Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Judge Michael’s Brief-Writing Tips, Part 1

One of my exciting (yes, really) summer projects is to help with a Legal Writing textbook, including drafting a chapter on trial briefs.  In looking at state and local rules on what trial briefs should contain, I found a great list of ten brief-writing tips from the Hon. Terrence L. Michael, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma and a member of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit.

On his chamber’s webpage, https://www.oknb.uscourts.gov/content/honorable-terrence-l-michael, Judge Michael has a list of his “Policies and Procedures,” including a document called, Ten Tips for Effective Brief Writing (at Least With Respect to Briefs Submitted to Judge Michael), https://www.oknb.uscourts.gov/sites/oknb/files/briefwritingtips.pdf.  Judge Michael is a respected and prolific author and speaker, and he’s even been on stage as a singer at Carnegie Hall, so I was not surprised to find his list of tips both engaging and fun.  See generally https://www.law.com/clecenter/online-course-catalog/you-want-me-to-do-what-the-dilemma-of-trying-to-interpret-and-follow-appellate-precedent-6056/.

Of course, some of the judge’s tips are applicable to Bankruptcy Court and trial filings, but most apply well in appellate writing too.  Therefore, I’m sharing all ten of his tips, although I’ve deleted points especially applicable to trial or bankruptcy practice. 

Judge Michael begins: 

I was once asked (OK, I once wished that I had been asked) what judges look for in written submissions. After considerable thought, and with some trepidation, I have tried to set some general principles down in writing. 

He cautions: “What follows is a list of ten ideas/suggestions for your consideration. I do not purport to speak for any of my colleagues; this list, for better or worse, is my own.”

For this post, I’ll highlight Tips One through Five, and next time, I’ll discuss Tips Six to Ten.

Tip 1.  Remember, Your Goal Is to Persuade, Not to Argue.  Judge Michael explains, “[w]e all have had people come up to us at cocktail parties or family reunions and say, “’You know, I would make a good lawyer because I just love to argue.”’  He says, those statements “could not be further from the truth [as g]uests on the Jerry Springer show argue [while] Lawyers persuade.”  Thus, the judge reminds us the idea “behind an effective brief is to have the audience (the judge and/or the law clerk) read the brief and say to themselves, ‘“why are these parties fighting over such an obvious issue?”’ because the points are actually persuasive, and not just argumentative.

Tip 2.  Know thy Audience.  Judge Michael notes that most bankruptcy judges write and publish opinions, and some even provide links of those opinions on their webpages.  While appellate judges do not necessarily provide links to their opinions, we can certainly search for them.  As the judge explains, “[w]e publish those opinions in order to give you some idea of what we have done and why [and w]e try to be consistent.”  Therefore, judges find it “extremely frustrating (and remember, a frustrated judge is not easily persuaded) to have counsel in either written or oral argument raise an issue and be completely ignorant of the fact that we decided that issue in a published opinion last week, last month or last year.”  Moreover, not knowing what your panel previously decided “is also embarrassing, both for you and for us.”

Tip 3.  Know thy Circuit.  Sadly, Judge Michael has to remind us his court is “bound by published decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit,” even though he “ know[s] this sounds obvious,” because “on more than one occasion, [he] had an attorney ask [him] to follow a decision from another circuit which is directly contrary to controlling Tenth Circuit authority.”  Avoid “creative” arguments to use sister circuit cases when your circuit really has decided the issue. 

Tip 4.  Know the Facts of the Cases You Cite.  When teaching first-year students, I often caution them not to take quotes from cases either out of context or without context.  Judge Michael’s Tip 4 says we must resist the temptation to insert what seem to be “magic words” of these unconnected quotes into our briefs.  According to the judge, “insert[ing] that quotation ([he] call[s] them “sound bites”) into your brief and say[ing], “see, judge, other courts agree with me so I must be right” is actually “a dangerous practice.”  Why?  Because courts “decide real disputes” and “[r]eal disputes are fact driven.”  Thus, we must “[b]e wary of the case which is factually dissimilar to yours, but has a great sound bite.”  Instead, we should “be sure” to explain “why the factually dissimilar case is applicable to your situation.” 

In another point I often raise with first-year students, the judge reminds us to “be cognizant of the difference between the holding of a case and the dicta contained therein,” as “[m]ost judges (this one included) find little value in dicta unless we already agree with it.”

Tip 5.  Shorter Is Better.  When I was in appellate practice, my clients often asked me to ghost write “record-protecting” trial briefs or include weaker issues on appeal to preserve them for high court review.  Deciding which issues might prevail one day and which you should exclude because they are weak is a truly lawyerly task.  In each case, you will balance the needs of the client—especially an institutional client—to raise issues against the persuasive value of focusing on just the best arguments.  Judge Michael suggests we balance on the side of fewer arguments.  He states:  “Thurgood Marshall once said that in all his years on the Supreme Court, every case came down to a single issue. If that is true, why do most briefs contain arguments covering virtually every conceivable issue (good, bad or indifferent) which could arise in the case”? 

The judge explains, “[w]eak arguments detract from the entire presentation.”  He offers this great advice:   “If you feel compelled in a particular case to include everything including the kitchen sink, maybe you ought to take another look at settling the case.”  Good advice, indeed. 

Happy writing!

July 15, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

  1. The debate on these pages teaches lessons about arguing appeals.

Most readers of this blog probably look for the practice tips and insights that are often discussed on this blog. Occasionally, though, contributors address more substantive content. Beyond the doctrinal discussions that the contributors believe inherently interesting, these debates provide practical lessons. The different approaches to argument and counterpoint also enable readers to assess the effectiveness of these different tactics.

Recently, three of us weighed in on the use of originalism as an interpretive methodology. We used support for our views from putative allies of the other side (e.g., Adam citing Justice Kagan and me citing James Madison and Justice Scalia), disputed whether examples used supported the claims made for them, employed rhetorical devices, suggested procedural flaws, and honed in on weaknesses in our opponents’ theory.

In his reply to the arguments that Phillip Seaver-Hall and I made, Professor Adam Lamparello, who started the debate, wrote a reply. I found his defense of his position too juicy to ignore.

  1. A familiar debate tactic does not necessarily win the day when it assumes too much.

Adam starts with a truism – that it is easy to criticize and much harder to propose solutions, which is a standard debate tactic. He suggests that his critics have failed to propose an alternative to originalism and that undermines their stance. However, he assumes that the goal he seeks is either universally desired or achievable. While it is true that we generally agree that judges should not invent constitutional holdings as though a court were a rolling constitutional convention and instead show fidelity to text and principles, both Phillip and I argued that originalism does not produce the interpretative nirvana Adam seeks and is as prone to imprinting personal views on the Constitution as any other approach. I showed that the decisions he cited to show results different than a judge’s ideological predisposition did not qualify as originalist so that they did not support his point.

Moreover, I expressed my doubts that any methodology could cabin human preferences or biases and were instead subject to selective reliance on those historical artifacts that hit a responsive chord with our personal views. Even so, as the best we could do, I suggested that common-law methodologies were both constitutionally proper and useful, citing a 1992 book I wrote for West Publishing on the topic.

That methodology permits us to consider the text, the framers’ intent, the ratifiers’ understandings, our collective experience, and precedents to understand the wisdom of all who came before us, seeking to apply constitutional principles, and be a part of that cross-generational conversation of what free speech or due process means, anchored in the written words and underlying purposes of a constitution, as Chief Justice John Marshall said, “intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”[1] That sentiment was cited and endorsed by the originalist decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen,[2] with the additional explanation that the Constitution’s fixed meaning still must be “appl[ied] to circumstances beyond those the Founders specifically anticipated.”[3]

Nor is a common-law methodology necessarily unbounded. Properly utilized, it employs generations of wisdom in applying law to controversies “to form a stable body of rules that not only determine immediate controversies but also guide future conduct,” as the late New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye explained.[4] She added, that to the extent it changes, it “grows incrementally, in restrained and principled fashion, to fit into a changing society.”[5]

That growth in sensible application, such as finding that schoolchildren do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate when public schools or the rights of children may never have been in the contemplation of those responsible for the First Amendment or even Fourteenth Amendment due process but still accords with our understanding of those rights throughout the ages. For me, this process seeks to remain faithful to the words and the document’s legitimacy as the written product of a democratic process, yet seeks to maintain its continued vitality by applying its commands and principles today to modern controversies not by whether those applications occurred at the time of ratification but with an understanding that that constitutional principles “have an iceberg quality, containing beneath their surface simplicity submerged complexities”[6] that may only be apparent when tested under a specific fact pattern.

  1. Examples used must support the claim made.

Because he believes his debate opponents did not propose an alternative, Adam uses a straw man of “living constitutionalism,” to argue against it. Living constitutionalism is a loaded term, associated with the idea that the Constitution evolves to fit modern times and leaving judges with unbridled authority as though judges were solons employing their personal wisdom. He then works to knock down the legitimacy of “living constitutionalism.”

Treating Adam’s post as an argument against constitutional evolution through judicial decision, he uses a frequent tactic in arguments by showing how it produces bad results. Specifically, he attributes the decisions, unthinkable today, of Dred Scott v. Sandford,[7] and Korematsu v. United States,[8] to its use. He argues that both cases were policy decisions by a court not invested with policy authority, rather than interpretations of the Constitution as originally understood. I found that formulation curious because a reading of the two cases suggests that they were either originalist or textualist in nature.

In Dred Scott, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote “[i]t is not the province of the court to decide the justice or injustice, of the laws” but to interpret the Constitution “according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.”[9] That sentence certainly sounds like the originalism Adam favors. Consistent with what the current Supreme Court has done to explore originalism, Taney concluded that black people “were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States,” because they were not considered citizens when the Constitution was adopted.[10] That sentence, fueling the decision, also sounds quite originalist. To overcome that position, we required a civil war and the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

His second example, Korematsu, might be deemed a textualist decision, rather than one based on “living constitutionalism.” The Court upheld the detestable internment of Japanese-Americans in that case, employing the same rationale it expressed a year earlier in upholding a wartime curfew applied to Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in Hirabayashi v. United States,[11] the Supreme Court reasoned that the

The Fifth Amendment contains no equal protection clause and it restrains only such discriminatory legislation by Congress as amounts to a denial of due process. … Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality. For that reason, legislative classification or discrimination based on race alone has often been held to be a denial of equal protection.[12]

The absence of an equal-protection declaration in the Fifth Amendment allowed the Court to treat the constitutional war powers as the proper focus of its analysis. That authority, which it thought would support a plenary curfew despite its burden on rights, would also supports a targeted curfew:


The adoption by Government, in the crisis of war and of threatened invasion, of measures for the public safety, based upon the recognition of facts and circumstances which indicate that a group of one national extraction may menace that safety more than others, is not wholly beyond the limits of the Constitution and is not to be condemned merely because in other and in most circumstances racial distinctions are irrelevant.[13]

Subsequently, in Korematsu, the Court echoed that explanation, stating that even though racial discrimination warrants “rigid scrutiny,” “[p]ressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; [even if,] racial antagonism never can.”[14] Once again, war necessity rather than racial discrimination, the Court believed, undergirded the abhorrent treatment of Japanese-Americans.

I’m hard-pressed to understand how originalism might have prevented this result. Originalism would not have read equal protection into the Fifth Amendment, nor would it have necessarily found applicable limits to Congress’s war powers. Certainly, when the Court soon afterwards read an equal protection strand into the Fifth Amendment, it did not engage in originalism to get there. It instead lodged it in the “American ideal of fairness” and precedent that established that equal protection for schoolchildren in the District of Columbia had to be protected just as the Court said for students in the States in the Fourteenth Amendment, was merely a “more explicit safeguard of prohibited unfairness than ‘due process of law,’” and, equally “unjustifiable” as a matter of due process.[15]

  1. Conclusion

Adam initiated a fun debate, and I’m grateful to him for doing so and for the way in which it was conducted. We disagree, and we have our perspectives on what counts or doesn’t count. Readers now can reach their own conclusions, perhaps prompted to a perspective based on what we have said. And they can also judge for themselves how effective our different argument strategies were in the ways that we deployed them.

 

[1] McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 415 (1819) (emphasis in orig.).

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

[3] Id. at 2132.

[4] Judith S. Kaye, State Courts at the Dawn of A New Century: Common Law Courts Reading Statutes and Constitutions, 70 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1, 5 (1995).

[5] Id.

[6] Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 94 (1968).

[7] 60 U.S. 393 (1857), superseded by U.S. Const. amend. XIV (1868).

[8] 323 U.S. 214 (1944), abrogated by Trump v. Hawaii, 138 S. Ct. 2392 (2018).

[9] Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 405.

[10] Id. at 407.

[11] 320 U.S. 81 (1943).

[12] Id. at 100 (citations omitted).

[13] Id. at 101.

[14] Korematsu, 323 U.S. at 216.

[15] Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499 (1954).

July 2, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Summer Hallucinations, Plagiarism, and ChatGPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy summer!

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

Sunday, June 25, 2023

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

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

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

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

It’s harder to propose solutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which view would be superior?

None of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originalism.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Id.

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

[5] 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Id.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Id.

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

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

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

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

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

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

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

[30] Yale University Pres, 2022.

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Originalism's Frailties: A Reply to Professor Lamparello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

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

[3] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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

[22] Id. at 383.

[23] 17 U.S. 316 (1819). 

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

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

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

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

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

[29] 554 U.S. 570 (2008). 

[30] Posner, Incoherence.

[31] Id.

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

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

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

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

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

[37] Id. at 200. 

[38] 496 U.S. 310 (1990). 

[39] Id. at 312.

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

[41] Posner, Incoherence.

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

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Originalism, Not What It’s Cracked Up to Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Id. at 256.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 776.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Supreme Court and Originalism

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

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

1.    Originalism focuses on process, not outcomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lest there be any doubt, recall the “sweet mystery  of life” passage where the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey stated, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[10] That passage is precisely what living constitutionalism, which states that the Constitution’s meaning changes over time, produces: a lot of nothing – except maybe those invisible penumbras that the Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, invented out of thin air, and from which it created unenumerated constitutional rights.[11]

4.    Originalism constrains judges and promotes democratic governance.

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

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

No.

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

Nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[27] Id.

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

Sunday, May 21, 2023

When Is a Judge Unfit, and What Can be Done About It?

The controversy surrounding Judge Pauline Newman of the Federal Circuit raises an interesting question for appellate advocates. Judge Newman, age 95 and appointed by President Reagan in 1984, was asked to step down by the circuit’s chief judge but declined the suggestion. Allegations against her include bouts of paranoia in which she claims that the court is spying on her, that her staff is betraying her and at least one of them should be arrested, that she engages in conversations with dead colleagues, and that she forgets how to log into her computer or where files on it can be found.

She is now being investigated by a special committee of the circuit about her competency to continue to serve as a judge. A recently released 26-page Order requires Judge Newman to undergo “neurological evaluation and neuropsychological testing to determine whether she suffers from a disability.” The order follows a previous one where Judge Newman refused to comply, labeling the requested medical records “irrelevant,” objecting to examinations by court-designated professionals and to their scope, and asking that the determination of her fitness to remain on the bench be determined outside the circuit. The new order rejects those objections and includes more specificity about what the investigative committee of fellow judges requires.

Judge Newman has responded with a lawsuit, filed May 10, in the federal district court in Washington, DC. It denies that she suffered a heart attack that prevented her from sitting during the summer of 2021, asserting instead that she was a member of 10 panels from June to September of that year and issued at least eight opinions from those sittings. Her productivity, it alleges, eclipses that of all but two colleagues. It further asserts that the circuit, by unanimous vote of the other judges, refuses to assign her any more cases. The complaint further states that Judge Newman’s judicial assistant and law clerk were reassigned without leave for the judge to replace them.

The complaint argues that the treatment of Judge Newman, constructively a removal from office, violates separation of powers because she serves “during good Behaviour,” removable from office only through impeachment and conviction by Congress. It further asserts that the circuit judicial council acted prematurely under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, which requires a completed investigation before action, comparing the procedure utilized to “Sentence first—verdict afterwards” from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It further asserts a Fifth Amendment due-process violation “because the special committee is composed of witnesses to Plaintiff’s alleged disability.”

Judge Newman also claims the court has violated the First Amendment by virtue of a “Gag Order [that] forbids Plaintiff or her attorneys from engaging in any speech that would in any way publicize the ongoing disciplinary proceedings against Plaintiff.” Indeed, until the complaint was filed, the court’s order was filed under seal and released only because of the lawsuit.

Finally, Judge Newman asserts most of the authority claimed by the investigating committee is unconstitutional, due to the vagueness of “what constitutes a mental disability that renders a judge ‘unable to discharge all the duties of office’” and what remedies the judicial council may employ.

For appellate counsel facing a court with a judge displaying erratic behavior or otherwise unable to follow the argument, what happens in Judge Newman’s circumstances could be instructive. We may learn what authority courts have to intervene when a judicial council acts, what authority judicial councils may exercise, and what behavior provides grounds for action against a judge. We may also learn what appointment by the president and confirmation by the Senate, subject to impeachment, means in these circumstances.

Of course, appellate counsel has no means to challenge the assignment of a judge to a matter, absent a clear conflict of interest. Still, the Disability Act and the Rules for Judicial-Conduct and Judicial-Disability Proceedings provide a complaint process, which basically follows the process that the Federal Circuit employed – although in this instance the Chief Judge filed the complaint herself.

We have at least one historic precedent of a court acting to restrict a judge who had lost the ability to discharge his duties. Justice Gabriel Duvall, a once prominent Maryland lawyer and judge appointed to the Supreme Court by President Madison, became so sick and deaf during his final years on the bench that Chief Justice John Marshall ordered that the clerk not supply the infirm justice with any supplies, lest he actually write something about one of the cases before the Court.

Today, we live in a different world, but the problem of a judge who does not recognize when the time to step down has come remains. Whether that time has come for Judge Newman or not, her case and the Federal Circuit’s actions may provide some answers about what a court can do.

May 21, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Comments Against Angel Reese Call Us to Check for Bias in Our Writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I was lucky enough to teach a seminar on bias in legal analysis and writing this semester.  Much of the class focused on implicit bias and the way we can use words as lawyers to help find and remove bias.  Occasionally, we encountered bias in court opinions, legal scholarship, and the like that was almost express.  While easier to spot and remove than subtle implicit bias, overt bias also reminds us, as lawyers and legal writers, to scrutinize our own writing. 

One example of clear bias in the media that could help us as legal writers came at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament this year.  Students and I were struck by social media and sportscaster disparate discussion of a strong, powerful player for the University of Iowa and a strong, powerful player for Louisiana State University.  These women, Angel Reese of LSU and Caitlin Clark of Iowa, are incredible competitors who each led their teams to the NCAA championship game.  Along the way to the final game against each other, which LSU won, both played beautifully and both sported almost identical ponytails.  Both also made the same “you can’t see me” taunt to opponents during the tournament by waving their outstretched hands in front of their faces, to show they were too quick for opponents to see and stop.  In response to these taunts, Clark faced praise, including from ESPN and pro wrestler John Cena, who invented the “you can’t see me” taunt, but Reese faced profanities and statements she was “classless.”   

The difference:  Clark is white, while Reese is Black.  Our class had a robust discussion of what the different language used to describe these similar athletes using identical taunts in the same tournament meant to us as legal writers, and the students inspired me to share this incident here.

As Mike Freeman of USA Today explained, “Clark is a skilled trash talker and used the John Cena "you can't see me" taunt multiple times throughout the tournament.” Mike Freeman, Reaction to Angel Reese taunting Caitlin Clark shows the double standard for Black Athletes,  https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/mike-freeman/2023/04/03/angel-reeses-taunt-iowas-caitlin-clark-shows-double-standard/11591498002/ (Apr. 3, 2023).  Freeman continued, “[i]n the closing moment of the championship game, Reese did the same taunt and also pointed to her hand, signaling she was getting a championship ring.”  Id.   

Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted Clark often taunted opponents.  Sultan explained:  the “you can’t see me,” gesture “had been used by Clark toward a Louisville opponent in the Elite Eight” round of the NCAA tournament, and “ESPN even produced a segment hailing Clark as the “Queen of Clapbacks” featuring these moments of taunting by her.” Aisha Sultan, Backlash to Angel Reese raises question: Which athletes get called 'classless'?, https://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/parenting/aisha-sultan/sultan-backlash-to-angel-reese-raises-question-which-athletes-get-called-classless/article_fa75a30d-67d7-56c1-aac6-ea09c00b638f.html (Apr. 3, 2023).  “The reaction to Reese [using the taunt in the final game], however, included Dave Portnoy, founder of the site Barstool Sports, tweeting that she was a ‘classless piece of (expletive)’ and Keith Olbermann calling her an ‘(expletive) idiot’ on Twitter.”  Id.

Freeman honed in on the use of language here, and his notes are especially helpful to appellate writers as we edit our work.  For example, he described what he called stereotypes of sports as:

When Black players are aggressive, and talk trash, they are thugs and animals.

When white players are aggressive, and talk trash, they are passionate and fiery.

This stereotype goes back decades. Larry Bird was the greatest trash talker of all time but was celebrated for his passion. Tom Brady screamed at teammates and coaches and was viewed as scrappy. John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas, who played defense with spirit and ferocity, were called thugs. Fight[ing] in hockey is seen as tradition. Fight[ing] in NASCAR is seen as cool and spirited. Fights in NBA games lead to white commentators asking: "Where are the fathers?"

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/mike-freeman/2023/04/03/angel-reeses-taunt-iowas-caitlin-clark-shows-double-standard/11591498002/

What can we learn from this incident to catch less obvious bias in our own writing?  The long answer: my class spent fourteen weeks looking at scholarship on writing and bias to help us start to answer this question, and removing bias takes work and careful attention.  One shorter answer:  many of the rules of good writing, like using active voice and direct sentence structure, help us avoid bias.  Being attentive to our own underlying privilege and bias and asking a trusted colleague to proofread helps too.  There are many thoughtful ideas on addressing bias in our legal publications.  For just a few, consider recent articles, like I Think He’s Nice But He Might Be Mad About Something, 25 U.C. Davis Soc. J. L. Rev. 73, 99 (2021), and older scholarship, like Prof. Lucinda Finley’s Breaking Women’s Silence in Law:  The Dilemma of the Gendered Nature of Legal Reasoning, 64 Notre Dame L. Rev. 886, 886-97, 909 (1989).

I give this example of overt bias in sports discussions not as a suggestion appellate lawyers often show such bias, but as a reminder we all must be as thoughtful as possible in the words we choose.  My students helped me see we should all take the time to edit for bias when we check for clarity and punctuation, and we should mentor new appellate writers to do the same.

April 22, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Why Paul Clement Is So Good

Attorney Paul Clement is among the best attorneys – and oral advocates – in the United States. And for good reason. His oral advocacy skills are second to none. In fact, listening to even one of Paul Clement’s arguments before the United States Supreme Court provides law students and young lawyers with invaluable tips on what it takes to be an outstanding advocate. Below are a few reasons why Paul Clement is among the country’s best lawyers.

1.    Confidence

As Woody Allen said, 90% of life is just showing up. And when you do show up, it’s critical to have confidence. Paul Clement has the confidence (or ‘swagger’) that reflects self-assuredness and conviction in his arguments. Put simply, he owns the courtroom and commands respect.

2.    Preparation

No attorney can outwork Paul Clement. He is so prepared that he never uses notes and can cite the page and line number of, for example, a deposition. In short, Clement knows every detail of his case, including the law that governs its disposition.

3.    Conversational tone

Many lawyers who argue before the United Supreme Court will understandably be nervous and, perhaps, overly formalistic when making their arguments.

Not Paul Clement. When Clement argues before the Supreme Court, he has a conversation with the Court, much like you would have a conversation with one of your friends. As Professor Richard Lazarus of Harvard Law School states, “[h]e’s very smooth. He’s engaging. Formal but not too much so. Extremely credible and straight with the justices. You don’t have the sense that anyone is trying to sell you anything.”[1]

It almost seems that Clement enjoys engaging with the justices, which reflects his confidence and personability.

4.    Integrity and credibility

Paul Clement has integrity. He never misrepresents the law or the facts. He never acts in an arrogant, disrespectful, or dismissive manner. Rather, he presents the law and facts honestly and thoroughly, and explains with persuasiveness why he should win. Doing so reflects his integrity and enhances his credibility with the Court.

As one Supreme Court advocate stated, “[h]e just doesn’t do things that upset people … [t]here’s no edge to him.”[2]

5.    Persuasiveness

Paul Clement is extremely persuasive. Whether it is, for example, his tone, word choice, ability to distinguish precedent, skill at addressing unfavorable facts and crafting a compelling narrative, or using non-verbal techniques, Paul Clement is among the most talented at telling a persuasive story that maximizes his likelihood of success.

6.    Answering judges’ questions directly and effectively

One of the most important aspects of effective appellate advocacy is answering a judge’s questions directly and persuasively, and adjusting your argument based on the concerns that a judge expresses about the merits of your case. Paul Clement is among the best, if not the best, at doing so.  An excellent example is Clement’s argument in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (21-418_3dq3.pdf (supremecourt.gov)).

Ultimately, Paul Clement’s oral advocacy skills exemplify what it means to be a great lawyer and advocate. Both law students and young law lawyers would benefit from listening to his oral arguments. 

 

[1] Natalie Singer, ‘Defending Unpopular Positions is What Lawyers Do,’ says Paul Clement, ’92 (January 31, 2012), available at: 'Defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do' says Paul Clement '92 - Harvard Law School | Harvard Law School

[2] Jason Zengerle, The Paul Clement Court (March 16, 2012), available at: Why Paul Clement Is the GOP’s Great Hope for This Supreme Court Season -- New York Magazine - Nymag

April 15, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Trump Indictment

Donald Trump has been indicted. Although this is not a surprising development, it is not a good day for the rule of law or for public confidence in our institutions.  

To begin with, a grand jury indictment is not nearly as significant as some in the media would have you believe. As the saying goes, grand juries would indict a “ham sandwich” because the threshold for securing an indictment is not high, and the defense’s ability to test the prosecution’s case is limited.[1] Furthermore, the investigation occurred in New York City, where liberals substantially outnumber conservatives, and where Trump is, to put it mildly, not admired. When you combine these factors with a district attorney – Alvin Bragg – who seems hellbent on indicting Trump (as evidenced by his public statements and legal theory) you have the perfect storm for an indictment that appears more political than principled.[2]

Indeed, Bragg appears to care more about convicting Trump than addressing the approximately 22% increase in various crimes in New York City. As Harvard Law Professor Dershowitz, who did not vote for Trump, explains:

When a district attorney who ran as a Democrat and promised to “get” Donald Trump indicts the candidate running for president against the incumbent head of his party, he had better have a slam dunk case. Although we don't know exactly what the Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump for, it seems likely, based on what we know, that this is a very weak case which would never have been brought against anyone else.[3]

Put simply, the case against Trump is not strong. In fact, if media reports are correct about the charge Trump is facing, it is incredibly weak. As George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley states, Bragg “is attempting to bootstrap [a] federal crime into a state case,” and “if that is the basis for the indictment … it’s illegally pathetic.”[4]  Likewise, former Whitewater deputy counsel Sol Wisenberg characterized the legal case against Trump as “preposterous.”[5] Even some liberal commentators agree that the case against Trump is not strong.[6] For example, Elie Mystal asserts that “the odds that the path to real justice, let alone prison time, runs through the Manhattan DA’s office still seem very, very long.”[7]

Specifically (and again, if media reports are correct), the charge against Trump is falsifying business records, which requires, among other things, an intent to defraud. The legal theory, apparently, is that Trump falsified business records (characterizing them as legal expenses) when reimbursing Michael Cohen for paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 to conceal Daniels’ affair with Trump (to be clear, paying “hush money” to another is not, in itself, a crime). In New York, this is a misdemeanor, and it only becomes a felony “if it was in service of another crime,” which Bragg allegedly “posits is a [federal] campaign finance violation.”[8]  

Importantly, the Southern District of New York, which investigated this matter, declined to prosecute the case.[9]  Also, former Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, did not pursue an indictment.[10] And for good reason. Why would a prosecutor try to convict a former president for a misdemeanor, particularly where the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute, the case is so weak, and where doing so would appear politically motivated?

None of these factors seem to matter to Bragg, a Democrat who in his campaign for Manhattan District Attorney promised to focus on investigating Trump, stating that it “merits the attention of the DA personally.”[11] Apparently, Bragg is attempting to connect Trump’s alleged misdemeanor-level misconduct to a federal campaign finance violation, which is a felony, by alleging that the payments to Cohen constituted an illegal contribution to the Trump campaign.

Such a creative and novel legal approach suggests that Bragg is searching for some way, however untenable, to bring a felony charge against Trump. But it is unlikely to succeed. As Mark Pomerantz, a former district attorney, stated, Bragg will “have to argue that the intent to commit or conceal a federal crime had converted the falsification of the records into a felony. No appellate court in New York had ever upheld (or rejected) this interpretation of the law.”[12] In other words, the “intent to defraud” must include “an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.”[13] That alone will be difficult to prove, as Trump may argue that the payments were intended to prevent his wife Melania from discovering the affair, not to cover up another crime (an illegal campaign contribution). 

Furthermore, if reports from the media are accurate, the primary witness for the prosecution will be Michael Cohen, a disbarred lawyer who pled guilty to, among other things, tax fraud, who served time in prison, and who has lied countless times, including before Congress.[14] If you doubt this, listen to the statements by Robert Costello, who testified recently before the grand jury.[15]  Also, one must wonder how Trump can be prosecuted for a federal campaign violation in New York state court, why such a prosecution should be pursued when the Southern District of New York declined to do so, and where the optics of such a prosecution suggest a political motive.

Such creative lawyering (tying a state law misdemeanor to a federal felony), rather than being a legitimate purpose of the criminal justice system, suggests that the Bragg wants to weaponize the legal system to “get” Trump.  As Dershowitz explains:

This is a case of targeting an individual and then rummaging through the statute books in search of a crime. Prosecutors seem to have come up with nothing under established law, then made up a misdemeanor and then piggybacked it on another alleged crime to create a felony. But one plus one does not equal 11, and zero plus zero equals zero. That is what we seem to have here.[16]

Simply put, this is a weak case that appears as politically motivated as it gets. Indeed, it is quite concerning that, as Bragg has reduced 52% of felony charges in New York to misdemeanors, he now seeks to raise Trump’s alleged crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.[17] Perhaps Bragg’s personal attention should be devoted elsewhere, particularly given the 22% rise in certain crimes in New York City.[18]

Ultimately, no matter what you think of Trump, everyone should, hopefully, believe that the law should be applied in an equal and even-handed fashion. Think about it: if the defendant were anyone other than Donald Trump, would Bragg be pursuing this?

Of course not. 

Well, maybe if it were Richard Nixon.

In essence, Bragg is going after the person (Trump), not the crime. That, in a nutshell, is the point – and the problem.

After all, let’s be honest about what is happening here.

Bragg probably despises Trump. Furthermore, when (and before) Donald Trump was elected in 2016 as an anti-establishment candidate, the mainstream media hated him.[19] Indeed, the mainstream media, which has as much, if not less, credibility than Michael Cohen, did nearly everything in its power to discredit and, quite frankly, destroy Trump, as evidenced by, among other things, the now-debunked allegations of Russian collusion.[20] 

Additionally, the establishment, including individuals such as James Comey and Peter Strzok, hated him. Furthermore, universities, which are overwhelmingly liberal and who employ professors who believe that diversity of thought is more deleterious than the coronavirus, have almost uniformly condemned Trump and unapologetically rejected a free marketplace of ideas. If you doubt this, look at what happened to Fifth Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School, where students and Tirian Steinbach, the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, shouted down Duncan for views that they did not share.[21]  Or observe the circus-like shenanigans of students at Yale Law School, where they ridiculed Kristen Waggoner, an attorney and Supreme Court litigator.[22] The commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (and free speech) obviously exists only in the abstract at these schools. 

The consequences that Trump’s prosecution will have to our institutions – and the rule of law – will be substantial. The legitimacy of our institutions depends in substantial part on the perception that our elected officials apply the law equally, fairly, and even-handedly, without regard to political affiliation or personal animus. If the rule of law is perceived as a political weapon (see, e.g., North Korea, Russia), the law itself will be reduced to nothing more than a tool for politicians to use against those who threaten their power. And there is no bigger threat to liberty and equality than a rule of law that is administered based on politics rather than principle, and opportunism rather than objectivity. The rule of law – and the American people – demand much more and should accept no less. 

Put differently, people need to believe that you will never be prosecuted or targeted based on what you believe, what your political affiliation is, or who you are. It should be based on what you did, and whether those actions would result in a prosecution for most, if not all, individuals, regardless of status, who engaged in similar conduct. That is simply not the case here. If the defendant were Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, there would be no prosecution.

It's no wonder why the American people have lost faith in our institutions, academics, and elected leaders. Years ago, individuals such as Walter Cronkite, Robert C. Maynard, and Peter Jennings exemplified the standards to which journalism – and our institutions – should aspire. Now, the American people are treated to the folks at CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, few of whom can even remotely compare to the journalistic integrity that the former individuals embodied. Even a few seconds of listening to Bryan Stelter or Joy Reid, or Glenn Beck underscores this point.

Indeed, Bragg’s conduct – and the conduct of many political leaders, prosecutors, and pundits – leads to one ineluctable conclusion.

They are political actors.

Their goal is to advance a political agenda.

And they don’t even hide it anymore.

As Professor Dershowitz stated, “[w]hat matters greatly is that DA Alvin Bragg has weaponized the justice system to target a political opponent based on a nonexistent or, at best, an extremely weak crime.”[23]

Unfortunately, this nonsense is not without precedent.

In 1998, the Republicans spent millions of taxpayer dollars to impeach Bill Clinton (in the House of Representatives) over a consensual affair (and alleged perjury and obstruction of justice) that, while not, to put it nicely, the best exercise of judgment, could not reasonably have been construed as a high crime and misdemeanor. And Ken Starr did everything in his power to degrade and humiliate Clinton with a report laden with salacious details that no sensible person would have included. Well, here we are again: a criminal indictment against a former president and leading candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination based on an affair with a porn star. Not to mention, the United States Supreme Court manufactured out of thin air a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, and approximately fifty years later, overturned Roe for no other reason than that the political persuasions of the Court had changed.

What’s more, it is nearly impossible to have a civil conversation with those with whom you disagree or to debate issues with others in an atmosphere of civility and respect.  Alvin Bragg’s decision makes this situation worse, not better and makes the country more divided, not united. Put simply, Trump’s indictment is an unsurprising, quite unoriginal, and obviously predictable continuation of this unfortunate chapter in American history.  

Ultimately, almost anyone can respect the rule of law, promote diversity of thought, and remain committed to fairness when they are surrounded by people who agree with them. But true leaders – and people with character and integrity – have the courage to be fair to every citizen, particularly the ones that they despise, just like the First Amendment depends on tolerating speech that you find offensive.

That is what the rule of law – and a society dedicated to liberty, fairness, and equality – demands, and what every citizen deserves.

That includes Donald Trump.

 

[1] Toni Messina, Criminally Yours: Indicting a Ham Sandwich (Feb. 8, 2016), available at: Criminally Yours: Indicting A Ham Sandwich - Above the Law

[2] Of course, this is based on the media reports regarding the legal charges that Trump will face. The indictment may contain facts and charges that make the case stronger.

[3] Alan Dershowitz, Trump Indictment Case Looks Like a Weak Exercise in Creative Prosecution (March 31, 2023), available at: Trump Indictment Case Looks Like a Weak Exercise in Creative Prosecution | Opinion (newsweek.com) (emphasis added).

[4]  Steven Nelson, Democrats Giddy at Trump Indictment, But Legal Experts Warn Case is Weak (March 30, 2023), available at: Democrats giddy at Trump indictment, but legal experts warn case is weak (nypost.com)

[5] Id.

[6] See Elie Mystal, Donald Trump Has Been Indicted/ Don’t Get Your Hopes Up (March 30, 2023), available at: Donald Trump Has Been Indicted. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up. | The Nation

[7] Id.

[8] National Review, The Reckless Trump Indictment (March 31, 2023), available at: Reckless Donald Trump Indictment | National Review (emphasis added) (brackets added).

[9] See Mystal, supra note 6, available at: Donald Trump Has Been Indicted. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up. | The Nation

[10] Jeremy Herb, Kara Scannell, and John Miller, Inside the Long and Winding Road to Trump’s Indictment (April 1, 2023), available at: Donald Trump: Inside the long and winding path to a historic indictment | CNN Politics

[11] See Kara Scannell, New Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg Pledges to Focus on Trump Investigations (Dec. 20, 2001), available at: Alvin Bragg: New Manhattan DA pledges to focus on Trump investigations | CNN Politics (emphasis added).

[12] Jose Pagliery, Manhattan DA Insiders Worry the Trump Hush Money Case is Weak Sauce (March 29, 2023), available at: Manhattan District Attorney Insiders Worry the Trump-Stormy Daniels Alvin Bragg Hush Money Case Is Weak Sauce (thedailybeast.com)

[13] Mark Joseph Stern, The Big Problem with the Trump Indictment (March 30, 2023), available at: Alvin Bragg’s indictment of Donald Trump is full of challenge and promise. (slate.com).

[14] See Laura Nahmias and Daniel Samuelsohn, Michael Cohen Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison (Dec. 12, 2018), available at: Michael Cohen sentenced to 3 years in prison - POLITICO

[15] See Bart Jansen and Kevin Johnson, Lawyer Assails Trump Grand Jury Witness as ‘Liar on Revenge Tour,’ (March 20, 2023), available at: Robert Costello undercuts Michael Cohen in Trump grand jury probe (usatoday.com)

[16] Dershowitz, supra note 3, available at Trump Indictment Case Looks Like a Weak Exercise in Creative Prosecution | Opinion (newsweek.com) (emphasis added).

[17] See Melissa Klein, NYC Convictions Plummet, Downgraded Charges Surge Under DA Bragg (Nov. 26, 2022), available at: Convictions plummet, downgraded charges surge under Manhattan DA Bragg (nypost.com) (emphasis added).

[18] See Chelsia Rose Marcius and Eh Shanahan, Major Crimes Rose 22 Percent in New York City, Even as Shootings Fell (January 5, 2023), available at: Major Crimes Rose 22 Percent in New York City, Even as Shootings Fell - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[19] See Tony Perkins, The Numbers that Prove How Much the Mainstream Media Hate Trump (Dec. 14, 2017), available at: The Numbers That Prove How Much the Mainstream Media Hate Trump (frc.org)

[20] See Philip Ewing, Mueller Report Finds No Evidence of Russian Collusion (March 24, 2019), available at: Mueller Report Finds No Evidence Of Russian Collusion : NPR

[21] See Stuart Kyle Duncan, My Struggle Session at Stanford Law School (March 17, 2023), available at: My Struggle Session at Stanford Law School - WSJ

[22] See Bradley Evans, ADF General Counsel Harassed at Yale Law School Event (March 21, 2022), available at: ADF General Counsel Kristen Waggoner Harassed at Yale Law School Event | Alliance Defending Freedom (adflegal.org)

[23] Dershowitz, supra note 3, available at Trump Indictment Case Looks Like a Weak Exercise in Creative Prosecution | Opinion (newsweek.com) (emphasis added).

April 1, 2023 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

More than "Frenemies."

Daumier good young man PD

I recently had the honor of running into an old moot court student as opposing appellate counsel. It was in a case where there had been some heated language exchanged by trial counsel over an issue that was of serious concern to our clients. We shook hands, laughed at the irony, and then he said we would just have to be “frenemies.”

I’ve thought a fair bit about that exchange. Not because I don’t know what a frenemy is – I am not yet that old, and I do have access to the urban dictionary in case I need to verify - but because I don’t think that term fits the full relationship of opposing appellate counsel. We should be more than that.

Under the ABA model rules, there are only “shall nots” when it comes to the relationship between counsel. Thus, Rule 3.4, Fairness to Opposing Party & Counsel, provides that an attorney “shall not” unlawfully conceal or obstruct access to evidence, falsify evidence, make frivolous discovery requests or objections, and so on.

The Texas Standards for Appellate Conduct, under which I often operate, are much more aspirational. They provide that counsel will treat opposing counsel with respect, be punctual in communications with counsel, not impute bad motives or make personal attacks against counsel, and will not ascribe to opposing counsel a position they have not actually taken. These standards begin with the idea that “Lawyers bear a responsibility to conduct themselves with dignity towards and respect for each other, for the sake of maintaining the effectiveness and credibility of the system they serve.”

I wish all attorneys subscribed to those standards, but they are, perhaps, particularly well-suited to appellate counsel. We, more than any other lawyer, should be able to focus on the issues. We, more than any other lawyer, should be able to distinguish between attacking an argument and attacking opposing counsel. And we, more than other lawyer, should take that role seriously.

How does that pan out in practice? When we step into a case, we should be able to recognize when these ideals are not being met and we should do our best to fix that. Not only to keep the peace, but because that is how we can best serve our clients, who eventually will have those legal issues determined by an appellate court that has no interest in personal feelings.

So, when we step into a trial court to help with issues we know are going to be on appeal, we should step in with the idea that we aren’t just frenemies with opposing appellate counsel. We are working together to try to get the issues resolved as cleanly as possible, and if necessary, preserved and presented in a way that will help the court, and our clients, focus on the issues that have to be resolved. While we are opposed on the issues, we are allies in a larger sense.

That may sound pollyannish. But the courts of appeal in Texas that have all adopted these standards don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that most appellate courts in the rest of the country would agree that when we act professionally, and even more, cordially, while still vigorously contesting each other’s arguments, we best serve our clients needs and the needs of the system in which we all work.

(photo credit: Brooklyn Museum - "Vous êtes un jeune homme bien né..." - Honoré Daumier).

 

March 21, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 27, 2023

Advice for Law Students on Oral Argument

After judging a regional round of the National Appellate Advocacy Competition this weekend in Los Angeles, it was apparent immediately that the law students participating in this competition demonstrated intelligence, talent, and persuasiveness. Indeed, the participants were quite impressive and showed that the future of the legal profession is bright. Having said that, below are a few tips for law students to help improve their already-impressive appellate advocacy skills.

1.    Slow down. Once again, slow down. Your goal is to advocate for your client and maximize the persuasive value of your argument. To do so, you need to be authentic and conversational. In so doing, you should change your pace, tone, and inflection to emphasize (and de-emphasize) specific points. When you speak too quickly, you lose credibility and negatively impact the persuasiveness of your argument. And you lose points. So be sure to focus on being yourself, which means being authentic, conversational, and comfortable at the podium.

2.    Don’t be scripted. You should never draft every word of your oral argument. Instead, you should draft an outline of the substantive points that you want to make, and trust yourself to articulate those points effectively and persuasively. When you memorize a script, you appear rehearsed and thus inauthentic.

3.    Watch your conduct at the counsel table. Being professional and respectful is vital to ensuring your credibility with a court. Thus, be sure never to show emotion at the counsel table, either toward your teammates or in response to your adversary’s arguments. The failure to do so is unprofessional and immature – and will cost you points. When a moot court or mock trial team, for example, displays unprofessional conduct at the counsel table, they signal to the judges that they are not a good team.

4.    Be flexible and concede weaknesses in your argument. Every argument has weaknesses, whether on the facts or the law. Denying these weaknesses, particularly in the face of difficult questions from the judges, will affect your credibility and persuasiveness. Thus, be sure to concede weaknesses in your argument, such as by acknowledging unfavorable facts or law, and explain why such weaknesses do not affect the outcome you seek.

5.    Answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively. The key to an outstanding oral argument is how you respond to the judges’ questions. Those questions tell you precisely what the judges are concerned about or focused on when deciding the merits of your case. As such, you should answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively, and not offer evasive or non-responsive answers, which will compromise your credibility. In other words, do not view the judges’ questions as an attack on your argument. View them as an opportunity to make your case.

6.    Be willing to adapt and modify your argument (or desired remedy) based on the judges’ questions. Far too often, oralists propose a categorical rule – or seek a particular remedy – and relentlessly advocate for that rule or remedy regardless of the judges’ concerns. That is a mistake. You must demonstrate flexibility – within reason – to ensure that you obtain the best result, even if it is not the perfect result. For example, if you were arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and a majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court suggested through their questions that they were unwilling to do so, yet were willing to impose stricter limits on the time within which a woman could seek an abortion, you need to pivot and explain why, in the absence of overturning Roe, such a limit would be warranted. In other words, you must exercise good judgment in the moment and, based on your perception of how the judges might rule, propose alternative remedies that will persuade the judges even if it means not getting everything you want. Remember that the best is often the enemy of the good.

7.    Be prepared. The best advocates are the most prepared. They know the page and line numbers of deposition testimony.   They know precedent by heart and can recite the holdings and dicta in relevant cases without notes or hesitation. Simply put, the best advocates are the most prepared advocates.

8.    Non-verbal conduct is critical to persuasion. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. When you are making an oral argument, know that your hand gestures, your tone, your cadence, your volume, and your movement all matter tremendously. If, for example, you speak in a monotone voice, it doesn’t matter how persuasive your argument is or how much the law supports your argument. You will lose points and minimize the persuasive value of your argument if your non-verbal conduct (how you say it) is not as powerful as your verbal conduct (what you say).

February 27, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The 2023 Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium

On March 30 and 31, the Pulaski County Bar Foundation will be hosting its Annual Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Bowen School of Law.  This national symposium honors the late Justice Donald L. Corbin of the Arkansas Supreme and Appellate Courts.  The event offers the chance to discuss and learn about the appellate process from federal and state judges, professors, and experienced practitioners in beautiful Little Rock.  You can tour the Clinton Library too! 

The impressive lineup this year includes many members of the appellate bench:

  • A United States Court of Appeals panel discussion with Judge Michael Y. Scudder of the Seventh Circuit, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith of the Eight Circuit, and Judge Jane Kelly of the Eight Circuit;
  • Judge Morris S. "Buzz" Arnold, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, speaking on ethics;
  • A state Supreme Court panel discussion with Justice Courtney R. Hudson of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Justice Holly Kirby of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and  Justice Piper D. Griffin of the Louisiana Supreme Court;
  • Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck (Retired), Arkansas Supreme Court, speaking on oral argument; and
  • An Arkansas Court of Appeals Panel Discussion with Judges Cindy Thyer, Wendy S. Wood, and Stephanie P. Barrett.

Robert S. Peck, of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, will be speaking on framing issues for appeal, and How Appealing's founder Howard Bashman will present as well, along with several other appellate practitioners and professors. 

You still have time to register, and you can find all of the details here:  https://www.pulaskibarfoundation.com/corbinsymposium.

This year, I am honored to be speaking on appellate brief writing, and I invite you to join us at the beautiful Bowen School of Law for the 2023 Corbin Symposium.  Plus, if you have never been to Little Rock, I highly recommend a visit.  Trust this Chicago gal living in Los Angeles, Little Rock is a charming and welcoming town with big city amenities in a gorgeous part of the country.  See you there!

February 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Rethinking First Amendment Jurisprudence

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the rights to freedom of speech and religion, which are essential to liberty and an informed citizenry. Indeed, the original purpose of the First Amendment was, among other things, to create a “marketplace of ideas” in which diverse opinions on matters of public concern, however unpopular, distasteful, or offensive, are rightfully protected. And the United States Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence reflects steadfast adherence to these principles, with the Court holding in numerous cases that a robust and expansive right to free speech is critical to ensuring liberty, autonomy, and a society where diverse viewpoints inform citizens’ views on various political and social issues.

But shouldn’t there be a limit?

Aren’t there some types of expression that are so vile, so valueless, and so vituperative that neither the Constitution nor the courts should afford them protection?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Think about it:

  • Should people be permitted to hurl racist slurs at minorities? No.
  • Should they be allowed to stand outside the funeral of a deceased gay soldier who died in the Iraq War with signs that say, “God Hates Fags?” and “Thank God for 9/11?” No.
  • Should a newspaper have the freedom to publish a satirical depiction of a famous evangelical minister having sex with his mother in an outhouse? No.
  • Should people be allowed to depict horrific acts of animal cruelty? No.
  • Should wealthy individuals be permitted to donate millions to political candidates knowing that such donations will give them unfair influence in and access to the political process? No.
  • Should Nazi groups and the KKK be allowed to march on Main Street spewing antisemitism and racism? No.
  • Should people be allowed to wear t-shirts with a symbol of a Nazi swastika? No.
  • Should pro-life groups be permitted to march with signs depicting dismembered fetuses? No.

Such speech should be banned everywhere and in any circumstance for three reasons.

First, speech such as that mentioned above has absolutely no value. It contributes nothing whatsoever to the “marketplace of ideas,” an informed citizenry, or a functioning democracy. And neither the text nor the original purpose of the First Amendment supports allowing individuals to express utterly valueless speech when it is expressed for the purpose of demeaning or traumatizing others, including vulnerable and marginalized groups.

Second, such speech causes substantial and often lasting harm. Make no mistake: speech can and does traumatize individuals, often causing severe emotional distress and other psychological injuries. Think about it: how would you feel if, as a minority, someone hurled a racist slur at you? How would you feel, as a person of Jewish faith whose great-grandparents died in the Holocaust, if you had to tolerate people marching with Nazi swastikas? How would you feel if, as a homosexual, someone called you a fag? To ask the question is to know the answer. Such speech serves no public purpose whatsoever.

This is not to say, of course, that offensive, distasteful, and unpopular speech should be restricted in any manner whatsoever.  Indeed, such speech may and often does cause emotional distress. It is to say, however, that there is a limit. When speech has no value whatsoever and is intended to – and does – traumatize others, it should enable individuals to sue for the resulting emotional harm.

Some may argue that limiting such speech will empower the government to enact content-based restrictions on speech with which it disagrees. This slippery slope argument is without merit. First, the Supreme Court has already recognized limits on free speech, such as in Miller v. California, when it held that obscene speech that appeals to sexual interests receives no First Amendment protection, and in Brandenburg v. Ohio, where the Court held that words intended to incite violence lacked First Amendment protection.[1] Second, the solution to this problem is obvious: enact a statute that delineates with specificity the precise words or expressions that are prohibited. In so doing, the limits on speech – which admittedly should be narrow – will be unambiguous. In Germany, for example, it is a crime to publicly deny the Holocaust – and for good reason.

Additionally, some may argue that the standards used to determine what speech should be limited will be invariably subjective and will thus lead to arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions on speech. But this argument misses the constitutional mark. Many, if not most, constitutional provisions require subjective value judgments, such as whether a punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, whether a search is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and whether counsel is ineffective under the Sixth Amendment. Moreover, banning the type of speech mentioned above is hardly subjective. Any reasonable person with a conscience would agree that this speech has no value and inflicts severe injury on its targets.

The United States Supreme Court, however, is reticent to support any limits on speech other than sexual obscenity and fighting words. In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, for example, the Court held that the First Amendment protected a depiction of the Reverend Jerry Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse.[2] In Snyder v. Phelps, the Court held that the First Amendment protected members of the Westboro Baptist Church who held signs stating “God  Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” outside the funeral of a deceased military veteran.[3]

These decisions were wrong.

The notion of allowing individuals to express offensive, distasteful, and unpopular speech should not preclude reasonable limits on valueless speech that cause severe emotional harm. It’s one thing, for example, to say that homosexuality is a sin. It’s quite another to call someone a fag. It’s one thing to say that abortion is immoral. It’s quite another to shove pictures of dismembered fetuses in the faces of women trying to access abortion services. In each example, the former should be protected, and the latter should not. The distinction is predicated on value and injury.

Ultimately, a society that values liberty, autonomy, and democracy need not tolerate valueless speech that contributes nothing to public discourse, and that marginalizes others, causes others to commit suicide, or humiliates others in a manner that causes lasting harm.

If you disagree, let’s see how you feel when, if you are gay, another person shoves a sign in your face that says, “God Hates Fags” or, if you are Jewish, a person shoves a sign in your face that says, “The Holocaust Never Happened.” You know exactly how you’d feel. That is the point – and the problem. And it’s a problem that needs to be solved – now.

 

[1] 413 U.S. 15 (1973); 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

[2] 485 U.S. 46 (1988).

[3] 562 U.S. 443 (2011).

February 11, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Call for Law Over Politics

In the novel Guy Mannering, Sir Walter Scott wrote that a “lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason; if he possesses some knowledge of these, he may venture to call himself an architect.” As lawyers and especially as appellate advocates, we aspire to creating an edifice where the rule of law governs and not simply the politics of the day. We seek to design the law to withstand political winds while capable of change though remaining true to rules and standards that sensibly apply regardless of the ascendant ideologies.

It is not an easy task, and we are not always very good at perpetuating that approach. Sometimes, our inability to do so leads to embarrassment and harm to the rule of law. Other times, it leads to revolutionary and welcome change. Rarely, though, do we realize which outcome is most likely going to result until significantly later as we look back retrospectively.

Today, our courts have lost enormous public confidence and respect, traits that are essential to their salutary operation. We have seen the rhetoric of politics in the place of timeless legal principles populate judicial opinions — and appellate briefing at levels and rates that mark a departure from past instances of the same developments.

New evidence of the escalating trend may have emerged from the North Carolina Supreme Court. The new year saw that court flip from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority (use of party labels is perhaps unsettling but unavoidable in this instance). The new majority has granted petitions for rehearing in two election law cases: one involving redistricting and another on a voter identification law.

Reconsideration of this type is normally used when a court made its decision under a misapprehension of the record or some other error that demands correction. It is an extremely rare event. Here, it is clear that the law is unchanged, and there are no evidentiary issues. The only thing that changed was the membership of the court — and that is a troubling basis for reconsideration.

            As Justice Anita Earl put it in dissent from the grant of reconsideration:

it took this Court just one month to send a smoke signal to the public that our decisions are        fleeting, and our precedent is only as enduring as the terms of the justices who sit on the bench. The majority has cloaked its power grab with a thin veil of mischaracterized legal authorities. I write to make clear that the emperor has no clothes.

Hall v. Harper, No. 413PA21 (Feb. 3, 2023) (Earl, J., dissenting).

I write this post in a bit of a state of shock, simply because of how blatant and clear the coming reversal is. If law is not to become little more than a yoyo or roller coaster ride, it cannot simply become the spoils of political warfare. As much as there are precedents that I hope will be overturned, and there are past examples of judicial composition driving changes in the law, this precipitous reversal of field renders the law less the work of architects and more a political game where appellate advocacy becomes less relevant. Rather than the rule of law, the rule of seat warmers prevails.

 

 

 

February 5, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Concrete Economics on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has recently offered strikingly similar answers to two seemingly disparate questions. The first concerns Article III standing to bring a case in federal court: What does it mean to show a “concrete and particularized injury in fact” that would, in part, support standing? The second concerns precedent: What does it mean for citizens to “rely” on precedents so that those prior decisions deserve stare decisis protection? The Court’s answers to each of these questions uses similar reasoning to amplify economic interests that are easy to identify and measure. Taken together, these seemingly unrelated jurisprudential developments also have an important real-world effect: they help ensure that our legal system provides the greatest level of protection possible for clear, monetary concerns, relegating more intangible individual rights to a second-class status.

Start with the Courts recent jurisprudence on Article III standing, which includes, as one of its elements, a requirement that plaintiff’s suffer a concrete and particularized injury in fact.[1] Recent Supreme Court analyses have heightened this concreteness hurdle to enter federal courts. In Spokeo v. Robins, the Court suggested that Congress cannot create concrete injuries by fiat simply by including a statutory damages remedy in legislation.[2] Five years later in Transunion LLC v. Ramirez, the Court again noted that an injury does not become concrete simply because Congress creates a statutory cause of action to redress it—although such Congressional action might be instructive.[3] The Court emphasized that it would only resolve “‘a real controversy with real impact on real persons.’”[4] In effect, these decisions emphasize the need for plaintiffs to come to the courthouse with an injury that can easily be measured, typically in real dollars and cents, before filing suit.

Meanwhile, as I have argued, the Court’s treatment of stare decisis in the landmark abortion rights case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization used similar language to signal the Justice’s willingness to overturn a broader swath of the Court’s prior decisions. According to Justice Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbsstare decisis only protects reliance interests that arise “where advance planning of great precision is most obviously a necessity”—not reliance interests that come from the kind of “unplanned activity” that may lead to an abortion.[5] Alito also claimed that stare decisis protects only “very concrete reliance interests, like those that develop in ‘cases involving property and contract rights.’”[6] Courts simply cannot measure, and thus cannot protect, more intangible forms of reliance that involve the organization of intimate relationships and decisions about a woman’s position in her family and community.[7] Though this language appears content-neutral, Alito's approach to stare decisis significantly weakens precedents that protect intangible individual rights. Few citizens make contractual arrangements or economic plans based upon such precedents, and thus those precedents seems less viable in the long term.

Taken together, these trends prioritize economic interests over a number of other important interests that the legal system previously seemed to protect. Many social interests or individual rights are not the subject of economic agreements. And under the Court’s approach to both standing and stare decisis, those rights are less worthy of legal protection, on that basis alone. Put another way, if a legal interest is difficult to quantify economically, it is hardly a legal interest at all.

Without garnering much public notice, these joint emphases on concreteness create new barriers for the protection of individual rights in federal courts. They are perhaps an even greater threat to individual rights than a decision that forthrightly admits it is designed to curb those rights.

 

[1] See, e.g., Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for Separation of Church & State, Inc., 454 U.S. 461, 472 (1982); Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992).

[2] 578 U.S. 330, 339-40 (2016); Richard L. Heppner Jr., Statutory Damages and Standing After Spokeo v. Robins, 9 ConLawNOW 125, 125 (2018).

[3] 141 S. Ct. 2190, 2204-05 (2021).

[4] Id. at 2203 (quoting Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass’n, 139 S. Ct. 2067, 2103 (2019) (Gorsuch, J., concurring)).

[5] 142 S. Ct. at  2272, 2276.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 2272, 2277.

January 24, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Who Serves on the Bench Matters

As lawyers and appellate advocates, we trust that the rule of law will prevail – that there will be consequences for breaching contracts, for negligence that injures another person, and for violating constitutionally guaranteed rights. We trust that judges will  be impartial and apply the law within a range of accepted conclusions that may not always be right but with an error rate that maintains confidence in the justice system. We believe that the law should not differ because of who serves on the bench because all who do must adhere to the rule of law. And yet, we know that who serves often will make all the difference.

We engage in ideologically tinged battles over who serves on the bench, regardless of whether the path to a judgeship is through appointment or election. Appellate advocates tailor their arguments to the judges who hear a case, combing their past opinions and other writings for clues that might trigger a favorable response for their client or issue. Some judges have expertise on the subject of the appeal, while others do not. Some have staked out positions on the appellate issue that makes the appellate task easier or even insuperable. Some utilize a methodology or a hierarchy of interests that signal the approach a wise advocate should take. A one-time dissenting view can now fit within the mainstream of legal thinking so that it provides a new handle on addressing an issue. That is why advocates are well-advised to know their audiences.

Court memberships shift, and the likely result from a court can shift with it. In an end-of-the-year decision from the Ohio Supreme Court, the justices’ own awareness of that shift was on display. In full disclosure, I was the winning advocate in the case and had the opportunity to watch it play out. By virtue of the mandatory retirement requirements of the state, the chief justice was due to step down from the court on December 31. I argued the case, which challenged the constitutionality of a state statute both facially and as applied, in late March. The decision, striking the law as applied, was written by the chief justice for a 4-3 majority and issued December 16. One dissenter appended a paragraph to the decision complaining of a departure from what he called the “regular and orderly internal rules of operation and practice,” because the majority insisted on issuing the decision so that the current court, rather than its successor, would rule on any motion for reconsideration.[1] He added his apology to the “citizens of Ohio that my individual dissent is not of the quality that I have come to deliver and that the public expects” because his “time on this case was aberrantly and improperly limited.”[2]

That paragraph became the focus of the motion for reconsideration filed just within the deadline on the evening of December 27. It seemed apparent that both the majority and the dissenter were well aware of the consequences of pushing reconsideration off to the new year and the new court. The majority sought to assure that a reconsideration motion would come before the same court that decided the case; the dissenter sought to push the case to the new term where he believed a different membership would reach a different result and his dissent could become the decision of the court.

Taking no chances, I filed my opposition to reconsideration within hours of the motion’s filing so awaiting opposition would not provide an excuse to delay a ruling. On December 29, reconsideration was denied.

The episode demonstrates what we know as advocates: who sits on the bench makes a difference. It also confirms another thing we know – judges are as acutely aware of that as anyone else.

 

[1] Brandt v. Pompa, 2022-Ohio-4525, ¶ 132 reconsideration denied, 2022-Ohio-4786 (Fisher, J., dissenting).

[2] Id.

January 8, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Western Justice Center Gives Ninth Circuit Senior Judge Dorothy Nelson a Lifetime Achievement Award

Many years ago, I was a lucky law clerk working for a wonderful judge at the Ninth Circuit’s  Pasadena courthouse.  One early morning, as I was admiring the flowers growing at the entrance to the gorgeous courthouse, I saw Judge Dorothy Nelson tending to the roses.  She took a moment to chat with me about the roses and litigation, and I have always remembered her kindness and wit.  During my year in Pasadena, I became friendly with Judge Nelson’s law clerks, and learned how much they admired her work for justice and dispute resolution.  See generally Selma Moidel Smith, Oral History of Judge Dorothy Nelson (1988) (interesting interview of Judge Nelson for the Ninth Circuit Historical Society).

Therefore, I was not surprised to see the Ninth Circuit’s recent press release announcing that the Western Justice Center (WJC) honored Judge Nelson “for her vision and dedication in founding the center and decades of visionary work in conflict resolution.”  October 23, 2022 Press Release.  The WJC works to “find innovative ways to handle conflict” by using alternative dispute resolution techniques in and beyond the court system.  The WJC especially focuses on “development of conflict resolution skills and capacity of youth, educators, schools and community partners,” and has trained over “1,000 students, educators and volunteers with the conflict resolution skills they need to transform” schools and “impact . . . youth across” the Los Angeles area.  Id.

As the press release explained, Judge Nelson believes “[e]ighty-five percent of cases could be mediated,” saving the time and money of traditional litigation.   She explained she “want[s] to bring people together, in a collaborative, unifying system,” and she “find[s] there are a lot of people open to that.”  Id.  

Before her nomination to the bench, Judge Nelson served as the Dean of USC’s Gould School of Law.  She was the “first woman dean of a major American law school,” where she “focused on training future lawyers in restorative justice and mediation as an alternative to litigation.”  Id.  Once she joined the Ninth Circuit, she “initiat[ed] one of the first mediation programs for a federal appellate court,” which we use in many circuits today.  See id.

As a past mediator for the Second District of the California Court of Appeal, I know mediating appeals can seem hopeless.  The parties I met with had already invested so much time, energy, and money into their cases that they often saw little reason to settle before oral argument.  However, I did help some parties reach a non-court resolution, and I often thought of Judge Nelson and the roses when I did so. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 19, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Arbitration, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Why Judicial Deference Matters Now More Than Ever

As the United States Supreme Court begins a new term, its approval among the public is alarmingly low[1]. Whether driven by the Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the fact that the justices’ decisions often conveniently coincide with their political beliefs, or the fact that the Court’s composition, rather a principled interpretation of the Constitution, seems to determine whether a right is fundamental, there can be no doubt that the Court’s legitimacy is at stake.[2] Put simply, the Court is now viewed by many as a political institution, where constitutional meaning changes based on whether its current members are conservative or liberal.  

So how can the Court’s legitimacy remain intact and the public’s confidence in the Court be restored?

Certainly not by expanding the Court, which is liberals’ way of saying that they want to put more liberal justices on the Court to reach outcomes that they like. 

Certainly not by endorsing living constitutionalism, which basically means that the justices can manipulate or ignore the Constitution to reach decisions that comport with their subjective policy predilections.[3] Certainly not by having an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis, in which the Court’s adherence to precedent depends on whether a majority of the justices are Republicans or Democrats.

And certainly not by listening to the media or, worse, academics’ criticism of the Court, which is as blatantly partisan and equally unprincipled as the Court it so consistently criticizes. Indeed, and quite amazingly, some academics have complained that they now struggle to teach constitutional law, stating that they are ‘traumatized’ by the Court’s recent decisions, which they view as partisan and “results-oriented.”[4] Some have even asserted that decisions such as Dobbs “have unsettled the foundational premises of [their] professional lives,” left them “deeply shaken,” and required their “own personal grieving period” where they look to students to keep them “afloat in darker moments."[5]  

No, this is not a joke. Law professors actually made these statements.

Thankfully, Professor David Bernstein has called out this nonsense:

[T]he fact that the Court is solidly conservative, and the constitutional law professoriate overwhelmingly liberal or further left, is exactly the problem. In the past, the left could count on the Court for sporadic big victories: same-sex marriage, affirmative action, [and] abortion. Now they can't, so they have turned against the Court. We all know that left-leaning lawprofs would be dancing in the streets if SCOTUS were equally aggressive to the left. And indeed, while [Mark Joseph] Stern portrays discontent with the Court as a question of professional standards rather than ideology, he does not manage to find a single right-leaning professor to quote in his article.[6]

That’s because they are practically no conservative law professors in academia – or even the pretense of viewpoint diversity at many law schools.

In any event, how can the Court preserve its institutional legitimacy?

By embracing a more robust form of judicial deference. Put simply, the Court should not invalidate a statute unless it clearly violates a provision in the Constitution, and it should not create a right unless it is based on or reasonably inferable from the Constitution’s text. Thus, when the Constitution is ambiguous and subject to reasonably different interpretations, the Court should defer to the democratic process and not get involved. In so doing, the Court can reduce, at least to some degree, the perception that the existence of constitutional rights and the outcomes of cases depend on whether a majority of the justices are conservative or liberal.

Below are several examples of cases where the Court should have never intervened and where its intervention harmed its legitimacy.

1.    National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius

In National Federation of Independent Investors, the Court addressed whether the Affordable Care Act, including the individual mandate to obtain health coverage, violated the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the broad power to regulate commerce.[7] The answer to this question, particularly given the Clause’s broad language, is anybody’s guess, and reasonable arguments could be made in favor of and against upholding the Affordable Care Act.  What is known is that both houses of Congress passed and the president signed this legislation. So why did the Court get involved? After all, given that reasonable people could disagree on the Act’s constitutionality, why didn’t the Court simply defer to the coordinate branches and democratic process? That’s anybody’s guess too.

Unfortunately, the Court intervened, and, in a 5-4 decision (predictably divided on partisan lines), the Court upheld most of the Act’s provisions. And Chief Justice Roberts, ostensibly concerned with the Court’s legitimacy, somehow determined that the individual mandate constituted a tax, not a penalty. This reasoning was, to put it mildly, troubling. If the Court was concerned with its legitimacy, it should have never heard the case.

2.    Kennedy v. Louisiana

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court addressed whether a Louisiana law that authorized the death penalty for child rape violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.[8] To be sure, the Eighth Amendment, among other things, was intended to prevent the infliction of unnecessary pain when punishing convicted offenders and prohibit sentences that were disproportionate to the severity of the crime. Given this backdrop, the Eighth Amendment’s text, and the Court’s precedent, did the Louisiana law violate the Eighth Amendment?

Who knows. Reasonable jurists can – and did – disagree on this question. What we do know is that Louisiana passed this law democratically.

Accordingly, why did the Court get involved and, in a predictably verbose and wishy-washy 5-4 opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, invalidate the law?

3.    Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC

In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court held in a 5-4 decision that the First Amendment prohibited Congress from restricting independent expenditures by corporations, labor unions, and other associations.[9] And in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court held, in another 5-4 decision, that limits on individual expenditures to federal and state candidate committees violated the First Amendment right to free speech.[10]

Did the Constitution compel this result? Of course not. The First Amendment protects, among other things, freedom of speech. But does giving money to a political candidate or committee constitute speech? And if so, is the government’s interest in ensuring that wealthy corporations and individuals do not unduly influence elections sufficiently compelling to justify a restriction on this speech? Yet again, reasonable people can disagree.

As such, why did the Court get involved and invalidate legislation that was designed to reduce undue influence by corporations and wealthy individuals in the electoral process?  

4.    Roe v. Wade

There is no need to discuss Roe in detail. Nearly all legitimate constitutional law scholars agree that Roe was a terrible decision. It had no basis in the Constitution’s text, was not inferable from any provision in the text, and was not rooted in history and tradition. Notwithstanding, in Roe, like in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court invented an unenumerated right out of thin air, thus imposing the subjective values of nine unelected justices on an entire country.[11] And the doctrine upon which Roe was based – substantive due process – was equally as indefensible.

The Court should have never gotten involved. It should have allowed the people to decide whether, and under what circumstances, abortion should be allowed. Although the Court corrected this error in Dobbs, the decision to overrule Roe, which had been the law for nearly fifty years and was affirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, was troubling. Indeed, the only thing that changed since Planned Parenthood was the Court’s composition. Notwithstanding, the fact remains that Roe was the original sin and the product of the Court’s unnecessary meddling in the democratic process.

5.    Clinton v. New York

In Clinton v. New York, the Court addressed whether the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, which authorized the president to repeal portions of statutes that had been passed by both houses of Congress (particularly spending provisions) violated the Constitution’s Presentment Clause.[12] The Clause states in pertinent part that “Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.”[13]

The Line Item Veto Act, some argued, violated the Presentment Clause because it allowed the president to unilaterally and without Congress’s approval repeal specific provisions of duly enacted legislation. At the same time, however, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, passed the Line Item Veto Act to, among other things, reduce wasteful government spending. Given these facts, and considering the Presentment Clause’s broad language, was the Line Item Veto Act constitutional?

Certainly, reasonable people could disagree on this question. Thus, why not defer to the coordinate branches and to the democratic process? Unfortunately, the Court yet again intervened and, in a 6-3 decision, invalidated the Act. In so doing, it prevented Congress from addressing the problem of wasteful government spending.

6.    Shelby County v. Holder

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which includes a coverage formula that determines which states (based on a history of discrimination) must seek preclearance before enacting changes to their voting laws.[14] Importantly, in 2006 the Senate reauthorized the Act, including Section 4(b), by a unanimous vote.  

Notwithstanding, the Court decided to get involved and, by a 5-4 vote, invalidated Section 4(b). But was it clear that Section 4(b) violated any constitutional provision? No. So why did the Court get involved? Why didn’t the Court defer to the democratic process and to the Senate’s unanimous vote to reauthorize the Act? Again, it’s anybody’s guess.

***

The above cases are just a sample of those in which the Court’s intervention was unnecessary and unwarranted. Unless a statute clearly violates a provision in the Constitution’s text, the Court should defer to the democratic and political process, and it should not create a right unless it is based on or reasonably inferable from the Constitution’s text.

After all, intervening in such circumstances makes the Court appear political and undermines its legitimacy. The Court’s decision in Dobbs highlights this problem. Although the Court was technically correct to overrule Roe, that doesn’t mean that it should have done so. Why? Because the only thing that changed between Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where the Court reaffirmed Roe’s central holding, was the composition of the Court. Specifically, the Court in 2022 had more conservative members than in 1992, and its decision sent the message that the existence of constitutional rights depends on whether the Court has a majority of conservative or liberal members. It's difficult to understand how Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barret could not grasp this fact.  

To restore its legitimacy, the Court should defer more often to the coordinate branches and adhere to stare decisis on a more consistent basis. That can only happen if the Court stops invalidating laws that do not clearly violate the Constitution, refuses to create rights out of thin air, and does not reverse precedent simply because it has a majority of conservative or liberal jurists.

 

[1] See Jeffrey M. Jones, Supreme Court Trust, Job Approval at Historic Lows, (Sept. 29, 2022), available at: Supreme Court Trust, Job Approval at Historical Lows (gallup.com)

[2] No.19-1392, 597 U.S.     , available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf

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

[4] Mark Joseph Stern, The Supreme Court is Blowing Up Law School, Too (Oct. 2, 2022), available at: Supreme Court: Inside the law school chaos caused by SCOTUS decisions. (slate.com)

[5] Id.

[6] See David Bernstein, Why Are Constitutional Law Professors Angry at the Supreme Court? (Oct. 3, 2022), available at: Why Are Constitutional Law Professors Angry at the Supreme Court? (reason.com) (emphasis added).

[7] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

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

[9] 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[10] 572 U.S. 183 (2014).

[11] 410 U.S. 113 (1973); 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[12] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[13] U.S. Const., Art. I, Section 7.

[14] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

October 8, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)