Breaking: Supreme Court Vacates Problematic Fourth Circuit Opinion Welcoming “Restraint” of Candidate Speech

Breaking: Supreme Court Vacates Problematic Fourth Circuit Opinion Welcoming “Restraint” of Candidate Speech

Oct. 10, 2017. In a one-page Order, the Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in Trump v. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, No. 16-1436, and sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit with instructions to dismiss as moot the challenge to Executive Order 13,780. The entire text of the Order reads:

     We granted certiorari in this case to resolve a challenge to “the temporary suspension of entry of aliens abroad under Section 2(c) of Executive Order No. 13,780.” Because that provision of the Order “expired by its own terms” on September 24, 2017, the appeal no longer presents a “live case or controversy.” Burke v. Barnes, 479 U. S. 361, 363 (1987). Following our established practice in such cases, the judgment is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit with instructions to dismiss as moot the challenge to Executive Order No. 13,780. United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U. S. 36, 39 (1950). We express no view on the merits.
Justice Sotomayor dissents from the order vacating the judgment below and would dismiss the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted.

PPLI and the Center for Competitive Politics had filed “friend of the court” briefs in the Supreme Court in Trump v. Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, No. 16-1436. That case, commonly referred to as the “travel ban” cases, considered the President’s power to block certain aliens from entering the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had blocked the Executive Order that imposed the ban, but did so by referring to candidate Donald Trump’s campaign statements. Unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit said:

To the extent that our review chills campaign promises to condemn and exclude entire religious groups, we think that a welcome restraint.

Int’l Refugee Assistance Project, et al. v. Trump, et al., 857 F.3d 554, 600 (4th Cir. 2017), slip op. 68

This “welcome restraint” doctrine conflicts with settled Supreme Court decisions protecting free speech on the campaign trail. For example, in Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 781 (2002), the Court said “the notion that the special context of electioneering justifies an abridgment of the right to speak out on disputed issues sets our First Amendment jurisprudence on its head.” In Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U. S. 45, 60 (1982), the Court said “It is simply not the function of government to select which issues are worth discussing or debating in the course of a political campaign.”

The two PPLI/CCP briefs first asked the Court to review the case, by granting certiorari, then, without taking a position on the merits, asked the Court to protect the First Amendment rights of candidates and those who want to hear their true opinions, by “vacating” (eliminating) the troublesome Fourth Circuit opinion. For more on these briefs, see the Litigation pages.

In competing letter briefs filed last week, the parties argued over whether the case was moot. The Federal Department of Justice argued that the bans have expired, mooting the case, so the Fourth Circuit’s decision should be vacated. In response, the challengers argued that part of the ban continued so the case should not be mooted, and, in any case, the Court never should have granted certiorari, and so should have dismissed the writ of certiorari as “improvidently granted.” Justice Sotomayor agreed with the challengers, but the rest of the Court did not.

The reference to Munsingwear is significant. The Court often vacates on the basis of mootness without referring to that seminal case. Munsingwear says

The established practice of the Court in dealing with a civil case from a court in the federal system which has become moot while on its way here or pending our decision on the merits is to reverse or vacate the judgment below and remand with a direction to dismiss. [340 U.S. at 39] … As already indicated, it is commonly utilized in precisely this situation to prevent a judgment, unreviewable because of mootness, from spawning any legal consequences. [340 U.S. at 41]

The Supreme Court’s near-unanimous decision ends this portion of the case. Another challenge to the “travel ban” includes a ban on certain refugee admissions, and has not yet been vacated. Some observers predict that as soon as that ban expires, on October 24, the challenge to it will similarly be vacated as moot.

PPLI President Barnaby Zall said of the decision: “We would have preferred a strong statement from the Court reaffirming their traditional respect for vigorous and free campaign speech. But given the high tensions surrounding this case, it’s probably the best practical outcome for the Court to have simply removed the Fourth Circuit’s decision from the books and declared the case moot. That way, no respectable lawyer will cite the Fourth Circuit’s legal mistake to argue for suppressing free speech.”

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