Recent Developments in Governmental Takings


Takings by the government have long been a murky area.  The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not proffer a great deal of insight into how takings were to be effected.  Recent case law adds some clarity to the murky sediment, but it remains a complex topic.  The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment exists to recompense private citizens in the event that government effects a taking of private property.  It states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  The intent behind this was to limit government in its task of maintaining public interest rather than empower it, but it also serves also to give the private citizen recourse when government (local, State or Federal) takes physical possession of land for public use.  Over the years, use of the Takings Clause has evolved to include instances where the government regulates in a manner that reduces the value of private property or regulates such that it renders use of the land null.  These are the two types of per se taking: physical and regulatory. 



takings, house
Fenced-off house in Turner (August 2013)



Two recent cases have served to clarify previously muddy areas of takings actions: the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case of Murr v. Wisconsin[1] and the later 2017 New York Second Department Appeals Division case of Matter of New Creek Bluebelt, Phase 3 (Baycrest Manor Inc.)[2].


Murr v. Wisconsin and the Denominator Problem



Murr v. Wisconsin
concerned the children of the Murr family who had been devised two separate, but abutting, lots along the St. Croix River by their parents.  One lot was improved by a cabin while the other was undeveloped and smaller than 1 acre.  The children wished to sell the smaller lot to fund repairs of the cabin on the larger lot, but state ordinances prohibited the development or sale of adjacent plots under common ownership if they are substandard, i.e. smaller than 1 acre.  The Murrs sued the state and county claiming that they had been subjected to an uncompensated taking as the ordinance had deprived them of “all, or practically all, of the use of Lot E because the lot cannot be sold or developed as a separate lot.”  The case made its way to the Supreme Court which found for the State, that the two lots were to be treated as one lot.  The Court outlined a new three-pronged test for the “denominator question”, the question of what property or portion of the property has been taken, which has commonly been a difficult and fact-intensive analysis for the courts to make.  


The seminal case of Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City[3] gave the previous test which provided the courts broad discretion by considering the “parcel as a whole”, however, while it gave broad discretion, it did not offer much guidance in delineating the property for the purposes of analyzing a taking.  The Murr Court outlined the following considerations in determining what constituted the denominator: “(1) the treatment of the land under state and local law; (2) the physical characteristics of the land; and (3) the prospective value of the regulated land.”  Chief Justice Roberts gave a dissent that criticized the majority’s three-pronged test as one that would almost punish the private citizen as the test would perform a “clear double counting” of the government’s interest – in both considering the denominator and then the ultimate takings inquiry. 



St. Croix River
Dalles of St. Croix

The third factor of this new test requires an analysis of the concept of reciprocity of advantage which states that, despite the unequal givings and takings, a thing may benefit despite being burdened.  In this instance, the Murrs’ substandard lot was unequivocally burdened; it could not be developed or sold as a single unit, but it also benefited from the development restriction that protected the natural vista of the St. Croix River as it increased the value of the surrounding area.  Indeed, the value of the two lots together far exceeded their combined worth singly.  Murr is the first SCOTUS case to include this concept in its denominator inquiry, and it adds fairness and balance to the outcome by allowing the courts to consider the equitable benefit that the regulation in question has given to the property as opposed to considering only the burden.  Takings law is not a vehicle for compensation against every decrease in property value caused by regulations, it is a method of providing compensation when a regulation has gone too far.  So, even though Murr seems like a decision that favors the government over the aggrieved citizen, in actuality, it favors fairness and balance once all benefits and burdens have been considered.


Baycrest Manor


While Murr serves to clarify the initial takings inquiry, in New York, the case of Matter of New Blue Creek, Phase 3 (Baycrest Manor Inc.) (“Baycrest Manor”), serves to clarify parts of the final inquiry. It provides that subsequent purchasers with knowledge of stringent regulations on the purchased land are permitted to bring takings claims as it would be unfair for successors to title to be precluded from challenging unreasonably onerous regulations. This ruling follows the Supreme Court case of Palazzolo v. Rhode Island[4] and overturned four previous cases known as the Kim Quartet[5] wherein the New York Court of Appeals, in a single day, held that a purchaser with knowledge of restrictions cannot maintain a claim for a regulatory taking.  



Manhattan, Freshkills Park
Downtown Manhattan view over Freshkills Park

Baycrest Manor concerned an area of land that was condemned by New York State as 100% wetlands and therefore lacking any economic use.  Baycrest Manor, Inc. brought an action seeking just compensation and argued in the first that the land was unjustly deprived of all use due to the strict wetlands regulations, that the economic value of the land was decreased as a result, and also that a hypothetical future purchaser would pay more than the restricted-use price based on New York’s reasonable probability incremental increase rule.  New York, however, is a strange beast and wetlands areas do hold some non-economic value as was the case here where the owner was awarded higher compensation than the value of the land under a typical regulatory takings claim.  The New York Court of Appeals upheld this decision and outlined instances where departure from the Penn Central ad-hoc test for determining a taking would be considered.  The Penn Central test requires a court to analyze the economic impact of the regulation, the regulation’s interference with reasonable investment-backed expectations and the character of the governmental action, but the Court in Baycrest Manor realized that there are instances, such as here, when non-economic factors play a more important role.  This causes issues for the economic elements of the Penn Central test.  Instead, the Court found that there was a reasonable probability that a takings claim would succeed as the value of the property was reduced by 88% and the wetlands regulations prohibited practically all development of the land, thus removing all economically beneficial use of the property. 


After determining that a takings claim could be sustained, the Court moved on to consider whether the reasonable probability incremental increase rule could still apply.  The Court held that the rule applies when the Court finds there is a reasonable probability that the condemned land will be rezoned or the use restriction will be deemed invalid.  Then, the Court performed a calculation to determine the hypothetical value that a hypothetical future purchaser might pay given the continuing right to bring a claim and reasonable probability of success of that claim.  This figure is the just compensation awarded to the property owner. 


Baycrest ManorThis notice is much fairer than before where challenges to unreasonable regulations that cause a taking could only be brought by those who had purchased land before the enactment of the regulation.  It is wholly unfair that a subsequent purchaser not be able to challenge such a regulation merely because he had notice of it when he purchased the land, as it remains unreasonable no matter when a challenge is brought. 


Conclusion


While both cases focus on different elements of a takings inquiry, both add to the fairness of the outcome.  Murr ensures that the benefits provided by the regulation to commonly owned lots are fairly considered in determining the denominator, while Baycrest Manor ensures that, in New York, subsequent purchasers of restricted land are able to bring takings challenges and also that calculations for just compensation consider the price that a hypothetical purchaser might pay due to the maintenance of a takings claim and the reasonable probability of its success.  It can be argued that one case favors the government and the other favors the claimant, but both cases favor fairness overall, however, the complexity of takings law is only deepened.

 

 

[1] Murr v. Wisconsin, 582 US _ (2017)

[2] Matter of New Creek Bluebelt, Phase 3 (Baycrest Manor Inc.), ___ A.D.3d ____, 2017 N.Y. App. Div.

[3] Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978)

[4] Palazzolo v. Rhode Island, 533 U.S. 606 (2001)

[5] Kim v. City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 1 (1997); Gazza v. Dep’t of Envir. Conserv., 89 N.Y.2d 603 (1997); Basile v. Town of Southampton, 89 N.Y.2d 974 (1997); and Anello v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 89 N.Y. 2d 535 (1997)



The Effect of Tax Laws on Commercial Real Estate


Recently the Supreme Court decided the case South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., in which they addressed whether remote sellers of goods and services can be required to collect and remit sales taxes imposed by the consumer’s State.[1] According to S. 106, 2016 Leg. Assembly, 91st Sess. (S. D. 2016) [hereinafter “the Act”], remote sellers are required to collect and remit sales tax to the State in which the goods are sold.[2] Plaintiff, the State of South Dakota, filed of an injunction requiring respondents to register for licenses to collect and remit sales tax.[3] Respondents Wayfair, Overstock.com, Inc., and Newegg, online merchants selling goods such as furniture and electronics, moved for summary arguing that the Act is unconstitutional.[4] The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine how to interpret precedent cases “in light of current economic realities.”[5]

Wayfair, online shopping, e-commerce
Wayfair logo

 

In order to decide this issue, the court had to interpret and analyze the Commerce Clause and review the scope determined by two precedent cases, National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Illinois and Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, which were decided in 1967 and 1992, respectively.[6] These cases determined that an out-of-state seller’s ability to collect and remit the tax depended on whether the seller had a physical presence in the State.[7] If the seller only permitted people to order from a catalog, it did not have a physical presence.

 

According to two key primary principles, state regulations cannot disfavor interstate commerce, and States cannot impose undue burdens on such commerce.[8] These principles, in combination with the

Commerce Clause, aid courts in determining outcomes in cases challenging state laws.[9] The Court laid out the guidelines for state taxation in Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady, where it held that a State can exclusively tax interstate commerce as long as the tax doesn’t create effects prohibited by the Commerce Clause. The Court determined that it would allow a tax as long as it applies to an activity with a significant connection to the taxing State, is fairly divided, doesn’t “discriminate against interstate commerce,” and is sufficiently connected to the services provided by the State.[10]

 

The concern about a significant connection arises from the established due process requirement that requires a business to have minimum contacts with the state in which they are selling goods or services.[11] Additionally, in Miller Brothers Co. v. Maryland, the Court held that there must be a connection between a state and the property or transaction it wishes to tax.[12]

 

The Court found that the physical presence rule is a flawed interpretation of the Commerce Clause in the ever-growing digital age as it gives online out-of-state businesses a significant advantage over companies with a physical presence in the state.[13] In addition, it creates market distortions.[14]

 

The issue of competition from online vendors has been an important one for South Dakota and the States more generally due to the fact that the States have lost revenue in the amount of $8 and $33 billion each year as a result of the rulings in Bellas Hess and Quill.[15] As a result, South Dakota residents had to “foot the bill” and pay the use tax on their purchases from other states.[16] These taxes constitute an important income source for South Dakota in funding state and local services, such as police and fire departments, as it has no state income tax.[17] Some states, such as Colorado, have imposed notice requirements on remote vendors just below collecting taxes. As a result, in the

future courts may encounter arguments regarding the meaning of physical presence.[18] Courts may also face the issue presented by small businesses seeking relief from tax collection.[19]

 

online shopping, e-commerce
Consumers have moved increasingly towards online shopping in the past few years due to convenience and efficiency

 

Ultimately the Court overruled Quill and Bellas Hess, finding that the physical presence rule was untenable.[20] Subsequently, the Court analyzed the tax under the Complete Auto test and found that the connection between the activity and the taxing State was sufficient, as respondents had significant economic and virtual contacts with the State. However, it remains to be seen whether another Commerce Clause principle could nullify the Act.[21]

 

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts argued that Bellas Hess was incorrectly decided and that deference should be given to Congress (rather than the Courts) to determine interstate commerce issues, citing the importance of stare decisis.[22] Further, Roberts argues that the harm caused by the physical presence rule, if there is any being done, is decreasing over time.[23]

 

Additionally, Roberts asserts that the Court’s decision will disproportionately and arbitrarily impose unjustified costs on various goods, which will burden small businesses. He opines that imposing taxes on each sale will harm the market by increasing costs for businesses and thereby decrease the variety of goods available.[24] Roberts argues that Congress is most suited to determine competing interests of businesses and analyze the Commerce Clause and might be able to avoid such a drastic policy change and determine any retroactive effect the change might have.[25]

 

This ruling is vital for commercial real estate and states as stiff competition from online retailers has injured sales.[26] It will have far-reaching implications for large online venders such as Amazon, which does not currently collect state sales taxes on products of third-party sellers (in all states except Washington and Pennsylvania). Following the publication of the decision, Amazon shares tanked. Stocks of other large online marketplaces are expected to show similar decline.[27]

Amazon, e-commerce, online shopping
Amazon

 

As a result of the decision, South Dakota can require online out-of-state vendors that conduct sales numbering over 200 transactions or generating revenues of over $100,000 to collect taxes on items purchased by South Dakota residents. It is anticipated that other states will change their laws regarding the physical presence requirement to align similarly with South Dakota’s new requirement. It is estimated that the decision could create as much as $13 billion in tax revenue.[28] As the online market grows and improves and more stores face bankruptcy, it will be important to keep an eye out for additional legal issues and tax policies that are likely to arise in the online marketplace arena.

 

[1] South Dakota v. Wayfair, 138 S. Ct. 2080, 2093 (2018).

 

[2] Id. at 2088.

 

[3] Id. at 2089; see U.S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 3.

 

[4] State v. Wayfair Inc., 901 N.W.2d 754, 759-60 (S.D. 2017).

 

[5] South Dakota, 138 S. Ct. at 2089.

 

[6] Id. at 2087-88. National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Ill., 386 U.S. 753 (1967); Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298(199).

 

[7] South Dakota, 138 S. Ct. at 2089.

 

[8] Id. at 2084.

 

[9] Id.

 

[10] Id. at 2085.

 

[11] Id. at 2093.  See Int’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945); Burger King v. Rudzewicz,  

   471 U.S. 462, 476 (1985).

 

[12] Miller Brothers Co. v. Maryland, 347 U.S. 340, 344-45 (1954); South Dakota, 138 S. Ct. at 2093.

 

[13] South Dakota, 138 S. Ct. at 2092.

 

[14] Id.

 

[15] Id. at 2088.

 

[16] Id.

 

[17] Id. at 2097.

 

[18] Id. at 2098.

 

[19] Id. at 2099.

 

[20] Id.

 

[21] Id.

 

[22] Id. at 2101.

 

[23] Id. at 2103.

 

[24] Id. at 2104.

 

[25] Id.

 

[26] Erin Stackley, Supreme Court Ruling in Wayfair Case a Win for Real Estate and States, RISMEDIA (August 12, 2018), http://rismedia.com/2018/08/12/supreme-court-ruling-wayfair-case-win-real-estate-sales/#close.

 

[27] Erin Stackley, Supreme Court Ruling in Wayfair Case a Win for Real Estate and States, RISMEDIA (August 12, 2018), http://rismedia.com/2018/08/12/supreme-court-ruling-wayfair-case-win-real-estate-sales/#close.

 

[28] Jeff Mengoli, The Impact of the Supreme Court’s Ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, BigCommerce, https://www.bigcommerce.com/blog/south-dakota-v-wayfair/.



The Fashionable Supreme Court: Will They Say Yes to the Trade Dress?


Copyright Protection of Non-Utilitarian Designs under the Copyright Act of 1976



Designers in the high fashion industry face many obstacles in receiving intellectual property protection for the utilitarian aspects of their clothing. Congress has provided copyright protection only for original works of art, but not for industrial designs that embody utilitarian functions.  See 17 U.S.C. 101.  Copyright protection does not extend to utilitarian aspects of objects because it would open up a flood of litigation over exclusive monopoly rights that would “burden competition, raise prices, and also harm consumers.”  See Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., Brief for United States as
Amicus Curiae 5-6.  This proves problematic, however, when art and industrial design are intertwined, especially in the fashion industry which combines aesthetic elements with utilitarian garments.  Under the separability doctrine, these pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works on the design of a useful article are copyrightable so long as they “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”  See  17 U.S.C. 101.  But what happens when pictorial, graphic, sculptural works are inseparable from the utilitarian aspects of a garment?  See Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. provided fashion designers with newfound intellectual property protection for aesthetic aspects that are incorporated into utilitarian aspects of their garments.


Obstacles Designers Faced in the High Fashion Industry Prior to the Star Athletica Decision


It is without a doubt that fashion, namely high fashion, has now become a status symbol that relies heavily on its branding and aesthetic more so than any utilitarian value its designs may serve.  So much of the value that these high fashion designs derive is from its rarity and accessibility to only the elite and wealthy.  Accordingly, it is not too surprising that fast fashion powerhouses have copied these high fashion runway looks along with several other brand elements available to the more general public.  


Fast fashion brands, i.e. Zara or Mango, have often tried emulating high fashion ad campaigns by recreating the featured garments for an exponentially lower price.  For example, Celine’s ad campaign for the 2011 fall and winter collection consisted of models in a natural setting surrounded by aloe plants.  Zara later emulated this in black and white during the Spring and Summer 2014 season and again during the Fall and Winter 2015 season with a minimalist focus on a model in black and white and an aloe plant.



fashion, Zara, model
High fashion Black & White


A few other examples of this are pictured below where Zara emulated Balenciaga’s Fall and Winter 2016 collection with its red parka and comparable styling to Lotta Volkova or a cream colored trench coat with athletic zip up wear underneath for the Burberry Fall 2016 season, which was a distinctive look for that season featuring model Chris Wu.



fashion, models, couture
Balenciaga on the left and Zara on the right


The similarities between the campaigns are not entirely identical, and even if they were, there were not rigidly defined protections under the Copyright Act.  Zara and other fast fashion powerhouses such as Mango and Forever 21 have a legally cognizable right to provide their own independent expressions about their fashion ideas.  Accordingly, they continue to use these similarities with the intention that consumers create a psychological connection between the high fashion brand and the fast fashion brand.  Fast fashion powerhouses strengthen these connections by recreating the styling, colors, and design to produce the same high fashion look elite fashion designers were inspired by without infringing logos, patents, or trademark protected designs.  This leaves high fashion designers left fairly powerless and unprotected by copyright laws.  This all changed with the holding of
Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., which provided high fashion designers with much more expansive intellectual property protection.



coats, Burberry, Zara, fashion, style, couture
Burberry coat on left and Zara coat on right

Gucci, Mango, high fashion, couture, models
Gucci on left and Mango on right


Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc.: Progress Toward Copyright Protection of Fashion Design


In March 2017, the Supreme Court established a test for determining the copyright eligibility of design elements in fashion in
Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. Respondent Varsity Brands, Inc. obtained more than 200 copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs that appear on their cheerleading uniforms.  Respondent employed designers who sketched design concepts of uniforms consisting of “original combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements which include V’s (chevrons), lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, inverted V’s, coloring, and shapes.” 137 S. Ct. 1002, 1007 (2017).  Respondent Varsity Brands, Inc. sued Star Athletica, L.L.C., a competitor that also markets cheerleading uniforms, for copyright infringement for using 5 of Respondent’s copyrighted designs.  Id.  The District Court granted the petitioner summary judgment holding that designs could not be conceptually or physically separated from the uniforms, and therefore were not copyrightable designs.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit later reversed this and concluded that graphics “could be identified separately and were capable of existing independently” of the uniforms under 17 U.S.C. 101.  Id.  Specifically, they found that the graphic designs were separately identifiable because “the designs and a blank cheerleading uniform can appear ‘side by side’ and . . . are capable of existing independently.”  Id. The Supreme Court found these conflicting perspectives on the separability analysis warranted certiorari to resolve this widespread disagreement over the proper separability test.  Id

Varsity Brands, Supreme Court, copyright, fashion,
Appendix to Opinion of the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court relied solely on a statutory interpretation of 17 U.S.C. 101, rather than a free-ranging interpretation of the best copyright policy for the case at hand.  See 
Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201 (1954).  The Court looked at the “whole provisions of the law” to determine the meaning of 17 U.S.C. 101.   See United States v. Heirs of Boisdore, 8 How. 113, 122 (1849).  The statute provides that:

A pictorial, graphic, or sculptural feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if it (1) can be identified separately from, and 2) is capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article. 17 U.S.C. 101.


The Court focuses more on the second requirement, stating that the burden of proof for the first requirement is not that difficult to satisfy.  See 
Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., 137 S. Ct. at 1010.  The Court states that the trier of fact must determine whether the separately identified feature can exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article.  Id.  This means that it has to be able to exist on its own if its imagined independent from the useful article.  Id.  If it cannot be imagined separately from the useful article, then it is not a pictorial graphic or sculptural feature of the article itself, but rather as part of one of the utilitarian aspects of the garment.  Id.


The Copyright Act provides that the owner of the copyright can reproduce this work copies on any kind of article regardless of whether it embodies a utilitarian property.  See 137 S. Ct. at 1005.  The Court states that this is a mirror image of 17 U.S.C. 113(a) which protects an authorship fixed on some tangible medium that is non-utilitarian and then later applied to a utilitarian object.  
Id.  On the other hand, 17 U.S.C. 101 protects the art that is first fixed in the medium of a useful article.  Id.  Accordingly, the Court holds that the copyright protection extends to pictorial, graphical, or sculptural objects regardless of whether they are affixed to utilitarian or non-utilitarian objects.  Id.


The Court held that this interpretation of the statute is consistent with a past holding in the Copyright Act’s history.  
Id.  In Mazer, the Court held that the respondents owned copyright protection for a statuette that served as the base of the lamp and it was irrelevant if can be identified as a freestanding sculpture or lamp base.  Id.  The Copyright Office used the Mazer holding in the modern separability test to copyright law in section 101 of the 1976 Act. Id.


Using statutory interpretation and case law, this Court held that the surface decorations on the cheerleading uniforms can be considered separate under the separability test mandated in Section 101 of the 1976 Act.  See 137 S. Ct. at 1006.  They reasoned that if the decorations were removed from the uniforms and affixed to another medium, they would not copy the uniform itself.  
Id.  They analogized that just as two-dimensional fine art are aligned with the shape of the canvas on which it is painted, these decorations are aligned with the shape of the uniform itself.  See 137 S. Ct. at 1012. Respondents may only prohibit the reproduction of these surface designs; however, the Court holds that they have no right to prevent others from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform identical in shape, cut, or dimensions.  See 137 S. Ct. at 1006


Ultimately, the design of the uniforms satisfy the requirements of Section 101 of the 197 Act because they 1) can be perceived as a two- or three- dimensional work of art separate from the useful article; and 2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article. 137 S. Ct. at 1016. Based on this interpretation, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s judgment.  
Id.


Now high fashion designers can turn to this holding when any aesthetic design is affixed to a utilitarian design.  This holding has revolutionized high fashion designers’ intellectual property interests for their designs in the high fashion industry that is victim to fast fashion’s intellectual property theft.

 



Piece of Cake: What’s Behind Supreme Court Opinions?


On June 4, 2018 the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the controversial case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The case concerned a baker, Mr. Jack Phillips, a devout Christian, who in 2012 declined to create a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding on the basis that doing so would require him to express himself artistically in a way that was inconsistent with his religious beliefs. At the time, gay marriage was not legally recognized in Colorado. However, the state had an anti-discrimination act regarding goods and services available to the public. See C.R.S. 24-34-601. The Commission determined that Mr. Phillips violated the anti-discrimination act. On review, the Supreme Court held that the Commission violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by egregiously treating Mr. Phillips’ case with hostility towards his religious beliefs. The Free Exercise Clause requires that states not base regulations and laws on hostility towards a religious belief, but that they remain neutral. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision stating that Mr. Phillips had been “entitled to a neutral decision-maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it . . . ” Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, 201 L.Ed.2d 35, 46 (U.S. 2018).


Masterpiece Cakeshop, cake, Supreme Court
Jack designing cake

Critical to the effect of this decision on similar future cases is that the Court did not decide for the states the limits and boundaries between anti-discrimination and freedom of speech. Rather, the Court narrowly held that these disputes “must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs . . . ” while avoiding “subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Id. at 50. In other words, the Supreme Court simply held that state courts must be neutral decision-makers who faithfully uphold the entire Constitution.


Nevertheless, the case was not decided without much disagreement among the nine Supreme Court Justices, despite the final 7-2 decision. With three concurring opinions (one such written and joined by two of the four liberal Justices) and one dissenting opinion, it is no wonder why the case has caused such controversy. What might cause even more shock is that Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, also wrote the 2015 landmark decision which legalized gay marriage nationwide. Because of the different opinions, this case becomes an effective model for answering the following questions. How do Supreme Court Justices decide who writes each opinion? Why do they write concurring and dissenting opinions? What precedential value do concurring and dissenting opinions have?


The Majority Opinion is Assigned by the Chief Justice


After oral arguments, the Justices convene in a conference to express how each of them would decide the case; the conference is followed by a vote. Once the votes have been counted, the Chief Justice assigns a Justice in the majority to write the opinion of the Court or does so himself. However, if the Chief Justice is not in the majority, the most senior Justice in the majority has the authority to assign writing the opinion of the court. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Chief Justice Roberts was a part of the majority and assigned writing the opinion of the court to Justice Kennedy. They were joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Often, a Justice in the majority will agree with the outcome of the case, but not with the majority’s reasoning for it. That Justice may write a concurring opinion, which can be joined by other Justices. Here, Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Gorsuch filed another concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, but only concurring in part as to the majority’s rationale. Any Justice who disagrees with the majority judgment can write a separate dissenting opinion. Here Justice Ginsberg, who was joined by Justice Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion.
Often, the opinions reference each other, each Justice arguing their reasoning in comparison to another’s. The following sections briefly describe the main points of each opinion and illustrate how the Justices agree and disagree with each other.


Majority Opinion:


Written by J. Kennedy; Joined by JJ. Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch

“While it is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public, the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.” Id. at 37. The commissioners made hostile comments about Mr. Phillips’ faith, casting doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of the case. Justice Kennedy compared this case to another where other bakers prevailed before the Commission despite refusing to create a cake for a client (because it depicted anti-gay messages, which the bakers opposed) while being willing to sell other products with a different message to the same customers. The cases are all too similar, he argues, and yet the Commission reached opposite decisions.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Kagan; Joined by J. Breyer

“[A] proper basis for distinguishing the cases was available—in fact, it was obvious.” Id. at 50. The three bakers, Justice Kagan argues, would have denied making the anti-gay cake for any customer, regardless of his religious beliefs. However, Mr. Phillips would have created a wedding cake for an opposite-sex couple, but refused to create one for the same-sex couple. Nevertheless the commission made their decision with hostility and bias.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Gorsuch; Joined by J. Alito
Pushing back against the Kagan and Ginsberg opinions, Justice Gorsuch argues that the different bakers’ cases were legally almost identical and should have resulted in the same determinations. He argues that the Commission treated them differently because they deemed Mr. Phillips’ beliefs offensive. The courts should not be deciding what is offensive. “[T]he place of secular officials isn’t to sit in judgment of religious beliefs, but only to protect their free exercise. Just as it is the ‘proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence’ that we protect speech that we hate, it must be the proudest boast of our free exercise jurisprudence that we protect religious beliefs that we find offensive.” Id. at 55.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Thomas; Joined by J. Gorsuch
Justice Thomas addresses the freedom of speech argument that Mr. Phillips made. He believes creating a custom wedding cake for a couple is “expressive conduct” and should therefore be protected by the First Amendment. “States cannot punish protected speech because some group finds it offensive, hurtful, stigmatic, unreasonable, or undignified.” Id at 65.


Dissent:


Written by J. Ginsberg; Joined by J. Sotomayor

Justice Ginsberg argues that neither the commissioners’ statements about religion nor the commission’s prior treatment of other bakers amounts to hostility towards religion. The Court’s decision is therefore unjustified. She argues that the other bakers refused to make an offensive cake because of the cake itself, but that Mr. Phillips refused to bake the wedding cake because of their sexual orientation.


Precedential Value of Concurring and Dissenting Opinions


While lower courts must follow the Supreme Court’s majority opinion (under stare decisis), there are times when a concurring opinion, and even a dissenting opinion, can influence future decisions and the development of law. Overtime, the view of the courts might therefore shift drastically.


As for the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, it will take careful consideration by lower courts of the decision as they apply it to similar cases. Courts will need to balance applying the law in a manner that is neutral towards religion while protecting people from discrimination.