President's weekly report — August 21, 2015
Stealing homes from the elderly in the District of Columbia
Can the government take a person’s home to pay a $133 debt without paying the homeowner a penny? A case pending before a federal district court, Coleman v. District of Columbia, asks just that question. Benjamin Coleman, an elderly veteran suffering from dementia, owned a house in Northeast Washington, D.C that he’d bought with cash two decades ago. To make a long story short, as a result of his dementia he got behind on his tax payments of $134. Penalties accrued and the City put a lien on the house, which is sold to an investment company. The company then sold the house, but instead of paying Coleman the difference between the $5,300 and in taxes and penalties owed and the sales price of $71,000, (for a home worth $197,000) the investment company claims the right to keep the all the proceeds of the sale. Incredibly, everyone involved in the deal claims there is nothing wrong about this — and in fact this is a fairly common occurrence in our Nation’s capitol. Coleman’s conservator sued, and PLF filed an amicus brief in Coleman yesterday, arguing that the City cannot evade the Fifth Amendment this way. For more, see our blog post.
Equality under the law project — Proposition 209
The California Supreme Court granted PLF’s request to stop publication in Baez v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System of the incorrect analysis of Proposition 209 by the Los Angeles Court of Appeal. The Court’s decision held that Proposition 209 only prohibits discrimination based on preferences. The lower court said that discrimination that does not involve preferences must be challenged under equal protection law, not Proposition 209. The lower court’s decision did not follow important precedent established by several California appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. The Court’s ruling to depublish the decision ensures that it cannot be used as precedent in future cases.
Environment — Endangered Species Act and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher
PLF filed its Petition to Delist Southwest Willow Flycatcher this week. The SWWF was listed as endangered under the ESA in 1995 as a subspecies of a march larger and healthy bird family of willow flycatchers based on such evidence of feather colors from an old faded museum display. The Petition seeks to remove SWWF from list of endangered species because it is not a subspecies and cannot be listed as one, and because the best available data, including DNA evidence, show that it is not endangered by the federal government’s own criteria for habitat and numbers. For more, see our web page and press release.
Environment — Endangered Species Act and wolverines
PLF recently filed a motion for summary judgment in Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell, a case involving just such an issue–the federal agency interpretation of the word “species.” The definition of that word can affect a lot of people. Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government can list a “species” as threatened or endangered. When that happens, everyone living within that species’ habitat may face heavy regulatory burdens. If the feds can define a small population of an organism as a “species,” it becomes much easier to craft listings that inflate federal power. Thus, the meaning of “species” has real consequences for many Americans. Our case involves a proposed listing for the North American wolverine, a wolverine subspecies. Wolverines abound in Canada and Alaska, so protection would only extend to the wolverine subspecies in the lower 48, a fraction of the overall population.
Waters of the United States update
We filed this opposition to a motion to consolidate our case challenging the WOTUS rule. We cite to Supreme Court precedent that holds that it’s in the public interest for many courts to weigh in on significant national issues (such as broad federal regulation) so as to provide the High Court with different legal perspectives and a full airing of the issues and arguments the cases may present. .For more on this case, see our blog post here.
Evading California’s tax limitations
We filed this amicus brief in Citizens for Fair REU Rates v City of Redding. The Redding City Council transferred 6 million dollars from the municipally owned utility into its general fund, then raised electric rates to make up the difference. We argue that scheme is an unconstitutional hidden tax, because the transfer and rate increase were not approved by voters as required by Proposition 26 — one of California’s post-Prop 13 constitutional amendments designed just to stop Prop 13 evasions like this one.
Equality under the law project — contracting preferences
Dunnet Bay v. Hanning, a challenge to a requirement that contractors discriminate in favor of minority subcontractors. The court held that a general contractor that is forced to discriminate pursuant to a state race-conscious affirmative action plan lacks standing to challenge that plan in federal court. This decision means that the Seventh Circuit splits with the Sixth, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits on this issue, setting the issue up for possible Supreme Court review. PLF previously submitted this brief in the Seventh Circuit arguing that the Illinois program violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
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Citizens for Fair REU Rates v. City of Redding, California
The Redding City Council adopted a budget that included a “payment in lieu of taxes” to be paid by its municipally-owned utility to the city’s general fund. Taxpayers sued the city on the basis that the “payment” was an unconstitutional tax because it paid for general services and was enacted absent the voter approval required by the state’s Proposition 26. An appellate court agreed with the taxpayers that the “payment” was a tax requiring voter approval unless the city proved that the amount collected was necessary to cover the reasonable costs of providing electrical service. The California Supreme Court agreed to review the case and PLF filed an amicus brief supporting the taxpayers.Read more