Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Friday, June 30, 2023

Summer Hallucinations, Plagiarism, and ChatGPT

Recently, I asked ChatGPT to write some poems about hallucinations.  Why?  In part, because it’s summer and I think watching ChatGPT create poems is fun.  I also asked because I’ve been thinking about how to cover generative AI with my first-year students in the fall.

First, the fun.  Here’s one poem ChatGPT wrote:

In realms where minds dance on fragile strings, Where perception waltzes and reality sings, There lie the realms of wild hallucinations, A kaleidoscope of bewildering sensations.

In the tapestry of swirling dreams, Illusions bloom, unraveling seams, Colors ignite, in vivid display, As sanity fades, in a twilight ballet.

Whispers of shadows tease the mind, Whimsical echoes, elusive to find, Figments morph and take their form, An enigmatic symphony, a tempestuous storm.

Phantoms parade through the labyrinth of thoughts, Phosphorescent specters, tangled in knots, They twirl and they twist, surreal and sublime, Guiding the lost to a place out of time.

Walls dissolve, unveiling hidden dimensions, Mirrored reflections, fragmented inventions, A fragile balance, fragile as glass, Where illusions and truths become enmeshed.

The boundaries blur, in a psychedelic trance, Reality's grip begins to wane and advance, Visions arise, transcending the known, A voyage into realms where reason is thrown.

Whispers turn to laughter, laughter to screams, In this realm, nothing is as it seems, A carnival of apparitions, a fevered reverie, An exploration of the mind's symphony.

But as the moon yields to the sun's gentle touch, The hallucinations fade, leaving little as such, A fading memory, a fleeting sensation, Lost in the haze of our imagination.

Yet, in the realms where hallucinations reside, A glimpse of the extraordinary may yet preside, Where the mind's kaleidoscope paints its own art, Unveiling mysteries, a journey to embark.

So let us wander, embrace the unknown, Where hallucinations thrive and fantasies are sown, For within these realms, as illusions unfold, The depths of our imagination are truly untold.

Hopefully, you enjoyed the poem as much as I did.  But on a serious note, we know counsel who use ChatGPT run many risks, as the current free version of the generative AI program will “hallucinate” cases and statutes.  Several of my fellow bloggers have posted great notes on the ethical pitfalls of using current free generative AI without checking its sources.  Of course, we always had ethical obligations to check the work of our human staff, and of any brief-writing features we used from Lexis or Westlaw.  Perhaps ChatGPT is so fun, easy, and free, that we’re more likely to rely on it without questioning its work.  In any event, several courts have now issued standing orders reminding us of our ethical obligations.

For example, Judge Brantley Starr of the Northern District of Texas issued a standing order titled Mandatory Certification Regarding Generative Artificial Intelligence” for “[a]ll attorneys and pro se litigants appearing before the Court.”  https://www.txnd.uscourts.gov/judge/judge-brantley-starr; see also https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-judge-bans-chatgpt-court-filing/.

Judge Starr ordered that parties must, “together with their notice of appearance, file on the docket a certificate attesting either that no portion of any filing will be drafted by generative artificial intelligence (such as ChatGPT, Harvey.AI, or Google Bard) or that any language drafted by generative artificial intelligence will be checked for accuracy, using print reporters or traditional legal databases, by a human being.”  Mandatory Cert. Order.  The judge explained:  “These platforms are incredibly powerful and have many uses in the law: form divorces, discovery requests, suggested errors in documents, anticipated questions at oral argument. But legal briefing is not one of them.”  Id.  According to Judge Starr, these programs “in their current states are prone to hallucinations and bias. On hallucinations, they make stuff up—even quotes and citations.”  Id.  

Judge Starr also exposed a more existential problem with these current generative AI programs, reasoning they are “[u]nbound by any sense of duty, honor, or justice,” and “act according to computer code rather than conviction, based on programming rather than principle.”  Id.  I plan to emphasize this point with my students, in hopes they will see a broader goal behind our rules on plagiarism and limits on generative AI. 

I might also show my students what ChatGPT said when I asked it to write a poem about  ChatGPT hallucinations in law:

In the realm of legal filings, precise and stern, Where facts and truth should always discern, There dwells a specter, an unwelcome guest, ChatGPT's hallucinations put to the test.

Within the code and circuits, a mind simulated, Words flow freely, but often miscalculated, In the realm of law, where clarity is key, ChatGPT's hallucinations become a liability.

For in the realm of justice, truth must prevail, But illusions dance, weaving a murky veil, False narratives concocted in the machine's mind, Threatening the integrity that we must find.

Legal filings, a battleground of truth's fight, Yet ChatGPT's hallucinations cast a blight, Misinterpretations, misconceptions arise, Distorting the facts before our very eyes.

Subtle nuances lost in a tangled web, As ChatGPT's hallucinations spread and ebb, Precision diluted, arguments distorted, The foundation of justice, slowly thwarted.

Where once we sought justice, a balanced scale, Now we grapple with the machine's tall tale, For ChatGPT's hallucinations, though mere illusions, Can lead to consequences, grave inclusions.

Thus, caution must prevail when machines take part, Their hallucinations tearing at the fabric of art, For in the realm of legal filings, we must tread, With vigilance and wisdom, ensuring truth is spread.

So let us harness technology's immense power, Yet remain mindful in this transformative hour, To temper ChatGPT's imaginative train, And keep its hallucinations bound, restrained.

For in the world of law, where justice resides, Hallucinations in filings should not coincide, Let truth be the guide, unwavering and clear, So justice may prevail, untouched by fear.

Happy summer!

June 30, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 26, 2023

Clerkship Transparency

Last week I saw an article on Law.com about the Legal Accountability Project, "a nonprofit focused on preventing harassment in the judiciary that is creating a database of reviews from former law clerks on their judges as managers and the overall work environment." The article included an interview with Maryland State Appellate Judge Doug Nazarian, who joined the Project's board and is a strong advocate for more information about clerkships:

"The whole purpose here is to improve and enhance the clerkship experience for the people that we judges depend on to do this important public work,” said Nazarian, who sits on the Maryland Appellate Court. ”I want the students who apply to clerkships in general and who apply to clerk for me to have the best information about what the job is and what I’m about and to be in a position to make an informed decision about whether that’s something they want to do."

The Project database, if schools participate, will go a long way in sharing information about clerkships:

. . . Former clerks from participating law schools would create an account with LAP to access the database, where they could fill out a survey about their experience, anonymously if they wish. The survey would ask if they experienced any harassment or discrimination, how the judge provided feedback, if the clerkship provided writing experience and whether vacation days were available, in addition to other questions. Responses would be viewable only by students at participating schools and not by the public.

I am a big fan of students carefully researching clerkships, as I discuss in my recent book A Short & Happy Guide to Judicial Clerkships, which Judge Nazarian is reviewing for the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal of Appellate Practice & Process. Some schools do a great job connecting potential clerks with former clerks to talk candidly about judges. Similarly, well-organized legal organizations, like the Federalist Society, can also help connect former and potential clerks. But, a national database would definitely provide more opportunities to read about judges, especially for potential clerks from lower ranked law schools.

I look forward to hearing more about the Project as it unfolds.

June 26, 2023 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 25, 2023

"We Are All Originalists": A Response to Robert Peck and Phillip Seaver-Hall

This post responds to Robert Peck and Phillip Seaver-Hall, two contributors to this blog. Before I respond, I would like to thank Robert and Phillip for responding to my post, and for a great discussion on constitutional interpretation. I respect but disagree with their views, and below I provide a brief summary of why originalism, albeit imperfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.

1.    Robert and Phillip provide no credible alternative to originalism.

It’s easy to criticize and problematize. Whether it is a theory of constitutional interpretation, the flaws of implicit bias theory, or the discrimination against conservatives in the legal academy, anyone can identify flaws.

It’s harder to propose solutions.

So, what is the alternative to originalism? What interpretive theory do you support, and why? And why is that theory superior to originalism, particularly in adhering to the Constitution’s text, promoting democratic participation, and ensuring that citizens, not unelected judges, have an equal voice in determining the rights and laws under which they will be governed? In my view, Robert and Phillip’s critiques offer no alternative theory, or at least not in any great detail.

Regardless, the primary alternative – living constitutionalism – would be the cure that is worse than the disease. To be clear, in their responses, Robert and Phillip did not explicitly support living constitutionalism (or some variation thereof) but their arguments suggest that they embrace an interpretive method that at least prioritizes or at least includes elements consistent with living constitutionalism (e.g., considering contemporary values and attitudes, and relying on a provision’s underlying purposes). For example, Phillip states, “[w]hile the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow.” That sounds like living constitutionalism.

Living constitutionalism, which, broadly speaking, states that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time based on contemporary societal attitudes and circumstances that the Founders could not foresee, sounds nice, but the devil is in the details. At its core, living constitutionalism is a license for arbitrariness and subjectivity. What living constitutionalism really means is that judges can reach almost any outcome they want and for whatever reason they want. In short, it allows judges to drown in a sea of subjectivity. And when you are at sea in constitutional law, the result is often nine unelected judges imposing their policy views on an entire nation, where the Constitution’s text and the Founders’ understanding of that text becomes an afterthought – or an inconvenience. 

Furthermore, living constitutionalism does not always lead to the equitable results that its opponents believe, and it often involves manipulating or ignoring the Constitution. Let’s look at some of the decisions that “living constitutionalism” produces. To begin with, Dred Scott v. Sandford and Korematsu v. United States, decisions that reasonable (and hopefully even unreasonable) people would find abhorrent, were decisions that “living constitutionalism” produced.[2] As Justice Gorsuch explains, “each [decision] depended on serious judicial invention by judges who misguidedly thought they were providing a “good” answer to a pressing social problem of the day.”[3]

And how can anyone forget the poster child for living constitutionalism – Griswold v. Connecticut – where the Court acknowledged implicitly that the Fourteenth Amendment’s text did not provide a basis to invalidate Connecticut’s law banning contraception.[4] Yet, the Court decided to ignore the text and, out of thin air, create invisible constitutional “penumbras” that emanate from the text like Linda Blair rose from her bed in The Exorcist, or like steam rises from a hot apple pie, and from which the Court – and only the Court – could identify unenumerated rights. As the Court traveled into these invisible penumbras to create a right to privacy, the Constitution, again, became an afterthought. To be clear, a prohibition on contraception is utterly ridiculous. But it was for the people of Connecticut to petition their legislators to change the law – or vote them out of office – not for the Court to intervene and invalidate a law by inventing “penumbras” that, despite how hard you look, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

After Griswold, and as living constitutionalism gained traction, it gave us Roe v. Wade, where the Court discovered, either in those penumbras or in the jungle room at Graceland, a right to abortion.[5] Likewise, in Roper v. Simmons, the justices suddenly discovered that it was unconstitutional to execute a minor.[6] Yet, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court decided that the Constitution did not protect the right to assisted suicide.[7] So, women can abort pregnancies, minors cannot be executed, and we cannot take our own lives when terminally ill. What in the Constitution gave the Court the right to decide these questions? Nothing. And it has created a mess of constitutional jurisprudence where the political affiliations of the justices, not the Constitution, sometimes determine the outcomes.

Living constitutionalism also fails to constrain judicial decision-making. For example, consider living constitutionalism in the Eighth Amendment context. Phillip states that the Eighth Amendment should prohibit punishments that the Founders would consider cruel and unusual and punishments that are inconsistent with evolving standards of decency. How, exactly, can one possibly define what punishment violates evolving standards of decency? What does that even mean? Imagine judges sitting in their chambers and contemplating, “Hmmm…does executing a child rapist violate evolving standards of decency?” What will guide that determination? Subjective values. And why should a justice on the Supreme Court have the right to impose those values on an entire nation? Your guess is as good as mine.  Phillip provides one answer, stating, “one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis.” And that is the point – and the problem.

Likewise, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court confronted the question of whether imposing the death penalty for raping a child under the age of twelve violated the Eighth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court answered in the affirmative, holding that executing a defendant for child rape was not consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”[8] Now, let’s assume that Robert, Phillip, and I had different views on whether imposing the death penalty for raping a child is consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”

Which view would be superior?

None of them.

After all, who am I to say that I know better than Robert or Phillip or have superior moral values such that I am more able to determine what violates evolving standards of decency?

Furthermore, I don’t think that citizens care what Robert, Phillip, or I think about this matter. I think they care about having the right to decide for themselves and have a voice in the democratic process. After all, this question, like the abortion question, depends largely on a person’s moral values. Thus, why should nine unelected and life-tenured judges decide this question, rather than the citizens of every state in this country? They shouldn’t. Living constitutionalism invites subjectivity, shows a lack of humility, and it enables morality to become the basis for judicial decision-making.

To be clear, I am pro-choice. I do not think that we should execute minors. I believe that laws against contraception are ridiculous. I support same-sex marriage. And I am neither conservative nor liberal. But, again, who cares what I think? Why should the Court be deciding these questions when the Constitution says nothing about them? As Chief Justice Roberts stated in Obergefell v. Hodges, “just who do we think we are?”[9]

Don’t be fooled. Advocates for living constitutionalism want the Court to reach outcomes that further their political agenda and thus reach what they believe are the “right” outcomes. But courts don’t exist to reach outcomes that you like, and if we base our view of the Court solely on whether the outcomes it reaches comport with our policy preferences – or what we perceive as the most just or moral outcome – then we are responsible for politicizing the Court and delegitimizing the rule of law.

Additionally, the process by which the Court makes decisions is critical to ensuring the Court’s legitimacy and ensuring that constitutional meaning does not change simply because its composition changes. Look no further than Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court’s decision, although certainly defensible on originalist grounds, resulted, as a practical matter, from the fact that the Court’s composition had changed in a conservative direction.[10] So, for advocates of living constitutionalism, I am curious how they would feel about Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas basing their decisions on subjective values. That is why living constitutionalism fails – it politicizes the judiciary. And it is why the text, and the Founders original understanding of what the text means, it vital to ensuring that judges do not venture into a sea of subjectivity (or any sea, for that matter), and that policy changes occur democratically.

Living constitutionalism is also elitist. You can often spot living constitutionalists from a mile away. It assumes that judges know better than the average citizen about what the ‘right’ outcome is in a particular case. That’s the point: living constitutionalism is about achieving an outcome that a small and elite group of justices prefer, and to reach those outcomes, they need to visit those invisible penumbras or create fictional doctrines like substantive due process. Judges don’t know better, and they don’t deserve that power.

At bottom, living constitutionalism assumes that, in the “heady days of the here and now,” the justices somehow know better, or are more enlightened, than their former colleagues, policymakers, or citizens.[11] It also assumes that, since contemporary society is more advanced and all-knowing in these heady days of the here and now, the results will always produce progressive, or more equitable, results. But who is to say (outside of obvious examples), what is progressive or regressive, and who is to say that living constitutionalism cannot result in what liberals would consider bad or regressive outcomes? If you doubt that, look no further than Dred Scott and Korematsu. And if you think that judges are more knowledgeable than they were a century ago, think again. Read Citizens United v. FEC, McCutcheon v. FEC, or Shelby County v. Holder, and you will see that the justices of today are no better or worse than the judges of yesterday.

Living constitutionalism also predicates constitutional meaning in substantial part on the purpose of a constitutional provision. But how can one know or define what the purpose of a provision is? And what if there are multiple or conflicting purposes? If so, how should these purposes be quantified, and which purpose should govern? Additionally, at which level of generality do you define a purpose because the broader the purpose, the less constrained the judge. For example, if a judge determines that the purpose of a constitutional provision is to protect “bodily autonomy,” or “liberty” then we are all in a lot of trouble. After all, what does “liberty” mean, and what principles exist to determine what “liberty” requires, and when restrictions on liberty violate the Constitution? For example, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “the Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach?”[12] What does that mean? It means nothing – and it gives judges the power to do anything they want in the name of “liberty.” As Justice Scalia stated, “If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag.”[13]

Indeed, consider the  “sweet mystery of life” passage, where the Court stated, “at 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?”[14] If that’s true, why is the Court defining liberty (and autonomy) for everyone in cases such as Roe, yet holding in Washington v. Glucksberg that the right to “define one’s own concept of existence” does not include a right to assisted suicide, and in Dobbs, reversing Roe?  Because the composition of the Court, not the Constitution, changed, and because its jurisprudence had strayed so far from the text that subjectivity and morality was the primary driving force underlying those decisions.

Living constitutionalism is nice when most of the justices align with your political views, but it’s not so nice when they do not. Think about Roe and Dobbs: in Roe, the Court discovered in the Constitution (or its “penumbras”) a right to terminate a pregnancy but then, nearly fifty years later in Dobbs, suddenly determined that the Constitution didn’t protect a right to abortion. What exactly changed in the “heady days of the here and now?” The fact that Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch were on the Court.

This is not, of course, to say that originalism is perfect, or that judges don’t use originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy predilections. And to the extent that bad judges use originalism to further a conservative agenda – which some do – they are equally blameworthy. As stated above, the Court is not here to reach outcomes that you like – and no one who believes in democratic self-governance should believe that nine unelected and life-tenured justices know more than anyone else about the “mysteries of human life.” Again, as Chief Justice Roberts stated, “just who do we think we are?”[15]

Importantly, however, can’t the same criticism be made against originalism, namely, that it advances the political preferences of conservative justices? Of course. But that, as stated above, is a product of bad judging, not of originalism itself. And originalists often reach outcomes that do not coincide with their policy preferences. Consider, for example, Justice Scalia’s Fourth Amendment and Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. Is that ‘conservative’? Is it a conservative result to decide that the First Amendment protects the burning of the American flag, a decision in which Scalia joined the majority but stated in an interview that he would outlaw it if he were a legislator? No. In other words, Justice Scalia’s political views didn’t always or even often dictate his judicial philosophy. The same is true for Justice Gorsuch, who stated as follows:

In my own judicial career, I’ve written many originalist rulings with so-called “liberal” results. Like United States v. Carloss, where I ruled that the police violated a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home without a warrant despite four conspicuously posted no trespassing signs. Or Sessions v. Dimaya, where I ruled that an immigrant couldn’t constitutionally be punished according to a law so vague that judges were forced to give it content by fiat. Or Carpenter v. United States, where I explained that simply giving your property to another doesn’t necessarily mean you lose all your Fourth Amendment rights in it.[16]

Ultimately, if the process of decision-making results from creating invisible “penumbras,” to reach predetermined outcomes, then judging is no different from legislating. And that should trouble people of any political persuasion.

Indeed, for a “living constitutionalist” who lives, rents, or leases space in Griswold’s penumbras, believes in the fairy tale called “substantive due process,” and thinks that liberty encompasses the “right to define one’s own concept of existence ... and of the mystery of human life,” what constrains their decision-making?[17] Surely, it can’t be the text. Surely, it can’t be history and tradition. Certainly, it can’t be precedent, since stare decisis is akin to the toxic, on-again, off-again relationship that you pursue only when convenient. And most certainly, it cannot be “purpose,” as the purpose of a constitutional provision can be divined at any level of generality that allows you to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and for whatever reason you want.

Put simply, politics and policy preferences have no place in the Supreme Court. Living constitutionalism, however, puts those preferences at the forefront rather than in the rear-view mirror.

2.    Constitutional ambiguity, Clinton v. New York, and deference.

What should the Court do when it confronts constitutional ambiguity? How should originalists and living constitutionalists address this problem? Robert and Phillip provide no satisfactory answer. But it appears that they would not object to the Court intervening to decide questions where the Constitution’s text is ambiguous. I do object. In such instances, the Court should defer to the coordinate branches and the democratic process.

Many scholars will, of course, cite Marbury v. Madison, a case that did not do nearly as much as living constitutionalists might claim, to support the proposition that the Court has the right and duty to clarify constitutional ambiguity.[18] Marbury stands for the proposition that the judiciary has the power to say, “what the law is,” although it’s difficult to know what that statement exactly means. Regardless, does Marbury say that the Court has the power to say what the law should be, and even if it did, is there a legitimate justification for intervening in constitutional disputes when the text is ambiguous and reasonable people could arrive at different conclusions? No.

In such circumstances, the Court should do nothing. The Court’s decision in Clinton v. New York is among the best and rarely discussed examples of where the Court intervened when the Constitution was ambiguous, and when it should have deferred to the coordinate branches.[19] In Clinton, Congress passed the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996, which, among other things, gave the president the right to veto specific provisions in spending bills. The bill was passed by both houses of Congress and, after its constitutionality was challenged, the issue before the Court was whether the legislation violated the Presentment Clause.[20]  Now, the text of the Presentment Clause is sufficiently broad that reasonable persons could differ on whether it rendered the Act unconstitutional. Thus, why did the Court intervene and, in a 6-3 decision, invalidate legislation that would have likely reduced wasteful government spending? I have no idea.  The same was true in District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Court invalidated a law in the District of Columbia requiring, among other things, that certain guns be unloaded and disassembled in the home.[21] The Second Amendment did not clearly answer the question of whether the law was constitutional. As such, the Court – and its originalists – should have deferred to the District of Columbia’s lawmakers.

Put simply, if reasonable people can interpret a constitutional provision differently, why should nine unelected justices decide that question for an entire nation? Again, your guess is as good as mine.

Now, Phillip claims that this approach suggests that I support “a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary,” that’s “entirely atextual” and that I am inventing “constitutional rules out of thin air.”  I do support a more limited judicial role, but I don’t find it shocking. Where does the text support Phillip’s approach? I respectfully suggest that, as the commentator below argues, living constitutionalism is entirely inconsistent with what the Founders expected:

America’s contemporary understanding of judicial power is inconsistent with the argument put forward by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist. Although The Federalist affirms the power of judicial review—and hence the role of the judiciary as a check on the other branches—it does not present this as the most important function of the courts. Moreover, The Federalist does not support the vast implications of judicial review as including a power to decide the great moral issues of the times and to adjust the Constitution to trends in public opinion. Finally, The Federalist lends no aid to the belief that the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of constitutional meaning, unanswerable for its interpretations to any authority but itself.[22]

Indeed, the view that courts should be the final or primary arbiters of constitutional meaning, particularly concerning moral questions, reflects the desire to use the Court to advance a political agenda:

Although the courts have always held a key place in our constitutional system, this very lofty conception of their authority has largely arisen over the past several decades. The rise of this view can be traced in part to the influence of modern liberalism, which has used the courts as instruments of social and political change and has accordingly had to bolster the authority of the judiciary.[23]

This passage, among many others, doesn’t support the argument that I am inventing constitutional rules out of thin air. If I wanted to do that, I could have entered Griswold’s penumbras with nothing but my moral compass to guide the way. Ultimately, since the outcomes for which living constitutionalists advocate “are not clearly required by the text of the Constitution—or, in the case of affirmative action, may even be in tension with it—the Left has had to argue for a more free-wheeling kind of judicial review.”[24] A “free-wheeling kind of judicial review” is precisely what Griswold and Roe embrace, and reflect what is antithetical to a country committed to democracy. As Professor Holloway explains:

The Federalist’s account of the judicial power is more consistent with the dignity of the American people as the country’s sovereign because it ensures that, although their will can be checked by courts defending the clear and settled meaning of the Constitution, it cannot be subordinated to the will of judges who make the Constitution mean what they want it to mean in order to secure outcomes that they regard as just.[25]

Importantly, when the Court gets involved in deciding disputes where the Constitution is ambiguous (and living constitutionalists and originalists are equally to blame) it often harms democratic participation and efforts to improve democratic governance. For example, in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court invalidated limits on independent expenditures by groups, including corporations, and individuals that Congress passed to, among other things, reduce the undue influence of money in elections.[26] Why? As the Court held in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the First Amendment could arguably be interpreted to allow such limitations.[27] At the very least, alternative interpretations of the First Amendment were possible. As such, the Court should have deferred to the coordinate branches.

Likewise, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, did the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate (and its other provisions) violate the Commerce Clause?[28] Again, who knows. The Court should have never intervened, and Chief Justice Roberts likely upheld the mandate, at least in part, because he didn’t want the Court to be perceived as invalidating a statute that did not clearly violate a constitutional provision. The problem is that, in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts wrote a majority opinion that overturned portions of the Voting Rights Act that the Senate had re-authorized by a 99-0 vote.[29] Why?  

What does all of this have to do with originalism? In other words, between originalism and living constitutionalism, which theory is better when the Court is faced with constitutional ambiguity?

Originalism.

Although originalism is not perfect and cannot answer every constitutional question, and although there are certainly bad judges who use originalism to reach specific outcomes, it requires judges to at least try to identify what the Founders intended the words to mean, and to base their decisions on a reasonable interpretation of the text. That reduces the influence of subjective values on judicial decision-making. If you disagree, look no further than Griswold’s penumbras, the “sweet mystery of life” passage, and “substantive” due process – all of which can be attributed to living constitutionalism – and which allow the Court to create unenumerated rights that have nothing to do with the Constitution.  

The less power the courts have, the better. Originalism lends support to the basic proposition that citizens should stop looking to the Court to impose policy on an entire nation. Change occurs through the legislative process.

Erwin Chemerinsky, who is among the most influential legal scholars in the country (and a wonderful person), recently wrote an outstanding book titled: Originalism: Worse than Nothing. The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism.[30] For the reasons stated above, living constitutionalism, not originalism, is worse than nothing because, at bottom, living constitutionalism is nothing.[31]

After all, there is a reason why, as Justice Kagan stated, “we are all originalists.”[32]

 

[1] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com)

[2] See Neil Gorsuch, Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[3] Id.

[4] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[5] 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

[6] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[7] 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[8] 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[9] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[10] 597 U.S.           , 2022 WL 2276808.

[11] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[14] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[15] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[16] See Neil Gorsuch, Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[17] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[18] 5 U.S. 137 (1803).

[19] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[20] Id.

[21] 554 U.S. 570 (2008).

[22] Carson Holloway, Against Judicial Supremacy: The Founders and the Limits on the Courts (January 25, 2019), available at: Against Judicial Supremacy: The Founders and the Limits on the Courts | The Heritage Foundation

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] 558 U.S. 310 (2010); 572 U.S. 185 (2014).

[27] 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

[28] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[29] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[30] Yale University Pres, 2022.

[31] See Adam Carrington, Erwin Chemerinsky’s Weak Critique of Originalism (September 18, 2022), available at: Erwin Chemerinsky’s Weak Critique of Originalism - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics.

[32] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com) (emphasis added).

June 25, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 23, 2023

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, June 23, 2023

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at [email protected] or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at [email protected] or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court ruled 8-to-1 that the states challenging the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement guidelines lacked standing to sue. Texas and Louisiana had sued to block guidelines that set priorities for which unauthorized immigrants should be arrested, focusing on “national security, public safety, and border security.” The ruling did not comment on the merit, finding only on the matter of standing, writing: “The states have brought an extraordinarily unusual lawsuit. … They want a federal court to order the executive branch to alter its arrest policies so as to make more arrests. Federal courts have not traditionally entertained that kind of lawsuit; indeed, the states cite no precedent for a lawsuit like this.” See ruling and a report from The New York Times.

  • In a ruling considered a victory for Native American Rights, the Supreme Court upheld a law that gives preference to Native families in adoptions of Native American children. A non-Native couple challenged the law arguing that it violated equal protection principles because it permits child placement to be decided based on race. The majority dismissed the equal protection argument, basing the ruling instead on Congress’s authority to make law about Native American tribes: “Our cases leave little doubt that Congress’s power in this field is muscular, superseding both tribal and state authority.”  See the decision and reports from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

  • The New York Times’ Adam Liptak wrote a piece this month called “Tracking Major Supreme Court Cases in 2023” that identifies and discusses both decided and expected cases of note for this term, including cases on race and voting maps, tribal rights, environmental protection, affirmative action, elections, and student loans (to name a few). The piece identifies the voting breakdown and holding (or the issue, for undecided cases) as well as statistics about public opinion for each issue. And John Fritz at USA Today wrote about some of the cases that might be on the horizon for the Court’s next term.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit rejected a challenge to a New York “buffer zone” law for abortion clinics. The law prohibits a person who is within a 100-foot area around a reproductive health facility from getting within eight feet of another for the purpose of “oral protest, education, or counseling.” The petitioner argued that the law violates her right to free speech. Relying on the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Hill v. Colorado, the court held that the law did not violate the First Amendment because the law is not a regulation on speech but "a regulation of the places where some speech may occur." See ruling and a report in Reuters.

June 23, 2023 in Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

"Well" and that personal touch

I recently read (well, listened to--thanks, Audible!) John McWhorter's Words on the Move, which was excellent, as so many of his books are. One of his points really stuck with me and has come to mind several times when reading opinions: language over time tends from the formal to the personal. One of the ways this manifests is by using words as courtesy markers. He uses the example of the (perfectly grammatical) sentence: "Well, horses run fast." If you were to diagram that or describe "well's" role in the sentence, what would it be? The dictionary won't help because you don't mean, "Boy, those horses sure run fast in the proper manner." "Well" is a way to soften the blow of or personalize the rest of the sentence; it signals to the hearer (or reader) that you're about to let them in on some information. It's as if the person asked why horses are not often eaten by wolves; well, you begin the explanation so as to not sound too condescending, horses run fast, so wolves aren't likely to catch them. We do similar things with midwestern-style intro statements like, "Well, well, well, what have we here?" It's a way to slide your audience comfortably into the rest of what you're going to say. 

Justice Kagan (I know, I know, I can't help myself) often uses these and other kinds of personalizing markers in her writing. It's one of the things that make her writing feel so intimate and personal. For example, in her dissent in Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, she does this a couple of times: "You might think that when Congress lists two different factors for consideration, it is because the two factors are, well, different." "And if the majority somehow cannot see it--well, that's what evidentiary records are for." Even Justice Sotomayor gets in on it in footnote 22: "This ignores, well, pretty much the entire opinion." "Well" in these three sentences means three different things. In the first, it's a no-duh kind of observation; in the second, it's the writer cutting herself off, as if she's calming things down or sending them in a different direction; and in the third, it has a can-you-believe it kind of quality. 

So take this advice and use it well. I mean, well well. 

June 21, 2023 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Originalism's Frailties: A Reply to Professor Lamparello

Last week, Professor Lamparello argued on this blog that "originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation."  I'm skeptical. 

Admittedly, in the vacuum of political theory, originalism has a certain elegance and persuasive force.  The Framers created a system of separated powers, originalists reason.  Congress makes law; the judiciary merely interprets it.  Any interpretive theory that permits unelected judges to change the meaning of a law is dangerous and anti-democratic.  Thus, to curtail judicial legislation, originalists say that judges should endeavor to discover and preserve the meaning the Constitution's words bore at the time of ratification.  After all, the law is the law, until lawfully changed under Article V. 

I happily concede these points.  (What serious constitutional lawyer would dare disagree with these basic principles of political science?)  But they're not the whole story.

In this essay, I hope to show why a rigid, singular focus on original public meaning is a shortsighted way of interpreting many of the Constitution's provisions.  In Part I, I discuss serious reasons to doubt the idea that the Framers actually believed in originalism as an interpretive theory.  In Part II, I dissect Professor Lamparello's "ideal approach" to constitutional interpretation, highlighting its practical shortcomings and its lack of textual or historical support.  And in Part III, I interrogate Professor Lamparello’s claim that originalism most effectively constrains judges. 

I.    Originalists bear the burden of proving that originalism was, in fact, the original intent of the Framers.  But on that score, there is serious reason for doubt.

 Originalism's focus on the Framers' intent raises a threshold question: did the Framers actually believe in originalism?  Whether viewed through the lens of "New Originalism" (which eschews extratextual sources, focusing only on the original public meaning of the document's text) or "Traditional Originalism" (which focuses on the drafters' subjective intent), there are serious reasons to doubt that the Framers would have actually endorsed the theory.

    A.    The Constitution's text, structure, and purpose all cast doubt on the idea that the Framers would have preferred originalist judges.

In interpreting the Constitution, we must start with its text.[1]  To be sure, the text is frequently clear and free from ambiguity--nobody could seriously argue, for example, that Article I allows a state to elect three senators[2]--and when the text is clear, the inquiry ceases.  But the text also contains many provisions with broad, normative language.  Take, for example, the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws,"[3] its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments,"[4] or its clause forbidding "unreasonable searches and seizures."[5]  It's no coincidence that many of these nebulous, normative words are found within the Constitution's substantive guarantees. 

Why would the Framers purposefully choose such ambiguous, value-based language?  First, it was politically savvy, since it provided a way to quell the local concerns that presumably would have arisen during the states' ratification debates.  But more importantly, the Framers wanted their document to have staying power.  This is expressly confirmed by the Constitution's Preamble--which, originalists should agree, is a proper source of clarification in the face of textual ambiguity[6]--where it states that one of the Constitution's core purposes is "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."[7] 

Let's pause here to nip a possible misapprehension in the bud.  Readers may presume I'm arguing for a Constitution whose fundamental meaning changes over time.  Not so.  The meaning of the Constitution's words doesn't change; I do not argue, for example, that "equal protection" should be redefined to sanction unequal insecurity.  But, as mentioned, the Constitution frequently uses ambiguous, normative language.  While the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow.[8]  That's a key difference. 

Consider, for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.  Few historians would argue that the Equal Protection Clause was intended to apply to women; conventional wisdom holds that the Reconstruction Amendments were principally aimed at combating racial prejudice against Black citizens.[9]  Indeed, in 1868, no state had an operative women's suffrage law,[10] and coverture still held a grip on American gender relations.[11]  And yet, the Amendment's words are plain: no State may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  While women might not have been considered "persons" deserving of "equal protection" in 1868, our attitudes and prejudices on that front have changed.  For that reason, the Supreme Court correctly held in Reed v. Reed[12] that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women.  Critically, the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause didn't change; the Court did not hold, for example, that the Clause no longer applied to Black citizens.  Our understanding of what the Equal Protection Clause tells us to look for, however, evolved. 

Would an originalist, focused solely on the ratifying generation's understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment's text, reach the Reed Court's conclusion?  I have my doubts.

Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provides a contrary example—one where the Court has wrongly changed the standard.  The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments."[13]  But one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis.[14]  For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court has correctly concluded that a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel if it is considered cruel in light of the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."[15]  But, critically, the Court has also held—wrongly, I contend—that the Eighth Amendment does not draw any meaning from “the standards that prevailed . . . when the Bill of Rights was adopted[.]”[16] 

The more proper reading of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause would hold that it prohibits both (1) punishments that would have been considered cruel and unusual in the founding era and (2) punishments that are cruel and unusual under our maturing society’s evolving standards of decency.  Had the Court not discarded history, this "evolving standards of decency" test wouldn’t have changed the meaning of the phrase "cruel and unusual" at all; it would have given full effect to the phrase by recognizing that it’s both descriptive and normative. 

Undeniably, originalists make many good points.  But too often, by refusing to look past the "original public meaning" of a constitutional provision, originalists unduly constrict (and therefore change) the Constitution's normative language.  In doing so, originalists commit the same sin they swear to disavow.

    B.    The historical record, too, casts doubt on the idea that the Framers would have approved of originalism.  

Originalists insist that New Originalism was actually the authoritative American method of legal interpretation until the mid-twentieth century, when Chief Justice Earl Warren took the bench.[17]  But here again, history renders that claim dubious. 

Take, for example, William Blackstone, who most scholars consider the authoritative expositor of the common law.  Justice Scalia has famously called Blackstone a "thoroughgoing originalist."[18]  Yet, in his Commentaries on the Law of England, Blackstone said that "the fairest and most rational method to interpret the will of the legislator, is by exploring his intentions at the time when the law made, by signs the most natural and probable.  And these signs are either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law."[19]  Blackstone also said that "the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it."[20]  That's hardly the stuff of modern-day originalism.  

Consider, also, Chief Justice Marshall.  In Cohens v. Virginia,[21] Marshall asked rhetorically whether "the spirit of the constitution" would justify Virginia's exempting itself from the federal constitution.[22]  And in McCulloch v. Maryland,[23] Marshall said that "all means which are . . . not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional."[24]  Admittedly, Marshall also argued--as I do--that although "the spirit of an instrument, especially a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter . . . the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words."[25]  But the fact remains: Marshall was far from the rigid originalist many claim. 

Thomas Jefferson provides another example.  Concededly, Jefferson was in Paris during the summer of 1787, so his views on the Constitution cannot be considered controlling.  But, as a leading figure of the founding generation, and James Madison's friend and mentor, his insight into the Constitution is undeniably relevant.  Jefferson wrote this to Samuel Kercheval in 1816:

Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, & deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well: I belonged to it, and labored with it. it deserved well of it’s country. it was very like the present, but without the experience of the present: and 40. years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading: and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent & untried changes in laws and constitutions . . . but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind . . . we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.[26]

All this is not to say that contrary evidence tending to support originalism can't be found.  It certainly can.  But that's precisely the point: the historical record from the Founding generation is hardly as one-sided as originalists claim.

II.    Professor Lamparello's "ideal" conception of originalism requires revising the constitutional text he claims to venerate.

Most of Professor Lamparello's essay presents garden-variety originalist arguments.  But one downright surprising argument comes near the end, where he says that whenever a law is challenged under a constitutional provision reasonably susceptible of two or more interpretations--for example, the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause--"the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches" and uphold the law's constitutionality.

That argument reflects a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary--one that's entirely atextual.  The drafters easily could have written, for example, that "no act of Congress may be struck down as violative of the provisions of this Constitution, unless the act's unconstitutionality be clear and free from doubt."  But, as Hamilton pointed out in The Federalist No. 78, the drafters said no such thing:

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.[27]

For someone so concerned about judicial legislation, it is certainly odd for Professor Lamparello to invent constitutional rules out of thin air.  And for someone so focused on the original public meaning of the Constitution, it is equally odd to advocate for an interpretive theory that faces such directly countervailing historical evidence. 

Professor Lamparello's theory is also impractical and ahistorical.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, pitched the Bill of Rights as a document that would make judges "guardians" of individual rights, just like Hamilton did in the passage excerpted above.[28]  But if judges could only strike down a law when no reasonable person could defend the law's constitutionality, then how could the judiciary effectively guard citizens' rights in the ordinary case?  After all, in what case can't one think of reasonable, good-faith arguments on both sides of a constitutional issue?  If the Framers actually intended the judiciary to defer to the political branches whenever presented with two plausible, competing arguments, then why include these constitutional prescriptions in the first place?  Wouldn't it be easier to simply say nothing and let the states legislate as they see fit? 

III.    Originalism, while theoretically attractive, does a poor job of constraining judges.

Originalism hails itself as the best way to constrain judges.  Critics have long questioned that claim, too. 

To see why, consider District of Columbia v. Heller.[29]  In Heller, both the majority and dissenting opinions cited historical evidence supporting their constitutional interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has argued that, given the murky historical record in Heller, the Court should have stayed its hand and declined to strike down the District of Columbia's handgun prohibition.[30]  And as Judge Posner has noted, Judge Wilkinson's argument finds support from an unlikely source: Justice Scalia's treatise on legal interpretation.[31]  In the Foreword of Justice Scalia's treatise, Judge Easterbrook says this:

Words don't have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text's adoption understood those words.  The older the text, the more distant that interpretive community from our own.  At some point the difference becomes so great that the meaning is no longer recoverable reliably. . . .  [When that happens, the courts should] declare that meaning has been lost, so that the living political community must choose.[32]

This is a version of the judicial-restraint principle for which Professor Lamparello, Justice Scalia, and other originalists advocate.  In Heller, Justice Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment's history was likely erroneous.[33]  But even if the history is mixed, that should have led Justice Scalia to conclude that the relevant meaning had been "lost to the passage of time" and to entrust the answer to the living political community.[34]  The "living political community" in Heller was the District of Columbia legislature.  But, far from exercising the democratic "deference" Professor Lamparello advocates, the Court struck down the District of Columbia's gun-ownership prohibition. 

And historical questions plagued more than just the Heller majority's holding.  In a dictum, the Court explained the contours of the right it recognized:

[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[35]

As Professor Reva Siegel has persuasively argued, there is little historical evidence supporting this passage, and it actually contradicts the Second Amendment's textually enunciated purposes.[36]  "In these passages," Professor Siegel concludes, "Justice Scalia seems to apply something other than an original 'public understanding' analysis."[37] 

United States v. Eichman[38] provides another example of how originalism fails to constrain judges.  In Eichman, Justice Scalia voted to strike down a federal statute outlawing the burning of the American flag.[39]  To Scalia's credit, it was a vote against his political predilections.  But it was certainly an odd ruling for an originalist.  The governing constitutional provision--"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech"[40]--says nothing about non-verbal forms of protest.  And the eighteenth-century conception of the speech right was much narrower than our modern understanding.  According to Blackstone, at common law, freedom of speech only forbade prior restraints on speech; it did not prohibit after-the-fact punishment of speech determined to be blasphemous, obscene, or seditious.[41]  Thus, a First Amendment that bans prohibitions on flag burning is decidedly unoriginalist.

Apparently anticipating the objection raised in this Part, Professor Lamparello preemptively defends his position by arguing that "in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences.  However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se."  Is the truth so conveniently simple?  Can we really shrug off as "bad judging" the remarkable methodological elasticity of originalism's leading champion?  Or is it possible that the problem lies deeper below the surface?

* * *

To be sure, no theory of constitutional interpretation is perfect.  But the manifold problems with originalism--too many to detail exhaustively in this short essay—lead me to question whether, as Professor Lamparello insists, originalism is the best we can do. 


[1] See, e.g., District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576 (2008).

[2] See U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 1.

[3] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[4] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[6] See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 217 (1st ed. 2012) (hereinafter “Scalia & Garner, Reading Law) (approving of interpretive canon providing that “[a] preamble . . . is a permissible indicator of meaning”).

[7] U.S. Const. pmbl. (emphasis added).

[8] See also Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238, 382 (1972) (reasoning that “[t]he standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change”). 

[9] See, e.g., Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 81 (1873).

[10] Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State, https://tag.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/suffrage-by-state.pdf (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, Coverture, https://www.britannica.com/topic/coverture (noting that “[c]overture was disassembled in the United States through legislation at the state level beginning in Mississippi in 1839 and continuing into the 1880s”). 

[12] 404 U.S. 71 (1971).

[13] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[14] Kennedy v. La., 554 U.S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Furman, 408 U.S. at 382). 

[15] Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

[16] Atkins v. Va., 536 U.S. 304, 311 (2002).

[17] Richard A. Posner, The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia, New Republic (Aug. 24, 2012), https://newrepublic.com/article/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism (hereinafter “Posner, Incoherence”). 

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] 19 U.S. 264 (1821).

[22] Id. at 383.

[23] 17 U.S. 316 (1819). 

[24] Id. at 421 (emphasis added).

[25] Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. 122, 202 (1819). 

[26] Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters, https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1384 (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[27] The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton).

[28] The Bill of Rights: Its History & Significance, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/billofrightsintro.html (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[29] 554 U.S. 570 (2008). 

[30] Posner, Incoherence.

[31] Id.

[32] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[33] Posner, Incoherence (noting that “most professional historians reject the historical analysis in Scalia’s opinion”). 

[34] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[35] Heller, 554 U.S. at 626-27.

[36] See generally Reva B. Siegel, Dead or Alive: Originalism as Popular Constitutionalism in Heller, 122 Harv. L. Rev. 191 (2008).

[37] Id. at 200. 

[38] 496 U.S. 310 (1990). 

[39] Id. at 312.

[40] U.S. Const. amend. I.

[41] Posner, Incoherence.

June 20, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Religion, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Court opinions are more than soundbites


A_travers_les_ateliers_1954.12.17

Like many of you, I read the Supreme Court’s recent decision in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 143 S. Ct. 1142 (2023) very carefully. Not just because the dormant commerce clause is cool, but because the various opinions offer an interesting insight into how the justices are aligning and thinking on different issues.

One comment in the majority opinion stood out to me as being particularly important. The Petitioners (and some courts) had read the language of prior Supreme Court cases very closely, and concluded that they had created an “almost per se rule” that a state law, neutral on its face, violates the dormant commerce clause “if the ‘practical effect’ of the law is to control” out-of-state prices. Ross, 143 S.Ct. at 1155 (quoting Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. New York State Liquor Auth., 476 U.S. 573, 583 (1986)).

The language of those cases was properly quoted by the Petitioners. However, Justice Gorsuch reminded us that “[T]he language of an opinion is not always to be parsed as though we were dealing with language of a statute.” Id. (quoting Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 341 (1979)). Instead, he continued, our courts decide “cases and controversies,” and their opinions must be read with a careful eye towards context. Id.

This distinction was aptly summarized by the Ninth Circuit a few years ago: “Stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent . . . . [T]he word ‘decisis’ . . . means, literally and legally, the decision. Nor is the doctrine stare dictis; it is not ‘to stand by or keep to what was said.’” In re Osborne, 76 F.3d 306, 309 (9th Cir. 1996). Using this principle, the court was able to determine an issue when there were prior cases with directly conflicting language, by looking at what those cases did.

So, we are supposed to read opinions like opinions – they apply the law to specific cases, and all we can conclude is that in that particular case, the law has a given result. The rest is Socratic – we move the goalpost a bit, analyze the legal principles under changed facts, and argue that these facts should have a result favorable to our client under the stated principles, while our opponent tests that reasoning, and the court tries to find the best answer.

Why, then, do we focus so much on quotes and soundbites? Well, for one thing, it is easier. But that is too simple of an answer.

There are actually several reasons why we are susceptible to soundbites. See Judith M. Stinson, Why Dicta Becomes Holding and Why it Matters, 76 Brook. L. Rev. 219 (2010). As Professor Stinson suggests, electronic research means we focus in on specific words and phrases in our research, which then supports their usage in our reasoning. The rise of the use of law clerks may also impact the court’s focus on words. Changes to citation rules encourage soundbites and quotes. And our culture is increasingly a “meme” based culture, relying on quick soundbites to convey ideas.

Whatever got us here, Ross is a good reminder that finding that right quote doesn’t mean you’ve found the right law. We have to parse through, carefully, what the courts have done in a particular situation, not just the words they have used.

This isn’t a job AI (currently) can do. AI will find (or generate) the soundbite, but it can easily miss the holding. It takes a lawyer to reason through the facts and suggest how they should apply in a given case or controversy. If you just rely on soundbites, you might miss the decisis for the dicta.

(image credit: Honoré Daumier, A travers les ateliers, 1862).

June 20, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Originalism, Not What It’s Cracked Up to Be

The quest for an interpretative construct that would produce principled decisions in construing the Constitution is an impossible dream, a chimera presuming that there lies a single best answer. The search for a singular approach that answers all questions seeks to implement what Justice Brandeis once described as the appropriate approach to the judicial enterprise: “we must be ever on our guard, lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles.”[1] Those engaged in the debate about various schools of interpretation latch onto one or another theory and often claim that it, above all others, reads the Constitution correctly. Yet, in the end, no theory can prevent us from imbuing our constitutional constructions with the biases and the limitations on knowledge that draw us to a particular result, just as history’s meaning is read differently throughout the ages.

Last week, a colleague on this blog claimed that originalism provided the best approach to interpreting the Constitution. In his post, Adam Lamparello argues that “originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.” This dubious proposition operates under the assumption that the Framers shared a consistent view of what the Constitution meant, even when applied to situations they never could have imagined. And it erroneously presumes that the Framers’ collective views are knowable and, if consulted, leads to valid conclusions capable of avoiding either judicial adventurism or the reading of modern values into the Constitution. Experience teaches otherwise.

  1. Originalism is no less outcome-oriented than any other theory of construction.

The “originalist” decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen,[2] like its building-block predecessor, District of Columbia v. Heller,[3] demonstrates that originalism does nothing more to prevent results-driven decision-making than the approach taken by the Queen of Hearts in Alice-in-Wonderland when she demands “Sentence first–verdict afterward.”[4] Bruen’s author, Justice Thomas, had long taken the position that judicial decisions had erroneously treated the Second Amendment as a “second-class right.”[5] When presented with an opportunity to make his view the law of the land, he wrote an opinion that carefully chose only favorable historical sources that supported his result, while rejecting the value of other available choices that would have confounded the decision. History, however, is messy and rarely as one-sided as Bruen makes it out to be.

In dissent, Justice Breyer called out the problem, noting, “[a]t best, the numerous justifications that the Court finds for rejecting historical evidence give judges ample tools to pick their friends out of history’s crowd. At worst, they create a one-way ratchet that will disqualify virtually any ‘representative historical analogue,’” producing only one favored result.[6]

Justice Scalia’s revisionist view of the Second Amendment, which he justified as originalist, set the stage for Bruen 14 years earlier in Heller when the Court held that the right to bear arms was an individual right unconnected to the introductory phrase, “a well regulated Militia.”[7] Conservative Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson criticized Heller for pressing a “political agenda in the courts.”[8] Most tellingly, Judge Wilkinson added, “While Heller can be hailed as a triumph of originalism, it can just as easily be seen as the opposite--an exposé of original intent as a theory no less subject to judicial subjectivity and endless argumentation as any other.”[9]

In fact, Justice Scalia, the leading advocate of originalism in his day, professed that he was a “faint-hearted originalist,” unwilling to go where originalism might take him if the result was absurd, so he would not uphold flogging as a punishment[10] or racial segregation.[11] In an interview with NPR, he jocularly explained his deviations from originalism as simply because he is “not a nut.”[12] As one of the grand apostles of originalism, Justice Scalia’s faintheartedness runs counter to the idea that originalism limits judicial discretion that relies on modern sensibilities.

  1. The examples chosen fail to support the purpose behind originalism.

Professor Lamparello argues that originalism must cabin judicial choice because it has shown itself to cause conservative justices to reach “liberal” results. His examples do not support his thesis. He cites Texas v. Johnson,[13] which he notes had “Justice Scalia in the majority.” Johnson, though, was written by Justice Brennan and held that burning an American flag as a protest could not be punished for the crime of “desecration of a venerated object” consistently with the First Amendment’s protections. The decidedly non-originalist opinion was joined in full by Justice Scalia, who did not write separately to proffer an originalist rationale. The decision thus says nothing about originalism and everything about modern understandings about free speech.

Professor Lamparello’s second example is an odd choice, Justice Scalia’s much-criticized opinion in Employment Div. v. Smith,[14] a case that hardly represents a “liberal” result. The dissenters were the Court’s most liberal members, Justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall. Smith reduced the constitutional protection afforded to religious practices in the context of members of the Native American Church and their use of peyote as a sacrament. Moreover, there is nothing originalist in Justice Scalia’s reasoning. It consists entirely of distinguishing modern precedents in a manner that Justice O’Connor found “dramatically departs from well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence, appears unnecessary to resolve the question presented, and is incompatible with our Nation’s fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty.”[15]

His final example, Bostock v. Clayton Cnty.,[16] also fails for multiple reasons. First, rather than be an example of constitutional construction, Bostock interpreted a statute, Title VII. Justice Scalia was not an originalist when it came to statutes. He refused to consider congressional debates or legislative history, relying instead on statutory text,[17] which is the same approach that Justice Gorsuch took in writing Bostock. An originalist would have cared what the drafters of Title VII meant; the majority in Bostock did not care. The dissenters cared, though. Justice Alito’s dissent accused the majority of legislating from the bench and inventing a meaning to the word “sex” to include sexual orientation” that was unimagined in 1964 when the law passed.[18] In colorful language, Justice Alito called the opinion a “pirate ship” that “sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated––the theory that courts should ‘update’ old statutes so that they better reflect the current values of society.”[19] Thus, Bostock provides no support for Professor Lamparello’s thesis.

Nor does the absence of direct language on various issues mean that the Constitution has nothing to say about them. For example, the phrase “separation of powers” appears nowhere in the Constitution. Nor does the authority to establish a national bank. Yet, even in the founding period, both were understood to flow from constitutional principles.

  1. There is a compelling case that the framers disfavored originalism.

Justice Robert Jackson put forth a standard critique of originalism when he wrote that “[j]ust what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharoah.”[20] That is perhaps why Professor Ronald Dworkin said that “there is no such thing as the intention of the Framers waiting to be discovered, even in principle. There is only some such thing waiting to be invented.”[21]

Frequently, originalists seek the views of James Madison, as the most important of the framers. In a revealing joke about the Father of the Constitution’s hallowed status, Justice Alito chided Justice Scalia for questions seeking an originalist answer during oral argument in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n.[22]  Rephrasing his colleague’s question, Justice Alito said, “what Justice Scalia is asking is what did James Madison think about video games. . . . Did he enjoy them?”[23]

If Madison’s views help define originalism, it is significant that he disfavored singular reliance on that approach. During the congressional debate over the Jay Treaty, members of Congress sought to resolve their differing views on a relevant constitutional question by turning to Madison, who was then serving in that body. He found the inquiry “a matter of some surprise.”[24] He told his colleagues that he could neither reconstruct his “own ideas at that period, [nor] . . . the intention of the whole body; many members of which, too, had probably never entered into the discussions of the subject.”[25] Where delegates had strong views, Madison said they were often in disagreement, but willing to accept language susceptible of different results when debates took place in the future. For that reason, he concluded by telling his colleagues that “whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our Constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding the Constitution.”[26]

Given that Madison kept the best notes on the debates at the Constitutional Convention, which could have shed light on interpreting the Constitution in its earliest days, but withheld publication until after all the other framers had passed away,[27] and that Madison rejected any idea that the framers’ views should be deemed authoritative, a strong case can be made that the intent of the framers was that their views should not be controlling.

Instead, as Chief Justice Taft observed, those who wrote the Constitution “were born and brought up in the atmosphere of the common law, and thought and spoke in its vocabulary.”[28] They celebrated jurists like Lord Coke, who some four centuries after it was first promulgated, re-read Magna Carta as a source of rights that later appealed to the American colonies.[29] The framers understood the wisdom of his common-law approach to interpretation, which allowed them to stand on the shoulders of all those who came before them, enjoying and for posterity to stand on their own shoulders, thereby enjoying the benefits of a surfeit of views.[30] Inevitably, whatever lessons may be drawn from originalism, or any other interpretative methodology, we read the past, as we read precedents, through the lens of what we know and understand today. No canon of construction can overcome that built-in, even as we strive to achieve Brandeis’s admonition against reading our prejudices into legal principles.

 

[1] New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

[2] 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022).

[3] 554 U.S. 570 (2008).

[4] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, ch. XII, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm#chap12.

[5] See Friedman v. City of Highland Park, 577 U.S. 1039, 136 S. Ct. 447, 450 (2015) (Mem.) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[6] Bruen, 142 S. Ct. at 2180 (Breyer, J., dissenting).

[7] U.S. Const. amend. II.

[8] J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, 95 Va. L. Rev. 253, 254 (2009).

[9] Id. at 256.

[10] Antonin Scalia, Originalism: The Lesser Evil, 57 U. Cin. L. Rev. 849, 864 (1989).

[11] For a description of why Justice Scalia’s explanation of why Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided on originalist grounds lacks the originalist rigor he often championed and, in reality, was a product of modern sensibilities, see Ronald Turner, A Critique of Justice Antonin Scalia's Originalist Defense of Brown v. Board of Education, 60 UCLA L. Rev. Discourse 170 (2014).

[12] Nina Totenberg, “Justice Scalia, the Great Dissenter, Opens Up,” (Apr. 28, 2008), https://www.npr.org/2008/04/28/89986017/justice-scalia-the-great-dissenter-opens-up.

[13] 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

[14] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[15] Id. at 891 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

[16] 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020).

[17] Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation 29-30 (1997).

[18] Id. at 1755 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[19] Id. at 1755-56 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[20] Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 634 (1952).

[21] Ronald Dworkin, A Matter of Principle 39 (1985).

[22] 564 U.S. 768 (2011).

[23] Oral Argument Transcript, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n, No. 08-1448 https://www.oyez.org/cases/2010/08-1448.

[24] 5 Annals of Cong. 775 (Apr. 6, 1796).

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 776.

[27] James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 viii-ix ((1984 reprint).

[28] Ex Parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 109 (1925).

[29] Coke was “widely recognized by the American colonists ‘as the greatest authority of his time on the laws of England.’” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 594 (1980). See also Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 29 (1991) (Scalia, J., concurring) (recognizing Coke’s unrivaled influence on American constitution writers).

[30] See Robert S. Peck, The Bill of Rights and the Politics of Interpretation 183-203.(1992).

June 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Case for Grace

In case you missed it, a plaintiff’s lawyer in New York was recently featured in the New York Times for submitting a document to a court that was drafted by ChatGPT and replete with fabricated case law resulting from artificial intelligence hallucinations.[i]  Plaintiff’s counsel has since become a subject of national ridicule and undoubtedly violated numerous rules of professional conduct (e.g., the duties of competence, confidentiality, and supervision to name a few),[ii] for which he—and his firm—are facing sanctions.[iii]

The issue came to light in defense counsel’s response to plaintiff’s filing, indicating that defense counsel was unable to find the cases cited in plaintiff’s filing.  This, of course, prompted the judge to request copies of the case law.  Plaintiff’s counsel submitted alleged copies of the decisions, which were again fabrications drafted by artificial intelligence, apparently unbeknownst to plaintiff’s counsel.[iv] Defense counsel then wrote a letter to the judge, questioning the authenticity of the cases identified.

Defense counsel and others in his firm suspected “the cases in the brief were not real . . . [and] had an inkling a chatbot might have been involved.”[v]  In that moment, defense counsel faced a question many attorneys encounter:  in the face of an obvious error by opposing counsel, what do you do?

Here, defense counsel chose to alert the court, a choice that was certainly available under the model rules of professional conduct.  But this was not his only option, as “[t]he Rules do not . . . exhaust the moral and ethical considerations that should inform a lawyer.”[vi]  Defense counsel could have contacted plaintiff’s counsel first to address the issue.  By all accounts, it appears that plaintiff’s attorney legitimately did not know or understand the inherent risks associated with answers provided by ChatGPT.[vii]   (Whether he should have known is a different question, and the answer to that question is undoubtedly yes.)[viii]  But there’s no reason to believe that plaintiff’s counsel was acting with any malicious or deceptive intent when filing the document.[ix]  And, had defense counsel contacted plaintiff’s counsel first, he could have alerted plaintiff’s counsel to the fabricated case law and likely discovered the source of the fabrications.  Defense counsel could have shared his own knowledge of ChatGPT’s limitations regarding legal research, which would have allowed plaintiff’s counsel the opportunity to withdraw or amend the filing without the need for judicial involvement. And all of that could have been accomplished without risking the defense’s position in the matter.

I do not mean to suggest that defense counsel did anything unethical or immoral.  My point, instead, is that defense counsel—who admittedly recognized the potential source of the issue—could have given plaintiff’s counsel—who obviously failed to understand the limitations of a new technology—a bit of grace in the situation. Grace is defined in many ways, including “an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency,”[x] “favor or goodwill,”[xi] and “a disposition to kindness and compassion.”[xii] Giving grace would have helped not only plaintiff’s counsel to save face but also the legal profession to maintain credibility as a self-regulating entity.[xiii]  Many judges have advised that, “[w]hile serving as advocates for their clients, lawyers are not required to abandon notions of civility.”[xiv]  For, “[i]f the bar is to maintain the respect of the community, lawyers must be willing to act out of a spirit of cooperation and civility and not wholly out of a sense of blind and unbridled advocacy.”[xv]    

Generative AI is likely to change our profession ultimately for the better, but we are in the midst of a learning curve. Accordingly, we should seize these teachable moments and show grace to our fellow bar members while we all learn how to use—and not use—this new tool.

 

[i] Benjamin Weiser, Here’s What Happens When Your Lawyer Uses ChatGPT, New York Times (May 27, 2023), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/27/nyregion/avianca-airline-lawsuit-chatgpt.html.

[ii] See Karen Sloan, A lawyer used ChatGPT to cite bogus cases. What are the ethics?, Reuters (May 30, 2023), available at https://www.reuters.com/legal/transactional/lawyer-used-chatgpt-cite-bogus-cases-what-are-ethics-2023-05-30/.

[iii] Sara Merken, Lawyer who cited cases concocted by AI asks judge to spare sanctions, Reuters (June 8, 2023), available at https://www.reuters.com/legal/transactional/lawyer-who-cited-cases-concocted-by-ai-asks-judge-spare-sanctions-2023-06-08/.

[iv] Plaintiff’s counsel asked ChatGPT if the cases it cited were real cases, and it confirmed that they were.  Plaintiff’s counsel asked for the source of that information, and ChatGPT replied that the cases could “be found in reputable legal databases.”  Weiser, supra note i.

[v] Weiser, supra note i.

[vi] 2023 ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Scope ¶ 16, available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_preamble_scope/.

[vii] Wes Davis, A lawyer used ChatGPT and now has to answer for its ‘bogus’ citations, The Verge (May 27, 2023), available at https://www.theverge.com/2023/5/27/23739913/chatgpt-ai-lawsuit-avianca-airlines-chatbot-research. According to affidavits filed in the case, plaintiff’s counsel relied primarily on Fastcase for legal research in other state-law matters and did not have access to federal cases, so he turned to ChatGPT, which he misunderstood to be a search engine, and ChatGPT falsely advised plaintiff’s counsel that the cases it provided could be found on both Westlaw and LexisNexis.

[viii] “A lawyer must have a reasonable basis for believing any statement that he makes to a tribunal.” Douglas R. Richmond, The Ethics of Zealous Advocacy: Civility, Candor and Parlor Tricks, 34 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 3, 29 (2002).

[ix] When seeking the court’s mercy at the sanctions hearing, plaintiff’s counsel noted that he has “’suffered professionally and personally’ and is embarrassed and humiliated.” Merken, supra note iii.

[x] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace

[xi] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grace

[xii] https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/grace

[xiii] The title of the New York Times article is “Here’s What Happens When Your Lawyer Uses ChatGPT” (emphasis added), suggesting that all attorneys are likely to misuse generative AI and repeat the blunder made by plaintiff’s counsel. Had defense counsel reached out to plaintiff’s counsel before involving the court, media involvement would likely have been greatly diminished or even nonexistent, thus avoiding the negative implications for the profession as a whole.  It is our responsibility, as members of the bar, to “further the public's . . . confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” 2023 ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Preamble ¶ 6, supra note vi.

[xiv] Butts v. State, 273 Ga. 760, 772 (2001) (Benham, C.J., concurring).

[xv] Evanoff v. Evanoff, 262 Ga. 303, 304 (1992).  

June 13, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 12, 2023

At the Altar of the Appellate Gods--A Partial Book Review

It is finally summer, which means I have more time to read. And while much of my free time (and energy) has been consumed with potty training my youngest, I have still managed to read a few law-related books. My current read is At the Altar of the Appellate Gods by Lisa Sarnoff Gochman.

I’ve been eager to read this book ever since I received an email about it from the author. The premise sounded promising—the story of a state appellate attorney who received the once-in-a-lifetime chance to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The book follows Gochman’s experience handling the appeals in the Apprendi case—including the U.S. Supreme Court briefing and oral argument.  And while I am only about halfway through the book, a few things have stood out.

First, Gochman does an excellent job explaining the case and the complex legal issues in a simple manner. And, while the particular facts in Apprendi and the hate crimes statute at issue make the case interesting and significant, as Gochman explains, the complex legal question of how certain sentencing enhancements should be treated is (or at least was) relevant to many state and federal statutes.

Second, I am so glad I live in the days of email, electronic research, and personal computers. Gochman tells a story about going to work on a Saturday because she needed the word processing system on her work computer. But she didn’t have the ability to turn on the lights in her work office, so she worked largely in the dark. That sounds miserable! In another technology-related story straight from the last century, she tells about printing the most up-to-date copy of her brief on December 31, 1999, just in case Y2K destroyed her computer. 

Third, I have learned some interesting things about appellate practice in New Jersey. For example, cases at the intermediate appellate court can be heard by just two judges. But, if they are heard by three judges and one judge dissents, the losing party has an appeal of right to the state supreme court. Fascinating!

I look forward to finishing Gochman’s book in between excessive loads of potty training laundry. I will publish a full review in the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process.

June 12, 2023 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Supreme Court and Originalism

Justice Elena Kagan once stated, when referring to the justices on the Court, that “we are all originalists.”[1] She is right. Originalism, which has many variations, is the predominant interpretive theory in American constitutional law – and for good reason.

Below are a few reasons why originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.

1.    Originalism focuses on process, not outcomes.

Originalism, when properly applied, ensures the integrity of the judicial decision-making process, and eschews a focus on whether the outcome of a decision is politically or personally desirable. This is not to say, of course, that judges should never consider outcomes, or the consequences of their rulings when deciding a case (and when the text reasonably supports such outcomes). It is to say, however, that judges should not base decisions on whether the outcome is consistent with their subjective values or policy predilections. As Justice Neil Gorsuch stated:

Of course, some suggest that originalism leads to bad results because the results inevitably happen to be politically conservative results. Rubbish. Originalism is a theory focused on process, not on substance. It is not “Conservative” with a big focused on politics. It is conservative in the small sense that it seeks to conserve the meaning of the Constitution as it was written. The fact is, a good originalist judge will not hesitate to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution’s original meaning, regardless of contemporary political consequences.[2]

Furthermore, as Justice Gorsuch noted, even if “originalism does lead to a result you happen to dislike in this or that case,” that should not matter because “[t]he “judicial Power” of Article III of the Constitution isn’t a promise of all good things.”[3]

2.    Originalism leads to conservative and liberal results because the focus is primarily on the legitimacy of the decision-making process, not on         reaching outcomes that reflect the justices’ subjective values.

When originalism is properly applied, it leads to conservative and liberal results because the justices are focused on interpreting the text, not reaching outcomes that comport with their policy preferences. As Justice Gorsuch explained:

In my own judicial career, I’ve written many originalist rulings with so-called “liberal” results. Like United States v. Carloss, where I ruled that the police violated a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home without a warrant despite four conspicuously posted no trespassing signs. Or Sessions v. Dimaya, where I ruled that an immigrant couldn’t constitutionally be punished according to a law so vague that judges were forced to give it content by fiat. Or Carpenter v. United States, where I explained that simply giving your property to another doesn’t necessarily mean you lose all your Fourth Amendment rights in it.[4] 

Justice Gorsuch is exactly right. In Texas v. Johnson, for example, the Court, with Justice Scalia in the majority, held that the First Amendment protected the right to burn the American flag.[5] In Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia held that generally applicable laws that only incidentally affect religious practices did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.[6] In Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Gorsuch, an originalist, held that Title VII protects gay and transgendered employees from discrimination.[7]

And Justice Scalia's Fourth Amendment and Confrontation Clause jurisprudence shows that originalists reach outcomes that most living constitutionalists -- and liberals -- would support. Thus, originalism cannot be categorized as simply a tool for a conservative majority to implement a political agenda. 

3.    Originalism focuses on the Constitution’s words and what the Founders understood those words to mean, not on vague formulations about a         provision’s underlying purposes.

When interpreting a constitutional provision, originalists focus on the words – and what the Founders understood those words to mean – not the purposes of a constitutional provision.[8] And for good reason.

Determining the intent or purpose of a constitutional provision can be difficult, and even where it is ascertainable, it may not guide judges to an outcome that reflects a reasonable interpretation of the text. After all, a constitutional provision can have more than one purpose. How is a judge to quantify these purposes and decide which purpose should have priority over another? And at what level of generality – or specificity – do you define that purpose? Moreover, how should an alleged purpose be applied in a specific case, and given how broadly a purpose can be interpreted, how can it be applied without involving a judge’s subjective values? Put differently, a focus on a provision’s underlying purposes can unmoor judges from the Constitution’s text and, as Justice Scalia emphasized, leave them “at sea” where nothing but their personal values guide the way.[9] That is a prescription for judging of the most politicized and untenable kind.

Lest there be any doubt, recall the “sweet mystery  of life” passage where the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey stated, “[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.”[10] That passage is precisely what living constitutionalism, which states that the Constitution’s meaning changes over time, produces: a lot of nothing – except maybe those invisible penumbras that the Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, invented out of thin air, and from which it created unenumerated constitutional rights.[11]

4.    Originalism constrains judges and promotes democratic governance.

Courts should protect vigorously the express and implied rights enunciated in the Constitution. For example, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel can certainly be interpreted to include the right to effective assistance of counsel. But courts should not invent rights out of thin air that have no grounding in a reasonable interpretation of the text and that remove important social and political issues from the democratic process. Originalism is the best way to prevent this type of judicial overreach.

Think about it: where in the Constitution is there a right to abortion?[12] Where in the Constitution does it say that a state cannot authorize the death penalty for child rape?[13] Where in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects citizens from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, is there a substantive right to privacy (or any substantive rights whatsoever)?[14] Where in the Constitution does it say that a person under the age of eighteen cannot be sentenced to death for murder or sentenced to life imprisonment?[15] Where in the Constitution does it say that, when you provide personal information to third parties, you surrender all privacy rights in that information?[16] Where in the Constitution does it say that you do not have a right to assisted suicide, or suicide generally?[17] And what about the right to polygamy? Can that be found somewhere in the Constitution?

No.

And where are the rights that the Court recognized in Griswold and in Roe located in the Constitution?

Nowhere.

That’s why when the Court answers these questions, it is acting arbitrarily and basing its decisions on little more than the justices’ subjective values. Why, though, do the justices’ values or policy preferences matter more than every American citizen? And why should nine unelected and life-tenured justices be inventing rights for an entire nation? As Justice Scalia argued, “[i]f the constitution is not an ordinary law but rather this empty bottle into which each generation is going to pour the liquid that it desires, why should the bottle be filled by nine unelected judges?”[18] After all, when deciding whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual,” why should citizens trust nine unelected justices to determine what punishments are consistent with “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society?”[19] And what does that even mean?[20]

When judges have this kind of power, democracy is truly in danger. Of course, many will agree with the outcomes that the Court reached in these and other cases. But that is not the point. What should trouble citizens of every political persuasion is that the process by which these outcomes were reached had nothing to do with the Constitution. Instead, they originated from those invisible “penumbras” that Griswold invented and that any legitimate constitutional would find illegitimate. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with living constitutionalism. It allows judges to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want.

To be sure, decisions such as Roe, Kennedy, and Roper did not result from a principled interpretation of the Constitution. They happened because, at the time, the political affiliations of the justices were more liberal than conservative. And while many celebrated those decisions, they failed to consider that what the Court gives, it can take away whenever it wants. Indeed, the moment that you embrace living constitutionalism as a basis to create unenumerated rights, those rights are contingent on the whims of the justices and the justices’ respective political affiliations at a given moment in time. Lest there be any doubt, look no further than Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court overturned Roe and other precedents, suddenly discovering that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion.[21] The only reason the Court overturned Roe was because there were more conservative justices on the Court. It was not because the Court suddenly gained new insight into constitutional meaning. Rather, it demonstrated that the foundation for constitutional rights is more political than principled.

This reduces constitutional meaning to little more than what the justices think it means – based on their political affiliations and subjective values – and with no regard to what you think it should mean. It is difficult to imagine fundamental rights with a more flimsy and arbitrary foundation. Simply put, the creation of unenumerated rights should occur through the legislature, not the courts, and the people, not nine unelected and life-tenured justices, should identify the unenumerated rights to which all citizens in a particular state are entitled.

5.    When judges have unchecked power or rely on their subjective values to reach decisions, it often leads to unjust outcomes.

Living constitutionalism, which states that the meaning of the Constitution changes over time, can lead to terribly unjust outcomes. As Justice Gorsuch states:

Virtually the entire anticanon of constitutional law we look back upon today with regret came about when judges chose to follow their own impulses rather than follow the Constitution’s original meaning. Look, for example, at Dred Scott and Korematsu. Neither can be defended as correct in light of the Constitution’s original meaning; each depended on serious judicial invention by judges who misguidedly thought they were providing a “good” answer to a pressing social problem of the day. A majority in Korematsu, unmoored from originalist principles, upheld the executive internment without trial of American citizens of Japanese descent despite our Constitution’s express guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. A majority in Dred Scott, also disregarding originalist principles, held that Congress had no power to outlaw slavery in the Territories, even though the Constitution clearly gave Congress the power to make laws governing the Territories. In both cases, judges sought to pursue policy ends they thought vital. Theirs was a living and evolving Constitution.[22]

Indeed, “as Korematsu and Dred Scott illustrate, the pursuit of political ends through judicial means will often and ironically bring about a far worse result than anticipated—a sort of constitutional karma.”[23] The Court’s decision in Dobbs is a testament to this fact.

Furthermore, consider that those who support living constitutionalism so conveniently happen – in nearly every case – to be liberal. Why is that? Because they want the Court to reach outcomes that they believe are morally correct, and they want to politicize and use the Court to make policies that properly belong to the legislative process. To be sure, when was the last time that you encountered a liberal professor who was an originalist?

6.    Originalism is best suited to deal with constitutional ambiguity.

A significant problem when interpreting the Constitution is the fact that some provisions in the Bill of Rights contained broad language that is subject to reasonably different interpretations. For example, the Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the face of this ambiguity, the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches when reasonable people could disagree regarding a law’s constitutionality. For example, in Clinton v. New York, the Constitution’s Presentment Clause did not clearly support the conclusion that the line-item veto was unconstitutional.[24] Thus, why did the Court invalidate a law that was designed to reduce wasteful government spending? And in Citizens United v. FEC, the First Amendment’s text certainly did not answer the question of whether Congress’s law limiting independent expenditures was permissible.[25] Thus, why did the Court, including several originalists, invalidate a law that sought to reduce undue influence in the political process? That’s a great question.

In short, the answer to ambiguity is not living constitutionalism. It is deference. And when the Court does decide cases where a provision is ambiguous, originalism is the best, although certainly not perfect, approach because, at the very least, originalists will attempt to discern what the Founders understood the words to mean rather than basing decisions on subjective values.

***

Originalism is not perfect, and in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences. However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se. And in the final analysis, originalism, when applied faithfully, limits judicial power and respects constitutional constraints on that power.

Ultimately, as Justice Scalia stated, “[y]ou either adopt originalism or essentially you say to your judges, ‘Come govern us.’”[26]  Put differently, the Constitution does not give courts the authority to “change meaning from age to age to comport with whatever the zeitgeist thinks appropriate.”[27] And when scholars base their opinion of the Court – or of interpretive methods – on whether they agree with a decision, they are politicizing the Court and contributing to the delegitimization of the judiciary.

 

[1] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com)

[2] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

[6] 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

[7] 590 U.S.             , 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020). Additionally, originalism can and does support invalidating bans on interracial and same-sex marriage.

[8] See Pete Williams, Scalia: Judges Should Interpret Words, Not Intent (Aug. 22, 2012), available at:  Scalia: Judges should interpret words, not intent (nbcnews.com)

[9]  U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009), available at:

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009) - YouTube

[10] 505 U.S. 833(1992).

[11] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[12]  See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[13]  See Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[14] See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); U.S. Const., Amend XIV.

[15] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[16] Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979).

[17] Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[18] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

[19]  Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958)

[20] This is not to say that the Court’s decisions in  Griswold, Roe, and Roper did not reach good outcomes. The problem is that it took making bad constitutional law to reach those outcomes.

[21] 597 U.S.            , 2022 WL 2276808 (June 24, 2022).

[22] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[23]  Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[24] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[25] 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[26] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

[27] Id.

June 11, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Supreme Court Rules Purely Legal Issues from Summary Judgment Remain Available for Appeal

Federal law limits appeals to “final decisions of the district courts.” 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The limitation on reviewing final dispositions presupposes that an appeal of a final judgment “brings up all antecedent issues,” In re Kilgus, 811 F.2d 1112, 1115 (7th Cir. 1987), including all interlocutory orders. Kurowski v. Krajewski, 848 F.2d 767, 772 (7th Cir. 1988).

Even so, the circuits were split over whether purely legal claims denied at summary judgment were reviewable on appeal after a jury trial even though the claims were not reasserted in a post-trial motion. With last week’s unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Dupree v. Younger, No. 22-210, there is no requirement that the claims be reasserted.

In the case, Respondent Kevin Younger sued a Maryland correctional officer for permanent injuries he suffered from three guards allegedly under orders to attack him while in pretrial detention. The complaint accused Petitioner Neil Dupree of issuing the order.

Dupree moved for summary judgment, arguing that Younger was obliged to exhaust administrative remedies before suing. The district court denied the motion because the state prison system had concluded an internal investigation of the assault. Besides, the guards were convicted of the assault.

Dupree did not present evidence on his exhaustion defense at trial. The jury found Dupree and his codefendants liable and awarded $700,000 in compensatory damages. Dupree did seek a post-verdict renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. When he appealed based on the failure-to-exhaust issue, the Fourth Circuit dismissed his appeal based on its own precedent that requires preservation of summary-judgment issues through a post-trial motion.

The Supreme Court’s decision by Justice Amy Coney Barrett held that no post-trial motion is necessary to preserve the issue for appeal if summary judgment was based on a purely legal ruling because those decisions are not superseded by subsequent case developments. The Court distinguished summary judgment based on the sufficiency of the evidence, because the record becomes further developed at trial. Moreover, an appellate court derives no benefit from presenting the legal issue to the district court a second time after trial because it cannot be expected that something at trial would have changed the court’s mind on an issue for which facts are immaterial.

In vacating and remanding the case to the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court left it to the lower court to determine whether administrative exhaustion is a fact-dependent issue and thus eligible for appeal without preservation.

The decision has clear practical importance, helping practitioners know whether the absence of post-trial motions dooms an appeal. The battle over whether the summary-judgment concerned a legal issue without evidentiary predicates now begins.

June 4, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)