Monthly Archives: January 2016

Postal Service v. Letter Carriers

485 U. S. 680

April 27, 1988

A postman named Edward Hyde was fired for unlawfully delaying mail delivery. According to a collective bargaining agreement, postmen could only be fired for “just cause,” and an arbitrator unaccountably ruled that failing to deliver mail on time was not “just cause.” A District Court tried to set aside the arbitrator’s ruling as contrary to public policy, but the Court of Appeals said that no clearly defined public policy had been violated.

By a per curiam order, the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted. While the Court of Appeals was probably technically correct, the facts of the case are utterly appalling. If failing to deliver mail isn’t “just cause” for a mailman being fired, then what the h3ll is?


Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith

485 U. S. 660

April 27, 1988

Alfred Smith used some peyote for a Native American religious ceremony. Because of this, he was fired from his job as a (wait for it…) drug abuse counselor. Smith was subsequently denied unemployment benefits, and so he sued, citing the traditional Free Exercise & unemployment benefits cases of Sherbert, Thomas, and Hobbie. The Employment Division responded that this case was different because Smith’s act of ingesting peyote was actually illegal.

By a 5-3 vote the Court remanded the case to Oregon for more clarification on peyote’s legal status (Kennedy did not participate). The previous cases all involved legal religious activity like not working on the Sabbath, which the state had no compelling interest to thwart. In contrast, Stevens said that illegal conduct was a compelling reason to withhold benefits from those claiming religious free exercise. If they could Constitutionally put you in jail for it, they could deny you benefits for it as well. Nonetheless, it wasn’t entirely clear whether ceremonial peyote use actually violated Oregon law, so a remand was necessary to figure that out.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, dissented. He said that the courts in Oregon had already denied the Employment Division any right to deny benefits based on illegal activity. Because, according to Oregon, illegal activity could not be a valid reason for benefits being withheld, the legal status of ceremonial peyote use was irrelevant. In the end, said Brennan, the case really was just like Sherbert and the others. What’s most remarkable about this case is how little warning there was that such a massive change in Free Exercise jurisprudence would come when the case returned in 1990.

Landers v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation

485 U. S. 652

April 27, 1988

Amtrak had a collective bargaining agreement with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union (BLE). This agreement said that only the BLE could represent employees at disciplinary proceedings. An Amtrak engineer who belonged to a different union wanted that union to represent him instead. He said that the Railway Labor Act gave him that right.

White wrote for a unanimous Court against the engineer. While the Railway Labor Act did give employees the right to belong to rival unions, it also said that disciplinary proceedings would go forth according to the provisions in the collective bargaining agreement. White found it significant that the Act specifically allowed for an employee’s choice of representation in a different kind of dispute proceeding. This strongly implied that the same choice was not given for the proceeding at issue.

White also gave some insight as to why all this was good public policy. Some nonsense about not inflaming bitter rivalry between members of different unions. It makes no difference to me. Railway engineers shouldn’t have to belong to a union in the first place, and the Railway Labor Act shouldn’t exist. Unions delenda est!

Hicks v. Feiock

485 U. S. 624

April 27, 1988

Phillip Feiock was very delinquent in child support payments, and so a California court imposed a 25 day jail sentence, suspended during a three year probation period. Feiock argued that he was financially unable to pay child support, and that the government should have the burden of proving ability to pay before imposing jail time. Under the Due Process clause, the government perhaps would have to prove ability to pay in a criminal case, but not in a civil case. But which was this?

The Court ruled 5-3 that this factual question didn’t have a clear answer, and remanded the case for more clarification (Kennedy did not participate). White said that some questions of the case could not be addressed, because they concerned interpretation of state law. On the civil/criminal question though, precedent was very clear. Criminal cases involved definite, punitive sanctions, like set jail sentences, and fines paid to the court. Civil cases involved conditional, rehabilitative sanctions, like jail time until a condition is complied with, or fines paid to another party. If Feiock made all the child support payments, it was unclear whether the jail time and probation would go away, so White ordered the remand.

O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. She thought the ruling of the California court was definitely civil. Unlike the majority, she thought it was clear that the jail time and probation would be gone if Feiock simply complied with the child support payment schedule. In my opinion, the facts were unclear enough that a remand was warranted, but regardless, I have to say that I hate the common assumption that civil proceedings do not require Due Process. Civil actions can sometimes destroy your life worse than criminal actions, and defendants do deserve some protection against getting rear-ended by horrible, unjust decisions.

Sorry for going a bit MRA here, but the cold, unforgiving self-righteousness of the child support system really turns me off. It’s a near lawless racket where innocent children are used as vicious clubs against imperfect men. Google the story of Carnell Alexander, and remember that there are many more like him who never even make the news. It’s a literally kafkaesque world out there, and so long as self-righteous demons make it impossible to stand up for ‘deadbeat dads,’ nothing will ever change.

Patterson v. McLean Credit Union

485 U. S. 617

April 25, 1988

The Court was going to decide a discrimination case in the near future. In advance, the Court asked the parties to brief and argue whether the 1976 decision of Runyon v. McCrary should be overruled. Runyon v. McCrary said that even private organizations could not practice racial discrimination according to an old civil rights law. The Court noted that it specifically asks parties to reassess previous decisions from time to time, and that there’s no bar to the Court abandoning a prior interpretation of statutory law.

This order was per curiam, and 5-4. Blackmun and Stevens wrote dissents, and each had it joined by Brennan, Marshall, and the other. Blackmun said that the Runyon ruling had been relied on repeatedly, and was pretty well established and unquestioned. Those sorts of rulings are not supposed to be reexamined willy-nilly. Stevens observed that the parties had not asked for Runyon to be reconsidered, and argued that reconsidering it would prove unsettling to racial minorities who had put their trust in the ruling.

This is it: the very first decision ever that was Rehnquist-White-O’Connor-Scalia-Kennedy against Brennan-Marshall-Blackmun-Stevens. We will see this again many times from 1988 to 1990. As for the decision itself, it was a good one. If a previous ruling was wrong, it should be overruled, end of story. With some very limited exceptions, I have no patience for stare decisis or judicial restraint objections to reconsidering old rulings. Better to get it right belatedly than to boldly stand by error.

Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Public Employment Relations Bd.

485 U. S. 589

April 20, 1988

An employee union wanted to use the University of California’s postage-free internal mail system. The union claimed that a California law gave them this right, but the University responded that federal law against postage-free delivery trumped this. There were some statutory exceptions to the federal law against private mail delivery, such as the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ and the ‘private-hands’ ones. The postal service itself said that these exceptions did not apply, but the union pressed forth its challenge undaunted.

The Court ruled 6-2 that the University should not carry the union mail (Kennedy did not participate). O’Connor first looked at the ‘letters-of-the-carrier’ exception, which said that entirely internal mail was exempt from the US postal service. Because the union was not in fact a part of the University, the mail was not entirely internal and the exception did not apply. Then there was the ‘private-hands’ exception, which said that mail could be delivered outside the postal service if there was no compensation for it. O’Connor said that non-monetary compensation such as business quid-pro-quos qualified as ‘compensation’ for this exception. Because carrying union letters could be seen as a way of currying the goodwill of the employee union, this exception did not apply either.

White, concurring in judgment, did not think the precise reach of the statutory exceptions was as clear as O’Connor thought, but was willing to give the harmonious interpretations of postal service Chevron deference. Stevens, joined by Marshall, dissented, and argued that the ‘private-hands’ exception applied. Looking through legislative history, and some earlier court cases, he concluded that the majority’s expansion of the term ‘compensation’ to include non-monetary goodwill could not be justified. Thus, the University was required to follow California law and carry union mail.

This is one of those preemption cases where the parties are caught between two crappy laws. The postal service’s ruthless attempt at monopoly is pretty silly, but California’s demand that universities deliver union mail free of charge is even worse. In any event, White had the most legally persuasive opinion. This was a simple Chevron case that the majority and dissent both made much harder than it needed to be.

Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Constr. Trades Council

485 U. S. 568

April 20, 1988

Unions distributed leaflets urging customers to boycott an entire mall, because just one business there had hired just one construction company which allegedly was mean to unions. A labor board found that this union activity broke a law, even though that law arguably violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. A Court of Appeals disagreed with the labor board’s interpretation of the law, and held that the law did not actually ban peaceful leafletting, so the union was in the clear.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court backed up the Court of Appeals (Kennedy did not participate, and Scalia and O’Connor concurred in judgment without opinion). While the labor board’s interpretation would normally get Chevron deference, there was an exception when an agency’s interpretation might violate the Constitution. In those cases, courts could look for and adopt a narrower reading. White said that the law was written to stop practices that might “threaten, coerce, or restrain” potential consumers. Because peaceful leafletting, unaccompanied by picketing, arguably did not do this, White adopted the narrower interpretation of the law.

Legislative history was similarly murky on the law’s reach, and a much analyzed colloquy between Senators Kennedy and Goldwater failed to yield a definite answer either. White also pointed out that under the labor board’s interpretation, even a private meeting which urged a boycott would be considered illegal. I would have liked to have at least read a dissent, but this ruling doesn’t bother me too much. The underlying facts of the case however, are just more proof that American unions are frequently unhinged and totally irrational.

Traynor v. Turnage

485 U. S. 535

April 20, 1988

The GI bill helped veterans go to school for 10 years after honorable discharge. This 10 year period could be extended if they missed school due to disabilities not caused by “willful misconduct.” Two veterans were denied this extension when their alcoholism was ruled “willful misconduct.” They sued under the Rehabilitation Act, which denied any discrimination against the handicapped. There was a standing challenge because normally determination about veterans benefits did not get judicial review.

The Court unanimously found standing, since the dispute was over the Rehabilitation Act, and not veterans administration itself. Then the Court held 4-3 that the extension could be denied for alcoholism (Scalia and Kennedy did not participate). White said the same Congress that passed the Rehabilitation Act also intimated that it was fine with alcoholism being deemed “willful misconduct.” White concluded that there was no discrimination against the handicapped – just those who had committed misconduct. In light of the ambiguity about the Rehabilitation Act’s reach, and alcoholism’s status as a ‘disease,’ the Court had no trouble deferring to the veteran’s administration.

Blackmun, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He told sob stories about the veterans getting into drinking as little children, and how they had no choice in the development of their addiction. Blackmun also cited literature showing how hard it is to beat alcoholism. He thought they deserved to at least argue that they had committed no “willful misconduct,” and that the Rehabilitation Act gave them that right. Legislative history showed that the Rehabilitation Act was intended to cover alcoholism, and the Congressional acquiescence to the “willful misconduct” standard wasn’t entirely explicit.

This is a very interesting case about accountability. Is it fair to hold a full grown man accountable for a habit he developed at age 8? Maybe no, but this is also a case about entitlements. These men were given 10 whole years of free government assistance, and they still demanded more! Government aid is a generous privilege, not some natural right, and I do get tired of Brennan and friends pretending otherwise so often.

South Carolina v. Baker

485 U. S. 505

April 20, 1988

Because unregistered bonds were often used for tax evasion, Congress imposed a heavy tax on income from unregistered bonds. This made unregistered bonds so unattractive that it no longer seemed reasonable for several states to even issue them. South Carolina said this squelching of unregistered bonds violated the Tenth Amendment, as well as the historic intergovernmental tax immunity given to state-issued bonds.

Nonetheless, the Court upheld the new tax law 7-1 (Kennedy did not participate). Brennan reminded poor South Carolina that, under the Garcia case from 1985, the Tenth Amendment was all but eviscerated. Moving on to a more specific claim of commandeering – that states were being conscripted to pass new laws on bonds – he said that as long as the states passed the new laws out of indirect coercion rather than direct forcing, there was no Tenth Amendment problem. Finally, Brennan faced the bond tax immunity argument from the 1895 case Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., and simply overruled Pollock. It used to be that every tax on a contract with the government was thought immune, but that doctrine had faded away decades ago, and bonds were the last surviving vestige of it.

Stevens said in a brief concurrence that even without Garcia, the Tenth Amendment argument still would have failed. Scalia joined the majority opinion except for the Tenth Amendment part. He wrote that he agreed with the conclusion, but disagreed with the majority’s almost gleeful minimizing of the Amendment. Rehnquist concurred in judgment. A Special Master had concluded that the bond tax would not be a big burden on states, and that essentially concluded the case for him.

O’Connor dissented sharply. She would not tolerate the continued evisceration of the Tenth Amendment, and also objected to overruling Pollock. The erosion of the doctrine underlying Pollock was based on the non-burdensome nature of the tax on government contracts. Contra Rehnquist, she interpreted the Special Master to conclude that the bond tax would indeed be burdensome to states. Thus, state issued bonds still deserved immunity. This is one of those odd cases where O’Connor was substantially more ‘conservative’ than Scalia and Rehnquist. Whatever else might be said about her, she truly was possibly the best federalist the Court has ever had in the post-Four Horsemen era.

Puerto Rico Dept. of Consumer Affairs v. ISLA Petroleum Corp.

485 U. S. 495

April 19, 1988

Congress passed price and allocation controls on oil in response to the oil crisis of 1973. This legislation clearly preempted any state legislation in the area. Some years later, when the oil market went back to normal, Congress took away basically all the regulation, apparently leaving things to the free market. Puerto Rico then tried to put some price controls into law, and it was disputed whether the preemption from the now repealed federal legislation still stood.

With Scalia writing, the Court ruled 8-0 that Puerto Rico could regulate (O’Connor did not participate). Scalia said that the Court wants to see specific textual evidence of preemption before finding such. Because there was no positive indication that state legislation would be preempted even after repeal, the Court was loath to find it. Statements by some in Congress indicating that unregulated free markets were intended by the repeal were not deemed clear enough. In short, “repeal of [oil] regulation did not leave behind a pre-emptive grin without a statutory cat.”