Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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The Ordot Dump was constructed on Guam by the Navy in the 1940s. Both the federal government and Guam allegedly deposited waste at Ordot. A 2004 consent decree between the EPA and Guam resolved litigation concerning Clean Water Act violations.About 13 years later, Guam sued the U.S. under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9601. A section 107(a) action sought recovery of the costs of a “removal or remedial action” from the government based on its ownership or operation of the site at the time of the disposal of hazardous substances. A section 113(f) action sought "contribution," alleging that Guam “has resolved its liability to the United States…for some or all of a response action or for some or all of the costs of such action in [a] settlement." The D. C. Circuit held that cost recovery was not available if a party could have brought a contribution action and found the contribution claim untimely under a three-year limitations period in light of the 2004 settlement.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. A settlement of environmental liabilities must resolve a CERCLA-specific liability to give rise to a section 113(f)(3)(B) contribution action. That remedial measures under different environmental statutes might functionally overlap with a CERCLA response action does not justify reinterpreting section 113(f)(3)(B)’s phrase “resolved its liability . . . for some or all of a response action” to instead mean “settled an environmental liability that might have been actionable under CERCLA.” A party may seek CERCLA contribution only after settling CERCLA-specific claims, as opposed to resolving environmental liability under another law. View "Guam v. United States" on Justia Law

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The FTC filed a complaint against Tucker alleging deceptive payday lending practices in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act Section 5(a). The district court entered a permanent injunction to prevent Tucker from committing future violations and relied on the same authority to direct Tucker to pay $1.27 billion in restitution and disgorgement. The Ninth Circuit rejected Tucker’s argument that section 13(b) does not authorize the award of equitable monetary relief.The Supreme Court reversed. Section 13(b) does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement. The Commission has authority to enforce the Act’s prohibitions on “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” 15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)–(2), by commencing administrative proceedings under Section 5. Section 5(l) authorizes the Commission, following completion of the administrative process and the issuance of a final cease and desist order, to seek civil penalties, and permits district courts to “grant mandatory injunctions and such other and further equitable relief.” Section 19 authorizes district courts to grant “such relief as the court finds necessary,” in cases where someone has engaged in unfair or deceptive conduct with respect to which the Commission has issued a final cease and desist order.In Tucker's case, the Commission sought equitable monetary relief directly in district court under Section 13(b)’s authorization to seek a “permanent injunction” without having used the Commission’s traditional administrative proceedings. Section 13(b) does not explicitly authorize the Commission to obtain court-ordered monetary relief, and such relief is foreclosed by the structure and history of the Act. It is unlikely that Congress, without mentioning the matter, would grant the Commission authority to circumvent traditional Section 5 administrative proceedings. In enacting Section 19 two years after Section 13(b), Congress did not create an alternative enforcement path with similar remedies. View "AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, whose applications for disability benefits were denied by the Social Security Administration (SSA) unsuccessfully challenged their adverse determinations before an SSA administrative law judge (ALJ). The SSA Appeals Council denied discretionary review in each case. Thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Lucia v. SEC, holding that the appointment of Securities and Exchange Commission ALJs by lower-level staff violated the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The SSA ALJs were also appointed by lower-level staff. The Courts of Appeals held that the petitioners could not obtain judicial review of their Appointments Clause claims because they failed to raise those challenges in their administrative proceedings. The Supreme Court reversed. The Courts of Appeals erred in imposing an issue-exhaustion requirement on petitioners’ Appointments Clause claims. Administrative review schemes commonly require parties to give the agency an opportunity to address an issue before seeking judicial review of that question. If no statute or regulation imposes an issue-exhaustion requirement, courts decide whether to require issue exhaustion based on “an analogy to the rule that appellate courts will not consider arguments not raised before trial courts.” In the context of petitioners’ Appointments Clause challenges, two considerations tip the scales against imposing an issue-exhaustion requirement: agency adjudications are generally ill-suited to address structural constitutional challenges, which usually fall outside the adjudicators’ areas of technical expertise, and the Supreme Court has consistently recognized a futility exception to exhaustion requirements. Petitioners assert purely constitutional claims about which SSA ALJs have no special expertise and for which they can provide no relief. View "Carr v. Saul" on Justia Law

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ownership rules limit the number of radio stations, television stations, and newspapers that a single entity may own in a given market. Section 202(h) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the FCC to review its media ownership rules every four years and to repeal or modify rules that no longer serve the public interest. In 2017, the FCC concluded that three ownership rules were no longer necessary to promote competition, localism, or viewpoint diversity and that the record did not suggest that repealing or modifying those rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC repealed two ownership rules and modified another. The Third Circuit vacated the order.The Supreme Court reversed. The FCC’s decision to repeal or modify the three ownership rules was not arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA); it considered the record evidence and reasonably concluded that the rules at issue were no longer necessary to serve the agency’s public interest goals of competition, localism, and viewpoint diversity and that the changes were not likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC acknowledged the gaps in the data sets it relied on and noted that, despite its repeated requests for additional data, it had received no countervailing evidence suggesting that changing the rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership. The FCC considered two studies that purported to show that past relaxations of the ownership rules had led to decreases in minority and female ownership levels and interpreted them differently. The APA imposes no general obligation on agencies to conduct or commission their own studies. Nothing in the Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to conduct such studies before exercising its discretion under Section 202(h). View "Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project" on Justia Law

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule in 2011 regarding cooling water intake structures. Because aquatic wildlife can become trapped in intake structures, the Endangered Species Act required the EPA to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service before proceeding. Issuance of a “jeopardy” biological opinion would require the EPA either to implement alternatives, to terminate the action, or to seek an exemption. After consulting with the Services, the EPA changed its proposed rule. Staff members at the Services concluded that the 2013 proposed rule was likely to jeopardize certain species and sent drafts of their opinions to the decision-makers within the Services. Those decision-makers neither approved the drafts nor sent them to the EPA but extended the consultation. In 2014, the EPA produced a revised proposed rule that differed significantly from the 2013 version. The Services issued a final “no jeopardy” biological opinion. The EPA issued its final rule.Sierra Club submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records related to the consultations. The Services invoked the deliberative process privilege to prevent disclosure of the draft biological opinions analyzing the 2013 proposed rule. The Ninth Circuit held that the draft biological opinions were not privileged.The Supreme Court reversed. The deliberative process privilege protects from FOIA disclosure in-house draft biological opinions that are pre-decisional and deliberative, even if the drafts reflect the agencies’ last views about a proposal. The privilege is intended to encourage candor and blunt the chilling effect of possible disclosure; it distinguishes between pre-decisional, deliberative documents, which are exempt from disclosure, and documents reflecting a final agency decision and the reasons supporting it, which are not. A document does not represent an agency’s final decision solely because nothing follows it; sometimes a proposal “dies on the vine.” The privilege protects the draft biological opinions from disclosure because they reflect a preliminary view, not a final decision, about the proposed 2013 rule. The draft opinions were subject to change and had no direct legal consequences. View "United States Fish and Wildlife Service v. Sierra Club, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) allows a plaintiff to bring certain state-law tort claims against the United States for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment if the plaintiff alleges six statutory elements of an actionable claim, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b). The judgment in an action under section 1346(b) bars “any action by the claimant” involving the same subject matter against the federal employee whose act gave rise to the claim. King sued the government under the FTCA after a violent encounter with federal task force members and sued the officers individually under “Bivens.” The district court dismissed his FTCA claims, holding that the government was immune because the officers were entitled to qualified immunity under Michigan law, then dismissed King’s Bivens claims. The Sixth Circuit found that the dismissal of King’s FTCA claims did not trigger the judgment bar to block his Bivens claims.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The dismissal was a judgment on the merits of the FTCA claims that can trigger the judgment bar, similar to common-law claim preclusion. Whether the undisputed facts established all the elements of King’s FTCA claims is a quintessential merits decision. The court also determined that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because, in the unique context of the FTCA, all elements of a meritorious claim are also jurisdictional. Generally, a court may not issue a ruling on the merits when it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, but when pleading a claim and pleading jurisdiction entirely overlap, a ruling that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction may simultaneously be a judgment on the merits. View "Brownback v. King" on Justia Law

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In 1992, Salinas began seeking disability benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA) based on serious injuries he suffered during his 15-year railroad career. He was granted benefits after his fourth application in 2013. He timely sought reconsideration of the amount and start date. After reconsideration was denied, he filed an administrative appeal, arguing that his third application, filed in 2006, should be reopened because the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board had not considered certain medical records. The Board affirmed the denial of the request to reopen because it was not made “[w]ithin four years” of the 2006 decision. The Fifth Circuit dismissed an appeal for lack of jurisdiction.The Supreme Court reversed. The Board’s refusal to reopen a prior benefits determination is subject to judicial review as a "final decision of the Board.” The decision was the “terminal event” in the Board’s administrative review process. Salinas’ only remaining recourse was to seek judicial review. A reopening decision is one “by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” Any ambiguity in the meaning of “any final decision” must be resolved in Salinas’ favor under the “strong presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.” The Board could decline to offer reopening but, having chosen to provide it, the Board may not avoid the plain text of 45 U.S.C. 355(f ). View "Salinas v. Railroad Retirement Board" on Justia Law

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Every 10 years, the U.S. undertakes an “Enumeration” of its population “in such Manner” as Congress “shall by Law direct.” The Secretary of Commerce must “take a decennial census of population . . . in such form and content as he may determine,” 13 U.S.C. 141(a), and report to the President, who must transmit to Congress a “statement showing the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed, as ascertained” under the census, 2 U.S.C. 2a(a), applying the “method of equal proportions” formula to the population counts to calculate the number of House seats for each state.In July 2020, the President issued a memorandum to the Secretary, announcing a policy of excluding from the apportionment base aliens who are not in lawful immigration status. The President ordered the Secretary “to provide information permitting the President, to the extent practicable, to exercise the President’s discretion to carry out the policy.”The Supreme Court vacated an injunction, prohibiting the Secretary from including the information needed to implement the President’s memorandum and directed dismissal of the lawsuits for lack of jurisdiction. The threatened impact of an unlawful apportionment on congressional representation and federal funding does not establish a “legally cognizable injury.” Any chilling effect from the memorandum dissipated upon the conclusion of the census. The Secretary has not altered census operations in a concrete manner that will predictably change the count. Any prediction of how the Executive Branch might eventually implement the general statement of policy is conjecture. It is unclear how many aliens have administrative records that would allow the Secretary to avoid impermissible estimation; whether the Census Bureau can timely match its records to census data; and to what extent the President might direct the Secretary to “reform the census” to implement his general policy. The plaintiffs suffer no concrete harm from the challenged policy, which does not require them “to do anything or to refrain from doing anything.” View "Trump v. New York" on Justia Law

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Delaware’s Constitution contains a political balance requirement for appointments to the state’s major courts. No more than a bare majority of judges on any of its five major courts “shall be of the same political party.” Art. IV, section 3. On three of those courts, those members not in the bare majority “shall be of the other major political party.” Adams, a Delaware lawyer and political independent, sued, claiming that those requirements violate his First Amendment right to freedom of association by making him ineligible to become a judge unless he joins a major political party.The Supreme Court held that because Adams has not shown that he was “able and ready” to apply for a judicial vacancy in the imminent future, he failed to show a “personal,” “concrete,” and “imminent” injury necessary for Article III standing. A grievance that amounts to nothing more than abstract and generalized harm to a citizen’s interest in the proper application of the law is not an “injury in fact.” Adams must at least show that he is likely to apply to become a judge in the reasonably foreseeable future if not barred because of political affiliation. Adams’ only supporting evidence is his statements that he wanted to be, and would apply to be, a judge on any of Delaware’s courts. The evidence fails to show that, when he filed suit, Adams was “able and ready” to apply for a judgeship in the reasonably foreseeable future. Adams’ statements lack supporting evidence, like efforts to determine possible judicial openings or other preparations. Adams did not apply for numerous existing judicial vacancies while he was a registered Democrat. He then read a law review article arguing that Delaware’s judicial eligibility requirements unconstitutionally excluded independents, changed his political affiliation, and filed suit. View "Carney v. Adams" on Justia 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