Europe’s quandary buttresses the Supreme Court’s answer to ‘major questions’ on energy

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Eric Schmitt

March 3, 2022, in The Hill

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has crystalized the critical importance of America’s energy security, as our European allies — increasingly dependent on Russian fossil fuels to keep the lights on when “renewable” power sources fail to meet demand — balance their need to confront Vladimir Putin with maintaining their access to Russian oil and gas. These events make all the more important the pending ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA, a landmark case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s Obama-era Clean Power Plan — which could drive the U.S. itself toward inadequate, unreliable domestic energy sources and inevitable dependence on foreign countries.

The case was argued this week before justices who appeared clearly skeptical of EPA’s power to impose radical transformation of our energy sector through presidential fiat. Much of the argument focused on the “major questions doctrine.” This doctrine bars regulatory agency interpretations of federal statutes that would give those agencies the power to answer contentious and far-reaching policy questions that are properly handled by Congress itself, without a clear, explicit grant of statutory authority from Congress delegating its resolution to the agency.

The major questions doctrine is a firewall for democracy against the never-ending efforts by American progressives to impose policies, such as the Green New Deal, which they have been unable to achieve through the ballot box. But, whenever progressives hold the levers of executive authority, as they did during President Obama’s administration and do again under President Biden, they have turned to executive action and contorted constructions of existing statutes to accomplish their dreams.

Look no further than Biden’s all-out assault on domestic energy production, with a goal of fully decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035. He unilaterally canceled the Keystone XL pipeline on the first day of his administration and froze the oil and gas leasing process for federal lands, stopping future oil and gas projects in their tracks. Biden’s administration has worked to impose crippling restrictions on ever broader swaths of the domestic energy industry through the president’s social cost of carbon edict (seeking to measure domestic benefits of energy production against the supposed worldwide costs of climate change), a new methane rule that will subject for the first time thousands of existing oil and gas facilities to costly air regulations, and other administrative assaults.

Biden barged ahead with these efforts, despite proper statutory authority. Instead, his administration has dealt with the lack of proper statutory authority through “work-arounds” that rely on aggressive over-readings of existing statutes.

Conservatives, including the nation’s Republican state attorneys general, have fought back, suing to protect America’s energy security and hold the president to the statutory and constitutional limits that constrain his power. State attorneys general have scored major wins on this front, blocking Biden’s social cost of carbon effort and winning an order compelling the restart of the oil and gas leasing process for federal lands.

If the oral argument on the Clean Power Plan is any indication, the tide is set to turn against the relentless push to find unheard-of-authority on major policy issues hidden in existing statutory schemes. And, aside from the constitutional imperative of preventing the executive branch from poaching on congressional authority by running afoul of the major questions doctrine, the policy consequences of allowing Biden to twist his statutory authority beyond recognition are dire. They are illuminated when one looks across the Atlantic, where Russia is waging the first open war of aggression by a major power in Europe since World War II.

Energy is the foundation of Russia’s power and influence. Large swaths of Western Europe rely on Russian oil, natural gas and the energy infrastructure that Russia has built. This dependence is in no small part because countries such as Germany have ceded their energy security. Late last year, Germany announced the closure of three of its six remaining nuclear power plants, with a commitment to close the last three by the end of 2022. Berlin did this, giving up 12 percent of its 2021 electricity production capacity, despite an energy crisis that was spiraling out of control, with energy prices in Europe repeatedly breaking records and the prospect of blackouts.

In pursuing an unyielding climate agenda — for example, a goal of making renewables such as wind and solar meet 80 percent of power demand by 2030 — Germany laid siege to its own power grid and now relies on Russia to fill the gaps. To be sure, in the past several days, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that these commitments will be reconsidered; it remains to be seen what Germany ultimately does.

The fight against executive overreach and the relentless progressive campaign against our energy security couldn’t be more important. America isn’t immune to Europe’s reality. The United States is projected to lose its net oil exporter status this year. When domestic gas prices started to skyrocket during the summer, the Biden administration turned to the OPEC and its allies such as Russia — the OPEC+ group of countries — to pump more oil to help the American consumer and the world economy. That is unacceptable — especially since OPEC+ rebuffed Biden.

A Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA that builds on the major questions doctrine and acknowledges the clear statutory and constitutional limits on abuses of executive power is essential. Coming on the heels of Biden’s Supreme Court losses on his administration’s eviction moratorium and vaccine mandate, it would be dispositive in the fight against executive overreach and would neutralize the president’s ability to remake America’s production and consumption of energy without Congress’s consent.

David B. Rivkin Jr. served in the Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington and represented a coalition of states that challenged the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Although he is not involved in West Virginia v. EPA, his law firm represents a petitioner in that case.

Eric Schmitt is attorney general of Missouri and a candidate for U.S. Senate. Missouri was one of the petitioners in West Virginia v. EPA.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/596569-europes-quandary-buttresses-the-supreme-courts-answer-to-major-questions-on

A Look at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Judicial Record

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

February 28, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is known as a capable, diligent and collegial jurist. Hers isn’t the straightforward ascent of most Supreme Court nominees. After a clerkship with Justice Stephen Breyer, she spent a decade as what she called a “professional vagabond”—a junior litigator at a Washington firm; an associate of Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer known for administering compensation funds for victims of terrorism and other disasters; an assistant special counsel for the Sentencing Commission. She would be the first justice to have served as a public defender. One gets the reassuring sense that, like Clarence Thomas, Judge Jackson hasn’t had her sights trained on a Supreme Court nomination since law school.

The same could be said of Judge Jackson’s time on the bench. As a federal trial court judge in the District of Columbia (2013-21), she oversaw a docket consisting largely of run-of-the-mill employment disputes, contract cases, freedom-of-information actions, criminal prosecutions and the like. Her opinions are generally workmanlike, making it easy to discern the rare case that inspired her passion.

At the top of that list is her decision ordering then-President Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify before a House committee investigating purported Russian interference with the 2016 election. Judge Jackson rejected out of hand Mr. Trump’s assertion of a kind of immunity from testimony recognized by the courts for well over a century. “Presidents are not kings,” she wrote. “This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”

The decision rejects—and describes as “strident”—the government’s argument that parties generally need authorization from Congress to bring suit in federal court. Congress did authorize suits over Senate subpoenas, but not House suits. What may seem an arcane procedural point speaks volumes: Much judicial mischief has involved courts appointing themselves to exercise power and impose liability in the absence of any law. Judge Jackson’s rationale, echoing those of many Warren and Burger court decisions, is that the Constitution empowers courts to vindicate “intrinsic rights.”

Also revealing is Judge Jackson’s decision blocking a Trump policy expanding eligibility for “expedited removal” to aliens who have been in the country illegally for up to two years. The statute gives the Homeland Security Department “sole and unreviewable discretion” over expedited removal, which should give the courts nothing to review. Judge Jackson asserted that although the policy itself was unreviewable, she could pass judgment on the “manner” in which the agency made it. She found it lacking based on the agency’s failure to engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking and its failure to consider adequately the “downsides of adopting a policy that, in many respects, could significantly impact people’s everyday lives in many substantial, tangible, and foreseeable ways”—which would seem to be a consideration of policy, not manner. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed this ruling.

Judge Jackson was also reversed in a case in which she sided with federal-employee unions challenging presidential directives to streamline collective-bargaining terms, limit time spent on union business during work hours, and make it easier to fire employees for misconduct or unacceptable performance. Her decision bends over backward to excuse the unions from the requirement that they bring disputes to the Federal Labor Relations Authority before going to court, and the D.C. Circuit reversed it on that basis. But her take on the merits also raises concerns. In her view, the government’s general duty to bargain and negotiate “in good faith” precludes the government from taking topics off the bargaining table (like the availability of grievance proceedings for outright employee misconduct). She acknowledged that position went well beyond the governing precedent. While that would be a boon to the unions, it would disable presidential control of the federal workforce to account for changing circumstances.

Since joining the D.C. Circuit in June 2021, Judge Jackson has handed down only two opinions on the merits, both in the past month. The first, in another federal-union case, is notable. Siding again with the union, Judge Jackson rejected an FLRA decision holding that collective bargaining is required only for workplace changes that have a “substantial impact” on conditions of employment, as opposed to the much lower “de minimis” standard that had previously prevailed. The opinion concludes that the agency failed to explain adequately its adoption of the new standard—a holding that rests on what legal scholar Jonathan Adler called an “erroneous and unduly strict” application of Supreme Court precedent imposing a light burden on agencies changing their policy positions. They need merely “display awareness” of the change and identify “good reasons for the new policy.” To this, Judge Jackson’s opinion adds the requirement, which the Supreme Court had rejected, that the agency show the new policy to be better than the old one.

After reviewing so many of Judge Jackson’s judicial opinions, we have no doubt of her capabilities. We can’t discern whether she has any cognizable judicial philosophy that would guide her approach to the sort of fraught legal questions that the Supreme Court confronts term after term. Her loudest advocates are confident that she’ll serve them well, and her record supports that view. With 50 Democratic senators, that may be enough.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/ketanji-brown-jackson-judicial-record-supreme-court-nominee-public-defender-dc-circuit-biden-11646001770

The Vaccine Mandate Case May Mark the End of the ‘Work-Around’ Era

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

Jan. 6, 2022, in the Wall Street Journal

Hours after President Biden’s Sept. 9 speech announcing a series of vaccine mandates for private-sector employees, his chief of staff, Ron Klain, retweeted an MSNBC anchor’s quip that wielding workplace-safety regulation to force vaccinations was “the ultimate work-around.” Congress has never enacted a law requiring American civilians to be vaccinated—assuming it even has the constitutional authority to do so, which is doubtful. The Supreme Court hears arguments Friday on two of the mandates, which are likely to meet the same fate as other recent attempts to circumvent Congress that the courts have rejected.

The Constitution vests the power to make laws in Congress and charges the president with the duty to execute them. That’s what many in Washington derisively call the “high school civics class” model of government. It’s slow, it’s cumbersome, it rarely approves measures that don’t enjoy widespread public support, and it forces compromise, moderation and tailoring of policies to address the circumstances of a vast and varied nation. The temptation of avoiding it via executive fiat is obvious.

All it seems to take is clever lawyering. The U.S. Code is littered with broadly worded laws, made all the more capacious by judicial deference to agencies’ interpretations of them. Rather than dutifully carry out Congress’s design, a president can set his own policy and then scour the statute books for language that can be contorted to authorize it. In a 2001 Harvard Law Review article, then- Prof. Elena Kagan called the practice “presidential administration.” President Obama put it more plainly when he faced congressional resistance to his agenda: “I’ve got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won’t.”

But it isn’t quite that easy. The Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s signature climate policy, set rigid and unattainable emission limitations for fossil-fuel power plants to force them out of operation and transform the energy market. It relied on an adventuresome interpretation of an obscure provision of the Clean Air Act. In 2016 the Supreme Court blocked it from taking effect, and the Trump administration later repealed it. (We represented Oklahoma in the litigation.)

Mr. Obama’s immigration-reform measures—also taken in the face of congressional opposition—suffered a similar fate. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—which allows illegal aliens who were brought to the U.S. as children to work and avoid deportation—remains in legal limbo nearly a decade after it was established, following setbacks in the courts. Its counterpart for parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents was enjoined before it took force.

Mr. Biden has had a taste of defeat himself, in a case that prefigures the mandate challenges. After Congress declined to extend the Trump administration’s nationwide eviction moratorium, the Biden administration acted on its own, relying on a 1944 statute authorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake clearly delineated disease-prevention measures like fumigation and pest extermination. The justices, however, found it unthinkable that Congress had intended to confer on CDC so “breathtaking” an authority: “We expect Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance.”

In other words, loose language in old laws isn’t enough to support a presidential power grab. Yet that’s all the support the administration has been able to muster for the vaccination mandates. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate forcibly enlists all companies with 100 or more employees to administer a vaccination-or-testing requirement that reaches nearly 85 million employees. It relies on a narrow provision addressing workplace-specific hazards that has never been used to require vaccination. The mandate for Medicare and Medicaid providers (covering 10.3 million workers) rests on general provisions authorizing regulations necessary to administer those programs—which, again, have never been used to require vaccinations. None of these statutes contain even a hint that Congress authorized any agency to administer broad-based vaccination mandates touching millions of Americans.

Although the mandates are flawed in other ways, their lack of clear congressional authorization is the most striking defect. Excessive judicial deference to agencies’ statutory interpretations is what enabled Mr. Obama’s “I’ve got a pen” agenda and its revival under Mr. Biden. The result has been to distort the entire federal lawmaking apparatus. Members of Congress now lobby the executive branch to make law through regulation rather than legislate themselves. Agencies enact major policies that have the durability of a presidential term before they’re reversed. And the president would sooner blame the courts for legal defeats than admit he lacks the power to do his allies’ bidding.

The courts share blame for this state of affairs, having lost sight of the basic separation-of-powers principles that should guide questions of agencies’ statutory authority. A decision rejecting the vaccination mandates because they weren’t clearly authorized by Congress would serve as a shot across the bow signaling that the work-around era is over.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/end-of-work-arounds-biden-executive-order-vaccine-mandate-covid-omicron-supreme-court-11641505106

This Debt-Ceiling Crisis Threatens Democracy as Well as Solvency

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

7 December 2021 in the Wall Street Journal

Congress is about to begin another debt-ceiling fight, and it threatens the Constitution as well as America’s solvency.

Over the past two years, Uncle Sam has borrowed and spent trillions of dollars to address Covid-19. Coronavirus spending added nearly $3 trillion to the national debt this year alone—and that doesn’t count the recently passed infrastructure bill and the pending Build Back Better Act. The unprecedented growth in federal outlays has contributed to inflation, which has reached a 30-year high, and caused annual budget deficits to soar.

The government is about to reach its statutory federal borrowing limit of $28.4 billion. If Congress doesn’t increase the limit, Washington will run out of money to meet its legal obligations. Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over how much to spend and whether to enact what the Democrats call “transformational” legislation—measures that would reshape the American economy and increase government’s role in nearly all aspects of life.

The threat to the Constitution comes from one of the options lawmakers are considering: suspending rather than raising the statutory debt ceiling, thereby authorizing the executive branch to borrow an unlimited amount of money for a limited time. Suspending the debt ceiling would undermine the structure of American democracy—particularly when government spending obligations are in flux, and the future direction of key policies is being fiercely contested.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Democrats that if they insist on enacting major and costly policy changes on a partisan basis, they will have to increase the debt ceiling without votes from Republicans. That could be accomplished through budget reconciliation, the means by which the Democrats intend to pass the Build Back Better Act with a simple majority. But Democrats are wary of unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, which isn’t popular.

In October, facing a debt-ceiling stalemate and a possible government shutdown, Republicans reluctantly supplied the votes necessary to increase the debt ceiling by $480 billion. That was constitutionally proper, but it bought only a little time. The increase will be exhausted this month, and Mr. McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have again started negotiations on the debt ceiling.

Congress usually raises the statutory debt ceiling to a new specific dollar amount, a core part of its constitutional power of the purse. Occasionally, however, Congress (with both parties in the majority) has “suspended” the debt ceiling. As we argued in these pages during the last debt-ceiling crisis, such delegations of power are constitutional only if, as Justice Elena Kagan put it in Gundy v. U.S. (2019), “Congress lays down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to exercise the delegated authority is directed to conform.”

The current unsettled budgetary environment makes the constitutional infirmity of suspending the debt ceiling acute. When suspensions were adopted in the past, there was at least a shared understanding between Congress and the executive about where the dollars were to go and how much spending there would be. Previous suspensions weren’t coupled with open attempts to transform the country’s economy and society—to upend the fundamental relationship of government to the governed.

Today’s spending plans are opaque and unpredictable. The estimated cost of Build Back Better alone ranges from $1.75 trillion to more than $5 trillion. That lack of clarity could also dramatically alter the terms upon which the Treasury can find willing buyers for new U.S. debt, greatly increasing debt-servicing costs. Suspending the debt ceiling in these circumstances would mean the executive branch is entirely unbound.

As another debt-ceiling cliff-hanger emerges, Democratic leaders appear committed to a suspension, which again would require Republican support. Giving bipartisan cover to another unconstitutional suspension would be disastrous. Decisions about the levels of spending, borrowing and taxation now under consideration require democratic accountability. Congress is almost evenly divided between the two major parties, a situation that counsels against transformative political and economic changes negotiated in back rooms.

If Democrats believe their programs are meritorious enough to burden the country with trillions of dollars in additional debt, they should accept the political risk of raising the debt ceiling without Republican votes. If Democrats are right, they’ll benefit and Republicans will pay the political price for intransigence. That’s how American democracy works, and why so many of the Constitution’s most fundamental provisions, such as Congress’s power of the purse, were adopted—to ensure accountability and the consent of the people.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/debt-ceiling-crisis-threatens-democracy-budget-limit-build-back-better-mcconnell-schumer-11638718728

Biden’s Lawless Vaccine Mandate

OSHA’s job is to promote safe workplaces, not to dictate medical decisions to employees.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Robert Alt

Sept. 28, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

President Biden told unvaccinated Americans this month: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. . . So, please, do the right thing.” He backed up this request with a series of new regulatory mandates, including one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which directs businesses with 100 or more employees to make vaccination a condition of employment.

The Covid vaccine has been widely hailed as a modern scientific miracle. Yet as a means to increase nationwide vaccination rates, the OSHA mandate far exceeds the authority Congress granted the agency, and if the president can order private companies to dictate such terms of employment, his power to coerce citizens in the name of public health might as well be unlimited. This would both be profoundly unconstitutional and fundamentally transform the relationship between the government and the people.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 authorizes OSHA to enact rules that are “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe or healthful employment and places of employment.” But the Biden mandate is unreasonably and unnecessarily broad. As announced, it applies to all employees, even those who work at home, as millions have done during the pandemic. It’s simultaneously too narrow, failing to require vaccination for contractors, customers and other nonemployees who may be present at the work site.

It’s overbroad in another way: Previous Covid infection doesn’t excuse employees from the vaccine requirement. Natural immunity tends to be more robust and longer-lasting than vaccinated immunity, according to Marty Makary of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Worse, Dr. Makary says, there is evidence that people who already have natural immunity are at heightened risk of vaccine side effects caused by an augmented inflammatory response. For these reasons, lawsuits have already been filed challenging employer vaccine mandates as applied to employees with natural immunity.

Another concern is that the administration’s interpretation of the OSHA statutory language presents a “delegation” problem. If Congress delegates discretion to an agency without a proper limiting principle, it violates the separation of powers. To avoid this constitutional problem, the courts will have to give the statute a more restrictive reading. Coming up with a meaningful judicially enforceable principle would not be easy.

Additional problems arise from the administration’s urgency. In imposing the vaccination requirement immediately, OSHA will bypass the ordinary notice-and-comment rule-making process and issue what’s known as an Emergency Temporary Standard. OSHA has used that legal authority only 10 times in 50 years. Courts have decided challenges to six of those standards, nixing five and upholding only one.

The OSH Act imposes stringent limits on emergency standards precisely so OSHA can’t easily circumvent the ordinary rule-making process. The government has to prove that “employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards” and that using the emergency process is “necessary to protect employees from such danger.” Courts subject emergency standards to a what appellate courts call a “hard look” review, a more stringent standard than for ordinary economic regulations.

The White House justifies the mandate as a proportional response to the spread of Covid’s Delta variant, which is straining hospital capacity in some states. But the mandate is nationwide and indefinite, not tied to Covid rates. The administration’s vaccine rhetoric is therefore another reason to regard the standard as legally suspect. In addition to Mr. Biden’s remark about his patience wearing thin, White House chief of staff Ron Klain retweeted a journalist’s comment that “OSHA doing this vaxx mandate as an emergency safety rule is the ultimate work around for the Federal govt to require vaccinations.”

All this suggests that the administration’s statutory reliance on workplace safety is pretextual. OSHA was established to ensure workplace safety, not to act as a “work around” for achieving other political or policy objectives. In Department of Commerce v. New York (2019), the Supreme Court struck down an otherwise defensible census regulation because the Trump administration’s grounds for instituting it were pretextual.

Beyond these statutory issues lie constitutional concerns. Many commentators are under the impression that Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), in which the Supreme Court upheld a vaccine mandate, settles all such questions. But that case involved a state law and a local regulation, not any federal action—a crucial distinction. The states have plenary police power to regulate health and safety. Congress has only those limited powers enumerated in the Constitution. That wouldn’t include the authority to impose a $155 fine (today’s equivalent of the $5 at stake in Jacobson) on an individual who declines to be vaccinated, much less to prevent him from earning a livelihood.

Defenders of the Biden mandate surely will justify it as a delegation pursuant to Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. But the actual target of the rule is individual medical choices, not commercial ones. If a personal decision not to buy medical insurance can’t be characterized as “commerce”—as the Supreme Court held in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), the ObamaCare case—how can the decision not to be vaccinated?

Further, if public-health benefits are sufficient to justify an OSHA vaccine mandate, what principle would limit the agency’s authority? Could it ban employees from smoking or consuming foods containing trans fats while working at home? The public-health profession has already characterized everything from gun ownership to social-media use as posing a serious public-health issue. Could OSHA legitimately police these, too, even away from the workplace?

Higher vaccination rates would be a public good. But our nation’s Founders understood that much mischief can be done under the theory of being “for your own good” and provided limits to government authorities accordingly. Even during a pandemic, the Biden administration would do well to respect those limits.

Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Alt is president and CEO of the Buckeye Institute, a think tank engaged in public-interest litigation and policy.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-lawless-vaccine-mandate-constitution-occupational-safety-11632841737

The Constitution Will Survive Covid-19

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

Nov. 27, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic “has served as a sort of constitutional stress test,” Justice Samuel Alito observed this month. “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” The setting underscored the point: Justice Alito made his remarks in an online speech that ordinarily would have been delivered in a cavernous hall, before a crowd of hundreds gathered for the Federalist Society’s annual dinner.

A public-health emergency may justify curtailments of liberty that would be unacceptable in normal times. But even in an emergency, America’s government doesn’t wield unlimited powers. Measures taken to deal with this pandemic have imposed severe restrictions on the most basic rights and liberties, often with little consideration of their legal basis. The U.S. Constitution prohibits many of the most draconian measures taken or under consideration.

Joe Biden has implicitly acknowledged the point. Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August, the former vice president declared: “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask—not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty.” But his transition website promises only to “implement mask mandates nationwide by working with governors and mayors.”

A federal mask mandate is a nonstarter because it would have to be grounded in one of Congress’s constitutionally enumerated powers, all of which have limits. The go-to section to justify federal regulation is the clause granting lawmakers the power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states.” As the Supreme Court held in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), which involved the ObamaCare mandate to buy medical insurance, individuals must be engaged in commercial activity before Congress can regulate them. Congress cannot impose requirements on the citizenry “precisely because they are doing nothing,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

The same is true of other prospective federal anti-Covid measures, such as a national “stay at home” order or an overall economic lockdown. Congress does have broad authority to regulate business, which it could use to impose workplace safety rules, including mask mandates. But nationwide lockdowns are a dubious legal proposition. Congress has never attempted to eliminate all or most economic activity. Any such requirement, even if supportable under the Commerce Clause, would raise significant concerns about the constitutional rights of people prevented from earning a living.

State and local mandates pose a more complicated question. Unlike the federal government, states have a general “police power” that permits them to enact public-health regulations. State and local mask mandates will likely survive judicial scrutiny, as the burden is relatively small. But quarantine requirements imposed on otherwise healthy people, and especially stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of economic activity, are another matter.

Courts have generally upheld quarantines as proper exercises of state police power. But they have traditionally required the involuntary seclusion only of infected individuals and those exposed to them. Quarantines for travelers may survive constitutional challenges. They are generally limited to 14 days or less and arguably supported by the states’ interest in limiting the potential to spread the infection from viral “hot spots.”

But states have no constitutional authority to discriminate against out-of-state persons, goods or services or to burden interstate commerce unduly. It would be hard to justify restrictions that draw arbitrary distinctions between intra- and interstate travelers or among states. New York’s current rules, for instance, exempt travelers within New York and from adjacent states while ordering quarantine for those from distant states with lower Covid rates.

Universal, open-ended stay-at-home mandates and general economic shutdowns are unprecedented in America. The former amount to the imposition of house arrest on vast numbers of people without due process or any provision for basic needs. They raise important constitutional issues involving freedom of assembly, due process and equal protection.

Mandating how many individuals can meet in one’s home, as some states did in time for Thanksgiving, is particularly difficult to justify. If the government can regulate your dinner guests, what can’t it do? Although the government has imposed location-specific curfews in times of war and civil disorder to address specific public-safety concerns, protracted populationwide curfews directed at more-nebulous threats will be difficult to justify.

Some of these issues will doubtless reach the Supreme Court, but lower courts are already wrestling with them. In County of Butler v. Wolf, William S. Stickman IV, a federal district judge in Pittsburgh, struck down Pennsylvania’s most draconian anti-Covid-19 measures. These included strict limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, stay-at-home requirements, and the lockdown of businesses that aren’t “life-sustaining.” Judge Stickman found these measures wanting on First Amendment, due-process and equal-protection grounds, even under an “intermediate” level of scrutiny.

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Judge Stickman concluded in his September decision. He took particular note of Pennsylvania’s diversity of communities—and hence of Covid risks—as against the state’s “one-size fits all approach” to stay-at-home orders, which were not in any way tailored to minimize the burden while achieving the government’s legitimate ends.

Judge Stickman concluded that Pennsylvania’s business lockdown requirements failed to meet even the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny—being rationally related to a proper state purpose. He noted that the state had not articulated “a set, objective and measurable definition” of “life-sustaining” businesses, and that its requirements arbitrarily favored large retailers over small ones. Pennsylvania has appealed Judge Stickman’s decision, but it is difficult to see how the state can defend such capricious and comprehensive restrictions. The same goes for other states: Such details as closing health clubs but not beauty salons (New York), or imposing restrictions on the use of sailboats but not motorboats (Michigan), appear driven not by any rational basis but by government officials’ aesthetic and ideological preferences.

No doubt some judges will be inclined to defer to government officials in an emergency. Five Supreme Court justices did so earlier this year when churches in California and Nevada sought to enjoin state orders limiting the number of worshipers at services. In both cases, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the court’s four Democratic appointees to deny immediate relief.

But the other four justices dissented in both cases on the grounds that the orders violate freedom of religion by imposing greater limits on religious activities than comparable secular businesses, including casinos. As Justice Alito quipped during his Federalist Society speech: “Take a quick look at the Constitution. You will see the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which protects religious liberty. You will not find a craps clause.”

This Wednesday the court granted injunctive relief to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and an Orthodox synagogue, which are challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s occupancy limits. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the new 5-4 majority. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch observed that the state had ignored “long-settled principles” that almost always prohibit government officials “from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities.”

One area in which the states clearly can impose anti-Covid mandates is vaccinations. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme court upheld the city of Cambridge’s authority to respond to a smallpox outbreak by mandating vaccines for all inhabitants. The justices affirmed that “the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Congress may also be able to impose vaccination or testing on employees or others engaged in commerce. But proponents of economic lockdowns overreach when they cite Jacobson in support. The case was modest in scope and dealt with a far surer remedy for a deadlier virus than Covid-19.

Federal and state officials have every right to urge Americans to take precautions against viral spread, though it would help if they consistently followed their own advice. But when the government moves beyond persuasion to coercion, its requirements must meet constitutional muster.

Some of them will, such as well-tailored state-level mask and vaccination mandates. Others probably won’t, including broad curfews, stay-at-home orders, economic lockdown mandates and measures that target protected First Amendment activities. There may be a “judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in the New York case. “But . . . we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”

Messrs. 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.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-constitution-will-survive-covid-19-11606502792