Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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Under the Census Act, authorized by the Enumeration Clause, the Secretary of Commerce conducts the decennial census “in such form and content as he may determine,” 13 U.S.C. 141(a), aided by the Census Bureau. Census data is used to apportion congressional representatives, allocate federal funds, draw electoral districts, and collect demographic information. All but one survey between 1820 and 2000 asked at least some people about their citizenship or place of birth. In 2010, the citizenship question was moved to the American Community Survey, which is sent annually to a small sample of households. In 2018, Secretary of Commerce Ross announced that he would reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census at the request of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sought census data to use in enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Secretary indicated that other alternatives had been explored and that he “carefully considered” that reinstating the question could depress the response rate. The plan was challenged under the Enumeration Clause, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Equal Protection Clause. The Commerce Department’s administrative record indicated that the Secretary began exploring reinstatement of a citizenship question shortly after his 2017 confirmation, attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies, and eventually persuaded DOJ to make the request. The Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the objectors. While the Secretary may inquire about citizenship on the census questionnaire, his decision is reviewable under the APA, except “to the extent that” the agency action is “committed to agency discretion by law.” The Census Act confers broad authority but does not leave the Secretary's discretion unbounded. The census is not traditionally regarded as “committed to agency discretion.” The Secretary technically complied with the statutes; he explored obtaining the information from other sources, fully informed Congress, and explained his decision. Viewing the evidence as a whole, however, the Court concluded that the decision cannot adequately be explained by DOJ’s request. The Secretary took steps to reinstate the question a week into his tenure, with no concern for VRA enforcement. His staff attempted to elicit requests for citizenship data from other agencies before turning to the VRA rationale. The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. The Secretary's explanation "was more of a distraction." View "Department of Commerce v. New York" on Justia Law

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Tennessee law requires applicants for an initial license to operate a retail liquor store to have resided in Tennessee for the prior two years; an applicant for license renewal must have resided in Tennessee for 10 consecutive years. A corporation cannot obtain a license unless all of its stockholders are residents. The state attorney general opined that the requirements were invalid. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) declined to enforce them and sought a declaratory judgment. The Sixth Circuit and Supreme Court held that the two-year requirement violated the Commerce Clause and is not saved by the Twenty-first Amendment. Under the dormant Commerce Clause cases, a state law that discriminates against out-of-state goods or nonresident economic actors can be sustained only on a showing that it is narrowly tailored to “advanc[e] a legitimate local purpose.” Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement favors Tennesseans over nonresidents but, because it applies to the sale of alcohol, must be evaluated in light of section 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment: The “transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” Section 2 grants the states latitude with respect to the regulation of alcohol but does not allow states to violate the non-discrimination principle and does not entirely supersede Congress’s power to regulate commerce. States have not historically enjoyed absolute authority to police alcohol within their borders. Tennessee’s objective of ensuring that retailers are subject to process in state courts could easily be achieved by requiring a nonresident to designate an agent to receive process. Tennessee can thoroughly investigate applicants without requiring residency. Nor is the residency requirement essential to oversight. The goal of promoting responsible alcohol consumption could be served by limiting the number of licenses and the amount of alcohol that may be sold to an individual, mandating more extensive training, or monitoring retailer practices. View "Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas" on Justia Law

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Kisor, a Vietnam veteran, unsuccessfully sought VA disability benefits in 1982, alleging that he had developed PTSD from his military service. In 2006, Kisor moved to reopen his claim. The VA then agreed he was eligible for benefits, but granted benefits only from the date of his motion to reopen, not from the date of his first application. The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and Federal Circuit affirmed, citing deference to an agency’s reasonable reading of its own ambiguous regulations. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, reasoning that when the reasons for the presumption in favor of deference do not hold up, or when countervailing reasons outweigh them, courts should not give deference to an agency’s reading. Confining its 1997 decision, Auer v. Robbins, the plurality stated that a court should not afford deference unless, after exhausting all “traditional tools” of construction, the regulation is genuinely ambiguous. If genuine ambiguity remains, the agency’s reading must fall “within the bounds of reasonable interpretation” and the court must independently determine the character and context of the agency interpretation. The interpretation must be the agency’s authoritative or official position and must implicate its substantive expertise. The basis for deference ebbs when the subject matter of a dispute is distant from the agency’s ordinary duties. The agency’s reading of a rule must reflect its “fair and considered judgment” not a “convenient litigating position,” or an “unfair surprise.” The plurality declined to overrule Auer and a “long line of precedents” finding no “special justification.” In Kisor's case, the Federal Circuit found the VA’s regulation ambiguous before applying all its interpretive tools and assumed too fast that deference should apply. View "Kisor v. Wilkie" on Justia Law

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Media filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking the names and addresses of all retail stores that participate in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and each store’s annual SNAP food stamp redemption data from fiscal years 2005-2010. The USDA declined the request, invoking FOIA Exemption 4, which shields from disclosure “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,” 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(4). The Eighth Circuit affirmed an order requiring disclosure. The USDA declined to appeal. The Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocers, was permitted to intervene. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, first holding that Institute had standing. Where commercial or financial information is customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is “confidential” under Exemption 4. The Institute’s retailers customarily do not disclose store-level SNAP data or make it publicly available; to induce retailers to participate in SNAP and provide store-level information, the government has long promised retailers that it will keep their information private. The Court declined to “arbitrarily constrict Exemption 4 by adding limitations found nowhere in its terms.” View "Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media" on Justia Law

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The Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), intended to combat sex crimes and crimes against children, requires a broad range of sex offenders to register and imposes criminal penalties; 34 U.S.C. 20913 describes the “[i]nitial registration” requirements. Under subsection (b)'s general rule an offender must register “before completing a sentence of imprisonment with respect to the offense giving rise to the registration requirement.” Subsection (d) provides that the Attorney General “shall have the authority” to “specify the applicability” of SORNA’s registration requirements to pre-Act offenders and “to prescribe rules for [their] registration.” The Attorney General issued a rule that SORNA’s registration requirements apply in full to pre-SORNA offenders. The district court and the Second Circuit rejected a claim by a pre-SORNA offender that subsection (d) unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The Supreme Court affirmed. Four justices concluded that section 20913(d) does not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Congress may confer substantial discretion on executive agencies to implement and enforce the laws as long as Congress “lay[s] down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to [exercise that authority] is directed to conform.” The Supreme Court has already interpreted 20913(d) to require the Attorney General to apply SORNA to all pre-Act offenders as soon as feasible. To “specify the applicability” does not mean “specify whether to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders but means “specify how to apply SORNA” to pre-Act offenders; no Attorney General has used section20913(d) in any more expansive way. Section 20913(d)’s delegation falls within constitutional bounds. View "Gundy v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1918, residents of Prince George’s County decided to erect a cross as a war memorial to stand at the terminus of another World War I memorial—the National Defense Highway connecting Washington to Annapolis. The 32-foot tall Latin cross has a plaque, naming the 49 county soldiers who died in the war. The Bladensburg Cross has since been the site of patriotic events honoring veterans. Monuments honoring the veterans of other conflicts have been added in a nearby park. The monument is now at the center of a busy intersection. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the Cross and the land in 1961 and uses public funds for its maintenance. The Supreme Court held that the Bladensburg Cross does not violate the Establishment Clause. Even if a monument’s original purpose was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment and the monument may be retained for the sake of its historical significance or its place in a common cultural heritage. The cross is a symbol closely linked to World War I. The nation adopted it as part of its military honors, establishing the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. The soldiers’ final resting places abroad were marked by crosses or Stars of David. As World War I monuments have endured through the years and become a familiar part of the physical and cultural landscape, requiring their removal or alteration would not be viewed by many as a neutral act. The Bladensburg Cross has acquired historical importance, reminding people of the sacrifices of their predecessors. Although the monument was dedicated during a period of heightened racial and religious animosity, it includes the names of Christian and Jewish and Black and White soldiers. Four justices noted that the “Lemon” test ambitiously attempted to find a grand unified theory of the Establishment Clause but the “expectation of a ready framework has not been met.” “Where monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in the tradition of the First Congress in respecting and tolerating different views, endeavoring to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and recognizing the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, they are likewise constitutional.” View "American Legion v. American Humanist Association" on Justia Law

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PDR compiles information about prescription drugs. Its producer sent health care providers faxes stating that they could reserve a free copy of a new e-book PDR. A recipient filed a putative class action, claiming that the fax was an “unsolicited advertisement” prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. 227(b)(1)(C). The Fourth Circuit vacated the dismissal of the suit, reasoning that the district court was required to adopt the interpretation of “unsolicited advertisement” set forth in a 2006 FCC Order: “any offer of a free good or service.” The court noted that the Hobbs Act provides that courts of appeals have “exclusive jurisdiction to enjoin, set aside, suspend ... or to determine the validity of” certain “final orders of the Federal Communication Commission,” in a challenge filed within 60 days after the entry of the order, 28 U.S.C. 2342(1). The Supreme Court vacated and remanded for consideration of preliminary questions that were not considered below. Is the Order the equivalent of a “legislative rule,” issued by an agency pursuant to statutory authority, having the “force and effect of law” or is it the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” which simply advises the public of the agency’s construction of the statutes and rules it administers? If the Order is the equivalent of an “interpretive rule,” a district court may not be required to adhere to it. In addition, did the Hobbs Act’s exclusive-review provision afford a “prior” and “adequate” opportunity to seek judicial review of the Order under 5 U.S.C. 703? If not, the Administrative Procedure Act may permit PDR to challenge its validity in this enforcement proceeding. View "PDR Network, LLC v. Carlton Harris Chiropractic, Inc." on Justia Law

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New York requires cable operators to set aside channels for public access. Those channels are operated by the cable operator unless the local government chooses to operate the channels or designates a private entity as the operator. New York City designated a private nonprofit corporation, MNN, to operate public access channels on Time Warner’s Manhattan cable system. Respondents produced a film critical of MNN. MNN televised the film. MNN later suspended Respondents from all MNN services and facilities. They sued, claiming that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights. The Second Circuit partially reversed the dismissal of the suit, concluding that MNN was subject to First Amendment constraints. The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded. MNN is not a state actor subject to the First Amendment. A private entity may qualify as a state actor when the entity exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State” but “very few” functions fall into that category. Operation of public access channels on a cable system has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government. Providing some kind of forum for speech is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed and does not automatically transform a private entity into a state actor. The City’s designation of MNN as the operator is analogous to a government license, a government contract, or a government-granted monopoly, none of which converts a private entity into a state actor unless the private entity is performing a traditional, exclusive public function. Extensive regulation does not automatically convert a private entity's action into that of the state. The City does not own, lease, or possess any property interest in the public access channels. View "Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck" on Justia Law

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The company wants to mine raw uranium ore from a site near Coles Hill, Virginia. Virginia law completely prohibits uranium mining. The company alleged that, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) preempts state uranium mining laws like Virginia’s and makes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the lone regulator. The district court, the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court rejected the company’s argument. The AEA does not preempt Virginia’s law banning uranium mining; the law grants the NRC extensive and sometimes exclusive authority to regulate nearly every aspect of the nuclear fuel life cycle except mining, expressly stating that the NRC’s regulatory powers arise only “after [uranium’s] removal from its place of deposit in nature,” 42 U.S.C. 2092. If the federal government wants to control uranium mining on private land, it must purchase or seize the land by eminent domain and make it federal land, indicating that state authority remains untouched. Rejecting “field preemption: and “conflict preemption” arguments, the Court stated that the only thing a court can be sure of is what can be found in the law itself and the compromise that Congress actually struck in the AEA leaves mining regulation on private land to the states. View "Virginia Uranium, Inc. v. Warren" on Justia Law

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Newton worked on drilling platforms off the California coast. Newton was paid for his time on duty but not for his time on standby, during which he could not leave the platform. Newton filed a class action, alleging that California laws required compensation for standby time. The platforms were subject to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which provides that all law on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) is federal law; denies states any interest in or jurisdiction over the OCS; and deems the adjacent state’s laws to be federal law only “[t]o the extent that they are applicable and not inconsistent with” federal law, 43 U.S.C. 1333(a)(2)(A). A unanimous Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit decision in favor of Newton. Where federal law addresses the relevant issue, state law is not adopted as surrogate federal law on the OCS. The Court rejected Newton's proposed pre-emption analysis; federal law is the only law on the OCS and there is no overlapping state and federal jurisdiction, so the reference to “not inconsistent” state laws presents only the question whether federal law has already addressed the issue. If so, state law on the issue is inapplicable. Some of Newton’s claims are premised on California law requiring payment for all standby time but federal law already addresses that issue. To the extent his OCS-based claims rely on California’s minimum wage, the Fair Labor Standards Act already provides for a minimum wage. View "Parker Drilling Management Services, Ltd. v. Newton" on Justia Law