Unanswered questions in the Wheaton College litigation

July 6

I think Jonathan’s post below is very helpful in responding to some of the criticisms of the Court’s order in Wheaton College. I am still left undecided about the whole thing, but for reasons unrelated to most of what I am reading in many popular outlets.

In general, I agree that the order is not necessarily inconsistent with what the Court wrote in Hobby Lobby and in many ways probably shouldn’t be a big surprise to those who read the Court’s decisions carefully. Here are the questions I am still puzzling through about the decision, with links to the most helpful commentary I’ve read so far:

1: Is the requirement to sign Form EBSA Form 700 a substantial burden? The Seventh Circuit said “no” in Notre Dame v. Sebelius, but I think the Court will probably say “yes” in light of its discussion of complicity.

2: Is there a less restrictive means of implementing the government’s interest here? The answer to this turns in part on some of the questions raised in Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, and in part on some issues in interpreting ERISA and various federal regulations that I don’t fully understand yet. Marty Lederman has a very thorough post arguing that the Court is mistaken about this, and Tom Goldstein has a response.

3: This may not be as relevant to the case going forward, but what standard of review did the Court apply? Here is Richard Re:

The Court’s decision not to “express[]” its “views on the merits” stands in stark contrast to the normal test for issuing issuing preliminary relief. For instance, the Roberts Court has spawned an enormous amount of debate and judicial disagreement by arguably tightening the standard applicable to district courts hearing claims for preliminary injunctions. According to many cases, such relief is appropriate only if there is a “likelihood of success on the merits.” Yet the Supreme Court felt comfortable issuing an injunction pending appeal without making that finding.

Perhaps the Court tacitly chose to treat the College’s application like a request for a stay of a lower court judgment, which requires a likelihood that certiorari would be granted and a significant probability of prevailing on the merits. Though the Court didn’t say so, that standard could apparently have been met. But the College didn’t ask to stay a lower court judgment. Instead, it was asking the Supreme Court to issue the case’s first judgment relating to the merits. As Justice Sotomayor showed, the justices have said that such injunctions demand a higher standard of review.

So, what gives? I can think of [five] possibilities …

4: Why didn’t Justice Breyer note a dissent? Does that mean he voted with the majority (and thus provided the opinion with five votes) and if so, why? Tom Goldstein has the best hypothesis on this I’ve seen.

My sincere appreciation to Marty, Richard, and Tom for providing illuminating and helpful legal analysis of the hard questions here.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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