Coronavirus, Contracts and the Constitution

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

17 August 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Plaintiff lawyers want insurance companies to absorb the cost to business of the Covid-19 pandemic—and they’ve had some early successes. A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., last week allowed salon and restaurant owners to proceed with a lawsuit claiming that Covid shutdowns constituted “direct physical loss or damage” covered by business-interruption policies. California lawmakers introduced legislation in June that would establish a presumption that Covid-19 qualifies for such coverage.

Yet however sympathetic their clients, the lawyers’ efforts are unconstitutional and dangerous. They threaten to bankrupt the insurance industry, on which American businesses and consumers depend.

Most commercial policies include coverage for business interruption caused by physical damage to the business assets. If a car dealership suffers tornado damage to its roof, it can recover repair costs and losses incurred while the premises are closed. But disease isn’t “physical loss or damage,” as that phrase is ordinarily understood or typically intended in insurance contracts. Most such contracts expressly exclude such losses. That’s because losses associated with communicable diseases—like those from war or nuclear accident—aren’t insurable. The risks are unknowable, preventing the calculation of a premium sufficient to cover the losses if the event occurs.

As the Supreme Court observed in Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. Manhart (1978), “drastic changes” in the legal rules governing insurance policies can “jeopardize the insurer’s solvency and, ultimately, the insureds’ benefits.” If the Kansas City lawsuit and hundreds like it succeed in redefining “direct physical loss” to include Covid-induced business closures, insurers would be forced to cover losses that were never underwritten. The industry has enough reserves to pay up to $800 billion for losses covered by home, auto and business policies. Uncovered Covid-19 losses are estimated in the trillions.

Fortunately, there are significant constitutional limits on the ability of either courts or legislatures to change private insurance contracts. The Constitution forbids the states to “impair the obligation of contracts.” As Chief Justice John Marshall observed in Ogden v. Saunders (1827), the power of contract impairment “had been used to such an excess by the state legislatures, as to break in upon the ordinary intercourse of society and destroy all confidence between man and man.” The effect was “not only to impair commercial intercourse and threaten the existence of credit, but to sap the morals of the people and destroy the sanctity of private faith.”

The Contracts Clause has been invoked less frequently since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, whose Due Process Clause has become the preferred vehicle for challenging state regulatory actions. But the justices made clear in Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus (1978) that it still “limits the power of a State to abridge existing contractual relationships.” In that case, Minnesota rewrote pensions, requiring an employer to pay $185,000 to nine employees who were terminated before their benefits vested under the company’s plan. The court struck down the law as a “severe” and “unreasonably conditioned” retroactive alteration of agreed-upon obligations. Sveen v. Melin (2018), another Minnesota case, upheld a state-mandated invalidation of life-insurance beneficiary designations on divorce—but only because the impairment of the parties’ contractual obligations was minimal. The policyholder could redesignate the former spouse and “reverse the effect of the . . . statute with the stroke of a pen.”

Even during the Depression, the high court was skeptical of state laws that impaired private contracts. Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934) upheld a state law that extended the time allowed for redeeming real property from foreclosure under existing mortgages, but only because the redemption extension was a reasonable temporary condition.

State legislatures that attempt to abridge commercial insurance contracts today may argue that they are meeting a Depression-caliber economic emergency. Yet although the court reaffirmed in Spannaus that states’ ability to impair contract obligations is greater during an emergency, it also held that such laws must be “tailored to the emergency that it is designed to meet” and impose only “reasonable” conditions. Legislative changes establishing liability for Covid-19 losses would completely abrogate existing contracts and impose immediate, permanently binding, ruinous contractual obligations that the parties specifically contracted not to cover. They would almost certainly be struck down under the Contracts Clause.

Federal efforts to impose new contracts on insurance companies would also be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge. The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits Congress from imposing retroactive liabilities that, as the court put it in Landgraf v. USI Film Productions (1994), “increase a party’s liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed.” In Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel (1998), the court struck down a law imposing new pension liabilities on employers based on decades-old contracts. The justices couldn’t agree on a rationale for their ruling: A plurality saw it as an unconstitutional taking without just compensation. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that it violated due process. He noted that political pressures tempt lawmakers “to use retroactive legislation as a means of retribution against unpopular groups or individuals.”

Businesses, especially small ones, have suffered terribly because of the Covid-19 virus. Many likely won’t survive. But shifting the burden to the insurance industry by either judicial rewriting or legislatively abrogating insurance contracts would be unconstitutional, especially since the losses have been largely caused by government decrees. Congress has already provided enormous financial assistance to American businesses—the appropriate means of compensating losses suffered from the government’s shutdown of the economy.

Because the litigation threat is existential, the insurance industry should do more than defend specific lawsuits. It should seek declaratory judgments now, establishing the limits of their potential liability. It also should work to convince federal and state lawmakers that they neither should nor constitutionally could abrogate and rewrite private insurance contracts.

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. Mr. Luttig was general counsel of the Boeing Co., 2006-20. He served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 1991-2006.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-contracts-and-the-constitution-11597705464

Trump Law: How the Trump Resistance Has Tried to Rewrite Legal Norms

Podcast of panel discussion hosted by the National Review Institute, August 5th, 2020.

The “Trump Resistance” claims the President is guilty of many crimes, regularly abuses his power, and is a threat to democracy. To bolster their case and support their resistance, the President’s critics have invented a new body of “Trump Law,” rewriting legal norms, standards and definitions across the legal landscape – spanning impeachment, obstruction of justice, “collusion,” executive privilege, management of the executive branch, national injunctions, foreign relations, and more. David Rivkin joins John Yoo, Curt Levey, and Andrew McCarthy to analyze the many areas of law affected by this effort, highlighting the threat it poses to the rule of law and speculating on the long-term impact.

Is the President Trumping Constitutional Norms?

Since taking office, President Trump has been derided by the mainstream media and his critics as running roughshod over constitutional norms, fueling the conviction of liberals and some moderate conservatives that the 45th President poses an ongoing threat to the Constitution. In a Heritage Foundation podcast, David Rivkin joins constitutional scholar John Yoo (author of Defender in Chief), who argues that Trump’s adversaries have things exactly backwards. Far from considering Trump an inherent danger to our nation’s founding principles, Yoo contends that the Framers would have seen Trump as restoring their vision of presidential power. It is instead liberal opponents who would overthrow existing constitutional norms in order to unseat Trump, thereby inflicting permanent damage on the presidency.

How the Warren Court Enabled Police Abuse

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

June 17, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

Senate Republicans have an opportunity to reverse one of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s most pernicious legacies—but they seem determined to blow it. Sen. Tim Scott, who is leading the majority’s police-reform effort, said Sunday that abolishing “qualified immunity,” which protects law-enforcement officers from lawsuits under a law known as Section 1983, is “off the table.” Police unions, Mr. Scott said, view it as a “poison pill.”

Section 1983 originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which opened federal courts to lawsuits challenging civil-rights violations by defendants acting “under color” of state and local law. It provides that violators “shall be liable” to their victims. The idea was that freed slaves could go to court to enforce their newly won constitutional rights.

It didn’t work out that way, and much of the blame lies with the Supreme Court, which in the late 19th century defanged the 14th Amendment, relieving states of their obligation to honor all citizens’ federal rights. The court only began to correct that error in the mid-20th century, proceeding on a right-by-right basis under a doctrine known as incorporation.

What the court gave with one hand, it took away with the other. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the justices held that states were obligated to observe the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. But in Pierson v. Ray (1967), they relieved state officials from civil-rights liability unless their actions violated “clearly established law.” That’s “qualified immunity.”

The results can be infuriating. In one recent case, police officers escaped liability for siccing an attack dog on a suspect who was sitting with his hands up. A previous case had found a Fourth Amendment violation, but the court held the precedent didn’t apply because the suspect in the earlier case was lying on the ground. In another case, cops shot a fleeing driver who posed no threat. In another, police stole a collection of rare coins while executing a search warrant. Because such larceny by officers hadn’t arisen in a previous case, the court reasoned, the plaintiff’s right not to have his property stolen by police was not “clearly established.”

To call this a double standard would be an understatement. Civilians are subject to civil and criminal liability when they violate the law, even when their legal obligations aren’t perfectly clear. When state officials violate constitutional rights, qualified immunity often makes it impossible to hold them to account. It’s easy to understand why this disparity inspires cynicism about the rule of law.

Warren’s rationale for qualified immunity was that officials had historically enjoyed immunity for acts taken in “good faith.” He concluded that unless a court had already established that a particular act violated the law, it couldn’t be presumed that Congress intended to impose liability.

But Will Baude of the University of Chicago has demonstrated that there was no general “good-faith defense” for public officials and that qualified immunity can apply even to violations committed in bad faith. Further, Warren’s conclusion about Congress’s intent is at odds with the statute’s language; the words “shall be liable” brook no exception.

The Warren court established qualified immunity at a time when it was rewriting the Constitution by discovering new rights at an astonishing clip. It’s possible the justices worried that imposing liability for violations of the new rights would encourage resistance and stymie the rights revolution.

Yet as the Warren court relieved itself from the strictures of the Constitution, it did the same for state officials. Qualified immunity has made civil-rights litigation such a crapshoot that it does little to deter misconduct, particularly rights violations by police, which can be remedied only after the fact with money damages.

Some conservatives fear that correcting the error of qualified immunity could alter incentives for the worse, by putting police officers at risk of liability for doing their best to protect the public. That concern is misplaced. Other professionals face tort liability irrespective of whether the law on some point was “clearly established” by a prior court decision. No one argues that hinders the practice of law or engineering.

Besides, unlike most other professionals, police are almost always indemnified by their departments. Police departments take advantage of qualified immunity rather than make difficult choices like confronting or firing bad cops, standing up to police unions, or insisting on use-of-force rules that could deter abuses. In these ways, qualified immunity does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of police who take their duties to their communities seriously.

The Roberts court appears disinclined to correct its predecessor’s error, denying review this week in a score of cases asking it to reconsider the doctrine. That means it’s up to Congress. House Democrats are promoting legislation that would eliminate immunity for police officers. The only sound objection is that the Democratic plan stops short of ending the failed experiment of qualified immunity altogether.

Limited to police officers, it would leave the doctrine on the books for other state officials, making the Supreme Court less likely to correct its original error. And it would arbitrarily deny recourse to victims of, say religious discrimination by a mayor or racial discrimination by a licensing officer. All state officials, including the police, should be accountable for respecting constitutional rights.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-warren-court-enabled-police-abuse-11592410930

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

A Constitutional Guide to Emergency Powers

Federal leadership is crucial, but there are measures only states have the authority to take.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Charles Stimson

March 19, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to extraordinary restraints on liberty, from international travel bans to state and local orders that businesses shut down, individuals avoid large assemblies and even stay home, and infected patients remain in quarantine. Depending on the epidemic’s progress, even more-draconian measures may be needed, such as restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel. It’s possible that “social distancing” will last for months rather than weeks.

All this goes against the grain in America, whose people treasure freedom and constitutional rights. But the government has ample constitutional and legal authority to impose such emergency steps.

Some state officials, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have urged the White House to take charge. But this isn’t a task for Washington alone. While the federal government has limited and enumerated constitutional authority, states possess a plenary “police power” and have primary responsibility for protecting public health.

States may also take more drastic measures, such as requiring citizens to be tested or vaccinated, even against their will. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court considered a challenge to a state law requiring everyone to be vaccinated against smallpox. Henning Jacobson refused vaccination and was convicted. The court upheld the law and Jacobson’s conviction.

“The Constitution,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for a 7-2 majority, “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.” Instead, “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic.” Its members “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.”

States also have the power, beyond criminal law enforcement, to make quarantine and isolation effective. If presented with widespread noncompliance, governors may call National Guard units to put their orders into force, to safeguard state property and infrastructure, and to maintain the peace. In some states, individuals who violate emergency orders can be detained without charge and held in isolation.

Federal leadership is crucial. Washington has wider access to data about the virus, its migration and trends. It is prudent for states to follow federal guidance on matters like quarantine and travel restrictions. But because Washington lacks states’ police power, compulsion is not always an option. The Constitution forbids federal officials from coercing the states or commandeering state resources or civilian personnel. While Washington may withhold some federal funds from states that refuse to follow federal law, it may do so only in ways that are tailored to advance the federal interests at stake and don’t amount to a “gun to the head,” as Chief Justice John Roberts put it in the 2012 ObamaCare case.

The federal government has the authority to order regional or nationwide containment and quarantine measures. The Public Health Service Act enables the surgeon general, with the approval of the secretary of health and human services, “to make and enforce such regulations as . . . are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases.” President Trump listed the Covid-19 virus for this purpose in January. The act authorizes the federal government to apprehend, detain and conditionally release individuals to prevent the spread of infection, and to detain anyone who enters from a foreign country or who would spread the disease across state borders.

The act can be read to allow for the general quarantine of all people from a particular state or states, including those who are asymptomatic or even have tested negative. But an attempt to do so would certainly result in litigation. Congress should promptly enact a statute that would affirm federal authority to impose a general quarantine if necessary.

To enforce such measures, the president can deploy civilian and military resources. He could federalize the National Guard over the governor’s objection. The Constitution allows Congress to authorize the use of the militia as well as regular armed forces for a variety of purposes, including suppression of insurrections, defense against invasions, and execution of laws.

Congress has placed significant constraints on the domestic use of the U.S. military. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibits the use of U.S. armed forces for “performing domesti law enforcement activities” and features criminal penalties for noncompliance. But lawmakers have enacted important exceptions that allow the use, in certain specified circumstances, of the military to enforce federal laws. One is the Insurrection Act, originally dating to 1807, which allows the president to use the military when dealing with domestic rebellions. Widespread noncompliance with federal quarantines and travel bans promulgated under the Public Health Service Act may qualify as an insurrection.

Containing the Covid-19 epidemic will require citizens, states, private companies and the federal government to work together. One may hope the steps that have been taken so far will suffice. But emphasizing the sound constitutional and legal basis of these measures is important in reassuring the public that government can do what is necessary to secure the general welfare.

Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy Departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Stimson is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-constitutional-guide-to-emergency-powers-11584659429