Showing posts with label Commerce Clause. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Commerce Clause. Show all posts

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Legislative privilege shields Raimondo records against trucker subpoena in dormant Commerce Clause case

Toll gantry on a bridge in Washington
(Flickr by Wash. State DOT CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The First Circuit has quashed a subpoena against Rhode Island state officials, including now-U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in a dormant Commerce Clause lawsuit over highway tolls supporting infrastructure.

Back in the 2010s, under the leadership of then-Governor Gina Raimondo (I'm a fan), my home state of Rhode Island was looking for cash to help with infrastructure needs.  The smallest state and an essential throughway for road and rail traffic in the vital I-95 corridor of America's Atlantic coast, "Ocean State" Rhode Island bears a burden in maintaining highway and bridge infrastructure that is disproportionately larger than the state's tax base.  The Raimondo administration installed a network of electronic truck tolls to beef up coffers.

My family travels often up and down the east coast to visit relatives, and the parade of tolls through the Atlantic states adds up to a significant expense.  But there are no passenger-car tolls in Rhode Island.  States that wish to impose tolls on federal highways had to strike a sort of deal with the devil, the devil being Uncle Sam, and Rhode Island, exemplifying founder Roger Williams's independent streak, opted out.  We held ourselves clear of Uncle Sam's sticky fingers, but then we found ourselves undermined by potholes and overrun with decaying bridges.

So when I heard about the Raimondo truck-toll plan, I admit, it sounded great to me.  The possible dormant Commerce Clause issue did gather in the dark recesses of my mind.  Anyone who tells you that we Rhode Islanders were not keen to have through-trucks pay their fair share for wear and tear on our roads and nerves as we circulate on our congested connectors is lying.  If the boon could be had without adding to my family's toll bills, I was willing to suppress any nagging concern I might have otherwise about a made-up constitutional rule.

Lawyers for the trade industry in trucking were not so generous of mind or pocket, and, after the tolls went live in 2018, they sued.  The plaintiffs argue violation of the dormant Commerce Clause, the constitutional theory that implies a federal prohibition on state action that excessively burdens interstate commerce even when Congress has not legislated a prohibition under its Article I power.

The First Circuit explained, "the Supreme Court has recently reiterated that the dormant Commerce Clause 'reflect[s] a "central concern of the Framers that was an immediate reason for calling the Constitutional Convention: the conviction that in order to succeed, the new Union would have to avoid the tendencies toward economic Balkanization that had plagued relations among the Colonies and later among the States under the Articles of Confederation"'" (quoting 2005 and 2019 precedents).

Flickr by Taber Andrew Bain CC BY 2.0
If the truckers can show that Rhode Island officials calculated the tolling program to burden out-of-state payers while sparing Rhode Islanders, the showing will strengthen—but significantly, not dispositively prove—the plaintiff position in the dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  I've kind of already admitted that burdening through-traffic was my reason for liking the toll program, but I'm just a taxpayer.  Unfortunately, there are some public statements by state officials indicating that they viewed the tolls the same way.

The plaintiff-truckers understandably want to dig deeper.  So they sent subpoenas to state officials, including the Office of the Governer and legislators, and to CDM Smith, a key private consultant to the state in the toll program, "RhodeWorks."  The First Circuit enumerated:

Specifically, the subpoenas sought materials relating to: (1) any efforts to mitigate the economic impact on Rhode Island citizens; (2) the expected or actual impact of the toll caps on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (3) the expected or actual impact of tolling only certain classes of trucks on in-state vs. out-of-state truckers; (4) the potential impact on interstate commerce; (5) alternative methods for raising funds; (6) drafts of RhodeWorks and related, failed bills, including mark-ups, comments, red-lines, revisions, etc.; (7) communications between the former Governor and legislators regarding RhodeWorks or other methods of raising funds; and (8) the public statements made by the movants and others.

State officials argued that legislative privilege required quashing of the subpoenas.  The district court was willing to override the privileges, ruling that the discovery interest outweighed officials' need of confidentiality in deliberative process.  On interlocutory appeal, the First Circuit disagreed and reversed.

The First Circuit began its discussion with the Speech or Debate Clause of the federal Constitution.  That's interesting, because the D.C. Circuit just recently applied the clause to thwart the efforts of Judicial Watch to probe the congressional investigation of the Trump Administration.  That decision made waves in the FOI community not so much for the result, but for a passionate concurrence in which U.S. Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson thoughtfully indulged the potential scope of common law access to the legislature.

However, the First Circuit opined:

Assertions of legislative immunity and privilege by state lawmakers stand on different footing. For starters, they are governed by federal common law rather than the Speech or Debate Clause, which by its terms applies only to federal legislators.... And the common-law legislative immunity and privilege are less protective than their constitutional counterparts....  That is because the separation-of-powers rationale underpinning the Speech or Debate Clause does not apply when it is a state lawmaker claiming legislative immunity or privilege.

In other words, the court recognized a constitutional constraint in horizontal separation of powers, but not, here, in vertical separation of powers, or federalism.  Nevertheless, the court reasoned that "federal common law" was constrained by the principle of comity, "[a]nd the interests in legislative independence served by the Speech or Debate Clause remain relevant."

The court was not impressed with the truckers' assertion that a federal interest in dormant Commerce Clause enforcement bolstered the private cause of action.

[Plaintiff's] argument suggests a broad exception overriding the important comity considerations that undergird the assertion of a legislative privilege by state lawmakers. Many cases in federal courts assert violations of federal law by state legislators who are not joined as parties to the litigation. Were we to find the mere assertion of a federal claim sufficient, even one that addresses a central concern of the Framers, the privilege would be pretty much unavailable largely whenever it is needed.

Here it mattered that the Governor's and lawmakers' alleged discriminatory intentions would not be dispositive of the constitutional question.  Rather, the court opined, the Supreme Court has emphasized the primacy of discriminatory effect over discriminatory purpose in dormant Commerce Clause analysis.  Intentions would prove only the latter and not necessarily amount to a constitutional offense.  Moreover, the court recited a familiar conundrum in the construction of legislative intent, that individual motives do not necessarily reveal the purpose of "the legislature as a whole."

In sum, even assuming that a state's legislative privilege might yield in a civil suit brought by a private party in the face of an important federal interest, the need for the discovery requested here is simply too little to justify such a breach of comity. At base, this is a case in which the proof is very likely in the eating, and not in the cook's intentions.

The court refused, however, to quash the subpoena against the private consultant, CDM Smith, even if state records might be revealed.  The provision of state records to a third party diminished the claim of privilege, the court reasoned, and thus rendered the question unripe for interlocutory appeal.

The case is American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. Alviti, No. 20-2120 (1st Cir. Sept. 21, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta wrote the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, a Rhode Islander, and, sitting by designation, U.S. District of Massachusetts Judge Douglas P. Woodlock.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Covid-era eviction elicits ancient injunction plea

Clameur de Haro was invoked to block the burial of William the Conqueror in 1087.
Image from Amable Tastu, La Normandie Historique (1858).
We've all seen the strain of the pandemic on our socioeconomic fabric and the rule of law.

Last week came the alarming news that a federal district judge in Texas ruled unconstitutional the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control.  Judge Campbell Barker held in Terkel v. CDC that the moratorium exceeded the federal power that the CDC could exercise on behalf of Congress under the Article I Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

A friend and colleague on Jersey, a Crown dependency close to France, sent along this fascinating item from the Jersey Evening Post.  A Jersey resident who was served with eviction papers after being unable to pay the mortgage invoked "an ancient legal right" called "the Clameur de Haro."  The Post explained:

To enact the Clameur the aggrieved party must go down on one knee in the location of the offence and then, with hands in the air and in the presence at least two witnesses, must call out: "Haro! Haro! Haro! A l'aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort." This translates as: "Hear me! Hear me! Hear me! Come to my aid, my Prince, for someone does me wrong." The offending activity must cease. The individual then needs to put the grievance down in writing and lodge it with the Judicial Greffe within 24 hours.

Jersey
(image of ESA Copernicus Sentinel-2 CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Jersey is a fascinating study in comparative law.  One might expect the island to be legally indistinguishable from the UK, but that is not the case at all.  Jersey has its own parliament and legal system.  Unlike the UK, Jersey is not a member of the Hague Convention on the enforcement of foreign civil and commercial judgments, so a foreign entity wishing to enforce there must seek to register the judgment through a domestic legal process.

Collas Crill, "an offshore law firm that never stands still," wrote an explainer in 2018 on the Clameur de Haro in neighboring Channel Island Guernsey, where the process seems to be the same.  The explainer added, "After the cry, both the Lord's prayer and a Grace must be recited by the complainant in French."

Quartz reported how a woman in Guernsey stopped construction on a road improvement project in 2018 by invoking the Clameur de Haro.  According to Quartz, "[t]he clameur was first recorded in Norman law in the 13th century. Its use is believed to have originated in the 10th century as an appeal to Rollo, Viking founder of the Norman dynasty, according to a 2008 article in the Jersey and Guernsey Law Review by lawyer and legal historian Andrew Bridgeford."

Collas Crill lawyers further explained, "Arguably the main reason for the continued use of the Clameur is the immediacy of its effect, although in modern times an additional perceived benefit is the publicity it can draw to your cause."

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

COVID-19 stresses United States on domestic borders; war analog might foster state solidarity upon federal power

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was recently
threatened with a lawsuit by New York Governor Andrew
Cuomo.  U.S. Air National Guard Photo
by Master Sgt Janeen Miller (2016).
I have just published at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic. Here is the abstract:

The coronavirus pandemic is stressing not only our healthcare systems, but our political and legal systems.  The pandemic has challenged our sense of identity in humankind, pitching us back and forth between a spirit of global solidarity and a competition of human tribes for resources and survival.  That tension plays out in our political and legal responses to the pandemic, manifesting the natural human temptation to tribalism in both international and intranational dimensions.

As policymakers struggle to respond to the pandemic and to curb the outbreak of COVID-19, I have been struck by the emergence of interstate tensions in the United States.  The pressure of the pandemic, aggravated by a slow and uncertain governmental response at the federal level, has been a brusque reminder that the United States are a plural: a federation of states that famously endeavored “to form a more perfect Union,” but that, like human governance itself, remains a work in progress.


Read more at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic