The Fifth Circuit has just handed down its opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas upholding UT-Austin’s race-conscious admissions for those not among the auto-admitted top ten percent of their high school classes. I flagged this case some months ago and have been eagerly awaiting its result. In August, I devoted an entire post to the prospect of the Roberts Court granting certiorari to Fisher‘s inevitable petition and, in turn, reversing precedent to rule higher education affirmative action unconstitutional.
Senior Judge Patrick Higginbotham‘s opinion depends entirely on the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for herself and the Court’s liberal bloc, reaffirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education. While Justice Samuel Alito has not faced a higher-ed affirmative action case since arriving on the Court, his vote in 2007’s Parents Involved and his generally conservative voting pattern overall strongly suggest that he will not vote in accord with his predecessor’s opinion in Grutter.
The Fisher decision notably includes Judge Emilio M. Garza‘s 30 page anti-Grutter broadside, more politely labeled as a “special concurrence.” Judge Garza, a Reagan appointee to the district court, a George H.W. Bush appointee to the Fifth Circuit, and a runner-up to Justice Clarence Thomas for Justice Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the Supreme Court in 1991, apparently wrote his special concurrence specifically for the consumption of the current Court’s conservative bloc–including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who dissented in Grutter and concurred in Parents Involved.
Garza’s concurrence in Fisher begins:
Whenever a serious piece of judicial writing strays from fundamental principles of constitutional law, there is usually a portion of such writing where those principles are articulated, but not followed. So it goes in Grutter, where a majority of the Court acknowledged strict scrutiny as the appropriate level of review for race-based preferences in university admissions, but applied a level of scrutiny markedly less demanding. To be specific, race now matters in university admissions, where, if strict judicial scrutiny were properly applied, it should not.
Today, we follow Grutter’s lead in finding that the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions program satisfies the Court’s unique application ofstrict scrutiny in the university admissions context. I concur in the majority opinion, because, despite my belief that Grutter represents a digression in the course of constitutional law, today’s opinion is a faithful, if unfortunate, application of that misstep. The Supreme Court has chosen this erroneous path and only the Court can rectify the error. In the meantime, I write separately to underscore this detour from constitutional first principles.
Justice Kennedy spoke to this very “misstep” in his Grutter dissent, arguing not that affirmative action is unconstitutional, but rather that the majority unlawfully loosened its own strict scrutiny standard for such race-conscious admissions programs. Kennedy’s pivotal position is not lost on Garza, as evidenced in his explicit invocation of the justice:
After finding that racial diversity at the University of Michigan Law School (“Law School”) was a compelling governmental interest, the Court redefined the meaning of narrow tailoring. See Grutter, 539 U.S. at 387 (Kennedy, J., dissenting) (“The Court, however, does not apply strict scrutiny. By trying to say otherwise, it undermines both the test and its own controlling precedents.”); see generally Ian Ayres & Sydney Foster, Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask: Narrow Tailoring After Grutter and Gratz, 85 TEX. L. REV. 517 (2007). The Court replaced narrow tailoring’s conventional “least restrictive means” requirement with a regime that encourages opacity and is incapable of meaningful judicial review under any level of scrutiny.
Ultimately, Garza cites Kennedy five times despite Garza’s own more hardline opposition to affirmative action, which he spells out in conclusion:
My disagreement with Grutter is more fundamental, however. Grutter’s failing, in my view, is not only that it approved an affirmative action plan incapable of strict scrutiny, but more importantly, that it approved the use of race in university admissions as a compelling state interest at all. [...]
Yesterday’s racial discrimination was based on racial preference; today’s racial preference results in racial discrimination. Changing the color of the group discriminated against simply inverts, but does address, the fundamental problem: the Constitution prohibits all forms of government-sponsored racial discrimination. Grutter puts the Supreme Court’s imprimatur on such ruinous behavior and ensures that race will continue to be a divisive facet of American life for at least the next two generations. Like the plaintiffs and countless other college applicants denied admission based, in part, on government-sponsored racial discrimination, I await the Court’s return to constitutional first principles.
In so writing, Garza, who could have been the Court’s first Hispanic justice, makes sure to appeal not only to Justice Kennedy, but also to Justices Scalia and Thomas, the latter of whom has been a vocal opponent of affirmative action on and off the bench. Neither Chief Justice Roberts nor Justice Alito have yet voiced their opinions on higher education affirmative action from their perches on the Supreme Court, but Roberts’s concluding aphorism in Parents Involved, which was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, is instructive towards those seeking to divine the two George W. Bush appointees’ votes in Fisher.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice Roberts famously wrote in Parents Involved. Justice Kennedy agreed to disagree with the statement’s simple certitude, filing his own concurrence in the judgment that put forward his more accepting–but still quite restrictive–take on race-conscious government measures. As such, Judge Garza was smart in addressing the Court’s entire conservative bloc in his special concurrence: either way, Grutter‘s days are numbered. Just as Citizens United reversed McConnell v. FEC and Gonzales v. Carhart all but wiped out Stenberg v. Carhart, Fisher will find the Roberts Court once again doing away with an O’Connor-backed, 5-4 precedent by the new 5-4 reality.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: next term is going to be a doozy.
This piece is cross-posted at The CockleBur.
Linda Greenhouse has a compelling Opinionator column today at the New York Times that concludes that Chief Justice Roberts, not Justice Kennedy, may be the key vote in the individual mandate cases that will ultimately come before the Court. Thus continues the Great 2010 F1@1F-Greenhouse Mind-Meld.
Reminding readers that Roberts’s mentor and predecessor, Chief Justice Rehnquist, aborted his own “federalism revolution” in 2003’s Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, Greenhouse goes on to examine Roberts’s own role as the fifth vote to last year’s broad, Breyer-written federalism case, United States v. Comstock. She concludes:
In his decision this week, Judge Hudson also mentioned the Comstock case, endeavoring to show why it didn’t save the statute. In my view, his effort to wish the case away was unpersuasive, but my view is not the one that matters. The view that ultimately may count the most is that of Chief Justice Roberts. As everyone knows, he was once William Rehnquist’s law clerk. So my question, as the health care debate continues on its path to the Supreme Court, is this: When John Roberts thinks about his former boss and mentor, which Rehnquist does he see? The one who started the federalism revolution, or the one who ended it?
Without my gunning for her attention (a/k/a “the Greenhouse Effect) and surely without her looking to F1@1F, Greenhouse and I have been on the same wavelength, absent reference to Rehnquist’s ghost, for nearly a year now.
For any challenge to the health care legislation, at least one of the current Court’s conservatives–my guess is Roberts himself–will recognize that the political moment, at least in terms of an individual mandate for all Americans to have health insurance, is not ripe for restoring the reign of the Constitution in Exile.
John Roberts is an acutely image-conscious chief justice, as watchful and protective of the Supreme Court’s image as he is of his own. I find it almost impossible to believe that this careful student of history would place his court in the same position as the court that has been rewarded with history’s negative judgment for thwarting the early New Deal.
F1@1F in May, post-Comstock:
Of course, Roberts may have simply agreed from the start with Breyer and the liberals. But even if such a thought was ideologically plausible prior to the announcement of Comstock, it just doesn’t make strategic sense for the Chief to entrust the opinion to Breyer. However, if the Chief was in the majority and did assign the opinion to Breyer, it could have been to send a message to those hoping the Court will strike down Obamacare: abandon all hope ye who enter here, for the Roberts Court will not cross the Roosevelt Rubicon.
After Schwarzenegger v. EMA, I’m no longer as confident in Comstock as dispositive of the Chief’s vote on the individual mandate. Before oral argument in EMA, no one could see any daylight between Roberts’s robust First Amendment opinion for the Court in Stevens and the similar violence-as-obscenity facts in EMA, but Roberts made clear from the bench that he believed that Stevens, however sweeping in its language striking down Congress’s ban on depictions of animal cruelty, did not touch the constitutionality of California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors. Accordingly, in the health care cases, Roberts already has a blueprint in Judge Hudson’s decision for distinguishing Comstock away, however apposite Comstock might seem.
Still, history and politics will be sitting like massive gorillas in the room–indeed, every room: chambers, conference, court–when this case finally reaches the Court. Not only would a decision against the mandate mark the Court’s deepest incursion into pre-1937 territory since, well, 1936, but it would also come during a Presidential Election year. A conservative majority ruling against the liberal incumbent’s signature first-term legislation will be an inter-branch collision not seen since, you guessed it, 1936. The decision itself will fast become campaign fodder for Obama to cast the Court as unprincipled political actors hell-bent in their conservative activism to collide with the elected branches and stand athwart the forward march of history screaming “NO!”
How unseemly it all could be.
And let’s not forget that unlike Citizens United, which sat alone on last term’s docket among a bunch of less-than-massive cases, the health care cases may very well reside on the same docket as the Prop 8 case, the University of Texas affirmative action case, the Arizona immigration case, and maybe a Nebraska abortion case. The Court will have to pick its hot button to push in a deeply political moment, and I can’t see the Chief selecting the one that reduces to rubble a cornerstone of modern American jurisprudence.
This morning C-SPAN released a few choice clips from its interview with Justice Kagan in anticipation of its airing the full interview this coming Sunday night. In the above clip, Justice Kagan speaks about her respect for Chief Justice Roberts.
Meanwhile, if you go over to the Supreme Court’s page for this term’s opinions related to orders of the Court, you’ll see this:
This term, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about these two pairings–Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan, Justice Alito and Justice Sotomayor. At oral argument as well as in the few opinions of this term, it has become clear that they are developing doppelgänger demeanors.
Roberts and Kagan conduct themselves like suave assassins, devastating advocates without compromising their gentility. They apprenticed at the feet of the Court’s then arch-partisans–he, Justice Rehnquist; she, Justice Marshall–and now possess those two men’s collegiality without their more prickly public personas. Indeed, Roberts and Kagan, both bred for leadership at Harvard Law, are public creatures: the Chief and the Dean. Firm but polished, one can see these two in twenty years as gracefully grayed totems of conservative and liberal jurisprudence.
Alito and Sotomayor, on the other hand, are their sides’ enforcers. Appearing rough around the edges, they send clear, aggressive messages, often on behalf of their comrades, but sometimes alone on principle. In their self assurance that comes from years of practice in the lower courts, they seem not to have much interest in institutional niceties when the law is disobeyed or justice is disregarded. Both Princeton and Yale Law grads, they took active roles in their institutions’ internal battles over coeducation and affirmative action. Rather than skirt controversy and stay quiet to maintain squeaky clean public records, they took stands over the identity politics of their days that have continued into 21st century America. It is no wonder, then, that Alito and Sotomayor have had no hesitance going on record to dissent from denials of certiorari, even if such opinions were once seen as rare peeks behind the curtain saved only for a justice’s irrepressible outrage.
The massive cases about health care, gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion bubbling up to the Supreme Court in the next few years will mark the final overlap between the old Court and the new: the septuagenarians–Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy, and Breyer–will have as much time remaining in their twilight on the bench as Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan will have spent so far on it. For those cases, we will rightly focus on Justice Kennedy for the bottom-line prognostication and ultimate pronouncements. But we should absolutely save some of our peripheral vision for how our four youngest justices conduct themselves at argument and in print, as those cases will be the crucibles upon which their careers will be characterized for the next generation.
This piece is cross-posted at The CockleBur.
READER DISCRETION ADVISED:
THIS POST IS RATED “M” FOR MATURE.
FOR GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF VIOLENCE AND VISCERA.
First-time lawyers before the Supreme Court invariably comment about the close distance between their lectern and the justices’ bench. How close? For Zackery Morazzini, California’s Supervising Deputy Attorney General and the state’s advocate in this morning’s oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Electronic Merchants Association, this close:
For half an hour, at least six justices appeared to be engaging in their own first-person shooter games, each directing his or her barrel down at Morazzini’s argument that ultra-violent videogames are not protected by the First Amendment. And Morazzini was asking the Court to adopt an unprecedented expansion of its obscenity doctrine beyond its sex-based bounds, putting him so snugly within the justices’ sights that they didn’t even have to take aim to score their fatal shots.
Justice Antonin Scalia pursued Morazzini as if the lawyer had kidnapped the justice’s brother. Like any game that can trace its roots back to Wolfenstein 3D–the father of first-person shooters–Scalia’s pursuit featured increased firepower with every deadly blow. His first line of questions merely exposed the difficulty in cabining the principle behind California’s laws just to video games, setting up Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan each to empty their revolvers: are Grimm’s fairy tales too violent? Comic books? Movies? Rap Music? Bugs Bunny?
From sight unseen leapt Justice Stephen G. Breyer with a flak jacket for Morazzini. If the shooters wanted a line drawn, he’d draw them a line: if the virtual gore is too violent for an 18-year-old, then it’s too violent for all minors, period.
But Breyer’s suggestion came just as Scalia and company were upgrading their weaponry. Kagan stalked Morazzini into a corner, forcing him to admit that juries are responsible for determining what is and isn’t too violent for minors. At this suggestion, Scalia brings out the shotgun: Cold Steel Originalism. With almost caricatured irascibility, Scalia said, “You are asking us to create a — a whole new prohibition which the American people never – never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment.”
At that point, Justice Samuel A. Alito attempted a diversion. “Well,” he said, “I think what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about about video games.” But the two conservative justices will have to save their internecine peppershot over the limits of originalism for the footnotes of this case’s ultimate opinions: pushing through the audience’s laughter–and we all know laughter heals lawyers’ bleeding, bullet-riddled craniums–Scalia insisted, “No, I want to know what James Madison thought about violence.”
Morazzini wasn’t destined to survive this onslaught. Not with Sotomayor pointing a double-barrel point-blank at him, tersely demanding specific dates for specific statutes banning speech. When he had no answer, he might as well have slumped down, lifeless, his skull fragments piercing the wooden bench before him. Instead, Justices Scalia, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg spent the remains of Morazzini’s time gleefully smearing themselves in his splattered bits of brain.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts stayed out of the game for nearly all of Morazzini’s argument. But when Paul Smith of Jenner & Block stepped forward to argue against the California statute, the Chief pressed play. Roberts wrote last term’s 8-1 opinion in United States v. Stevens, in which the Court refused to create a First Amendment carve-out for depictions of animal cruelty. The Chief made clear today, however, that a child’s interactive destruction of virtual human life is far more nefarious than videos of real pit bulls mauling the jaws off of real wild hogs.
To make his point, the Chief lodged an entire clip of heavy metal deep into Smith’s argument that there is no American tradition of legally shielding children from violent expression.
Graphic violence. There is a difference. We do not have a tradition in this country of telling children they should watch people actively hitting schoolgirls over the head with a shovel so they’ll beg with mercy, being merciless and decapitating them, shooting people in the leg so they fall down. I’m reading from the district court description: Pour gasoline over them, set them on fire and urinate on them. We do not have a tradition in this country. We protect children from that. We don’t actively expose them to that.
With Scalia, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan sitting in gore-phoriac stupors from the first half-hour, Alito and Breyer grabbed the weapons and ran at Smith. Alito first took another shot at Scalia’s originalism, then moved on, his voice thick with sarcasm, to “clarify” Smith’s position:
And you say there is no problem because 16-year-olds in California never have $50 available to go buy a video game, and because they never have TVs in their room and their parents are always home watching what they — they do with their video games, and the parents — and the video games have features that allow parents to block access to — to block the playing of violent video games, which can’t be overcome by a computer-savvy California 16-year-old, that’s why there is no problem, right?
Breyer then charged ahead, framing the issue not as one of creating a new category of expression unprotected by the First Amendment, but rather as one of traditional First Amendment analysis, in which the restriction on speech must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest. Breyer’s bayonet caught Smith off-guard and soon Alito and Roberts were stabbing away. Even Sotomayor, now roused, poked at Smith a bit, but her pokes largely served to startle Smith into a tactical concession so that he could return to his stronger defenses.
Ultimately, however, it was Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who lit the match that may, one day, burn this whole damn grindhouse to the ground. The Court’s obscenity jurisprudence, upon which California’s chances live or die, has no place in the First Amendment, however unprotected appeals to the prurient interest may have been in America’s more puritanical past. And Kennedy today took the Court’s first steps towards an outright rejection of its obscenity doctrine since Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas originally warred against its formulation fifty years ago.
The transcript, however, robs Kennedy of his intent so evident to those who watched him on the prowl this morning. For instance, a reader could believe that Kennedy meant to endorse California’s law by repeatedly asking questions such as, “Why shouldn’t violence be treated the same as obscenity?” But these questions were couched in his broader observations that “the Court struggled for many, many years and to some extent is still struggling with obscenity.” These are words of condemnation, not of endorsement. They recognize that Roth‘s edifice has rotted, if it wasn’t rotten from the very start. And if California succeeds in housing its law in a rotten hellhole, so be it: sooner or later, the Court will make ashes of it all.
But Kennedy’s overtures will be left for another year, if any obscenity case ever manages to climb high enough to reach the Court. Today, all that mattered was that more justices killed more of California’s law than they did its challengers.
Indeed, that Morazzini managed to reassemble his skull and its contents for his rebuttal only gave Sotomayor more ammo with which to re-splatter his brains all over the Chief Justice. Said Sotomayor:
So what happens when the character gets maimed, head chopped off and immediately after it happens they spring back to life and they continue their battle. Is that covered by your act? Because they haven’t been maimed and killed forever. Just temporarily.
Just temporarily is right. Until the Court brings obscenity within the First Amendment’s protections, these cases will continue, like zombies and vampires, to rise from the dead, hungry to devour our brains and suck our blood even as we empty them of theirs over and over and over again.
The take-home from this morning’s oral arguments in NASA v. Nelson was simple: when the conservatives don’t buy into the right you’re asserting and your two most likely proponents can’t agree on how to agree with you, then you’re in trouble.
The issue was whether the Ninth Circuit erred in granting 28 employees of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, an injunction, based on a right to “informational privacy,” against the government’s use of open-ended questions as well as queries about drug treatment histories on standard background check forms introduced in 2005.
In the early minutes of oral argument it was apparent that both Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were searching for ways to convince their colleagues to uphold the injunction. Problem was, they clashed over strategy.
Sotomayor was the first to interrupt Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal’s argument with a broad, aggressive attack on the government’s policy.
“Could you ask somebody, what’s your genetic makeup, because we don’t want people with a gene that is predisposed to cancer?” Sotomayor inquired. When Katyal tried to duck the question, she cut to the point: “So what you are saying is, there is no limit?”
Before Katyal could wriggle out of reluctantly agreeing with Sotomayor, Ginsburg jumped in. Having served with the boys on the bench much longer than Sotomayor, she thought a narrower approach necessary to win their votes.
“The only thing that’s in contention there is the question about treatment or counseling. Nothing else. So why are we talking about the universe of questions that might be asked?” It was as if Ginsburg was telling Sotomayor to tone it down for fear of losing the Court’s right flank.
But the conservatives weren’t interested in narrowness or broadness. Not yet. They wanted to know a little more about this right of “informational privacy” thing.
Almost two decades ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the erstwhile savior of unenumerated privacy rights, famously wrote that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This morning, however, Kennedy found the JPL employees’ asserted right to informational privacy troublingly “ill-defined or undefined.”
Kennedy’s comment triggered a series of queries to Katyal, who was unwilling, to the frustration of Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito, to confirm or deny whether such a right exists.
So leave it up to Chief Justice John G. Roberts to successfully execute the bait and switch. With a friendly voice, he asked if the challenged questions about a history of drug counseling were required for the good of the employee. Katyal squarely answered in the affirmative, as if he was answering his former boss, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who appeared this morning entirely sympathetic to such progressive paternalism. Big mistake.
“Whenever the government comes and says, ‘This is for your own good,’ you have to be a little suspicious,” said Roberts, eliciting reflexive laughter from the entire courtroom.
And with that comment, Scalia was left behind derisively grumbling about substantive due process as Alito and Kennedy joined Roberts in attacking on pragmatic grounds half of the Ninth Circuit’s injunction.
If during Katyal’s argument a consensus emerged against the government’s drug counseling history questions, then Pasadena lawyer Dan Stormer’s argument established a majority’s approval of the similarly enjoined open-ended questions.
Stormer maintained that these questions were inappropriate for low-level employees such as snack bar workers or bus drivers who perform no sensitive activities at JPL.
But what if a snack bar worker “has a big sign on his lawn that says, ‘I hope the space shuttle blows up?’” asked Alito in one of his signature absurd hypotheticals. When Stormer conceded that the government should know that information, Alito shot back. If open-ended questions are forbidden, he asked, then how does the government get at that information?
“Do you have to have a specific question on the form?” wondered Alito. One that, say, specifically asks, “Does this individual have a big sign on his front lawn that says, ‘I hope the space shuttle blows up?’”
Alito’s point was as funny as it was devastating.
Among the fourteen cases the Supreme Court added to its docket today, FCC v. AT&T most caught my attention. The case asks whether corporations can claim personhood so to qualify for the Freedom of Information Act’s Exemption 7(C), which exempts from mandatory disclosure records collected for law enforcement purposes when such disclosure could “reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The Third Circuit ruled that because the statute defined “person” as an “individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency,” then corporations were entitled to 7(C)’s “personal privacy” exemption. The FCC’s petition for certiorari, signed by then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan–who will be recused for this case–argued that the Third Circuit’s ruling upset a thirty-five year understanding that the “personal privacy” exemption only applied to individuals.
To bolster their case, the FCC cited then-Professor Scalia’s 1981 testimony before Congress that Exemption 7 did not protect “associational or institutional” privacy from mandatory disclosure upon request.
Although this case will ultimately turn on statutory construction, it still hearkens back to last year’s Citizens United, which established that corporations are legal persons whose independent campaign expenditures cannot be limited under the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
What makes this case even more interesting is that next Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in NASA v. Nelson, which asks whether a government employee has a right to “informational privacy” that allows him to withhold information in government background checks. Specifically at issue is whether an employee, once established he has done drugs, may then refuse to disclose if he has obtained treatment for the drug use. Justice Kagan will also recuse herself in this case.
Informational privacy is hardly a deeply established fundamental right. Even if it were, and if the Court’s conservative bloc embraced it, drug-tinged cases tend to soften the justices’ principles. In Gonzales v. Raich, Justice Scalia voted to approve Congress’s Commerce Clause power to ban the personal cultivation of medical marijuana, despite his earlier votes to restrict the Commerce Clause’s scope and later votes to cabin the power of the Necessary and Proper Clause. And in Morse v. Frederick, Chief Justice Roberts, who takes a largely robust view of the First Amendment, found a high school student’s unfurled banner reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” to be unprotected pro-drug speech under the Court’s First Amendment-for-students doctrines.
In contrast to AT&T, the issue in NASA is not statutory, but constitutional. Further, it is grounded in an individual’s Fifth Amendment Due Process rights, not in one’s First Amendment rights, which was the flashpoint of last year’s corporate personhood contest. Still, if the Court rejects an individual’s right to informational privacy, but embraces a corporation’s ability to withhold information under the personal privacy exemption, expect some commentators’ heads to explode.
Michael Kirkland of UPI wrote yesterday about Fisher v. University of Texas, the affirmative action case currently before the Fifth Circuit. I noted this case in a link at the top of my last post, and had originally gone on to discuss it, but I decided to keep that post focused on the abortion laws in Nebraska. Now’s as good a time as any to continue my thoughts on the hot buttons that may reach the Court in the next election cycle, and how the Court may handle them:
Affirmative action in higher education is the remaining hot-button issue on which Kennedy and O’Connor disagreed, but has yet to be tested since Alito joined the Court. When O’Connor sided with the liberal bloc in determining that the University of Michigan Law School’s race-conscious admissions policy survived strict scrutiny in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, Kennedy dissented.
Although Kennedy is not hostile to affirmative action itself, he believes the Grutter majority watered down the Court’s strict scrutiny standard formulated in Justice Powell’s concurrence in 1977’s Bakke, which approved of a narrowly tailored use of race to achieve the compelling state interest of holistically diverse student bodies in higher education. In other words, Kennedy approved of the use of race, but would give higher-ed affirmative action schemes more searching review than the Grutter majority had demonstrated. As he concluded in his Grutter dissent:
If the Court abdicates its constitutional duty to give strict scrutiny to the use of race in university admissions, it negates my authority to approve the use of race in pursuit of student diversity. The Constitution cannot confer the right to classify on the basis of race even in this special context absent searching judicial review. For these reasons, though I reiterate my approval of giving appropriate consideration to race in this one context, I must dissent in the present case.
Whether or not Kennedy believes that UT’s consideration of race for applicants beneath its top-10% auto-admit program satisfies his application of strict scrutiny, what is certain is that his application of strict scrutiny will supersede Grutter as precedent.
If Kennedy rejects UT’s policy, he will be the limiting agent on the conservative bloc in the Roberts Court’s first foray into higher-ed affirmative action. Dependent on Kennedy for the fifth vote to invalidate UT’s race-conscious admissions policy, the conservative bloc could not go the whole Thomas and strike down all consideration of race. After all, Kennedy, in giving the conservative bloc its fifth vote in 2007’s Parents Involved, refused to sign onto Roberts’s opinion declaring that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This maximalist statement was certainly not only meant for public high school admissions schemes.
Nevertheless, Kennedy’s accepting UT’s policy will have the same constitutional effect as his rejecting it. In any scenario (assigning the majority opinion to himself and strong-arming the liberal bloc into joining him lest he change his vote; assigning the majority opinion to himself and losing his majority, thereby writing for himself in a 4-1-4 decision; assigning the majority opinion to a justice he believes to be simpatico who manages to keep him in the fold; assigning the majority opinion to another justice unwilling to revisit Grutter, compelling Kennedy to write for himself), Kennedy will bury–or, at the very least muddy–Grutter.
The justice to watch, then, will be the Chief. In Parents Involved, he showed his hand. He wrote more aggressively than he had written in Wisconsin Right to Life, in which he refused to follow Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas towards striking down the same provision of the McCain-Feingold Act that he ultimately voted to put out of its misery this past year in Citizens United. By making his antipathy to affirmative action so clear in Parents Involved, then, the Chief does not leave himself the same room to backpedal on affirmative action as he had given himself to press onward with campaign finance.
Yet might he want to cast his lot with Kennedy in Fisher? Roberts’s best case scenario for effectively ending affirmative action is to work with Kennedy to make its scrutiny impossibly restrictive rather than stand on the sidelines calling for affirmative action’s immediate demise. Roberts can better retain control over his Court’s direction by placing himself in the position to put his own stamp on Kennedy-dominated jurisprudence and placing seeds of doubt within the opinion that at present will be within Kennedy’s boundaries but in the future could be used, should the Chief have a majority, to bring upon affirmative action’s demise.
But I don’t think this will happen. I take the Chief’s position in Parents Involved at face value. He will stand firm in his opposition to affirmative action, extending his antagonism to its use in higher education. In doing so, he will be mindful of his own words in his Citizens United concurrence, where he stated that
if adherence to a precedent actually impedes the stable and orderly adjudication of future cases, its stare decisis effect is also diminished. This can happen in a number of circumstances, such as when the precedent’s validity is so hotly contested that it cannot reliably function as a basis for decision in future cases.
Kennedy had hotly contested the Court’s approval of campaign finance restrictions since he had joined the Court, refusing the entire way to give any weight to disagreeable precedent. Ultimately, that resulted in the Court’s overturning not only 2003’s McConnell, the most recent facial affirmation of campaign finance rules, but also 1990’s Austin v. Michigan, the case of original sin for Kennedy and his Citizens United majority.
Having provided the justification for such principled intransigence on disagreeable lines of precedent, Roberts might rather dig his heels in and argue that the problem is not simply Grutter, as Kennedy will suggest, but Grutter‘s very root, Bakke. This position will not prevail with the current court, but if elections work in Roberts’s favor, he will be able to cite his own hot contestation–in which he and Alito will have joined Scalia and Thomas’s decades of protest–in striking down affirmative action well before Justice O’Connor’s suggested 25-year sunset provision in Grutter.
My latest–and final–ABA Journal online column from the Court’s 2009-10 term is now live:
Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s first unabashedly straight answer of her confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court justice came early in her 17 hours of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Ninety minutes into Kagan’s interrogation, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., asked her for her opinion on cameras in the Supreme Court.
“I think it would be a terrific thing to have cameras in the courtroom,” said Kagan (Video). “When you see what happens there, it’s an inspiring sight…It would be a great thing for the court and a great thing for the American people.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, I was sitting inside the court witnessing its final session of the term. Like a dozen times before, I had sat through the night on the pavement outside to be among the few who would catch a glimpse of the inspiring sight to which Kagan, by virtue of her office, had a front row seat all this year.
But on Monday morning, I would have traded all of my own fond memories of new friends made and stories told over the past six months for the whole country to have seen the same moving scenes I saw.
Read the rest here.
Adam Liptak has a great recap of the just-completed 2009 term:
Chief Justice Roberts took control of his court this year, pushing hard on issues of core concern to him, including campaign finance, gun rights and criminal procedure, even as he found common ground with his colleagues on an array of other issues.
He was in the majority 92 percent of the time, more than any other justice. Last year that distinction went to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often regarded as the court’s swing vote.
“More than in any other year since he became chief justice, this has truly become the Roberts court,” said Gregory G. Garre, who served as solicitor general in the administration of George W. Bush and is now at Latham & Watkins.
This analysis is absolutely on point. The intellectual underpinning of F1@1F has been my hypothesis, now apparently proven if the NYT analysis is a reliable source, that this term’s docket largely reflected the Chief Justice’s awareness of the Court’s available political capital to achieve conservative gains beside liberal elected branches. The Court primed itself to move the law where they could and to leave for a later day those that would do more damage to the Court’s institutional legitimacy than their worth to the conservative legal movement.
For newer F1@1F readers, please give this post a read.
Most striking since I wrote the piece has been the Chief Justice’s ability to call upon the sort of “restrained activism,” introduced in NAMUDNO at the end of last term when he limited the scope of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 rather than strike it down as many expected. This term, he has employed and endorsed such legislation from the bench so to get the kinds of politically acceptable results to make some of the Court’s pro-business decisions go down a bit easier. Last week, he joined Justice Ginsburg’s Skilling decision to specifically limit and define federal honest services laws rather than strike them down–as urged by Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas–so not to let Jeff Skilling walk free. Yesterday, in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, the Chief Justice rewrote the Sarbanes-Oxley Act–created in the wake of Skilling’s Enron collapse–to force the Public Company Oversight Accounting Board into his vision of constitutionality rather than strike it down outright.
What we’ve had, as I suggested in the winter, is a Chief Justice that knew–and cared–that the Court had only one huge expenditure available to it, and spent it in Citizens United. The rest of the docket was formed and decided accordingly, with the conservatives taking smaller, more under-the-radar steps while the liberals won what they could.
Whereas Justice Kennedy may be the limiting factor on the hot buttons of abortion and affirmative action, issues as the NYT piece noted were nowhere to be found this term, he’s firmly in the maximalist pro-business camp. And for a Court operating in an economic downturn with Democrats in the political branches all too willing to cast it as the tool of an intemperate Tea Party, the Chief–often joined by Justice Alito–must serve as the prudent captain of his man of war‘s voyage towards economic liberty without crossing the Roosevelt Rubicon.