Showing posts with label First Circuit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label First Circuit. 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, August 13, 2019

Student prevails in part in UMass Amherst due process disciplinary case in First Circuit

Last week the First Circuit held in favor of a student accused of a violent assault; however, the court largely upheld as constitutional the due process provided to the student in campus adjudication.

The case adds to federal appellate precedent on the requirements of procedural due process on campus.  The First Circuit's conclusions on these facts are not new water marks.  At the same time, observers predict that the multitude of circuit disagreements in this area will lead inevitably to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In the instant case, a male student was accused of a violent assault on a female student, his romantic partner, while studying abroad in Spain under the purview of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  The First Circuit ruled that the university failed to provide adequate notice and hearing prior to imposing a five-month suspension on the student, after the allegations but well before the adjudication.  Authored by Rhode-Island-born U.S. Circuit Judge William J. Kayatta Jr., the court's holding came from a unanimous three-judge panel that included retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

The court affirmed judgment for the university as to the adequacy of the campus adjudication and consequent expulsion of the accused.  The student had challenged the adjudication for the exclusion of some evidence and the lack of opportunity to confront his accuser.  Constitutional rights in the context of the campus administrative process were not offended by those omissions, the court held, applying the flexible procedural due process test of Mathews v. Eldridge (U.S. 1976). It's the latter point, confrontation, that especially vexes critics and marks arguable disagreement with other circuit courts. 

The case arises against the backdrop of a heated national debate over higher education reform.  To my consternation, Title IX has become an area in which serious cases of sexual harassment and physical assault are lumped together on the nations' campuses with gross abuses of the rights of students and faculty.  Legitimate disciplinary processes have been perverted, and therefore caused to undermine civil rights law, by overzealous bureaucrats seeking to enforce politically correct group-think on students and to undermine academic freedom and faculty governance.  Purely in my personal capacity, I filed my own observations with the Department of Education in March.

The instant case is Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, No. 18-1248 (1st Cir. Aug. 6, 2019).