Sotomayor’s Imminent Impact

Posted in Anticipation, Clairvoyance by Mike Sacks on January 4, 2010

The WSJ Law Blog calls its readers’ attention to a New Yorker feature on Justice Sotomayor:

[W]e were delighted to open our digital copies of the New Yorker this week to find a lengthy and wide-ranging article about Sotomayor. The timing, in our minds, couldn’t have been better.

The article, by reporter Lauren Collins, is worth reading for a host of reasons. But for our money, the piece is a standout largely due to the nuance with which it treats its subject. She’s eminently personable, but has already raised eyebrows with her aggressive questioning from the bench. She’s a stickler for preparation, but isn’t averse to letting down her hair as well. She’s a liberal given to quoting the likes of Carol Gilligan, but still rules for the prosecution the vast majority of the time.

To me, the timing couldn’t be better particularly because of this final point.  On Monday–F1@1F’s first, freezing day in line–the Court will hear Briscoe v. Virginia, and Sotomayor could very well be the fifth vote to reverse last year’s 5-4 decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts.

Melendez-Diaz held that the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause requires prosecutors to put forensic analysts on the witness stand rather than simply enter their lab reports into evidence.  Justice Scalia wrote the for the majority, in which he was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg.  Justice Kennedy dissented for himself, Justices Breyer and Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts.  As we all know, Souter has since been replaced by Sotomayor.  Importantly, she is a former prosecutor whose Second Circuit record is friendlier to the prosecution than Justice Souter’s criminal law jurisprudence.

Whereas Scalia and Thomas sometimes find that their originalism incidentally leads them to liberal results, such as in Confrontation Clause cases, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg had long established themselves as friendlier to criminal defendants than to their government prosecutors.   Meanwhile, in Melendez-Diaz, Roberts, Kennedy, and Alito voted for conservative law-and-order principles, but Justice Breyer’s pragmatism led him to contest that Scalia’s holding would be simply too heavy a burden on the system.

For Scalia, his Constitution wins regardless of the practical effects.  But Briscoe addresses the concerns that Scalia ran roughshod over in Melendez-Diaz, suggesting that Scalia’s Confrontation Clause ideals have their limits.  By forcing governments to expensively transport their limited numbers of lab technicians all over the place, Melendez-Diaz could consequentially require the technicians not only to spend more time on the stand than in the lab, but also lead to hairy procedural defaults when a single analyst’s work for different cases comes to trial in several courtrooms at once.

As a trial and circuit judge, Sotomayor exhibited the law-and-order streak and experience-based pragmatism that animated the Melendez-Diaz dissenters. Briscoe is Sotomayor’s first test over whether she will bring her Second Circuit preferences to the Supreme Court.  If she does, Melendez-Diaz will fall after only one year as precedent, even if her eight senior colleagues don’t budge.


Posted in Clairvoyance by Mike Sacks on January 3, 2010

The WaPo has a story this morning about the inevitable lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the health care bill’s individual mandate.  Over at Balkinization, Professor Mark Tushnet reminds his liberal colleagues, whose quotes in the WaPo piece discard the conservative arguments against the mandate, that the law is what five members of the Supreme Court declare it to be.  In Tushnet’s words,

where the stakes are high enough and the political energy is available (to lawyers and judges), at any time the body of legal materials contains enough stuff to support a professionally respectable argument for any legal proposition. So too with the constitutional arguments against the individual mandate. […]

[W]hat the law “is” is what the courts will do in fact, the thing to do is to figure out which side of the argument can count to five first.

Or, put another way, remember Bush v. Gore?

Indeed, some conservative and libertarian legal scholars and practitioners see the health care bill as the best opportunity to restore the “Constitution in Exile“–one eminently protective of private contracts and individual economic rights against government interference–since its banishment in 1937.   A few such scholars were quoted in the WaPo piece.  Since the fall, the Wall Street Journal has opened its op/ed pages to Constitution-in-Exilers who have attacked the health care legislation as patently unconstitutional.

These advocates are banking on the fact that the health care overhaul is so drastic of an expansion of the modern constitutional order–one in which the Commerce Clause protects nearly every economic regulation–as to compel at least five members of the Court to declare once and for all the intellectual bankruptcy of the country’s post-1937 jurisprudence.

Tushnet is right to warn his fellow liberals not to be so sure of the individual mandate’s constitutionality.  And surely there will be members of the Court–Justice Thomas, for one–who will eagerly vote to condemn the mandate.  But per my belief that the Roberts Court has been acutely responsive to the surrounding political climate–see my introductory post below–I do not believe a majority of the Roberts Court will want to take the side of the Tea Partiers and the Tenthers on health care.

Further, Congress’s votes in both chambers did not reflect the broad public support for health care reform.  In Bush v. Gore, the Court’s five-member majority could rely on just about 50% of the population to support its Presidential preference.  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.

Trendspotting: Veteran Criminal Sentencing

Posted in Trendspotting by Mike Sacks on December 31, 2009

The WSJ Law Blog ran a piece today detailing how a “small but growing number of judges say U.S. military veterans should be treated differently from nonveterans when they are sentenced for crimes.”

Surprisingly, the piece does not note that just several weeks ago, the Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for a Korean War veteran sentenced to death in Florida because his lawyer failed to present evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  The Court went on to give lower courts a sharp, suggestive elbowing:

Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did.

Linda Greenhouse, the former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, wrote that while such lenience is honorable, the Court’s empathy may be selectively applied:

Just last month, the same nine justices, also per curiam and also unanimously, sent chills down the spine of death-penalty opponents by overturning a different federal appeals court’s grant of habeas corpus to an Ohio death-row inmate who also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel. The inmate, Robert J. Van Hook, robbed and murdered a man he picked up in a gay bar. He is also a military veteran, but one whose service was terminated because of alcohol and drug abuse. …

[T]he Supreme Court parsed the evidence that was presented and concluded that the lawyer’s decision “not to seek more” fell “well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments.” The American Bar Association standards in effect at the time of trial required no more, the opinion said.

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