High (Flying) Crimes: Where is Venue Proper for Crimes Committed on an Airplane in Flight?

Background

Determining proper venue for a trial is essential to guarantee the constitutional right to a fair trial. The determination also helps to avoid imposing undue hardship on that defendant in the course of the already strenuous and expensive litigation process by forcing her to defend in “an environment alien” to her. United States v. Johnson (1944).

With regard to criminal proceedings, all crimes must be prosecuted in the district in which the crimes were allegedly committed. In furtherance of this, the Supreme Court has provided a two-part inquiry to determine in which district the alleged crime was committed and, therefore, in which district venue is proper. “(A) court must initially identify the conduct constituting the offense (the nature of the crime) and then discern the location of the commission of the criminal acts.” United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno (1999).

The Issue

The standard seems simple enough, but what happens when the crime takes place in the sky? Where is venue proper when a crime occurs on an airplane during flight? In applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to an inflight crime, the first part (nature of the crime) will often be fairly straightforward. However, the second part (location of the commission of the crime) poses more difficulty and presents the legal question at issue.

When an inflight crime is committed, is venue proper in the district over which the airplane was flying when the crime occurred or in the district where the airplane lands after the inflight crime occurred? The answer to this question has serious implications for procedural logistics of prosecuting criminal offenses committed on airplanes as well as concerns of unfairness and undue hardship to criminal defendants accused of committing such crimes.

The Split

Traditionally, courts have deemed venue proper in the district in which the airplane lands, as held by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Breitweiser (2004) and the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Cope (2012). In their respective decisions, the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits found venue proper pursuant to 18 U.S.C.S. §3237, specifically §3237(a), in which Congress provided the method for ascertaining venue for crimes involving the use of transportation:  “Any offense involving the use of… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce… is a continuing offense and, except as otherwise expressly provided by enactment of Congress, may be inquired of and prosecuted in any district from, through, or into which such commerce… moves.”

The Eleventh Circuit has explained §3237(a) as “a catchall provision designed to prevent a crime which has been committed in transit from escaping punishment for lack of venue… where venue might be difficult to prove.” United States v. McCulley (1982). In Breitweiser, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Breitweiser’s convictions for abusive sexual conduct with a minor and simple assault and rejected his challenge to the district court’s finding of venue. The Court reasoned venue was proper in the Northern District of Georgia (where the plane landed) pursuant to the “catchall” provision of §3237(a) because the continuing offenses involved the use of transportation in interstate commerce and, “[I]t would be difficult if not impossible for the government to prove… exactly which federal district was beneath the plane when Breitweiser committed the crimes.” The Court held, “[T]o establish venue, the government need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.”

In Cope, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Cope’s conviction for operating a commercial airplane while under the influence of alcohol and rejected his challenge to venue in the District of Colorado. The Court found venue proper pursuant to §3237(a), citing Breitweiser for the proposition that one “need only show that the crime took place on a form of transportation in interstate commerce.” Since Cope committed the offense while operating the plane in interstate commerce, venue was proper in any district Cope had traveled “from, through, or into,” which included the District of Colorado where the plane landed.

The Ninth Circuit split from the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits on this issue in United States v. Lozoya (2019), in which the defendant was convicted of inflight simple assault in the Central District of California where the plane landed. In reviewing Lozoya’s conviction and her challenge to venue, the Court found the provisions of §3237(a) to be not applicable to establish venue in that district. Specifically, the Court found the statutory language “[continuing] offenses involving… transportation in interstate or foreign commerce” inapplicable after applying the Rodriguez-Moreno inquiry to the offense.

The Ninth Circuit determined that (1) as to the nature of the assault, Lozoya committed a single, instantaneous offense which, though it “occurred on a plane… did not implicate interstate or foreign commerce,” and (2) partly because of its instantaneous nature, the crime was likely committed only in the district over which the plane was flying at the time of the offense. Accordingly, the Court held venue would be proper only in the district over which the plane was flying when the crime occurred and reversed Lozoya’s conviction on the grounds of improper venue. The Court acknowledged (and Judge Owens’ dissent emphasized) “a creeping absurdity” in mandating the exact district over which an inflight offense occurred to be pinpointed for the purpose of ascertaining venue. Further, both the majority and dissent raised concerns about the feasibility and potential absurdity of this requirement and the unfair hardship it could impose on defendants. However, the Court did not find these concerns sufficient to overcome the Constitution and binding precedent. The Court also suggested, and the dissent expressed hope, that if Congress deemed this an absurd result, it would enact a new statute to ascertain venue for crimes committed at 30,000 feet.

Looking Forward

Judge Owens concluded by urging the Supreme Court to rule on this split or Congress to act to restore the rule finding venue where the plane lands. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court or Congress will take up this issue. In the meantime, frequent fliers, pay close attention if the captain tells you what you’re flying over. You never know when you’ll need venue.

Riding Free From Controversy: Freedom of Speech Guarantee and Public Transit Systems

BACKGROUND

Before an advertisement is displayed on a public bus, it has likely undergone an extensive vetting process, where the transit authority has deemed it acceptable to occupy this space. Each locale often has varying policies regarding which advertisements it will choose to air. Both religious and non-religious groups alike have attempted to circumvent transit authority policies in order to run advertisements with their respective viewpoints.

The First Amendment prohibits government actors from taking action that would violate a citizen’s right to free speech. In the context of monitoring public transport advertising, these violations are often seen as censorship issues — meaning a government actor is attempting to censor certain speech by not allowing a potential ad to run. First Amendment censorship claims are broken down into two categories: content-based discrimination and viewpoint discrimination. Viewpoint discrimination will target a specific view taken by a speaker, rather than disavowing an entire subject. On the other hand, content-based discrimination policies tend to be more blanketed, banning entire subject areas. There are reasonable limits that can be imposed on one’s right to freedom of speech. Thus, courts will often uphold subject-matter regulations, despite limiting one’s free speech rights, because “even protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.” Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Authority (2018).

THE ISSUE

With respect to public transportation, is a ban on religious advertisements considered a permissible subject-matter regulation or an impermissible viewpoint regulation under the freedom of speech guarantee of the First Amendment?

THE SPLIT

The Third Circuit and the D.C. Circuit are split on the issue. The disagreement not only lies in how the circuits answered the question, but also in their reasoning. Ultimately, in Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Authority (2018), the D.C. Circuit held that public transit authorities could reasonably regulate speech on their properties because buses fall under a non-public forum. Whereas in Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. City of Lackawanna Transit System (2019), the Third Circuit found that public transit authorities could not prohibit advertisements that discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.

In Archdiocese (2018), the D.C. Circuit addressed the First Amendment question using the forum analysis, assessing whether the restrictions are warranted based on the category of forum that the buses fall under. The court distinguished between public forums and non-public forums. Public forums are places that “have been devoted to assembly and debate, such as sidewalks or parks.” Here, the government’s ability to limit speech is minimal. In contrast, non-public forums are public properties where speech can be regulated if the regulation is reasonable and is not grounded in viewpoint discrimination. The D.C. Circuit reasons that “advertising space on public transit was properly treated as a non-public forum because a ‘bus is plainly not a park or sidewalk or other meeting place for discussion’ but rather ‘only a way to get to work or back home.’” Furthermore, it discussed that the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority’s exclusions were subject-matter discrimination, prohibiting religion as subject matter rather than religious viewpoint.

In Northeastern Pennsylvania (2019), the Third Circuit does not even consider the forum analysis because this would be “putting the cart before the horse.” Instead, the Court requires an assessment of the type of discrimination to take place first, seeing no rationale for addressing the forum if the discrimination is one regarding viewpoint. In the Court’s view, advertisement policies fall within viewpoint discrimination, and are thus impermissible under the First Amendment. Under this holding, the transit authority cannot exclude speech that it considers controversial because this would be an exclusion based on one particular view. Ultimately, the Third Circuit urges that other courts construe viewpoint discrimination broadly in the pursuit of “providing greater protection to private religious speech on public property” and not relegating religious speech to a “second-class status.”

LOOKING FORWARD

First Amendment claims, especially with regard to religious freedom, are rarely clear-cut issues for courts to tackle. However, if this circuit split is left unresolved, the gray area regarding permissible speech only expands. This uncertainty could very well expand past an advertisement on your morning commute, and could have longstanding impacts on how government actors limit speech in various public areas. To ensure that free speech rights are not infringed upon, the Supreme Court will need to address religious speech, determining the permissibility of certain expressions.

Excessive Entanglement: The Legislative Prayer Doctrine and School Board Meetings

BACKGROUND

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause was motivated by the Framers’ experience with state-sponsored religious persecution and is thought to serve two purposes: (1) allowing individuals to express themselves according to the dictates of their own conscience; and (2) preventing the government from acting “to make belief — whether theistic or nontheistic, religious or nonreligious — relevant to an individual’s membership” within the political community. Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino (9th Cir. 2018).

In light of this purpose, courts express “heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.” American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017). School children are in the process of developing their own beliefs and learning to think for themselves — they are far more susceptible to pressure to conform to social norms and expectations. “The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice,” and therefore religious opining by those with authority over impressionable adolescents in a mandatory secular school has been deemed unacceptable in the eyes of the Supreme Court. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).

The relationship between Church and State is not one of total separation, but the Supreme Court has carved out certain exceptions to this Constitutional prohibition. Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). Here, a resident challenged the practice of the town board’s practice of opening its monthly meetings with a prayer from an invited clergy member. Writing for a five-justice majority, Justice Kennedy writes: “Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of higher purpose and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.” The Court affirmed that the Establishment Clause was never meant to prohibit the longstanding tradition of legislative prayer. Despite the fact that some audience members were offended by the prayer, the Court found that the primary audience consisted of the board members who governed the town, and therefore, opening the board meeting with a prayer was permissible. The Court did not limit its ruling, however, leading to many questions as to how far this “legislative prayer” doctrine could extend.

THE ISSUE

Is the opening of a public school board meeting with a prayer or invocation permissible as an extension of the “legislative prayer” doctrine, or is it an unconstitutional entanglement of Church and State?

THE SPLIT

The Fifth and Ninth Circuits, in particular, have diverged on the issue of whether school boards should be permitted to invoke religious doctrine in meetings. The difference in opinion stems from an overall uncertainty as to whether school board meetings are viewed more as school-sanctioned events or legislative sessions.

In American Humanist Association v. McCarty (5th Cir. 2017), the AHA challenged the actions of the Birdville Independent School District in having a student speaker deliver an invocation prior to each of its monthly school board meetings. The invocation was given after another student led the Pledge of Allegiance and was normally some sort of prayer. The Fifth Circuit upheld the student-led invocation, arguing that the school board is “more like a legislature than a classroom,” distinguishing it from the public-school setting. The Court based its decision on the “legislative prayer” doctrine from Town of Greece, claiming that the Framers saw this form of prayer as merely a “benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.” The Court acknowledged that there may be children in the audience, but maintained that their presence did not transform the legislative nature of the school board meeting.

One year later, the Ninth Circuit split with its sister circuit in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District (9th Cir. 2018).In this case, the school board permitted a prayer, usually led by a clergy member, to begin its opening sessions. The clergy members were invited from a list of eligible local religious leaders and were permitted to give the invocation on a first-come, first-serve basis. It also became common practice for board members to use these opening invocations as an opportunity to link student, teacher, and district accomplishments to Christianity by citing Bible verses and stressing the need for God in schools and society. The school board had a student representative who attended the meetings, and commonly invited students to highlight their various accomplishments. The Ninth Circuit ruled this opening invocation to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court differentiated the permissible town board meeting in Town of Greece from this case in that the town board meeting was typically attended by mature adults who could express dissent, and had the option to remain or leave at will. “Instead, these prayers typically take place before groups of school children whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the Board, is not one of full parity.” The Court further argued that public schools lack the historical foundation that legislatures have in allowing opening prayer. The court reasoned that the school board should not be permitted to invoke such religious doctrine in their meetings.

LOOKING FORWARD

Until this split is reconciled, school districts will continue to face uncertainty as to how to proceed with such a practice. As of now, it is not clear if the school board meeting is more like a school-sanctioned event or a legislative session, an important distinction in deciding the issue. Due to these important constitutional ramifications, the Supreme Court should intervene and clarify its ruling in Town of Greece. The conflict here is important because it calls into question the protections afforded by the First Amendment, a bedrock of our democratic society. Additionally, this concerns the imperative right of children in a public school to be free from religious indoctrination, allowing them to develop their beliefs and faculties unimpeded by religious pressure from public authority figures.

Right to Refrain: Do Abortion Providers Have a First Amendment Right to Free Speech Under Mandatory Narrated Ultrasound Laws?

Background

The First Amendment prohibits Congress or any other legislative body from enacting laws that abridge freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has distinguished between legislation that regulates the content of speech and legislation that regulates conduct associated with the speech. Content-based speech restrictions are generally presumed to be invalid and must face strict scrutiny before the courts. This requires the government to prove that the law is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest — a very high bar that often results in most content-based speech restrictions failing.

The First Amendment not only guarantees the right to speech, it also guarantees the right to refrain from speech. In Riley v. Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind (1988), the Supreme Court held that regulations that compel speech are inherently content-based restrictions, as they compel the speaker to speak when they would have otherwise remained silent. As such, regulations that compel speech must also generally face some form of strict or heightened scrutiny before the court.

In conjunction with the recent rise in abortion regulation, multiple states have passed legislation mandating that narrated ultrasounds be performed by physicians prior to abortion procedures. While specifics vary slightly between states, the laws have the same general premise: physicians are required to perform an ultrasound, display the sonogram, and describe the fetus to the patient. Under these laws, the physician must display and describe the ultrasound, even if the patient actively protests. Most states provide an exception only for emergency situations, although exceptions also vary by state. If a physician refuses to perform the ultrasound, he or she may be subject to multiple forms of punishment, including fines, referral to the state medical licensing board, and an inability to perform future abortions.

The Issue

Reproductive rights and other activist groups have recently joined forces to approach these regulations from a non-traditional vantage point. The groups are straying from the traditional approach of invalidating abortion legislation under Roe v. Wade (1973), where the Supreme Court found a Constitutional right to an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the groups have turned their focus to the impact of these regulations on the physicians they are intended to regulate. These activist groups have argued that the mandatory narration laws are unconstitutional not because they prohibit access to abortion, but because they compel physicians to engage in speech from which they otherwise would refrain. This has ultimately led to a single question: what are abortion providers’ First Amendment rights under mandatory narrated ultrasound laws?

The Split

In Stuart v. Camnitz (2014), the Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina’s narrated ultrasound law violated physicians’ First Amendment right to refrain from speaking “beyond the extent permitted for reasonable regulation of the medical profession.” The Court noted that while “professionals may be subject to regulations by the state that restrict their First Amendment freedoms when acting in the course of their professions, professionals do not leave their speech rights at the office door.” The Court held that this regulation of speech and professional conduct warranted heightened intermediate scrutiny, under which the law failed. The Fourth Circuit stated that “while it is true that the words the state puts into the doctor’s mouth are factual, that does not divorce the speech from its moral or ideological implications,” emphasizing the fact that context matters. Because the speech that the state was attempting to compel in this case was so heavily content-specific and did not allow any room for physicians to exercise professional judgment, the Court held that the law unconstitutionally attempted to make physicians the “mouthpiece of the state” to promote their own “clear and conceded” pro-life position.

The Sixth Circuit recently reached the exact opposite conclusion in EMW Women’s Surgical Center P.S.C. v. Beshear (2019). The Court found that Kentucky’s mandatory narrated ultrasound law did not violate physicians’ First Amendment rights, noting that the law simply “requires the disclosure of truthful, non-misleading, and relevant information about an abortion.” Directly addressing the Fourth Circuit’s 2014 decision, the Court stated that “Stuart’s basis for applying heightened scrutiny is called into question by Supreme Court precedent.” The Court argued that the appropriate level of scrutiny was much lower than that called for by the Fourth Circuit and that, under this new lower level of scrutiny, the law survived. Further opposing the argument that the narrated ultrasound laws inappropriately interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, the Court found that the laws did not interfere “any more than other informed-consent laws,” despite the fact that they were regulating the controversial subject of abortion. Countering the Fourth Circuit’s opinion that the compelling of physicians to deliver the state’s message was unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit held that “as a First Amendment matter, there is nothing suspect with a State’s requiring a doctor, before performing an abortion, to make truthful, non-misleading factual disclosures, relevant to informed consent, even if those disclosures relate to unborn life and have the effect of persuading the patient not to have an abortion.”

Looking Forward

 The future of this issue remains uncertain. The Court recently made headlines for accepting an admitting privileges case out of the Fifth Circuit, the first abortion-related case since the addition of conservative Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. However, the Court has generally been hesitant to accept abortion-related cases and has already denied a previous appeal for this issue. In 2014, the Court denied North Carolina officials’ petition to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s decision. As of September 26, 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a petition for a writ of certiorari for the Supreme Court to hear its appeal from the Sixth Circuit’s decision. A response is due from the Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Adam Meier, by the end of October before the Court will begin to consider the petition.

For further reading, see: Sex, Lies, and Ultrasound (2018) by Case Western University School of Law Associate Dean and Professor B. Jessie Hill and Professional Rights Speech (2016) by William & Mary Law School Professor Timothy Zick.

Competing Branches: Judicial Scrutiny and Presidential Commutation of Prison Sentences

Background

Presidential commutation, or reduction, of prison sentences is a well-established power of the executive branch. Article II of the United States Constitution gives the President the “power to grant Reprieves and Pardons” for criminal offenses against the United States. U.S. Const. art. II, §2. However, the implications of such an action on the judiciary’s subsequent ability to grant a writ of habeas corpus are yet to be determined.

A writ of habeas corpus permits an inmate to have his or her case reviewed by a court to determine whether the imprisonment is lawful. If there have been changes in law relevant to the case, or if for any number of reasons, the inmate believes the original sentence may no longer hold, he or she may ask that a court hear the claim. Relatedly, Article III of the Constitution provides an important constraint on the authority of the judiciary, declaring that courts cannot hear a moot issue. In other words, the conflict before the court has to be one that is “live,” or where the parties still have a “cognizable interest in the outcome.”

The Issue

The question, then, is what happens once a prisoner’s sentence has been reduced by presidential commutation?

1.         Does any appeal by the affected inmate for review become moot, divesting the judiciary of its power to grant writs of habeas corpus?

2.         Does the judiciary still have the authority to review that case, or has it been transformed from a judicial sentence to an executive one?

The Split

In recent years, cases before the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have raised these exact questions. The circuit courts are split, with the Fourth Circuit taking a seemingly narrow view of its jurisdictional scope, while the Sixth Circuit applies its authority more broadly.

In United States v. Surratt (2017), the Fourth Circuit held that presidential commutation — in this case, shortening a sentence for crack cocaine possession from life to 20 years — divested the court entirely of its power to review the case. Though the ruling features only a two-sentence opinion, the concurring opinion explains the logical merits. It states, “absent some constitutional infirmity in the commutation order, which is not present here, we may not readjust or rescind what the President, in the exercise of his pardon power, has done.” It asserts that the nature of the sentence has been transformed by the action, and that the prisoner is no longer serving a judicially imposed sentence, but a presidentially commuted one — to interfere with that would be to act outside of the court’s jurisdictional purview. In the court’s view, the inmate had accepted the offer made by the President, which created finality in the decision, thus precluding the court from further intervention.

Deviating from this opinion, in Dennis v. Terris (2019), the Sixth Circuit found that such an exercise of presidential power does not take away from the judiciary’s authority to grant a writ of habeas corpus. The court acknowledged the executive’s power, but refused to accept the position that the “altered sentence becomes an executive sentence in full, free from judicial scrutiny with respect to mistakes the courts may have made.” In this view, there is no overlap between the power exercised by the executive and the authority the court is asked to assert. Here, the question is not whether the commutation should be amended, but rather whether the original sentence itself would hold up under scrutiny and application of modern law. The argument made by this court is that a commutation or pardon by the President does not change the nature of or eliminate the original sentence. Say, for example, an inmate’s sentence is commuted with the added condition that the inmate maintain good behavior. If that condition is not met, the commutation is revoked and the original sentence takes effect once again. The original sentence remains in place all along, “ready to kick into full effect if the recipient violates the conditional cap.” Likewise, the sentence is, all along, subject to be amended by the court system that imposed it. Moreover, the court argues that a commuted sentence is, on principle, not rendered moot. Commutation does not take away any interest the inmate has in seeking relief for the remainder of his or her sentence. If a court were to find the inmate’s sentence unlawful, then the original sentence would simply go away. In other words, the conflict is still “live,” giving the court jurisdiction to revise and reevaluate the legality of its own past decisions.

Looking Forward

The power of a President to shorten or forgive the sentences of prisoners is an exercise in fairness that dates back to the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and has played a role in the criminal justice system ever since. This current split reveals a fundamental difference in how the courts view their roles as part of the judiciary. Whether or not an overlap between branches of government is formed by an executive action is a question of constitutional interpretation that carries serious consequences for how justice will be carried out across the United States in the future.

Standardizing the Standard: Determination of “Habitual Residence” Under the Hague Convention

BACKGROUND

In 1980, the United States and the member states of the Hague Conference on Private International Law unanimously adopted the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. In 1988, Congress passed the Hague Convention’s enabling statute, the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. 22 U.S.C. §§ 9001–9011. In doing so, Congress reiterated the Convention’s purpose “to help resolve the problem of international abduction and retention of children” and to “deter such wrongful removals and retentions.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(a)(4). Accordingly, Congress empowered “courts in the United States to determine only rights under the Convention and not the merits of any underlying child custody claim.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(b)(4). As a result, the determination of a child’s “habitual residence” is the fundamental question in any case under the Hague Convention. The answer controls whether the Convention applies, which nation’s laws determine custodial or access rights, and whether a child must be sent across international borders to another country for adjudication of those rights.

THE ISSUE

Whether a district court’s determination of “habitual residence” under the Hague Convention should be reviewed:

  1. De novo, as seven circuits have held;
  2. Under clear-error review, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th and 6th Circuits have held; or
  3. Under a deferential version of de novo review, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit has held.

THE SPLIT

Among the ten circuits that have addressed the issue, three different standards have emerged for reviewing a district court’s habitual-residence determination.

Seven circuits apply de novo review to a district court’s determination of habitual residence, thus reviewing the district court’s underlying findings of historical fact for clear error. The Second Circuit explained that the habitual residence determination is heavily fact-dependent, but the question of whether the pertinent facts satisfy the legal standard is a question of law to be reviewed de novo. Guzzo v. Cristofano (2013). Similarly, the Third Circuit held that the “determination of habitual residence is not purely factual, but requires the application of a legal standard, which defines the concept of habitual residence, to historical and narrative facts.” Feder v. Evans-Feder (1995). Keeping in line with this approach, the Third Circuit applies “a mixed standard of review, accepting the district court’s historical or narrative facts unless they are clearly erroneous, but exercising plenary review of the court’s choice of and interpretation of legal precepts and its application of those precepts to the facts.” The Fifth Circuit agrees, explaining that such a determination presents a mixed question of law and fact subject to de novo review. Larbie v. Larbie (2012). The Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits also apply the same approach — reviewing the underlying historical facts for clear error, but reviewing the ultimate determination of habitual residence de novo. Koch v. Koch (7th Cir. 2006); Silverman v. Silverman (8th Cir. 2003); Mozes v. Mozes (9th Cir. 2001); Ruiz v. Tenorio (11thCir. 2004).

In contrast, the Fourth Circuit found that the crux of the habitual residence determination is whether the district court’s finding is clearly erroneous. Maxwell v. Maxwell (2009). Almost a decade later, the Sixth Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit in applying that deferential standard. The Sixth Circuit held in Taglieri v. Monasky (2018) that it would “treat the habitual residence of a child as a question of fact.” Emphasizing the comparative advantages of trial and appellate courts and the highly deferential nature of clear-error review, the court uniquely articulated that it would affirm the district court’s habitual-residence determination “unless the fact findings ‘strike us as wrong with the force of a five week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.’” The court then deferred not only to the district court’s findings of historical fact but also to its determination that those facts were legally sufficient to establish a child’s habitual residence.

The First Circuit adopted a hybrid approach. Although it applies clear-error review to historical facts underlying the habitual-residence determination and de novo review to the district court’s resolution of that question, the First Circuit gives some deference to the district court’s determination. According to the First Circuit, it is fairly difficult in Hague Convention litigation “to attach an abstract label to a complex of discrete facts, some of which push each way.” Nicolson v. Pappalardo (2010). With this approach, the court will reverse a “district court’s raw fact findings . . . only for clear error,” giving some form of deference to the district court’s application of the standard in determining habitual residence.

LOOKING FORWARD

When Congress adopted legislation implementing the Convention, it emphasized “the need for uniform international interpretation of the Convention.” 22 U.S.C. § 9001(b)(3)(B). Ten circuits applying three approaches is not the uniformity Congress intended. Fortunately, the Supreme Court found a proper vehicle to address the lack of uniformity in Monasky v. Taglieri. Set for oral argument on December 11, 2019, the Supreme Court will shed light on which standard of review a Court of Appeals should apply to a district court’s determination of habitual residence under the Hague Convention. In deciding Monasky, the Sixth Circuit created an additional split that the Supreme Court will also examine later this year. That issue will be discussed in another Sunday Split.

Deliberate Indifference: Does the Eighth Amendment Guarantee Access to Gender Confirmation Surgery For Transgender Prisoners?

BACKGROUND

The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but what are the parameters of this protection? In Estelle v. Gamble, the Supreme Court expanded the definition to include “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners.” This 1976 decision proscribes a form of inhumane treatment that extends beyond physical punishment:

“(D)enial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose… The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation codifying the common law view that “it is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself.”

However, it is not the case that every prisoner’s claim for inadequate medical treatment necessarily involves an Eighth Amendment violation. Under Kolisek v. Spencer, to prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) a serious medical need exists, and (2) prison administrators’ acted with deliberate indifference to that need.

THE ISSUE

The aforementioned two-prong test comes into play when deciding whether an inmate can receive treatment for gender dysphoria. According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, gender dysphoria is defined as “distress that is caused by discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth.” In the recently decided case, Edmo v. Corizon, the Ninth Circuit went on to recognize that, if left untreated, gender dysphoria can lead to “debilitating distress, depression, impairment of function, substance use, self-surgery to alter one’s genitals or secondary sex characteristics, self-injurious behaviors, and even suicide.” Despite this, the question of whether gender dysphoria is a serious medical issue for inmates is not at issue here.

With regard to gender dysphoria, treatment ranges from changes in gender expression to gender confirmation surgery (GCS). The latter is politically controversial, but a growing body of evidence demonstrates that it is an effective treatment for gender dysphoria. The Fifth Circuit, in Gibson v. Collier, expressed concern that transgender prisoners are not guaranteed “the best treatment for gender dysphoria, only that which prevents their medical well-being from dropping below ‘society’s minimum standards of decency.’”

The legal controversy at issue here involves the definition of “adequate treatment,” specifically the standard for “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s medical need in the context of transgender prisoners. The question becomes whether a transgender inmate’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment is violated when GCS is denied and substituted with less invasive treatment.

THE SPLIT

The Fifth and Ninth Circuits diverge in their interpretation of the First Circuit’s opinion in Kosilek v. Spencer, which held that Michelle Kosilek, an anatomically male prisoner who identified as female, was not entitled to GCS. The Court reasoned that, although her gender dysphoria was severe, it was unclear whether GCS would provide significantly greater relief than the non-surgical treatment she was already receiving. The prison was found not deliberately indifferent, and the claim was denied.

The Fifth Circuit has interpreted Kosilek as creating a de facto, blanket ban on GCS on the grounds that there exists controversy about whether the procedure is ever medically necessary. In Gibson v. Collier, Vanessa Gibson (who the Fifth Circuit insists on calling Scott Gibson), is a male-to-female transgender inmate who has been presenting as female since the age of fifteen. Despite receiving hormonal therapy from the prison, Vanessa showed signs of depression, attempted to castrate herself, and even attempted suicide three times. The Court, however, held that withholding GCS from her is not “deliberate indifference” because there exists controversy about the efficacy of the procedure, finding that an Eighth Amendment violation did not occur. The Court granted summary judgment against Gibson for failing to provide sufficient evidence of medical indifference, and reaffirmed the prison policy that denied the inmate’s right to be evaluated as a candidate for GCS in the first place.

In contrast, in Edmo v. Corizon, the Ninth Circuit has interpreted the Kosilek decision by holding that the medical necessity of GCS must be determined on a case-by-case basis. In this case, Adree Edmo had received non-invasive treatment for her gender dysphoria as an inmate in Idaho. Despite these efforts, Edmo continued to suffer from suicidal ideations, depression, and attempts to self-castrate. Citing the district court’s lengthy discussion of the latest research on gender dysphoria and the efficacy of GCS, the Court determined that it was medically necessary for Edmo to receive the surgery. Due to the increased social awareness of transgender healthcare and significant advancement in treatment, the Ninth Circuit held: where an inmate’s health record shows medical necessity in treating gender dysphoria, and prison officials deny such treatment, those officials are in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

LOOKING FORWARD

In concluding his opinion in Gibson, Judge Ho argued that “it cannot be deliberately indifferent to deny in Texas what is controversial in every other state.” It is, however, this exact controversy that highlights the need for certiorari. It is clear that the lack of access to ever evolving and effective treatment causes severe medical harm, as was the case with Michelle, Vanessa, Adree, and several other transgender inmates. This predictable and preventable harm falls well below the “minimum standards of decency” the Eighth Amendment aims to preserve.

Joining Forces: Whether § 2 of the VRA Permits Aggregation to Create Majority-Minority Coalition Districts

BACKGROUND

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified in the VRA. In 1982, Congress amended § 2 to allow a plaintiff to establish a violation of the Section if the evidence established by a “totality of the circumstance of the local election process” that the standard, practice or procedure being challenged had the result of denying a racial or language minority an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. In effect, this empowered voters to challenge district lines drawn to either dilute or pack minority voters to decrease their influence on the political process.

In its first case following the passage of the 1982 amendments, the Supreme Court explained in Thornburg v. Gingles that the “essence of the Section 2 claim is that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives.”

The Court in Gingles held the following:

  • That the use of multimember districts generally will not impede the ability of minority voters to elect representatives unless: (1) the minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district; (2) the minority group is politically cohesive; and (3) the white majority group votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it to usually defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.
  • That a showing that a significant number of minority group members usually vote for the same candidates is one way of proving the requisite political cohesiveness.
  • A white bloc vote that normally will defeat the combined strength of minority support plus white “crossover” votes rises to the level of legally significant white bloc voting.
  • That the “clearly erroneous test” of Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is the appropriate standard of appellate review for a finding of vote dilution.

Despite these findings, the Court did not consider whether § 2 permits a claim brought by a minority group that is not sufficiently large and compact enough to constitute a majority in a single-member district.

In Growe v. Emison, Johnson v. DeGrandy, and LULAC v. Perry, the Supreme Court continued to sidestep the question by assuming, without deciding, that it is possible to state a § 2 claim for a racial group that makes up less than 50% of the population.

In Bartlett v. Strickland, the Court considered the “minimum-size” question under the first requirement of Gingles. It made clear that the holding only addressed the issue as it pertains to crossover districts, not coalition districts. In crossover districts, minority voters make up less than a majority of the voting population, but the minority population, at least potentially, is large enough to elect the candidate of its choice with the help of voters who are members of the majority and who cross over to support the minority’s preferred candidate. Coalition-district claims, on the other hand, involve two minority groups that form a coalition to elect the candidate of the coalition’s choice. The Court held that crossover districts are not protected under § 2.

THE ISSUE

Pursuant to § 2 of the Voting Rights Act, is the majority-minority requirement under the first Gingles precondition satisfied when minorities from more than one racial or ethnic group, joined together, constitute a majority of the citizen voting age population?

THE SPLIT

The 5th Circuit has been most explicit in permitting coalition districts. In Campos v. City of Baytown, the court held that minority voters can be aggregated so that “together, they are of such numbers residing geographically so as to constitute a majority in a single member district, they cross the Gingles threshold as potentially disadvantaged voters.” Still, the plaintiffs must prove the minorities actually vote together in a cohesive manner. The court determined that the standard for proving cohesion is whether the minority group together votes in a cohesive manner for the minority candidate.

Following Campos, the 2nd Circuit, 9th Circuit, and 11th Circuit have tacitly permitted coalition districts, though not as explicitly as the 5th Circuit. In both Badillo v. City of Stockton and Concerned Citizens of Hardee County v. Hardee County Board of Commissioners, the courts assumed it was acceptable to aggregate voters of different minority groups, but the plaintiffs in both cases failed to prove the requisite political cohesion necessary to satisfy the second Gingles requirement. In Bridgeport Coalition for Fair Representation v. City of Bridgeport, the 2nd Circuit assumed the coalition districts were covered under § 2 and that requisite political cohesion was proven to satisfy the elements of Gingles.

Deviating from the other circuits, the 6th Circuit refused to extend § 2 coverage to a minority group that includes more than one race or ethnicity. In Nixon v. Kent County, the court held that if Congress wanted to protect a minority group that was composed of more than one race or ethnicity, it would have used more words in the plural form in § 2, such as “protected classes” rather than “protected class.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Recently, the Supreme Court seems more willing to take on cases dealing with issues of independent redistricting commissions and partisan gerrymandering. It also has been willing to take on cases regarding § 5 of the Voting Rights Act, as well as the application of the Gingles factors in § 2 claims. While the Court has not yet signaled a willingness to take on the issue of coalition districts, the number of cases arising from the use of African-American and Hispanic voters to create the majority-minority districts will likely continue to increase as the Hispanic population continues to grow. If the Supreme Court does not take up the issue, there may be an increase in coalition districts drawn following the 2020 Census.

Shifting Responsibility: Who Bears the Burden of Proving or Disproving Causation in ERISA Actions?

Background

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) imposes stringent fiduciary duties upon the trustees of employee benefit plans, essentially regulating the relationship between employer and employee. To recover losses under ERISA, a plaintiff must prove that the loss resulted from the fiduciary’s breach. In Brotherston v. Putnam Investments, LLC (2018), the plaintiffs in a class action, sued their former employer, Putnam Investments, for breach of fiduciary duties. The members of the class participated in Putnam’s defined-contribution 401(k) retirement plan. The plaintiffs alleged that Putnam “breached its fiduciary duties by blindly stocking the Plan with Putnam-affiliated investment options merely because they were proprietary,” a clear violation of ERISA. The First Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs, vacating the district court’s judgment in favor of the defendants.

The Issue

Three elements must be proven for a successful ERISA claim: breach, loss, and causation. The split among the circuits specifically revolves around the third element of causation. Once a plaintiff has established loss under ERISA, do they also bear the burden of proving causation between the breach and loss, or rather does the defendant bear the burden of disproving any causal link?

The Split

The circuit courts are split on the issue of whether the plaintiff bears the burden of proving, or the defendant bears the burden of disproving, causation once a plaintiff has established loss “in the wake of an imprudent investment decision.” In Brotherston, the First Circuit joined the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, by handing down a ruling that favors employees, holding that “once an ERISA plaintiff has shown a breach of fiduciary duty and loss to the plan, the burden shifts to the fiduciary to prove that such loss was not caused by its breach, that is, to prove that the resulting investment decision was objectively prudent.”

The First Circuit’s reasoning for adopting the burden-shifting approach was two-fold. First, in the past, the Supreme Court has generally allowed for many exceptions to what is called the “ordinary default rule.” This rule allows courts to presume that the burden rests on plaintiffs to prove the critical aspects of their claims. As a matter of fairness, the ordinary default rule does not apply when the presumption would ultimately force the litigant to “establish facts peculiarly within the knowledge of his adversary.” In Brotherston, the fiduciary possessed the knowledge of the retirement plan and was found to be in a better position, when compared with the beneficiaries, to bear the burden. Second, it is common practice for the Supreme Court to look to the common law of trusts for interpretive guidance in the absence of “explicit textual direction” from the ERISA statute. “The common law of trusts – like ERISA – classifies causation as an element of a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. It also places the burden of disproving causation on the fiduciary once the beneficiary has established that there is a loss associated with the fiduciary’s breach. This burden allocation has long been the rule in trust law.”

In contrast, the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits’ standard favors the fiduciary. In these circuits, the burden does not shift to the defendant to prove that the investment decision was “objectively prudent.” Rather, the plaintiff bears the responsibility of proving that the defendant fiduciary’s alleged breach caused the plaintiff’s loss. Thus, unlike in circuits that adopt a more plaintiff-friendly approach, the defendant has no obligation to disprove the alleged causation. These circuits hold firm in the belief that the beneficiary bears the burden because the party alleging the loss should be responsible for proving the causation.

Moving Forward

Not surprisingly, members of the business community, such as the Investment Company Institute, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support Putnam Investment LLC in the case of Brotherston. These organizations have submitted petitions for writ of certiorari, urging the Supreme Court to take on the case. For more general information on fiduciary duties under ERISA, see “ERISA Compliance FAQs: Fiduciary Responsibilities.”

Reason or Result: Determining What Controls in a Plurality Opinion

BACKGROUND

A majority opinion is exactly that—an opinion that is shared by a majority of the Justices on the Supreme Court. But what happens when there is no majority? A plurality opinion results when a majority of the Justices agree on the outcome of a case, but disagree on the reasoning behind the decision. In the case of a plurality opinion, it may be difficult to determine the exact holding of the case. This becomes especially problematic in a legal system that embraces the principle of stare decisis—it is especially difficult to set a judicial precedent when it is unclear what the holding is in the first place. In Marks v. United States (1977), the Supreme Court offered some insight into deciding which opinion controls when faced with a plurality opinion:

When a fragmented Court decides a case and no single rationale explaining the result enjoys the assent of five Justices, the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.

The opinion established the “narrowest grounds” test in order to provide guidance to lower courts as they set out to interpret the Supreme Court’s plurality opinions. The primary objective in establishing the test was to promote predictability in the law by ensuring adherence to Supreme Court precedence. Ultimately, the Marks decision may have added to the confusion rather than affording the clarity it intended, which leads us to the circuit split at issue.

THE ISSUE

The concept of “narrowest grounds” is undoubtedly vague, leaving ample room for interpretation. Because the Supreme Court left the notion undefined, it is unsurprising that the circuit courts have been unable to arrive at a consensus. Over forty years have passed since the Marks decision, and the circuit courts continue to struggle in determining what the Supreme Court meant by “narrowest grounds.” The Ninth Circuit even went so far as to acknowledge in United States v. Davis (2016) that “the Marks inquiry at times has baffled and divided the lower courts that have considered it, and that the test is more easily stated than applied.”.

THE SPLIT

In the years since Marks, two main definitions have emerged in an attempt to make sense of the “narrowest grounds” test. One interpretation focuses on the reasoning of the different opinions, and the other focuses on the ultimate outcome. Although some courts have adopted slightly more nuanced approaches, the reason-based and result-based methods appear to be leading the discussion.

The reasoning approach essentially involves examining the various opinions in a case and finding a position that a majority of Justices would seemingly support. Essentially, this method requires an observer to find a consensus in reasoning among the various opinions. The D.C. Circuit, which embraces this approach, explained in King v. Palmer (1991) that the narrowest ground under this approach “must represent a common denominator of the Court’s reasoning; it must embody a position implicitly approved by at least five Justices who support the judgment.”. In Pedcor Management Company Welfare Benefit Plan v. Nations Personnel of Texas, Inc. (2003), the Fifth Circuit employed a form of the reasoning approach by analyzing each of the concurring opinions and finding a common ground among just the concurrences. The holding would be the narrowest rationale supported by a combination of all the concurring opinions. Beyond the Fifth and D.C. Circuits, the Ninth Circuit recently clarified in Davis that it adopted the reasoning-based approach. It used an analogy to substantively explain how it determines the Court’s holding: The “‘narrowest grounds’ envisioned by Marks” are those in which “the plurality and concurring opinions can[] be explained by a diagram in which a circle representing the reasoning of [the controlling opinion] sits neatly within a circle representing the reasoning of the plurality opinion.”

In comparison, the outcome approach focuses instead on the end result, as opposed to the reasoning. This method typically involves selecting a concurrence to serve as the controlling opinion because, although the reasoning may differ, a concurring Justice concurs in judgment, and thus agrees with the overall result. In other words, as the Third Circuit explained in Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey (1991), the narrowest ground under this approach “would necessarily produce results with which a majority of the Justices from the controlling case would agree.” The Seventh Circuit implicitly joined the Third Circuit in adopting the results-based approach, as it noted several times in Ben’s Bar, Inc. v. Village of Somerset (2003) that the “controlling opinion” is the “concurrence . . . as the most narrow opinion joining four other Justices in the judgment of the Court.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Although plurality opinions are far outnumbered by majority opinions—the Court publishes on average about three plurality opinions per term—they are still important to understand. Plurality opinions do not always provide clear guidance to lower courts and are viewed as less binding than majority opinions—but they also provide unique insight into the Supreme Court and its decision-making process. The confusion over how to determine the opinion decided on the “narrowest grounds” illustrates, perhaps clearer than any other circuit split, the need for the Supreme Court to step in and clarify its jurisprudence. Circuits disagreeing over the technical aspects of statutory interpretation or how to apply an unclear majority opinion in different circumstances are inevitable—but at a core level, circuits should know which opinion is binding on them, and to what extent.