District Court Preliminarily Enjoins ACORN Defunding Law as a Bill of Attainder

The decision came today in Acorn v. United States. I haven’t read the opinion yet, but it looks pretty detailed. Here’s my summary of the general legal framework, from this September 15 post:

1. The Constitutions bans both the federal and state legislatures from enacting “bills of attainder.”

2. This is understood as barring “a legislative act which inflicts punishment without a judicial trial.” (“If the punishment be less than death, the act [was historically] termed a bill of pains and penalties,” but “[w]ithin the meaning of the Constitution, bills of attainder include bills of pains and penalties.”) So if Congress says, “We conclude that Eugene Volokh is guilty of treason, and we order him to be executed,” that would be a classic bill of attainder.

3. According to the Court, permanent exclusion of named people — or even a class of people, such as Communist Party members or people who had given help to the Confederacy — from government office may constitute “punishment” and be treated as an unconstitutional Bill of Attainder. See U.S. v. Lovett (1946), U.S. v. Brown (1965), and Cummings v. Missouri (1866).

4. This may apply to punishment of corporations and other entities, and not just of individuals, at least according to Consolidated Edison Co. v. Pataki (2d Cir. 2002); I think that has to be right, but the issue is not clearly settled.

5. At the same time, even legislation that singles out individuals is not a Bill of Attainder if “the law under challenge, viewed in terms of the type and severity of burdens imposed, reasonably can be said to further nonpunitive legislative purposes.” See Nixon v. Administrator of General Services (1977); SeaRiver Maritime Financial Holdings Inc. v. Mineta (9th Cir. 2002) (upholding the legislative exclusion of “any vessel that spilled more than one million gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989” — a class that includes only the Exxon Valdez — from Prince William Sound, because it has the legitimate nonpunitive purpose of “reduc[ing] the environmental risk to the Sound” by excluding “a vessel with a history of substantial spillage, and encourag[ing] SeaRiver and other tank vessel owners to take greater steps to avoid a similar spill in any marine environment”).

But the trouble, of course, is that most laws, including punitive ones, also further nonpunitive legislative purposes. The hypothetical Eugene Volokh Execution Act of 2009 would further nonpunitive legislative purposes of preventing future bad acts by me (as well as punishing me for all my manifold past sins). Likewise, the permanent exclusion of certain people from federal employment, struck down in Lovett and Brown, was likely aimed at preventing bad behavior by the named employees (Lovett) and Communist employees (Brown).

So would defunding ACORN be an unconstitutional bill of attainder? My rereading of the precedents leads me to confidently and unambiguously say, “I don’t know.” The distinction between “punishment” and actions that “reasonably can be said to further nonpunitive legislative purposes” strikes me as generally elusive and perhaps even illusory, and especially so here. But I thought I’d lay out the basic questions and precedents, and see what the rest of you think.

Thanks to Prof. Ruthann Robson (Constitutional Law Prof Blog) for the pointer.