Marijuana: respect for voters trumps supremacy clause

July 17, 2017:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that where an employer fired an employee for her off-site use of marijuana, the employee may sue for handicap discrimination. The name of the case is Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, and you can read it by clicking here. The decision does not sit easily with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, to put it mildly.

The case involves the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law, chapter 151B. Under 151B an employee who is a “qualified handicapped person” may seek “reasonable accommodations.” In this case, the employee asked for one particular accommodation, namely marijuana use. Faced with this request the employer demurred, arguing that marijuana use is a crime and, therefore, inherently unreasonable.

Certainly, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted the medical marijuana act. But the use of marijuana is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, which Congress enacted and has not repealed. The SJC referred to this contradiction between state and federal law as an “unusual backdrop.” That is one way of putting it, I suppose.

Now, admittedly I am no judge and nobody asked me, but my starting point in resolving the contradiction would have been clause 2 of article VI of the Constitution of the United States, which provides:

This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

The clause means that a law passed by Congress becomes part of “the supreme law of the land.” That is why we call it the Supremacy Clause. Lest there be any doubt, the clause includes the proviso “any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”  If a State does not like a Federal law, the judges of that State may not repeal it.  Nullification is not an option.  I believe we fought a war about this.

However, the SJC held that respect for the supreme law of the land must take second seat to something else, something not referred to in the Constitution of the United States:

“To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for the Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”

That is a very difficult sentence for me to understand.  Don’t get me wrong: I can read English, so I understand the words. I just do not understand how (with all due respect to the SJC) one can square that sentence with the plain language of the Supremacy Clause or with the body of precedent on the subject of field preemption.

After all, the Supremacy Clause is a straightforward answer to this simple question: Where there is a clear conflict between a federal law and a subsequent state law, which prevails? Federal law, says he Supremacy Clause. State law, says the SJC.  Why? Because it is better to ignore the federal law than fail to be “respectful” of the voters.

Perhaps this is one of those instances where the framers and ratifiers tacked on an exception using invisible ink, so that to the cognoscenti the Supremacy Clause actually concludes with the words “and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding, except when they decide not to be.” Hold your copy of the Constitution up close, then at arms’ length. If that doesn’t work, try holding it up to the light.

cropped-img_70311.jpg
Peter Vickery, Esq.

Free speech victory for enviro bloggers

February 14, 2017:-Today the highest court in Massachusetts marked St. Valentine’s Day  by demonstrating its love for free speech.

The question was this: If bloggers accuse a scientific consulting company of fraud, questionable ethics, and intentionally manipulating findings, may the company sue the bloggers for defamation? The answer: No, not in Massachusetts, at least not if the company is providing expert testimony in high-profile litigation.

In a case connected to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered the defamation complaint one of BP’s experts, Chemrisk, had brought against two environmental activists. The activists wrote that Chemrisk had engaged in fraud and “intentionally manipulated findings.” Relying on the anti-SLAPP statute, they had asked a lower court to dismiss Chemrisk’s lawsuit. The  lower court denied the motion, but the SJC essentially overturned that denial and, to boot, awarded the activists their costs and legal fees. To read the SJC decision, click here.

The anti-SLAPP statute protects defendants not only in directly petitioning governmental bodies, but also in making “any statement reasonably likely to enlist public participation” in that petitioning effort effort. According to the SJC, the activists’ blog post was “part of [their] ongoing efforts to influence governmental bodies by increasing the amount and tenor of coverage around the environmental consequences of the spill, and closes with an implicit call for its readers to take action.”

Today’s decision represents a very welcome victory for freedom of speech.

cropped-img_70311.jpg
Peter Vickery, Esq.

Issue more regulations, court tells agency

May 17, 2016:- Today the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) told the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that it has to issue more regulations in order to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, which the Legislature enacted in 2008. In Kain v DEP, the SJC ruled in favor of the Conservation Law Foundation and held that the DEP’s current regulations do not comply with the statute’s requirement of “declining aggregate [greenhouse gas] emissions limits.”

More to follow. In the meantime, two questions for diligent readers:

(1) By how much have our commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions declined since 2008?

(2) For bonus points, what is the main reason for the decline?

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.

Boom! Security deposits get the full Alderaan

April 29, 2016:- Security deposits are supposed to help cover the cost of damage to the landlord’s property. Yesterday, security deposits themselves sustained damage on an Alderaan scale.

In its decision in Meikle v. Nurse (see my earlier post) the Supreme Judicial Court held that a landlord’s violation of the security deposit statute provides the tenant not only with a counterclaim but provides a defense to possession. In plain English, a defense to possession means the tenant gets to stay.

For many years, Massachusetts landlords wise to the ways of the law have known that any mistake handling the security deposit (e.g. failing to give the tenant a piece of paper stating the name of the bank holding the deposit  and the account number) could result in them paying the tenant multiple damages plus the tenant’s attorney’s fees. But yesterday’s decision means that a mistake gives the tenant the right not just to money but to remain in the landlord’s property. Not forever, of course: The tenant “does not enjoy that right in perpetuity,” the SJC states reassuringly. To avoid a tenancy in perpetuity the landlord need only bring “a second summary process action for possession after he or she has remedied the violation of the security deposit statute.”

So what does bringing a summary process action for possession ordinarily involve? Serving a new notice to quit; waiting either two weeks or a full rental period depending on the nature of the notice; completing the new summons and complaint and making sure it aligns perfectly with the notice to quit (on pain of dismissal if it does not); serving a new summons and complaint (with the attendant sheriff’s fees) at the right time, not too early and not too late (on pain of dismissal for premature or tardy filing); filing the summons and complaint (again, not too early and not too late on pain of dismissal); paying the court’s filing fee; appearing in court; being presented with the tenant’s list of interrogatories, which automatically postpones the trial for 10 days; prevailing at trial (if the stars are aligned); seeking a writ of execution; watching the judge grant the tenant a stay of execution; and then, when the first stay has expired, watching the judge grant another stay of execution, and so on. Not quite perpetuity, perhaps, but close. The line between ad nauseam and ad infinitum starts to get a bit blurry after a year or so.

Will this new decision discourage landlords from taking security deposits? One would think so, those who fall into the rational-economic-actor category at any rate. Without security deposits, how will these rational economic actors insure themselves against the risk of tenants damaging their property (bearing in mind that an increase in the risk involved in renting increases the cost of renting)? Applying some basic economics, perhaps landlords will respond to an increase in the cost by raising the [fill in the blank].

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.

SJC: unintentional housing discrimination unlawful

April 13, 2016:- From now on, developers can be sued for housing discrimination in Massachusetts even if they did not intend to discriminate and complied with all applicable laws.

In a major decision, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that “a disparate impact claim is cognizable even if a defendant who is a private owner adheres to statutory, regulatory, and contractual obligations.”  The case is Burbank Apartments Tenants Association v. Kargman and it is consistent with Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.  Like SCOTUS, the SJC rationalized its decision by analogizing to employment law: “[W]e conclude from our employment discrimination precedent that… [the disparate impact] theory of liability is cognizable under G.L. c. 151B, §§ 4(6), (7), and (11).”

For my earlier post on the subject, click here.

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.

Free speech wins (four years after judge banned candidate from mentioning opponent’s name)

March 31, 2016:- Yesterday the Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Van Liew v. Stansfield, a case I wrote about here involving two Chelmsford politicians. What a relief that the Court ruled that politicians should not use the anti-harassment laws to shut up their critics, and what a disgrace that the question even came up in Massachusetts in the Twenty-first Century.

By way of a reminder: When one politician (Van Liew) referred to the other (Stansfield) as corrupt and a liar, called her uneducated and stupid during a phone conversation, and allegedly said during the course of a meet-and-greet event at the local library “I’m coming after you,” Ms. Stansfield sought a civil harassment-prevention order. The judge not only granted the order, but even prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name online and in print, an order that brings to mind the 1982 Zimbabwean law that forbade jokes about the name of the president, Canaan Banana.

After the election, Mr. Van Liew sued Ms. Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and Ms. Stansfield brought a special motion to dismiss the case under the anti-SLAPP statute. Yesterday’s decision from the Supreme Judicial Court means that Mr. Van Liew’s case can go forward (four years after a judge banned him from uttering his opponent’s name during a political campaign). A welcome vindication of the rights of the citizen, to be sure, but how unfortunate that a candidate for public office would ask a judge for a gag order and how much more unfortunate that a judge would issue one.

Justin Sargent 6
Peter Vickery, Esq.

After-acquired evidence? Status quo, says SJC

February 4, 2016:- Employment lawyers have been wondering, “Will Massachusetts adopt or reject the after-acquired evidence doctrine?” Today we have the answer: No.

If an employer terminates an employee for no cause and later discovers a reason that would have provided grounds for discharge, later on in court may the employer rely on that after-acquired evidence as justification? In states with the after-acquired evidence doctrine, the answer is yes. We are not one of those states. But we do not positively not have the doctrine either, if you see what I mean.

In announcing its decision in EventMonitor, Inc. v. Leness, the Supreme Judicial Court chose not to reach the issue of after-acquired evidence. So for the time being, the doctrine is neither accepted nor rejected.

I will post a more detailed account shortly.

Justin Sargent 6

I can’t believe he didn’t say that!

January 20, 2016: — Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in the matter of Sissel v. US Department of Health & Human Services, which means the Court will not hear arguments in the latest challenge to the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. When this decision came to my attention I thought, naturally, of Otto von Bismarck.

Recently, I confess, I have been thinking too much about Otto von Bismarck, the statesman who unified Germany, invented the welfare state, and sported a walrus mustache of impressive proportions. This year we mark the 150th anniversary of the first attempt on Bismarck’s life, when a would-be assassin fired five shots into him at point-blank range. Bismarck grabbed the fellow, turned him over to some nearby soldiers, then strolled on home. No wonder they called him the Iron Chancellor. But that Chuck Norris-eque feat is not why I have been thinking about him.

My mind has been turning to Bismarck for two reasons. The first, although it has a constitutional aspect, is more suited to my political blog, VOX VICKERY, so I will not go into it here. The other reason has to do with legislative drafting, a subject on which I teach a course every other semester.

A little while ago, as I set about updating my syllabus, I thought of the old saying, “Laws are like sausages: nobody should see them being made.” If you have heard that expression, you may also have heard that its progenitor was Bismarck. That was my understanding, anyway.

But it was not Bismarck who gave the world the laws-are-like-sausages aphorism, at least not according to Wikipedia, which cites Fred R. Schapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.  He attributes the statement to one John Godfrey Saxe, a lawyer, poet, and failed candidate for the governorship of Vermont.

What is Mr. Schapiro’s basis for claiming that we owe the phrase not to Otto von Bismarck but, instead, to John Godfrey Saxe?  In his 2008 New York Times Magazine article titled “Quote… Misquote” Mr. Schapiro points to the March 29, 1869, edition of the Daily Cleveland Herald and the March 27, 1869 edition of the University of Michigan’s University Chronicle, both of which credited the phrase to Saxe, who also happened to boast a walrus mustache, albeit not one to rival Bismarck’s (see below, and judge for yourself).

bismarck and saxe

Only Saxe did not say “laws are likes sausages: nobody should see them being made.”  Rather, he said “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” which is similar, but not the same.

The difference between what Bismarck is supposed to have said and what Saxe is supposed to have said is subtle but real.  To say that the more you know about lawmaking the less you respect the law is different from saying that the lawmaking process is something you should not see. The statements are not contradictory, just distinct. Each conveys a meaning separate from the other.

So here is the lesson for legislative drafters. Regardless of whether laws are, in fact, like sausages, they certainly have something in common with quotations: Disputes can arise over their authorship and meaning.

Authorship matters in legislative drafting because not just anybody can enact statutes.  I can’t, for example, and nor can you. The authority to legislate vests in the legislature, although the executive has a role at the end of the process, i.e. signing/vetoing.  Our federal and state constitutions make clear that the executive must not legislate, and nor may the judges. This is what we mean by the separation of powers.

Sometimes it matters which branch of the legislature authors a bill. And that was the issue in Sissel v. US Department of Health & Human Services, the case the Supreme Court declined to decide yesterday. The petitioner, Sissel, alleged that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional because it originated in the Senate. Why would that matter? Because all money bills must originate in the House. And how do we know Obamacare was a money bill? Because in NFIB v. Sebelius the Supreme Court ruled that the charge the law imposes on people who do not buy health insurance is a tax.

If a bill creates or varies a tax it is a money bill. QED. Devoted readers may remember that I wrote an amicus brief on this subject last year when the Supreme Judicial Court was resolving a disagreement between the two chambers of the Massachusetts Legislature over the state budget. For a quick refresher, click here.

So authorship is important. Like authorship, meaning is a factor that matters a great deal in legislative drafting. Take, for example, another Obamacare case, King v. Burwell, about whether subsidies are only available to people who bought their health insurance through state exchanges as opposed to federally-established exchanges. The Supreme Court had to decide whether the statutory phrase “established by the state” simply meant what it says or meant “established by the state or the federal government.” The latter, held the Court, even though the relevant part of the statute, section 36B, clearly says “established by the state” not “established by the state or the federal government.”

The Court held that “in context” (two little words that, when placed side-by-side in a judicial opinion, can stop an attorney’s heart) the phrase “exchanges established by the state” could mean all exchanges, not merely those established by the state but also those established by the federal government. Meaning matters, in statutes and quotations alike. As the Court demonstrated in Burwell, a statute’s meaning can undergo a significant shift between Point A when the legislature creates it, Point B when it enters the maw of the judiciary, and post-digestion Point C when it emerges.

Which brings us back to Otto von Bismarck who famously did not say “laws are like sausages: nobody should see them being made.” Seeing laws being made may not be all that appetizing, but seeing them being digested can make you positively green around the gills. You can quote me on that.

Court to rule on freedom of political speech in Massachusetts

Should politicians be allowed to use the harassment-prevention laws to silence their opponents? That is one way to frame the question that the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) will consider in December. Here is the way the SJC frames the political-speech question presented by Van Liew v. Stansfield:

Whether statements made by the plaintiff, allegedly in the context of “political discourse,” could have qualified as acts of harassment for purposes of G. L. c. 258E; whether a request by the defendant, an elected official, for a harassment prevention order under c. 258E “was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law” for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute, G. L. c. 231, § 59H, where the plaintiff’s statements on which the request was based allegedly were “political speech” and made to express the plaintiff’s “version of what was happening in the town.”

In a nutshell, during a municipal election campaign in Chelmsford one local politician (Stansfield) obtained a court order banning another local politician (Van Liew) from using Stansfield’s name “in any email, blog, twitter, or any document through the internet, television show, ad, or otherwise.” In an ex parte hearing (i.e. without the opposing party) Stansfield alleged that Van Liew’s conduct amounted to harassment under M.G.L. c. 258E. The court later decided not to extend the order. Van Liew then sued Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. After the district court dismissed his complaint and the appellate division re-instated it, the matter ended up on docket of the commonwealth’s high court.

Given the case’s implications for freedom of speech, it is not surprising that the SJC has requested amicus briefs. But with oral arguments scheduled for December, there is very little time for interested parties to weigh in.

If you would like to see and hear the litigants, click here for Ms. Stansfield (from minute 12:25) and here for Mr. Van Liew (from minute 19:40).

chelmsford PB with caption
Colleen Stansfield: seated, left
roland van liew
Roland Van Liew

The question before the court is whether the statements that Mr. Van Liew made to Ms. Stansfield could constitute harassment, which the statute (chapter 258E) defines as “three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.”  I shall write more on that question in a later post. In the meantime, an equally important question is one that the SJC has not articulated in its request for amicus briefs, namely whether  a judge issuing a harassment-prevention order should engage in such sweeping prior restraint as the judge in this case.

At Ms. Stansfield’s request, the judge prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name in any TV appearance, advertisement, email, blog, or tweet. Because of this, according to his brief, Mr. Van Liew cancelled a Meet the Candidate show that had been going to run online and on TV.  By way of the anti-harassment law Ms. Stansfield achieved a result that she probably could not have obtained via defamation law.

If Ms. Stansfield had been suing Mr. Van Liew for libel, and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Mr. Van Liew from publishing further defamatory statements about her, I suspect the judge would have looked at her request through First Amendment lenses and denied the request.

So I have a question, particularly for any of my Legislative Drafting students who are reading this: Is this something best left to the discretion of a trial judge, or should the Legislature amend chapter 258E to make clear that it must not be used to chill freedom of speech? If you think a legislative fix is necessary, what would your proposed amendment say?