Archives For constitutional law

A recent exchange between Chris Walker and Philip Hamburger about Walker’s ongoing empirical work on the Chevron doctrine (the idea that judges must defer to reasonable agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes) gives me a long-sought opportunity to discuss what I view as the greatest practical problem with the Chevron doctrine: it increases both politicization and polarization of law and policy. In the interest of being provocative, I will frame the discussion below by saying that both Walker & Hamburger are wrong (though actually I believe both are quite correct in their respective critiques). In particular, I argue that Walker is wrong that Chevron decreases politicization (it actually increases it, vice his empirics); and I argue Hamburger is wrong that judicial independence is, on its own, a virtue that demands preservation. Rather, I argue, Chevron increases overall politicization across the government; and judicial independence can and should play an important role in checking legislative abdication of its role as a politically-accountable legislature in a way that would moderate that overall politicization.

Walker, along with co-authors Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd, has done some of the most important and interesting work on Chevron in recent years, empirically studying how the Chevron doctrine has affected judicial behavior (see here and here) as well as that of agencies (and, I would argue, through them the Executive) (see here). But the more important question, in my mind, is how it affects the behavior of Congress. (Walker has explored this somewhat in his own work, albeit focusing less on Chevron than on how the role agencies play in the legislative process implicitly transfers Congress’s legislative functions to the Executive).

My intuition is that Chevron dramatically exacerbates Congress’s worst tendencies, encouraging Congress to push its legislative functions to the executive and to do so in a way that increases the politicization and polarization of American law and policy. I fear that Chevron effectively allows, and indeed encourages, Congress to abdicate its role as the most politically-accountable branch by deferring politically difficult questions to agencies in ambiguous terms.

One of, and possibly the, best ways to remedy this situation is to reestablish the role of judge as independent decisionmaker, as Hamburger argues. But the virtue of judicial independence is not endogenous to the judiciary. Rather, judicial independence has an instrumental virtue, at least in the context of Chevron. Where Congress has problematically abdicated its role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker by deferring important political decisions to the executive, judicial refusal to defer to executive and agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes can force Congress to remedy problematic ambiguities. This, in turn, can return the responsibility for making politically-important decisions to the most politically-accountable branch, as envisioned by the Constitution’s framers.

A refresher on the Chevron debate

Chevron is one of the defining doctrines of administrative law, both as a central concept and focal debate. It stands generally for the proposition that when Congress gives agencies ambiguous statutory instructions, it falls to the agencies, not the courts, to resolve those ambiguities. Thus, if a statute is ambiguous (the question at “step one” of the standard Chevron analysis) and the agency offers a reasonable interpretation of that ambiguity (“step two”), courts are to defer to the agency’s interpretation of the statute instead of supplying their own.

This judicially-crafted doctrine of deference is typically justified on several grounds. For instance, agencies generally have greater subject-matter expertise than courts so are more likely to offer substantively better constructions of ambiguous statutes. They have more resources that they can dedicate to evaluating alternative constructions. They generally have a longer history of implementing relevant Congressional instructions so are more likely attuned to Congressional intent – both of the statute’s enacting and present Congresses. And they are subject to more direct Congressional oversight in their day-to-day operations and exercise of statutory authority than the courts so are more likely concerned with and responsive to Congressional direction.

Chief among the justifications for Chevron deference is, as Walker says, “the need to reserve political (or policy) judgments for the more politically accountable agencies.” This is at core a separation-of-powers justification: the legislative process is fundamentally a political process, so the Constitution assigns responsibility for it to the most politically-accountable branch (the legislature) instead of the least politically-accountable branch (the judiciary). In turn, the act of interpreting statutory ambiguity is an inherently legislative process – the underlying theory being that Congress intended to leave such ambiguity in the statute in order to empower the agency to interpret it in a quasi-legislative manner. Thus, under this view, courts should defer both to this Congressional intent that the agency be empowered to interpret its statute (and, should this prove problematic, it is up to Congress to change the statute or to face political ramifications), and the courts should defer to the agency interpretation of that statute because agencies, like Congress, are more politically accountable than the courts.

Chevron has always been an intensively studied and debated doctrine. This debate has grown more heated in recent years, to the point that there is regularly scholarly discussion about whether Chevron should be repealed or narrowed and what would replace it if it were somehow curtailed – and discussion of the ongoing vitality of Chevron has entered into Supreme Court opinions and the appointments process with increasing frequency. These debates generally focus on a few issues. A first issue is that Chevron amounts to a transfer of the legislature’s Constitutional powers and responsibilities over creating the law to the executive, where the law ordinarily is only meant to be carried out. This has, the underlying concern is, contributed to the increase in the power of the executive compared to the legislature. A second, related, issue is that Chevron contributes to the (over)empowerment of independent agencies – agencies that are already out of favor with many of Chevron’s critics as Constitutionally-infirm entities whose already-specious power is dramatically increased when Chevron limits the judiciary’s ability to check their use of already-broad Congressionally-delegated authority.

A third concern about Chevron, following on these first two, is that it strips the judiciary of its role as independent arbiter of judicial questions. That is, it has historically been the purview of judges to answer statutory ambiguities and fill in legislative interstices.

Chevron is also a focal point for more generalized concerns about the power of the modern administrative state. In this context, Chevron stands as a representative of a broader class of cases – State Farm, Auer, Seminole Rock, Fox v. FCC, and the like – that have been criticized as centralizing legislative, executive, and judicial powers in agencies, allowing Congress to abdicate its role as politically-accountable legislator, abdicating the judiciary’s role in interpreting the law, as well as raising due process concerns for those subject to rules promulgated by federal agencies..

Walker and his co-authors have empirically explored the effects of Chevron in recent years, using robust surveys of federal agencies and judicial decisions to understand how the doctrine has affected the work of agencies and the courts. His most recent work (with Kent Barnett and Christina Boyd) has explored how Chevron affects judicial decisionmaking. Framing the question by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking,” they ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?” They find that, empirically speaking, “the Chevron Court’s objective to reduce partisan judicial decision-making has been quite effective.” By instructing judges to defer to the political judgments (or just statutory interpretations) of agencies, judges are less political in their own decisionmaking.

Hamburger responds to this finding somewhat dismissively – and, indeed, the finding is almost tautological: “of course, judges disagree less when the Supreme Court bars them from exercising their independent judgment about what the law is.” (While a fair critique, I would temper it by arguing that it is nonetheless an important empirical finding – empirics that confirm important theory are as important as empirics that refute it, and are too often dismissed.)

Rather than focus on concerns about politicized decisionmaking by judges, Hamburger focuses instead on the importance of judicial independence – on it being “emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is” (quoting Marbury v. Madison). He reframes Walker’s results, arguing that “deference” to agencies is really “bias” in favor of the executive. “Rather than reveal diminished politicization, Walker’s numbers provide strong evidence of diminished judicial independence and even of institutionalized judicial bias.”

So which is it? Does Chevron reduce bias by de-politicizing judicial decisionmaking? Or does it introduce new bias in favor of the (inherently political) executive? The answer is probably that it does both. The more important answer, however, is that neither is the right question to ask.

What’s the correct measure of politicization? (or, You get what you measure)

Walker frames his study of the effects of Chevron on judicial decisionmaking by explaining that “Chevron deference strives to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking. Such deference to the political branches has long been a bedrock principle for at least some judicial conservatives.” Based on this understanding, his project is to ask whether “Chevron deference achieve[s] this goal of removing politics from judicial decisionmaking?”

This framing, that one of Chevron’s goals is to remove politics from judicial decisionmaking, is not wrong. But this goal may be more accurately stated as being to prevent the judiciary from encroaching upon the political purposes assigned to the executive and legislative branches. This restatement offers an important change in focus. It emphasizes the concern about politicizing judicial decisionmaking as a separation of powers issue. This is in apposition to concern that, on consequentialist grounds, judges should not make politicized decisions – that is, judges should avoid political decisions because it leads to substantively worse outcomes.

It is of course true that, as unelected officials with lifetime appointments, judges are the least politically accountable to the polity of any government officials. Judges’ decisions, therefore, can reasonably be expected to be less representative of, or responsive to, the concerns of the voting public than decisions of other government officials. But not all political decisions need to be directly politically accountable in order to be effectively politically accountable. A judicial interpretation of an ambiguous law, for instance, can be interpreted as a request, or even a demand, that Congress be held to political account. And where Congress is failing to perform its constitutionally-defined role as a politically-accountable decisionmaker, it may do less harm to the separation of powers for the judiciary to make political decisions that force politically-accountable responses by Congress than for the judiciary to respect its constitutional role while the Congress ignores its role.

Before going too far down this road, I should pause to label the reframing of the debate that I have impliedly proposed. To my mind, the question isn’t whether Chevron reduces political decisionmaking by judges; the question is how Chevron affects the politicization of, and ultimately accountability to the people for, the law. Critically, there is no “conservation of politicization” principle. Institutional design matters. One could imagine a model of government where Congress exercises very direct oversight over what the law is and how it is implemented, with frequent elections and a Constitutional prohibition on all but the most express and limited forms of delegation. One can also imagine a more complicated form of government in which responsibilities for making law, executing law, and interpreting law, are spread across multiple branches (possibly including myriad agencies governed by rules that even many members of those agencies do not understand). And one can reasonably expect greater politicization of decisions in the latter compared to the former – because there are more opportunities for saying that the responsibility for any decision lies with someone else (and therefore for politicization) in the latter than in the “the buck stops here” model of the former.

In the common-law tradition, judges exercised an important degree of independence because their job was, necessarily and largely, to “say what the law is.” For better or worse, we no longer live in a world where judges are expected to routinely exercise that level of discretion, and therefore to have that level of independence. Nor do I believe that “independence” is necessarily or inherently a criteria for the judiciary, at least in principle. I therefore somewhat disagree with Hamburger’s assertion that Chevron necessarily amounts to a problematic diminution in judicial independence.

Again, I return to a consequentialist understanding of the purposes of judicial independence. In my mind, we should consider the need for judicial independence in terms of whether “independent” judicial decisionmaking tends to lead to better or worse social outcomes. And here I do find myself sympathetic to Hamburger’s concerns about judicial independence. The judiciary is intended to serve as a check on the other branches. Hamburger’s concern about judicial independence is, in my mind, driven by an overwhelmingly correct intuition that the structure envisioned by the Constitution is one in which the independence of judges is an important check on the other branches. With respect to the Congress, this means, in part, ensuring that Congress is held to political account when it does legislative tasks poorly or fails to do them at all.

The courts abdicate this role when they allow agencies to save poorly drafted statutes through interpretation of ambiguity.

Judicial independence moderates politicization

Hamburger tells us that “Judges (and academics) need to wrestle with the realities of how Chevron bias and other administrative power is rapidly delegitimizing our government and creating a profound alienation.” Huzzah. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Preach! Hear-hear!

Allow me to present my personal theory of how Chevron affects our political discourse. In the vernacular, I call this Chevron Step Three. At Step Three, Congress corrects any mistakes made by the executive or independent agencies in implementing the law or made by the courts in interpreting it. The subtle thing about Step Three is that it doesn’t exist – and, knowing this, Congress never bothers with the politically costly and practically difficult process of clarifying legislation.

To the contrary, Chevron encourages the legislature expressly not to legislate. The more expedient approach for a legislator who disagrees with a Chevron-backed agency action is to campaign on the disagreement – that is, to politicize it. If the EPA interprets the Clean Air Act too broadly, we need to retake the White House to get a new administrator in there to straighten out the EPA’s interpretation of the law. If the FCC interprets the Communications Act too narrowly, we need to retake the White House to change the chair so that we can straighten out that mess! And on the other side, we need to keep the White House so that we can protect these right-thinking agency interpretations from reversal by the loons on the other side that want to throw out all of our accomplishments. The campaign slogans write themselves.

So long as most agencies’ governing statutes are broad enough that those agencies can keep the ship of state afloat, even if drifting rudderless, legislators have little incentive to turn inward to engage in the business of government with their legislative peers. Rather, they are freed to turn outward towards their next campaign, vilifying or deifying the administrative decisions of the current government as best suits their electoral prospects.

The sharp-eyed observer will note that I’ve added a piece to the Chevron puzzle: the process described above assumes that a new administration can come in after an election and simply rewrite all of the rules adopted by the previous administration. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this is exactly what administrative law allows (see Fox v. FCC and State Farm). The underlying logic, which is really nothing more than an expansion of Chevron, is that statutory ambiguity delegates to agencies a “policy space” within which they are free to operate. So long as agency action stays within that space – which often allows for diametrically-opposed substantive interpretations – the courts say that it is up to Congress, not the Judiciary, to provide course corrections. Anything else would amount to politically unaccountable judges substituting their policy judgments (this is, acting independently) for those of politically-accountable legislators and administrators.

In other words, the politicization of law seen in our current political moment is largely a function of deference and a lack of stare decisis combined. A virtue of stare decisis is that it forces Congress to act to directly address politically undesirable opinions. Because agencies are not bound by stare decisis, an alternative, and politically preferable, way for Congress to remedy problematic agency decisions is to politicize the issue – instead of addressing the substantive policy issue through legislation, individual members of Congress can campaign on it. (Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with one contemporary example of this: the recent net neutrality CRA vote, which is widely recognized as having very little chance of ultimate success but is being championed by its proponents as a way to influence the 2018 elections.) This is more directly aligned with the individual member of Congress’s own incentives, because, by keeping and placing more members of her party in Congress, her party will be able to control the leadership of the agency which will thus control the shape of that agency’s policy. In other words, instead of channeling the attention of individual Congressional actors inwards to work together to develop law and policy, it channels it outwards towards campaigning on the ills and evils of the opposing administration and party vice the virtues of their own party.

The virtue of judicial independence, of judges saying what they think the law is – or even what they think the law should be – is that it forces a politically-accountable decision. Congress can either agree, or disagree; but Congress must do something. Merely waiting for the next administration to come along will not be sufficient to alter the course set by the judicial interpretation of the law. Where Congress has abdicated its responsibility to make politically-accountable decisions by deferring those decisions to the executive or agencies, the political-accountability justification for Chevron deference fails. In such cases, the better course for the courts may well be to enforce Congress’s role under the separation of powers by refusing deference and returning the question to Congress.

 

Copyright law, ever a sore point in some quarters, has found a new field of battle in the FCC’s recent set-top box proposal. At the request of members of Congress, the Copyright Office recently wrote a rather thorough letter outlining its view of the FCC’s proposal on rightsholders.

In sum, the CR’s letter was an even-handed look at the proposal which concluded:

As a threshold matter, it seems critical that any revised proposal respect the authority of creators to manage the exploitation of their copyrighted works through private licensing arrangements, because regulatory actions that undermine such arrangements would be inconsistent with the rights granted under the Copyright Act.

This fairly uncontroversial statement of basic legal principle was met with cries of alarm. And Stanford’s CIS had a post from Affiliated Scholar Annemarie Bridy that managed to trot out breathless comparisons to inapposite legal theories while simultaneously misconstruing the “fair use” doctrine (as well as how Copyright law works in the video market, for that matter).

Look out! Lochner is coming!

In its letter the Copyright Office warned the FCC that its proposed rules have the potential to disrupt the web of contracts that underlie cable programming, and by extension, risk infringing the rights of copyright holders to commercially exploit their property. This analysis actually tracks what Geoff Manne and I wrote in both our initial comment and our reply comment to the set-top box proposal.

Yet Professor Bridy seems to believe that, notwithstanding the guarantees of both the Constitution and Section 106 of the Copyright Act, the FCC should have the power to abrogate licensing contracts between rightsholders and third parties.  She believes that

[t]he Office’s view is essentially that the Copyright Act gives right holders not only the limited range of rights enumerated in Section 106 (i.e., reproduction, preparation of derivative works, distribution, public display, and public performance), but also a much broader and more amorphous right to “manage the commercial exploitation” of copyrighted works in whatever ways they see fit and can accomplish in the marketplace, without any regulatory interference from the government.

What in the world does this even mean? A necessary logical corollary of the Section 106 rights includes the right to exploit works commercially as rightsholders see fit. Otherwise, what could it possibly mean to have the right to control the reproduction or distribution of a work? The truth is that Section 106 sets out a general set of rights that inhere in rightsholders with respect to their protected works, and that commercial exploitation is merely a subset of this total bundle of rights.

The ability to contract with other parties over these rights is also a necessary corollary of the property rights recognized in Section 106. After all, the right to exclude implies by necessity the right to include. Which is exactly what a licensing arrangement is.

But wait, there’s more — she actually managed to pull out the Lochner bogeyman to validate her argument!

The Office’s absolutist logic concerning freedom of contract in the copyright licensing domain is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s now-infamous reasoning in Lochner v. New York, a 1905 case that invalidated a state law limiting maximum working hours for bakers on the ground that it violated employer-employee freedom of contract. The Court in Lochner deprived the government of the ability to provide basic protections for workers in a labor environment that subjected them to unhealthful and unsafe conditions. As Julie Cohen describes it, “‘Lochner’ has become an epithet used to characterize an outmoded, over-narrow way of thinking about state and federal economic regulation; it goes without saying that hardly anybody takes the doctrine it represents seriously.”

This is quite a leap of logic, as there is precious little in common between the letter from the Copyright Office and the Lochner opinion aside from the fact that both contain the word “contracts” in their pages.  Perhaps the most critical problem with Professor Bridy’s analogy is the fact that Lochner was about a legislature interacting with the common law system of contract, whereas the FCC is a body subordinate to Congress, and IP is both constitutionally and statutorily guaranteed. A sovereign may be entitled to interfere with the operation of common law, but an administrative agency does not have the same sort of legal status as a legislature when redefining general legal rights.

The key argument that Professor Bridy offered in support of her belief that the FCC should be free to abrogate contracts at will is that “[r]egulatory limits on private bargains may come in the form of antitrust laws or telecommunications laws or, as here, telecommunications regulations that further antitrust ends.”  However, this completely misunderstand U.S. constitutional doctrine.

In particular, as Geoff Manne and I discussed in our set-top box comments to the FCC, using one constitutional clause to end-run another constitutional clause is generally a no-no:

Regardless of whether or how well the rules effect the purpose of Sec. 629, copyright violations cannot be justified by recourse to the Communications Act. Provisions of the Communications Act — enacted under Congress’s Commerce Clause power — cannot be used to create an end run around limitations imposed by the Copyright Act under the Constitution’s Copyright Clause. “Congress cannot evade the limits of one clause of the Constitution by resort to another,” and thus neither can an agency acting within the scope of power delegated to it by Congress. Establishing a regulatory scheme under the Communications Act whereby compliance by regulated parties forces them to violate content creators’ copyrights is plainly unconstitutional.

Congress is of course free to establish the implementation of the Copyright Act as it sees fit. However, unless Congress itself acts to change that implementation, the FCC — or any other party — is not at liberty to interfere with rightsholders’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.

You Have to Break the Law Before You Raise a Defense

Another bone of contention upon which Professor Bridy gnaws is a concern that licensing contracts will abrogate an alleged right to “fair use” by making the defense harder to muster:  

One of the more troubling aspects of the Copyright Office’s letter is the length to which it goes to assert that right holders must be free in their licensing agreements with MVPDs to bargain away the public’s fair use rights… Of course, the right of consumers to time-shift video programming for personal use has been enshrined in law since Sony v. Universal in 1984. There’s no uncertainty about that particular fair use question—none at all.

The major problem with this reasoning (notwithstanding the somewhat misleading drafting of Section 107) is that “fair use” is not an affirmative right, it is an affirmative defense. Despite claims that “fair use” is a right, the Supreme Court has noted on at least two separate occasions (1, 2) that Section 107 was “structured… [as]… an affirmative defense requiring a case-by-case analysis.”

Moreover, important as the Sony case is, it does not not establish that “[t]here’s no uncertainty about [time-shifting as a] fair use question—none at all.” What it actually establishes is that, given the facts of that case, time-shifting was a fair use. Not for nothing the Sony Court notes at the outset of its opinion that

An explanation of our rejection of respondents’ unprecedented attempt to impose copyright liability upon the distributors of copying equipment requires a quite detailed recitation of the findings of the District Court.

But more generally, the Sony doctrine stands for the proposition that:

“The limited scope of the copyright holder’s statutory monopoly, like the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution, reflects a balance of competing claims upon the public interest: creative work is to be encouraged and rewarded, but private motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts. The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good. ‘The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the monopoly,’ this Court has said, ‘lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.’ Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U. S. 123, 286 U. S. 127. See Kendall v. Winsor, 21 How. 322, 62 U. S. 327-328; Grant v. Raymond, 6 Pet. 218, 31 U. S. 241-242. When technological change has rendered its literal terms ambiguous, the Copyright Act must be construed in light of this basic purpose.” Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U. S. 151, 422 U. S. 156 (1975) (footnotes omitted).

In other words, courts must balance competing interests to maximize “the general benefits derived by the public,” subject to technological change and other criteria that might shift that balance in any particular case.  

Thus, even as an affirmative defense, nothing is guaranteed. The court will have to walk through a balancing test, and only after that point, and if the accused party’s behavior has not tipped the scales against herself, will the court find the use a “fair use.”  

As I noted before,

Not surprisingly, other courts are inclined to follow the Supreme Court. Thus the Eleventh Circuit, the Southern District of New York, and the Central District of California (here and here), to name but a few, all explicitly refer to fair use as an affirmative defense. Oh, and the Ninth Circuit did too, at least until Lenz.

The Lenz case was an interesting one because, despite the above noted Supreme Court precedent treating “fair use” as a defense, it is one of the very few cases that has held “fair use” to be an affirmative right (in that case, the court decided that Section 1201 of the DMCA required consideration of “fair use” as a part of filling out a take-down notice). And in doing so, it too tried to rely on Sony to restructure the nature of “fair use.” But as I have previously written, “[i]t bears noting that the Court in Sony Corp. did not discuss whether or not fair use is an affirmative defense, whereas Acuff Rose (decided 10 years after Sony Corp.) and Harper & Row decisions do.”

Further, even the Eleventh Circuit, which the Ninth relied upon in Lenz, later clarified its position that the above-noted Supreme Court precedent definitely binds lower courts, and that “fair use” is in fact an affirmative defense.

Thus, to say that rightsholders’ licensing contracts somehow impinge a “right” of fair use completely puts the cart before the horse. Remember, as an affirmative defense, “fair use” is an excuse for otherwise infringing behavior, and rightsholders are well within their constitutional and statutory rights to avoid potential infringing uses.

Think about it this way. When you commit a crime you can raise a defense: for instance, an insanity defense. But just because you might be excused for committing a crime if a court finds you were not operating with full faculties, this does not entitle every insane person to go out and commit that crime. The insanity defense can be raised only after a crime is committed, and at that point it will be examined by a judge and jury to determine if applying the defense furthers the overall criminal law scheme.

“Fair use” works in exactly the same manner. And even though Sony described how time- and space-shifting were potentially permissible, it did so only by determining on those facts that the balancing test came out to allow it. So, maybe a particular time-shifting use would be “fair use.” But maybe not. More likely, in this case, even the allegedly well-established “fair use” of time-shifting in the context of today’s digital media, on-demand programing, Netflix and the like may not meet that burden.

And what this means is that a rightsholder does not have an ex ante obligation to consider whether a particular contractual clause might in some fashion or other give rise to a “fair use” defense.

The contrary point of view makes no sense. Because “fair use” is a defense, forcing parties to build “fair use” considerations into their contractual negotiations essentially requires them to build in an allowance for infringement — and one that a court might or might not ever find appropriate in light of the requisite balancing of interests. That just can’t be right.

Instead, I think this article is just a piece of the larger IP-skeptic movement. I suspect that when “fair use” was in its initial stages of development, it was intended as a fairly gentle softening on the limits of intellectual property — something like the “public necessity” doctrine in common law with respect to real property and trespass. However, that is just not how “fair use” advocates see it today. As Geoff Manne has noted, the idea of “permissionless innovation” has wrongly come to mean “no contracts required (or permitted)”:  

[Permissionless innovation] is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright…, which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

But this position is nonsense — intangible property is still property. And at root, property is just a set of legal relations between persons that defines their rights and obligations with respect to some “thing.” It doesn’t matter if you can hold that thing in your hand or not. As property, IP can be subject to transfer and control through voluntarily created contracts.

Even if “fair use” were some sort of as-yet unknown fundamental right, it would still be subject to limitations upon it by other rights and obligations. To claim that “fair use” should somehow trump the right of a property holder to dispose of the property as she wishes is completely at odds with our legal system.

About a month ago, I was asked by some friends about the shift from the first-to-invent patent system to a first-to-file patent system in the America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA). I was involved briefly in the policy debates in the spring of 2011 leading up to the enactment of the AIA, and so this query prompted me to share a short essay I wrote in May 2011 on this issue. In this essay, I summarized my historical scholarship I had published up to that point in law journals on the legal definition and protection of patents in the Founding Era and in the early American Republic. I concluded that a shift to a first-to-file patent system contradicted both the constitutional text and the early judicial interpretations of the patent statutes that secured patent rights to first inventors.

This legal issue will likely reach the courts one day. A constitutional challenge a couple years ago was rightly dismissed as not being justiciable, but there may yet be an appropriate case in which an inventor is denied a patent given that he or she lost the race to file first in the Patent Office. So, after sharing my essay with my friends, I thought it valuable to post it again on the Internet, because the website on which it was first published (www.noonHR1249.com) slipped into digital oblivion long ago.

I was asked to write this essay in May 2011 by the U.S. Business & Industry Council (USBIC)[1] The USBIC requested my scholarly analysis of the first-to-file provision of the AIA, which was being debated as H.R. 1249 on Capitol Hill at the time, because I had been publishing articles in law journals on the legal definition and protection of patents as property rights in the Founding Era and in the early American Republic (see here and here for two examples). In my essay, I identified the relevant text in the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to secure an exclusive right to “Inventors” in their “Discoveries” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8). Based on my academic research, I summarized in my essay the historical Supreme Court and lower federal court decisions, which secured patents to inventors according to the same policy justifications used in common-law cases to justify property rights to first possessors of land. Thus, I concluded that the first-to-file provision in the American Invents Act was unconstitutional, based on well-recognized arguments concerning textual analysis of the Constitution and inferences from original public meaning as reflected in the historical judicial record.

There’s more to my essay, though, than just the substantive legal argument. It also provides an insight into the nature of the legal academic debates going back many years, because at the time Professor Mark Lemley of Stanford Law School compared me to an “Obama-birther” and he called this constitutional and legal argument “fringe science.” Given concerns expressed last year in an open letter co-authored by Professor Lemley and others about inappropriate rhetoric used by academics, among other issues (see here for a news report on this letter), it bears noting for the record that this is a concern that goes back many years.

Here’s the basic story: My essay was published by the USBIC in May 2011 and I was invited to speak in congressional staffer briefings and in other venues in Capitol Hill against the AIA on this issue. At this time, I was the only legal academic writing and speaking on Capitol Hill on this issue in the AIA. In late May, the 21st Century Coalition for Patent Reform, which supported enactment of the AIA, distributed on Capitol Hill a response that it had solicited from Professor Lemley. I no longer possess this response statement that was sent out via email by the 21st Century Coalition, but I do have the response I was asked to write on June 1, 2011 in which I explicitly refer to Professor Lemley’s argument against the first-to-invent position. In response to a law professors’ letter to Congress defending the first-to-file provision in the AIA that was circulated on an IP professors listserv (IPProfs), I sent out on IPProfs on June 11 a draft letter to Congress, calling for signatures from other law professors in support of my argument first presented in my essay (the final version is here). The next day, on June 12, Professor Lemley wrote on Facebook that my constitutional and legal argument made me the same as an “Obama-birther.”[2] Although he didn’t refer directly to me, it was clear that it was directed at me given that this posting by Lemley followed the day after my email to all IP professors asking them to join my letter to Congress, and I also was the only law professor actively writing on this issue and speaking on it on Capitol Hill up until then.

The following year, in a New York Times article on the court challenge to the first-to-file provision, Professor Lemley further characterized this constitutional argument as “the legal equivalent of fringe science.”

Before the spring of 2011, my writings on legal doctrine and policy were published only in law journals, and I had never participated in a policy debate over patent legislation. In my academic articles before this time, I had critiqued Professor Lemley’s incorrect historical claims about whether U.S. patents were considered monopolies or property rights, and they reflected a purely academic tone that one should expect in a law journal article (see here). Before spring 2011, I had never addressed Professor Lemley, nor had he addressed me, about the AIA, other legislation or court cases.

Professor Lemley’s “Obama-birther” attack on me was surprising, and when I replied in the comments to his Facebook post solely on the substantive merits of the issue of policy versus law, Professor Lemley defended his accusation against me. (This is evidenced in the screen shot.)[2] At the time, I was still a relatively junior academic, and this was an object lesson about what a senior academic at a top-five-ranked law school considers acceptable in addressing a much-more junior academic with whom he disagrees. This remark in 2011 was not an outlier either, as Professor Lemley has used similar rhetoric in the ensuing years in addressing academics with whom he disagrees; for instance, a couple years ago, Professor Lemley publicly referred to an academic conference that I and other patent scholars participated in as a “Tea Party convention.”

Of course, legal and constitutional disputes consist of opposing arguments. In court cases and legislative debates, there are colorable legal and policy arguments on both sides of a dispute. Few issues are so irrational that they are not even cognizable as having a supporting argument, such as astrology and conspiracy theories like the birthers or 9-11 truthers. So, I will simply let my essay speak for itself as to whether it makes me the same as an “Obama-birther” and if my argument represents “fringe science.”

More important, if or when a good case arises in which an inventor can rightly claim an identifiable and specific harm as a result of the statutory change created by the AIA, I hope my essay will be of some value.

[1] Full disclosure: The U.S. Business & Industry Council paid me for my time in writing the essay, which I disclosed in the essay itself. Unfortunately, as recently reported by IAM Magazine, other legal academics are not always so forthcoming about their financial and legal connections to companies when publicly commenting on court cases or advocating for enactment of legislation.

[2] This is a link to a screen shot I took last year only because the Facebook post by Professor Lemley recently disappeared after I only quoted the language from it about a month ago when I shared on Facebook my essay with my friends and colleagues.

UPDATE on June 7: I added some more supporting links and some additional information after this was initially published on June 6, 2016.

On March 31, a federal judge gave the city of Boston six months to rectify the disparities between the way it treats Transportation Network Companies (“TNC”) (such as Uber and Lyft) and taxicab companies. This comes pursuant to an order by US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in a suit filed by members of the Boston taxi industry against the city and various officials. The suit is an interesting one because it reveals unusual fault lines in the ongoing struggle between taxi companies, local regulators, and the way that federal law recognizes and respects property and economic rights.

The three chief claims by the Boston taxi medallion holders are that the city had wronged them by by devaluing their medallions in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on regulatory takings, by discriminating against them in favor of TNCs under the equal protection clause (“EPC”) of the Fourteenth Amendment, and by violating Massachusetts law under a theory of promissory estoppel.

On the federal claims, the court seems to get it half right, and half wrong.  In sum, Judge Gorton seems to get the takings argument more or less correct. He notes:

The exclusivity of medallion owners’ access to the market prior to the arrival of TNCs existed by virtue of the City’s regulatory structure rather than the medallion owners’ property rights.  Medallion owners have no property interest in the enforcement of Rule 403 against others  … If a person who wishes to operate a taxicab without a medallion is prevented from doing so, it is because he or she would violate municipal regulations, not because he or she would violate medallion owners’ property rights.

Indeed. The plaintiff’s takings argument essentially amounts to a claim that the government, by virtue of creating the medallion system, is thereby disabled from ever regulating in a way that disrupts medallion owners from making a profit. Efficiency concerns, consumer safety concerns, and the like be damned! takings can be a fairly complicated body of law, but it seems highly unlikely that the plaintiff’s view is right—for one thing, a medallion is much more like a business license subject to health and safety considerations than it is like a property right— and Judge Gorton handily disposes of the plaintiff’s claims.

However, on the EPC analysis Judge Morton’s analysis goes off the rails. He first properly notes that, as an economic rights claim, the EPC analysis is controlled by rational basis review. As the legally trained reader will already know,  “[r]ational basis review simply requires that there be “any reasonably conceivable set of facts justifying the disparate treatment.”

According to the Supreme Court:

[B]ecause we never require a legislature to articulate its reasons for enacting a statute, it is entirely irrelevant for constitutional purposes whether the conceived reason for the challenged distinction actually motivated the legislature.

And as Clark Neily, a constitutional litigator from the Institute for Justice, has noted: “Not only is the government invited to dream up entirely post hoc rationalizations for challenged legislation, it has “no obligation to produce evidence” in support of those rationalizations either.” (citing Heller v. Doe).

In short, rational basis review is an exceedingly easy burden for the government to meet when one of its regulations is challenged.

In this case, Boston offered a number of reasons that it decided to regulate TNCs and taxi companies differently, including a very strong one that doing so “enhances the city’s interest in increasing the availability and accessibility of cost-effective transportation[.]” Nonetheless, Judge Morton disagreed, holding that

[T]he Court finds persuasive plaintiffs’ argument that many of the obvious differences between taxis from TNCs, such as the kind of vehicle used and the fact that taxicabs must be clearly labeled, are caused by the City’s application of the requirements of Rule 403 to taxi operators but not to TNCs.  The City may not treat the two groups unequally and then argue that the results of that unequal treatment render the two groups dissimilarly situated and, consequently, not subject to equal protection analysis.  Such circular logic is unavailing.

The judge pegged his opinion to the fact that Rule 403 — which regulates “hackney carriages” — defines the subject of its regulations as “used or designed to be used for the conveyance of persons for hire from place to place within the city of Boston.” Both TNCs and taxi cabs arguably fit into this definition, thus for Judge Morton, despite the fact that the city offered at least two policy goals for its differential regulations, “[n]either objective is … rationally related to any distinction between taxi operators and TNCs.”

This just has to be wrong under current federal law. As I noted above, rational basis review requires “any reasonably conceivable set of facts”  and, even though the city created the distinctions itself through its regulations, the reasons it states for doing so — including increasing availability of transportation for its citizens — are definitely rationally related to its distinction between the two types of consumer carriers. Sure, Rule 403 provides a scope of regulatory power for the city that sweeps in both TNCs and taxicabs, but within that regulatory scope the City then has the power to “rationally” assign rules as it sees fit (unless someone comes up with a fundamental right here that is more important than economic interests, of course).

I get it, rational basis review of economic regulations is frustrating and often just provides a free pass to protectionist regulators. Nevertheless, it is the law, and I think that Judge Morton got the equal protection claim wrong.

The real lesson here? Don’t get into bed with government and expect a virtual monopoly to protect you indefinitely. It’s no secret that federal law provides scant little protection for economic liberty, so when the government decides it wants to do something that harms the industry that it was previously cozy with it’s just too bad. Maybe there is a future world in which courts will recognize the right to earn a living is as deeply important as the right to speak or practice your religion or vote — but that is not the world we live in today.

Moreover, when an industry depends upon the government to explicitly protect it from competitors it is the worst kind of cronyism, and, at least in this case, represents an economic mindset that is badly aging. As upstart competitors like Uber and Lyft discover new ways to deploy cost-effective (and generally just more effective) technology to manage different industries, the fig leaf of legitimate government intervention is stripped away and revealed for what it often is: protectionism.

So to some extent, I sympathize with  Judge Gorton’s instinct in the equal protection claim: it should be the case that the government is not allowed to pick winners and losers in the economy based on its own taking of the political temperature. But the larger lesson is the opposite of the plaintiff’s intention, in my opinion. The government should roll back the regulations that created the medallion industry in the first place, and find a way to strike a politically feasible deal that eases the taxi companies out of their well-painted corner. We need more competition and more service in pursuit of consumer choice, and we need much less industry control guided in a top-down manner by state fiat.

It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.

The Federal Circuit handed down a victory for free expression today — in the commercial context no less. At issue was the Lanham Act’s § 2(a) prohibition of trademark registrations that

[c]onsist[] of or comprise[] immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.

The court, sitting en banc, held that the “disparaging” provision is an unconstitutional violation of free expression, and that trademarks will indeed be protected by the First Amendment. Although it declined to decide whether the other prohibitions actually violated the First Amendment, the opinion contained a very strong suggestion to future panels that this opinion likely applies in that context as well.

In many respects the opinion was not all that surprising (particularly if you’ve read my thoughts on the subject here and here ). However given that it was a predecessor Court of Customs and Patent Appeals decision, In Re McGinley, that once held that First Amendment concerns were not implicated at all by § 2(a) because “it is clear that the … refusal to register appellant’s mark does not affect his right to use it” — totally ignoring of course the chilling effects on speech — it was by no means certain that this decision would come out correctly decided.

Today’s holding vacated a decision from a three-judge panel that, earlier this year, upheld the ill-fated “disparaging” prohibition. From just a cursory reading of § 2(a), it should be a no-brainer that it clearly implicates the content of speech — if not a particular view point — and should get at least some First Amendment scrutiny. However, the earlier three-judge opinion  gave all of three paragraphs to this consideration — one of which was just a quotation from McGinley. There, the three-judge panel rather tersely concluded that the First Amendment argument was “foreclosed by our precedent.”

Thus it was with pleasure that I read the Federal Circuit as it today acknowledged that “[m]ore than thirty years have passed since the decision in McGinley, and in that time both the McGinley decision and our reliance on it have been widely criticized[.]” The core of the First Amendment analysis is fairly straightforward: barring “disparaging” marks from registration is neither content neutral nor viewpoint neutral, and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny (which it fails). The court notes that McGinley’s First Amendment analysis was “cursory” (to put it mildly), and was decided before a fully developed body of commercial speech doctrine had emerged. Overall, the opinion is a good example of subtle, probing First Amendment analysis, wherein the court really grasps that merely labeling speech as “commercial” does not somehow magically strip away any protected expressive content.

In fact, perhaps the most important and interesting material has to do with this commercial speech analysis. The court acknowledges that the government’s policy against “disparaging” marks is targeting the expressive aspects of trademarks and not the more easily regulable “transactional” aspects (such as product information, pricing, etc.)— to look at § 2(a) otherwise would not make sense as the government is rather explicitly trying to stop certain messages because of their noncommercial aspects. And the court importantly acknowledges the Supreme Court’s admonition that “[a] consumer’s concern for the free flow of commercial speech often may be far keener than his concern for urgent political dialogue” ( although I might go so far as to hazard a guess that commercial speech is more important that political speech, most of the time, to most people, but perhaps I am just cynical).

The upshot of the Federal Circuit’s new view of trademarks and “commercial speech” reinforces the notion that regulations and laws that are directed toward “commercial speech” need to be very narrowly focused on the actual “commercial” message — pricing, source, etc. — and cannot veer into controlling the “expressive” aspects without justification under strict scrutiny. Although there is nothing terrible new or shocking here, the opinion ties together a variety of the commercial speech doctrines, gives much needed clarity to trademark registration, and reaffirms a sensible view of commercial speech law.

And, although I may be reading too deeply based on my preferences, I think the opinion is quietly staking out a useful position for commercial speech cases going forward—at least to a speech maximalist like myself. In particular, it explicitly relies upon the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine for the proposition that the benefits of government programs cannot be granted upon a condition that a party only engage in “good” or “approved” commercial speech.  As the world becomes increasingly interested in hate speech regulation,  and our college campuses more interested in preparing a generation of”safe spacers” than of critically thinking adults, this will undoubtedly become an important arrow in a speech defender’s quiver.

Last July, the Eastern District of Virginia upheld the cancellation of various trademarks of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that the marks were disparaging to Native Americans. I am neither a fan of football, nor of offensive names for sports teams–what I am is a fan of free speech. Although the Redskins may be well advised to change their team name, interfering with both the team’s right to free speech as well as its property right in the registered mark is the wrong way–both legally and in principle–to achieve socially desirable ends.

Various theories have been advanced, but the really interesting part of the dispute–a topic upon which I published a paper this year–is the likelihood that the Lanham Act’s prohibition of immoral, scandalous, or disparaging marks runs afoul of the First Amendment. I was cheered to see this week that the First Amendment Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief largely along the lines of my paper. However, there were a couple of points that I still feel deserve more attention when thinking about the § 2(a) (the Lanham Act’s so-called “morality clauses”).

Trademarks Are Not License Plates

The district court tried to sidestep the First Amendment issue by declaring that the trademarks themselves are not at issue, but merely the right to register the trademarks. To reach its result, the court relied on the recent Walker case wherein the Supreme Court declared that Texas was at liberty to prevent Confederate flags from appearing on its license plates, since license plates could be considered the speech of the government.

However, there is an important distinction between license plates and trademarks. License plates are a good totally of government manufacture. One cannot drive a car on a public road without applying to the government for permission and affixing a government registration tag on the vehicle. The plate is not a blank slate upon which one may express one’s self, but is a state-issued information placard used for law enforcement purposes.

Trademarks, arising as they do from actual use, preexist federal recognition. The Lanham Act merely provides a mechanism for registering trademarks that happen to be used in interstate commerce. The federal government then chooses to recognize that trademark when contested or offered for registration.

This is a major distinction: the social field of trademarks already exists – the federal government has chosen to regulate and provide an enforcement mechanism for these property rights and speech acts when used in interstate commerce. Thus it is the market for trademarks that constitutes the forum, and not the physically recorded government register. Given that the government has interfered in a preexisting market in a way in which it protects some state-created trademark property rights, but not others, is it proper to regulate speech by virtue of its content? I think not.

Further, license plates are obviously government property to anyone who looks at them. Plates bear the very name of the state directly on their face. The system of trademark registration is a largely invisible process that only becomes relevant during legal proceedings. When the public looks at a given trademark I would argue that the state’s imprimatur is certainly one of the last things of which they would think.

Thus, a restriction on “immoral” or “disparaging” trademarks constitutes viewpoint discrimination. Eugene Volokh echoed this sentiment when he wrote on the refusal to register “Stop the Islamisation of America”:

Trademark registration … is a government benefit program open to a wide array of speakers with little quality judgment. Like other such programs … it should be seen as a form of “limited public forum,” in which the government may impose content-based limits but not viewpoint-based ones. An exclusion of marks that disparage groups while allowing marks that praise those groups strikes me as viewpoint discrimination.

The Lanham Act endows registrants with government-guaranteed legal rights in connection with the words and symbols by which they are recognized in society. Particularly in a globalized, interconnected society, the brand of an entity is a significant component of how it speaks to society. Discriminating against marks as “immoral” or “disparaging” can be nothing short of viewpoint discrimination.

Commercial Speech Is Protected Speech

As everyone is well aware, the First Amendment provides broad protection for a wide spectrum of speech. The definition of speech itself is likewise broad, including not only words, but also non-verbal gestures and symbols. Any governmental curtailing of such speech will be “presumptively invalid,” with the burden of rebutting that presumption on the government.

When speech is undertaken as part of commerce it does not magically lose any political, social or religious dimension it had when in a noncommercial context. Cartoons issued bearing the image of the Prophet as part of a commercial magazine are surely a political statement deserving of protection. The situation is the same if an organization adopts a logo that is derisive to a particular political or religious ideology – that publication is making a protected, expressive statement through its branding.

At first glance, one might think that defenders of § 2(a) would attempt to qualify scandalous and immoral trademarks as “obscene” and thereby render them subject to censorship. But, in McGinley the Federal Circuit explicitly refused to apply the obscenity standards from the Supreme Court to §2(a) on the grounds that the Lanham Act does not itself use the word “obscenity.” Instead, the Federal Circuit, following the TTAB, was of the opinion that “[w]hat is denied are the benefits provided by the Lanham Act which enhance the value of a mark” and that the appellant still had legal recourse under state common law. Therefore, so the court in McGinley reasoned, since the right to use the mark is not actually abridged, no expression is abridged. And this is the primary basis upon which the district court in Pro-Football built its argument that no First Amendment concerns were implicated in canceling the Redskins trademark.

This of course willfully ignores once again the notion that in intervening in the field of trademarks, and in favoring certain speakers over others, courts effectively allows the Lanham Act to amplify preferred speech and burden disfavored speech. This is true whether or not we classify the trademark right as a bundle of procedural rights (which in turn make speech competitively possible) or as pure speech directly.

That said, it’s much more in keeping with the tradition of the First Amendment to understand trademarks as a protected category of commercial speech. The Supreme Court has noted that otherwise commercial information may at times be more urgent than even political dialog, and that information relating to a financial incentive was not necessarily commercial for First Amendment purposes. “[S]ignificant societal interests are served by such speech.” This is so because even entirely commercial speech “may often carry information of import to significant issues of the day.”

Even were commercial speech not fully protected–as I believe it to be–the Supreme Court has also recognized that commercial speech may be so intertwined with noncommercial speech so as to make them inseparable for First Amendment purposes. In particular, commercial messages do more than merely provide information about the characteristics of goods and services:

[S]olicitation is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political, or social issues, and for the reality that without solicitation the flow of such information and advocacy would likely cease.

The analogy to trademarks is rather clear in this context. Although trademarks may refer to a particular product or service, that product or service is not of necessity a purely commercial object. Further, even if the product or service is a commercial object, the trademark itself can be, or can become, a symbolic referent and not a mere sales pitch. Consider, for instance, Mickey Mouse. The iconic mouse ears certainly represent a vast commercial empire generally, and specifically operate as a functional trademark for Mickey Mouse cartoons and merchandise. However, is there not much more of cultural significance to the mark than mere commercial value? The mouse ears represent something culturally – about childhood, about America, and about art – that is much more than merely a piece of pricing or quality information.

The Unconstitutional Conditions Doctrine Prevents Trading Rights for Privileges

The district court (and Federal Circuit, for that matter) have missed a very important dimension in summarily dismissing First Amendment concerns of trademark holders. These courts dismiss owners of “immoral” or “disparaging” trademarks on the belief that no actual harm is done – the mark holders still own the mark, and, as far as the court is concerned, no speech has been suppressed. However, trademark registration, in addition to providing a forum in which to speak, also provides real procedural benefits for the mark holder. For instance, businesses and individuals enjoy a nationwide recognition of their presence and can vindicate their interests in federal courts. Without the federal registration that is presumptively supplied to marks that are not “immoral” or “scandalous,” an individual can find himself attempting to protect his interests in a mark in the courts of every state in which he does business.

However, under the unconstitutional conditions doctrine even though the benefits of trademark registration are not constitutionally guaranteed rights, those benefits cannot be offered in exchange for a trademark owner’s loss of actually guaranteed rights. Thus, the tight link between trademark registration and First Amendment protections that the courts just keep ignoring.

Its also worth noting that this doctrine did not emerge in constitutional jurisprudence until after the period in which the Lanham Act was drafted. Instead, the Lanham Act era was characterized by the rights-privileges distinction–made famous by then Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Oliver Wendell Holmes. In McAuliffe, a police officer sued for reinstatement after he was dismissed for his participation in a political organization. In dismissing the case, Chief Justice Holmes held that “[t]he petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” This quote from Holmes captures precisely the sense in which the Federal Circuit dismisses the First Amendment concerns of mark holders. 

In contrast to this rather antiquated view, the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed the proposition that “the government may not deny a benefit to a person because he exercises a constitutional right.” Although this principle contains exceptions, it has been applied to a wide variety of situations including refusal to renew teaching contracts over First Amendment-protected speech acts, and infringement of the right to travel by refusing to adequately extend healthcare benefits to sick persons who had not been residents of a county for at least a year.

Basically, the best defense one can offer for § 2(a) is rooted in an outmoded view of the First Amendment that is, to put it mildly, unconstitutional. We don’t shut down speakers who offend us (at least for the time being), and we should stop attacking trademarks that we find to be immoral.

Today, in Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fifth Amendment requires that the Government pay just compensation when it takes personal property, just as when it takes real property, and that the Government cannot make raisin growers relinquish their property without just compensation as a condition of selling their raisins in interstate commerce. This decision represents a major victory for economic liberty, but it is at best the first step in the reining in of anticompetitive cartel-like government regulation by government. (See my previous discussion of this matter at Truth on the Market here and a more detailed discussion of today’s decision here.) A capsule summary of the Court’s holding follows.

Most American raisins are grown in California. Under a United States Department of Agriculture Raisin Marketing Order, California raisin growers must give a percentage of their crop to a Raisin Administrative Committee (a government entity largely comprised of raisin producers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture) to sell, allocate, or dispose of, and the government sets the compensation price that growers are paid for these “reserved” raisins. After selling the reserved raisins and deducting expenses, the Committee returns any net proceeds to the growers. The Hornes were assessed a fine of $480,000 plus a $200,000 civil penalty for refusing to set aside raisins for the government in 2002. The Hornes sued in court, arguing that the reserve requirement violated the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause. The Ninth Circuit rejected the Hornes’ claim that this was a per se taking, because personal property is entitled to less protection than private property, and concluded rather that this should be treated as a regulatory taking, such as a government condition on the grant of a land use permit. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that neither the text nor the history of the Takings Clause suggests that appropriation of personal property is different from appropriation of real property. The Court also held that the government may not avoid its categorical duty to pay just compensation by reserving to the property owner a contingent interest in the property. The Court further held that in this case, the government mandate to surrender property as a condition to engage in commerce effects a per se taking, noting that selling raisins in interstate commerce is “not a special governmental benefit that the Government may hold hostage, to be ransomed by the waiver of constitutional protection.” The Court majority determined that the case should not be remanded to the Ninth Circuit to calculate the amount of just compensation, because the government already did so when it fined the Hornes $480,000, the fair market value of the raisins.

The Horne decision is a victory for economic freedom and the right of individuals not to participate in government cartel schemes that harm the public interest. Unfortunately, however, it is a limited one. As the dissent by Justice Sotomayor indicates, “the Government . . . can permissibly achieve its market control goals by imposing a quota without offering raisin producers a way of reaping any return whatsoever on the raisins they cannot sell.” In short, today’s holding turns entirely on the conclusion that the raisin marketing order involves a “physical taking” of raisins. A more straightforward regulatory scheme under which the federal government directly limited production by raisin growers (much as the government did to a small wheat farmer in Wickard v. Filburn) likely would pass constitutional muster under modern Commerce Clause jurisprudence.

Thus, if it is truly interested in benefiting the American public and ferreting out special interest favoritism in agriculture, Congress should give serious consideration to prohibiting far more than production limitations in agricultural marketing orders. More generally, it should consider legislation to bar any regulatory restrictions that have the effect of limiting the freedom of individual farmers to grow and sell as much of their crop as they please. Such a rule would promote general free market competition, to the benefit of American consumers and the American economy.

By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided on February 26 to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that bar municipally-owned broadband providers from providing services beyond their geographic boundaries.  This decision raises substantial legal issues and threatens economic harm to state taxpayers and consumers.

The narrow FCC majority rested its decision on its authority to remove broadband investment barriers, citing Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Section 706 requires the FCC to encourage the deployment of broadband to all Americans by using “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”  As dissenting Commissioner Ajit Pai pointed out, however, Section 706 contains no specific language empowering it to preempt state laws, and the FCC’s action trenches upon the sovereign power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities.  Moreover, it is far from clear that authorizing government-owned broadband companies to expand into new territories promotes competition or eliminates broadband investment barriers.  Indeed, the opposite is more likely to be the case.

Simply put, government-owned networks artificially displace market forces and are an affront to a reliance on free competition to provide the goods and services consumers demand – including broadband communications.  Government-owned networks use local taxpayer monies and federal grants (also taxpayer funded, of course) to compete unfairly with existing private sector providers.  Those taxpayer subsidies put privately funded networks at a competitive disadvantage, creating barriers to new private sector entry or expansion, as private businesses decide they cannot fairly compete against government-backed enterprises.  In turn, reduced private sector investment tends to diminish quality and effective consumer choice.

These conclusions are based on hard facts, not mere theory.  There is no evidence that municipal broadband is needed because “market failure” has deterred private sector provision of broadband – indeed, firms such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast spend many billions of dollars annually to maintain, upgrade, and expand their broadband networks.  Indeed, far more serious is the risk of “government failure.”  Municipal corporations, free from market discipline and accountability due to their public funding, may be expected to be bureaucratic, inefficient, and slow to react to changing market conditions.  Consistent with this observation, an economic study of government-operated municipal broadband networks reveals failures to achieve universal service in areas that they serve; lack of cost-benefit analysis that has caused costs to outweigh benefits; the inefficient use of scarce resources; the inability to cover costs; anticompetitive behavior fueled by unfair competitive advantages; the inefficient allocation of limited tax revenues that are denied to more essential public services; and the stifling of private firm innovation.  In a time of tight budget constraints, the waste of taxpayer funds and competitive harm stemming from municipal broadband activities is particularly unfortunate.  In short, real world evidence demonstrates that “[i]n a dynamic market such as broadband services, government ownership has proven to be an abject failure.”  What is required is not more government involvement, but, rather, fewer governmental constraints on private sector broadband activities.

Finally, what’s worse, the FCC’s decision has harmful constitutional overtones.  The Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband networks that requested FCC preemption impose troublesome speech limitations as conditions of service.  The utility that operates the Chattanooga network may “reject or remove any material residing on or transmitted to or through” the network that violates its “Accepted Use Policy.”  That Policy, among other things, prohibits using the network to send materials that are “threatening, abusive or hateful” or that offend “the privacy, publicity, or other personal rights of others.”  It also bars the posting of messages that are “intended to annoy or harass others.”  In a similar vein, the Wilson network bars transmission of materials that are “harassing, abusive, libelous or obscene” and “activities or actions intended to withhold or cloak any user’s identity or contact information.”  Content-based prohibitions of this type broadly restrict carriage of constitutionally protected speech and, thus, raise serious First Amendment questions.  Other municipal broadband systems may, of course, elect to adopt similarly questionable censorship-based policies.

In short, the FCC’s broadband preemption decision is likely to harm economic welfare and is highly problematic on legal grounds to boot.  The FCC should rescind that decision.  If it fails to do so, and if the courts do not strike the decision down, Congress should consider legislation to bar the FCC from meddling in state oversight of municipal broadband.

On December 11 I published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum on this topic. I concluded that the federal courts have done a fairly good job in harmonizing antitrust with constitutionally-based federalism and First Amendment interests (petitioning, free speech, and religious freedom). Nevertheless, it must be admitted that these “constitutional constraints” somewhat limit the ability of antitrust to promote a procompetitive, pro-efficiency, pro-innovation, pro-consumer welfare agenda. Anticompetitive government action – the most pernicious and long-lasting affront to competition, because it is backed by the coercive power of the state – presents a particularly serious and widespread problem. How can antitrust and other legal principles be applied to further promote economic freedom and combat anticompetitive government action, in a manner consistent with the Constitution?

First, it may be possible to further tweak antitrust to apply a bit more broadly to governmental conduct, without upsetting the constitutional balance.

For instance, in 2013, in Phoebe Putney, the United States Supreme Court commendably held that general grants of corporate powers (such as the power to enter into contracts) to sub-state governmental entities are not in themselves “clear articulations” of a state policy to displace competition. Thus, in that case, a special purpose hospital authority granted general corporate powers by the State of Georgia could not evade federal antitrust scrutiny when it orchestrated a potentially anticompetitive hospital merger. In short, by requiring states to be specific when they authorize regulators to displace competition, Phoebe Putney makes it a bit more difficult to achieve anticompetitive results through routine state governmental processes.

But what about when a subsidiary state entity has been empowered to displace competition? Imposing a greater requirement on states to actively supervise decisions by self-interested state regulatory boards could enhance competition without severely undermining state prerogatives. Specifically, where members of a profession dominate a state-created board that oversees the profession, the risk of self-dealing and consumer harm is particularly high, and therefore the board’s actions should be subject to exacting scrutiny. In its imminent ruling on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) challenge to anticompetitive rules by the dentist-dominated North Carolina Dental Board of Dental Examiners (rules which forestall competition by storefront teeth whitening services), the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to require that states actively supervise the decisions of self-interested regulators as a prerequisite to federal antitrust immunity. At the very least, such a requirement would make states be more cautious before giving a blank check to potentially anticompetitive industry self-regulation. It could also raise the costs of obtaining special government favor, and shed needed light on rent-seekers’ efforts to achieve regulatory capture.

Unfortunately, though, a great deal of anticompetitive governmental activity, both state and federal, is and will remain beyond the bounds of federal antitrust prosecution. What can be done to curb such excesses, given the practical political difficulties in achieving far-reaching pro-competitive legislative and regulatory reforms? My December 11 Heritage Memo highlights a few possibilities rooted in constitutional economic liberties (see also the recent Heritage Foundation special report on economic liberty and the Constitution). One involves putting greater teeth into constitutional equal protection and due process analysis – say, by holding that pure protectionism standing alone does not pass muster as a “rational basis” justification for a facially anticompetitive law. Another approach is to deploy takings law (highlighted in a current challenge to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s raisin cartel) and the negative commerce clause in appropriate circumstances. The utility of these approaches, however, is substantially limited by case law.

Finally, competition advocacy – featuring public statements by competition agencies that describe the anticompetitive effects and welfare harm stemming from specific government regulations or proposed laws – remains a potentially fruitful means for highlighting the costs of anticompetitive government action and building a case for reform. As I have previously explained, the FTC has an established track record of competition advocacy filings, and the International Competition Network is encouraging the utilization of competition advocacy around the world. By shedding light on the specific baleful effects of government actions that undermine normal competitive processes, competition advocacy may over time help build a political case for reform that transcends the inherent limitations of antitrust and constitutional litigation.

In my just published Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, I argue that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should substantially scale back its overly aggressive “advertising substantiation” program, which disincentivizes firms from providing the public with valuable information about the products they sell.  As I explain:

“The . . . [FTC] has a long history of vigorously combating false and deceptive advertising under its statutory authorities, but recent efforts by the FTC to impose excessive ‘advertising substantiation’ requirements on companies go far beyond what is needed to combat false advertising. Such actions threaten to discourage companies from providing useful information that consumers value and that improves the workings of the marketplace. They also are in tension with constitutional protection for commercial speech. The FTC should reform its advertising substantiation policy and allow businesses greater flexibility to tailor their advertising practices, which would further the interests of both consumers and businesses. It should also decline to seek ‘disgorgement’ of allegedly ‘ill-gotten gains’ in cases involving advertising substantiation.”

In particular, I recommend that the FTC issue a revised policy statement explaining that it will seek to restrict commercial speech to the minimum extent possible, consistent with fraud prevention, and will not require onerous clinical studies to substantiate non-fraudulent advertising claims.  I also urge that the FTC clarify that it will only seek equitable remedies (including injunctions and financial exactions) in court for cases of clear fraud.