FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Quick Prognostication

Posted in Clairvoyance, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on August 13, 2010

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog explains why he believes Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal will be named the official Solicitor General.  I agree with his analysis, but want to extrapolate a bit more: Katyal will be named SG with the specific purpose of priming him for a Supreme Court seat.

Now here comes my march of the “ifs”:

The said seat will not be open for quite some time.  Justice Ginsburg, likely the next justice to retire, has no plans to do so for at least another five years.  Assuming that Ginsburg remains healthy and that President Obama wins reelection, I also assume that Obama would replace Justice Ginsburg with a woman.

Whether or not Ginsburg proves to be the final retirement under Obama, if Katyal wants to leave the SG’s office before another Court vacancy, then I expect he will be nominated to a federal court of appeal.  Doing so will bolster his position as a future SCOTUS nominee, even if Justice Kagan’s nomination straight from the SG’s office has proven federal judgeships unnecessary for a nominee’s confirmation.

If a fourth vacancy comes up before the 2016 election, then Katyal will be the pick.  By age and political allegiance, Justice Breyer would be the most likely justice to voluntarily leave the bench during the Obama administration, especially if the country’s in a Republican mood leading into 2016.  Doing so would leave room for Katyal, Breyer’s former clerk, to be a reliable successor while also becoming the Court’s first Indian-American justice.

Further, if there is no fourth vacancy under Obama and a Republican becomes president in 2016, Katyal, who is now only 40 years old, will be able to spend eight years building his reputation as a judge and still be young enough for a nomination in 2024.  Then again, by 2024, Clarence Thomas would be the oldest justice at 76–hardly retirement age for justices these days.

So instead, Katyal’s placement as SG with an eye towards SCOTUS relies on the biggest “if” of all: the departure of Justice Scalia or Kennedy a) during a Democratic administration and b) before the retirement of Justice Breyer.  This comes loaded with all sorts of assumptions, the most reasonable being a Democratic presidency beyond 2016–itself a far from a reasonable assumption.  That said, in such an instance, Katyal could be the all-around perfect pick to thwart the full-on thermonuclear confirmation war expected to occur should either Scalia or Kennedy leave their seat–and the Court’s ideological balance–in Democratic hands.

Goldstein’s explanation of Katyal’s credibility from both the left and the right could serve just as well for a SCOTUS nomination as it does for an SG appointment:

Katyal is the Acting Solicitor General, having served as the Principal Deputy Solicitor General throughout the Administration.  In the Clinton Administration, he served as National Security Advisor in the Department of Justice.  He then was a very well known academic (focusing on national security questions) who also practiced before the Court.  He was among a handful of lawyers who formed an advisory body to Barack Obama during the campaign.  Katyal’s work before the Court was very highly regarded, including his victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.  (Another disclosure, I was co-counsel inHamdan, but my role was relatively minor.)  Katyal’s reputation has been sterling, both within the Office of Solicitor General and in his interactions with the broader Department of Justice and the government generally. [...]

Katyal has broad support in the Republican legal establishment that should smooth the confirmation process.  My intuition when I decided to write this piece was actually the opposite:  that Katyal’s representation of Hamdan would present an obstacle to his nomination and confirmation.  (Verrilli has somewhat similar issues, given that (like me) in private practice he generally appeared on the left-leaning side of cases.) But it turns out that conservatives have recognized that Katyal’s role in Hamdan was entirely appropriate and that he has an exceptionally strong record on national security questions.  He not only worked on national security issues for the government prior to Hamdan, but as an academic supported the use of national security courts (with Jack Goldsmith), and he subsequently represented the Obama Administration in successfully arguing against both the challenge to rendition in the Arar case and the claim that habeas corpus rights should be extended to detainees held at Bagram Air Force Base (drawing criticism from the left and the New York Times editorial page).  For conservatives rejecting criticism of Katyal’s work in Hamdan, see this piece by the Wall Street Journal editorial page; this piece by Reagan Solicitor General Charles Fried; and these articles quoting Ted Olsonand Richard Epstein.

Barring an actual conservative nominee or an indefinite hold on any nominee until the Republicans take back the White House, Katyal could be the best, most palatable nominee the Republicans could hope for from a Democratic administration.

Of course, a lot happens between election years and Supreme Court vacancies.  Nominations themselves are entirely dependent upon political timing.  But I would be surprised if the White House hasn’t discussed the very scenarios I outline above when talking about Katyal.

Obscenity: One More Shot in February

Posted in Clairvoyance by Mike Sacks on August 13, 2010

Thanks to a mistrial at the Ninth Circuit in 2008, there may be one more chance for a nationwide thawing of the Court’s nearly forty-year-old obscenity jurisprudence.

The government’s prosecution of Ira Isaacs in 2008 centered around Isaacs’s distribution of bestial and scatological pornography.  But in June of that year, as the trial was pending, the LA Times reported that Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation as the district court judge for Isaacs’s case, maintained a porn server of sorts on his computer.  Although the content on Kozinski’s server was a far cry from the extreme nature of Isaacs’s material on trial (NSFW), the public controversy compelled Kozinski to declare a mistrial.

The Isaacs case is now set for a February 2011 trial in the Central District of California.  But the legal landscape for obscenity has changed since 2008 in a way that makes Supreme Court review of this case far more likely than it would have been had no mistrial been declared in the first place.

As Rhett Pardon of XBIZ Newswire reported yesterday:

The introduction of national community standards were put in play after an appeals panel last year found it more logical for obscenity prosecutions.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a CAN-SPAM case — U.S. vs. Kilbride, 584 F. 3d 1240(9th Cir. 2009) — that a national community standard to define Internet obscenity is more appropriate than a local one.

Attorney Roger Jon Diamond, Isaacs’ attorney, said that it’s to his advantage to be open to a national community standard using the Miller test, despite the fact that local community standards of the Central District of California would be beneficial.

U.S. prosecutors are advocating a local community standards instruction.

Isaacs was charged with two counts of using a common carrier and interactive computer service for interstate commerce in obscene films.

“Because the videos were from the Central District, you are looking at jurors from the Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties who typically are liberally minded,” Diamond told XBIZ.

But Diamond noted that using a national community standards could create a legal maneuver that could benefit Isaacs.

“If the government were to press for a national community standard, they might have a problem finding an expert witness on the matter, because there are none,” he said. “And we could move for a dismissal.”

Some months ago, I wrote about the circuit split created when the Eleventh Circuit refused to follow the Ninth Circuit away from local community standards, and suggested that this split made the issue ripe for Supreme Court review.  No party, however, petitioned the Court over either judgment.  Then, in a case in the D.C. District Court this summer, a deeper split looked possible–the judge had refused to follow Kilbride in a published denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss [693 F.Supp.2d 25]–but the judge ultimately threw the case out before it went to the jury.

Isaacs’s case, then, may be the last Bush-era obscenity prosecution that can lead to a relaxation of the Court’s 1973 Miller test to determine what speech may be classified criminally obscene and therefore left unprotected by the First Amendment.  Although it is not entirely clear whether Kilbride will govern the Isaacs case–Kilbride applied only to Internet obscenity, whereas Isaacs is being prosecuted for Internet and common carrier transmission of obscenity–if the district court decides Kilbride applies to the mails as well as the Internet, then that will be an even stronger blow against Miller than Kilbride itself was.

Still, it’s hard to believe that any jury will not find Isaacs’s movies to be plainly patently offensive and crystal-clear appeals to the prurient interest, whether the jury uses national or local community standards.  To get a sense of the content of the material on trial, just read their titles: “Gang Bang Horse — ‘Pony Sex Game,’” “Mako’s First Time Scat,” “Hollywood Scat Amateurs No. 7.”

In Kilbride, neither the defense nor the prosecution had incentive to appeal: the prosecutors got their conviction (albeit under the federal anti-spam statute rather than anti-obscenity statutes) and the defense successfully chipped away at the Miller test.  In the Isaacs case, however, I see no way Isaacs avoids conviction unless the judge declares obscenity laws altogether unconstitutional or, as in the D.C. trial, throws the case out.  With a conviction comes incentive to appeal.  With an appeal comes a Ninth Circuit judgment affirming, if not broadening, Kilbride‘s deviation from Miller, further reinforcing the circuit split, while upholding Isaacs’s conviction.  And with an affirmation comes a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court asking for reversal by questioning the ability of any community standards, whether national or local, are sufficient First Amendment safeguards against the criminalization of protected speech.

I can’t imagine the current Court bringing all obscenity within First Amendment protection, let alone letting Isaacs walk.  But I can imagine the Court affirming the use of national standards as perfectly clear enough to gain a conviction in line with contemporary standards patently offended by bestiality or scatological porn.  That way, the Court can have it both ways: a more lenient standard of determining obscenity less susceptible to prosecutors’ unjust forum-shopping, but a standard not so lenient as to provoke headlines that the Court sympathizes with peddlers of uber-extreme pornography.

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