FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Scalia Returns to Form, Thomas Sucker Punches Scalia’s Prodigality

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on January 19, 2011

Today’s unanimous decision in NASA v. Nelson–see here for my oral argument recap from October–held that the government has the power to conduct full background checks despite the argument by employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab that parts of those checks violate their right to “informational privacy.”

Writing for six members of the Court, Justice Alito refused to address whether such a right actually exists, and instead assumed its existence for the sake of rejecting its application to the JPL employees’ claims.  Justices Scalia and Thomas, however, refused to go along with this compromise resolution.  Instead, Scalia, in a separate concurrence joined by Thomas, returned to form with a bruising critique of the Court’s “substantive due process” jurisprudence–the very jurisprudence he adopted to extend the Second Amendment to the states in last year’s oral argument and plurality opinion for McDonald v. City of Chicago.

Nevertheless, Justice Thomas wouldn’t let Scalia return to the fold without reminding Scalia of his last year’s prodigality from their bedrock principles.  I’ll let Josh Blackman take it from here:

Scalia’s opinion returns to his usual antagonism towards substantive due process. Not even a single citation to McDonald. No attempt to reconcile his aberrant opinion in the famed gun case. I suppose that McDonald will be the new Gonzales v. Raich, and we should “just get over it.” (that is Scalia’s common refrain when people ask him to reconcile Raich). As recently as last week, Scalia joined a Thomas dissent from denial of cert, other than a footnote that relied on Raich. As I have written at great length, Scalia’s opinion cannot be explained here. His position is at odds with two decades of jurisprudence, and he makes no effort to explain it. While Thomas cites to McDonald, Scalia ignores it. Scalia’s acquiescence to substantive due process in McDonald cannot be reconciled with his animosity towards that “plastic” standard.

Justice Thomas wrote his own curt one paragraph concurring opinion in judgment.

“I agree with JUSTICE SCALIA that the Constitution does not protect a right to informational privacy. Ante, at 1 (opinion concurring in judgment). No provision in the Constitution mentions such a right. Cf. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558, 605–606 (2003) (THOMAS, J., dissent-ing) (“I can find neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a general right of privacy . . .” (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)). And the notion that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is a wellspring ofunenumerated rights against the Federal Government “strains credulity foreven the most casual user of words.” McDonald v. Chi-cago, 561 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (THOMAS, J., concurring inpart and concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 7).

What does Thomas’ concurring opinion add? Thomas focuses on the fact that the due process clause does not protect unenumerated rights, suggesting that it can protect enumerated rights. Perhaps he is trying to provide cover to Scalia, who joined McDonald’s due process opinion. As I have theorized before, because the Second Amendment is actually enumerated, Scalia may find this approach palatable. I find this distinction unpersuasive. As I have argued before, whether the right is enumerated, or unenumerated, the Court still needs to rely on some nebulous notion of liberty. Thomas may be trying to explain Scalia’s opinion, where Scalia would not do so specifically. In my mind, its not effective. Regardless, not even Thomas would accede to relying on the due process clause to protect an enumerated right. To quote my good friend Mike Sacks, this concurring opinion can best be characterized as a “sucker punch.” Ouch.

The standoff continues.

Is the End Near for Affirmative Action?

Posted in Clairvoyance, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on January 18, 2011

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.

The Future is Here

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

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:

Either Justice Alito or Justice Sotomayor has been a part, if not an author, in every one of those opinions, all but one dissents from denials of certiorari.

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.

At Close Range

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on November 2, 2010

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 Pragmatics of Informational Privacy

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on October 5, 2010

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.

An Inspiring Sight for All

Posted in Case Reports, Kagan Nomination, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on July 1, 2010

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.

Appetizers Today, Main Course on Monday

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on June 24, 2010

The Court finished its business today for all but the term’s most high profile cases.  Today’s decisions featured multiple heated concurrences and dissents, setting the mood for Monday’s decisions on major federalism, Second Amendment, and church-and-state cases, as well as a very long-awaited patent case that may fundamentally affect that field’s landscape.

Decided today were a trio of cases testing whether “honest services” statutes are unconstitutionally vague.  Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court in the lead case, Skilling v. United States, defined the scope of the criminal statute to bribery and kickback schemes rather than simply invalidate it.  “Skilling swims against our case law’s current,” she wrote, “which requires us, if we can, to construe, not condemn, Congress’ enactments.”

Justice Scalia, writing for Justices Kennedy and Thomas, dissented on this point, preferring instead to strike down the law instead of “strik[ing] a pose of judicial humility.”  Mocking the majority, Scalia finally introduced virtual shouting into his opinions, making explicit in all-caps the tone in which we’ve long implicitly understood his dissents were to be delivered:

Since the honest-services doctrine “had its genesis” in bribery prosecutions, and since several cases and counsel for Skilling referred to bribery and kickback schemes as “core” or “paradigm” or “typical” examples, or “[t]he most obvious form,” of honest-services fraud, ante, at 43–44 (internal quotation marks omitted), and since two cases and counsel for the Government say that they formed the “vast major­ity,” or “most” or at least “[t]he bulk” of honest-services cases, ante, at 43–44 (internal quotation marks omitted), THEREFORE it must be the case that they are all Congress meant by its reference to the honest-services doctrine.

Ginsburg’s opinion additionally determined that the notoriety of Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, did not deprive him of a fair trial.  On this point, Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Stevens and Breyer.

The Court also decided Doe v. Reed today, holding that disclosure requirements for referendum petitions do not generally violate the First Amendment.  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for an eight-justice majority, refused to strike down Washington State’s Public Records Act on its face, but left open the question of whether the plaintiffs–men and women who signed a petition supporting a ballot referendum to overturn the State’s recognition of benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships–would prevail by challenging the PRA’s constitutionality as specifically applied to their own experiences.

Justice Alito, in a concurrence, emphasized what he saw as the plaintiffs’ “strong argument” in an as-applied challenge, echoing his United States v. Stevens dissent.  As evidence, Alito found that “[t]he widespread harassment and intimidation suffered by supporters of California’s Proposition 8 provides strong support for an as-applied exemption in the present case”–an argument that went down in flames with most of the other justices, most notably Justice Scalia, at oral argument.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, registered a concurrence on the other side of the ledger from Alito:

courts presented with an as-applied challenge to a regulation authorizing the disclosure of referendum petitions should be deeply skeptical of any assertion that the Constitution, which embraces political transparency, compels States to conceal the identity of persons who seek to participate in lawmaking through a state-created referendum process.

Justice Stevens, writing for himself and Justice Breyer, took a similar stance in opposition to Alito’s prediction:

For an as-applied chal- lenge to a law such as the PRA to succeed, there would have to be a significant threat of harassment directed at those who sign the petition that cannot be mitigated by law enforcement measures. Moreover, the character of the law challenged in a referendum does not, in itself, affect the analysis. Debates about tax policy and regula- tion of private property can become just as heated as debates about domestic partnerships. And as a general matter, it is very difficult to show that by later disclosing the names of petition signatories, individuals will be less willing to sign petitions. Just as we have in the past, I would demand strong evidence before concluding that an indirect and speculative chain of events imposes a sub-stantial burden on speech.

Concurring in the judgment, Justice Scalia continued to press for “political courage,” as he had at oral argument, by rejecting the very notion that “the First Amendment accords a right to anonymity in the performance of an act with governmental effect.”  To prove his point, he noted Kentucky’s and Virginia’s early history of viva voce voting, among other examples from American history.  In conclusion, he crescendoes:

Plaintiffs raise concerns that the disclosure of petition signatures may lead to threats and intimidation. Of course nothing prevents the people of Washington from keeping petition signatures secret to avoid that—just as nothing prevented the States from moving to the secret ballot. But there is no constitutional basis for this Court to impose that course upon the States—or to insist (as today’s opinion does) that it can only be avoided by the demonstration of a “sufficiently important governmental interest,” ante, at 7 (internal quotation marks omitted). And it may even be a bad idea to keep petition signatures secret. There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self- governance. Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, cam- paigns anonymously (McIntyre) and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

Justice Thomas was Doe‘s lone dissenter arguing that disclosure requirements are unconstitutional, a space he similarly occupied in Citizens United‘s less-controversial holding.

Into the Weeds

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on April 27, 2010

My oral argument write-up for Monsanto is now up at the ABA Journal:

The Supreme Court today was slated to consider in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms how nigh the organic alfalfa apocalypse must be to justify a federal district court’s nationwide injunction against the use of an agricultural giant’s genetically modified alfalfa seed.

But the Court this morning proved as resistant to the parties’ arguments as Monsanto’s alfalfa is to Roundup weed-killer.  Instead of assessing, as expected, what degree of likelihood of environmental harm must be considered in order for a court to issue an injunction under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the justices spent the hour snarling at this case as if it were an unwanted weed growing in the Marble Temple.

Read the rest here.

I’m off to the Court now to be not first for tomorrow morning’s argument in Doe v. Reedthe final argument of the Court’s term and Justice Stevens’s career.  Keep your eye on my twitter feed, where I’ll be updating on the line’s progress through the night.

______ v. Carhart?

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

The New York Times reports that Nebraska has opened up a new front in the abortion wars:

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed a law on Tuesday banning most abortions 20 weeks after conception or later on the theory that a fetus, by that stage in pregnancy, has the capacity to feel pain. The law, which appears nearly certain to set off legal and scientific debates, is the first in the nation to restrict abortions on the basis of fetal pain. [...]

The Nebraska law grew out of a battle over abortion waged in a far different forum. After an abortion opponent killed Dr. George R. Tiller, a leading late-term abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., last year, Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, who sometimes worked with Dr. Tiller, said he would carry on his legacy by performing some later-term abortions in his clinic in Bellevue, Neb.

The Court’s most recent big abortion cases both had Dr. Carhart in the caption.  2000′s Stenberg v. Carhart struck down Nebraska’s partial birth abortion ban by a 5-4 vote, holding that the state law placed an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion because the law had no exception to allow the procedure when the mother’s life or health was threatened by her pregnancy.  The Court changed course in 2007 with Gonzalez v. Carhart. Justice Alito cast the deciding fifth vote to uphold the federal ban on partial birth abortions, whereas his predecessor, Justice O’Connor, provided the fifth vote to strike down Nebraska’s similar law in Stenberg.

The partial birth abortion bans tested the undue burden standard late in a pregnancy, in which the Court in Roe and Casey both recognized the state’s compelling interest in protecting fetal life.  This law is very different:

Lawmakers in Nebraska were outraged at the prospect of becoming, in the words of one of the state’s leading anti-abortion groups, the next “late-term abortion capital of the Midwest.” Early Tuesday, the state’s nonpartisan unicameral legislature passed the new measure overwhelmingly, 44 to 5. [...]

The law, which is to take effect Oct. 15, restricts abortion in Nebraska on several fronts. It will forbid abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation. The law it replaces, similar to those in many other states, banned abortions after a fetus reaches viability, or can survive outside the womb. This is determined case by case but is generally considered to come around 22 weeks at the earliest.

The new law grants exceptions only in cases of medical emergency, the pregnant woman’s imminent death, or a serious risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function,” a provision experts interpreted as an effort to exclude an exception based on a woman’s mental health.

Casey‘s undue burden standard is the strictest for abortion regulations before the fetus is viable.  By banning abortions of fetuses starting at twenty weeks old, Nebraska’s new law seeks to set a new bright line for fetal viability.

If this case gets to the Court as currently composed (assuming Justice Stevens’s successor will vote as he would have voted), Justice Kennedy will, as ever, be the deciding vote.  Although he voted in both Stenberg and Gonzales to uphold the partial birth abortion bans, his vote is less certain for this law.  A total ban on abortions of arguably pre-viable fetuses when the state’s regulatory power under Casey is at its nadir is very different from what Kennedy saw in Gonzales as a narrow ban on a particular abortion procedure that was performed when the state’s regulatory power under Casey was at its apex.

Further, if Casey did anything for an instinctual abortion foe such as Kennedy, it was to demolish Roe‘s rigid trimester framework and erect in its place a more fluid, regulation-friendly, assessment based upon fetal viability.  The new Nebraska law puts back in place Roe‘s rigidity, even as it cuts away at the abortion right.  In doing so, the law invites the Court’s steadfast abortion foes to keep approving of each states’ moving the viability goalposts ever closer to conception, thereby eviscerating the appeal of bright line rules while making a mockery of the serious viability assessments required under Casey.

Finally, one must not forget that Justice Kennedy will have the weight of Casey upon him as the sole remaining member of its majority of himself and Justices O’Connor, Souter, Stevens, and Blackmun. It is doubtful that Kennedy, a man very aware of his unique place on the Court, would vote to uphold a law that strikes at the very core of his career’s most courageous stand.

A Difficult Case, Indeed

Posted in Case Reports by Mike Sacks on February 23, 2010

This report is cross-posted at the ABA Journal’s website.  Read here, read there, comment and share everywhere!

Early in this morning’s oral argument in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, Justice Anthony Kennedy plainly remarked, “this is a difficult case for me.”  The issue was whether a 1996 federal law banning “material support” to designated terrorist organizations infringed on the First Amendment rights of a group seeking to train Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Sri Lanka’s now-defeated Tamil Tigers in international law advocacy and peacemaking.

But Kennedy’s pondering the disputed law’s ephemeral distinction between proscribable conduct and protected speech appeared to come to an abrupt halt when Solicitor General Elena Kagan conceded to Justice Kennedy that the law could ban lawyers from submitting amicus briefs on behalf of designated terrorist organizations.  Here was the government telling attorneys who they could and could not represent in a court of law–not a winning argument before a tribunal of, well, attorneys.

The Court’s liberal bloc–Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor–had already displayed their skepticism towards the government’s asserted ability to criminalize speech meant to assist a terrorist organization’s legal activities.  Sotomayor even suggested that “[u]nder the definition of this statute, teaching these members to play the harmonica would be unlawful.”

In response Kagan quipped, “I think the first thing I would say is there are not a whole lot of people going around trying to teach Al-Qaeda how to play harmonicas.”  Justice Antonin Scalia, the lone vocal supporter of the government’s argument, saved the Court further talk of harmonicas by shoving Sotomayor’s hypothetical into an absurd vision of chief 9/11 hijacker “Mohammed Atta and his harmonica quartet” touring the country to “make a lot of money.”

Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas just this week marked his streak of silence’s fourth anniversary, but one could assume he’d ally with Scalia in this case, given his previous willingness to prohibit intensely disfavored expressive activity by casting it as pure conduct.

If Kagan’s amicus-ban assertion seemed to crystallize for Kennedy the infirmity of the law in question, Justice Alito may have fallen off the government’s wagon when Kagan explained that Congress did not intend to criminalize one’s meeting with or joining a designated terrorist organization.  Queried Alito:

Could you explain how someone could be a member of one of these organizations without providing a service to the organization? Simply by lending one’s name as a member; that might be regarded as a service. If you attended a meeting and you helped to arrange the chairs in advance or clean up afterwards, you would be providing a service to the organization.

However, Alito may have asked this question simply to get Kagan to walk back her distinction between simple membership and criminal service-providing so that he could more easily side with the government.  After all, he was the sole supporter of the government’s position in United States v. Stevens, in which the Court is likely to rule a federal ban on depictions of animal cruelty to be an unconstitutionally overbroad restriction on speech.  But walk it back Kagan did not.

Even if Alito still finds a way to join Scalia, even if the loquacious Kennedy forgets that lawyers may be silenced, and even if silent Thomas sides at conference with Sotomayor, Chief Justice Roberts signaled an openness to killing the law as applied to HLP.  That is, as long as the Court got no government blood on its hands.

During HLP counsel David D. Cole‘s rebuttal, Roberts asked, “why don’t we remand it to the lower courts to apply strict scrutiny if we agree with you that” the law does, in fact, prohibit pure speech as opposed to conduct that incidentally touches speech?

Cole quickly endorsed this plan, knowing that strict scrutiny is nearly always “strict in theory, but fatal in fact.”

But just as soon as Chief Justice Roberts offered up a pleasing resolution for this “difficult” case, Justice Sotomayor jumped in to close the morning with the argument that if money is speech–as the Court strongly affirmed in Citizens United–then Congress could have been onto something after all when it found that money is so fungible that “if you give [terrorist groups] money for legitimate means…it’s going to be syphoned off and used for illegitimate means.”  Such a justification for a ban on money-as-speech, Sotomayor suggested, could be “enough under strict scrutiny or under a lesser standard, reasonable fit standard.”

Perhaps Sotomayor believed this, perhaps she was trying to impress upon her conservative colleagues the duty they owed to HLP if they were to remain fully faithful to the First Amendment principles they forcefully articulated in Citizens United.

Either way, Sotomayor’s mixed signals forced the Court to submit HLP the same way it entered: a difficult case, indeed.

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