Democracy Rising PA v. John Celluci ( 2010 )

  •                                               NOT PRECEDENTIAL
                      FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
                                No. 09-2170
       JOHN R. CELLUCI, in his official capacity as a Member of the
    Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board; CHARLES A. CLEMENT, JR.,
       in his official capacity as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial
              Conduct Board; CHARLES J. CUNNINGHAM, III,
       in his official capacity as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial
        Conduct Board; CECILIA GRIFFEN GOLDEN, in her official
      capacity as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
        PATRICK JUDGE, in his official capacity and as a Member of
      the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board; EDWARD R. KLETT,
     in his official capacity and as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial
        Conduct Board; G. CRAIG LORD, in his official capacity and
           as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
            CHARLENE R. MCABEE, in her official capacity and
           as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
          CYNTHIA N. MCCORMICK, in her official capacity and
           as a Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
            JACK A. PANNELLA, in his official capacity and as a
              Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
         CAROLINE RUDNITSKY, in her official capacity and as a
              Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
             JAMES R. WEAVER, in his official capacity and as a
              Member of the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board;
              PAUL J. KILLION, in his official capacity as Chief
       Disciplinary Counsel of the Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary
                          On Appeal from the United States District Court
                              for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
                                  (D.C. Civil No. 1-07-cv-00860)
                            District Judge: Hon. Christopher C. Conner
                          Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a)
                                          April 13, 2010
                  BEFORE: FISHER, HARDIMAN and COWEN, Circuit Judges
                                        (Filed: May 14, 2010)
    COWEN, Circuit Judge
           Plaintiffs Democracy Rising PA (“Democracy Rising”) and Tim Potts appeal from
    the order of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
    granting Defendants’ motion to dismiss. We will affirm.
           This appeal involves a First Amendment challenge to a Pennsylvania judicial canon
    governing the speech of candidates for judicial office in the Commonwealth of
    Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania selects judges through an election process. Candidates for
    judicial office are selected in the first instance in a primary election, which is then
    followed by a general partisan election. Once elected, serving judges stand for
    “retention,” wherein the voters simply decide whether to retain the judge or to remove him
    or her from office. The campaign conduct of judicial candidates is governed by the
    Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct, which is a body of regulations promulgated by the
    Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In turn, the Pennsylvania Board of Judicial Conduct
    (“Judicial Conduct Board”) receives and investigates complaints regarding the campaign
    activities of sitting judges. If it decides that there is probable cause, the Judicial Conduct
    Board may file charges and prosecute the individual before the Pennsylvania Court of
    Judicial Discipline. In addition, lawyers running for judicial office are required to comply
    with the applicable Canons and are subject to regulation and possible prosecution by the
    Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary Counsel (“ODC”) before the Disciplinary Board of
    the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
           Democracy Rising is a non-partisan organization with a stated mission of enhancing
    the transparency of the Commonwealth’s elected government. Potts serves as the
    president of this organization. Between January and March of 2007, Plaintiffs designed
    and distributed a questionnaire to every candidate for judicial election and retention in the
           At this point in time, Canon 7B(1)(c) prohibited judicial candidates from, among
    other things, “mak[ing] statements that commit or appear to commit the candidates with
    respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.” Pa. Code
    of Jud. Conduct Canon 7B(1)(c) (2007). This part of the Canon has generally been
    referred to as the “Commits Clause.”
           According to Plaintiffs, several candidates indicated a desire and willingness to
    answer the questionnaire but refused to do so. At least some of these candidates expressly
    relied on the Canon and its specific “Commits Clause” as justifications for their refusal.
           Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint and a motion to enjoin on May 10, 2007,
    shortly before the primary election. They named as Defendants the individual members of
    the Judicial Conduct Board as well as Paul J. Killion, who serves as the Chief Disciplinary
    Counsel of the ODC. The District Court held a hearing on the preliminary injunction
    motion on May 14, 2007. On the same day, the United States District Court for the
    Eastern District of Pennsylvania entered an injunctive order in Pennsylvania Family
    Institute, Inc. v. Celluci, E.D. Pa. Civil Action No. 07-1707 (“PFI”). This order
    preliminarily enjoined the defendants in that case from, inter alia, enforcing the “Commits
    Clause” of Canon 7B(1)(c). See Pa. Family Inst., Inc. v. Celluci, 
    489 F. Supp. 2d 447
    , 460
    (E.D. Pa. 2007) (“PFI I”). Because the preliminary injunction in the PFI litigation
    concerned the same provision challenged in this case, the District Court granted
    Defendants’ motion to stay the instant matter on July 12, 2007.
           On October 16, 2007, the PFI court granted the defendants’ motion for summary
    judgment and vacated the preliminary injunction. See Pa. Family Inst., Inc. v. Celluci, 
    521 F. Supp. 2d 351
    , 388 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (“PFI II). It found that Canon 7B(1)(c) was
    constitutional both facially and as applied, but it did so only after, among other things,
    accepting the defendants’ narrow construction of the “Commits Clause” and specifically
    deleting the unconstitutional “appear to commit” language from the Canon itself. Id. at
    372-87. The PFI court further clarified the meaning and effect of its narrow construction
    by adopting in full the affidavit submitted by Joseph A. Massa, Jr., the Chief Counsel for
    the Judicial Conduct Board. Id. at 381-82.
           It is uncontested that, on or about March 17, 2008, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    amended Canon 7B(1)(c) by deleting the “appear to commit” language. The revised
    Canon now prohibits candidates from making “statements that commit the candidate with
    respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.” Pa. Code
    of Jud. Conduct Canon 7B(1)(c) (2009) (amended Mar. 17, 2008). It appears that the
    Judicial Conduct Board’s website continued to include the previous version of the Canon,
    at least until the December 2009 filing of Plaintiffs’ appellate brief brought this oversight
    to the Defendants’ attention. According to Defendants, Pennsylvania Rules of Court,
    including the Code of Judicial Conduct, are officially published in the Pennsylvania
    Bulletin, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order amending the Canon is available
    through the judicial website.
           The District Court reopened this case on April 7, 2008. Plaintiffs then filed a
    second amended complaint, in which they argued, among other things, that: (1) the ruling
    in PFI II was wrong on its face and should not be followed by the District Court; (2) “the
    Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent minor amendment” omitted an explanatory
    comment disclosing the binding representations made in the PFI litigation and otherwise
    failed to consider the additional unconstitutional components of the challenged Canon not
    addressed by the PFI court; and (3) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “desires to maintain
    an ambiguous ethics rule to discourage judicial candidates from answering questions
    during political campaigns – a policy advanced by the recent minor amendment to the
    challenged canon without an accompanying explanatory comment to publicly disclose
    alleged binding representations.” (A44.) Defendants moved to dismiss.
        The District Court granted the motion to dismiss in an order entered on March 20,
    2009. It provided a thorough explanation for this result in an accompanying
    memorandum. In short, the District Court found that: (1) the prospective claims
    requesting injunctive and declaratory relief must be dismissed for want of Article III
    standing because Plaintiffs failed to satisfy the “willing speaker” rule with respect to the
    amended Canon; (2) this lack of standing required the District Court to dismiss the
    prospective claims and rendered any further discussion superfluous; and (3) even if
    Plaintiffs otherwise possessed the standing to seek prospective relief, such claims must
    still be dismissed on ripeness grounds due to the absence of any official interpretation
    indicating that the amended “Commits Clause” prohibits the speech sought by Plaintiffs’
    questionnaire as well as Plaintiffs’ failure to establish the existence of a willing speaker
    with respect to this amended Canon.1
          Although it also found that Plaintiffs’ claims for compensatory relief were in fact
    justiciable, the District Court nevertheless dismissed these claims as barred by either the
    Eleventh Amendment or the doctrine of qualified immunity.
           Setting aside the justiciability doctrines, it is undisputed that the District Court
    possessed subject matter jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. We
    have appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The District Court found that
    Defendants made a “facial” attack on the jurisdictional sufficiency of Plaintiffs’ pleading
    pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Under this framework, a district
    court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true and determine whether they are
    sufficient to invoke its jurisdiction. See, e.g., Common Cause of Pa. v. Pennsylvania, 
    558 F.3d 249
    , 257 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 
    130 S. Ct. 1015
     (2009). We in turn exercise de novo
    review over a Rule 12(b)(1) dismissal. See, e.g., id.
           Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Republican Party of
    Minnesota v. White, 
    536 U.S. 765
     (2002), organizations like Democracy Rising and others
    have filed cases across the country challenging the constitutionality of state restrictions on
    the speech of judicial candidates. See, e.g., Pa. Family Inst., Inc. v. Black, 
    489 F.3d 156
    163 (3d Cir. 2007) (per curiam). In addition to the underlying constitutional issues, such
    proceedings often raise serious justiciability problems. See, e.g., id. at 163-64. This
    current case is not an exception.
           This Court has considered the relevant case law, the District Court’s ruling, the
    record on appeal, and the numerous assertions of the parties themselves. In the end, we
    conclude that Plaintiffs’ claims for prospective relief 2 were properly dismissed pursuant to
    the doctrines of mootness and ripeness.3 Therefore, like the District Court, we need not
    (and do not) consider the merits of Plaintiffs’ attack on the constitutionality of Canon
    7B(1)(c) at this time.
            The speech restrictions at issue here apply to the judicial candidates themselves and
    not to the Plaintiffs. Accordingly, the District Court appropriately turned to the “willing
    speaker” rule in its standing and ripeness analysis. It appears well established that, “where
    one enjoys the right to speak, others hold a ‘reciprocal right to receive’ that speech, which
    ‘may be asserted’ in court.” Black, 489 F.3d at 165 (quoting Va. State Bd. of Pharm. v.
    Va. Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 
    425 U.S. 748
    , 757 (1976)). In a recent case
    addressing a First Amendment challenge to Pennsylvania’s judicial canons and rules, we
    held that the plaintiff must satisfy a “but for” test in order to benefit from the “willing
    speaker” rule: “As noted, there may be other reasons present but, reading the Supreme
    Court’s cases together with our own, we hold that in order to show the existence of a
         Plaintiffs do not challenge on appeal the District Court’s dismissal of their non-
    prospective claims on Eleventh Amendment and qualified immunity grounds.
          The District Court expressly found that the prospective claims must be dismissed on
    standing and ripeness grounds. However, it refrained from considering whether such
    claims were moot. Under the circumstances, this Court finds that the doctrines of
    mootness and ripeness provide the appropriate framework for resolving this appeal. See,
    e.g., Nicini v. Morra, 
    212 F.3d 798
    , 805 (3d Cir. 2000) (“We may affirm the District
    Court on any grounds supported by the record.” (citing Hedges v. Musco, 
    204 F.3d 109
    116 (3d Cir. 2000))). Nevertheless, the District Court’s reasoning with respect to
    standing, especially its application of the “willing speaker” concept, has relevance in the
    mootness inquiry.
    willing speaker for the purposes of establishing third party standing, a party must at least
    demonstrate that but for a regulation, a speaker subject to it would be willing to speak.”
    Id. at 167.
           Likewise, “‘[t]the central question of all mootness problems is whether changes in
    circumstances that prevailed at the beginning of the litigation have forestalled any
    occasion for meaningful relief.’” Am. Bird Conservancy v. Kempthorne, 
    559 F.3d 184
    188 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting In re Surrick, 
    338 F.3d 224
    , 230 (3d Cir. 2003)). In
    particular, an amendment eliminating those aspects of a regulation challenged in the
    litigation actually moots the claims for relief in certain circumstances. See, e.g., Nextel W.
    Corp. v. Unity Twp., 
    282 F.3d 257
    , 261-62 (3d Cir. 2002). On the other hand, the ripeness
    doctrine is designed to prevent a plaintiff from prematurely litigating a case. See, e.g.,
    Khodara Envtl., Inc. v. Blakey, 
    376 F.3d 187
    , 196 (3d Cir. 2004). The doctrine generally
    requires the court to consider such factors as whether the parties are in a sufficiently
    adversarial posture, whether the facts of the case are sufficiently developed to permit the
    court to resolve the matter in a conclusive fashion, and whether the plaintiff is sufficiently
    aggrieved so as to avoid the expenditure of scarce judicial resources on matters that have
    caused no real harm. See, e.g., id. The District Court in turn expressly recognized that
    First Amendment cases require some relaxation of the general ripeness standard..
           Rejecting the contrary arguments raised by Plaintiffs on appeal, this Court finds that
    events that have occurred since this litigation was originally filed in the District Court
    have clearly mooted Plaintiffs’ claims for prospective relief. On October 16, 2007, the
    PFI court narrowly construed the “Commits Clause” contained in Canon 7B(1)(c),
    specifically eliminating the “appear to commit” language as unconstitutional. PFI II, 521
    F. Supp. 2d at 372-87. In turn, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court formally deleted this
    problematic language on or about March 17, 2008. Instead of treating these events as at
    least a substantial victory in their favor, Plaintiffs have, inter alia, vigorously attacked the
    PFI court’s reasoning, the amended Canon, and the actions (and even the motives) of
    Defendants and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. While Plaintiffs especially take issue
    with the failure to incorporate the Massa affidavit into the amendment in some formal way
    (such as in an explanatory note), we note that, among other things, Defendants themselves
    indicate in their appellate brief that they remain bound by this affidavit. In any case, we
    must dismiss the claims as moot because of the clear absence of any judicial candidate
    who would have been willing to speak but for the amended Canon. At best, there were
    judicial candidates who indicated a willingness to speak but for the existence of an earlier
    and now defunct version of the Canon. In fact, several of these candidates expressly cited
    or otherwise referred to the since-deleted “appear to commit” language in justifying their
    refusal to answer Plaintiffs’ questionnaire.
           This reasoning further supports the District Court’s alternative finding that the
    claims were not yet ripe. Citing to its earlier decision in Black, the District Court properly
    observed that Plaintiffs failed to present any evidence suggesting that a Pennsylvania court
    or agency has interpreted the current “Commits Clause” to prohibit the speech it sought in
    the questionnaire. It did recognize that this Court previously stated that, “had [the
    plaintiff] established the existence of a willing speaker, the underlying challenge to the
    Canons and Rules themselves as having a chilling effect on speech would have been ripe.”
    Black, 489 F.3d at 170. Nevertheless, it is clear that Plaintiffs here failed to establish the
    existence of a willing speaker with respect to the Amended Canon.
           For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s order of dismissal.