FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Greenhouse on the Court and Political Climate

Posted in Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on February 5, 2010

Here’s Linda Greenhouse, the former NYT Supreme Court reporter, interviewed about themes very important here at F1@1F:

JD: In an article you wrote for The New York Times, you say that “the court lives in constant dialogue with other institutions, formal and informal, and that when it strays too far outside the existing political or social consensus, the result is a palpable tension both inside and outside the court.” In what instances have you observed the court straying too far from present social or political consensus?

There was a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that overturned acts of Congress on the ground that Congress didn’t have the constitutional authority to have passed those laws in the first place. I made a big deal about it because I just thought it was really fascinating. There was a pushback against that. Congress pushed back, and the political system pushed back. The court stopped doing it. They tended to be very technical decisions, but subgroups of the population were very interested. That maybe was an instance of the court overreaching, that you could call a Federalist revolution. Then, a lot of people cite Roe v. Wade as the court overreaching. That’s not my view in that instance. There was a huge debate going on about abortion at the time, and the court actually had plausible reasons to think that it was following public opinion in Roe.

JD: What was the difference in the political environment surrounding Roe v. Wade and that surrounding a case like Brown. v. Board of Education? What made people think that the court could have been overreaching in Roe, but not in Brown?

Well, of course there can be many reasons. One reason could be that equal protection, which is what Brown is based on, is hard wired into the Constitution, and it’s just a question of, did equal protection mean “separate but equal”? One could have disagreed with Brown, and of course many areas in the South took decades to come around to it, but you couldn’t appropriately argue that it wasn’t the business of the Supreme Court to decide the issue of the rights of black citizens. Of course, the Constitution doesn’t contain the word abortion. So, there’s always the argument that the court was out of line in doing anything about abortion, yay or nay. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about giving the court the right to step into that area. That’s not my personal view, but it certainly distinguishes the Roe controversy from Brown v. Board. [...]

JD: To what extent do you believe that the court has become politicized? How much does public opinion affect the way judges vote?

Well, Barry Friedman wrote a book that’s 682 pages on the subject, called The Will of the People: How Public Opinion Has Influenced the Supreme Court and Shaped the Meaning of the Constitution. But Barry Friedman’s thesis, which I agree with, is not that the court wakes up in the morning, puts its finger in the wind and says, you know, “what’s blowing today?” but that over time, the court tends to situate itself in the mainstream of public opinion and it reflects public opinion, which makes sense, because the justices get on the court through the political process of the president nominating them and the Senate confirming them. And as a part of the government, the court is really limited to its power to persuade, its power to command the respect of the public, which it has succeeded in doing to a remarkable degree over the years. In social science polling, the court is always the most respected arm of government. The court really has been pretty successful in reflecting not necessarily the opinion of the moment, but the tenor of the time, and I think that’s not surprising.

JD: Do you agree with people who say that sometimes the court’s decisions are influenced by liberal media bias?

Well, no, the whole “Greenhouse Effect?” Properly understood, they are referring to me not as an individual but as sort of an embodiment of Eastern liberal media, namely The New York Times. No, I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s certainly true that over time, the court certainly cannot be completely at odds with the American public. I mean, that’s what happened in the Roosevelt court-packing crisis. I hear people speculate that if we were ever to pass a health care bill with a mandate that the court would declare it unconstitutional, but I would be completely shocked if that ever happened, because that would really be a return to the 1930s, where the court was standing in the way of major social legislation that the public had called for. So, I would be extremely surprised if that ever happened again. [F1@1F NOTE: My thoughts exactly.]

JD: In writing of the Supreme Court’s relationship with society, you say, the Supreme Court is often a follower: it ratifies or consolidates change, rather than propelling it, although in the midst of a heated debate about a big case, it can appear otherwise. What do you mean by this?

Well, I think I probably had Roe v. Wade in mind. Abortion reform had been going on for 15 years by the time the court decided Roe, so when people say that historically, the court started it, no, they didn’t. The court doesn’t start much. It can’t, really. Cases reach the court after years of debate. Just look at Proposition 8. It’s coming up ten years after Lawrence v. Texas and five years after the start of same sex marriages in San Francisco City Hall. So, things get to the court only because they have been working their way up through the rest of society, and it’s worth keeping that in mind.


Bookmark and Share

Two Vacancies this Summer?

Posted in Clairvoyance by Mike Sacks on February 4, 2010

ABC’s Ariane de Vogue writes:

Lawyers for President Obama have been working behind the scenes to prepare for the possibility of one, and maybe two Supreme Court vacancies this spring.

Court watchers believe two of the more liberal members of the court, justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could decide to step aside for reasons of age and health. That would give the president his second and third chance to shape his legacy on the Supreme Court.

I do believe Stevens will retire and that Judge Diane Wood will be his nominated successor.  But I deeply question that Ginsburg intends to step down.  As National Law Journal’s Tony Mauro reported a little over a year ago (and, due to a paywall, as conveyed by the WSJ Law Blog):

Not so fast, says Mauro. “If anyone asks you, ‘When is she retiring?’ ” Ginsburg reportedly said at a law clerks’ reunion last June, “tell them I have a great role model in Justice [John Paul] Stevens, who is going strong at age 88.” Ginsburg, 75, would have to sit on the bench until 2021 to match Stevens’s tenure.

However, Ginsburg’s health scares since then, including pancreatic cancer and a spill on an airplane, may have changed her mind.  If so, I submit the following prospects:

After Obama’s firefight with the GOP over the very liberal and quite white Judge Wood, he will send up a moderate/center-left nominee of color. Hence Ward, Katyal, and Koh.

Because Breyer will remain on the bench if Ginsburg retires, there will be no need to fill the “Jewish seat.”  That puts Kagan, Sunstein, and Waxman on the back burner for the third vacancy.  And only Kagan will be young enough to be nominated by then, given the present robustness of the other justices in the over-70 club (Scalia, Kennedy, Breyer).

Patrick is at the bottom because he is running for reelection this year and I believe Obama will choose a black woman before he puts another black man on the Court.  After all, I think Obama himself may be the Court’s third male African-American justice after he leaves office.

—-

UPDATE: Since this writing, I’ve been somewhat disabused of my Harold Koh suggestion.  Let me offer Denny Chin and Goodwin Liu as two other possible Asian-American nominees for when Ginsburg steps down NOT this summer.

Bookmark and Share

SOC: More like me, please!

Posted in Justicespotting by Mike Sacks on January 26, 2010

After attending today’s O’Connor Project conference at Georgetown Law, I am convinced that Justice O’Connor’s aim is to fill the state judiciaries with little Justice O’Connors.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The conference asked, “Will Caperton and Citizens United Change the Way States Pick Judges?”  Panelists fretted over the influence of corporate money in state judicial elections as well as the right balance between a judge’s receptivity to and independence from public opinion and the political climate.  O’Connor’s recommendation of merit selection–a process she helped institute as a state legislator in Arizona–seems a more responsible, insulated hybrid of appointment and election processes.

Indeed, I got the sense that O’Connor believed merit selection would safely yield judges receptive to public opinion…but not too much; and judges independent from politics…but not too much.

On the whole, I find agreeable the idea of a judiciary made up of pragmatists like O’Connor who, as Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick wrote yesterday, possess “a built-in barometer of the public mood.”  Perhaps the tiny dissenter in my head screaming “BUSH V. GORE!  BUSH V. GORE!” can be countered by the understanding that that was the rare case to generate so much heat as to malfunction O’Connor’s barometer.  And really, O’Connor’s vote was consistent with the weary public’s desire for an end to the election’s interminable indecision; her mistake was interpreting that weariness to require the Court to unilaterally declare a winner.

Nevertheless, O’Connor’s own blind spots during her Supreme Court career may yet prove that however a state chooses to balance a judicial candidate’s receptivity and insulation from politics, there will be no perfect reform.  The key is to minimize the variables that will adversely impact the balance.  And for its efforts to do so, the O’Connor Project deserves credit.

For a good write-up of O’Connor’s remarks, see Adam Liptak’s report on the NYT website.

The Post-Partisan Court?

Posted in Anticipation, Weekend Reading by Mike Sacks on January 16, 2010

As F1@1F weekend reading, I am posting below a longer piece–previewed in my first post–that I wrote in early December on the Roberts Court’s seemingly “post-partisan” posture in this new Obama era.

This hypothesis is by no means proven – it is merely culled from observations about the Court’s docket this term as related to its decisions of the previous three terms.  The hypothesis’s true test will come as the Court continues to hand down its decisions.

Please keep your disagreements civil in the comments and keep coming back to F1@1F as the term goes on for follow-up analysis.

Enjoy!

—-

Every year, the Supreme Court hears several cases that inflame public passions, prompting Americans to line up on opposite sides of predictable partisan divides.  The Court from Reagan to Bush II could be counted on to divide 5-4 on most any politically salient subjects such as abortion, affirmative action, separation of church and state, right to die, gay rights, and even the outcome of a Presidential election.  Under the Roberts Court, the American public has come to expect the predictable configuration of justices on hot-button issues: Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia on the Right; Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter (and now, presumably, Sotomayor) on the Left; and Kennedy going to whichever side his peculiar vision of individual liberties happens to fall.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the Obama era: the Court seems to be flirting with post-partisanship. When Chief Justice Roberts stood on the Capitol steps, his fellow justices bundled up behind him, and administered the Oath of Office to Obama, they overlooked the National Mall crammed with more than million freezing onlookers.  The two representatives of their respective branches worked in concert, but not without momentarily tripping over each other’s words.  That scene may prove to be a metaphor for the interaction between our current political and judicial branches.

In the summer of 2007, at the end of the Roberts Court’s first term with both Bush II appointees on the bench, Justice Breyer seethed that “[i]t is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.”  The Supreme Court had taken an aggressively rightward tack on abortionstudent speechschool desegregation, gender discrimination, and campaign finance, enabled by the replacement of arch-moderate Justice O’Connor with the solidly conservative Justice Alito, and given political cover by a sympathetic President and Congress.

The following year found the two wings similarly uncompromising, going tit-for-tat over the war on terror and gun rights, as if to imitate the dynamics between the newly elected Democratic Congress and the legacy-seeking Republican Executive.  In Boumediene v. Bush, Justice Kennedy swung into the liberal camp to pen its final victory over the Bush administration’s detentions and prosecutions of enemy combatants held in Guantanamo.  Justice Scalia, in a vituperative dissent, warned that the five-member majority’s decision to grant habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”

Two weeks later, Scalia triumphantly announced the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which Kennedy provided the fifth conservative vote, striking down D.C.’s handgun ban by defining the Second Amendment as securing an individual right to keep and bear arms.  Justice Stevens, writing on behalf of the four liberals, condemned the majority as the very opposite of “genuine” judicial conservatives: results-driven activists.  Indeed, some Court watchers wondered how the dissenters resisted using Scalia’s inflammatory words in Boumediene against him in their argument for the importance of the myriad gun control laws Heller now called into question.

Fast-forward to this term, which officially began on Monday, October 5.  Although the Court has yet to release any decisions, the high profile cases on its docket reflect the promises and pitfalls of the Obama era’s post-partisan rhetoric.  The Democratic Party, now controlling Congress and the Presidency, is struggling to reconcile the realities of big-tent governance with the demands of competing grassroots ideals.  Meanwhile, United States v. Stevens, which the Court heard in early October, pits liberal values against liberal values in a contest between free expression and animal rights.  And as the Republicans decide which bits of right-wing ideology to embrace or reject as they rebuild from the rubble of 2008, conservative concerns collided at the Court in early December’s Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, when the Court considered whether to abandon principles of federalism in favor of property rights.  Finally, Obama’s overtures to his opponents in pursuing his agenda have their analogue in the Court’s blockbuster of the term: McDonald v. City of Chicago may very well result in a political quid pro quo in which the conservative Heller majority can extend its interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states by breathing new life into a clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that could strengthen constitutional protection for liberal causes.

Of course, these three cases may not be so indicative of a new day rising at the Court.  Justice Kennedy’s vote remains the putative fifth vote in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, which questions whether the life imprisonment without parole of a juvenile for a non-homicidal crime violates the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and in Free Enterprise Fund and Beckstead and Watts, LLP v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which could find the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s creation of the PCAOB in violation of separation of powers principles.

However, whereas recent history augurs a Kennedy-penned liberal win in Graham and Sullivan, the Court showed only last term in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Eric Holder, Jr, Attorney General, et al. (NAMUDNO) that it is willing to stop short of the type of ideologically-driven holding that Free Enterprise could bring.  When the Court agreed to hear NAMUDNO, political liberals quivered in fear.  At issue was the constitutionality of Congress’s 2002 vote to extend for another twenty-five years Section Five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required districts with histories of voting rights violations to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department for any changes in a covered district’s election procedures.  NAMUDNO presented the conservative justices with its most sweeping opportunity yet to declare the work of the Civil Rights era complete and more fully institute colorblind law.  This was, after all, the same Roberts Court that closed its 2006 term with a 5-4 decision that cited Brown v. Board of Education, the legendary case from 1954 that struck down public school segregation, to hold unconstitutional voluntary, race-conscious public school re-integration programs.

Yet the Court shocked observers when it handed down an 8-1 decision upholding Section Five’s constitutionality.  Chief Justice Roberts, the same man who three years earlier refused a remedy for de facto segregation by stating that “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” stopped short in his NAMUDNO decision from judicially willing this country’s history of racial discrimination into obsolescence.  Indeed, faced with the magnitude of exercising judicial review—the most powerful tool the Supreme Court wields over its co-equal branches—against a landmark Act of Congress, the conservatives blinked.  Roberts corralled the conservatives and the liberals under his narrow holding while dispatching Justice Thomas to argue in dissent what ostensibly would have been the conservative majority opinion had Roberts not pulled his right-leaning brethren back from the brink of a certain political firestorm.

But why did the justices determine that NAMUDNO, which roared into the Court’s docket like a lion, should go out like a lamb?  After all, Roberts seldom before let his oft-professed ideal to guide the Court towards broad consensus and narrow holdings take precedence over his demonstrated commitment to conservative ideology.  The Court, however, is not deaf to public opinion.  The term began with a Republican President and a Democratic majority in Congress; the term ended with a Democratic President and a Democratic supermajority in Congress.  Roberts was well aware that the last Court that mounted active resistance to the dominant political will of the American people and their representatives in government now rests in historical infamy.

In order to further a conservative agenda alongside a Democratic executive and legislature, the Court must jealously protect its legitimacy.  The early Roberts Court’s halcyon days of Republican political dominance is over: the conservative bloc, when Justice Kennedy agrees with them, must pick their battles carefully.  That certainly seemed to be their strategy for last term’s potential conservative victories: by balking on NAMUDNO, the Court had enough political capital for a smaller victory in Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the five-member majority held that New Haven discriminated against white firefighters when the city threw out the results of a promotion exam in which disproportionally less black firefighters qualified.  Meanwhile, as if to tell the liberal wing not to get too optimistic over the NAMUDNO compromise, the Court ordered reargument in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and presented a new question to the parties that suggested that the conservatives were itching to invalidate federal election laws limiting corporate expenditures during Presidential and Congressional campaigns.

The Court’s decision to schedule a rare September hearing for Citizens United made strategic sense for the Court’s conservative wing in a manner that mirrors President Obama’s own sly “post-partisanship.”  Just as the Right does not trust Obama’s overtures as he pursues even moderately liberal policies, neither should the Left be lulled by NAMUDNO or the absence on this term’s official docket of politically resonant Left vs. Right cases that the conservatives are likely to win.  Indeed, even the potential partisan 5-4 cases are muted: juveniles sentenced to life without parole is hardly as galvanizing as challenges to the death penalty, and claims against administrative agencies do not have the same explosiveness as clashes between Congress and the President.  By placing Citizens United among this term’s cases, the Court, intentionally or not, now possesses the political capital where none existed last term for the conservative majority to open the floodgates for corporate cash in campaigns.

Nevertheless, even if our executive and judicial branches are deploying post-partisan strategy for ideological gain, the strategy significantly slows the traumatic political polarization that would—and did—occur when the branches enable or antagonize the other’s agenda without restraint.  I hope to test this hypothesis as the decisions come down this term and beyond…that is, until the Gay Marriage case hits the Supreme Court. Then it’s back to judicial politics as usual.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 114 other followers

%d bloggers like this: