Administrative Law

Saving the Planet With Admin Law: Another Blow to Tax Exceptionalism

Caroline Moriarty, MJLST Staffer

Earlier this month, the U.S. Tax Court struck down an administrative notice issued by the IRS regarding conservation easements in Green Valley Investors, LLC v. Commissioner. While the ruling itself may be minor, the court may be signaling a shift away from tax exceptionalism to administrative law under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”), which could have major implications for the way the IRS operates. In this post, I will explain what conservation easements are, what the ruling was, and what the ruling may mean for IRS administrative actions going forward. 

Conservation Easements

Conservation easements are used by wealthy taxpayers to get tax deductions. Under Section 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”), taxpayers who purchase development rights for land, then donate those rights to a charitable organization that pledges not to develop or use the land, get a deduction proportional to the value of the land donated. The public gets the benefit of preserved land, which could be used as a park or nature reserve, and the donor gets a tax break.

However, this deduction led to the creation of “syndicated conservation easements.” In this tax scheme, intermediaries purchase vacant land worth little, hire an appraiser to declare its value to be much higher, then sell stakes in the donation of the land to investors, who get a tax deduction that is four to five times higher than what they paid. In exchange, the intermediaries are paid large fees. 

Conservation easements can be used to protect the environment, and proponents of the deduction argue that the easements are a critical tool in keeping land safe from development pressures. However, the IRS and other critics argue that these deductions are abused and cost the government between $1.3 billion and $2.4 billion in lost tax revenue. Some appraisers in these schemes have been indicted for “fraudulent” and “grossly inflated” land appraisals. Both Congress and the IRS have published research about the potential for abuse. In 2022, the IRS declared the schemes one of their “Dirty Dozen” for the year, writing that “these abusive arrangements do nothing more than game the tax system with grossly inflated tax deductions and generate high fees for promoters.”

Notice 2017-10 and the Tax Court’s Green Valley Ruling

To combat the abuse of conservation easements, the IRS released an administrative notice (the “Notice”) that required taxpayers to disclose any syndicated conservation easements on their tax returns as a “listed transaction.” The notice didn’t go through notice-and-comment procedures from the APA. Then, in 2019, the IRS disallowed over $22 million in charitable deductions on Green Valley and the other petitioners’ taxes for 2014 and 2015 and assessed a variety of penalties.  

While the substantive tax law is complex, Green Valley and the other petitioners challenged the penalties, arguing that the Notice justifying the penalties didn’t go through notice and comment procedures. In response, the IRS argued that Congress had exempted the agency from notice-and-comment procedures. Specifically, the IRS argued that they issued a Treasury Regulation that defined a “listed transaction” as one “identified by notice, regulation, or other form of published guidance,” which should have indicated to Congress that the IRS would be operating outside of APA requirements when issuing notices. 

The Tax Court disagreed, writing “We remain unconvinced that Congress expressly authorized the IRS to identify a syndicated conservation easement transaction as a listed transaction without the APA’s notice-and-comment procedures, as it did in Notice 2017-10.” Essentially, the statutes that Congress wrote allowing for IRS penalties did not determine the criteria for how taxpayers would incur the penalties, so the IRS decided with non-APA reviewed rules. If Congress would have expressly authorized the IRS to determine the requirements for penalties without APA procedures in the penalty statutes, then the Notice would have been valid. 

In invalidating the notice, the Tax Court decided that Notice 2017-10 was a legislative rule requiring notice-and-comment procedures because it imposed substantive reporting obligations on taxpayers with the threat of penalties. Since the decision, the IRS has issued proposed regulations on the same topic that will go through notice and comment procedures, while continuing to defend the validity of the Notice in other circuits (the Tax Court adopted reasoning from a Sixth Circuit decision).

The Future of Administrative Law and the IRS 

The decision follows other recent cases where courts have pushed the IRS to follow APA rules. However, following the APA is a departure from the past understanding of administrative law’s role in tax law. In the past, “tax exceptionalism” described the misperception that tax law is so complex and different from other regulatory regimes that the rules of administrative law don’t apply. This understanding has allowed the IRS to make multiple levels of regulatory guidance, some binding and some not, all without effective oversight from the courts. Further, judicial review is limited for IRS actions by statute, and even if there’s review, it may be ineffective if the judges are not tax experts. 

This movement towards administrative law has implications for both taxpayers and the IRS. For taxpayers, administrative law principles could provide additional avenues to challenge IRS actions and allow for more remedies. For the IRS, the APA may be an additional barrier to their job of collecting tax revenue. At the end of the day, syndicated conservation easements can be used to defraud the government, and the IRS should do something to curtail their potential for abuse. Following notice-and-comment procedures could delay effective tax administration. However, the IRS is an administrative agency, and it doesn’t make sense to think they can make their own rules or act like they’re not subject to the APA. Either way, administrative law will likely continue to prevail in both federal courts and Tax Court, and it will continue to influence tax law as we know it.


Electric Vehicles: The Path of the Future or a Jetson-Like Fantasy?

James Challou, MJLST Staffer

Last week President Biden contributed to the already growing hype behind electric vehicles when he heralded them as the future of transportation. Biden touted that $7.5 billion from last year’s infrastructure law, Public Law 117-58, would be put toward installing electric vehicle charging stations across the United States. This mass rollout of electric vehicle chargers, broadly aimed to help the US meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, constitutes an immediate effort by the Biden administration to tackle pollution in the sector responsible for the largest share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions: transportation. The administration’s short-term goal is to install half a million chargers by 2030. However, not all are as confident as President Biden that this movement will be efficacious.

The “Buy America” Obstacle

Despite President Biden’s enthusiasm for this commitment to funding widespread electric vehicle charging stations, many experts remain skeptical that supply can keep up with demand. Crucially, Public Law 117-58 contains a key constraint, dubbed the “Buy America” rule, that mandates federal infrastructure projects obtain at least 55% of construction materials, including iron and steel, from domestic sources and requires all manufacturing to be done in the U.S.

Although labor groups and steel manufacturers continue to push for these domestic sourcing rules to be enforced, other groups like automakers and state officials argue that a combination of inflation increasing the cost of domestic materials and limited domestic production may hamstring the push towards electric vehicle charging accessibility altogether. One state official stated, “A rushed transition to the new requirements will exacerbate delays and increase costs if EV charging equipment providers are forced to abruptly shift component sourcing to domestic suppliers, who in turn may struggle with availability due to limited quantities and high demand.”

Proponents of a slower implementation offer a slew of different solutions ranging from a temporary waiver of the Buy America rules until domestic production can sustain the current demand, to a waiver of the requirements for EV chargers altogether. The Federal Highway Administration, charged with oversight of the EV charger program, proposed an indeterminate transitional period waiver of the Buy America rules until the charger industry and states are prepared to comply with requirements.

Domestic Manufacturer Complications

Domestic manufacturers are similarly conflicted about the waiver of the Buy America rules, with some thinking they may not be able to meet growing demand. While many companies predict they can meet Buy America production requirements in the future, the Federal Highway Administration specified in its waiver proposal that a mere three manufacturers, all based in California, presently believe they have existing fast charger systems that comply with Buy America requirements.

Predictably, the waiver proposal is divisive amongst domestic manufacturers. Some companies are onboard with the waiver and requested even more flexibility. This includes automakers like Ford and General Motors, who say that a process of moving all supply chains to the US demands more time, particularly at the scale necessary to match the surge in federal funding. This is largely seen as the most stakeholder friendly move as it offers companies the opportunity to use the duration of the waiver to see if a clear competitive market materializes which in turn benefits stakeholders.

Contrarily, others have asked for the waiver period to be shortened to allow them to quickly recoup their investments into Buy America compliant manufacturing upgrades. Some companies are even more aggressive; they oppose the waiver altogether and argue that the waiver would disadvantage manufacturers that intentionally put money into meeting the Buy America requirements. These companies posit that domestic manufacturing provides immediate benefits like augmenting supply chain security and electric-vehicle cybersecurity and warn against dependency on foreign governments for electrical steel needs. They further add that the Buy America rule will fuel growth in the US market and create manufacturing jobs. Labor groups and some lawmakers have adopted this stance as one lawmaker from Ohio commented, “[f]ederal agencies should implement the new Buy America provisions as quickly as possible to give American companies the certainty they need to move forward with investments.”

Other Implementation Difficulties

 The inclusion of the Buy America rule in this legislation is not the only aspect of the EV charging project that has generated considerable debate. Regional challenges pose more of an issue than originally anticipated. Although many states reported common potential hurdles like vandalism, range anxiety, supply chain, and electricity challenges, unique geographic problems have also arisen. For example, Nebraska reported in its plan that a shift to electric vehicles could decrease revenue collection from gas tax. Iowa aired out concerns about stations being hit by and damaged by snow plows. Michigan cited rodent damage as a potential concern. Finally, Oklahoma flagged political opposition to the chargers as a problem that could be both pervasive and fatal to the overall electric charging process.

Moreover, the law caught a substantial amount of flak for a curious decision to skip interstate rest stops when installing the EV charging stations. Although at first glance this would appear to be a pivotal oversight, it stems from a 1956 law that restricts commercial activity, in this case including electric car charging, at rest stops. The Federal Highway Administration, to alleviate these concerns, issued guidance that says electric vehicle chargers should be “as close to Interstate Highway Systems and highway corridors as possible” and generally no more than one mile from the exit. Furthermore, some of the older rest stops are excluded from the 1956 guidance. However, this is not enough to sate critics as many continue to fight for the 1956 law to be changed. They claim that the existence of the restriction drastically inconveniences drivers, planners, and vehicles while potentially creating a wealth disparity by forcing low-income families, who traditionally rely more on public rest areas, to avoid purchasing electric vehicles.

Conclusion

President Biden deserves to be lauded for his ambitious plan for electric vehicles which attempts to square combating the effects of climate change with preserving American manufacturing while simultaneously improving infrastructure. It is worth questioning whether the law would be more effective if it simply focused its efforts on one of these areas. As a commentator at the Cato Institute noted, “The goal of infrastructure spending should be better infrastructure — and if you’re trying to pursue policies to mitigate climate change, well that should be the overall goal … Anything that hinders that should be avoided.”  Only time will reveal the answer to this question.


Whisky Is for Drinking, Water Is for Fighting

Poojan Thakrar, MJLST Staffer

The American Southwest often lives in our imagination as an arid environment with tumbleweeds strewn about. This hasn’t been truer in centuries, as the Colorado River is facing its worst drought in 1200 years, in large part because of climate change.[1] The Colorado River is the region’s most important river, providing drinking water to about 40 million people.[2] In June, the federal government gave the seven states[3] that rely on the water two months to draft a water conservation agreement or risk federal intervention. The states blew past that deadline and the DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation imposed cuts to water usage as high as 21%.[4]

The History of the Modern Colorado River Allocation System

In 1922, the Colorado River Compact allocated an annual amount of 15 million acre-feet (maf) evenly between the Upper and Lower Basin states.[5] One acre-foot represents the volume of water that covers one acre in one foot of water and is about the amount of water that a family of four uses annually.[6] However, relying on 15 maf was already problematic; data from the past three centuries showed that the Colorado River has average flows of 13.5 maf, with some years as low as 4.4 maf.[7] 

Moreover, Arizona refused to sign this compact, arguing that water should be allocated amongst individual states instead of between river basins.[8] Tensions flared in 1935 as Arizona moved National Guard troops to the California border in protest of a new dam.[9] Arizona finally ratified the compact in 1944, but the disagreements were far from over.[10] 

Arizona also brought a case to the Supreme Court for a related dispute, asking the Supreme Court to allocate how each basin splits water according to the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928.[11] Originally filed in 1952, Arizona v. California was not resolved until a Supreme Court opinion in 1963.[12] In the end, the Supreme Court accepted the recommendations of a court-appointed Special Master, whose findings California disagreed with. Of the 7.5 maf allocated to the Lower River Basin, 4.4 maf was allocated to California, 2.8 maf to Arizona and 0.3 to Nevada.[13] The court affirmed each state’s use of their own tributary waters, which Arizona argued for.[14] The case also affirmed the Secretary of the Interior’s authority under the Boulder Canyon Project Act to allocate water amongst the states irrespective of their agreement to a compact.[15] Ultimately, this was a victory for Arizona. 

Colorado River water use has been less contentious since Arizona v. California. The Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico signed a contract to divide their 7.5 maf amongst themselves without the need for federal intervention.[16] However, because of comparatively less development in these Upper Basin states, they collectively only use 4.4 maf of their allocated 7.5 maf.[17] California has historically enjoyed the excess and has often historically surpassed its own allocation.[18]

Modern Water Allocation

Until this year, the seven Colorado River states have relied on voluntary agreements and cutbacks to manage water allocation. For example, in 2007, the states agreed to rules which decreased the amount of water that can be drawn from reservoirs when levels are low.[19] In 2019, they agreed to Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in the face of waning reservoir levels.[20] It was under this new DCP that the Bureau of Reclamation first announced a drought in August of 2021.[21] Later that December, the Lower Basin states were able to come to an agreement regarding the drought declaration to keep more water in Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado.[22]

However, the December 2021 cutbacks were presumably not enough. In June of 2022, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton testified in front of the Senate Energy Committee about the dire situation on the Colorado.[23] She testified that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, both reservoirs on the Colorado, cannot sustain the current level of water deliveries.[24] Commissioner Tounton gave the seven states 60 days to agree how to conserve 2 to 4 maf.[25] 

Underlying this recent situation is the megadrought that the western United States has suffered since 2000.[26] The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the past 1200 years.[27] The Colorado River states have become remarkably adept at conserving water in that time. For example, the Las Vegas basin’s population has grown by 750,000 in the past 20 years, but its water usage is down 26%.[28] Earlier this year, Los Angeles banned lawn watering to only one day a week, much to the chagrin of Southern California’s most famous residents.[29] 

Commissioner Tounton’s 60 day deadline came and went without an agreement.[30] During a speech on August 15th of this year, Commissioner Tounton mandated that the seven states have to cut their water usage by 1 maf, roughly the amount of water usage of four million people.[31] However, the cuts were not proportioned equally. Arizona was mandated to cut its water by 21% because of the old water agreements, while California was not required to make any.[32]

More recently on October 5th, several California water districts volunteered cuts of almost one-tenth of their total allocation.[33] California conditioned these cuts upon other states agreeing to similar reductions, as well as on incentives from the federal government.[34] California’s cuts are significant, representing roughly 0.4 maf of the 1 maf that Commissioner Tounton asked states to conserve in her August 15th statement.[35] This represents a bold, good-faith move considering California was not mandated to make any. However, there is no doubt that these ad hoc negotiations are unsustainable. As the drought continues, Colorado River water policy will have implications on how food is grown and where people live. The 40 million people that live in the American Southwest may see their day-to-day lives affected if a solution is not crafted. Ultimately, this situation is far from over as states are forced to come to grips with a new water and climate reality.

Notes

[1] The Journal, The Fight Over Water In The West, Wall Street Journal, at 00:50 (Aug. 23, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[2] Luke Runyon, 7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the Colorado River, NPR (Aug. 27, 2022, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2022/08/27/1119550028/7-states-and-federal-government-lack-direction-on-cutbacks-from-the-colorado-riv.

[3] Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are considered Upper Basin states and California, Arizona and Nevada are the Lower Basin states.

[4] The Journal, supra note 1, at 12:30.

[5] Joe Gelt, Sharing Colorado River Water: History, Public Policy and the Colorado River Compact, The University of Arizona (Aug. 1997), https://wrrc.arizona.edu/publications/arroyo-newsletter/sharing-colorado-river-water-history-public-policy-and-colorado-river.

[6] The Journal, supra note 1, at 8:08.

[7] Gelt, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Nancy Vogel, Legislation fixes borders wandering river created; Governors of Arizona, California sign bills to get back land the Colorado shifted to the wrong state, Contra Costa Times, Sept. 13, 2002.

[10] Gelt, supra note 5.

[11]  Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

[12] Supreme Court Clears the Way for the Central Arizona Project, Bureau of Reclamation https://www.usbr.gov/lc/phoenix/AZ100/1960/supreme_court_AZ_vs_CA.html.

[13] Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 565, 83 S. Ct. 1468, 1480 (1963).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Gelt, supra note 5.

[17] Heather Sackett, Water managers set to talk about how to divide Colorado River, Colorado Times (Dec. 13, 2021) https://www.steamboatpilot.com/news/water-managers-set-to-talk-about-how-to-divide-colorado-river.

[18] Gelt, supra note 5.

[19] Lower Colorado River States Reach Agreement to Reduce Water Use, Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (Feb. 4, 2022) https://rnrf.org/2022/02/lower-colorado-river-states-reach-agreement-to-reduce-water-use/.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Marianne Goodland, Reclamation official tells Colorado River states to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water, Colorado Politics(June 15, 2020) https://www.coloradopolitics.com/energy-and-environment/reclamation-official-tells-colorado-river-states-to-conserve-up-to-4-million-acre-feet-of/article_376a907a-ece6-11ec-b0ba-6b2e72447497.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Ben Adler, ‘Moment of reckoning:’ Federal official warns of Colorado River water supply cuts, Yahoo News (June 15, 2020) https://news.yahoo.com/moment-of-reckoning-federal-official-warns-of-colorado-river-water-supply-cuts-171955277.html.

[27] Id.

[28] The Journal, supra note 1, at 5:50.

[29] Id. at 6:10.

[30] Id. at 8:55.

[31] Id. at 10:05.

[32] Id.

[33] Marketplace, Why women have been left behind in the job recovery, American Public Media, at 11:35 (Oct. 6, 2022) (downloaded using Spotify).

[34] Id.

[35] Ian James, More water restrictions likely as California pledges to cut use of Colorado River supply, L.A. Times, (Oct. 6, 2022) https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-06/southern-california-faces-new-water-restrictions-next-year.


It’s Social Media – A Big Lump of Unregulated Child Influencers!

Tessa Wright, MJLST Staffer

If you’ve been on TikTok lately, you’re probably familiar with the Corn Kid. Seven-year-old Tariq went viral on TikTok in August after appearing in an 85-second video clip professing his love of corn.[1] Due to his accidental viral popularity, Tariq has become a social media celebrity. He has been featured in content collaborations with notable influencers, starred in a social media ad for Chipotle, and even created an account on Cameo.[2] At seven-years-old, he has become a child influencer, a minor celebrity, and a major financial contributor for his family. Corn Kid is not alone. There are a growing number of children rising to fame via social media. In fact, today child influencers have created an eight-billion-dollar social media advertising industry, with some children generating as much as $26 million a year through advertising and sponsored content.[3] Yet, despite this rapidly growing industry, there are still very few regulations protecting the financial earnings of children entertainers in the social media industry.[4]

What Protects Children’s Financial Earnings in the Entertainment Industry?

Normally, children in the entertainment industry have their financial earnings protected under the California Child Actor’s Bill (also known as the Coogan Law).[5] The Coogan Law was passed in 1939 by the state of California in response to the plight of Jackie Coogan.[6] Coogan was a child star who earned millions of dollars as a child actor only to discover upon reaching adulthood that his parents had spent almost all of his money.[7] Over the years the law has evolved, and today it upholds that earnings by minors in the entertainment industry are the property of the minor.[8] Specifically, the California law creates a fiduciary relationship between the parent and child and requires that 15% of all earnings must be set aside in a blocked trust.[9]

What Protections do Child Social Media Stars Have? 

Social media stars are not legally considered to be actors, so the Coogan Law does not apply to their earnings.[10] So, are there other laws protecting these social media stars? The short answer is, no. 

Technically, there are laws that prevent children under the age of 12 from using social media apps which in theory should protect the youngest of social media stars.[11] However, even though these social media platforms claim that they require users to be at least thirteen years old to create accounts on their platforms, there are still ways children end up working in content creation jobs.[12] The most common scenario is that parents of these children make content in which they feature their children.[13] These “family vloggers” are a popular genre of YouTube videos where parents frequently feature their children and share major life events; sometimes they even feature the birth of their children. Often these parents also make separate social media accounts for their children which are technically run by the parents and are therefore allowed despite the age restrictions.[14] There are no restrictions or regulations preventing parents from making social media accounts for their children, and therefore no restriction on the parents’ collection of the income generated from such accounts.[15]

New Attempts at Legislation 

So far, there has been very little intervention by lawmakers. The state of Washington has attempted to turn the tide by proposing a new state bill that attempts to protect children working in social media.[16] The bill was introduced in January of 2022 and, if passed, would offer protection to children living within the state of Washington who are on social media.[17] Specifically, the bill introduction reads, “Those children are generating interest in and revenue for the content, but receive no financial compensation for their participation. Unlike in child acting, these children are not playing a part, and lack legal protections.”[18] The bill would hopefully help protect the finances of these child influencers. 

Additionally, California passed a similar bill in 2018.[19] Unfortunately, it only applies to videos that are longer than one hour and have direct payment to the child.[20] What this means is that a child who, for example, is a Twitch streamer that posts a three-hour livestream and receives direct donations during the stream, would be covered by the bill; however, a child featured in a 10-minute YouTube video or a 15-second TikTok would not be financially protected under the bill.

The Difficulties in Regulating Social Media Earnings for Children

Currently, France is the only country in the world with regulations for children working in the social media industry.[21] There, children working in the entertainment industry (whether as child actors, models, or social media influencers) have to register for a license and their earnings must be put into a dedicated bank account for them to access when they’re sixteen.[22] However, the legislation is still new and it is too soon to see how well these regulations will work. 

The problem with creating legislation in this area is attributable to the ad hoc nature of making social media content.[23] It is not realistic to simply extend existing legislation applicable to child entertainers to child influencers[24] as their work differs greatly. Moreover, it becomes extremely difficult to attempt to regulate an industry when influencers can post content from any location at any time, and when parents may be the ones filming and posting the videos of their children in order to boost their household income. For example, it would be hard to draw a clear line between when a child is being filmed casually for a home video and when it is being done for work, and when an entire family is featured in a video it would be difficult to determine how much money is attributable to each family member. 

Is There a Solution?

While there is no easy solution, changing the current regulations or creating new regulations is the clearest route. Traditionally, tech platforms have taken the view that governments should make rules and then they will then enforce them.[25] All major social media sites have their own safety rules, but the extent to which they are responsible for the oversight of child influencers is not clearly defined.[26] However, if any new regulation is going to be effective, big tech companies will need to get involved. As it stands today, parents have found loopholes that allow them to feature their child stars on social media without violating age restrictions. To avoid these sorts of loopholes to new regulations, it will be essential that big tech companies work in collaboration with legislators in order to create technical features that prevent them.

The hope is that one day, children like Corn Kid will have total control of their financial earnings, and will not reach adulthood only to discover their money has already been spent by their parents or guardians. The future of entertainment is changing every day, and the laws need to keep up. 

Notes

[1] Madison Malone Kircher, New York Times (Online), New York: New York Times Company (September 21, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/21/style/corn-kid-tariq-tiktok.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Marina Masterson, When Play Becomes Work: Child Labor Laws in the Era of ‘Kidfluencers’, 169 U. Pa. L. Rev. 577, 577 (2021).

[4] Coogan Accounts: Protecting Your Child Star’s Earnings, Morgan Stanley (Jan. 10, 2022), https://www.morganstanley.com/articles/trust-account-for-child-performer.

[5] Coogan Law, https://www.sagaftra.org/membership-benefits/young-performers/coogan-law (last visited Oct. 16, 2022).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Cal. Fam. Code § 6752.

[9] Id.

[10] Morgan Stanley, supra note 4.

[11] Sapna Maheshwari, Online and Making Thousands, at Age 4: Meet the Kidfluencers, N.Y. Times, (March 1, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/business/media/social-media-influencers-kids.html.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Katie Collins, TikTok Kids Are Being Exploited Online, but Change is Coming, CNET (Aug. 8, 2022 9:00 AM), https://www.cnet.com/news/politics/tiktok-kids-are-being-exploited-online-but-change-is-coming/.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] E.W. Park, Child Influencers Have No Child Labor Regulations. They Should, Lavoz News (May 16, 2022) https://lavozdeanza.com/opinions/2022/05/16/child-influencers-have-no-child-labor-regulations-they-should/.

[20] Id.

[21] Collins, supra note 19.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Katie Collins, TikTok Kids Are Being Exploited Online, but Change is Coming, CNET (Aug. 8, 2022 9:00 AM), https://www.cnet.com/news/politics/tiktok-kids-are-being-exploited-online-but-change-is-coming/.


After Hepp: Section 230 and State Intellectual Property Law

Kelso Horne IV, MJLST Staffer

Although hardly a competitive arena, Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”) is almost certainly the best known of all telecommunications laws in the United States. Shielding Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) and websites from liability for the content published by their users, § 230(c)’s policy goals are laid out succinctly, if a bit grandly, in § 230(a) and § 230(b).[1] These two sections speak about the internet as a force for economic and social good, characterizing it as a “vibrant and competitive free market” and “a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.”[2] But where §§ 230(a),(b) both speak broadly of a utopian vision for the internet, and (c) grants websites substantial privileges, § 230(e) gets down to brass tacks.[3]

CDA: Goals and Text

The CDA lays out certain limitations on the shield protections provided by § 230(c).[4] Among these is § 230(e)(2) which states in full, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.”[5] This particular section, despite its seeming clarity, has been the subject of litigation for over a decade, and in 2021 a clear circuit split was opened between the 9th and 3rd Circuit Courts over how this short sentence applies to state intellectual property laws. The 9th Circuit Court follows the principle that the policy portions of § 230 as stated in §§ 230(a),(b) should be controlling, and that, as a consequence, state intellectual property claims should be barred. The 3rd Circuit Court follows the principle that the plain text of § 230(e)(2) unambiguously allows for state intellectual property claims.

Who Got There First? Lycos and Perfect 10

In Universal Commc’n Sys., Inc. v. Lycos, Inc., the 1st Circuit Court faced this question obliquely; the court assumed that they were not immunized from state intellectual property law by § 230 and the claims were dismissed, but on different grounds.[6] Consequently, when the 9th Circuit released their opinion in Perfect 10, Inc. v. CCBILL LLC only one month later, they felt free to craft their own rule on the issue.[7] Consisting of a few short paragraphs, the court’s decision on state intellectual property rights is nicely summarized in a short sentence. They stated that “As a practical matter, inclusion of rights protected by state law within the ‘intellectual property’ exemption would fatally undermine the broad grant of immunity provided by the CDA.”[8] The court’s analysis in Perfect 10 was almost entirely based on what allowing state intellectual property claims would do to the policy goals stated in § 230(a) and § 230(b), and did not attempt, or rely on, a particularly thorough reading of § 230(e)(2). Here the court looks at both the policy stated in § 230(a) and § 230(b) and the text of § 230(e)(2) and attempts to rectify them. The court clearly sees the possibility of issues arising from allowing plaintiffs to bring cases through fifty different state systems against websites and ISPs for the postings of their users. This insight may be little more than hindsight, however, given the date of the CDA’s drafting.

Hepp Solidifies a Split

Perfect 10 would remain the authoritative appellate level case on the issue of the CDA and state intellectual property law until 2021, when the 3rd Circuit stepped into the ring.[9] In Hepp v. Facebook, Pennsylvania newsreader Karen Hepp sued Facebook for hosting advertisements promoting a dating website and other services which had used her likeness without her permission.[10] In a much longer analysis, the 3rd Circuit held that the 9th Circuit’s interpretation argued for by Facebook “stray[ed] too far from the natural reading of § 230(e)(2)”.[11] Instead, the 3rd Circuit argued for a closer reading of the text of § 230(e)(2) which they said aligned closely with a more balanced selection of policy goals, including allowance for state intellectual property law.[12] The court also mentions structural arguments relied on by Facebook, mostly examining how narrow the other exceptions in 230(e) are, which the majority states “cuts both ways” since Congress easily cabined meanings when they wanted to.[13]

The dissent in Hepp agreed with the 9th Circuit that the policy goals stated in §§230(a),(b) should be considered controlling.[14] It also noted two cases in other circuits where courts had shown hesitancy towards allowing state intellectual property claims under the CDA to go forward, although both claims had been dismissed on other grounds.[15] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dissent sees the structural arguments as compelling, and in Facebook’s favor.[16] With the circuits now definitively split on the issue, the text of §§ 230(a),(b) would certainly seem to demand the Supreme Court, or Congress, step in and provide a clear standard.

What Next? Analyzing the CDA

Despite being a pair of decisions ostensibly focused on parsing out what exactly Congress was intending when they drafted § 230, both Perfect 10 and Hepp left out any citation to legislative history when discussing the § 230(e)(2) issue. However, this is not as odd as it seems at first glance. The Communications Decency Act is large, over a hundred pages in length, and § 230 makes up about a page and a half.[17] Most of the content of the legislative reports published after the CDA was passed instead focused on its landmark provisions which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to regulate obscene materials on the internet.[18] Section 230 gets a passing mention, less than a page, some of which is taken up with assurances that it would not interfere with civil liability for those engaged in “cancelbotting,” a controversial anti-spam method of the Usenet era.[19] It is perhaps unfair to say that § 230 was an afterthought, but it is likely that lawmakers did not understand its importance at the time of passage. This may be an argument for eschewing the 9th Circuit’s analysis which seemingly imparts the CDA’s drafters with an overly high degree of foresight into § 230’s use by internet companies over a decade later.

Indeed, although one may wish that Congress had drafted it differently, the text of § 230(e)(2) is clear, and the inclusion of “any” as a modifier to “law” makes it difficult to argue that state intellectual property claims are not exempted by the general grant of immunity in § 230.[20] Congressional inaction should not give way to courts stepping in to determine what they believe would be a better Act. Indeed, the 3rd Circuit majority in Hepp may be correct in stating that Congress did in fact want state intellectual property claims to stand. Either way, we are faced with no easy judicial answer; to follow the clear text of the section would be to undermine what many in the e-commerce industry clearly see as an important protection and to follow the purported vision of the Act stated in §§230(a),(b) would be to remove a protection to intellectual property which victims of infringement may use to defend themselves. The circuit split has made it clear that this is a question on which reasonable jurists can disagree. Congress, as an elected body, is in the best position to balance these equities, and they should use their law making powers to definitively clarify the issue.

Notes

[1] 47 U.S.C. § 230.

[2] Id.

[3] 47 U.S.C. § 230(e).

[4] Id.

[5] 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(2).

[6] Universal v. Lycos, 478 F.3d 413 (1st Cir. 2007)(“UCS’s remaining claim against Lycos was brought under Florida trademark law, alleging dilution of the “UCSY” trade name under Fla. Stat. § 495.151. Claims based on intellectual property laws are not subject to Section 230 immunity.”).

[7] 488 F.3d 1102 (9th Cir. 2007).

[8] Id. at 1119 n.5.

[9] Kyle Jahner, Facebook Ruling Splits Courts Over Liability Shield Limits for IP, Bloomberg Law, (Sep. 28, 2021, 11:32 AM).

[10] 14 F.4th 204, 206-7 (3d Cir. 2021).

[11] Id. at 210.

[12] Id. at 211.

[13] Hepp v. Facebook, 14 F.4th 204 (3d Cir. 2021)(“[T]he structural evidence it cites cuts both ways. Facebook is correct that the explicit references to state law in subsection (e) are coextensive with federal laws. But those references also suggest that when Congress wanted to cabin the interpretation about state law, it knew how to do so—and did so explicitly.”).

[14] 14 F.4th at 216-26 (Cowen, J., dissenting).

[15] Almeida v. Amazon.com, Inc., 456 F.3d 1316 (11th Cir. 2006); Doe v. Backpage.com, LLC, 817 F.3d 12 (1st Cir. 2016).

[16] 14 F.4th at 220 (Cowen, J., dissenting) (“[T]he codified findings and policies clearly tilt the balance in Facebook’s favor.”).

[17] Communications Decency Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104, § 509, 110 Stat. 56, 137-39.

[18] H.R. REP. NO. 104-458 at 194 (1996) (Conf. Rep.); S. Rep. No. 104-230 at 194 (1996) (Conf. Rep.).

[19] Benjamin Volpe, From Innovation to Abuse: Does the Internet Still Need Section 230 Immunity?, 68 Cath. U. L. Rev. 597, 602 n.27 (2019); see Denise Pappalardo & Todd Wallack, Antispammers Take Matters Into Their Own Hands, Network World, Aug. 11, 1997, at 8 (“cancelbots are programs that automatically delete Usenet postings by forging cancel messages in the name of the authors. Normally, they are used to delete postings by known spammers. . . .”).

[20] 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(2).


Freedom to Moderate? Circuits Split over First Amendment Interpretation

Annelise Couderc, MJLST Staffer

Recently, the Florida and Texas Legislatures passed substantively similar laws which restrict social media platforms’ ability to moderate posts expressing “viewpoints,” and require platforms to provide explanations for why they chose to censor certain content. These laws seemingly stem from the perception of conservative leaning users that their views are disproportionately censored, despite evidence showing otherwise. The laws are in direct conflict with the current prevalent understanding of social media’s access to First Amendment protections, which include the right to moderate content, an expression of free speech.

While the 11th Circuit declared the Florida law unconstitutional for violating social media platforms’ First Amendment rights in May, only four months later the 5th Circuit reinstated the similar Texas law without explanation, overturning the previous injunction made by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. On September 16, 2022, the 5th Circuit released its full decision explaining its reinstatement of the censorship statute, immediately raising constitutional alarm bells in the news. Following this circuit split, social media platforms must navigate a complicated legal minefield. The issue is likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court in response to Florida’s petition of the 11th Circuit’s May decision.

Social Media Platforms Are Generally Free to Moderate Content

The major social media platforms all have policies which ban certain content, or at least require a sensitivity warning to be posted before viewing certain content. Twitter restricts hate speech and imagery, gratuitous violence, sexual violence, and requires sensitive content warnings on adult content. Facebook sets Community Standards and YouTube (a Google subsidiary) sets Community Guidelines that restrict similar content.[1] Social media corporations’ access to free speech protections were well understood under settled Supreme Court precedent, and were further confirmed in the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United establishing the rights of corporations to make political donations as a demonstration of free speech. In sum, Courts have generally allowed social media platforms to moderate and censor sensitive content as they see fit, and platforms have embraced this through their establishment and enforcement of internal guidelines. 

Circuits Split Over First Amendment Concerns

Courts have generally rejected arguments challenging social media platforms’ ability to set and uphold their own content guidelines, upholding social media platforms’ free speech protections under the First Amendment. The 5th Circuit’s rejection of this widely accepted standard has created a circuit split which will lead to further litigation and leave social media platforms uncertain about the validity of their policies and the extent of their constitutional rights.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion in May of this year was consistent with the general understanding of social media’s place as private businesses which hold First Amendment rights. It rejected Florida’s argument that social media platforms are common carriers and stated that editorial discretion by the platforms is a protected First Amendment right.[2] The Court recognized the platforms’ freedom to abide by their own community guidelines and choose which content to prioritize as expressions of editorial judgment protected by the First Amendment.[3] This opinion was attacked directly by the 5th Circuit’s later decision, challenging the 11th Circuit’s adherence to existing First Amendment jurisprudence. 

In its September 16th opinion, the 5th Circuit refused to recognize censorship as speech, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that content moderation was a form of editorial discretion (a recognized form of protected speech for newspapers).[4] The court also invoked common carrier doctrine—which empowers states to enforce nondiscriminatory practices for services that the public uses en masse (a classification that the 11th Circuit explicitly rejected)—, embracing it in the context of social media platforms.[5] Therefore, the court held with “no doubts” that section 7 of the Texas law—which prevents platforms from censoring “viewpoints” (with exceptions for blatantly illegal speech provoking violence, etc.) of users—was constitutional.[6] Section 2 of the contested statute, requiring social media platforms to  justify and announce their moderation choices, was similarly upheld as being a sufficiently important interest of the government, and not unduly burdensome to the businesses.[7] The law allows individuals to sue for enforcement. 

The Supreme Court’s Role and Further Implications

Florida, on September 21st, 2022, petitioned for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the May 2022 decision. The petition included reference to the 5th Circuit opinion, calling for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Circuit split. Considering recent Supreme Court decisions cutting down Fourth and Fifth amendment rights, it is anticipated that First Amendment rights of online platforms may be next.

Although the Florida and Texas laws involved in these Circuit Court decisions were Republican proposed bills, a Supreme Court decision would impact blue states as well. California, for example, has proposed a bill requiring social media platforms to make public their policies on hate speech and disinformation. A decision in either direction would impact both Republican and Democratic legislatures’ ability to regulate social media platforms in any way.

Notes

[1] Studies have found that platforms like YouTube may actually push hateful content through their algorithms despite what their official policies may state.

[2] NetChoice, LLC v. AG, Fla., 34 F.4th 1196, 1222 (11th Cir. 2022).

[3] Id. at 1204.

[4] Netchoice, L.L.C. v. Paxton, No. 21-51178, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 26062, at *28 (5th Cir. Sep. 16, 2022).

[5] Id. at 59.

[6] Id. at 52.

[7]  Id. at 102.


Predicted Effects of Price Transparency on Healthcare Economics

David Edholm, MJLST Staffer

In 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) promulgated the Price Transparency Rule in order to allow patients to access healthcare pricing information. The stated purpose of the Price Transparency Rule is as follows:

By disclosing hospital standard charges [including payer-specific negotiated charges and discounted-cash prices], we believe the public (including patients, employers, clinicians, and other third parties) will have the information necessary to make more informed decisions about their care. We believe the impact of these final policies will help to increase market competition, and ultimately drive down the cost of healthcare services, making them more affordable for all patients.

There is significant debate whether compliance with the Price Transparency Rule will actuate its intended purpose.

On the proponent side, economic theory to support this purpose statement comes from a market advocacy perspective. In order to drive down the cost of healthcare through competition, consumers must know the prices in advance in order to bargain between providers. By giving consumers the ability to shop around and barter, the thinking goes, providers will undercut competitors by lowering their own prices, even slightly below a competitor’s rate.

Another theory that supports price transparency is that shining light onto healthcare pricing will lead to more public outcry, guilting providers to lower overinflated or unconscionable gross charges or hospital fees. Public outcry may also compel states to create global healthcare budget caps, which have been shown to have positive price-lowering effects. A recent study from Rice University found that Maryland’s all-payer global budget policy reduces costs while increasing quality of care.

Skeptics of the rule, however, including the American Hospital Association (AHA), argue that price transparency will induce institutions that currently charge less than competitors to increase their prices to match their competitors, ultimately raising costs. In litigation, the DC Circuit responded to that argument, holding that, based on available research, this result is unlikely. Secretary Azar was not required to rely on definitive rather than predictive data in writing the requirements because of the novelty of the price disclosure scheme and the unique complexity of healthcare pricing. The DC Circuit held that relying on studies of similar price disclosure schemes in other industries was sufficient to inform a stable policy judgment.

However, the healthcare service market is of a unique nature in that quality of care may be a consumer’s primary consideration before seeking treatment, trumping price considerations. Alternatively, a consumer may assume that paying more means receiving higher-quality care. Quality of care is incredibly hard to measure and report, and unless a consumer has access to quality-of-care information alongside pricing information, they are more likely to make fallacious assumptions about this correlation. Another unique factor about healthcare shopping is that many consumers have a strong relationship with their physician, thus would base their decision primarily on receiving advice from one they trust, rather than the out-of-pocket cost of care, especially if the difference is negligible.

Last is the complexity of healthcare viewpoint. Opponents of the price transparency rule emphasize the nature of healthcare as an unpredictable trade. For example, if a patient consumer undergoes surgery to fix one problem, a surgeon may discover another problem amidst the procedure. The standard of care likely prompts the surgeon to correct both problems, thus the patient consumer will be charged an amount higher than they could have reasonably predicted. The AHA brought this argument to court to support its assertion that the price transparency rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by overstating the rule’s benefits. The DC Circuit court responded that the rule did not require hospitals to publish every potential permutation of finalized charges, rather that the baseline charges are publicized. Thus, in the surgery scenario, a patient consumer should have access to the payer-negotiated rate to fix the initial problem.

The jury is out, so to speak, on the effects that Price Transparency Rule compliance will have on healthcare economics. But from a consumer perspective, rapidly increasing healthcare costs are at the forefront of relevant political issues.


Zombie Deer: Slowing the Spread of CWD

Warren Sexson, MJLST Staffer

Minnesota is one of the premier states in the Union for chasing whitetails. In 2020, over 470,000 licenses were purchased to harvest deer. As a hunter myself, I understand the importance of protecting Minnesota’s deer herd and habitat. The most concerning threat to whitetail deer in the state is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). CWD alters the central nervous system, similar to “mad cow disease,” causing deer to lose weight, stumble, drool, and behave similarly to an extra on The Walking Dead. It was first discovered in 1967 in Colorado mule deer and is transmissible to other ungulates such as moose, elk, red deer, black-tail deer, Sitka deer, and reindeer. It is 100% fatal in animals it infects and there is no known treatment or vaccine. While it currently poses no threat to humans, Canadian researchers have shown eating the meat from infected animals can infect hungry macaques, prompting the CDC and the World Health Organization to recommend against consumption of CWD positive animals. Luckily, in Minnesota there were only a handful of cases last season. Challenges still remain, however, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the state legislature have tools at their disposal to combat the spread.

The DNR currently has a comprehensive response plan. In order to get a deer hunting license, the hunter has to pick what “zone” he or she will be hunting in. Minnesota is divided up into zones based off of the deer population and geography. Each zone has different guidelines for how many licenses will sell to the public. Some are “limited draw,” meaning a lottery system where only a certain number of applicants are selected, others are “over-the-counter,” meaning anyone who wants a license in that unit may buy one. Within the zoning system, the DNR has three “CWD Zone” classifications that restrict harvesting deer depending on the risks of the disease—surveillance, control, and management zones. Surveillance zones are where CWD has been found in captive deer or in wild deer in an adjacent zone. Control zones border the management zones, and management zones take up most of the south-eastern portion of the state, where CWD is highly concentrated. The restrictions in each type of zone vary, with surveillance zones being the least restricted and management zones being the most. Hunters have a key role in slowing the spread of CWD. Reducing deer populations in CWD ridden areas helps to reduce contact among deer and lower infection rates. However, there are other ways to further Minnesota’s commitment to slowing the spread of CWD.

The DNR can use emergency actions; it has done so recently. In October of 2021, the DNR temporarily banned moving farmed deer into and within the state through emergency action. Farmed deer (deer raised in captivity for use in trophy hunting) are a main vector of transmission for CWD. The ban was lifted in December but could have lasted longer. The DNR has emergency authority under Minn. Stat. § 84.027 Subd. 13(b) and (g). By enacting emergency declarations, the DNR can continue to use proven measures to slow the spread: requiring testing in high risk areas, banning movement between deer farms, increasing legal limits, and requiring hunters who desire a big buck to first harvest does in so called “Earn-a-Buck” programs. But, such emergency authority can only be 18 months at the longest. While limited in time, emergency orders provide the DNR the flexibility it needs to combat the disease’s spread.

The agency could also attempt to regulate by standard rulemaking authority as laid out in Chapter 14 of Minnesota’s statutes. The agency likely has authority to regulate deer hunting rules relating to CWD and recently has gained concurrent authority over deer farms along with the Board of Animal Health. However, if the DNR attempted to ban deer farming or imposed severe regulatory requirements, industry and interest groups would likely respond with legal challenges to the rulemaking process. In previous attempts to severely restrict deer farms, the Minnesota Deer Farmers Association has filed lawsuits attempting to block restrictions.

While the DNR likely can regulate deer hunting to slow the spread, the legislature is the best option for stopping deer farming as a whole. It is not necessarily a one-sided issue; a bi-partisan coalition of hunters and environmentalistswish to see the practice banned. State Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL) who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finances and Policy Committee has discussed ending the practice and buying out all existing operators. Craig Engwall, head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has additionally called for such a ban. State legislation would be the most comprehensive way to slow the spread of CWD.

State legislators should also consider funding more research for potential vaccines and treatments for CWD. Funding is beginning to pick up; Canadian researchers have begun working on potential vaccines. Additionally, Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-WI) bill, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act passed the House of Representatives with Bipartisan support and awaits a vote in the Senate. While this is encouraging, more can be done to support scientific research and protect deer herds. If Minnesota wants to lead the United States in solving such a global issue, the bipartisan support exists to help tackle the largest threat to deer hunting in the U.S. and the state.

CWD threatens the state’s large and historic deer hunting tradition. The DNR and the state legislature have the tools at their disposal to impose meaningful reform to combat the spread of “zombie-deer,” so the population can thrive for generations to come.


The Mysterious Disappearance of Deference: What Is the Supreme Court’s Current Relationship to Federal Agencies?

Carly Michaud, MJLST Staffer

The Supreme Court has had no shortage of administrative law cases in the (possibly) final sessions of one of the Court’s administrative law scholars, Justice Stephen Breyer. Yet, Breyer has found himself and his ideological compatriots in the opposition on the topic in which he situates his expertise. In the recent case regarding OSHA’s ability to require COVID-19 vaccines, Breyer’s dissent repeated discusses the proper deference an agency’s determination should be given by the Supreme Court.

Notably absent from the case is any mention of the previous key to the relationship between the courts and federal agencies: Chevron deference. In fact, Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, was, (as of a 2014 analysis in the Yale Journal on Regulation) the “Most Cited Supreme Court Administrative Law decision”. While previously considered a niche area, administrative law is now so ubiquitous in practice that as of July 2021, 55 law schools require students take a course in administrative law or one of its mainstays: legislation or statutory interpretation.

In spite of this, Chevron appears nowhere in the discussion of OSHA’s vaccine mandate, nor in the court’s earlier revocation of the CDC’s eviction moratorium. This absence suggests that perhaps this Court has become a body of health experts, relying on their own understanding of COVID-19 to determine whether these agency-created regulations are effective in their mission. Both cases center on whether an agency action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is within the purview of their empowering statute, and, despite the broad statutory authorities of these agencies to protect the health of Americans, both actions were deemed beyond that authority.

But back to Chevron, has it been abandoned as a standard? Not yet, although there was some discussion of this proposition during the oral argument of American Hospital Association v. Becerra last November. The Court has not released an opinion yet on this case, however the Court of Appeals had previously upheld HHS’s ability to set reembursement rates, per its statutory authority.

In a final thrust of irony, the death knell for Chevron deference may come from a case challenging the very statute and the very agency whose decision-making was at issue in Chevron: the EPA and the Clean Air Act. This is particularly ironic as the EPA administrator whose decision-making was being challenged in Chevron was Anne Gorsuch, the mother of Supreme Court justice and noted antagonist of agency authority: Neil Gorsuch. Yes, in a tale mirroring Hamlet, Neil Gorsuch seems determined to destroy the administrative state that had entangled his mother in various administrative scandals. The latest edition of this showdown between the Gorsuchs and EPA is scheduled for Monday February 28, which will see the Supreme Court hearing arguments in West Virginia v. EPA and its consolidated cases.

This behavior by the Court belies a grave concern both about the continued disempowerment of federal agencies—which have been empowered directly by Congress—at the hands of the unelected judiciary. Further, the most cynical of us may see this as a direct assault on the authority of agencies that some justices may politically disagree with, further disregarding the knowledge of learned experts to push their own political agendas.


Holy Crap: The First Amendment, Septic Systems, and the Strict Scrutiny Standard in Land Use Law

Sarah Bauer, MJLST Staffer

In the Summer of 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court released a bevy of decisions favoring religious freedom. Among these was Mast v. City of Fillmore, a case about, well, septic systems and the First Amendment. But Mast is about so much more than that: it showcases the Court’s commitment to free exercise in a variety of contexts and Justice Gorsuch as a champion of Western sensibilities. It also demonstrates that moving forward, the government is going to need work harder to support that its compelling interest in land use regulation trumps an individual’s free exercise rights.

The Facts of Mast

To understand how septic systems and the First Amendment can even exist in the same sentence, it’s important to know the facts of Mast. In the state of Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is responsible for maintaining water quality. It promulgates regulations accordingly, then local governments adopt those regulations into ordinances. Among those are prescriptive regulations about wastewater treatment. At issue is one such ordinance adopted by Fillmore County, Minnesota, that requires most homes to have a modern septic system for the disposal of gray water.

The plaintiffs in the case are Swartzentruber Amish. They sought a religious exemption from the ordinance, saying that their religion forbade the use of that technology. The MPCA instead demanded the installation of the modern system under threat of criminal penalty, civil fines, and eviction from their farms. When the MPCA rejected a low-tech alternative offered by the plaintiffs, a mulch basin system not uncommon in other states, the Amish sought relief on grounds that the ordinance violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After losing the battle in state courts, the Mast plaintiffs took it to the Supreme Court, where the case was decided in their favor last summer.

The First Amendment and Strict Scrutiny

Mast’s issue is a land use remix of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, another free exercise case from the same docket. Fulton, the more controversial and well-known of the two, involved the City of Philadelphia’s decision to discontinue contracts with Catholic Social Services (CSS) for placement of children in foster homes. The City said that CSS’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in both the contract and the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The Supreme Court didn’t buy it, holding instead that the City’s policy impermissibly burdened CSS’s free exercise of religion.

The Fulton decision was important for refining the legal analysis and standards when a law burdens free exercise of religion. First, if a law incidentally burdens religion but is both 1) neutral and 2) generally applicable, then courts will not ordinarily apply a strict scrutiny standard on review. If one of those elements is not met, courts will apply strict scrutiny, and the government will need to show that the law 1) advances a compelling interest and 2) is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. The trick to strict scrutiny is this: the government’s compelling interest in denying an exception needs to apply specifically to those requesting the religious exception. A law examined under strict scrutiny will not survive if the State only asserts that it has a compelling interest in enforcing its laws generally.

Strict Scrutiny, RLUIPA, and Mast

The Mast Plaintiffs sought relief under RLUIPA. RLUIPA isn’t just a contender for Congress’s “Most Difficult to Pronounce Acronym” Award. It’s a choice legal weapon for those claiming that a land use regulation restricts free exercise of religion. The strict scrutiny standard is built into RLUIPA, meaning that courts skip straight to the question of whether 1) the government had a compelling government interest, and 2) whether the rule was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. And now, post-Fulton, that first inquiry involves looking at whether the government had a compelling interest in denying an exception specifically as it applies to plaintiffs.

So that is how we end up with septic systems and the First Amendment in the same case. The Amish sued under RLUIPA, the Court applied strict scrutiny, and the government failed to show that it had a compelling interest in denying the Amish an exception to the rule that they needed to install a septic system for their gray water. Particularly convincing at least from Coloradan Justice Gorsuch’s perspective, were the facts that 1) Minnesota law allowed exemptions to campers and outdoorsman, 2) other jurisdictions allowed for gray water disposal in the same alternative manner suggested by the plaintiffs, and 3) the government couldn’t show that the alternative method wouldn’t effectively filter the water.

So what does this ultimately mean for land use regulation? It means that in the niche area of RLUIPA litigation, religious groups have a stronger strict scrutiny standard to lean on, forcing governments to present more evidence justifying a refusal to extend religious exemptions. And government can’t bypass the standard by making regulations more “generally applicable,” for example by removing exemptions for campers. Strict scrutiny still applies under RLUIPA, and governments are stuck with it, resulting in a possible windfall of exceptions for the religious.