Lawsuits Needn’t Block Recovery

Congress has the power to limit coronavirus liability while regulators develop rules to control contagion.

By J. Michael Luttig and David B. Rivkin, Jr.

20 May 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

As Congress considers another Covid-19 rescue bill, the usual partisan divide has opened over limiting pandemic-related tort liabilities. Republicans and business owners argue that litigation will hamstring recovery. Trial lawyers, unions and Democrats counter that liability limits would encourage businesses to endanger employees and consumers. The Senate Republican leadership proposes immunity for all businesses that comply with public-health guidelines except in cases of “gross negligence” and willful misconduct.

Republicans’ approach is appealing in theory, but in practice it can’t be implemented without detailed regulatory standards—which in the case of Covid-19 won’t be written for some time. Rather than permanently change liability standards based on incomplete information about the virus, it would be wiser to enact an immediate but temporary immunity. That would permit the economy to begin reopening while allowing time for federal regulators to promulgate standards on which long-term immunity could be conditioned.

The existing tort liability system, which rests mostly on state statutory and common law, has few virtues and many flaws. It is inefficient and often arbitrarily imposes liability. Tort litigation, unlike regulatory standards and enforcement, is largely unconstrained by due process and other constitutional limits. The results can be crippling for small businesses, which can’t afford protracted litigation, and even large companies have to settle meritless or frivolous lawsuits. The system is driven by jackpot-justice incentives.

This system is particularly ill-equipped for dealing with Covid-19, which affects the whole economy. Yet hundreds of lawsuits are already pending against universities, processing plants, manufacturing, mass-transportation companies and other businesses. Plaintiff lawyers are petitioning legislatures to rewrite or courts to reinterpret insurance policies, which specifically exclude pandemic-related liabilities, in an effort to obtain large recoveries. While such efforts are constitutionally suspect, these lawsuits won’t die easily.

The notion that businesses will act recklessly if Congress affords liability relief ignores the good-faith compliance culture of American enterprises and the regulatory environment in which they operate. Businesses have strong incentives against even negligent behavior, which would cause bad publicity and customer distrust. We’ve seen many announcements in recent weeks about what businesses are doing to keep customers and employees safe. Bad actors can and will be held to account by states and municipalities using police and regulatory powers to fine, close or even prosecute those that operate dangerously. An elaborate system of federal and state workmen’s compensation provides additional protection.

Tort law is primarily a state matter, but it’s well-established that Congress can intervene via its power to regulate interstate commerce. Federal law has provided tort liability protections to firearms makers and for nuclear power. Congress also enacted laws to limit liabilities arising out of Y2K—like Covid-19, a specific event that was thought to have potentially calamitous economic consequences.

The Supreme Court has sustained congressional authority to sweep aside state policies, statutes and procedures that impair interstate commerce, beginning with Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which affirmed federal pre-eminence in regulating interstate navigation. In New York v. Beretta (2008), which upheld the limitations on liability for firearms makers, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Congress’s authority includes the power to ban state tort lawsuits that “are a direct threat” to specific industries.

While there are legitimate doubts—which we share—that the Commerce Clause’s original meaning encompasses intrastate economic activities, the high court has embraced this view since 1942, when it held in Wickard v. Filburn that the federal government could ban growing wheat for personal consumption because it impaired a wheat-production scheme created by federal statute. The justices also asserted in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate intrastate activities that “substantially affect interstate commerce.” Those precedents are enough to allow Congress to protect businesses with local footprints, such as beauty salons or restaurants, that buy products or supplies in interstate commerce.

Senate Republicans should also propose to make protection against tort liability a precondition for states and localities to receive nearly $1 trillion in the new Covid-19 rescue bill. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), the ObamaCare case, the Supreme Court limited Congress’s ability to coerce states into adopting new policies by threatening to withdraw money for existing programs. Since this money is new, that won’t pose an obstacle. Using its spending and Commerce Clause powers, Congress can promulgate a variety of regulatory schemes that would replace current federal and state statutory and common-law liabilities for Covid-19 and that would survive litigation challenges.

Making liability protection work will require regulation to evolve along with scientific understanding of Covid-19. Current federal, state and local guidelines, including those published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are informed exclusively by medical considerations and do not reflect traditional regulatory criteria such as cost and feasibility of implementation, and are too ambiguous and inconclusive to be a proper basis for imposing or limiting Covid-19-related liabilities. New, industry-specific guidelines will have to be developed by agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA and other federal agencies have the expertise to evaluate scientific, practical and cost-effective standards governing operations of a wide range of businesses. What they need is new statutory authority to issue safe-harbor guidelines for businesses that pre-empt tort liability under state law. Companies and trade associations would work with OSHA and propose industry- or business-specific guidelines to the agency, such as for meat packing plants or package sorting facilities. OSHA would promptly review each proposal, make necessary modifications, and then issue it as an immediately effective regulation with the legal force to override lawsuit liability. Businesses that comply with these regulations can rest assured that they’ve met their legal obligations.

Such considered Covid-19 liability reform—temporary immunity while businesses reopen, followed by promulgation of comprehensive federal regulatory guidelines—would be constitutional and consistent with federalist values. It would protect public health while enabling a prompt and full economic recovery.

Mr. Luttig is a former general counsel of the Boeing Co. He served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1991-2006. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/lawsuits-neednt-block-recovery-11589993211

Bailing out states violates the Constitution’s ‘general welfare’ clause

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

6 May 2020 in The Hill

Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are right to oppose legislation that would provide a broad federal bailout of highly indebted states. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York calls this legislative stance “toxic and poison,” but it is constitutionally required.  

As senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’s Ted Cruz, made clear in a recent letter to President Trump, no one doubts that the federal government can and should assist states in meeting the coronavirus emergency. Nor can there be any reasonable objection that this aid will benefit certain states — especially New York, which has the majority of coronavirus cases — more than others. There is, however, a profound objection to any plan that would use federal resources to ensure that heavily indebted states need not reassess their policy priorities. These states find themselves in dire fiscal straits primarily because of underfunded pension plans for their public employees. Virtually all of these states are Democrat-run and three of them — Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — are facing a particularly calamitous fiscal situation.

Politics aside, bailing out unfunded state pension plans with federal dollars would violate the Constitution’s often ignored, but nevertheless binding, “general welfare” clause. Congress does not, in fact, have unfettered power to spend money as it sees fit. The Constitution permits it to tax, and by implication spend, “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) This language was neither puffery nor surplusage, but was added by the Constitution’s Framers for a compelling purpose.

The Framers were determined to vest the federal government with sufficient authority to carry out its national purpose, but also to limit that power. These principles are reflected in numerous constitutional provisions and that document’s overall architecture. Thus, all congressional powers have some limit, some cabining principle. Just as the commerce clause is limited to the regulation of economic activities and does not permit Congress to exercise a general “police power” regulating people simply because they are here, so Congress’s ability to tax and spend is limited by the requirement that this must be for the general welfare.

This requirement stems from the Framers’ concern that large, powerful states would dominate the federal government and would use federal institutions to benefit their own interests, rather than the Union as a whole. Indeed, the question of how to ensure that a cabal of large states would not run roughshod over small states dominated much of the Constitutional Convention. It shaped many key constitutional provisions, including the bicameral federal legislature, with all states having equal representation in the Senate, the apportionment requirement for direct federal taxes, and the language mandating that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  

Even such an ardent proponent of a strong federal government as Alexander Hamilton was sufficiently concerned about states acting selfishly that he argued initially for abolishing the states as independent sovereigns altogether because “states will prefer their particular concerns to the general welfare.” Eventually, this concern resulted in the constitutional language that required the federal government to operate for the general welfare of the entire nation. Notably, this language is found both in the Constitution’s preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates Congress’s powers. And, as is made clear in an early draft of the general welfare clause, the Framers understood the phrase to mean that “which may concern the common interests of the Union.”

This understanding of the clause is similarly revealed in a debate that took place in September 1787, near the Convention’s end, after the general welfare language had taken its final form.  This debate concerned whether an additional provision should be included in the Constitution specifically vesting the federal government with the power to build canals, which would benefit some states more than others. Some thought yes; others argued that tasks such as canal-building should be the responsibility of the states that would directly benefit. Regardless of this disagreement, they all appeared to have shared the same view that such authority — which today we would take for granted as being well within Congress’s spending power — was not already present.

As in other areas, after the Constitution’s ratification, the Framers took different views of how far the spending power could go. Hamilton, always the preeminent Federalist, took the position that the power to tax and spend constituted a separate grant of authority to Congress, while James Madison believed it was merely a support for Congress’s otherwise enumerated powers.  Hamilton’s view prevailed and was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 case of United States v. Butler. The court did not, however, determine the meaning of “general welfare” in Butler, except to note that Hamilton understood it to mean “the purpose must be ‘general, and not local.’”

To be sure, the definition of what types of expenditures advance general welfare has been much debated throughout U.S. history. Prior to the Civil War, a stringent definition prevailed, with Congress vigorously debating expenditures for various types of infrastructure projects and presidents vetoing spending bills that they believed served local needs and did not sufficiently advance general welfare. Post-Civil War, and particularly following the New Deal, a far broader federal spending pattern emerged. This reflected the view that, using federal dollars to pay the costs of natural disasters and similar emergencies, or various infrastructure projects, while benefiting some states more than others at any given point in time, would benefit the nation as a whole in the long run. This practice broadened the understanding of what expenditures served the national interest, but it did not and could not abolish the general welfare requirement altogether.

Thus, however broad Congress’s power to tax and spend may be, this remains the fundamental limitation — expenditures must promote national, rather than local, interests. And it is difficult to imagine a more locally-oriented program than one designed to prop up the fiscal choices of a group of states — to benefit state and municipal government employees by establishing generous, underfunded pension systems — at the expense of other states. Significantly, numerous states repeatedly have rejected similar pension arrangements for themselves, vividly manifesting their view that this was not in their best interests or conducive to general welfare.  Indeed, by subsidizing a particular vision of what constitutes a proper state government, one of the basic justifications for our federalist system — that states can make their own choices as laboratories — would be discarded. True federalism requires that the federal government neither coerces states nor imposes on states’ fiscal burdens that properly belong to individual states that have incurred them.

Senate Republicans have every right, and all senators have an equal obligation, to ensure that any funding legislation meets the general welfare requirement, so that federal dollars cannot be used to pay, either directly or indirectly, for the repair of long-term fiscal liabilities of any recipient state.  

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/495961-bailing-out-states-violates-the-constitutions-general-welfare-clause

WTH can we do to make China pay for the coronavirus? Debating the pros and cons of suing Beijing

The coronavirus has cost the US thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the Chinese government’s negligence exacerbated the virus’ spread, legal scholars, politicians, and citizens alike have questioned whether America should hold Beijing financially liable.

David Rivkin joined Dany and Marc to outline the legal case for suing China for coronavirus damages. The three debate the merits of the case, whether it’s realistic to expect China to pay, and the legal precedent.

David Rivkin, a partner at Baker Hostetler LLP, is a member of the firm’s litigation, international and environmental groups and he co-chairs the firm’s appellate and major motions team. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.

Audio/podcast version of WSJ article on presidential power

In this interview (from 17 April) on the Dan Proft Show, I lay out the arguments made in my Wall Street Journal article explaining the extent and limits of presidential power — what the states may do and what President Trump may do to re-open the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Presidential Power Is Limited but Vast

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

15 April 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

President Trump has come under attack this week for saying he has “absolute authority” to reopen the economy. He doesn’t – his authority is limited. But while the president can’t simply order the entire economy to reopen on his signature, neither is the matter entirely up to states and their governors. The two sides of this debate are mostly talking past each other.

The federal government’s powers are limited and enumerated and don’t include a “general police power” to regulate community health and welfare. That authority rests principally with the states and includes the power to impose coercive measures such as mandatory vaccination, as the Supreme Court held in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). Nor may the federal government commandeer state personnel and resources to achieve its ends or otherwise coerce the states into a particular course of conduct. There is no dispute about these respective state and federal powers.

In most federal-state disputes, the question is what happens when authorities at both levels exercise their legitimate constitutional powers and cross-purposes. Here, the president has the edge. The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause requires that when the federal government acts within its proper sphere of constitutional authority, state law and state officials must give way to the extent that federal requirements conflict with their own. Federal power encompasses a broad power to regulate the national economy. Thus although the president lacks plenary power to “restart” the economy, he has formidable authority to eliminate restraints states have imposed on certain types of critical commercial activity.

Much of this authority was established by Congress in the Defense Production Act of 1950, which Mr. Trump has invoked on a limited basis to require American manufacturers to make personal protective equipment and ventilators. Most of his current critics lauded these actions and urged him to do more.

The DPA was enacted principally to assures U.S. military preparedness. But it defines “national defense” broadly to include “emergency preparedness” and “critical infrastructure protection and restoration.” The law “provides the President with an array of authorities to shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the domestic industrial base.” It authorizes him to prioritize the production of certain products and to “allocate materials, services, and facilities in such a manner, upon such conditions, and to such an extent as he shall deem necessary or appropriate to promote the national defense.”

The DPA isn’t a bank check. The president cannot, for example, impose wage and price controls without additional congressional action, and he is often required to use carrots rather than stisk to achieve the law’s purposes. Nevertheless, because he is acting under an express congressional grant of authority, he is operating, as Justice Robert Jackson explained in his iconic concurring opinion in the “steel seizure” case Youngstown v. Sawyer (1952), at the apex of his legal and constitutional power.

Any state restrictions on commerce or personal behavior would have to yield to the federal imperative. “The states have now power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any other manner control, the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government,”, the Supreme Court explained in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). States, whether acting alone or in coordination, would be barred, for example, from forbidding their residents to return to work in critical industries, or from restraining industrial, agricultural, or transportation facilities in ways that impede the federal mandate.

That said, even the most expansive interpretation of the DPA, and other federal statutes regulating interstate commerce, wouldn’t permit President Trump to reopen all aspects of the American economy on his own authority. The reopening of many local businesses, such as restaurants and nonessential retailers, would be up to the states.

Thus state governors and lawmakers are as vital a part of this effort as the president and Congress. Federal and state officials have to work together, however much they may dislike each other politically or personally to get America back on its feet.

The truly difficult legal issues coming out of the Covid-19 crisis are whether government at all levels has sufficiently protected individual rights. All exercises of federal and state power, emergency or not, are subject to the overriding limitations of the Bill of Rights. The courts have traditionally taken the nature and extent of national emergencies into account in construing and applying these rights, but they cannot be ignored entirely.

So far the American people have largely accepted temporary restrictions on their liberty – especially freedom of assembly and religion – that may not stand up to court challenges. It would serve the president and governors well to make a priority of easing these restrictions and others as soon as possible after the worst of the danger has passed.

Mssrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/presidential-power-is-limited-but-vast-11586988414

The limits of government power during a pandemic

In this interview (April 3rd, 2020) with Timothy Doescher from the Heritage Foundation, Cully Stimson and I lay out some of the limitations on what governments can do even during a pandemic.