FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Cons Want it Both Ways in STBR

Posted in Case Reports, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on June 17, 2010

No Bilski this morning, but Thomas did write the other remaining November case, so Stevens remains the prime candidate for majority author.

The Court did release its opinion in Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  Early in the life of F1@1F, I flagged this case because it pits federalism against property rights, two traditionally conservative causes.  Turns out the Court’s conservative bloc – Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito – found the two concerns, in this case at least, reconcilable.

Scalia announced the opinion of the Court that the Florida Supreme Court did not commit a taking when it approved of an erosion-control plan that the plaintiffs had argued diminished their beachfront property.  On this point, the Court was unanimous.

But Scalia continued, in parts joined only by the conservative bloc, to recognize the concept of a “judicial taking” that the plaintiff-petitioners put to the Court.  In 1994, Scalia had argued for the recognition of the concept that a court’s decision could amount to the government’s taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  It was no surprise, then, that he’d attempt to codify “judicial takings” in STBR.

Without five members signing onto this part of the decision, the true clash of conservative principles will have to wait another day.  Justice Kennedy, for his part, sided with the liberals who today–in fact, all term–were playing the role of the judicially restrained.  In two separate concurrences – Kennedy w/ Sotomayor and Breyer w/ Ginsburg – four justices agreed that this case presented no necessity to address, or even recognize, “judicial takings.”  Stevens, the owner of beachfront Florida property, recused himself from the case.

But at least now we know that property rights mean more than federalism for the members of the Court who traditionally champion both with full force.  What side the liberals will fall upon in the next Bush v. Gore of property rights is less certain, but if we were to combine their positions in Bush v. Gore itself (deferring to a state supreme court on matters of state law) and Kelo v. New London (robust interpretation of the takings clause), then I’d say that federalism will win their votes.  If Sotomayor and Kagan (if confirmed) will vote like their predecessors in this hypothetical future case, then Kennedy, as ever, will prove the deciding vote.

UPDATE: Scalia calls Breyer a woodchuck, Kennedy, Orwellian:

JUSTICE BREYER’s concurrence says that we need nei- ther (1) to decide whether the judiciary can ever effect a taking, nor (2) to establish the standard for determining whether it has done so. See post, at 1–2 (opinion concur- ring in part and concurring in judgment). The second part of this is surely incompatible with JUSTICE BREYER’s conclusion that the “Florida Supreme Court’s decision in this case did not amount to a ‘judicial taking.’” Post, at 3.  One cannot know whether a takings claim is invalid with- out knowing what standard it has failed to meet.6 Which means that JUSTICE BREYER must either (a) grapple with the artificial question of what would constitute a judicial taking if there were such a thing as a judicial taking (reminiscent of the perplexing question how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?), or (b) answer in the negative what he considers to be the “unnecessary” constitutional question whether there is such a thing as a judicial taking.

In any case, our opinion does not trust judges with the relatively small power JUSTICE KENNEDY now objects to. It is we who propose setting aside judicial decisions that take private property; it is he who insists that judges cannot be so limited. Un- der his regime, the citizen whose property has been judi- cially redefined to belong to the State would presumably be given the Orwellian explanation: “The court did not take your property. Because it is neither politically ac- countable nor competent to make such a decision, it can- not take property.”

Scalia then goes on to seize back the mantle of judicial restraint from Kennedy the Usurper, Author of Lawrence:

Finally, we cannot avoid comment upon JUSTICE KENNEDY’s donning of the mantle of judicial restraint— his assertion that it is we, and not he, who would empower the courts and encourage their expropriation of private property. He warns that if judges know that their action is covered by the Takings Clause, they will issue “sweep- ing new rule[s] to adjust the rights of property owners,” comfortable in the knowledge that their innovations will be preserved upon payment by the State. Post, at 6. That is quite impossible. As we have said, if we were to hold that the Florida Supreme Court had effected an uncom- pensated taking in this case, we would not validate the taking by ordering Florida to pay compensation. We would simply reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s judg- ment that the Beach and Shore Preservation Act can be applied to the Members’ property. The power to effect a compensated taking would then reside, where it has al- ways resided, not in the Florida Supreme Court but in the Florida Legislature—which could either provide compen- sation or acquiesce in the invalidity of the offending fea- tures of the Act. Cf. Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U. S. 803, 817–818 (1989). The only realistic incentive that subjection to the Takings Clause might provide to any court would be the incentive to get reversed, which in our experience few judges value.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, however, while dismissive of the Takings Clause, places no other constraints on judicial action. He puts forward some extremely vague applica- tions of Substantive Due Process, and does not even say that they (whatever they are) will for sure apply. (“It is thus natural to read the Due Process Clause as limiting the power of courts to eliminate or change established property rights,” post, at 3; “courts . . . may not have the power to eliminate established property rights by judicial decision,” post, at 4; “the Due Process Clause would likely prevent a State from doing by judicial decree what the Takings Clause forbids it to do by legislative fiat,” post, at 4–5 (internal quotation marks omitted); we must defer applying the Takings Clause until “[i]f and when future cases show that the usual principles, including constitu- tional principles that constrain the judiciary like due process, are somehow inadequate to protect property owners,” post, at 10.)
Moreover, and more importantly, JUSTICE KENNEDY places no constraints whatever upon this Court. Not only does his concurrence only think about applying Substantive Due Process; but because Substantive Due Process is such a wonderfully malleable concept, see, e.g., Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558, 562 (2003) (referring to “liberty of the person both in its spatial and in its more transcendent dimensions”), even a firm commitment to apply it would be a firm commitment to nothing in particular. JUSTICE KENNEDY’s desire to substitute Substantive Due Process for the Takings Clause suggests, and the rest of what he writes confirms, that what holds him back from giving the Takings Clause its natural meaning is not the intrusive- ness of applying it to judicial action, but the definiteness of doing so; not a concern to preserve the powers of the States’ political branches, but a concern to preserve this Court’s discretion to say that property may be taken, or may not be taken, as in the Court’s view the circumstances suggest. We must not say that we are bound by the Con- stitution never to sanction judicial elimination of clearly established property rights. Where the power of this Court is concerned, one must never say never. See, e.g., Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U. S. 267, 302–305 (2004) (plurality opinion); Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U. S. 692, 750–751 (2004) (SCALIA, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). The great attraction of Substantive Due Proc- ess as a substitute for more specific constitutional guaran- tees is that it never means never—because it never means anything precise.
How Scalia’s takedown of Substantive Due Process here will play with the decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago, in which he accepted SDP’s legitimacy over the PI Clause at oral argument, is to be determined.  But he does give hints in STBR on why he thwarted Alan Gura’s argument in McDonald: Gura was gunning, through guns, for a libertarian legal resurrection that Scalia wants to keep buried:
[W]e have held for many years (logically or not) that the “liberties” protected by Substantive Due Process do not include economic liber- ties. See, e.g., Lincoln Fed. Labor Union v. Northwestern Iron & Metal Co., 335 U. S. 525, 536 (1949). JUSTICE KENNEDY’s language (“If a judicial decision . . . eliminates an established property right, the judgment could be set aside as a deprivation of property without due process of law,” post, at 3) propels us back to what is referred to (usually deprecatingly) as “the Lochner era.” See Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S 45, 56–58 (1905). That is a step of much greater novelty, and much more unpredictable effect, than merely applying the Takings Clause to judicial action.

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.

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