Caleb Brown interviews me for this new Cato podcast on a knotty question: when should a state attorney general decline to argue in court in defense of a law he thinks unconstitutional? On the one hand, the legal profession’s norms strongly favor giving every client and cause its day in court, and practical dysfunction might result were cases routinely handed over to others to defend or dropped entirely. On the other hand, attorneys general like other officials take an oath of office to the constitution, which calls in doubt whether they should (or even may) use their skills on behalf of unconstitutional measures. Complicating matters: how should unconstitutionality be assessed, by way of the AG’s own judgment, by way of predicting how the highest relevant court would rule, or by some other method? What kind of difference should it make whether the assessment appears certain, very probable, or more ambiguous than that?
In recent weeks about a half-dozen Democratic AGs around the country have declined to defend their states’ bans on same-sex marriage, on the grounds that they are inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision of last year, while other AGs both Republican and Democratic have argued in defense of those laws. (Today, Kentucky’s attorney general announced that he will not appeal a federal court ruling requiring the state to recognize out-of-state marriages, although the state’s governor is stepping in to do so.) Finding either liberals or conservatives who have preserved entirely consistent positions on the issue, though, is not always easy. Former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a strong conservative, declined to defend a state education reform law last year, while in 2011 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen declined to defend a state domestic partnership registry they deemed unconstitutional. In a case like the latter it was liberals who tended to criticize the refusal to defend a law, and conservatives who applauded — patterns that to some extent have been reversed this time around.
Following up on the mention of the issue earlier this month, “Virginia is on the verge of substantially increasing child-support obligations for the first time since 1988. But the proposed increase, which recently passed a legislative committee as a bill called HB 933, would result in excessive obligations for many parents, more unpaid child support and more jailings for nonpayment at taxpayer expense. Some noncustodial parents already pay more than 50 percent of their income in child support.” [Hans Bader, Richmond Times-Dispatch]
In an email, Bader adds:
Often, laws contain provisions that seem to be for the benefit of lawyers rather than the people.
Such is the case for one provision in the child-support bill HB 933, which will result in divorced parents fighting each other over pennies.
Right now, the custodial parent pays the first $250 annually in unreimbursed medical and dental expenses, rather than each co-payment and out of-pocket expense being divided up based on the parents’ share of combined income. But this $250 ceiling will be reduced to zero under the bill HB 933, which may result in angry parents fighting each other over as little as $10 (in some cases, with the assistance of a lawyer, in many other cases, without any lawyer at all), in order to try to get their ex jailed for contempt for not paying their share of the $10.
Certified mediator Diane Poljacik writes in an email (excerpted):
One of the reasons the $250.00 ceiling on health, dental and vision costs was put in place is said to be due in part to a number of frivolous show cause failure to comply motions being filed by the custodial parent against the noncustodial parent for not immediately reimbursing the other parent a $10.00 (or some other ridiculously low figure) co-pay (so called “nickel and diming” the other parent). This happens more often in cases where parents are constantly at war with each other. Removal of this provision could end up playing right into this by enabling warring parents to use this as just another way of trying to get the other parent jailed for contempt. …
If this provision is removed and show cause motions increase, it could potentially create a further burden for court dockets that are already overburdened. … No data has been presented thus far that states the judges are asking for this to be removed.
It’s precisely the outstanding candidates that opponents gun for, writes Conn Carroll, recalling the case of U. Va.’s Lillian BeVier. [Washington Examiner]
In Hopewell, Va., Mr. Montgomery spent four years behind bars after Ms. Coast falsely accused him of a rape eight years earlier, when he was 14. Eventually she admitted she’d made it up. “Coast however was sentenced by Hampton Circuit Court Judge Bonnie L. Jones to just two months in jail and ordered to make $90,000 in restitution for perjury. Jones suspended the rest of the five-year sentence and even allowed Coast to serve the remainder on weekends so not to disrupt her life.” [Jonathan Turley via Amy Alkon, Richmond Times-Dispatch]
A natural experiment: Virginia law allows foreclosures to happen rapidly, Maryland law delays them. Which state has bounced back more smartly from the housing crash? [Michael Schearer, earlier]
$30,000 in community fund-raising later, kids have a reason to be glum [Washington Post]:
Although parents worked with the Fairfax County Public Schools facilities department, purchased the equipment, hired a contractor and had the playground ready for recess, the school system suddenly deemed the play equipment too dangerous. Since Nov. 30 it has been off-limits, parents say.
Never mind that the same equipment is installed at more than 1,200 parks and schools across the country, including a public park in the county.
Update: District changes mind.
In Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington, a court-ordered trustee has ordered the sale of the Olde Belhaven association’s “pleasant square, with its trees and benches, [which] had in better times been the site of community picnics and Christmas festivities.” The association was put on the road to ruin by a dispute that began over a complaint that a sign in a homeowner’s yard was 4 inches too high. It escalated into costly litigation, and “as the case ground on, the HOA increased dues from $650 a year to about $3,500, mostly to cover legal fees.” Courts sided with the dissident homeowners, and hundreds of thousands in legal costs sank the association’s finances. [Washington Post]