Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Weird Couple Of Weeks For The First Circuit And The First Amendment

The First Circuit handed down another First Amendment decision today in Del Gallo v. Parent, No. 08-1511. There are a couple of disconcerting things about this opinion.

The first is that it looks a lot like the plaintiff's utterly bizarre campaign conduct had as big an effect on the panel's decision as the actual substantive law. The plaintiff was campaigning for the Governor's Council.* He was hectoring postal patrons and employees in the process. But what if the plaintiff had been a gentle-hearted, polite, intelligent elderly woman? The case might have come out differently.

Here's why: because the postal service regulation in question looks a lot like a content-based restriction on speech. The regulation bars campaign activities in sidewalk areas on postal service property. The First Circuit says on page 29 that "[t]he regulation, which bars election campaigning regardless of the identity of the candidate or the opinions he espouses is clearly viewpoint neutral." This points to a gaping hole (one of many) in current First Amendment jurisprudence: the strained construction of viewpoint neutrality. The reg prohibits campaign speech. It does not bar speech about music. It does not bar speech about birds. No. Just campaign politics. And yet the regulation is called viewpoint neutral. Which is right: unless your viewpoint is that you would rather talk about campaign politics than birds.

There were some other openings here for the First Circuit to hold for the plaintiff. It avoided them all. Which is kind of what the first point is about.

*Why? Because as George Mallory said, it is there. See here for more on this esteemed government body.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Coakley And The Supremes Deliver A Blow To Casino Gambling

Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, No. 07-526. The issue was whether the U.S. Department of Interior could acquire land and hold it in trust for the Narragansett Indian Tribe even though the Narragansetts weren't federally recognized when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. The case turns on a single word of the Act: "now". The nut of the issue is whether "now" means when the statute was enacted in 1934 or if it is ambiguous and can mean when the Department wants to acquire the land in question.

That's the legal issue. The practical issue is that casino gambling in Indian Country becomes a much tougher proposition under the former interpretation than the latter. The Supreme Court adopted the former interpretation, and the Mashpee Wampanoag are not happy about it.*

The Breyer concurrence (it starts on page 20) makes some sense. He notes that the guy from the Department of Interior who suggested the provision in question way back when "subsequently explained its meaning in terms that the Court now adopts." Of course, Justice Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, does everything he can to discount the importance of this, er, pretty important fact. Why? Because he hates relying on legislative history that much.

An interesting side note here is that Attorney General Coakley signed on to an amicus brief in support of the Rhode Island position and against the Narragansett position. You can sort of see why she signed on to the brief. Acquisition by the Department of Interior effectively takes the land in question outside of her jurisdiction. But here's the rhetorical question: have we not done enough to screw over the Narragansetts (and the Wampanoags, the Seminoles, the Sioux, and on and on . . .) that we ought to let them build a casino? Or, like, a lot of casinos?

*Note to Matt Viser and the Boston Globe: there are nine Supreme Court justices. Three of them dissented, at least in part. So this was not a 6-1 decision. It was a 6-3 decision. Just because you didn't understand what two of the justices did doesn't mean you don't count their votes. Also: why no quote from Coakley? Finally: monitor your comments; some of them here are pretty offensive.

UPDATE (11:06 a.m.): Matt Viser corrects the vote count in his print piece. Still no quote from Coakley's office, though.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Everyone Needs To Calm The Heck Down

The world seems to have lost its collective marbles over the First Circuit's recent decision in Noonan v. Staples, Inc., No. 07-2159. The decision refers to Mass. Gen. Law ch. 231, Section 92 and reminds us that truth is not an absolute defense to libel in Massachusetts.


What does the statute say? "The defendant in an action for writing or for publishing a libel may introduce in evidence the truth of the matter contained in the publication charged as libellous; and the truth shall be a justification unless actual malice is proved." It dates from 1855.

So if you say or write something about a private citizen in Massachusetts and what you say happens to be defamatory and you say it with actual malice, you can't use truth as a defense. Massachusetts is pretty unique in this respect.

Massachusetts is also pretty unique in its failure to recognize a cause of action for "false light". That is, in Massachusetts as opposed to elsewhere, you can't win a lawsuit against someone if they something true about you that casts you in a false light. Might that be related to Section 92? It just might.

What's interesting about the uproar is that the First Circuit's interpretation is nothing new. The statute is 150 years old, after all. It hasn't just been sitting there up until now: if you take a spin through cases that cite to Section 92, you'll notice that courts recognize the weird uniqueness of the law and then move on. If this were as big a deal as the commentators seem to think, you can bet that Judge Lipez (who was also on the panel and who knows what he's doing) would have dissented or at least concurred.

But the real thing to keep in mind here is that this situation is about as fixable as can be. We don't have to wait around for decades for the right case to come along, pray that the SJC or the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to review it, and then cross our fingers and toes and hope that they get it right.

No. All we have to do is change the statute. So if you're that upset about the Noonan decision, go work on that. This blog will support you 100%.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Post Repeatedly Using The Word "Bizarre"

A pipeline rupture. A cautionary tale.

It's bizarre enough that the expert witness in Hammell v. Shooshanian Eng'g Assocs., Inc., Appeals Ct. No. 07-P-147, changed his opinion two weeks before trial. It is also bizarre, but not surprising, that this opinion change benefited the expert's client, one of the defendants. It is very bizarre that the expert witness waited until he was actually on the witness stand to disclose his new opinion to the parties and the jury. It is very, very bizarre that the judge allowed him to do so.

But there are two especially bizarre aspects of this case.

First, the University of Massachusetts, which was ultimately found liable by the jury, knew that the expert in question (and another expert to be offered by another defendant) was going to nail it with responsibility for the pipeline rupture. The responsibility was also allocated to two of the other defendants (including the expert's own client), but still. UMass should have hired an expert and didn't. Bad idea.

Second, the jury seems to have believed the expert who had that last minute realization that, oh, just so happened to exonerate his client. You can almost excuse this given UMass' strange decision against hiring an expert. Almost, but not quite.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Glenn Reynolds: Not Paying Taxes Is Just Like Waterboarding

Prof. Glenn Reynolds is actually a really smart guy. Just look at his bio. His problem is that he seems to derive irrational amounts of enjoyment from provoking people on the left side of the spectrum to call him an idiot. He is not an idiot. He just says idiotic things sometimes.

Like today. Setting up a false moral equivalence between Bush administration officials legalizing aggressive interrogation techniques and Obama administration officials failing to pay taxes may entertain some minuscule sector of the populace. It may be grade-A quality snark. Let's give him that. But it's doubtful that he actually believes it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Eggplant *Is* Obscene, Though

Think about this for a second.

Let's say our congresspeople decide that the most offensive thing in the universe is eggplant. That eggplant -- raw, cooked, smoked, braised -- is obscene. So obscene that it's dangerous. So obscene that any person having eggplant images on his hard drive has committed a federal crime.

Now say a friend of yours who likes to spend time in the kitchen sends you an e-mail with a .jpg attachment. And that .jpg attachment depicts your pal's unfortunate attempt at eggplant parm. You click the attachment. You look at the eggplant. You are disgusted.

Today the First Circuit confirmed in United States v. Lewis, No. 07-1462, that the use of the internet to convey such an image would satisfy the statutory (and constitutionally-mandated) requirement that the crime affect interstate commerce. Because sending an e-mail over the intertubes constitutes engagement in interstate commerce.

Read that last sentence again. And think about whether there are five United States Supreme Court Justices who would agree with it.