Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Abortion Mess Continues

In the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, “[l[ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried,” Roe v. Wade (and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) stalks the Fourteenth Amendment’s jurisprudence yet again, reflecting the constitutional mess that these decisions created.[1]

Specifically, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court will decide whether a Mississippi law, which bans abortions after the fifteenth week of pregnancy, violates the right, created in Roe and reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood, to obtain abortions before viability (which occurs at approximately twenty-four weeks of pregnancy).[2] By way of background, in Roe, the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to support a fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances.[3] In so holding, the Court adopted a trimester framework that balanced a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy with a state’s right to regulate the abortion procedure. In the first trimester, women had an unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy.[4] In the second trimester, states could regulate abortion to protect a women’s health.[5] After the second trimester – when the fetus became viable – states could prohibit abortions except when necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.[6]

Scholars and judges of all political persuasions criticized the Court’s decision in Roe, arguing that the right to abortion could not be found anywhere in the Constitution’s text and certainly was not inferable from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects procedural, not substantive rights.[7] These scholars were correct: the abortion right in Roe was predicated in substantial part on and an outgrowth of the Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Court held that the Constitution contains invisible “penumbras,” that are “formed by emanations from those guarantees [in the text] that give them life and substance.”[8] In other words, the Court could create whatever rights it wanted, regardless of whether the text supported creating those rights.

Two decades later, in Planned Parenthood, the Court made the problem worse. In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the central holding in Roe (the right to obtain abortions before viability) but rejected Roe’s trimester framework. In its place, the Court adopted the “undue burden,” test, which stated that before viability, states may not enact laws that impose a substantial burden on a woman’s right to access abortion services.[9] It is obvious why Planned Parenthood introduced instability and unpredictability into abortion jurisprudence. After all, what constitutes an “undue burden” on the right to obtain a pre-viability abortion? No one knew the answer. Perhaps it was located in Griswold’s penumbras, which only the Court could access and define.

Not surprisingly, in response to what many rightfully perceived as judicial overreach in Roe and constitutional ambiguity in Planned Parenthood, some states embarked on a decades-long and seemingly never-ending mission to eviscerate, if not effectively overturn, Roe through legislation that imposes various restrictions upon when and under what circumstances women can obtain abortions. For example, in Planned Parenthood, a Pennsylvania law required minors to obtain parental consent, and adult women to inform their spouses, before obtaining an abortion. The Court upheld the former provision and invalidated the latter.[10] In Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt and June Medical Services v. Russo, Texas and Louisiana, respectively, enacted laws requiring physicians to obtain hospital admitting privileges before providing abortion services.[11] In two 5-4 decisions, the Court invalidated both laws.[12] These cases are just a sample of the many instances in which states attempted to limit, directly or indirectly, access to abortion.[13]  

And in every case,  the Court declined the opportunity to clarify definitively the nature and scope of the abortion right, such as by unequivocally upholding or overruling Roe, or adopting categorical rules concerning when and under what circumstances women could access abortions. Instead, the Court applied the malleable “undue burden” test, which resulted in a case-by-case jurisprudence that led to uncertainty and often kept the abortion right hanging by a thread, dependent more on the current justices’ ideological predilections than on principled constitutional law. Simply put, the Court’s approach ensured that the abortion right would remain in constitutional purgatory, mired in uncertainty, and continuously under attack by states that viewed abortion as constitutionally unsupportable and morally indefensible.

Unfortunately, the saga continues.

In the latest installment of How to Overturn Roe While Acting Like You Are Not, the State of Mississippi has enacted a law that bans abortions after fifteen weeks – and thus bans a portion of previability abortions. Only this time, the plot doesn’t just involve Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where the Court will decide whether Mississippi's law passes constitutional muster.  Rather, Texas has decided to make yet another appearance into the abortion sage by passing an unusually bizarre law that: (1) bans all abortions after six weeks; and (2) gives citizens, not the state, enforcement power by authorizing private causes of action against those who provide or assist in providing abortion services after six weeks.[14] This law is certainly unconstitutional; many women do not even know that they are pregnant at six weeks, thus rendering the six-week limit a substantial and unconstitutional burden on abortion access. Not surprisingly, in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, the Petitioner sought an order from the Court preliminarily enjoining the law's enforcement.[15]

You’d think that, based on Roe and Planned Parenthood, the Court would have granted the injunction.

Think again.

Last week, in a 5-4 decision, the Court declined to issue an injunction. [16] To be fair, the majority did not rule on the merits of Texas’s law. Rather, the Court held that the Petitioner did not meet the standard for obtaining a preliminary injunction because, among other things, there was no evidence that any private citizen intended to enforce the law, or that the Court had the authority to issue an injunction against state judges who were asked to decide the law's constitutionality.[17] The Court was careful to emphasize, however, that its decision was not “based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law.”[18]

Yeah, right.

The majority doesn’t live in a fantasy world. It knew that its decision would allow a law to go into effect that unquestionably violated Roe and Planned Parenthood, and effectively outlawed abortion for most women in Texas. As Justice Sotomayor explained in her dissent:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand. Last night, the Court silently acquiesced in a State’s enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedents.[19]

Furthermore, as Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, the Court could have enjoined the law on the ground that a state “cannot delegate . . . a veto power [over the right to obtain an abortion] which the state itself is absolutely and totally prohibited from exercising during the first trimester of pregnancy.”[20] Ultimately, the Court’s refusal to issue the injunction in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson suggests that five justices may be prepared to overturn Roe or, at the very least, severely restrict abortion rights.

For that and other reasons, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization is perhaps the most important abortion case in years. Whatever the justices decide, they should ensure that the opinion ends the constitutional mess that is abortion jurisprudence, in which the abortion right has been plagued by uncertainty and the Court’s decisions characterized by anything by clarity.  The Court can do so by issuing a clear and categorical decision about whether abortion is a fundamental right and, if the answer is yes, clarifies definitively the scope of this right. The Court has several options, including:

  1. Overturn Roe and return the abortion issue to the states.
  2. Overturn Planned Parenthood but not Roe and return to the trimester framework.
  3. Overturn Planned Parenthood and Roe, but hold that the Equal Protection Clause supports the right to abortion.
  4. Uphold Planned Parenthood and Roe based on stare decisis.

The absolute worst result would be if the Court issued yet another fractured, 5-4 decision that invalidated or upheld the Mississippi law, but otherwise provided no clarity regarding the scope of the abortion right and the states’ power to restrict its exercise. The worst result would be if Chief Justice Roberts engaged in legal shenanigans yet again in a misguided to preserve the Court’s institutional legitimacy. The worst result would be if the Court issued a plurality opinion with multiple concurrences and dissents that made readers think that the Court just can’t – and perhaps never will – reach any agreement on how to address the constitutional mess that Roe created, and that Planned Parenthood exacerbated. Whatever happens, the abortion saga should be a lesson in what happens when courts ignore the Constitution and create rights out of thin air.

The time has come to bring the abortion soap opera to a conclusion and end the decades-old constitutional charade that Griswold, Roe, and Planned Parenthood created.  In other words, either kill the monster or allow it to forever terrorize constitutional law and lurk in the hidden penumbras, waiting to trap and possess unsuspecting justices in those penumbras.  

The Court’s abortion jurisprudence, however, suggests that the ending in the latest installment of How to Overturn Roe While Acting Like You Are Not will leave the audience wanting, just as in those 80s’ horror movies that ended with the killer seemingly dead, only to open an eye or move a body part before the screen fades out, signaling to the audience that yet another sequel is on the horizon. 

Stay tuned.

 

[1] Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993) (Scalia, J., concurring)

[2] No. 19-392, available at: Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization - SCOTUSblog.

[3] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] See, e.g., Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu).

[8] 381 U.S. 479 (1965) (brackets added).

[9] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[10] See id.

[11] 579 U.S. 582 (2016); 591 U.S.     , 2020 WL 3492640.

[12] See id.

[13] See, e.g., Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976).

[14] See Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, 594 U.S.      (2021), available at: 21A24 Whole Woman's Health v. Jackson (09/01/2021) (supremecourt.gov).

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[20] Id. (quoting Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U. S. 52, 69 (1976)) (brackets in original).

September 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Social Media, State Action, and the First Amendment

In a climate of extreme partisanship and polarization, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – with the express authorization of Congress under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – exercise unprecedented power to censor the content and viewpoints that individuals express on these platforms, particularly concerning political speech. And social media platforms have done precisely that, censoring views that they subjectively deem objectionable or inappropriate – with no repercussions whatsoever. In so doing, social media platforms thwart the robust exchange of opinions and thus undermine the marketplace of ideas that is so essential to a properly functioning democracy and a diverse society.

If the federal government engaged in such conduct, it would unquestionably violate the First Amendment. Social media platforms, however, are private companies, not government (state) actors, thus rendering the First Amendment inapplicable and enabling social media to engage in content and viewpoint-based discrimination with impunity.  

That has to change – now.

For the reasons set forth below, the United States Supreme Court should hold that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are state actors and, as such, prohibited from engaging in conduct that would violate individuals’ free speech rights.

1. Through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Congress gave (and delegated to) social media the power to engage in                            content-based discrimination.

A private company can be deemed a state actor when there is a close relationship between the private party's actions and the government's objectives, or when the private party performs a traditional government function. In Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association, for example, Congress empowered private companies to conduct drug tests of their employees.[1] The Labor Association objected, arguing that the drug tests violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.[2] The Supreme Court held that, although the railroad was a private company, the tests, which the government explicitly authorized, rendered the railroad  a state actor for this purpose.[3] Additionally, in Marsh v. Alabama, the Court held that when a private company exercises powers that are traditionally reserved to the states, it is engaging in a public function and thus must respect constitutional safeguards.[4]

Based on Skinner, social media can arguably be deemed a state actor. Through Section 230, Congress explicitly authorized social media platforms to do precisely what the First Amendment prohibits: censor information based on content or viewpoint.  As one commentator explains:

Section 230 … grants a … “good Samaritan” immunity to online platforms as well. In this second immunity, Section 230 authorizes internet platforms to block content deemed “lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” Section 230 explicitly exempts websites from most civil and state criminal liability for any action they take in a “good faith effort” to exclude such “offensive” material.[5]

As Professor Dawn Nunziato states, “Congress encouraged private Internet actors to do what it could not do itself—restrict harmful, offensive, and otherwise undesirable speech, the expression of which would nonetheless be protected by the First Amendment.”[6]  

Simply put, Section 230 “effectively immunizes and induces private conduct that would be unconstitutional if governmental actors did it themselves.”[7] And that is the problem. Congress should not be permitted to evade First Amendment protections simply by giving social media platforms – the modern-day marketplace of ideas – the power to do that which it could never do.

2.    Social media is the new public forum and the modern-day marketplace of ideas.

Most citizens do not express their political views on Main Street, in public parks, or in the public square. Rather, they express their views online, such as on their Facebook and Twitter pages. Indeed, the views that millions of social media users express often relate directly to political and public policy issues, such as judicial nominees, abortion, climate change, campaign finance reform, and infrastructure. To be sure, a person need spend only a few minutes on Facebook or Twitter – or read Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Twitter feed (among others in both parties) – to realize that these platforms are the primary vehicle by which users express a diverse array of political views and engage in often heated debates on public policy issues.

Put simply, the marketplace of ideas – the forum in which diverse ideas on matters of public concern, however unpopular or distasteful, are welcome – is now located on social media platforms.

By censoring information that it subjectively and arbitrarily deems “objectionable,” social media is compromising the marketplace of ideas by doing precisely what the First Amendment prohibits – engaging in content and viewpoint discrimination. If legislators are to remain committed to respecting all points of view, rejecting discrimination and arbitrariness, and recognizing that unpopular ideas are essential to public discourse, they should conclude that social media platforms, particularly due to the power Section 230 grants, are state actors.

3.    A robust public discourse – including welcoming offensive and unpopular ideas – is essential to democracy, liberty, and diversity.

Politics and public discourse have become so divisive and polarized that diverse and unpopular viewpoints – regardless of political affiliation – are often met with scorn and ridicule.  By censoring diverse views that challenge widely accepted and prevailing views, social media exacerbates this problem.

It encourages groupthink.

It discourages critical analysis of public policy issues.

Don’t be fooled by the claim that social media platforms are simply preventing the dissemination of “misinformation.” That determination is subjective and arbitrary. It is also anathema to the principle that liberty, democracy, and diversity depend on tolerating speech that we hate and views that we abhor.  Ultimately, welcoming all viewpoints and eschewing discrimination vindicates every individual’s interest in having a voice in democracy. As Erwin Chemerinsky stated:

Freedom of speech is defended both instrumentally—it helps people make better decisions—and intrinsically—individuals benefit from being able to express their views. The consensus is that the activity of expression is vital and must be protected. Any infringement of freedom of speech, be it by public or private entities, sacrifices these values. In other words, the consensus is not just that the government should not punish expression; rather, it is that speech is valuable and, therefore, any unjustified violation is impermissible. If employers can fire employees and landlords can evict tenants because of their speech, then speech will be chilled and expression lost. Instrumentally, the “marketplace of ideas” is constricted while, intrinsically, individuals are denied the ability to express themselves. Therefore, courts should uphold the social consensus by stopping all impermissible infringements of speech, not just those resulting from state action.[8]

Upholding the social consensus – and the First Amendment’s original purpose – supports a finding that social media platforms, due both to Section 230 and their status as the new public forum, are state actors. 

***

The solution to this problem is simple: social media should retain immunity for the comments posted by its users. However, social media should only be prohibited from censoring speech that the Court has held receives no First Amendment protection. This includes, for example, obscenity and speech that incites violence.

Otherwise, the marketplace of ideas should remain a place where diverse and unpopular ideas are welcomed.  

 

[1] 489 U.S. 602 (1990)

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] Jed Rubenfeld, Are Facebook and Google State Actors? (Nov. 4, 2019), available at: Are Facebook and Google State Actors? - Lawfare (lawfareblog.com) (emphasis in original).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] David L. Hudson, Jr., In the Age of Social Media, Expand the Reach of the First Amendment, available at:    In the Age of Social Media, Expand the Reach of the First Amendment (americanbar.org) (quoting Erwin Chemerinsky) (emphasis added).

August 21, 2021 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Next Supreme Court Justice: A Case for Greater Diversity

For the Supreme Court, the question of the summer has been whether Justice Stephen Breyer will retire or remain on the Court. Aware that both racial and gender diversity have been historically lacking on the Court, President Biden has promised to nominate an African-American woman if Justice Breyer leaves. Although racial and gender diversity are the most important and most visible considerations in having a diverse Court, President Biden should consider other matters of diversity as well in selecting a nominee.

Racial diversity is a top priority. Only two African-Americans have sat on the Supreme Court, and neither has been a woman. One Hispanic, Justice Sonya Sotomayor, has been a member of the Court. But no Asians or Native Americans have served on the Court.

Gender diversity also is an essential consideration. When asked how many women on the Court would be enough, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously answered "nine." Although the Court has as many women now as it ever has had at one time, only five women have been justices in the history of the Court. 

The more diverse the Court is the more it will reflect the diversity of the nation. This will benefit the Court by adding different perspectives and by increasing the bar's and the general public's faith in the Court. But the president should not stop at just racial and gender diversity. In addition to race and gender, he should consider other attributes of a prospective justice: experience, geography, education, and religion.

Experience. Recent appointments to the Supreme Court have overwhelmingly come from federal appellate courts (the only current justice not to have been a federal appellate judge is Justice Elena Kagan, who was the Solicitor General before her appointment). The last state court judge appointed to the Court was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (also the first woman on the Court), who had been on the Arizona Court of Appeals (and also in the state legislature). While it has been said that a federal judge is someone who knows a Senator and a state judge is someone who knows a Governor, there obviously are differences between the two. That being said, many cases come to the Supreme Court directly from the highest court of a state. Having a justice who has worked in a state court system would be a plus.

And who says that Supreme Court justices need to already be judges anyway? It has been quite a while since the appointment of a practicing attorney or academic without judicial experience.

Although Justice Sotomayor was a federal prosecutor, there also generally has been a lack of justices with criminal law experience. How about the appointment of a Public Defender to bring a different perspective?

Geography. It was essential in the early years of the Court that there be geographical diversity because the justices were required to ride the circuits. In recent memory, though, the Court has been the domain primarily of justices who either were from the Northeast or worked there a considerable portion of their careers. When Justice Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia were on the Court, there were four justices from New York City (at least each was from a different borough).

There are two Southerners by birth currently on the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas (Georgia) and Justice Amy Coney Barrett (Louisiana). This is the most representation the South has had on the Court in recent memory. And the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Court added a justice originally from a mountain state (Colorado), giving the Court that added perspective.

Although it no longer is necessary to have justices from different regions in order to ride the circuits, the Court best reflects the nation when it reflects the nation's geographic diversity. Further, some matters that come before the Court are unique to certain areas of the country. A justice from one of these areas would be able to contribute knowledge and perspective that other justices may lack.

Education. When Justice Barrett joined the Court, the dominance of Ivy League law schools in producing Supreme Court justices was diminished ever so slightly. Justice Barrett graduated from the University of Notre Dame law school, leaving an even split of law school alma maters among the other justices between Harvard University and Yale University. But it has been many years since any member of the Court has been a graduate of a public university's law school. There certainly must be excellent jurists from top public law schools like the University of California, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia who could be nominated. While diversity in law schools attended may not make much difference in perspective, it could help in dispelling the notion that the Court is elitist or somehow out of touch with those who are not.

Religion. Prior to Justice Gorsuch joining the Court, it was composed of six Catholic justices and three Jewish justices. Justice Gorsuch became the first Protestant on the Court since Justice John Paul Stevens. The Court has never had a Muslim justice or any justice who did not identify as Christian or Jewish, nor at least recently has it had a justice that did not identify with some religion. While religious affiliation does not necessarily produce monolithic perspective among justices (see, for instance, Justice Thomas and Justice Sotomayor, both Catholic), diversity in this area would increase confidence in the Court's decisions related to religious matters.

  ***

In the end, perfect diversity is neither required nor achievable. After all, the Court is not a representative body. Even so, the standing of the Court in the eyes of a more and more diverse citizenry would increase if it better reflected this increasing diversity. And the Court itself would benefit from greater diversity of experience, geography, education, and religion as it deals with the difficult and complex issues that come before it.

Although Justice Breyer may not retire this year, a new justice will be nominated sooner or later. When that happens, the President should consider a variety of diversity matters in addition to race and gender.

August 19, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 10, 2021

When Writing a Brief, Think Like a Judge

Excellent writers know how to write for their audience, not for themselves.

Imagine that you are a justice on the United States Supreme Court and responsible for deciding whether the word liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompasses a right to assisted suicide. In addition to the parties’ briefs, you intend to read over twenty amicus briefs.

What criteria would you use to identify the most persuasive appellate briefs?

The best lawyers know the answer. It’s all about the quality of your writing. And the best writers place themselves in the shoes of the reader.

Below are five writing tips to maximize the persuasive value of your brief.

1.    Use plain language

[Too many lawyers believe that] it is essential to legal English that one write as pompously as possible, using words and phrases that have long disappeared from normal English discourse.”

Justice Antonin Scalia

When writing a brief, forget about the words you encountered on the SAT and resist the temptation to sound intelligent by using ‘fancy’ and esoteric words, or legalese. Doing so undermines your credibility and persuasiveness. Write like you are a human being. After all, if you had to read over twenty briefs, would you want to read briefs that required you to consult a dictionary to understand what the advocate was saying? Of course not.

Consider the following example:

As discussed infra, it is axiomatic that the defendant’s words had a deleterious impact upon the plaintiff’s sterling reputation, which as demonstrated herein, was compromised by the invidious invectives hurled at the plaintiff, the effects of which were exacerbated when the defendant repeated these deleterious statements in the local newspaper. Such statements are ipso facto defamatory and, as shown infra, render the plaintiff’s claim meritorious as a matter of fact and law, thus justifying the damages sought herein.

Huh? What?

If you were a justice, how would you react to reading this nonsense?

Consider the next example:

The defendant’s statements were defamatory as a matter of law. They were published to a third party. They subjected the plaintiff to scorn and ridicule in the community. They harmed irreparably plaintiff’s reputation. They were made with an intentional disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. Put simply, the statements represent a textbook case of defamation.

It should be obvious that the second example, although far from perfect, is better than the first.

Be sure to write in a simple and direct style that eliminates ‘fancy,’ esoteric, and unnecessary words, and legalese.

2.    Be concise

Most people don't like others who talk too much. Judges are no different. 

If you had to read over twenty briefs in a specific case, wouldn’t you favor briefs that were concise, clear, and to the point? Of course.

Thus, in your brief, get to the point immediately. Identify the controlling legal issue. Tell the court what you want (the remedy you seek). Tell the court why you should win (using the relevant facts and legal authority). Omit unnecessary facts and law. Address only relevant counterarguments. Avoid unnecessary repetition and excess words.

Think about it: if you had just read five briefs and then turned to the sixth and final brief that you intended to read that day, wouldn't you want that brief to be concise and wouldn't you want the writer to get to the point quickly? Of course.

3.    Capture the court’s attention

Most people dislike boring movies. They dislike boring books. They dislike boring people. And they dislike boring briefs.

Your writing should capture the court’s attention. It should tell a story. It should be entertaining. Consider the following example:

This case is about whether the defendant’s statements defamed the plaintiff. For the reasons that follow, the answer is yes. The defendant’s words were harmful to the plaintiff and published in a widely circulated newspaper. The defendant said these harmful things with little regard for the plaintiff’s reputation. These statements harmed the plaintiff’s reputation in the community and continue to harm the plaintiff’s reputation. As a result, the plaintiff has been damaged. The court should rule for the plaintiff.

Yeah, whatever.

That paragraph would probably put most judges to sleep. It almost put me to sleep writing it. Now consider the following example:

On December 8, 2018, the plaintiff’s life changed forever. After purchasing the New Jersey Times, the plaintiff reacted in horror when seeing that the defendant had written an article calling the plaintiff a “horrible human being” who had “sexually assaulted his co-workers and stolen money from his clients.” In the next few days, the plaintiff lost twenty-five percent of his clients. He received threatening emails, including one that said, “I hope you die.” Simply put, the defendant’s statements traumatized the plaintiff, caused irreparable reputational and economic harm, and nearly ruined the plaintiff’s life. The statements are defamatory as a matter of law -- and common sense.

Again, it should be obvious why the second example is better.

An example of a persuasive – and entertaining – brief is Chief Justice John Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency.[1] All law students should read this brief.

4.    Confront the weaknesses in your case and explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek

No one likes a person who is dishonest or evasive.

Likewise, judges do not like advocates who avoid confronting the weaknesses in their arguments. The best advocates acknowledge and confront those weaknesses. They address unfavorable facts and legal authority.  And they explain why those weaknesses do not affect the outcome that they seek.

Advocates who omit unfavorable facts or authority lose their credibility with the court and compromise the persuasiveness of their argument. Don’t be one of those advocates.

5.    Don’t make ‘red flag’ mistakes

When you're writing a brief, don’t make rookie mistakes. If you do, your credibility – and the persuasiveness of your brief – will be irreparably damaged. Some of these mistakes include:

  • Spelling and grammatical errors
  • Long sentences (i.e., over twenty-five words)
  • Inappropriate language (e.g., “The defendant is, simply put, a jerk and the lower court was clueless and ignorant in failing to realize that.”)
  • Extremely long paragraphs (a paragraph should never occupy an entire page)
  • Unnecessary emphasis (e.g., avoid bold and italics, and never use an exclamation point at the end of a sentence)
  • Demeaning the lower court or your adversary
  • Failing to follow the local court rules
  • Including too many block quotes
  • Citing overruled authority
  • Failing to cite unfavorable authority
  • Misrepresenting the record
  • Citing legal authority incorrectly
  • Requesting a remedy that the court has no power to grant
  • Telling the court what it must do, rather than respectfully requesting what it should do

Don’t make these mistakes. If you do, you will likely lose your case – and harm your reputation.

***

Ultimately, when writing a brief, use your common sense. Judges want to know what you want and why you should win, and they want you to explain it simply, concisely, and persuasively.

Simply put, great writers make great advocates.

 

[1] See Brief for Petitioner, Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, available at: 02-658.mer.pet.pdf (findlawimages.com)

July 10, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 2, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, July 2

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 DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real) or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court News and Opinions:

It was a very busy final week of the term for the Supreme Court, with a number of orders and opinions released throughout the week.

On Monday, the Court rejected requests to review two cases concerning the ability of courts to intervene in disputes arising in religious settings, declining to resolve separation of church and state disputes.  More from Bloomberg.

Also on Monday, the Court declined to review a lower federal court decision that found a school violated the Constitutional rights of a transgender student when it imposed a policy banning him from using the boys' restroom. More from BuzzFeed.

Also on Monday, the Court struck down barriers to challenging governmental takings of property in federal court, ruling that the "exhaustion requirement" imposed before bringing suit in federal court only requires giving a state agency a chance to weigh in, rather than requiring following all of the agency's administrative procedures.  More from Bloomberg.

Also on Monday, the Court vacated an Eighth Circuit opinion and remanded a case involving assertions of excessive force by St. Louis police who restrained an inmate in an incident in which he died. The Court ruled that the appellate court deemed as "insignificant" facts that should have been given consideration in deciding whether to grant summary judgment on the excessive force claim, reviving the claim.  More from Courthouse News.

On Tuesday, the Court ruled against a group of noncitizens who had applied for "withholding" relief -- a remedy that involves an exception to the typical action of expeditiously again removing noncitizens who have been removed but are found back in the United States when there is risk of returning them to a country where they might face torture or persecution. More from Scotusblog.

Also on Tuesday, the Court ruled that states cannot stop developers from using the federal government's power of eminent domain to seize property for construction of a natural-gas pipeline through the state.  More from Scotusblog.

Also on Tuesday, the Court refused to lift the federal moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving the ban in place until the end of July, as extended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  More from Bloomberg.

On Thursday, the Court upheld voting restrictions imposed by Arizona, limiting cases under the Voting Rights Act.  The ruling will make it more difficult to contest state-imposed election regulations.  More from Scotusblog.

Also on Thursday, the Court struck down a California requirement that charities and nonprofit organizations operating in the state disclose to the state attorney general's office the names and addresses of the organization's largest donors.  More from Scotusblog.

On Friday, the Court issued a summary reversal in the case of an Alabama death row inmate who had won habeas corpus relief in the lower court, upending the death row inmate's win.  More from Bloomberg.

In the ongoing discussion of whether Justice Breyer will or should consider retiring and allowing President Biden to name and seek confirmation of his replacement, Breyer's friend Kenneth Feinberg writes that Breyer is "at the top of his game" right now.  See the piece at Law.com.

Federal Appellate Court News and Opinions:

This week, the Tenth Circuit issued a ruling that mostly upheld Oklahoma's mandatory bar dues as Constitutional.  More from Law360.

Appellate Practice Tips and Pointers:

Appellate Twitter provided a couple of great threads this week, with appellate practitioners providing some great thoughts on effective advocacy.

Carl Cecere started a thread on Monday discussing the value of Introductions and Summaries in appellate briefs, an all-too-often overlooked opportunity for good advocacy.

Tobias Loss-Eaton started a thread on Thursday discussing the virtues of doing trial level work and trial level briefs, even if you aspire to some kind of "idealized" practice of high court appellate brief writing, because of the insight and development it can provide.

Appellate Jobs:

The Seventh Circuit is accepting applications for positions in the court's Office of Staff Law Clerks to begin in the fall of 2022.  Application information HERE.

July 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia: Chief Justice Roberts Issues Another Disappointing Decision

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the United States Supreme Court confronted the question of whether the City of Philadelphia could deny a contract to a Catholic foster care agency (Catholic Social Services) because the agency refused to provide service to same-sex couples.[1] The city argued that the agency's policy violated the city’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on, among other things sexual orientation.[2]

By way of background, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that neutral laws of general applicability that incidentally burden religion do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.[3] Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia relied in part on Reynolds v. United States to hold that the Free Exercise Clause does not permit religious organizations to receive exemptions from generally applicable laws.[4] Justice Scalia reasoned that to allow such exemptions “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."[5] Justice Scalia held that religious exemptions could be granted only when an alleged violation of religious liberty was coupled with a violation of another constitutional right.[6] For example, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court held that the parents of an Amish child were exempt from a generally applicable law requiring all children to attend public school until the age of sixteen because the law infringed on both the parents’ religious liberty and the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children.[7]

The Court’s decision in Smith has proved quite controversial, as some argue that it is inconsistent with the original purpose of the Free Exercise Clause.[8] And Smith has been implicated in recent disputes involving the balance between accommodating individuals’ religious beliefs and protecting citizens against discrimination.  For example, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a cakeshop owner refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, arguing that doing so would violate his religious beliefs.[9] The State of Colorado argued that the cakeshop owner's refusal violated its generally applicable anti-discrimination law, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.[10]  The facts in Masterpiece Cakeshop arguably presented the Court with the issue of whether Smith should be overruled.

But the Court avoided the question.

Instead, it ruled on very narrow grounds, holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated hostility toward the cakeshop owner’s religion when addressing his claim.[11] As a result, Masterpiece Cakeshop resolved nothing. The decision provided no clarity or guidance to courts and citizens regarding the Free Exercise Clause. It was a missed opportunity.

Not surprisingly, three years later in Fulton, the same issue arose again when Philadelphia denied a contract to Catholic Social Services because it refused to offer services to same-sex couples. As in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Court was faced with the question of whether Smith should be overruled.

Yet again, the Court avoided the question.

Instead, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court issued a very narrow decision in favor of Catholic Social Services, holding that Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination law was not generally applicable because the city retained the discretion to grant exemptions to the law.[12] This led to a narrow, unanimous ruling for Catholic Social Services. But again, the decision failed to resolve the underlying question of whether Smith should be overruled and avoided addressing how to balance an individual’s right to religious liberty against another individual’s right to be free from unlawful discrimination. The result is that one of the most sacrosanct constitutional rights – the free exercise of religion – is now marred in constitutional purgatory, with no clarification or guidance about the scope of this right and the limits on state power. 

Fulton was legal gymnastics at its finest. And politics at its worst.

Sadly, the decision in Fulton is yet another example of Chief Justice Roberts's disappointing jurisprudence.

To be clear, by all accounts Chief Justice Roberts is a brilliant and ethical jurist – and a great person. Roberts is deeply committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy and to avoiding the perception that politics and ideology motivate the Court’s decisions. To that end, Roberts strives to achieve consensus on the Court and avoid controversial 5-4 decisions. To reach consensus, Roberts seeks to decide each case on the narrowest ground possible, which often has the effect, as in Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton¸ of rarely addressing the fundamental constitutional issues that undergird many cases and, concomitantly, failing to clarify the law.

The ugly truth about this approach is that it causes precisely what Chief Justice Roberts hopes to avoid: it politicizes the Court, undermines its institutional legitimacy, and destabilizes the rule of law.  And it causes Roberts to become precisely what he disavows: a political actor.

As stated above, it is politics at its worst.

Unfortunately, even a cursory examination of Roberts’s jurisprudence in recent years reveals that his decisions often result from political calculations rather than principled constitutional considerations.

Indeed, Roberts’s decision in Fulton was eerily reminiscent of his decision in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, where the primary issue confronting the Court was whether the Affordable Care Act violated the Commerce Clause.[13] Roberts agreed that the Act violated the Commerce Clause, yet after initially voting to invalidate the Act, Roberts reversed course and concluded that the Act was a proper exercise of Congress’s taxing power.[14] It was apparent that Roberts was trying to find a way – any way – to avoid issuing a decision that might compromise the Court’s legitimacy, lead to a divisive decision, and be perceived as political.

Yet, Roberts created precisely that result. The Court’s legitimacy was damaged because the decision was so obviously based on political calculations, not constitutional principles.

This is not the first time that Roberts has engaged in legal gymnastics that elevate politics over the rule of law and provide no clarity, guidance, stability, or predictability on important legal issues affecting civil rights and liberties. For example, in June Medical Services v. Russo, Roberts concurred in a decision that invalidated a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges.[15] Roberts argued that, based on the Court’s decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, where it invalidated a nearly identical law in Texas (although Roberts dissented), principles of stare decisis required him to invalidate the Louisiana law.

But Roberts’s jurisprudence shows that he has an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis.  In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which addressed a union’s ability to collect fees from non-union members, Roberts joined the majority in overruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which had been valid law for over forty years.[16] And in Citizens United v. FEC, Roberts joined a 5-4 majority that invalidated a federal law restricting independent expenditures from corporations; in so holding, the Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held that restrictions on corporate speech did not violate the First Amendment.[17] Thus, Roberts’s reliance on stare decisis in June Medical Services was about as disingenuous and manipulative as it gets. Simply put, when a concern for institutional legitimacy triumphs over the rule of law, the result is an unprincipled jurisprudence that at its core is political.

If Chief Justice Roberts values the Court’s institutional legitimacy, he should prioritize the rule of law and base his decisions on reasonable interpretations of the Constitution. He should stop avoiding the real issues that are presented in each case. He should make decisions based on what he believes, not on how others may react to a particular decision. In doing so, Roberts would demonstrate that he is faithful to the Constitution and the rule of law, and that his decisions are based on principle, not politics.

To date, sadly, Chief Justice Roberts has become the Court’s most political actor. And the Court is unquestionably a political institution.

 

[1]  No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[2] See id.

[3] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] See id.

[7] 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[8] See Brief of Amicus Curiae Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in Support of Petitioners, available at: 20200602142513866_19-123 CCJ tsac.pdf (supremecourt.gov)

[9] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018)

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[13] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[14] See id.

[15] 2020 WL 3492640 (2020)

[16]  138 S. Ct. 2448.

[17]  558 U.S. 310 (2010).

June 20, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Religion, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Supreme Court, Abortion, and the Future of Roe v. Wade

Last week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that prohibits most abortions after fifteen weeks.[1] This case, Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, represents yet another episode in the seemingly never-ending abortion saga. Simply put, a state enacts legislation striving to restrict the right to abortion and the Court renders a divisive decision, often by a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, that fails to resolve and clarify permanently the scope of the abortion right. The Court’s incremental, case-by-case jurisprudence has invited confusion and unpredictability into abortion jurisprudence and incentivized states to continue testing the viability of Roe v. Wade, which held that the judicially-created right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment encompassed a right to abortion.[2]

So, here we go again.

Another divisive abortion decision is likely and whatever the Court decides, its decision will likely be viewed as political and compromise the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

This constitutional mess can be traced to Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court manipulated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to create unenumerated rights that no reasonable reading of the text could support.[3] In Griswold, the Court held that the Due Process Clause, along with other provisions in the Bill of Rights, contained invisible “penumbras … formed by emanations from those guarantees that give them life and substance.”[4] Within these judicially-invented “penumbras,” the Court gave itself the power to discover unenumerated “rights” out of thin air, including the right to privacy, that could not possibly be found in or inferred from the text.  Relying in substantial part on Griswold, the Court in Roe held that the right to privacy encompassed the right to terminate a pregnancy.[5]

Regardless of one’s policy views on abortion, liberal and constitutional scholars largely agree that Roe was constitutionally indefensible. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, for example, stated that “behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it [Roe] rests is nowhere to be found.”[6] The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described Roe as “heavy-handed judicial activism,” and Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun (who drafted the majority opinion), stated that “as a matter of constitutional interpretation ... if you administer truth serum … [most scholars] will tell you it is constitutionally indefensible.”[7] These scholars are correct – Roe was one of the worst decisions of the twentieth century.

Importantly, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court had the opportunity to overturn Roe and return the abortion question to the states. Instead, the Court made the problem worse.[8] In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the “central holding” of Roe but overturned Roe’s trimester approach, which provided that, absent a compelling interest, states could not restrict a woman’s right to access abortion services during the first two trimesters, or pre-viability phase, which lasts approximately twenty-four weeks.[9] In the third trimester, the states had the authority to prohibit abortion except where necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.[10] In Planned Parenthood, however, the Court rejected the trimester approach; instead, the Court held that abortion restrictions during the pre-viability phase that imposed a “substantial burden” on the right to access abortion services were unconstitutional.[11]

Planned Parenthood was equally, if not more, constitutionally indefensible than Roe and it thrust the right to abortion into legal purgatory. After all, what precisely constitutes a “substantial burden” on the right to access abortion? And what criteria should be used to determine whether a burden is substantial? The Court had no answer.

But the states opposing abortion did.  Recognizing the ambiguity that Planned Parenthood created, these states have repeatedly enacted legislation that seeks to restrict abortion rights and thus rendered the scope of abortion rights unclear and uncertain. To make matters worse, the Court has evaluated these laws on a case-by-case basis and, in divisive and muddled opinions, failed to resolve the abortion question. Recently, for example, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt and June Medical Services v. Russo, the Court invalidated – for good reason – laws requiring abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges.[12]

The problem is that the Court, in these and other abortion decisions, has failed to definitively clarify the nature and scope of the abortion right, thus perpetuating a never-ending saga in which some states continue, in various ways, to eviscerate the abortion right. Instead of deciding each case narrowly – and based on an arguably subjective application of the undue burden standard – the Court should have either: (1) overturned Roe and returned the abortion issue to the states; or (2) held that women have an unfettered right to abortion before viability. Whatever one’s views on abortion, this would have resolved the constitutional question and precluded the seemingly never-ending litigation that Roe and its progeny have engendered. In short, Roe was a terrible decision and Planned Parenthood only compounded the constitutional damage that Roe inflicted. By way of analogy, when a person lies, the best course of action is to admit and own up to the lie rather than try to cover it up with additional lies. The Court’s abortion jurisprudence reflects the latter.

As such, the Court once again finds itself in a constitutional quagmire, the result of which will surely divide the country and risk compromising the Court’s institutional legitimacy. But the Court has no one but itself to blame. It created – and exacerbated – the constitutional fictions known as “penumbras” and substantive due process.  

Of course, one’s views on whether women should have a right to abortion are irrelevant. Most polls suggest that a majority of citizens support at least a limited right to abortion. And the reasons are understandable. But the abortion issue should have always been resolved by state legislatures, not nine unelected and life-tenured judges. The Court should have never involved itself in the abortion debate.

Ultimately, what should the Court do in Jackson Women's Health Organization? It should end this constitutional charade. In so doing, the Court should hold that, although Roe was constitutionally indefensible, it should not be overruled. For nearly fifty years, women have relied on Roe to make decisions, in conjunction with their health care providers, regarding whether to terminate a pregnancy. Put simply, Roe is entrenched in the public consciousness and stare decisis counsels in favor of reluctantly upholding Roe despite its obvious flaws. Furthermore, the Court should return to the trimester framework and hold that states may not restrict abortion access prior to viability.

That will end the inquiry and the uncertainty.

But don’t count on it. The most likely result will be a decision, engineered by Chief Justice John Roberts – who has become the Court’s most political actor – that confuses, rather than clarifies, abortion jurisprudence. That is the sad reality of the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite Chief Justice Roberts’s assertions to the contrary, the Court is unquestionably political.

Most importantly, in the future, the Court should hold that the penumbras upon which Griswold and Roe are predicated no longer exist. Had the Court adhered to an originalist framework, we would never be in this mess.

Hopefully, the Court will learn its lesson. There is ample reason, however, to be skeptical.

 

[1] Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, No. 19-1392 (October Term, 2021).

[2] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[3] Id; 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[4] Id. at 484.

[5] 410 U.S. 113.

[6] Timothy P. Carney, The Pervading Dishonesty of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 23, 2012), available at: The pervading dishonesty of Roe v. Wade | Washington Examiner

[7] Id.

[8] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12]  136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016); 2020 WL 3492640.

May 23, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Derek Chauvin's Conviction Should Be Overturned

On April 20, 2021, after a brief deliberation, a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree unintentional murder (i.e., felony murder), second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder in connection with George Floyd’s death.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, who has already moved for a new trial before Judge Peter Cahill, will certainly appeal Chauvin’s conviction. Although the likelihood of succeeding on appeal is relatively small, several issues in Chauvin’s case render the guilty verdict vulnerable to reversal.

1.    The jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial

Chauvin’s defense team will likely argue that the conduct and composition of the jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial. First, the defense will assert that the jury violated Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, protection against self-incrimination. At a criminal trial, a defendant may invoke the right against self-incrimination and thus refuse to testify. Importantly, jurors may not infer guilt from a defendant’s silence; doing so is grounds for overturning a guilty verdict.

During the trial, Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and thus did not testify. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that at least one of the jurors construed that silence against Chauvin. Specifically, shortly after the verdict, Brandon Mitchell (Juror No. 52), spoke to the media and, after being asked whether Chauvin’s silence impacted the jury, stated as follows:

Yeah, definitely it [Chauvin's silence] did when we were in the deliberation room; you know, a few people wondered like they wanted to actually hear from [him]. They were curious on you know, just what his thoughts might have been throughout.  You know it probably was to his detriment that he didn’t take the stand ’cause people were curious on what his thoughts were throughout the entire incident.”[1]

At the very least, Mitchell's statement may cause Judge Cahill to question the jurors regarding the effect, if any, that Chauvin’s silence had on their deliberations.

Second, the defense will argue that the jury was impermissibly biased against Chauvin. Once again, Brandon Mitchell’s conduct provides a basis upon which to support this assertion. After the trial, a photograph emerged of Mitchell wearing a t-shirt that stated, “Get your knee off our necks,” which Mitchell allegedly wore at a Washington, D.C. rally commemorating Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.[2]

The photograph’s impact on appeal will depend primarily on whether Mitchell was truthful when answering the jury questionnaire during voir dire. Specifically, Mitchell was asked the following questions:

“Did you, or someone close to you, participate in any of the demonstrations or marches against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death?” one question read, according to the newspaper.

 “Other than what you have already described above, have you, or anyone close to you, participated in protests about police use of force or police brutality?”[3]

Mitchell answered “no” to both questions.

At the very least, the photograph of Mitchell wearing a shirt stating, “Get your knee off our necks,” coupled with his “no” answer to the second question, supports a further inquiry by Judge Cahill into Mitchell's potential bias.

2.    Failure to sequester the jury

Chauvin’s defense team will certainly argue that the jury should have been sequestered from the beginning of the trial, not merely during deliberations. There may be some merit to this argument, given: (1) the pervasive media coverage in the months following Floyd’s death and particularly during the trial; (2) the statement by Maxine Waters, in which she stated that protesters should “get more confrontational” if a guilty verdict was not reached.[4] Indeed, Judge Cahill stated that Waters’ statement may lead to a reversal on appeal. Furthermore, Alan Dershowitz stated:

Well, first, what was done to George Floyd by officer Chauvin was inexcusable, morally, but the verdict is very questionable because of the outside influences of people like Al Sharpton and people like Maxine Waters,” … Their threats and intimidation and hanging the Sword of Damocles over the jury and basically saying, 'If you don’t convict on the murder charge and all the charges, the cities will burn, the country will be destroyed,' seeped into the jury room because the judge made a terrible mistake by not sequestering the jury. 

And a statement by alternate juror Lisa Christensen, although not necessarily relevant to the appeal, suggests that the pressure to reach a guilty verdict may have impacted the jury. When questioned about the possible social unrest that may result from the verdict, Christensen stated as follows:

There was a question on the questionnaire about it and I put I did not know. The reason, at that time, was I did not know what the outcome was going to be, so I felt like either way you are going to disappoint one group or the other. I did not want to go through rioting and destruction again and I was concerned about people coming to my house if they were not happy with the verdict.[5]

Coupled with Brandon Mitchell’s statement (and the photo), Christensen’s statement arguably supports the argument that the jury should have been sequestered.

3.    Failure to Change Venue

Chauvin’s defense will argue that Judge Cahill erred by failing to grant a change of venue. To begin with, the incessant media coverage in Minneapolis and elsewhere following Floyd’s tragic death, coupled with the widespread protests in Minneapolis, which universally condemned Chauvin’s actions (some of which turned violent), may support the argument that Judge Cahill should have granted the defense’s motion to change venue. However, the prosecution will argue that the media coverage and protests occurred throughout Minnesota and the United States, thus rendering it unlikely, if not impossible, that Chauvin would have received a fairer trial anywhere in Minnesota. The prosecution will probably succeed on this aspect of the venue issue.

That, however, does not end the inquiry. Shortly before jury selection, Minneapolis announced that it reached a settlement of twenty-seven million dollars with Floyd’s family in connection with the family’s civil suit. The timing of this settlement is certainly suspect and a legitimate question exists concerning whether the settlement affected the jurors' impartiality.  

4.    Insufficiency of evidence on one or more of the charges

The defense will likely argue that the evidence did not support a conviction for second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder) or third-degree murder. The third-degree murder conviction is problematic because Minnesota’s statute requires that an individual engage in conduct that is a threat to “others.” It is difficult to conceive of how Chauvin’s actions threatened anyone by Floyd, thus warranting a reversal of the conviction on this charge. As a practical matter, however, this will have no impact on the sentencing because the conviction for second-degree unintentional murder, which results in the most severe sentence, will likely be upheld, and because the sentences for each conviction will be imposed concurrently, not consecutively.

***

Ultimately, the vast majority of commentators and citizens viewed Chauvin’s actions as egregious and criminal. Moreover, the likelihood of overturning a conviction on appeal is small.

But in this case, the chances of success are higher. Based on Brandon Mitchell’s statements (and the photograph), the failure to sequester the jury despite the incessant and negative media coverage, and the twenty-seven million dollar settlement on the eve of jury selection, Chauvin’s defense team will have a strong argument to overturn the conviction.

And for the reasons stated, the conviction should be overturned.

Process matters – regardless of Chauvin’s egregious and deplorable conduct.

 

[1] Scott Cosenza, Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment Rights? (April 29, 2021), available at: Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin's 5th Amend Rights? - Liberty Nation

[2] See Paulina Villegas, Photo of Chauvin Juror Wearing BLM T-Shirt at March Raises Questions of Impartiality, Experts Say (May 3, 2021), available at: Brandon Mitchell, juror in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, faces allegations of prejudice after photo surfaces - The Washington Post

[3] Jonathan Turley, Juror No. 52: Does Chauvin Have a New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? (May 4, 2021), available at: Juror 52: Does Chauvin Have A New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? – JONATHAN TURLEY

[4] See Chandelis Duster, Waters Calls for Protestors to ‘Get More Confrontational’ If No Guilty Verdict Is Reached in Chauvin Trial (April 19, 2021), available at: Maxine Waters calls for protesters to 'get more confrontational' if no guilty verdict is reached in Derek Chauvin trial - CNNPolitics

[5] Jordan Davidson, Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting and Destruction’ and ‘People Coming to My House’ to Protest Verdict (April 23, 2001), available at: Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting And Destruction’ (thefederalist.com)

May 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Using Inclusive Language As Allyship

While avoiding grading recently, I found an interesting analysis of inclusive language as a lawyer’s professional responsibility, and as a form of allyship.  Jayne Reardon, a former Illinois State Bar disciplinary counsel, posted a thoughtful piece on inclusion and allies on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Professionalism’s 2Civility website.  See Jayne Reardon, Inclusive Language Is Allyship (Apr. 22, 2021).  

Reardon aptly concludes:  “Given that ‘effective communicator’ is part of a lawyer’s job description, we should be sensitive to how listeners may interpret our language.”  Id.  As lawyers, “our stock in trade is language. We can choose language that makes our points persuasively or language that is distracting and possibly offensive. Distracting or offensive language, of course, doesn’t serve our clients, our profession, or our image in the eyes of the public.”  Id.

As appellate lawyers, we are in an especially good position to combine our duty to communicate clearly with the goal of using language non-offensively.  In so doing, we can also use our privilege to serve as allies for underrepresented groups. 

How do we combine communication with allyship?  Hopefully, in many ways, including using our writing skills and engaging in conversations on bias and inclusion.

Reardon suggests we start by avoiding metaphors and by thinking carefully about the way phrases like “Chinese wall” and “the blind leading the blind” can be offensive and painful.  Id.  Ellie Krug, founder and president of Human Inspiration Works, LLC, finds “the language of ‘us vs. them’ particularly pernicious to our democratic values and “exhorts lawyers to embrace the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that the business community adopted long ago.”  Reardon, Inclusive Language Is Allyship.  

We can also connect our language to allyship with a full understanding of what being an ally can entail.  As Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, the Director of the Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, defines, “allyship” is "when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society."  Samantha-Rae Dickenson, What Is Allyship?  (Nat’l Inst. of Health Jan. 28, 2021).  “Allyship” can also focus on “help[ing] humans who often lack a voice to speak on their own behalf or who aren’t always in the room when demeaning or marginalizing comments/behaviors occur, or marginalizing policies or plans are made.”  Ellie Krug, Allyship for Lawyers in an Awakened America (Apr. 21, 2021).

As Reardon notes, “[w]hen we disregard how others may interpret our language or are unthoughtful with our words, we risk offending members of our professional community, like the judge, judge’s staff, opposing counsel, or others who may hear the oral argument or read the brief. In choosing more inclusive language, we choose allyship.” 

I am working to choose allyship in my writing and teaching, and I appreciate the resources and conversations about being an ally from 2Civility and others.  If you are interested in seeing more of the 2Civility website and programs, you can subscribe herefor the Commission’s weekly newsletter.

May 15, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders: An Analysis of Jones v. Mississippi

In Jones v. Mississippi, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 margin that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a fifteen-year-old juvenile who was convicted of murder did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.[1] The Court’s decision will likely engender criticism because it is arguably inconsistent with the Court’s precedents.

By way of background, in Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes that an individual committed while under the age of eighteen.[2] In so holding, the Court emphasized that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and, as such, juveniles lack the maturity of adults and often engage in impulsive conduct that reflects a failure to appreciate the consequences of particular actions. For these reasons, juveniles are less culpable than adults and therefore not among the narrow category of offenders for whom the death penalty is warranted. Additionally, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court relied in substantial part on the differences between juveniles and adults to hold that laws authorizing mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of murder violated the Eighth Amendment.[3] The Court emphasized that a juvenile’s crime often reflects “unfortunate but transient immaturity,” and that a sentence of life without parole should be reserved for a narrow category of juvenile offenders “whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption” or “permanent incorrigibility.”[4] Accordingly, imprisonment for life “is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children.”[5] And in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court held that the rule announced in Miller applied retroactively to juveniles previously sentenced to life without parole, thus requiring re-sentencing for these offenders.[6] Finally, in Graham v. Florida, the Court held that sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses violated the Eighth Amendment.[7]

The Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery arguably require that, before a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, a court must determine whether a juvenile’s crime reflects “unfortunate yet transient immaturity,” therefore precluding a sentence of life without parole, or “irreparable corruption” (permanent incorrigibility), thus justifying the imposition of such a sentence.[8]

In Jones, the Court’s decision, although not technically inconsistent with Miller and Montgomery, certainly appears at odds with the spirit and purpose underlying these decisions.[9] Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that Miller only prohibited the imposition of mandatory sentences of life without parole for individuals who were minors when the crime was committed. In Jones, however, the trial court had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence on the defendant – who was fifteen at the time of the crime – and thus did not violate Miller by exercising that discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole. Furthermore, because Graham v. Florida only prevented the imposition of life without parole for non-homicide offenses, it violated neither Miller nor Graham to impose a discretionary sentence of life without parole for a homicide offense.[10] Furthermore, Justice Kavanaugh stated that, when exercising such discretion, a trial court is not required to determine whether a juvenile’s crime reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption,” the very distinction upon which Miller relied to identify the narrow category of juvenile offenders for whom life imprisonment without parole could be justified.[11] Rather, it suffices that a court has the discretion to consider youth as a mitigating factor – even in the absence of a record showing that the court considered this issue to a meaningful degree.[12]

The Court’s decision in Jones appears inconsistent with Miller and Montgomery and casts doubt upon their continued viability. First, if a sentence of life without parole should be, as the Court stated in Miller, reserved for a narrow category of juveniles who demonstrate irreparable corruption (or permanent incorrigibility), it seems logical and constitutionally necessary for courts to determine at sentencing that a juvenile falls within this narrow category. Holding that a sentence of life without parole is permissible simply because the lower court had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence – even if the court did not meaningfully exercise this discretion as Miller and Montgomery contemplate – eviscerates the precedential value of these decisions.

Second, as the Court in Roper, Miller, and Montgomery recognized, juveniles lack fully developed brains and the capacity to act with the same degree of maturity as adults. For that reason, only juveniles whose conduct reflects “irreparable corruption” may be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Unfortunately, by refusing to require a finding that a juvenile falls into this narrow category, the Court’s holding in Jones eviscerates the distinction between juveniles whose actions reflect “transient immaturity” and those whose actions reflect “irreparable corruption.” And Jones arguably undermines, at least to a degree, the distinction previously recognized by the Court between juvenile and adult culpability. After all, in Roper and Miller, the Court relied on the differences between juveniles and adults regarding brain development, maturity, and rational decision-making to hold that juveniles are less culpable for even the most serious crimes. After Jones, the Court appears willing to relegate decisions regarding culpability to courts who have the “discretion” to impose lesser sentences while imposing no requirements on how courts exercise this discretion.  

Put simply, Jones cannot be reconciled with the Court’s prior jurisprudence, suggesting yet again that stare decisis is a doctrine of convenience rather than conviction. Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts, despite pledging fidelity to stare decisis in June Medical Services v. Gee, where he voted to invalidate a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, joined the majority in Jones and appears to have an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis.[13] And given that Roberts seems to care more about public perceptions of the Court rather than constitutional law, his decision to inconsistently apply the doctrine is surprising because it undermines the very institutional legitimacy he strives to preserve.

Third, the Court failed to address the concern that permitting a judge to consider youth as a mitigating factor violates precedent holding that the Sixth Amendment requires juries, not judges, to make such factual findings, particularly where they may result in an increased sentence.

Ultimately, the Court’s decision in Jones confuses, rather than clarifies, the law regarding whether, and under what circumstances, juveniles can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. And by countenancing such sentences simply because a court has the discretion to impose a lower sentence – without any requirement that a court determine that a juvenile’s actions reflect irreparable corruption – the Court turned a blind eye to the risk that sentencing in this area will become arbitrary and unfair.

The decision was a mistake.

 

[1] 593 U.S.              (2021), available at: 18-1259 Jones v. Mississippi (04/22/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[2] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[3] 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

[4] Miller, 567 U. S., at 479; Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 209.

[5] Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 195.

[6] 577 U.S.             , 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[7] 560 U. S. 48 (2010)

[8] Miller, 567 U. S., at 479; Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 209.

[9] 593 U.S.              (2021), available at: 18-1259 Jones v. Mississippi (04/22/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] 591 U.S.            (2020), 2020 WL 3492640.

April 24, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Revisiting Defamation Law in the Social Media and Online Blogging Era

Social media and online blogging have created extraordinary opportunities for individuals and groups to publicly disseminate information, participate in public policy debates, and contribute to the marketplace of ideas. Indeed, social media and online blogging certainly have benefits, such as providing individuals with platforms to connect with others, give commentary on political issues, and offer additional and alternative sources of information.

But social media and online blogging also have drawbacks.

For example, social media has been used – and continues to be used – as a vehicle by which to disseminate false or misleading information regarding, among other things, current political issues. As a source of misinformation in some instances, particularly during federal and state elections, social media has the potential to unduly influence voters and thereby indirectly affect election outcomes. Additionally, social media and online blogging have been used to disseminate false commentary about individuals and groups. To be sure, some social media users and online bloggers – using anonymity as a shield – have attacked individuals with deeply offensive insults and scurrilous attacks that contribute nothing to public discourse, and that cause severe and irreparable reputational harm.

Given the proliferation of such offensive and often harmful statements, the question arises whether defamation law provides a remedy to individuals who are the target of such commentary. The answer, in most instances, is no. And that is a problem.

Current defamation law suffers from a significant flaw. Statements that are deemed pure opinions, regardless of the harm they cause, cannot be considered defamatory.[1] This limitation makes it impossible to obtain a remedy for statements that cause substantial, and sometimes irreversible, reputational harm.

By way of background, defamation consists of libel and slander, and is divided into two categories: defamation per se and defamation per quod. Defamation per se is reserved for a relatively narrow category of statements that are considered so inherently defamatory that they are presumed to cause reputational harm. Typically, defamation per se is limited to statements negatively affecting a person’s reputation relating to his or her business or profession, falsely claiming that a person has been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, has a sexually transmitted disease, or is unchaste. Defamation per quod applies to all other allegedly defamatory statements and requires a claimant to demonstrate that a statement was: (1) published to a third party; (2) provably false; (3) likely to subject the claimant to embarrassment, scorn, and ridicule in the community; (4) negligently made; and (5) caused damages to the claimant’s reputation.

Importantly, however, if a statement is considered a pure opinion rather than a provably false fact, it cannot be defamatory. In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the United States Supreme Court explained that “under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea … [h]owever pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.”[2] As stated above, this aspect of defamation law makes it impossible to succeed in a defamation action and leaves individuals who suffer severe and often irreparable harm without a legal remedy. That is wrong. Pure opinions should not be categorically exempted from defamation law.

The fact that a statement reflects a speaker’s opinion does not mean that it is not or cannot be defamatory. Opinions can – and do – cause severe reputational harm. In Milkovich and other cases, the Court has acknowledged this fact, holding that opinions that imply underlying facts can be defamatory. Apart from the inherent difficulty of distinguishing pure opinions from opinions that imply underlying false facts, the Court missed the point. Pure opinions can be defamatory, and claimants should be entitled to have a jury decide if they are defamatory.

After all, readers arguably do not distinguish between pure opinions and provably false facts or condition their judgment of a person on whether a statement constitutes an opinion or a provably false fact. As one commentator explains:

Although people are in a position to judge for themselves whether an opinion is justified so long as the alleged facts utilized as a basis for the opinion are proven to be true and are available to them, most, if not all, people are often influenced by others, especially by the press and the media, in formulating their opinions. The reader of a book or an article may have difficulty in assimilating all the facts set forth as the basis for an opinion; as a result, the reader is apt to be more influenced by the opinion than the facts set forth to justify it.[3]

Put simply, the "view that damage to reputation may be minimized by the recipients' ability to judge the soundness of the opinion is naïve … defamatory deductive opinions may be just as damaging to reputation as other defamatory facts."[4] For example:

[C]onsider a hypothetical assertion in an editorial about John Doe, a candidate for city attorney: ‘In my opinion, John Doe is an incompetent lawyer because he was accepted into law school under an affirmative action program and would not have been admitted under the school's standards for whites.’ Even if the premises of this statement are true, a false assertion that Doe is an incompetent lawyer can be very damaging, causing readers to make judgments based on false premises. In part this pure deductive opinion may be persuasive because readers are ill informed; some may assume that the writer is correct that only those who entered law school under the standards applied to ‘whites’ can be competent lawyers.[5]

Of course, some would argue that the First Amendment protects offensive and distasteful speech. Thus, holding individuals liable for such speech would compromise core First Amendment protections by, among other things, chilling speech and inhibiting a true marketplace of ideas. This argument fails to recognize that defamatory opinion "does not advance free speech values … because it is not the type of public discourse that contributes to intelligent decision making or promotes a multicultural society that is both dynamic and durable."[6] Furthermore, the requirement that a claimant demonstrate tangible reputational harm (not merely emotional distress) inherently limits the extent to which opinions will be considered defamatory. To be sure, the problem is not solved by holding that opinions that implying underlying facts can be defamatory. How can courts distinguish between such opinions and pure opinions? There are simply no standards to make this distinction reliably and consistently, and doing so ignores the fact that pure opinions can – and do – cause reputation harm.

For example, imagine a situation where someone states that another person is a “self-serving fraud,” “Nazi war criminal,” or “Charles Manson wannabe.”[7] The courts held that each of these statements constituted pure opinion and, as such, could not be deemed defamatory. Admittedly, depending on the context, such statements may not be defamatory. But to state that they can never be defamatory, regardless of the harm they cause, and simply because they are pure opinion, makes no sense. If a claimant can demonstrate that a pure opinion caused tangible reputational harm (e.g., economic harm), that claimant should have a legal remedy.

In an era where social media and online blogging are replete with slurs, insults, and degrading comments directed at individuals and groups, the law should not categorically shield such statements from legal liability because they are “pure opinions.” Instead, courts should recognize that pure opinions can – and often do – cause substantial and irreversible harm.

 

[1] Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990); see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

[2] Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 18 (internal citation omitted).

[3] Kathryn Dix Sowle, A Matter of Opinion: Milkovich Four Years Later, 3 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rights J. 467, 495 (1994).

[4] Id. at 575-576.

[5] Id. at 579.

[6] Id.

[7] Nicosia v. De Rooy, 72 F. Supp. 2d 1093 (N.D. Cal. 1999); Koch v. Goldway, 817 F.2d 507 (9th Cir. 1987); Crowe v. Cnty. of San Diego, 593 F.3d 841 (9th Cir. 2010).

March 28, 2021 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Illinois Follows Nebraska’s Lead in Pairing Law Student Research Fellows and Pro Bono Attorneys

As all appellate practitioners know, legal research takes a great deal of practice.  Unfortunately, we never have quite enough time to assign extra research projects in law school, and all students can benefit from more research experience.  Meanwhile, many practitioners would be much more willing to take on pro bono clients if the practitioners did not have to devote significant time to new research for pro bono matters.  Illinois has a new program to connect law student researchers and pro bono attorneys.  

The Public Interest Law Initiative in Illinois recently launched a program to allow upper division law students to provide research assistance to attorneys offering pro bono services.  https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/.  As PILI Executive Director Michael Bergmann explained, the Pro Bono Research Alliance works “in coordination with our law school partners to help further engage law students in providing pro bono services and to remove barriers for providing pro bono legal services to those in need.”  Id.  The Research Alliance provides wonderful support for attorneys who might have “hesitated in accepting a pro bono matter that . . . would require significant research” or involves an area of law outside the attorney’s regular area of practice.  Id.  The Research Alliance program “is totally free and is meant to be a useful resource to make pro bono work easier for attorneys, while simultaneously providing law students with valuable experience.”  Id.

PILI’s program “matches student volunteers from Illinois’ law schools with attorneys from across the state.”  https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/  Research assignments can range “from those taking only a few hours, to larger projects that may last the course of a semester,” and can help with “any non-fee generating civil legal matter where legal services are being provided on a pro bono basis as defined in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f)(1).”  Id.  Accordingly, private pro bono attorneys, legal aid organizations, and nonprofits can use the research assistance. 

Right now, the PILI program has slots for five students per law school (Illinois has nine law schools), but “[i]f the project garners enough interest, PILI will open the program to more law students at a later date.”  Penelope Bremmer,  PILI Launches Pro Bono Research Alliance for Law Students and Attorneys, https://www.2civility.org/pili-launches-pro-bono-research-alliance (Mar. 4, 2021).

Illinois modeled its Alliance on the similar University of Nebraska College of Law program.  See https://law.unl.edu/ProBonoResearch/.  Nebraska College of Law’s Pro Bono Research Fellows Program “is a free service for attorneys in need of research assistance on pro bono legal matters,” and “provides law students and attorneys with an opportunity to work together to provide legal assistance for someone in the community who cannot afford it. “  Id.  Nebraska Research Fellows can also help with more than research in some circumstances, always with oversight from the College of Law.  Id. 

Both programs stress the goal of encouraging “more practicing attorneys to engage in pro bono work, while simultaneously providing students with valuable experience” and “an opportunity to build their professional network[s].”   See id.  Kudos to Illinois and Nebraska for helping more underserved clients access legal services, and for engaging law students in this valuable work.

March 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 1, 2021

Two Great Articles on Remote Oral Argument

Two weeks ago I blogged that we were close to releasing Volume 21, Issue 1, of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. I am pleased to announce that the issue is now online.  There are so many wonderful articles in the issue, which I plan to blog on over the next few weeks.  

Since I have already written much on online oral arguments, I thought that I would start with the two pieces that discuss that topic.  The first, "Remote Oral Arguments in the Age of Coronavirus: A Blip on the Screen or a Permanent Fixture," written by veteran appellate advocate Margaret  McGaughey, is a follow-up from her earlier article entitled, "May it Please the Court--Or Not: Appellate Judges' Preferences and Pet Peeves About Oral Argument." In both articles, Ms. McGaughey conducts numerous interviews of state and federal appellate judges and provides their perspectives on the topics.  Her interviewees include Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge David Barron (my property professor), Judge Sandra Lunch, Judge Bruce Selya, Judge William Kayatta, Judge Lipez, former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Chief Justice Andrew Mean, Justice Catherine Connors, and the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants. She also interviewed several attorneys who have given remote arguments.

The article is full of great tips, including some tips at the end of setting up your space for remote argument. But, there are two things that really stuck with me in reading the article. The first is how well we all adapted.  The judges and the advocates have done what has needed to be done to adapt to the situation. They have learned how to use the technology and they have changed how questions are asked and arguments delivered. Some have even changed what they wear to "court."  We are all truly in this together, and we have persevered.  This leads to the second thing that struck me--while many judges are eager to return to the physical courtroom, things will never be the same. This new style of remote arguments will remain in some form.  How frequently it will be used in the future remains to be seen.

The second article on remote arguments is by one of our bloggers--Judge Pierre Bergeron. Judge Bergeron's article, "COVID-19, Zoom, and Appellate Oral Argument: Is the Future Virtual," also contains judges' thoughts about remote argument. What really stands out to me in Judge Bergeron's article, however, is his passionate defense of oral argument in general.  He presents a fascinating discussion of the decline of oral argument and how remote arguments can serve to both revitalize oral argument and meet key access to justice concerns. Virtual arguments, he says, could allow courts to create a "pro bono appointment program that would . . . help provide argument at-bats for aspiring appellate lawyers" by matching them with "underprivileged clients who need quality legal representation."  He cites to such a program in Arizona. This idea is genius. I could see law school clients jumping on board too.

Hopefully this new year and the vaccine rollout will see some normalcy return to our appellate courts. But, I hope too that we capitalize on all the technological advancements with remote oral argument to increase access to justice and lower costs for clients.

February 1, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

It’s Time to Address the Death Penalty's Constitutionality

It’s no surprise that opinions regarding the constitutionality – and wisdom – of the death penalty vary greatly among judges, legal scholars, commentators, and the public.

Arguments concerning the death penalty consist primarily of the theoretical and the practical. Regarding the theoretical component, some may argue that the death penalty rightfully expresses society’s moral condemnation of and outrage toward heinous criminal acts, such as domestic terrorism (e.g., Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma, which killed over 160 people) and premeditated murder, particularly murders that involve torture, children, and multiple victims (e.g. Ted Bundy’s premeditated killings of dozens of women). Others may argue that the intentional murder of an individual by the government, particularly where less severe measures can ensure public safety and exact severe punishment (e.g., life imprisonment), is inherently wrong.  Certainly, theoretical disagreements involve a variety of religious, philosophical, and moral perspectives, all of which lead to reasonable disagreements concerning the death penalty’s theoretical justifications.

The practical component, however, reveals facts that cannot arguably be disputed. For example, although the Supreme Court held decades ago that the death penalty must be reserved for the “worst of the worst,” the evidence suggests that executions do not even remotely adhere to this principle. First, innocent individuals have been executed; if there is any doubt about this fact, one need only consider the hundreds of death row inmates who, after convictions and pending execution, were freed when evidence surfaced to demonstrate their innocence. Second, many individuals who have been executed suffered from severe mental health issues, intellectual disability, and brain damage. Third, many individuals on death row were raised in horrifically abusive and impoverished families. Fourth, many young people, whose brains had not yet fully matured, have been executed. Fifth, the likelihood of receiving the death penalty depends in substantial part on a defendant's socioeconomic status, a defendant's state of residence, the quality of a defendant’s attorney, and a defendant's (and victim's) race. Sixth, empirical evidence suggests that the death penalty does not deter crime; in states that outlaw the death penalty, the murder rate is lower than in states that authorize the death penalty. Seventh, substantial evidence exists that the most common method of execution – lethal injection – leads to intolerable suffering.

The United States Supreme Court is well aware of these problems and the Court has repeatedly strived to limit the death penalty's application. For example, in Furman v. Georgia, the Court recognized that the death penalty was often arbitrarily imposed and required states to develop criteria that would lead to fairer and more standardized decisions regarding when and under what circumstances the death penalty would be imposed.[1] Likewise, in Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of individuals for crimes committed while under the age of eighteen.[2] Additionally, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of intellectually disabled defendants.[3] And in Hall v. Florida, the Court held that a defendant’s IQ score alone could not be the basis for determining intellectual disability.[4]

However, the practical problems regarding the death penalty remain. As Justice Stephen Breyer emphasized in his noteworthy dissent in Glossip v. Gross, the death penalty continues – for a variety of reasons related to race, socioeconomic status, and geography – to be unfairly and often arbitrarily imposed.[5] Justice Breyer was correct. These problems render the death penalty's administration troubling as a matter of law and policy.

Indeed, the time has long passed for the United States Supreme Court to address the death penalty’s constitutionality. But the Court has repeatedly refused to do so, whether through denying certiorari or refusing last-minute petitions to stay executions despite evidence that, at the very least, warranted further review. Nowhere was this more evident than recently, when the Court, over the vigorous dissents of Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, allowed the federal government to execute the thirteenth death row inmate in the last six months.[6] In so doing, the Court made no attempt to address the persistent and ongoing issues relating to the fairness of imposing the death penalty. These issues exist – and they aren’t going away.

After all, if the likelihood of receiving the death penalty depends in substantial part on race, socioeconomic status, and geography, how can the death penalty be anything but arbitrary? And if the individuals executed are overwhelmingly poor, mentally ill, or cognitively impaired, how can we plausibly claim that they are the worst of the worst? We can’t.

Until the Supreme Court addresses these issues, the death penalty will be administrated under a cloud of illegitimacy and injustice. And when the Court finally does confront such issues, the death penalty will likely be relegated to the “graveyard of the forgotten past.”[7]

 

[1] 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

[2] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[3] 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

[4] 572 U.S. 701 (2014).

[5] 576 U.S.             , 135 S. Ct. 2726 (Breyer, J., dissenting).

[6] See James Romoser (Jan. 16, 2016), available at: Over sharp dissents, court intervenes to allow federal government to execute 13th person in six months - SCOTUSblog

[7] In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967) (internal citation omitted).

January 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, January 16, 2021

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 DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • This week, the Supreme Court allowed the current administration to carry out three final federal executions, including the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953. This administration resumed federal executions after seventeen years without one and has executed thirteen people since July. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in US v. Higgs, the final case, begins:

After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July. They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson. Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth. To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.

See reports in The Wall Street Journal, The Poughkeepsie Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press

  • In the first abortion decision since Justice Barrett joined the court, the Supreme Court reinstated a requirement that women appear in person to pick up the pill required for medication abortions. The FDA rule had been waived during the pandemic, allowing the medicine to be distributed via mail. See the opinion and reports from The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and Politico.

  • Taylor Swift became the subject of oral argument this week when the Justices discussed the singer’s request for nominal damages in a sexual assault suit. The discussion occurred during oral argument in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a case asking whether students may sue their college for First Amendment Violations and seek nominal damages.  See reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Ninth Circuit will allow a SWAT officer’s First Amendment suit against the Las Vegas Police Department (LVPD) to proceed after he was penalized for a Facebook post. The LVPD claimed that the post incited violence but the court stated that the post “could be objectively interpreted as a provocative political statement against police officers being shot in the line of duty.” The decision comes in the wake of the violence at the US Capitol and amid debate about the line between free speech and inciting violence.  See opinion and report in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

  • The Third Circuit ruled that Philadelphia’s plan to open the nation’s first safe-injection site would violate federal law. The ruling is another barrier for the nonprofit Safehouse, which hoped to open the site to combat fatal drug overdoses. The site would have offered support to drug users, including providing intervention for overdoses. The court ruled that the site would violate a federal law making it illegal to knowingly host illicit drug use and drug related activity.  According to the court, only a change in federal law would sanction the site. “[Safehouse’s] motives are admirable. But Congress has made it a crime to open a property to others to use drugs.” See the order and reports from The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press.  

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

The Colorado Supreme Court updated its common-law marriage standard, which was established in 1987, to better account for same-sex couples. The new standard follows from three rulings and creates a more flexible and gender-neutral test that looks only to whether the couple mutually intended to enter a marital relationship and whether the couple’s subsequent conduct supported that decision. See the rulings here, here, and here and a report in The Denver Post

January 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Covid-19 and Religious Liberty

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sought emergency injunctive relief, claiming that an Executive Order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding, among other things, capacity limits at houses of worship, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.[1]

The Free Exercise Clause provides citizens with the liberty to freely hold and practice religious beliefs without government interference. The right to freely exercise religion, however, is not absolute, and the United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles regarding the scope of religious liberty. First, although the government may not regulate religious beliefs, it may, in some circumstances, regulate religious practices.[2] Second, the government may not enact laws that impose a substantial burden on religious practices.[3] Third, courts may not assess the validity of particular religious beliefs when deciding if the Free Exercise Clause’s protections apply.[4] Fourth, the government may not coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs.[5] Fifth, the government may not target or discriminate against religion generally or specific religious denominations.[6]

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, the issue concerned whether Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order impermissibly targeted houses of worship for disparate treatment. By way of background, in response to the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in New York, Governor Cuomo adopted a color-coded microcluster model that designated areas of New York as red, orange, or yellow zones. These zones were defined as follows:

Red zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 4% for ten days.

Orange zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 3% for ten days.

Yellow zones: areas where the seven-day rolling positivity rate was above 2.5% for ten days.[7]

In red zones, no more than ten persons were permitted to attend religious services, and in yellow zones, no more than twenty-five persons could attend religious services, regardless of the seating capacity of a particular house of worship. In these same zones, however, all businesses deemed “essential,” which included acupuncture facilities and liquor stores, were not subject to these capacity restrictions. Furthermore, in “orange” zones, even “non-essential” businesses were not subject to any capacity restrictions.[8]

In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on gatherings at various houses of worship in red and orange zones violated the Free Exercise Clause.[9] To begin with, the Court held that these restrictions did not constitute “laws of general applicability” (i.e., the capacity limits applied exclusively to places of worship), and thus applied strict scrutiny, which required New York to demonstrate that the Executive Order furthered a compelling government interest, was narrowly tailored, and constituted the least restrictive means of achieving the asserted governmental interest.[10]

Although holding that the interest in reducing the spread of Covid-19 was undoubtedly compelling, the Court held that the restrictions were not narrowly tailored. For example, the capacity limits could have been tied to the size of a church or synagogue, particularly given that, in the red and orange zones, fourteen churches could accommodate at least 700 people, and two could accommodate at least 1,000 people.[11] Given these facts, the Court noted that “[i]t is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.”[12] Moreover, as Justice Neil Gorsuch stated in his concurring opinion, these restrictions applied “no matter the precautions taken, including social distancing, wearing masks, leaving doors and windows open, forgoing singing, and disinfecting spaces between services.”[13] This was particularly troublesome given that, as Justice Gorsuch stated, secular businesses deemed “essential” faced no similar restrictions:

[T]he Governor has chosen to impose no capacity restrictions on certain businesses he considers “essential.” And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?[14]

Additionally, Justice Gorsuch explained that the differential treatment of places of worship implicated precisely the type of discrimination that the Free Exercise prohibited:

People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of “essential” businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.[15]

Thus, the restrictions, “by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”[16]

Chief Justice Roberts dissented, arguing that, because Governor Cuomo had recently re-codified the areas in question as yellow zones, and thus removed the restrictions on the houses of worship in question, the issue was essentially moot.[17]  For this reason, although questioning the constitutionality of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order, Chief Justice Roberts did not believe that the Court needed to decide the issue at this juncture.[18]  

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, also dissented, arguing that the restrictions treated houses of worship identically to other similarly situated businesses.[19] In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor relied on the Court’s prior decisions in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, where the Court held that the government may restrict attendance at houses of worship provided that comparable secular institutions faced equally restrictive measures.[20] Based on these decisions, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Executive Order passed constitutional muster because it imposed equally stringent restrictions on other activities where “large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” such as “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances,” [21] Put differently, the Executive Order treated differently “only dissimilar activities, such as operating grocery stores, banks, and laundromats, in which people neither congregate in large groups nor remain in close proximity for extended periods.”[22]

Regardless of what one thinks of the Court’s decision, the justices’ opinions were quite revealing for other reasons.

1.    Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch aren’t best friends

Based on the language and tone of their opinions, it appears that tension exists between Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch. For example, in his concurrence, Justice Gorsuch severely criticized Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence in South Bay United Pentecostal Church, stating as follows:

What could justify so radical a departure from the First Amendment’s terms and long-settled rules about its application? Our colleagues offer two possible answers. Initially, some point to a solo concurrence in South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U. S. ___ (2020), in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE expressed willingness to defer to executive orders in the pandemic’s early stages based on the newness of the emergency and how little was then known about the disease. At that time, COVID had been with us, in earnest, for just three months. Now, as we round out 2020 and face the prospect of entering a second calendar year living in the pandemic’s shadow, that rationale has expired according to its own terms. Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical. Rather than apply a nonbinding and expired concurrence from South Bay, courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause.[23]

In fact, Justice Gorsuch went so far as to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts, by refusing the rule on the merits, was concerned more with political rather than legal considerations:

In the end, I can only surmise that much of the answer [to why the dissenters did not find the Executive Order unconstitutional] lies in a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis. But if that impulse may be understandable or even admirable in other circumstances, we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack. Things never go well when we do.[24]

In Justice Gorsuch’s view, “[t]o turn away religious leaders bringing meritorious claims just because the Governor decided to hit the “off ” switch in the shadow of our review would be, in my view, just another sacrifice of fundamental rights in the name of judicial modesty.”[25]

Chief Justice Roberts responded to Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion in an equally dismissive tone, stating as follows:

To be clear, I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as “cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic,” yielding to “a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,” or “shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack.” Ante, at 3, 5–6 (opinion of GORSUCH, J.). They simply view the matter differently after careful study and analysis reflecting their best efforts to fulfill their responsibility under the Constitution.[26]

The tone of both opinions suggests that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch are not the best of friends. The reason is likely that Justice Gorsuch, an originalist who strives to uphold the rule of law regardless of an outcome’s desirability, views Chief Justice Roberts as capitulating to, even prioritizing, political considerations over principled legal analysis.

2.    Chief Justice Roberts is arguably prioritizing politics over the rule of law

Chief Justice Roberts’s approach to deciding cases has changed considerably from his previously expressed fidelity to originalism and to a modest judicial role that, in his words, was analogous to umpires calling balls and strikes.

Indeed, as Justice Gorsuch intimated, in some cases Chief Justice Roberts appears more concerned with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy than with engaging in principled legal analysis. And the consequences are likely to cause precisely the result that Roberts seeks to avoid: the politicization of the judiciary. After all, what is the criteria by which to decide whether a decision will preserve the Court’s legitimacy? Little more than a justice’s subjective values. Put differently, concerns regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” decision are predicated on nothing more than prevailing political attitudes rather than principled legal considerations. Such an approach abdicates the judicial role and weakens the rule of law. As Justice Gorsuch stated, “we may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”[27]

Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence suggests that he lacks a coherent judicial philosophy. On one hand, for example, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice Roberts voted to invalidate two provisions of the Voting Rights Act in (despite a vote of 98-0 to re-authorize these provisions), but on the other hand, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts went to great – and dubious – lengths to uphold the Affordable Care Act. This is just one of many examples where Chief Justice Roberts’s adherence to certain principles, such as deference to the coordinate branches, is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Simply put, Chief Justice Roberts’s focus on preserving the Court’s legitimacy is likely to cause the very result he so ardently seeks to avoid, namely, politicizing the Court and the judiciary.

3.    Ideology continues to influence the justices’ decisions

It is not difficult to predict how the justices will rule in cases involving, for example, the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Indeed, the justices’ decisions in such cases often coincide with their perceived ideological preferences. For example, in cases involving affirmative action, it is all but certain that Justice Sonia Sotomayor will vote to uphold almost any affirmative action policy. In cases involving abortion, it is all but certain that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito will vote to uphold restrictions on abortion and argue for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s 5-4 decisions often predictably split along ideological lines. Some may argue that these decisions reflect the justices’ different judicial and interpretive philosophies, but the fact remains that such decisions almost always coincide with the justices’ policy predilections. And that is precisely what has politicized the judiciary.

These and other concerns lead to the conclusion that perhaps the best way for the Court to preserve its legitimacy is for it to deny certiorari in politically and socially divisive cases where the Constitution’s text is silent or ambiguous. Simply put, the Court should leave more disputes to the democratic process.

 

[1] 592 U.S.              (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).

[2] See Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878)

[3] See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[4] See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1044).

[5]  See Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, 485 U.S. 439 (1988).

[6] See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

[7] See Lisa L. Colengelo, Yellow, Orange, and Red: How New York’s Covid-19 Microclusters Work (Nov. 24, 2020), available at: Yellow, orange and red: How New York's COVID-19 microclusters work | Newsday

[8] 592 U.S.              (2020), available at: 20A87 Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (11/25/2020) (supremecourt.gov).

[9] See id.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring)

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id. (Justice Breyer also dissented on similar grounds).

[19] See id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[20] See id.; South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, 590 U.S.                 , (2020), available at; 19a1044_pok0.pdf (supremecourt.gov); Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, 591 U.S.      , available at: 19a1070_08l1.pdf (supremecourt.gov)

[21] Id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[22] Id.

[23] Id. (Gorsuch, J. concurring).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. (Roberts, J., concurring).

[27] Id. (Gorsuch, J., concurring).

November 29, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Religion, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Ranking the Current Justices on the United States Supreme Court

Any ranking system contains elements of subjectivity and arbitrariness, and this is unquestionably true when attempting to rank the current justices on the United States Supreme Court. And it should go without saying that every justice on the Court is an incredibly accomplished and well-respected jurist, and among the brightest minds in the legal profession.  

Notwithstanding, based on each justice’s jurisprudence, one can gain a general sense of their effectiveness, influence, and impact on the Court and the rule of law. The following rankings, which are admittedly subjective and unscientific, are predicated on the following factors: (1) the influence, if any, of ideology on a justice’s decision-making; (2) the quality of a justice’s written opinions and legal reasoning; (3) the extent to which a justice’s outcomes reflect a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional provision, statute, or regulation and thus preserve the rule of law; and (4) the degree to which a justice considers the pragmatic consequences of a decision, particularly as it affects the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

1.    Elena Kagan

By all accounts, Justice Kagan is a brilliant legal mind. Justice Kagan possesses outstanding writing skills and the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively with lawyers and laypersons. Additionally, Justice Kagan’s decisions eschew ideology and reflect a balanced approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation, and fidelity to the rule of law.

One of Justice Kagan’s best opinions was a dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause, where Justice Kagan passionately and persuasively argued that partisan gerrymandering was anathema to the Constitution and democracy, and squarely within the Court’s adjudicatory powers. Regarding the partisan gerrymanders in Rucho, Justice Kagan emphasized that they “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”[1]

2.    Neil Gorsuch

Justice Gorsuch has consistently demonstrated that he is a principled originalist. Originalism states that judges should interpret the Constitution’s text based on what the drafters of a particular provision understood those words to mean at the time such provision was ratified. In his opinions, Justice Gorsuch consistently places the rule of law above subjective values or personal policy predilections. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s opinions are very well-reasoned and grounded in a faithful interpretation of a constitutional or statutory text. Put simply, Justice Gorsuch is not guided by ideology and his jurisprudence reflects humility and respect for the democratic process.

3.    John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts is among the most brilliant lawyers of his generation – and for good reason. Roberts’s intellect, advocacy skills, and writing ability are second to none.  Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts is, by all accounts, a humble jurist who respects the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and democratic choice. Furthermore, Chief Justice Roberts strives to achieve consensus among the justices (thus avoiding, to the extent possible, divisive 5-4 opinions) and is committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

Importantly, however, the desire to preserve the Court’s legitimacy and status as an apolitical branch has led, perhaps inadvertently, to decisions that invite precisely the criticisms Roberts seeks to avoid. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts wrote for a 5-4 majority, in which the Court held that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate passed constitutional muster under the Taxing and Spending Clause, despite substantial evidence that the mandate was an unconstitutional penalty.[2] Roberts’s decision, which surprised many legal scholars, was seen by some as an attempt to avoid the negative political consequences that a ruling invalidating the Affordable Care Act would engender. However, Roberts’s decisions in McCutcheon v. FEC, in which the Court invalidated a limit on contributions that an individual could make to a national party over a two-year period, and in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Court invalidated Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Civil Rights Act (despite a Senate vote of 98-0 to reauthorize these sections) engendered significant criticism and the very charges of illegitimacy that Roberts ostensibly seeks to avoid.[3]

Put simply, an overarching focus on preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy invariably involves precisely the element of subjectivity (and, to an extent, arbitrariness), that is anathema to legitimacy itself.

4.    Stephen Breyer

Justice Breyer is a thoughtful and very intelligent jurist who balances fidelity to the rule of law with a consideration of the pragmatic consequences of decisions. And Breyer’s jurisprudence does not suggest that he is guided by subjective values or ideological considerations.  Instead, Justice Breyer's decisions are almost always well-reasoned and balanced, regardless of whether one agrees with the outcome of such decisions. For example, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, Breyer wrote for a 5-3 majority that invalidated a requirement in Texas that abortion providers obtain hospital admitting privileges.[4}

The decision in Whole Women's Health was based on a reasonable review of the record and of precedent regarding abortion rights.

One criticism of Justice Breyer, however, is that he subscribes to a method of constitutional interpretation known as “living constitutionalism,” which states that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time and that the meaning of a particular constitutional provision should reflect contemporary societal values. The problem with this approach is that it vests nine unelected and life-tenured judges with the ability to identify – for the entire nation – prevailing societal values and to impose those values through decisions that often disregard or manipulate the Constitution’s text.

5.    Clarence Thomas

Justice Thomas is a faithful adherent to originalism. The principle undergirding originalism is that judges do not have the right to unilaterally disregard, manipulate, or change the Constitution’s meaning based on their subjective values or policy predilections.[5] Doing so would be fundamentally anti-democratic and give judges the unfettered right to undermine the democratic process and identify unenumerated rights based on nothing more than their personal values. Justice Thomas consistently adheres to this philosophy.

However, Justice Thomas can sometimes be far too formalistic and eschew any consideration whatsoever of the pragmatic consequences of his decisions. This is not necessarily a criticism, although originalism does not – and should not – prohibit judges from basing decisions on pragmatic considerations where such decisions would be consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text. For example, Justice Thomas has repeatedly advocated for reversing Roe v. Wade, where the Court held that the right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy under certain circumstances.[6] Although the decision in Roe, particularly the reasoning, was arguably one of the worst in the last fifty years, the reliance that women have placed on Roe during this time, and the political and social divisiveness that would accompany overturning Roe, counsel in favor of adhering to Roe’s central holding. Thus, Thomas’s rather rigid position on Roe, and his overly formalistic legal analysis in other cases, leaves far too little room for pragmatic considerations.

6.    Sonia Sotomayor

Justice Sotomayor is an incredibly accomplished jurist who has authored several passionate and well-reasoned dissents, particularly in the areas of abortion and affirmative action. And Justice Sotomayor’s personal story, in which her intellect and work ethic propelled her to Princeton University and Yale Law School, is truly inspiring.

However, in a number of decisions, Justice Sotomayor, whose jurisprudence reflects living constitutionalism, appears to be motivated more by ideology or policy preferences than a commitment to the rule of law. This is arguably evident in the Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence, such as in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, where Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning read more like a policy prescription than a legal opinion, and where Sotomayor ostensibly eschewed any workable legal standards for assessing the constitutionality of affirmative action policies.[7] Regardless of one’s views on affirmative action, one gets the sense that Justice Sotomayor will, without exception, uphold any affirmative action policy irrespective of the merits of that policy. That approach is antithetical to the role of and limits on judicial decision-making. 

7.    Brett Kavanaugh

Justice Kavanaugh, a graduate of Yale Law School, had an extraordinarily impressive record as an attorney and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where, by all accounts, Kavanaugh was a fair and principled judge.

Justice Kavanaugh’s ranking is not a reflection of his jurisprudence. Rather, he has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to adequately assess his jurisprudence, judicial philosophy, and impact on the Court and the law.

8.    Samuel Alito

Justice Alito is extremely intelligent, and a well-respected and accomplished jurist.

However, one gets the sense from both oral arguments and Justice Alito’s written opinions that his decisions are motivated in substantial part by ideological considerations and policy preferences. Indeed, on November 12, 2020, Justice Alito delivered a speech to the Federalist Society in which he criticized the Court’s free exercise jurisprudence, its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (invalidating same-sex marriage bans), and the protections afforded to free speech.[8]

Note: Amy Coney Barrett: Having been confirmed only a few weeks ago, Justice Barrett has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to justify including her in the ranking.

 

[1]  139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019) (Kagan, J., dissenting).

[2] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[3] 572 U.S. 185; 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[4] 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).

[5] Of course, originalism, like living constitutionalism, can also be used as a tool to impose a judge’s subjective values and policy preferences. However, principled originalists eschew such an approach and predicate their decisions on ascribing the meaning that the drafters intended at the time a provision was ratified.

[6] 410 U.S. 133 (1973).

[7] 572 U.S. 291 (2012).

[8] Sydney Bauer, Justice Alito Takes Aim at Gay Marriage in ‘Politically Charged Speech,’ (Nov. 13, 2020), available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/justice-alito-takes-aim-gay-marriage-politically-charged-speech-n1247772

November 15, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

What We Can Learn from a Short History of Election Disputes.

1876 nastWe tend to think that the most recent election is uniquely important, and any irregularity is quickly magnified. A short history of just a few of the many contested U.S. Presidential elections shows that elections are often messy, and that legal intervention of some sort (either by a change in the law or by court ruling) has frequently been the remedy. That review may also give us a glimpse of what to expect this year.

The first major election dispute was in 1800, when the Jefferson ran against Adams. Jefferson's party, the Democratic Republicans, handily won, and the party electors dutifully wrote down the names of both the presidential candidate (Jefferson) and the vice-presidential candidate (Burr). This resulted in a tie. The vote thus went to the House, which was controlled by the Federalists, and in which Burr refused to concede his position to Jefferson, thinking that the Federalists might prefer him and he could thus win the presidency. In the end, the House chose Jefferson, and, eventually, the 12th Amendment was passed to prevent a repeat tie.

In 1836, there were four candidates for president. Jackson won the popular vote, but with no majority in electoral votes, the election once again went to the House. The House dropped the fourth candidate with the lowest votes (Clay), and Adams managed to capture most of those elector's votes, possibly because he promised Clay a cabinet position. As a result, for the first time, the person who won the popular vote did not win the presidency.

In 1876, Tilden ran against Hayes, and Tilden won the popular vote. However, when the electoral college met, Tilden came up one vote short of winning, with 20 electoral votes being disputed by their states (each party claiming the votes for themselves). For the first time, the Supreme Court had a role in deciding who won - a commission was formed with 5 senators, 5 congressmen, and 5 Supreme Court Justices. The commission was supposed to be equally split, 7-7, between the parties, with one independent being chosen by the Justices, in this case, Justice Davis. When Davis was selected to serve as a Senator, he was replaced by a Justice Bradley, who, it turned out, voted entirely with the Republicans, and the commission decided 8-7 to award Hayes all of the votes. After numerous compromises (including, allegedly, the Compromise of 1877, ending Reconstruction) and bargains between the political parties, Hayes was sworn in accord with the commission's decision.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular election against George W. Bush by .5%. However, the electoral vote remained unknown until Florida completed its vote count on November 8, resulting in a win by George W. Bush by just over 300 votes (later rising to 900 when mail-in ballots were counted), giving him 271 electoral votes. Issues with "hanging chads" and purported fraud resulted in a call for a hand recount in some counties. That recount resulted in a 537 vote win for Bush, certified on November 26.

Gore challenged the vote. He lost his challenge in a lower state court, but won in the Florida Supreme Court, which issued an order on December 8 requiring a recount of the 70,000 votes recorded as "undervotes" by the voting machines. The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order staying the Florida Supreme Court's order, treating the application for the stay as a writ of certioari, granting the writ, and setting the case for a 1 1/2 hour oral argument on December 11.

On December 12, the Court issued a 7-2 per curiam decision ordering that the recount stop, based on equal protection grounds, given the different standards of counting that were being used in different counties. Justices Breyer and Souter recommended that a statewide recount be held prior to the December 18th meeting of electors, but because the State of Florida had stated that it intended to meet the discretionary December 12 “safe harbor” deadline set by U.S. Election Code (3 U.S.C. §5), the court ruled 5-4 to reject that remedy. In the end, there was no time left to do anything but certify the original vote.

As you can see, the 2000 election was the first time the Supreme Court directly intervened in a State's efforts to decide an election recount. The division reflected in the court's opinions showed a tensions between two goals - ensuring a proper process to determine legal votes, and making sure that every vote is counted. Scalia's initial concurrence to the stay summarized the issue nicely from his perspective: each recount was alleged to physically degrade the paper ballots, so if the process being utilized was incorrect, counting the ballots first might actually mean that counting the ballots under a proper process, later, might become impossible.

It seems likely that there will be recounts in the 2020 election. In some states, those recounts will occur statewide. In others, they may be called on a district-by-district basis.

Political compromise, the main method in determining earlier close elections, seems unlikely. Court challenges, however, are already in the works. Methodologies for recounts have been largely standardized, so any machine recount should be done fairly quickly and with fewer potential challenges (hand recounts may be a different matter). This is important, because Bush v. Gore gave great weight to the State of Florida's election code and deadlines. Unlike the Franken-Coleman senate-race recount and court challenge, which took almost nine months, presidential recount challenges are very time sensitive. Any challenges to the recounts because of election fraud are thus also likely going to have to be decided within this narrow timeframe.

Already, though, Trump's legal teams are making equal-protection arguments, showing that they are also closely reading the Bush v. Gore playbook. There are claims that mail-in and in-person ballots are treated differently. There are suggestions that count observations are also done differently in different districts. However, to date, none of these allegations show as concrete a difference as the way those "hanging chads" or "dimpled chads" were being counted in each county in Florida. And the ticking clock for election deadlines means that any challenge will need to be equally clear if it has any hopes of resolution in time.

(image credit - Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, February 17, 1877, commenting on the compromise of 1877 that eventually resolved the 1876 election, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain)

November 10, 2020 in Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Reforming the Judiciary

In the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s ascendency to the United States Supreme Court, several elected officials and commentators have suggested that the next president should pack the Court, namely, add more justices to ensure a political and ideological balance.  These concerns are predicated, in part, on the belief that the Court has become too conservative and, under an originalist framework, will eviscerate various civil rights and protections. For example, some commentators contend that the Court will, among other things, invalidate the Affordable Care Act and restrict, if not eliminate, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. These arguments – and the unquestionable divisiveness that has characterized recent confirmation hearings – demonstrate that the Court has become an increasingly politicized institution. And the politicization of the Court threatens its institutional legitimacy and, ultimately, the rule of law itself.

In response to calls to pack the Court, presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced that, if elected, he would form a commission to suggest reforms to the judiciary:

If elected, what I will do is I'll put together a national commission of — bipartisan commission of scholars, constitutional scholars, Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative. And I will ask them to over 180 days come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack.[1]

But packing the Court is not the answer. Adding additional justices will only further politicize the Court, as future presidents will continue to appoint justices whose interpretive philosophy suggests that such justices will reach decisions that comport with a president’s policy predilections. This does not mean, however, that reforms are unnecessary. Below are a few suggestions that would likely de-politicize the Court, preserve the judiciary’s institutional legitimacy, and protect the rule of law.

1.    Require a 6-3 supermajority to affirm or reverse lower court decisions

Much of the Court’s politicization has resulted from controversial 5-4 decisions regarding socially and politically divisive issues, such as the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, and the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. These decisions have often divided the Court along perceived ideological lines, the consequence of which has been to undermine the Court’s legitimacy and erode public confidence in the judiciary.

Requiring a six-vote supermajority would avoid substantially the problems that 5-4 decisions engender. Specifically, a supermajority requirement would promote moderation because it would require the justices to compromise and thus would reduce, if not eliminate, the influence of ideology on judicial decision-making. As such, the Court would likely avoid the types of decisions that cause a political backlash, either by refusing to grant certiorari in such cases or reaching narrower decisions that effectuate incremental, rather than sweeping, changes in the law. Additionally, this approach is arguably more democratic because it would prevent, at least in some contexts, nine unelected and life-tenured judges from deciding what the law should be for all fifty states.

2.    Deny certiorari in cases where a legal issue is politically divisive and the Constitution is ambiguous.

In recent decades, the Court has decided cases involving politically divisive issues where the Constitution, either through silence or ambiguity, does not clearly resolve that issue. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such decisions are often decided on a 5-4 basis and engender substantial criticism. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, the Constitution provided no clear answer regarding whether the Affordable Care Act, particularly the individual mandate, violated the Commerce Clause.[2] Given this fact, and given that the Act had been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, why did the Court get involved? The result was a 5-4 decision that engendered more criticism than praise, and that undermined, rather than preserved, the Court’s legitimacy. Likewise, in Clinton v. New York, both houses of Congress and President George H. W. Bush signed into law the line-item veto.[3] Notwithstanding, the Court invalidated the legislation, holding that it violated the Presentment Clause even though the Clause, largely because of its broadly worded language, did not provide sufficient, if any, guidance regarding its constitutionality. Again, why did the Court get involved?

Put simply, the Court should be reluctant to grant certiorari in politically or socially divisive cases unless the law or a lower court opinion plainly violates a provision in the Constitution (not the “penumbras” created in Griswold v. Connecticut).[4] Instead, it should defer to the coordinate branches – and to democratic choice.

3.    Allow the Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions

The conventional wisdom is that advisory opinions violate the “case or controversy” requirement in Article III of the Constitution. But the lack of a specific case does not mean that there is no controversy. The word “controversy” can be construed to enable the Court, in some circumstances, to issue advisory opinions regarding a law’s constitutionality.

Such an approach would have substantial benefits. To begin with, it would empower the Court to resolve important legal issues quickly and efficiently. Currently, cases challenging a law’s constitutionality typically take years to reach the Court and frequently involve alleged violations of fundamental rights.  And during this time, the federal courts of appeals often reach opposite conclusions, which creates uncertainty and instability in the law. Perhaps most importantly, if the Court in such cases ultimately decides that a law violates a fundamental right, it means that, for the several years that it took to reach the Court, individuals were being consistently deprived of a particular constitutional protection. Furthermore, given the rapid pace at which technology is advancing, allowing the Court to issue advisory opinions in cases concerning the constitutionality of, for example, searches and seizures, would bring much-needed efficiency, clarity, fairness, and stability to the law. Of course, advisory opinions would be appropriate only in situations that are tantamount to a facial challenge to a statute and thus involve purely legal questions. Some may argue that this approach would likely violate the separation of powers by giving the Court impermissible authority to encroach on the lawmaking process. But if the Court is ultimately going to decide the question after protracted litigation, the argument regarding the separation of powers is unconvincing.

***

Ultimately, to the extent that reforms are needed, they should focus on giving the Court (and lower courts) less power to resolve politically and socially divisive issues, but more power to resolve other issues in an efficient manner. Part of the solution may involve requiring a six-vote supermajority, denying certiorari in particular cases, and enabling the Court issue advisory opinions. Court-packing, however, is not the answer. It should be rejected.

[1] Caitlin Oprysko, After dodging questions about court packing, Biden floats commission to study judicial reforms (Oct. 22, 2020), available at:  https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/22/joe-biden-court-packing-judicial-reforms-commission-431157.

[2] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[3] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

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

 

November 1, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amy Coney Barrett and Originalism

Amy Coney Barrett will almost certainly be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court – and deservedly so.  Judge Barrett is an extraordinary legal scholar and judge, and numerous former colleagues and students have emphasized that she is a person of outstanding character, integrity, and compassion.

Additionally, Judge Barrett is an originalist, which is a theory of constitutional interpretation that requires judges to interpret the Constitution’s words as they were understood by those who drafted its provisions. Yet, originalism has been criticized by many in the legal academy. For example, some scholars claim that originalism leads to unjust and often draconian results, and fails to account for societal changes that the Constitution’s drafters could not foresee. Some scholars also assert that the broad phrasing of many provisions in the Bill of Rights suggests that the Constitution’s drafters entrusted future generations with the authority to divine constitutional meaning based on contemporary societal attitudes. For these and other reasons, many scholars embrace “living constitutionalism,” which states that the Constitution is a “living document” and that judges have the power to create constitutional meaning based upon the evolving needs of contemporary society.  

These assertions both misunderstand originalism and misrepresent living constitutionalism. The former is, when properly applied, intellectually honest and fundamentally democratic. The latter is neither. For the following reasons, originalism is, without a doubt, the most sensible and commonsense approach to constitutional interpretation.

Originalism does not lead to unjust outcomes. The notion that originalism leads to unjust outcomes is nonsense. This argument misunderstands both originalism and the nature of judging. First, judges should not – and usually do not – decide cases based on the outcome that a judge desires or the policy that a judge prefers. If judges predicated their decisions on subjective policy preferences – and manipulated or disregarded the Constitution’s text to achieve those preferences – democratic choice would be undermined in favor of nine unelected and life-tenured judges. In essence, originalists recognize that the process of judicial decision-making is critically important to ensure, among other things, individual liberty, de-centralization, bottom-up lawmaking, and the judiciary’s institutional legitimacy.  Second, originalism does not lead to objectively unjust outcomes; rather, critics of originalism only object to outcomes with which they subjectively disagree. Of course, that is not a reason to criticize originalism. As Justice Neil Gorsuch explains:

Suppose originalism does lead to a result you happen to dislike in this or that case. So what? The “judicial Power” of Article III of the Constitution isn’t a promise of all good things. Letting dangerous and obviously guilty criminals who have gravely injured their victims go free just because an officer forgot to secure a warrant or because the prosecutor neglected to bring a witness to trial for confrontation seems like a bad idea to plenty of people. But do you really want judges to revise the Constitution to avoid those “bad” results? Or do you believe that judges should enforce the law’s protections equally for everyone, regardless of how inefficient or unpopular or old the law might be? Regardless of who benefits today—the criminal or the police; the business or the employee; immigrants or ICE?[1]

Moreover, to the extent that an outcome is considered unjust, the remedy is to effectuate change by the people through the legislative process – or through a constitutional amendment.

Originalism is fundamentally democratic. Originalism restrains and limits the power of judges to change constitutional meaning. It requires judges to interpret the text honestly and in accordance with what the Constitution’s drafters understood the words to mean. In so doing, originalism promotes respect for the rule of law, prevents unelected judges from substituting their policy preferences for those of legislators and citizens, and preserves a constitutional structure predicated on federalism, separation of powers, and decentralization. As Judge Barrett stated during the hearings, constitutional law is not “the law according to Amy,” but the law as enacted by the people. And contrary to some scholars’ contentions, originalism is not a vehicle by which conservative justices seek to reach conservative results. As Justice Gorsuch explains:

[S]ome 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. Whether that means allowing protesters to burn the American flag (the First Amendment); prohibiting the government from slapping a GPS tracking device on the underside of your car without a warrant (the Fourth Amendment); or insisting that juries—not judges—should decide the facts that increase the penalty you face in a criminal case (the Sixth Amendment).[2]

The alternative – living constitutionalism – is fundamentally anti-democratic. As stated above, living constitutionalists believe that the Constitution is a “living document,” and that judges have the power to create constitutional meaning based upon evolving societal attitudes. The problem with living constitutionalism is that it enables judges to ignore or manipulate the Constitution’s text to achieve preferred policy outcomes. In so doing, living constitutionalism provides unelected judges with the power to decide issues that should be resolved through the democratic process (e.g., issues on which the Constitution is silent or ambiguous), and thus deprives citizens of the power to effectuate change democratically. As Justice Gorsuch stated:

I suspect the real complaint of living constitutionalists isn’t with old laws generally so much as it is with the particular terms of this old law. The Constitution is short—only about 7,500 words, including all its amendments. It doesn’t dictate much about the burning social and political questions they care about. Instead, it leaves the resolution of those matters to elections and votes and the amendment process. And it seems this is the real problem for the critics. For when it comes to the social and political questions of the day they care most about, many living constitutionalists would prefer to have philosopher-king judges swoop down from their marble palace to ordain answers rather than allow the people and their representatives to discuss, debate, and resolve them. You could even say the real complaint here is with our democracy.[3]

Indeed, the anti-democratic and deleterious nature of living constitutionalism was on full display in Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Court invalidated an admittedly silly law banning contraception.[4] The Court in Griswold acknowledged that the Constitution’s text, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment, did not provide a basis upon which to invalidate the law. However, the Court’s majority remained undeterred and decided to create an unenumerated right out of thin air. Specifically, the Court held that “[s]pecific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras … formed by emanations from those guarantees that give them life and substance.”[5] In so holding, the Court concluded that a judicially-created, non-textual ‘right to privacy,’ which was implied from the judicially-created, invisible penumbras, supported invalidation of the statute. And in Roe v. Wade, the Court relied upon these very penumbras to hold that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which was originally designed only to ensure that life, liberty, and property could not be deprived without due process of law, supported a right to abortion before viability.[6] To be sure, I support abortion rights. But I could never support the reasoning in Roe. It is constitutionally indefensible.

Make no mistake: living constitutionalism is not the knight in shining armor that some would have us believe. In fact, it has led to some of the worst decisions in the history of American constitutional law. As Justice Gorsuch explains:

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.[7] 

Indeed, Justice Gorsuch highlights the real and substantial harms that living constitutionalism can cause:

Even when it comes to more prosaic cases, leaving things to the moral imagination of judges invites trouble. Just consider the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test the Court invented in the 1960s to redefine what qualifies as a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. Oh, it sounded nice enough. But under that judge-made doctrine, the Court has held—and I’m not making this up—that a police helicopter hovering 400 feet above your home doesn’t offend a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Court has even held that the government can snoop through materials you’ve entrusted to the care of third parties because, in its judgment, that, too, doesn’t invade a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But who really believes that? The car you let the valet park; the medical records your doctor promised to keep confidential; the emails you sent to your closest friend. You don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy against the government in any of those things? Really?

Put simply, “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.”[8] In short, living constitutionalism is not a legitimate theory of constitutional interpretation.

Ultimately, Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed because she is a brilliant jurist, a person of the highest character and integrity, and a judge who recognizes that “the law of Amy” should never be substituted for the law of the people. Originalists also recognize that – and originalism is, as Justice Gorsuch stated, “the best approach to the Constitution.”[9]

 

[1] Justice Neil Gorsuch, Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: https://time.com/5670400/justice-neil-gorsuch-why-originalism-is-the-best-approach-to-the-constitution/

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] 381 U.S. 479.

[5] Id. at 484 (emphasis added).

[6] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[7] Gorsuch, supra note 1, available at: available at: https://time.com/5670400/justice-neil-gorsuch-why-originalism-is-the-best-approach-to-the-constitution/

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

October 18, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)