Sotomayor and Breyer Call Out Majority For Reaching Constitutional Issue Not Briefed

June 21st, 2012

So the scope of the question presented does actually mater.

Soto writes in Knox v. SEIU:

The majority agrees that SEIU’s actions were at odds with the First Amendment. Yet it proceeds, quite unnecessarily, to reach significant constitutional issues not contained in the questions presented, briefed, or argued. Petitioners did not question the validity of our precedents, which consistently have recognized that an opt-out system of fee collection comports with the Constitution. See Davenport v. Washington Ed. Assn., 551 U. S. 177, 181, 185 (2007); Hudson, 475 U. S., at 306, n. 16; Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., 431 U. S. 209, 238 (1977); see also ante, at 12–13. They did not argue that the Constitution requires an opt-in system of fee collection in the context of special assessments or dues increases or, indeed, in any context. Not surprisingly, respondents did not address such a prospect. Under this Court’s Rule 14.1(a), “[o]nly the questions set out in the petition, or fairly included therein, will be considered by the Court.” “[W]e disregard [that rule] ‘only in the most exceptional cases,’ where reasons of urgency or economy suggest the need to address the unpresented question in the case under consideration.” Yee v. Escondido, 503 U. S. 519, 535 (1992) (quoting Stone v. Powell, 428 U. S. 465, 481, n. 15 (1976)). The majority does not claim any such exceptional circumstance here. Yet it reaches out to hold that “when a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh Hudson notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.” Ante, at 22 (emphasis added); see also ante, at 17 (“[T]he union should have sent out a new notice allowing nonmembers to opt in to the special fee rather than requiring them to opt out”). The majority thus decides, for the very first time, that the First Amendment does require an optin system in some circumstances: the levying of a special assessment or dues increase. The majority announces its novel rule without any analysis of potential countervailing arguments and without any reflection on the reliance interests our old rules have engendered. The majority’s choice to reach an issue not presented by the parties, briefed, or argued, disregards our rules. See Yee, 503 U. S., at 535. And it ignores a fundamental premise of our adversarial system: “‘that appellate courts do not sit as self-directed boards of legal inquiry and research, but essentially as arbiters of legal questions presented and argued by the parties before them.’” NASA v. Nelson, 562 U. S. ___, ___, n. 10 (2011) (opinion for the Court by ALITO, J.) (slip op., at 11, n. 10) (quoting Carducci v. Regan, 714 F. 2d 171, 177 (CADC 1983) (opinion for the court by Scalia, J.)); see also Jefferson v. Upton, 560 U. S. ___, ___ (SCALIA, J., joined by THOMAS, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 8) (The majority’s “refusal to abide by standard rules of appellate practice is unfair to the . . . Circuit,” which did not pass on this question, “and especially to the respondent here, who suffers a loss in this Court without ever having an opportunity to address the merits of the . . . question the Court decides”). The imperative of judicial restraint is at its zenith here, with respect to an issue of such constitutional magnitude, for “[i]f there is one doctrine more deeply rooted than any other in the process of constitutional adjudication, it is that we ought not to pass on questions of constitutionality . . . unless such adjudication is unavoidable.” Clinton v. Jones, 520 U. S. 681, 690, n. 11 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted)

Alito responds to this charge:

Contrary to JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR’s suggestion, our holding does not venture beyond the scope of the questions on which we granted review or the scope of the parties’ dispute. The second question on which we granted review broadly asks us to determine the circumstances under which a State may deduct from the pay of nonunion employees money that is used by a union for general electioneering. See Pet. for Cert. (i) (“May a State, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, condition continued public employment on the payment of union agency fees for purposes of financing political expenditures for ballot measures?”). Our holding—that this may be done only when the em- ployee affirmatively consents—falls within that question. Our holding also addresses the primary remaining dispute between the parties, namely, the particular procedures that must be followed on remand in order to provide adequate assurance that members of the class are not compelled to subsidize nonchargeable activities to which they object. See supra, at 7–8. Petitioners argue strenuously that these procedures must be narrowly tailored to minimize intrusion on their free-speech rights. See Brief for Petitioners 11–17. We see no sensible way to address this dispute without confronting the question whether, in the particular context present here, an opt-out regime suffices. JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR would apparently have us proceed on the assumption that an opt-out regime is permitted. She would then have us decide what sort of opt-out procedures would be sufficient if such a regime were allowed at all. But that is a question that simply cannot be answered. It would be like asking what sort of procedural requirements would be required if the government set out to do something else that the First Amendment flatly prohibits—for example, requiring prepublication approval of newspapers. There is also no merit in JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR’s and JUSTICE BREYER’s comments about prior precedent. This case concerns the procedures that must be followed when a public-sector union announces a special assessment or mid-year dues increase. No prior decision of this Court has addressed that question, and Hudson says not one word on the subject.

Here is how Sotomayor responds to the Majority.

The majority contends that its holding “does not venture beyond the scope of the questions on which we granted review,” pointing to the second question presented. Ante, at 22, n. 9. The majority is mistaken. That question concerns the chargeability of political and lobbying activities under Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Assn., 500 U. S. 507, 522 (1991), not the procedures by which a union may collect fees. See Pet. for Cert. (i); id., at 20–27 (describing scope of second question presented); id., at 23 (“There is a serious split, and confusion, among the circuits on the chargeability of union political and lobbying activities”). Indeed, it is only petitioners’ first question presented that deals with fee-collection procedures. And in that question, petitioners ask this Court to hold that SEIU may not collect its special assessment without providing a Hudson notice that offers “an opportunity to object to” the deduction of fees for the assessment. Id., at (i) (emphasis added). The phrase “opt in” appears not once in petitioners’ briefing. The majority protests that it cannot but hold that an opt-in regime is required, seeing as the opt-out regime the petitioners advocate is, in the majority’s view, unconstitutional. But if the Court was dissatisfied with the scope of the questions presented here it should not have granted certiorari in this case. Or having granted it, the Court should have asked for supplemental briefing on the question whether an opt-in regime is constitutionally required. What it should not have done— cannot do under our rules—is decide that question without having provided the parties and potential amici an opportunity to weigh in with their own considered views.