An originalist libel defense

By David B. Rivking Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

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Kavanaugh and the Ginsburg Standard

Don’t blame Brett Kavanaugh when he demurs at his confirmation hearing from answering questions on legal issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It’s the senators who will be in the wrong, for demanding commitments that no judicious nominee could provide. To answer “direct questions on stare decisis on many other matters, including Roe and health care”—as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for—would itself be disqualifying.

That principle has come to be called the Ginsburg Standard, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As she explained in the opening statement of her 1993 confirmation hearing: “A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case—it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.” Or, as she later responded to a question about constitutional protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation: “No hints, no forecasts, no previews.”

It would be a mistake to associate the rule too closely with Justice Ginsburg, who honored it inconsistently at her hearing, or to view it as driven only by policy considerations. In fact, the standard has deep roots in the law and history.

Begin with the Constitution. The Appointments Clause provides that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the president “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” From the nomination of John Jay as the first chief justice in 1789 through the mid-1950s, public confirmation hearings were rare. Few nominees attended them when they did occur, and only a handful testified. Senators had no occasion to grandstand by demanding that a nominee declare his stance on legal controversies.

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A Champion of Constitutional Safeguards

Days before President Trump announced his choice of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats had vowed to oppose any nominee. Backed by an activist-fueled propaganda machine, they now will unleash relentless personal attacks—on Judge Kavanaugh’s Catholic faith, his “elitist” Yale degrees, his service in the George W. Bush administration.

As with the attacks last year on Justice Neil Gorsuch, they should be unavailing. Over Judge Kavanaugh’s 12 years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, he has developed an impressive record as a legal thinker and a champion of the Constitution’s structural safeguards against overweening government.

Typical is a 2008 dissent in which Judge Kavanaugh concluded that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was unconstitutionally structured because it improperly insulated the agency from political accountability. The opinion was a tour de force of historical exposition and originalist methodology—that is, interpreting the Constitution’s text as it was originally understood. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, adopting the reasoning of Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent.

Yet he is equally wary of unbridled executive authority, as a 2013 case shows. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to proceed with licensing the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which the agency appeared to oppose on policy grounds, he wrote: “The President may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”

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Unappointed ‘Judges’ Shouldn’t Be Trying Cases

President Trump promised to nominate judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and that thought was no doubt foremost in his mind when he chose Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s vacant seat. On Monday Justice Gorsuch and his colleagues will consider whether the hiring of adjudicators deciding cases within federal agencies will also be subject to the kind of accountability that making an appointment entails.

So-called administrative law judges are not “principal officers,” so they are not subject to Senate confirmation under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The question in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission is whether they are “inferior officers.” In that case, the clause requires them to be appointed by principal officers, such as commissioners acting collectively or a cabinet secretary, themselves appointed by the president. The alternative is that they are mere employees, who can be hired by lower-level managers with no presidential responsibility.

The dividing line, the Supreme Court has explained, is whether the position entails the exercise of “significant authority.” There shouldn’t be much doubt on which side of that line the SEC’s judges fall.

In this case, the commission’s Enforcement Division decided to bring fraud charges against investment adviser Raymond Lucia in its own administrative court instead of a judicial court. The SEC alleged that Mr. Lucia misled participants in his “Buckets of Money” seminars when he used slides showing hypothetical returns based in part, rather than in whole, on historical data (as the slides themselves disclosed). The SEC assigned the case to an administrative law judge, Cameron Elliot. According to the record, Mr. Elliot sided with the SEC’s Enforcement Division in every one of his first 50 cases. Read more »

FISA Abuses Are a Special Threat to Privacy and Due Process

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

Feb. 26, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The House Democratic surveillance memo is out, and it should worry Americans who care about privacy and due process. The memo defends the conduct of the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation in obtaining a series of warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The Democrats argue that Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled the Trump “dossier” on which the government’s initial warrant application was grounded, was credible. They also claim the FISA court had the information it needed about the dossier’s provenance. And they do not dispute former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s acknowledgment that the FBI would not have sought a FISA order without the Steele dossier.

The most troubling issue is that the surveillance orders were obtained by withholding critical information about Mr. Steele from the FISA court. The court was not informed that Mr. Steele was personally opposed to Mr. Trump’s election, that his efforts were funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that he was the source of media reports that the FBI said corroborated his dossier. These facts are essential to any judicial assessment of Mr. Steele’s veracity and the applications’ merits.

The FBI should have been especially wary of privately produced Russia-related dossiers. As the Washington Post and CNN reported in May 2017, Russian disinformation about Mrs. Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch evidently prompted former FBI Director James Comey to announce publicly the close of the investigation of the Clinton email server, for fear that the disinformation might be released and undermine the bureau’s credibility. Read more »

Mark Janus Was With Hillary, Whether or Not He Wanted to Be

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

Feb. 22, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Flash back to the Las Vegas Convention Center, July 19, 2016. The floor overflows with people chanting, “We’re with her!” A speaker proclaims, to cheers and applause, that we “will stand with her in every corner of this nation.” Then Hillary Clinton takes the stage as the crowd rises in a standing ovation. She thanks them for supporting her campaign and rallies them to knock on doors and get out the vote.

The event wasn’t organized by the campaign. It was the 2016 convention of the nation’s largest union representing public-sector workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The state of Illinois forced Mark Janus —an Illinois employee who refused to join the union—to pay for a portion that pro-Hillary rally.

Across the U.S., more than 500,000 state and local workers have objected to funding union advocacy but are nonetheless required by law to pay “fair share” fees to labor unions they have refused to join. The Supreme Court upheld the practice in a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, reasoning that otherwise workers could “free ride” on the union’s collective bargaining. Prohibiting unions from charging nonmembers directly for political speech, it believed, would protect their First Amendment rights.

On Monday the justices will hear oral arguments in a challenge to that 1977 decision brought by Mr. Janus. They should heed Justice Felix Frankfurter’s observation, in an earlier case on mandatory union fees, that it is “rather naive” to assume “that economic and political concerns are separable.” As Mr. Janus argues, bargaining over wages, pensions and benefits in the public sector involves issues of intense public concern and thus core First Amendment-protected speech. A state law that forces public employees to fund that speech violates their rights, no less than compelling them to speak. ( Janus v. Afscme doesn’t consider these questions for unions in the private sector.) Read more »