Posts Tagged ‘attorneys general’

Federal court slaps down Kamala Harris grab for donor lists

“Today a US District Court ruled in favor of Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s lawsuit against California Attorney General Kamala Harris, ruling that her demands for the Foundation to hand over its list of members and supporters is unconstitutional.” [AFP] We’ve repeatedly covered Harris’s unprecedented drive to demand disclosure of donor lists by nonprofits that carry on activities in California, a step likely to lead to private and public retaliation against individuals and groups revealed to have donated to unpopular or controversial causes.

As the WSJ notes in an editorial, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real “declared her disclosure requirement an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights,” finding that there was scant evidence the disclosures were necessary to prevent charity fraud, that (contrary to assurances) her office had “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality” of nonprofits’ donor lists, some 1,400 of which Harris’s office had in fact published online. As for retaliation against donors, “although the Attorney General correctly points out that such abuses are not as violent or pervasive as those encountered in NAACP v. Alabama or other cases from [the civil rights] era,” he wrote, “this Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members.”

A plaintiff’s lawyer and union ally, Harris recently surfaced as an apparently key player in the alliance of state attorneys general intent on using criminal investigatory powers to probe so-called climate denial at non-profit research and advocacy groups as well as at energy companies like ExxonMobil. That makes at least two episodes in which Harris has signaled interest in unprecedented and aggressive steps to pry open the internal workings of private advocacy organizations that take positions adverse to hers. Harris is a leading contender in the Democratic Senate primary to succeed California Senator Barbara Boxer.

Update: Now expanded and adapted into a longer post at Cato.

Climate advocacy subpoenas, III

  • “…the open, naked promise to use prosecutorial powers as a political weapon is a prima facie abuse of office. In a self-respecting society, every one of those state attorneys general would have been impeached the next day.” [National Review editorial]
  • Lefty foundations funded investigative report that kicked off the prosecute-climate-deniers push, and even funded the group that then gave an award to that ostensibly independent report [Jon Henke, earlier on Columbia School of Journalism role here and here; Jillian Kay Melchior on Inside Climate News]
  • Grand public announcement by attorneys general and former Vice President Al Gore made no mention of huddles with Rockefeller philanthropies that led up to it [Reuters; summaries of conversations via pro-CEI public records request]
  • Major angle not yet widely publicized is that ALEC, hugely demonized on Left, likely to be in cross hairs: “In his remarks, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh made a point of adding … [the] American Legislative Exchange Council as potential targets.” [Climate Investigations]
  • What’s private class action law firm Cohen Milstein doing in the middle of all this? Three guesses [National Review editorial; note “place of production” commanded in subpoena text]
  • “Climate Investigations” website seeks to promote idea of giving private lawyers what could prove wildly lucrative contingent-fee role in crusade against climate deniers; note that such private lawyers not only drove tobacco Medicaid recoupment litigation from the start, but (a tale told in Chapter 1 of my book The Rule of Lawyers) helped shape the epic corruption of that tobacco caper;
  • Reactions by the targets: a statement from incoming CEI president Kent Lassman vows to fight; “Exxon Fires Back at Climate-Change Probe” [WSJ; AP/U.S. News via Virgin Islands Free Press on move to quash subpoena]
  • “Federal law makes it a felony ‘for two or more persons to agree together to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the Unites States, (or because of his/her having exercised the same).'” It doesn’t exempt state attorneys general [Glenn Reynolds, USA Today]

Earlier generally here and specifically on the subpoena of the Competitive Enterprise Institute here and here.

Liability roundup

  • Cohen Milstein contracts with attorney general on opioid claims: “New Hampshire’s fleet of private pirate lawyers” [editorial, Manchester Union-Leader] Transparency in Private Attorney Contracting (TiPAC) legislation would help [Tiger Joyce] New Louisiana AG Jeff Landry cancels Buddy Caldwell contracts with outside law firms [Louisiana Record] States with governor-appointed AGs have seen fewer scandals than the majority in which the post is elected [Phil Goldberg, RCP]
  • Judge declines to dismiss Newtown families’ suit against rifle maker Remington Arms, PLCAA notwithstanding [Connecticut Post] Sandy Hook gun lawsuit “almost surely won’t succeed, nor should it.” [USA Today editorial] More: David French [extremely narrow ruling went to jurisdiction only, PLCAA as bar to recovery explicitly not at issue]
  • Sen. Dick Durbin, long a guardian of trial lawyer interests, leads opposition to federal bill on transparency in asbestos claims [Illinois Business Daily]
  • Judge tosses one wrongful death suit against Porsche over Paul Walker crash, another still pending [EOnline, earlier] GM ignition bellwether trials going exceptionally badly for plaintiffs as judge dismisses all but one claim in spun-out-on-black-ice case [Daniel Fisher]
  • Litigation destroys business confidentiality and that’s by design [Steve McConnell, Drug and Device Law]
  • “Justice Scalia’s Product Liability Legacy” [Anand Agneshwar and Emily M. May (Arnold & Porter), Lexology]
  • After State Farm defeats hailstorm claim, judge threatens to sanction Texas attorney Steve Mostyn [Southeast Texas Record]

What it took to introduce competition in alcohol retailing

Bethesda Magazine profiles David Trone, whose Total Wine and More chain has helped introduce or reintroduce price-cutting, the negotiating of quantity discounts from vendors, and other advances in the business model for alcohol sales. Along the way, after infuriating competitors who were protected by existing state regulatory arrangements, Trone has been arrested three times, targeted by a Pennsylvania attorney general who was himself later sentenced to prison, subjected to grand jury proceedings at which allied merchants were urged to sever ties with him, and much more, which culminated in getting most of the charges thrown out and paying money to settle others. He spent millions on legal fees. After bad regulatory and legal experiences in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Trone shifted to a new strategy, part of which has involved generous campaign contributions: “So generally what we do now when we enter a new state is hire a lobbyist, hire a great legal team, and go meet the regulators. It’s preemptive, 100 percent.” Now he’s running for Congress.

Supreme Court roundup

  • Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler awards Three Pinocchios to prominent Senate Democrats for claiming their body is constitutionally obligated to act on a Supreme Court nomination [earlier]
  • George Will argues that even though the Constitution does not constrain them to do so, there are strong prudential reasons for Senate Republicans to give nominee Merrick Garland a vote [Washington Post/syndicated] A different view from colleague Ilya Shapiro [Forbes]
  • Garland is known in his rulings for deference to the executive branch; maybe this president felt in special need of that? [Shapiro on Obama’s “abysmal record” heretofore at the Court; Tom Goldstein 2010 roundup on Garland’s jurisprudence, and John Heilemann, also 2010, on how nominee’s style of carefully measured liberal reasoning might peel away votes from the conservative side]
  • Litigants’ interest in controlling their own rights form intellectual underpinnings of Antonin Scalia’s class action jurisprudence [Mark Moller, first and second posts] “With Scalia gone, defendants lose hope for class action reprieve” [Alison Frankel/Reuters]
  • OK for private law firms hired to collect state debt to use attorney generals’ letterhead? Sheriff v. Gillie is FDCPA case on appeal from Sixth Circuit [earlier]
  • Murr v. Wisconsin raises question of whether separate incursions on more than one parcel of commonly owned land must be considered together in determining whether there’s been a regulatory taking [Gideon Kanner]

Court unseals suit charging kickbacks in Mississippi state legal work

“A federal appeals court in New York has ordered a lawsuit by a former attorney with Bernstein Litowitz unsealed, saying the public has the right to see allegations the prominent class-action firm paid an attorney with connections to the Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office more than $100,000 to help secure work with the state.” [Daniel Fisher/Forbes] “When he had protested the unnecessary project given to [assistant attorney general DeShun] Martin’s wife, [Bruce] Bernstein says he was told by a fellow partner, ‘Do you ever want us to work with Mississippi again?'” [John O’Brien/Legal NewsLine] The allegations in the lawsuit, which was later settled, were never tested in court and the law firm denies wrongdoing, saying the suit had made “sensational, unfounded accusations.” [Alison Frankel/Reuters]

Time for more attorney general transparency

The model Transparency in Private Attorney Contract (TiPAC) Act, already enacted in more than a third of the states, are meant to shine light and impose basic controls on the cozy arrangements by which private attorneys get themselves hired by state attorneys general to file litigation on behalf of state interests, often on contingency fee. Lawyers in these arrangements are often found to contribute to the campaigns of the AGs that hire them. Typical provisions of the reform package “mandate public bidding, require the posting of contracts on websites, limit attorney’s fees, demand that firms keep appropriate records, and mandate complete control of the litigation by the government.” [Phil Goldberg, Real Clear Politics]

Are the climate-speech subpoenas constitutional?

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:

A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.

In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.

Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:

These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.

Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.

An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.

Previously on the probe here and here (and earlier here and here), and on the New York attorney general’s office here and here.

[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]

California AG wants nonprofits’ donor lists

“Do you donate to the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association? California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants to know who you are, what your address is and how much you give….

“Every American has the right to support the causes we believe in without the fear of harassment and retaliation. Disclosure mandates undermine this basic freedom, dry up donations to charities and silence political speech.” [Jon Riches, Sacramento Bee]

December 23 roundup