; at best, even in that circumstance, the Supreme Court could have simply GVR’ed the case back to the Colorado courts on that issue. Simply put, the Supreme Court takes cases about the intersection of discrimination statutes and the First Amendment, not whether the Colorado Civil Service Commission may have erred in its application of law. That’s not what the Supreme Court is here for, and it says as such repeatedly. Indeed, Rule 10 of the Supreme Court Rules, “Consideration Governing Review on Writ of Certiorari,” states, “[a] petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the misapplication of a properly stated rule of law.”

Then there’s the free speech claim. The only problem is that no speech is involved. Phillips was not asked to put specific words on a cake. He wasn’t asked even to make a specific design. He didn’t have any information except: gay wedding. On that basis alone, he refused to serve Mullins and Smith. The cake could have been plain white with no text. It could have been a pre-made sheet cake sitting in a display case. It could have been a cake design traditionally used for birthday parties. It didn’t matter to him. This demonstrates that it wasn’t the particular design or speech that Phillips objected to, it was the very concept of providing a cake – any cake – for a same-sex wedding. In fact, Phillips admits as such in his cert petition, indicating that he does not make cakes for same-sex weddings because “Phillips’ religious conviction compels him to create cakes celebrating only marriages that are consistent with his understanding of God’s design.” The particular speech or design of the cake was irrelevant.

This case is about doing, not speaking. And Colorado is plainly allowed to regulate conduct to proscribe discriminatory behavior. “Where the government does not target conduct on the basis of its expressive content, acts are not shielded from regulation merely because they express a discriminatory idea or philosophy.” R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minn., 505 U.S. 377, 390 (1992).

Phillips makes the argument that forcing him to make gay wedding cakes sends the message that he agrees with the concept of gay marriage. Again, examples demonstrate the fallacy of this argument. Could another baker refuse to serve an interracial couple because doing so might send the message that he or she agreed with interracial marriage? Could a KKK grand wizard who owns a diner refuse to serve African-Americans, since doing so might send the message that he didn’t support white supremacy? Countless examples exist to undercut Phillips’ flawed argument.

To be sure, the closer question is whether the Act could mandate specific speech on the cake. But that’s not what’s going on here. Phillips hadn’t agreed to bake the cake and then balked when instructed to put certain verbiage on the cake. He wasn’t asked to write “I support gay marriage” or “god loves gay marriage”. He was asked to make a cake; that many cakes happen to have expressive aspects is not dispositive, especially since Phillips refused the couple before knowing what if any speech or expression was actually involved.

Neither is it persuasive that Phillips is – as he says in his briefs – a “cake artist”. Phillips’ self-professed artistry doesn’t exclude him from anti-discrimination statutes. Do wedding dancers, or a wedding DJ, or a wedding caterer possess the constitutional right to only perform for Christian weddings, on the basis that they are artists who believed that God only prefers Christian weddings? Obviously not.

That’s why its so puzzling that the Supreme Court took this case. This case is easy, and any complicated aspects of it relate only to the application of facts to law. Again, a future baker in a similar situation would have a much more plausible case if he was asked to actually put pen to paper (or pastry bag to cake, as the case may be). There are indeed some interesting questions: When is business conduct sufficiently imbued with expression so as to trigger First Amendment protection? When can the free exercise of religion permit businesses to engage in otherwise-proscribed conduct? When do anti-discrimination statutes impermissibly infringe on First Amendment rights? Would Phillips possess a claim under a state or federal RFRA statute? However, these questions really just aren’t implicated here.

That four Justices took this case is troubling. That the case languished in re-list purgatory until after Justice Gorsuch took the bench is even more troubling. This suggests that before his arrival, the court felt that it would be headed for a 4-4 deadlock. Now, it looks like there may be five in Phillips’ favor. True, the Court could issue a very limited decision reversing and remanding based on some specific error it found in the Colorado courts’ reasoning or specific application of law. That might be one of the better-case scenarios at this point, and the Court has done this in some other cases recently, like Hernandez v. Mesa and Los Angeles v. Mendez. Or it could go the Trinity v. Comer route and include a footnote limiting the holding to the specific set of facts at issue. But as I said above, the Supreme Court really isn’t here to discuss the finer points of the logic of the Colorado Civil Service Commission. Thus, you have to think that the Court is ready to reach the merits of this case head-on, with at least a few of the Justices primed to rule in Phillips’ favor. That is nothing to celebrate.

Trinity Lutheran v. Comer: We Talkin’ About Playgrounds?

The Court ruled this week in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, the church playground tire case that I previously wrote about. This post will discuss the majority opinion’s attempt – perhaps a futile one – to blunt the extent of its holding via what I’ll call a “limiting provision”, and I’ll discuss other cases where the Supreme Court has similarly attempted to artificially limit the scope of its holding essentially by saying as such, even if the actual rationale of the court suggests otherwise.

I. Trinity Lutheran: What’s Behind Footnote Number 3?

But first, some background. In Trinity Lutheran, a church applied for a state grant for reimbursement to buy tire scraps to use as a safe surface for its playground. What some might generously call the center of the Court – Chief Justice Roberts writing for Justices Kennedy, Kagan, and Alito (I know, I know, he’s not moderate, but he sure ain’t Justices Thomas or Gorsuch) – found that prohibiting Trinity Lutheran Church from the Missouri tire scrap program solely because it was a church ran afoul of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. Justice Breyer, also certainly considered to be a moderate, concurred in the judgment only. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented. That leaves Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, and it gets us to Footnote 3 of the majority opinion. Thomas and Gorsuch concurred with the entirety of Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion… except for footnote 3.

Footnote 3 stated, “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” The intent of this footnote was clearly to placate the more liberal members of the majority. See, this case is seen by some as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an attempt by the religious right to destroy the wall between church and state. The thinking goes, once the court blesses – indeed, mandates – government funding of a church, then the Establishment Clause ceases to have the same effect. Sure, this is about playgrounds, but the next case will be about government funding of prayer books, or religious schools, etc. Plus, the court is now requiring the government to pay churches; that money – while earmarked for playground tire scraps – can now be used for any religious purpose whatsoever. So, footnote 3 basically says, to paraphrase Allen Iverson, “we talkin’ about playgrounds.”

But is that actually persuasive? Just because the majority claims that the holding doesn’t apply to religious uses, that doesn’t mean the majority’s rationale wouldn’t also then apply to such uses in a later case. Essentially, all the Court is saying is that it isn’t right now applying its rationale to more religious uses of funds. The Court’s rationale in the case is that denying government funding based on religious status is subject to the “most rigorous scrutiny.” That test would presumably apply to any denial of government funds to religious organizations. Who says that avoiding Establishment Clause concerns is a compelling interest? So, Footnote 3 rings somewhat hollow.

That got me thinking – when has the Court as used similar limiting language in other opinions, and what has been the effectiveness? The two big cases that come to mind are Bush v. Gore and U.S. v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act case. Both times, the Court’s attempts to limit its Opinion to its particular facts was not very effective, but its up for debate if it was actually intended to be, or whether it was a way of placating certain members of the Court.

II. Bush v. Gore: “You Guys Should Just Totally Ignore What We’re Saying Here.”

We all remember Bush v. Gore. Considered by many to be a disgracefully political moment for the Court, the case was technically about whether “the use of standardless manual recounts violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.” The Court found an Establishment clause violation, but instead of treating its opinion like any other, the Court tried to avoid giving precedential value to its own opinion: “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.” Being embarrassed about the logic of one’s argument typically doesn’t help the legitimacy of said argument, but hey, there was a presidential election to be decided.

Regardless of the Court’s intent, Bush v. Gore has now been cited repeatedly, and CaseText lists 337 cases referencing or citing to it. While that’s not nothing, another big case from 2001, Kyllo v. United States, has been cited 1,060 times, though that’s one with more applicability than Bush v. Gore. On the other hand, a big case from OT1999, Boy Scouts v. Dale, has only been cited 309 times. So, it’s fair to say that Bush v. Gore has indeed been cited with some degree of normalcy.

III. U.S v. Windsor: Justice Scalia Is Bad At Checkers And Worse At Chess

Then there’s U.S. v. Windsor, the DOMA case. There, the Court was tasked with determining whether a federal law not recognizing same-sex marriages violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses. Famously, after the Court provided a number of reasons why refusal to recognize same-sex marriages violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the Court then ended its Opinion by stating, “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.” This was intended to mean that the opinion did not apply to states’ non-recognition of same-sex marriages and only applied to federal non-recognition.

This was laughably transparent at the time, and everyone and their mothers (plural) knew that the court was eventually going to find that states’ prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The Court just spent 25 pages (adeptly and convincingly) explaining the obvious reasons why refusing to recognize same-sex marriage was blatantly unconstitutional. Then the Court ends the opinion with, “oh yeah, we are only talking about the federal government here (wink).”

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts saw what was obviously going on, but didn’t take the bait. Seeing that lower courts would inevitably use the majority opinion’s logic in subsequent same-sex marriage cases against states unless the court’s limiting language was taken seriously, the Chief Justice tried to convince the world to take the majority at its word: “But while I disagree with the result to which the majority’s analysis leads it in this case, I think it more important to point out that its analysis leads no further… In my view, though, the disclaimer is a logical and necessary consequence of the argument the majority has chosen to adopt.” Ok, sure.

While the Chief Justice played chess, Justice Scalia played checkers. Justice Scalia essentially wrote future plaintiffs’ briefs for them, explaining how the rationale of the majority opinion could  in fact be applied in challenges to states’ same-sex marriage bans. He went so far as to cross out references to DOMA in the majority opinion and insert “the state’s laws”, thus demonstrating how the majority opinion really does demonstrate why same-sex marriages bans are unconstitutional. Pointing out the obvious – which everyone else was smart enough to understand but not verbalize – Justice Scalia’s dissent was ultimately used by countless lower courts to demonstrate why state same-sex marriage bans were indeed unconstitutional.

Honestly, I find it hard to believe that Justice Kennedy didn’t know at the time that he believed all same-sex marriage bans to be unconstitutional. After all, two years later to the day, he wrote his opinion in Obergefell striking down all same-sex marriage bans. More likely, the language in Windsor was intended to try and placate conservative justices. Obviously, it didn’t quite work, but it also didn’t matter.

IV. Alright, Back To Trinity Lutheran

This gets us back to Trinity Lutheran. I have a feeling that Footnote 3 was negotiated to placate Justice Kagan and possibly Justice Kennedy. The Court recently did something similar in LA v. Mendez, an excessive force case, where it had a random, un-numbered footnote basically saying that the Court wasn’t holding that the particular facts of the case constituted reasonable force; rather, if a lower court finds that the force used was reasonable, then the plaintiff had no other avenue of maintaining an excessive force claim.

It seems inevitable that the Court will again revisit the issue of governments refusing to fund religious organization’s religious use of funds, and the need to draw clear lines will become more important. So, the Court’s logic here may indeed be used later. The Chief Justice does that adeptly – using his own logic in a prior case as a jumping off point to ultimately do something big and conservative. For example, he used his own rationale in Northwest Austin v. Holder to ultimately strike down the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provisions four years later in Shelby County v. Holder. Again, chess not checkers.

So, at this point, it remains to be seen what the ultimate effect of the Court’s Opinion in Trinity Lutheran will be, and same with Footnote 3. But, don’t be surprised if a few years down the line, the Chief Justice sheds that footnote and uses this case to find for religious institutions in cases down the road.

The Supreme Court Decides Lee v. U.S.: Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

Back in March, I reviewed Lee v. U.S., which at the time was about to be argued before the Supreme Court. The case involves a nearly life-long U.S. permanent resident who pled to CDS possession with intent to distribute with the incorrect understanding that doing so would expressly avoid the possibility of deportation, when in reality it guaranteed deportation. The Defendant, Jae Lee, who also owned a restaurant (Let’s review: immigrant restaurant owner and drug dealer not named Gus Fring) and had deep connections to the U.S., had no defense and almost certainly would have been convicted and deported anyway. The government admitted ineffective assistance of counsel, so the only issue left under Supreme Court precedent – specifically Strickland v. U.S. – was whether the defendant had been prejudiced. That hinged on whether losing one’s ability to throw a Hail Mary and risk it at trial constituted prejudice.

This week, the court ruled in Lee’s favor, resolving a deep circuit split on the issue. (Also, “Circuit Split” should either be the name for the banana split at the Supreme Court cafeteria or the title of a rom-com where an appellate judge divorces and then falls back in love with an electrician).  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the entire Court except Thomas and Alito, stated that to an individual with deep ties to the U.S. and virtually no ties to his/her original county, risking a plea deal in order to hang onto a sliver of hope of avoiding deportation is perfectly rational. “But for his attorney’s incompetence, Lee would have known that accepting the plea agreement would certainly lead to deportation. Going to trial? Almost certainly.” (I’ll pat myself on the back here, since in my initial post about this case I said that “it’s the ‘almost’ part of ‘almost certain’ that is key.”). The Court also relied on the fact that Lee really did make it clear that his decision was truly based on the mistaken belief that the plea would avoid deportation. Because the attorney’s incorrect advise foreclosed Lee from making a rational decision as to whether to proceed to trial, Lee could make out his Strickland claim.

Justice Thomas, joined by Alito, dissented. Notably, Alito joined the entirety of Justice Thomas’ dissent except Thomas’ position that “the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution does not require counsel to provide accurate advice concerning the potential removal consequences of a guilty plea.” That is a staggering claim, and one in which only one sitting Justice seems to hold. The rest of Justice Thomas’ dissent centered on the fact that Lee had no reasonable chance at trial and was therefore not prejudiced — essentially, what the Sixth Circuit said. Justice Thomas believed that the majority announced a “novel standard” for constitutional ineffectiveness of counsel claims; if there’s ever a way to ensure a Justice Thomas dissent, just say the words “novel” and “constitution” in the same sentence.

The case shouldn’t have too many doctrinal implications, but it does make clear that prejudice in Strickland cases can include being denied an understanding of the consequences of a plea versus a trial, beyond simply pleading guilty. As the Court stated, “[t]he decision whether to plead guilty also involves assessing the respective consequences of a conviction after trial and by plea. When those consequences are, from the defendant’s perspective, similarly dire, even the smallest chance of success at trial may look attractive.” That’s ultimately the takeaway from this case.

Finally, what will actually happen to Lee now is an open question. A new trial will soon be ordered, and the case could go to trial, where the overwhelming odds are that Lee will be convicted and then deported. Or, the government could decide to offer a plea to a reduced charge  without the possibility of deportation. Lee voluntarily chose to remain in U.S. detention for six additional years after serving his one-year sentence rather than accept deportation, and so at this point he has already endured a lengthy prison term. It is reasonable for the government to simply offer time served on a reduced charge not carrying the possibility of deportation.

The Supreme Court (Barely) Rules On Hernandez v. Mesa

A few months ago, I wrote about Hernandez v. Mesa, the case of a cross-border shooting of a Mexican teen by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Today, instead of issuing a big opinion on the rights of aliens abroad or police shootings or extraterritorial jurisdiction, the quietly Court issued a per curiam slip opinion vacating the lower court’s ruling and remanding in the least exciting way possible.

When I wrote about this case last, I warned that the court might “punt[] like Ray Guy” or issue a very narrow ruling on Bivens grounds (I also suggested that the Court might also issue a big ruling on extraterritorial jurisdiction, so what do I know?). Well, that’s what they did. If you recall, in granting cert, the court added the question of whether plaintiff’s claims could be asserted under Bivens, even though the circuit court did not address that question below.

Today, the Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals. It reasoned that the Bivens question was an “antecedent” to the remaining (and more interesting) issues, yet the lower court did not have an opportunity to consider how the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ziglar v. Abbasi may bear on the Bivens claim in this case.

This is most certainly a punt. Except for one tiny bit of substance (which I’ll get to in a second), this opinion did nothing but put the ball back in the lower court’s…court and instruct it to rule on Bivens this time around. This hurts the plaintiff’s chances, since Ziglar limited the availability of Bivens claims for plaintiffs.

There was, however, some substance to this opinion. In dealing with the Fifth Amendment claim, the Court of Appeals had held that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the Mexican teen had no connections to the U.S. and was not a U.S. citizen. However, this information regarding the teen was not actually known to the officer. Thus, because qualified immunity centers on the facts knowable to the defendant officer, and the officer did not know that the teen had no connections to the U.S., the lower court erred. However, all that earned the plaintiff was the ability to have his Fifth Amendment Bivens claim evaluated based on Ziglar too.

Justice Thomas briefly dissented, arguing that the Court should have just gone ahead and affirmed the lower court because the plaintiff had no Bivens claim. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented for an opposite reason: they held that the plaintiff did have valid constitutional claims, and they believed that the Court should have ruled as such and then remanded for consideration of the Bivens and qualified immunity issues. Breyer then appended to his opinion a 54-year-old drawing of the channel in question, as well a black and white photo from 1968 of President Johnson and Lady Byrd Johnson viewing the channel. For what its worth, the President is waiving to no one in particular, and the First Lady looks miserable.

This marks a disappointing end (for now, at least) to this case. It would have been quite interesting to see the Court square extraordinarily sympathetic facts with very thorny issues of immigration, police excessive force, and jurisdiction. However, resolving an interesting case that felt like a fun law school hypothetical was apparently not worth the potentially major doctrinal implications.

Wait, did I just call law school fun?

-Ryan

SCOTUS Hints At Middle Ground In Travel Ban Ruling

On Monday, the last day of the term, the Supreme Court granted cert on the travel ban cases and partially granted the government’s petition for a stay, meaning that portions of the travel ban will go into effect. The court issued a per curium opinion explaining its decision (while avoiding the substantive issues). Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito partially concurred (they wanted a full stay). That cert was granted was not surprising, but certain aspects of the substance and breakdown of the court’s opinion were telling.

The primary takeaway is that the scope of the stay closely tracks the plaintiffs’ theory of the case on the constitutional issues while also suggesting that the court is not inclined to find in the plaintiffs’ favor on the statutory issues. In terms of the stay, the Court allowed the government to bar those individuals with no “bona fide” connections to the United States, but did not permit the barring of those with said connections. This is interesting because it mirrors Plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments and suggests that the Court will find in Plaintiffs’ favor on the Mandel/Din test that has been the focus of much of the briefing by the parties.

As explained before, the two main substantive issues  are that 1) the ban is invalid statutorily, in its entirety, and 2) that it is invalid constitutionally, for those with connections to the United States. The Fourth Circuit relied on the constitutional claim while the Ninth Circuit relied only on the statutory issue, ruling that Trump simply lacked the authority to issue the travel ban. Such a statutory ruling would necessarily invalidate the entire travel ban. I had suggested that the statutory issue may be an attractive option for the court since it would avoid ruling on the constitutional issues.

But, from the looks of it, I am probably wrong, and the Court seems destined to rule on the constitutional issues, on Plaintiffs’ terms. Although the government argued that the courts did not even have the power to review the ban, ultimately most observers agreed that the constitutional case would ultimately come down to a test set forth in two cases, Mandel and Din, which I have described before. Notably, however, because the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that non-resident, un-admitted aliens possess no constitutional rights themselves, only those in the United States with connections to the aliens would have standing to sue. When such connections do exist, the court evaluates the claim by determining whether there is a “facially legitimate and bona fide reason” for the ban. The plaintiffs have argued that the government’s reason was not bona fide because it was actually motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice; obviously the government disagreed, and the key issue in this case is probably whether the government can prove their bona fide reason.

That gets us back to the scope of the stay. The Court declined to continue the injunction against the ban entirely, which it probably would have done had it thought that the statutory argument had merit. Instead, the Court allowed in those with connections to the U.S.; in other words, those who could win under the Mandel/Din test are protected, while those unprotected by such a test are similarly unprotected by the injunction.

A fight squarely on the “bona fide” requirement is not what the government wants at all. In its initial arguments on the original EO, the government bizarrely argued that the courts do not have the authority to review the travel ban at all, and then the next round argued that the travel ban was valid because it was authorized under statute, conveniently ignoring that the constitution trumps (sorry) statutes. Discussing the bona fides of the government’s reasoning opens it up to a discussion of Trump’s public statements. The fact that the Court evaluated the stay petition, implemented it partially, yet kept the injunction in place as to this aspect does not bode well for the government.

It bears noting that Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch dissented to that portion of the ruling, believing that the entire lower court injunction should be stayed, and that thus the entire travel ban should be put into effect. At this point, you have to assume that the government already has three votes going into oral argument.

Finally, the Court also ordered briefing on whether the travel ban litigation became moot on June 14, when the travel ban technically expired. This mootness issue was raised by the State of Hawaii at the Supreme Court and touches on a bigger problem for the government: the stated purpose of the ban was to provide the government time to conduct a review, and it has had – and will have had – plenty of time to conduct a review. Thus, by the time the case is argued, why is the ban even necessary at that point? As I (and many others) wrote a couple weeks ago, the DOJ has put itself in a pickle here, and the mootness issue suggests that the court is cognizant of that fact. The Court even noted in it opinion that the government did not ask for expedited argument. The government may have a hard time arguing that the ban has any purpose being applied prospectively.

Further, the Court may see this as a way to ultimately give both sides what they want. After all, argument will be four months from now, longer than the actual ban itself. So, over the summer, the government will effectively get its travel ban, for those with no connections to the United States. Then, at that point, the court would presumably be saying that the travel ban is no longer in effect and the lower court rulings prior to June 14 would remain good law. 

Look, obviously, the ultimate ruling on the merits will not automatically mirror the scope of the stay, and the addition of a question presented does not guarantee a particular answer to that question. So, take all of this with a giant grain of salt (Maldon or pink Himalayan, both known for their size, are probably the way to go here). But, both of my observations above – about the scope of the stay and the addition of the mootness question – suggest that the court is trying to forge a middle ground.

-Ryan