Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Chief Justice Roberts and what it means to be an “institutionalist” Supreme Court Justice.

    The term “institutionalist” is a broad label; its meaning depends upon the level of abstraction at which one describes the relevant institution. An institutionalist might seek to preserve long-standing norms within institutions (such as defending the filibuster in the Senate), or to preserve public faith in a particular government entity. On the Supreme Court, an institutionalist might seek to defend the rule of law in controversial case, or to uphold a robust and powerful conception of the judicial branch, or perhaps more narrowly to preserve the public’s faith in the Court itself as an entity worthy of public respect. Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence often displays institutionalist tendencies concerned with the Court’s viability, even as he also seeks to preserve the judiciary’s independence and authority vis-à-vis coordinate branches. That tension was on display in the recent decisions over President Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandates.

    Roberts has frequently demonstrated his desire to preserve the independence of the Supreme Court, and with it the public’s faith in the Court’s ability to resolve weighty and complex legal issues. Throughout the political turmoil that marked the closing of President Trump’s term, Roberts expressed his desire to stay above the political fray and his faith in the Court to decide cases without political influence. In his 2021 year-end report on the federal judiciary, Roberts suggested that the political branches should return the favor by avoiding interference with the judiciary in the name of reforms that might weaken its status as a co-equal branch. Roberts’s jurisprudence also reflects his instinct to avoid overstepping the Court’s role in resolving politically-charged issues, most famously in his decision that preserved Obamacare to the surprise of many conservative court watchers. Roberts also speaks frequently of the need to build consensus amongst the Justices whenever possible to maintain the Court’s legitimacy in the public’s eyes.

    Roberts is thus surely an institutionalist in the sense that he seeks to preserve the Court’s capacity to resolve controversial issues in ways the public accepts. But at times that goal conflicts with institutionalism at a higher level of abstraction, which might require the Court to robustly define the law and forcefully rebuke the political branches that have, at least in Roberts’s view, overstepped constitutional bounds.

    That conflict was highlighted when the Court recently considered the Biden Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers and its vaccine requirement for healthcare workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding. After hearing expedited oral arguments on whether those mandates could remain in place while ongoing legal challenges proceeded through the lower courts, the Court issued per curiam decisions that blocked the large employer mandate during the litigation while allowing the government to temporarily enforce the healthcare worker mandate. Chief Justice Roberts (as well as Justice Kavanaugh) voted to block the large employer mandate and permit the healthcare worker mandate, providing the swing votes that controlled the outcome.

    These decisions were only a preliminary stage of the legal proceedings, and technically addressed only whether Biden’s directives could be enforced while the outcome of legal challenges to them was pending. But because the decisions required the Court to consider the likelihood of the litigants’ success on the merits—and in so doing to plainly spell out their likely reasoning should the substantive legal issues return—they are likely to control the lifespan of those directives in the future.

    The decisions also highlight the tension in Roberts’s institutionalist instincts in such high-profile cases that consider the executive’s potentially expansive powers. The difference in the cases, according to the per curiam decisions, was that while Congress had not clearly authorized the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to issue the large employer mandate, it clearly delegated the Department of Health and Human Services authority to protect patients through a vaccine requirement. That distinction between the authorization of the OHSA and DHHS is razor-thin. As the dissent in the large employer mandate case noted, it is far from clear from an objective reading of their respective Congressional mandates. And the determination of the extent of Congressional authority delegated in such cases is surely a discretionary decision subject to widely varying judicial interpretations.

    While it is impossible to say definitively what motivated the votes in these cases, one plausible theory is that Roberts sought to preserve both a robust conception of the judiciary and public faith in the Supreme Court. By splitting his votes, he was able to offer some support for those concerned with the public health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining a robust role for the judiciary in setting the limits of co-equal branches’ authority. Perhaps Roberts hoped to preserve faith in the institution of the Supreme Court in the healthcare worker case while preserving a robust vision of judicial authority in the large employer case.

    Roberts may not be able to have it both ways; his compromise position seems likely to compromise both of his institutionalist desires. Public faith in the Court as an objective arbiter may be undermined when the court blocks a vaccine-or-test mandate that OHSA estimates would have saved nearly 6,500 lives. At the same time, preserving the healthcare worker mandate may undermine the judiciary’s institutional authority to push back against political branches that have, in the Court’s estimation, exceeded their constitutional boundaries. By attempting to preserve both of his institutionalist instincts, Chief Justice Roberts may have failed to preserve either. His voting decision is thus accompanied by both tragic human results and severe damage to the very institutions it seeks to protect.

January 25, 2022 in Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 3, 2022

2022 & The Marble Place Blog

Robert has already welcomed 2022 in his post yesterday. He provided some predictions regarding several big cases before the Supreme Court this year. Two other big cases, which address federal vaccine mandates, will be heard this Friday. I suspect we will get an expedited decision in those cases given the effective dates of the policies.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, noted Supreme Court journalist Tony Mauro has a new blog that he has aptly named The Marble Palace Blog. He recently blogged about the most recent issue of the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, which addresses what judges can do to ameliorate the divisions in our country. Tony was one of the authors I recruited to write a preface for the issue, which I discuss here.

In his post, Tony pulls key excerpts from seven diverse pieces. Each excerpt offers a tangible step that lawyers and judges can take to address the cultural and political divisions in our country. While some of the steps would take much political capital to institute (a non-partisan nominating commission for federal judges and justices), others are simple in theory (be role models and civil, even when you disagree).

Given the hot button issues that the Court has to decide this year--guns, abortion, vaccine mandates, presidential privilege--we know that there will be ample opportunity to practice some of the steps outlined by Tony and the authors of the special issue. I hope we as lawyers (and judges for our judicial readership) take seriously our responsibility to serve as role models for our communities.

Happy New Year!

January 3, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Welcome to 2022

            Writers of blog posts and newspaper columns often can’t resist predicting what the new year might bring. And, for the most part, they are bad at this harmless exercise. I don’t claim to be better at it, but found it equally enticing to try. For appellate advocates, some predictions are easy to make. They are on a schedule. The coming six months, for example, will bring some blockbuster decisions from the Supreme Court. On its agenda for decision is the future of Roe v. Wade[1] and the legal status of abortion, state authority to limit access to guns, the validity of congressional subpoenas for documents from a former president, and a potentially far-reaching decision on whether a State can deny religious-school participation in a student aid program.

            A harder undertaking for an armchair Nostradamus is predicting the outcome of those cases, even though we have some strong clues in some instances. From the arguments, it appears that Mississippi’s 15-week limit on abortions will survive constitutional challenge.[2] The Court need not overturn Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey[3] entirely to reach that result, even if the result may allow those prior decisions to exist more in name than in precedential value. While Chief Justice Roberts could conceivably attempt to control the opinion by assigning it to himself and take the incremental approach he often favors to make the break with Roe less abrupt, I predict he will not be able to corral enough justices to that approach. Instead, his best hope is likely to pen a controlling plurality decision. I also predict that such an approach will not quell the political firestorm that will grow out of the decision, as well as others from the term.

            It does not take a fortune-teller to know that New York’s 1911 Sullivan law will be overturned in the gun case argued in November.[4] There, a clear majority seems likely to strike it down as incompatible with the Second Amendment. A strong concurring opinion will provide a blueprint for further challenges to state regulation of firearms, but it will not command five votes. Instead, I predict that the majority decision will look somewhat like last Term’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia,[5] which held invalidated a city program that refused to make foster-care referrals to a Catholic social service agency because its religious beliefs prevented it from considering gay couples as foster parents. The decision provided no guidance for future cases, only agreement that the hypothetical discretion the city retained to make exemptions to its policy was fatal. That part of the decision was unanimous. However, a 6-3 line-up refused to go further and overturn Employment Division v. Smith.[6] I predict a similar line-up will prevail to show a split in how far the justices are willing to go on guns, at least in this case.

            Fulton will not provide a model in this Term’s religion case on student aid. In Carson v. Makin,[7] a split decision will invalidate Maine’s program of paying secondary-school tuition at a private where no public school exists but excluding religious or sectarian schools. Though the immediate decision will affect very few students, the criteria the Court adopts is likely to expand the types of claims that can be made under the rubric of religious discrimination.

            I also predict that the Court will act with unanimity in holding that former President Trump must turn over the subpoenaed documents sought by the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.[8] The petition stage received expedited briefing and seems likely to be granted. The case recalls United States v. Nixon,[9] in that the Court will similarly deem it critical to speak in one voice on the issue. To get there in Nixon, however, the Court recognized “a presumptive privilege for Presidential communications” that was “fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.”[10] It was lodging the privilege in the Constitution that was new in the decision and unnecessary to its result. I predict that an equally unnecessary discourse that adopts an expansive view of executive privilege, overcome in this case, to be articulated in the forthcoming opinion that will open the door future arguments not made or applicable to this case.

            In addition, the hot-button issue of affirmative action seems destined to add to this very important term’s agenda based on a long-pending petition.[11] Here, I predict a less diffident decision, holding it to be discriminatory in a sharply split decision. Finally, the year, even if not the current Term, is likely to also see important election law decisions, as I expect the upcoming state and congressional elections to generate an unprecedented amount of litigation.

            And, if I’m wrong on any or all of this, there’s always next year! Happy new year.

 

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

[2] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., No. 19-1392 (Argued Dec. 1, 2021).

[3] Planned Parenthood of Se. Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[4] New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n Inc. v. Bruen, No. 20-843 (Argued Nov. 3, 2021).

[5] Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 141 S.Ct. 1868 (2021).

[6] Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[7] Carson v. Makin, No. 20-1088 (Argued Dec. 8.2021).

[8] Trump v. Thompson, No. 21-932.

[9] United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).

[10] Id. at 708.

[11] Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, No. 20-1199.

January 2, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Prediction: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

On December 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court will decide the constitutionality of a law in Mississippi that bans all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.

A.    Background

By way of background, in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which prevents states from depriving citizens of “life, liberty, or property … without due process of law,” encompassed the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy.[1] In so doing, the Court adopted a trimester framework: during the first trimester, women had an unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy.[2]  During the second trimester, states could regulate abortion access, provided that such regulations were reasonable and narrowly tailored to protect a woman’s health. In the third trimester, states were permitted to ban all abortions, except those necessary to protect the mother’s health.[3]

Nearly two decades later, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed the central holding in Roe but rejected the trimester approach.[4] In so doing, the Court adopted a viability framework, stating that, before viability (i.e., the state at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, which occurs at approximately twenty-four weeks of pregnancy), states could not place an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. After viability, states could regulate, and perhaps ban abortions except where necessary to protect the health and life of the mother.[5]

Not surprisingly, the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood were heavily criticized by both conservative and liberal scholars. Indeed, scholars noted that the Constitution’s text – particularly the Fourteenth Amendment – could not be interpreted to include a right to abortion. As Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe stated, “behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found."[6] Likewise, late Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg characterized Roe as “heavy-handed judicial intervention,” a matter of constitutional interpretation.[7] And Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun, stated that “even most liberal jurisprudes — if you administer truth serum — will tell you it is basically indefensible."[8]

Regardless, in Planned Parenthood, the Court reaffirmed Roe’s central holding, and for nearly fifty years, women have had the fundamental right to access abortion services, particularly during the first trimester. Thus, principles of stare decisis, and concerns for the Court’s institutional legitimacy, counsel in favor of protecting this right even though Roe is indefensible as a matter of constitutional law. After all, if in Dobbs the Court overturns Roe, it would only be because a majority of current justices are more conservative than their predecessors. Thus, overturning Roe would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. In other words, it would suggest that constitutional rights can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2021 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is a recipe for destroying the Court’s legitimacy.

B.    Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

So how is the Court likely to rule in Dobbs? Below is a summary of the justices’ positions during oral argument, and a prediction of how the Court will ultimately rule.

Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor appeared concerned that a decision overturning Roe would severely undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy. It’s fair to say that Kagan and Sotomayor will vote to invalidate the Mississippi law.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Thomas and Alito will almost certainly vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion debate to the states. Thomas, for example, questioned whether Roe was based on the right to privacy, liberty, or autonomy; his questions suggested that he believes (rightfully so) that there is no textual basis to support the right to abortion. Justice Alito appeared to disagree that stare decisis principles supporting upholding Roe and suggested that Roe could be overturned if the Court believed it was wrongly decided.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Kavanaugh appeared poised to overturn Roe or limit abortion rights. For example, Kavanaugh suggested that overturning Roe and returning the abortion debate to the states would simply return the Court to a position of neutrality on the abortion issue. Given the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood, however, coupled with the fact that the Court’s more conservative membership, not any new constitutional or scientific developments, would arguably underlie a decision to overturn Roe, it can hardly be argued that such a decision would return the Court to a position of neutrality. Instead, it would be perceived – rightfully so – as a blatantly partisan decision. It is difficult to believe that Justice Kavanaugh is not aware of this fact. Additionally, Kavanaugh did not appear receptive to the stare decisis argument, noting that the Court had, in many instances, overturned precedent, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education (overturning Plessy v. Ferguson). What Kavanaugh failed to acknowledge, however, was that in most of these decisions, the Court’s decisions overturning precedent expanded, rather than limited, constitutional protections. Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s questions revealed a willingness to overturn Roe, although it is certainly possible that he will adopt a middle-ground approach that marginally upholds Roe but limits the time within which women may access abortion services.

Chief Justice John Roberts. Not surprisingly, Chief Justice Roberts, who is concerned primarily with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy rather than developing a coherent jurisprudence, sought to find a middle ground that would limit, but not eliminate, abortion rights. From his questions, it appears that Roberts supports upholding the Mississippi law yet also reaffirming (albeit limiting) the abortion right. Specifically, Roberts may reject the viability framework and hold that women have the right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Barrett’s questions were quite surprising, to say the least. Most significantly, Barrett implicitly distinguished between the burdens of pregnancy and parenthood and, in so doing, minimized the burden of pregnancy. Specifically, Justice Barrett suggested that, because states have “safe haven laws” allowing women to surrender newborn babies to a medical facility without fear of criminal prosecution, a law outlawing abortion would not materially burden women’s ability to participate equally in society. This question was quite troubling because it reflected ignorance of the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens that a pregnancy engenders, including the deleterious consequences that carrying a pregnancy to term can have on a woman’s personal and professional life. Based on this question alone, it appears that Justice Barrett will uphold Mississippi’s law and, in so doing likely to either vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion issue to the states or vote to limit the time within which women may access abortions.

Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer’s questions left no doubt that he will vote to invalidate Mississippi’s law and uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood. During the oral argument, Breyer emphasized that Roe was a watershed decision and that principles of stare decisis thus required special and compelling justifications to overturn Roe, which could not be satisfied simply because the Court believed Roe was wrongly decided.

Justice Neil Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch’s questions suggested that he was deeply skeptical of Roe and the viability framework, but that he was searching for a middle ground that would uphold yet limit the right to abortion.

Of course, the justices’ questions at oral argument are not necessarily indicative of how they might rule. In Dobbs, however, the justices’ questions appeared to reflect fairly entrenched positions regarding the right to abortion and the validity of the Court’s precedents.

Prediction: A majority (five or six votes) will vote to uphold the central holding of Roe. However, the Court will reject the viability framework and hold that women have a right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant. During this time, the Court will hold that states may not unduly burden a woman’s right to access abortion services.

 

[1] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[5] See id.

[6] Carrie Severino, Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) (Nov. 26, 2021), available at: Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) | National Review

[7] Id.

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

December 26, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

What Do You Do When a Superior Court Misses a Conflicting Precedent in a Decision that Affects Your Case?

            Assume as you conduct your legal research that you come up with a decision that says exactly what you are hoping for and that the precedent, though rarely cited, remains good law. As you write, confident that the holding puts you in a strong position to prevail, the very court you are writing for comes out with a decision that states that the court has never endorsed the very proposition your newly discovered precedent establishes. You scour the new opinion to see how they distinguished the case you found, because, even upon a re-reading, it plainly conflicts with the court’s new holding. You find it is absent from the incompatible opinion – and went uncited in the briefs the court relied upon. How do you respectfully tell the court it is wrong?

            I thought about those circumstances when I read the majority opinion in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson,[1] the case concerning the new “Texas Heartbeat Act,” which authorizes bounties for private litigants who sue those who perform or assist in abortions. In the decision, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “[t]his Court has never recognized an unqualified right to pre-enforcement review of constitutional claims in federal court.”[2]

            The statement made me stop as I read. I realized that the key word to prevent a conflict might be “unqualified.” Still, the thrust of the statement seemed at odds with an older precedent that I have relied upon in the past and recently invoked in a brief. In England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Med. Examiners,[3] the Court wrote that “[t]here are fundamental objections to any conclusion that a litigant who has properly invoked the jurisdiction of a Federal District Court to consider federal constitutional claims can be compelled, without his consent and through no fault of his own, to accept instead a state court’s determination of those claims.” England, then, stands for the proposition that federal rights can be vindicated in federal court, and not be limited to state-court determinations, if federal jurisdictional requirements are satisfied.

            Jackson plainly focused on standing as an obstacle to subject-matter jurisdiction, at least as to some defendants. For that reason, Jackson and England can be reconciled. However, in my hypothetical version of these events, what if the Supreme Court rejected federal jurisdiction because it decided that state court disposition of the case should be sufficient and relied on the absence of a decision like England to reach that conclusion when further research would have shown there was existing precedent?

            An advocate in those circumstances will have several options to consider. First, you may conclude that a state-court decision may indeed be adequate or even preferable. State courts have authority to determine federal questions and are not bound by federal decisions by courts other than the Supreme Court.[4] Still, any federal decisions that are contrary to your position may still have persuasive value or produce some deference in state court where the federal decisions are “numerous and consistent.”[5]

            Another option is to seek to harmonize the two decisions by finding a way to argue that the new decision represented an exceptional situation, an outlier, that can coexist with or be distinguished from the general principle established by your earlier precedent.

            Another option is to argue that the older decision is good law, that the newer decision did not take it into account, and that the court should retain the older precedent. In my hypothetical version of what Jackson could have said, England not only provides an answer to the assumption made in “alternative Jackson” and thereby casts doubt on its reasoning for failing to address existing precedent as though it did not exist. Such an argument would need to point out that other doctrines depend on allowing vindication of federal rights in federal courts, so that more than one rarely cited precedent is at stake. If the court meets in panels, en banc reconsideration may be necessary.

            The bottom line, then, is that an advocate needs to explore options carefully, but still may be able to use that dusty but useful precedent that others forgot existed.

 

[1] No. 21-463, 2021 WL 5855551 (U.S. Dec. 10, 2021).

[2] Id. at *10.

[3] 375 U.S. 411, 415 (1964).

[4] Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 305 (2013). See also, e.g., U.S., ex rel. U.S. Att'ys ex rel. E., W. Districts of Kentucky v. Kentucky Bar Ass’n, 439 S.W.3d 136, 146 (Ky. 2014).

[5] Etcheverry v. Tri–Ag Service, Inc., 993 P.2d 366, 368 (Cal. 2000).

December 19, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, December 18, 2021

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

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

We wish you a festive and safe holiday! 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court refused two emergency requests from healthcare workers seeking to block New York’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The mandate allows exemptions for medical objection but does not allow exemptions for religious objection. This ruling is in keeping with the Court’s rulings allowing vaccine mandates in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Maine. See reports from The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post.

  • The DOJ asked the Supreme Court to allow a nationwide vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Lower courts have blocked the mandate from going into effect in about half the states. See reports from Politico and CNN.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • A Sixth Circuit ruling has reinstated OSHA’s rule requiring businesses with over 100 employees to mandate that workers be vaccinated by January 4 or face mask requirements and weekly tests. The ruling overturned last month’s Fifth Circuit ruling that had blocked the OSHA rule. (See our past coverage.) The case was reassigned to the Sixth Circuit when the many similar challenges to the rule were consolidated and assigned through the lottery system for multidistrict litigation. See decision and reports in The New York Times and CNBC.

    The court also denied en banc review. See report in The National Law Review.

     

 

December 18, 2021 in Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Can an Oral Advocate Learn Anything from Last Week’s Supreme Court Hearing on Abortion?

             In a New York Times column, Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for that venerable newspaper for many years, took off her gloves to call out some of the justices for the questions they posed during oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org.[1] The justices’ queries suggested not only that Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks the challenge but could, as many predicted, also overturn Roe v. Wade[2] rather than simply further whittle it down. She called many of the questions as “gaslighting” because they struck her as disingenuous for what struck her as pretextually innocent varnish that belied the justices’ hardened positions.

            Two of the exchanges Greenhouse discussed have implications for oral advocacy that bear further examination. Greenhouse gave her “gaslighting prize” to Justice Kavanaugh for asking what would be wrong if the Court took a position of neutrality on abortion, so that there could be “different answers in Mississippi and New York, different answers in Alabama than California because they’re two different interests at stake and the people in those states might value those interests somewhat differently.”

            Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar answered by noting fundamental rights are not left up to state legislatures to decide whether to honor them or not.” The question and answer suggest that the two participants in that conversation were operating from very different assumptions. Prelogar’s answer is grounded in a belief that Roe declared a fundamental constitutional right that the courts must uphold, while Justice Kavanaugh’s question presupposes that there is no basis for Prelogar’s position – or the foundations upon which Roe was built.

            The Supreme Court’s new argument format meant that that answer had to do because it was not Justice Barrett’s turn to ask questions and she moved the conversation back to another topic. Still, what’s an advocate to do when a judge asks a question that telegraphs rejection of the fundamental premise of your argument? In some arguments, a Plan B might be possible, arguing a different and potentially more acceptable alternative legal theory. A Plan B, however, did not seem possible in Dobbs.

            Another alternative is to abandon hope that the questioner could be the linchpin to victory and concentrate on others on the panel who might vote your way. However, with Justice Kavanaugh occupying the Court’s center and often considered the weather vane for a majority view, that hope seems remote. A further tactic is to go down with guns blazing, understanding that you are unlikely to prevail, but making a full-throated defense of the foundation for your argument that the judge has put into doubt. The danger of such an approach, regardless of how self-satisfying it might be, is that it often leads to a comprehensive defeat. In the end, however, questions of that sort, particularly when similar skepticism is expressed by others, likely foretell defeat.

            Interestingly, Greenhouse made the connection between Justice Kavanaugh’s questions in Dobbs about adopting a position of neutrality so States could regulate abortion as the wish to the very different attitude he and other justices seemed to display in the recent argument in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen.[3] There, New York advocated, on the basis of history and tradition, that states and localities had long adopted quite different approaches to gun regulations and licensing that should be allowed to continue without offending the Second Amendment. The challengers to the state licensing law argued that the Constitution did not allow as much leeway as New York had taken in the 1916 law under review.

Linkage between guns and abortion may have first been expressed by Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson III of the Fourth Circuit in a 2009 Virginia Law Review article.[4] He found that both foundational decisions, Roe and District of Columbia v. Heller, criticized and celebrated differently based on ideological preferences, suffered from the same flaws: a failure to utilize textualism to achieve a result, disregard for the complexities that the decision would engender so that much litigation would be spawned, indifference to legislative judgments, and a lack of concern for federalism. Key to his approach is a rejection of the constitutional foundations of both decisions.

In the end, the answer in both cases, Dobbs and Bruen, turn on the justices’ acceptance or rejection of the underlying rights at issue – and even the most brilliant oral argument is unlikely to transform ingrained perspectives.

A second exchange also teaches a fundamental lesson on oral argument. It exemplifies a rule that judges can do what they want, but advocates are more limited. Chief Justice Roberts asked whether viability was briefed and argued in Roe as a line of demarcation, referring to a statement in Justice Blackmun’s papers about a draft of the Roe opinion that he was struggling to produce at the time. In it, he referred to the trimester approach the opinion took as arbitrary and a form of dicta but said that so would tying the right to quickening or viability.

Chief Justice Roberts referred to the Blackmun papers as an “unfortunate source,” but nonetheless posed the question. As Greenhouse points out, the paper the chief justice cited was superseded after conversations with Justices Marshall and Powell. Justice Blackmun’s new memo after called viability justified on “logical and biological” grounds that few could argue with.

            The oral advocacy question is whether counsel, in a case where a judge did not raise the question, could fruitfully raise private papers – or remarks from the bench, for that matter – to make that type of point the chief justice did, when it is not reflected in the opinion that was issued. It is one thing to recall a point made by one of the judges during that oral argument. However, it would seem inappropriate for an advocate to use an “unfortunate source” the way the chief justice did.

 

[1] 19-1392.

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

[3] No. 20-843.

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

December 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 25, 2021

An Appellate Practitioner Gives Thanks

To be sure, the last couple of years have been difficult for many of us. But there still are reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. As an appellate practitioner, I am thankful for many things this year:

  • Westlaw and Lexis. How did I ever find any controlling law without them when I was in law school and when I was a young attorney?
  • Rules of Appellate Procedure. Okay, I'm a rule follower. And rule followers like rules.
  • The Oxford comma. Without it, I might write this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God and the Virgin Mary." But with it, I really mean this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God, and the Virgin Mary." It also could save someone millions of dollars.
  • American English. We fought a war so that we don't have to spell and punctuate like the British do (interestingly, the British don't seem to use the Oxford comma much). Of course, my students have a hard time understanding that in the United States we place periods and commas inside quotation marks.
  • Dashes, colons, and semi-colons. They are way undervalued and underutilized.
  • Microsoft Word. No, I'm kidding about that. Bring back my WordPerfect (or at least give me some version of WordPerfect's "Reveal Codes").
  • The return to in-person oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court and at appellate courts across the country.
  • The streaming real-time audio of United States Supreme Court arguments that has continued even after the return to in-person arguments.
  • The opportunity to attend live conferences again. The Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit this year was fantastic. You should go next year if you have the opportunity.
  • Our justice system--as flawed and imperfect as it might be. We can all work together to make it better.
  • People who still try to objectively apply facts to law instead of deciding how they believe cases should turn out based on their own personal agenda. Yes, there are a few of these people left.
  • Blogs like this that let nerdy appellate types bond over things like punctuation and citations (have you seen the posts about using "cleaned up" in parentheticals?).

Here's hoping that 2022 will bring us even more to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

November 25, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Limited Time For Term Limits

    President Biden’s Supreme Court Commission recently offered a public preview of its recommendations for Supreme Court reform, with their final report due next month. The Commission’s early work showed deep division over adding new Justices to the Court, but wider support for judicial term limits—even if the process of enacting such limits remains unclear. The same might be said of Americans more broadly. Recent polling shows little public appetite for appointing additional Justices to the Court, but a more evenly divided opinion on term limits for the Justices.

    The Commission’s alignment with public opinion may be welcome news for the Biden administration, even though it was likely unintentional. The Commission is largely comprised of legal scholars with long histories of analyzing and critiquing the Court’s work. The group is at least somewhat ideologically diverse, including members who would apply a more originalist interpretive method to constitutional issues, though such views are in the minority. But few of the Commission’s members have long experience in public policy or legislation. And many have proposed similar term limits in their past academic work, suggesting that the alignment with public opinion is accidental rather than intentional.

    The Commission’s preview suggests a path to Supreme Court reform that does not threaten the judiciary’s institutional integrity as much as a court packing plan would. Court packing is a purely partisan game that can be played by members of both parties. Once the floodgates to court packing are open, there is little to stop additional efforts by future administrations of any ideological stripe to alter the makeup of the Court. Even if the public’s opinion of the Court has rapidly soured in recent years, a step as drastic as court packing seems likely to further undermine the Court’s legitimacy. Adding members may even impede the Court’s ability to hear cases in the short term as a shifting (and growing) cast of Justices is added to the bench by administration after administration.

    Term limits hold more promise as a subtler method to moderate the Court’s ideological swings without all-out partisan warfare. Once phased in, term limits would allow subsequent administrations a relatively even and predictable number of appointments to the highest court. Term limits have the potential to lower the partisan temperature over the appointments process, simply by precluding political parties or retiring Justices from gaming the appointment process to ensure that new members have a specific ideological view. Much must still be worked out, including how to stagger the terms to allow seats to open regularly during every administration; how to phase the limits in with the existing members of the Court; how to handle unexpected changes in the Court’s membership due to illness or death; and whether changes can be made legislatively or only through constitutional amendment. But term limits at least offer the possibility of a more moderate shift in the way the Court does business.

    Term limits might also provide the Biden administration a path to cathartic action on an important topic for many Democratic constituents that is less drastic and divisive in the eyes of the broader public. The administration and the Commission may hope that term limits are perceived as an important and necessary action to rebalance the Court’s ideological skew, but a slow-building one that will only reduce ideological polarization over the course of generations. Would such a plan be enough to mollify the Democratic base? Much might depend upon the outcome of particularly charged cases this term, including the challenge to Roe v. Wade that the Court will hear next month in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That outcome may ignite the push for more drastic reform as an immediate response. The alignment between public opinion and the Commission’s views might thus be short-lived. If the administration hopes to act on less-dramatic reforms like term limits, the best time may be now.

November 23, 2021 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 20, 2021

A Great Summary of Argument Can Make Your Brief

Our Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure require a brief’s Summary of Argument to “contain a succinct, clear, and accurate statement of the arguments made in the body of the brief, . . . which must not merely repeat the argument headings.”  Fed. R. App. P. 28(a)(7).  As a judicial clerk, I saw brief after brief where the authors ignored this rule.  Far too many attorneys essentially listed their point headings in sentence form, leaving the court with the impression counsel realized just before filing that they needed to add some sort of Summary of Argument.

Counsel who ignore the Summary of Argument lose a great opportunity to persuade busy judges, who might otherwise only skim the brief, and to set the tone for the entire case.   The Summary gives an attorney the chance to introduce, persuasively, and to expressly set out the theory of the case.   Moreover, using an interest-creating “hook” or very direct statement of the argument’s overall main points can also set the stage for later oral argument.  Additionally, in large litigation, the Summaries of Argument might be the only thing many stakeholders read. 

Recently, I read a fantastic Summary of Argument which really proves these points.  In the pending Supreme Court cases on the Texas and Mississippi abortion bans, the Court received a record number of amicus briefs.  As NPR reported, as of mid-September, the Court had an astonishing number--over 1,125--friend-of-the-Court briefs in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrgSee https://www.npr.org/2021/09/20/1038972266/supreme-court-date-roe-wade-dobbs-jackson-womens; see generally https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/2021/05/24/avalanche-of-amicus-briefs-will-hit-justices-in-new-abortion-rights-case/?slreturn=20211020144237.

You can find the briefs in Dobbs at SCOTUSblog here:  https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/whole-womans-health-v-jackson/.  But how do you choose which briefs to read?  I wanted to read a selection of amicus briefs from multiple sides of the issues, but I did not want to read 1,125 briefs.  In selecting briefs to give my attention, I scanned the names of the authors, and then I read the Summaries of Argument from groups who intrigued me.  One brief, filed by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and seventeen other civil rights organizations, has a beautiful Summary of Argument that persuaded me to download and read the entire amicus brief.  

The Lawyers’ Committee brief uses a strong statement of its overall argument on stare decisis to hook in the reader, beginning:  “Because Mississippi H.B. 1510 . . . bans abortions beginning at 15 weeks’ gestation, it directly conflicts with this Court’s unambiguous precedent that pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional.”  See https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1392/193123/20210921090114082_19-1392bsacLawyersCommitteeForCivilRightsUnderLaw1.pdf.  Then, the brief sets up its argument there is no reason to ignore stare decisis here, stating, “[p]etitioners acknowledge this conflict by requesting that this Court overrule these landmark cases, which pregnant people have now relied upon for almost half a century.”  Id. at 2.  Next, the Summary of Argument gives a nice explanation of the analysis the Court should use to “take the extraordinary step of rejecting stare decisis,” noting “this Court must determine, among other things, whether a “special justification” exists” by examining the “legitimate expectations of those who have reasonably relied” on the precedent and the “real-world effects on the citizenry.”  Id. at 2-3.

Thus, in just a few sentences, the Lawyers’ Committee brief states its position clearly and encourages the reader to continue.  The entire Summary is only seven short paragraphs, and follows the approach of stating the Lawyers’ Committee’s conclusions directly, and then giving compelling, but brief, points supporting each conclusion.

In a field of more than 1,125 briefs, the Lawyers’ Committee helped its amicus brief stand out with a short, persuasive Summary of Argument which perfectly followed the Court’s rules and masterfully engaged the reader.  The next time you draft a Summary of Argument, you might want to follow this wonderful example.

November 20, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 19, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, November 19, 2021

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court announced that the first opinion of the term will be delivered Monday, November 22. Unlike before the pandemic closure, the Court will not take the bench and will release opinions online beginning at 10:00 a.m. The Court does not announce which opinions will be issued on which day.  For more, see Bloomberg.

  • The Presidential Commission on SCOTUS met today (find link to materials and agenda here). On the agenda were items including term limits and the size of the Court. The materials suggest some support for term limits but recognize a “profound disagreement” about altering the size of the Court.  For more, see The New York Times and the ABA Journal.

  • The Washington florist who was found to have violated a state discrimination law after refusing to make flower arrangements for same-sex couples has dropped her Supreme Court appeal. The parties filed a joint stipulation for dismissal, having reached a settlement in the matter.  For more, see CNN and The Hill.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The circuit court lottery system for multidistrict litigation became a hot topic this week when the over 34 challenges to the administration’s workplace vaccine rules were consolidated and assigned to the Sixth Circuit by lottery. The cases challenge the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that apply to businesses with 100 or more workers and require those workers to be vaccinated by January 4 or face mask requirements and weekly tests. The consolidation means that the Fifth Circuit, which recently stayed the rules, will cede control of its case to the Sixth Circuit. For more, see the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation order and a sampling of the many reports: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Reuters, and NPR.

  • The Ninth Circuit has unsealed recordings of the landmark trial that struck California’s ban on same-sex marriage.  The court ruled that the opposition has not shown that the public release of the recordings would cause harm. For more, see the order and reports from Reuters and Courthouse News.

 

November 19, 2021 in Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Why Confidence in the United States Supreme Court is Declining

In a recent poll, only 40% of respondents expressed confidence in the United States Supreme Court.[1] The public’s declining confidence in the Court, and the resulting threat to the Court’s institutional legitimacy, is attributable in substantial part to several factors.

1.    The Court’s decisions are perceived as political and outcome-driven.

In several landmark decisions involving divisive social issues, the Court has disregarded or manipulated the Constitution’s text to achieve outcomes that arguably reflect the justices’ policy predilections. In Griswold v. Connecticut, for example, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which prohibits the government from depriving citizens of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” encompasses a substantive – and unenumerated – right to privacy.[2] In so holding, the Court stated that, although a literal interpretation of the Due Process Clause did not support creating this right,  the Constitution nonetheless contained invisible “penumbras,” that are “formed by emanations from those guarantees [in the Bill of Rights] that help give them life and substance.”[3] It was within these penumbras that the Court discovered a right to privacy.

In other words, the Court singlehandedly created an unenumerated right to privacy out of thin air.

To make matters worse, in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the unenumerated right to privacy encompassed a right to terminate a pregnancy.[4] Regardless of one’s view on abortion,  the Court’s decision, as in Griswold, entirely disregarded the text of the Due Process Clause and instead discovered this right in the invisible penumbras that Griswold created. The result reflected a troubling reality: the Court, consisting of nine unelected and life-tenured judges, was giving itself the unchecked authority to invent whatever rights it subjectively deemed necessary to ensure liberty for all citizens. These and other decisions were rightly perceived as fundamentally undemocratic and inconsistent with the judiciary’s obligation to say what the law is, not what it should be.

Additionally, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, reaffirmed Roe, although the Court acknowledged again that the Due Process Clause’s text  did not support recognizing a right to abortion.[5] Undeterred by the text, however, the Court supported its decision by emphasizing that “[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."[6] Apart from being based on no reasonable interpretation of the Due Process Clause, the Court’s decision – and this passage – indicated that the Court would in the future unapologetically create whatever unenumerated rights it deemed essential to liberty – and impose that judgment on all fifty states.

The Court’s decisions were intellectually dishonest, constitutionally indefensible, and outcome-driven. This is a recipe for undermining public confidence in the Court.

Furthermore, some of the Court’s 5-4 decisions often conveniently align with the justices’ political views. For example, in its abortion and affirmative action jurisprudence, the ‘liberal’ justices often, if not always, vote to invalidate abortion restrictions and uphold affirmative action policies, while the ‘conservative’ justices predictably disagree. The impression, of course, is that politics, not law, underlies the Court’s decisions.

2.    The Court gets involved in disputes that the democratic process should resolve.

The Constitution says nothing about abortion.

It says nothing about same-sex marriage.

It says nothing about whether money constitutes speech.

It says nothing about whether imposing the death penalty for child rape is cruel and unusual.

Yet, the Court has repeatedly injected itself into these disputes – and determined for all fifty states – what the Constitution means and requires. In so doing, the Court’s decisions, which in the above areas are almost always decided by a 5-4 vote, undermine democratic choice.

3.    The Court fails to defer to the democratic process when the Constitution is ambiguous.

The Constitution’s text is often broadly worded and subject to different interpretations. In these circumstances, the Court should defer to the democratic and political process, not intervene and impose its interpretation on an entire country.

For example, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court considered whether a Louisiana law, which authorized the death penalty for the rape of a child, violated the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.[7] Based on the Eighth Amendment’s text and original purpose, reasonable jurists could reach different conclusions on this question. Put differently, the Eighth Amendment provided no definitive answer regarding the law’s constitutionality. Given this fact, the Court should have deferred to Louisiana’s democratic process and refused to grant certiorari. Instead, the Court intervened and, in a controversial 5-4 decision, invalidated the law.

Likewise, in Clinton v. New York, the Court addressed whether the Line Item Veto Act, which both houses of Congress passed, and which allowed the President to amend or repeal portions of duly-enacted laws (primarily to reduce excessive spending), violated the Constitution’s Presentment Clause.[8] The Presentment Clause was broadly worded and, thus, subject to different interpretations concerning the line-item veto’s constitutionality. Nonetheless, the Court intervened and, in a 6-3 decision, invalidated the Act.

Why?

Who is to say that the Court’s interpretation of a broadly-worded provision is any more correct than that of federal or state legislatures? Indeed, as Justice Stephen Breyer argued in his dissent, the Act did “not violate any specific textual constitutional command, nor does it violate any implicit Separation of Powers principle.”[9]

4.    The justices’ reasoning in many cases is inconsistent and suggests that politics, not law, drive their decisions.

Inconsistent and uneven application of doctrine and precedent is certain to undermine public confidence in the Court. Yet, that is precisely what some of the Court’s decisions reflect.

For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts provided the fifth vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act.[10]  In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts held that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate could reasonably be construed as a tax and was thus justified under Congress’s taxing powers.[11] Roberts also emphasized that, where a law does not clearly violate the Constitution’s text, deference to the coordinate branches is appropriate.[12]

Fair enough. That approach is reasonable – if applied consistently.

Unfortunately, however, that is not the case. In Shelby County v. Holder, for example, Roberts joined a five-member majority to invalidate portions of the Voting Rights Act that had been re-authorized by a unanimous 99-0 vote in the Senate.[13]

Now, there may certainly be justifiable reasons that could explain Roberts’ different approach in both cases. But those reasons, particularly when not apparent from the Court’s decisions, do little, if anything, to affect the perception that politics, not law, motivates the Court’s decisions. And perception is reality.

Additionally, the Court’s toxic, on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis raises similar concerns. For example, in June Medical Services v. Russo, Chief Justice Roberts concurred in a decision that invalidated a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. [14] In so doing, Roberts emphasized that his decision rested on stare decisis principles, as the Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstadt had recently invalidated a nearly identical law in Texas. [15]

Yet, Roberts has not been shy about disregarding stare decisis when he disagrees with a prior decision. For example, in Janus v. AFSCME, Roberts voted with the majority to overrule Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., and hold that labor unions could not collect fees from non-union members.[16] Of course, there may be an understandable reason for Roberts’ inconsistent application of stare decisis. But to the public, it appears that stare decisis is a doctrine of convenience rather than conviction.

***

The public’s confidence in the Court – and the Court’s institutional legitimacy – depends on whether its decisions reflect an honest interpretation of the law and fidelity to constitutional and statutory text. The Court’s recent jurisprudence suggests that other factors are influencing its decisions, including a desire to reach outcomes that the Court believes will maintain its legitimacy. But that concern is precisely what leads the Court to make decisions based on political calculations, the effect of which is to undermine the very legitimacy the Court seeks to preserve. The path to restoring public confidence in the Court is through intellectual honesty, reasonable interpretations of the Constitution, and consistent application of legal doctrines.

 

 

[1] See Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (Sept. 23, 2001), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)

[2] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[3] Id. (emphasis added) (brackets added).

[4] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[5]  505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[6] See id.

[7] 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[8] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[9] Id.

[10] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[14] 591 U.S.           , 2020 WL 3492640 (2020).

[15] 579 U.S. 582 (2016).

[16] 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018).

November 14, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Sunday, November 7, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The new format for oral argument adopted as the Supreme Court resumed in-person argument was introduced in part to address a study showing that female justices are interrupted by both male justices and advocates. The 2017 study by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, researchers at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, showed that female justices were interrupted at disproportionate rates. Justice Sotomayor, appearing at a recent event, stated that the study had an “enormous impact” on how the Supreme Court conducts oral argument.  See reports from The Guardian, CNN, and The Atlantic podcast.

  • The Court heard oral argument this week on two high-interest issues: a Texas abortion ban and a New York gun control law.

    - The Texas abortion case does not address the constitutionality of the ban itself but instead considers the procedural restrictions preventing federal challenges by abortion doctors and the Justice Department. The law is written so that it gives the state no direct role in enforcing the ban, instead authorizing private lawsuits in state courts against doctors or clinic owners who violate its provisions. The audio and transcripts of oral argument are available here: Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, No. 21-463, transcript and audio;  United States v. Texas, No. 21-588, transcript and audio. Some of the many reports on the case and oral argument include, The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Associated Press, Reuters, and NPR.

    - The New York gun control case considers the constitutionality of a New York law that imposes limits on carrying guns in public. The law requires citizens to show “proper cause” to get a license to carry a handgun in public. The audio and transcripts of oral argument are available here: New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. v. Bruen, No. 20-843, transcript and audio. See reports on the argument and the case from The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The New York Times.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Fifth Circuit has suspended the Biden administration’s vaccine requirement for private companies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule applies to businesses with 100 or more workers and requires those works be vaccinated by January 4 or face mask requirements and weekly tests. See the order and reports from NPR and The Wall Street Journal.

  • A federal court has ruled that North Carolina at Chapel Hill may use race as a factor in admissions. The court ruled that the university’s consideration of race was narrowly tailored and that the university considered race-neutral alternatives, which meets the 2003 standard set by Grutter v. Bollinger. The ruling stated that, “[w]hile no student can or should be admitted to this university, or any other, based solely on race, because race is so interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience of minority students, to ignore it, reduce its importance and measure it only by statistical models. . . , misses important context . . ..” The challengers vow to appeal the ruling. See the order and reports from USA Today and The New York Times.

Appellate Practice

An interesting thread on Twitter asks, "Have you read a law review article recently that you thought was particularly great and deserving of a wider readership?" Take a peek for what looks like a great list!

November 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Provocative Suggestion to Name the Supreme Court Building After a Single Justice

                Sarah Isgur set off a fun, even if inconsequential, debate among the Supreme Court cognoscenti when she wrote an essay in Politico ("Name the Supreme Court After a Legendary Justice") that the building that houses the highest court in the land be named after the first Justice John Marshall Harlan. Isgur, a former Trump Justice Department spokesperson and host of a legal podcast, Advisory Opinions for the Dispatch, argued that the Supreme Court building and the court it houses “need a story to help Americans make sense of them.”

             In suggesting Harlan’s name, she recognized that he opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, but suggested that his transformation into what she called the “greatest defender of racial equality in court history . . . shows how an intense and unfaltering faith in the Constitution can chart a path to enlightenment.”

             Unlike the otherwise unnamed White House and Capitol, she contends that the building’s “symbolic anonymity” no longer serves as a “source of strength” as it once did. Naming the building, she writes, would help overcome a loss of “shared sense” about “what the Supreme Court stands for and what it should represent.”

             The debate Isgur set off is fun, in part, because it is provocative. Should the citadel of justice for the nation bear any individual’s name? And, if so, is Harlan more appropriate than Chief Justice John Marshall or some other celebrated figure from American legal history? And, finally, would naming the building really help people understand the role of the Court or the rule of law more generally? The debate is also likely inconsequential because there really is no prospect that the Court’s building would be renamed to honor an individual.

             My own view is that no renaming should take place. We take pride in being a nation of laws, not of men. Part of the problem in the public’s recent decline in faith in the Supreme Court comes precisely because people, often with some justification, think the justices maintain partisan allegiances to those who put them there and render decisions based on political leanings, rather than the application of some immutable law. (Harlan, incidentally, was very much a partisan). Naming the building after an individual will not change those perceptions or the public’s reactions to rulings that they find politically unpalatable or legally questionable. Nor is Harlan’s story, as interesting as it is, the story of either the Supreme Court or American law. Instead, I suggest that the Court’s decisions embody a wealth of stories worthy of being told that provide real insight into its operation.

             Despite my opposition to naming the building after an individual, the suggestion provided an opportunity for more people to think about Harlan. There is no doubt he cut a colorful figure on the Court, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once described Harlan as “the last of the tobacco-spittin’ judges.” Harlan acquired the nickname, the “Great Dissenter,” for writing oppositions, often alone, to decisions that the court of history has since similarly condemned. He is also widely celebrated by admirers of diverse political disposition and legal philosophy. Isgur notes that Justice Thurgood Marshall said he took inspiration from Harlan.

             That inspiration may be encapsulated in Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, which Marshall successfully argued should be overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. Harlan’s dissent stated:

in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

             Let us remember John Marshall Harlan, but continue to call the Supreme Court’s building the “Supreme Court.”

November 7, 2021 in United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Institutional Legitimacy is At Stake in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson

Like a bad dream (or a toxic ex-partner), abortion has made yet another unwelcome visit to the United States Supreme Court, thanks to the State of Texas.

Texas is up to its old tricks again in its never-ending quest to find some way – any way – to disregard Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and eviscerate abortion access in the Lone Star State. By way of background, in 2013, Texas passed a law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and claimed that the law’s purpose was to protect women’s health.[1] But the stated purpose was as meritless as it was disingenuous: complications from abortions are quite rare and less frequent than, for example, complications resulting from tonsillectomies and tooth extractions – neither of which were subject to such a requirement.[2] The law was challenged and, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court, by a vote of 5-4, rightfully invalidated the law and implicitly recognized that its purpose was, in the words of former Governor Rick Perry, “to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”[3]

Sadly, Texas didn’t learn its lesson.

The legislature recently passed – and Governor Gregory Abbott signed – a “fetal heartbeat” law (“SB 2”)  that prohibits abortions after six weeks. But there’s more: ostensibly aware that the law unquestionably violates Roe and Planned Parenthood, which held that women have the right to terminate a pregancy before viability (approximately twenty-four weeks), Texas designed a ridiculous scheme to evade review by the federal courts. Specifically, SB 2 authorizes private citizens, not state officials, to enforce the law by giving all citizens the right to sue abortion providers who perform abortions after six weeks.[4] And to incentivize such lawsuits, Texas is offering private citizens at least $10,000 if they succeed in a lawsuit against an abortion provider. Put simply, SB 2 creates private bounty hunters.

Not surprisingly, SB 2’s constitutionality was immediately challenged. Initially, the Court refused to grant injunctive relief, holding that, although the law raised serious constitutional questions, it also raised “novel antecedent procedural questions," such as whether the Court had the power to issue an injunction against “state judges asked to decide a lawsuit under Texas’s law,” and whether an injunction was proper given that the named defendants lacked the power to enforce the law.[5] As a result, the law is now in effect and abortions in Texas are, as a practical matter, a thing of the past.

So here we are again.

Like in Hellerstedt, where Texas unsuccessfully argued that a hospital admitting privileges requirement was necessary to protect women’s health – a justification the Court rightfully rejected – it  now argues that it can effectively eliminate the right to abortion by adopting a private enforcement scheme that uses citizens as proverbial human shields to evade federal review and preclude injunctive relief . As in Hellerstedt, the Court should invalidate this ridiculous law, which thumbs its nose at the Court, its abortion precedent, and judicial review. The law unquestionably violates Roe and Planned Parenthood, and is an unconstitutional assault on the viability threshold. The Court should recognize the obvious.

If the Court fails to do so, it will severely, if not irreparably, undermine its institutional legitimacy. Indeed, at a time when forty percent of the public has confidence in the Court, doing the right thing – regardless of ideology – is critical.[6]

To be sure, the public’s opinion of the Court results, at least in part, from the perception that some decisions reflect the Court’s current ideological composition. When the justices’ votes conveniently and consistently align with their policy preferences – and constitutional meaning changes based on whether a majority of the justices is liberal or conservative – the perception is that politics, not law, and party affiliation, not principle, motivate the Court’s decisions. Of course, although the justices continually emphasize that their decisions are never motivated by policy preferences, the fact remains that perception matters more than reality. Indeed, it is reality. Any decision that denies Whole Woman’s Health the ability to seek relief in federal court would re-enforce this perception. It would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. It would suggest that constitutional rights can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2021 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is the point – and the problem.

Yet, this is precisely what the public may believe if the Court refuses to grant Petitioners relief and, instead, focuses on the “novel antecedent procedural questions," such as those mentioned above. Doing so will likely be viewed for what it is: conservative justices hiding behind Texas’s legislative shenanigans to all but outlaw abortion in Texas and, concomitantly, give states carte blanche to eviscerate any constitutional right simply by enacting a private enforcement scheme. If the Court countenances such nonsense, constitutional rights will be worth the equivalent of Monopoly money.

The Court should grant Petitioners relief.  Regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, what matters is recognizing this charade for what it is: a sophomoric and transparent attempt to disregard Roe and eliminate abortion. 

Ultimately, the mess that is abortion jurisprudence reflects three problems with the Court's decisions in this and other areas.

  1. Living Constitutionalism. The Court is in this mess primarily because Roe v. Wade was a constitutionally indefensible decision. Decided less than a decade after Griswold v. Connecticut, an equally indefensible decision, the Court created a right to privacy (and abortion) out of thin air, as no reasonable interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause could support recognizing these rights. The backlash among states that Roe and, later, Planned Parenthood engendered, and that has thrust the abortion right into uncertainty for decades, reflects the flawed reasoning in these decisions. 
  2. An ambiguous legal standard. In Planned Parenthood, the Court reaffirmed the central holding in Roe but created a new standard by which to assess the validity of abortion restrictions. Specifically, the Court held that laws regulating abortion cannot place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. But what exactly constitutes an “undue burden"? No one knows. Adopting this vague standard created uncertainty and unpredictability regarding the right to abortion and only guaranteed that states like Texas would continually attempt to limit, if not eliminate, abortion access.
  3. Incrementalism. The Court, particularly under Chief Justice John Roberts, has adopted an incremental approach to deciding cases, in which the Court only decides the narrow legal issue before it, thus eschewing broad rulings or the adoption of categorical legal rules. This approach has many benefits. Sometimes, however, clear – and categorical – rules are necessary to bring clarity to the law, guide lower courts, and bring stability to the law.

The Court’s abortion jurisprudence suffers from all three flaws. As such, it should not be surprising that the right to abortion has for decades led to countless legal challenges and continued uncertainty.

Hopefully, the Court will recognize – and rectify – the problem. Its institutional legitimacy depends on it.

 

[1] 579 U.S. 582 (2016).

[2] See id.

[3] Press Release, Governor Rick Perry, Tex., Governor Perry Announces Initiative to Protect Life (Dec. 11, 2012), http://perma.cc/CWN2-KLDD.

[4] See Brief of Professors Adam Lamparello, Charles E. MacLean, and Brian Owsley in Support of Petitioner, available at: Microsoft Word - Amicus Brief In Support of Petitioners (supremecourt.gov).

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

[6] Se Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (September 23, 2021), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)

October 30, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Qualifying for Qualifying Immunity

Last week, in two per curiam opinions, the Supreme Court reversed decisions of the Ninth and Tenth Circuits by holding that the police officers accused of exercising excessive force were entitled to qualified immunity. In both decisions, the Court found that no clearly established precedent put the officers on notice that their actions violated the suspect’s rights. Many commentators described the decisions as a blow to police reform and asserted that the Court displayed a tin ear about roiling concerns about racial justice and criticisms of qualified immunity.

That dissatisfaction was poignantly expressed at the end of summer by U.S. district court judge Carlton Reeves where he reluctantly applied qualified immunity to dismiss an action against a Mississippi police officer, who pulled over a Mercedes driven by a black man on the assumption by the officer that the driver had to be involved with drugs to be operating the luxury car. He detained the man for nearly two hours while the car was disassembled (and then left that way) in a fruitless search for contraband. Through simple declarative sentences recalling other similarly wrongheaded incidents,[1] many of which resulted in tragic deaths, Judge Reeves made clear how qualified immunity has served as a “shield” for police abuse and misconduct, even as he followed controlling precedent.

To be sure, the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity has its most urgent and controversial application in the context of police actions. Even critics of qualified immunity acknowledge that some split-second decisions do not allow the type of reflection necessary to understand why certain conduct crosses a line. Yet, qualified immunity applies not only to pressing life or death situations, but also to circumstances where deliberation is possible and where the offender is not a police officer, but people knowledgeable in the law. Two cases in which I have been involved demonstrate the uneven application of qualified immunity and why the doctrine is overdue for an overhaul.

In Stamps v. Town of Framingham,[2] the First Circuit denied qualified immunity to a police officer, who as a member of a SWAT team, was asked to watch an elderly black man while other members of the team searched the man’s apartment for a stepson wanted in connection with selling crack. SWAT had been briefed that Eurie Stamps, Sr., a 68-year-old retired Metro worker, was no threat. Shortly after midnight, the team executed a raid by throwing a flashbang grenade through the kitchen window as others battered down the front door. When they met Stamps, he complied with an order to get down on the floor on his stomach with his hands and feet in the air. The officer asked to watch Stamps as the search continued, pointed his assault rifle at Stamps’s head with the safety off and his finger on the trigger. Then, the officer unintentionally pulled the trigger, killing Stamps. The stepson was not in the apartment.

 Framingham defended by claiming that qualified immunity should require dismissal of the subsequent lawsuit because it was not “clearly established” that the unintentional discharge of the rifle violated the decedent’s rights. The First Circuit made short work of the claim. Pointing the rifle at a person’s head when he posed no threat and was suspected of no criminal act was the intentional act that put in motion the weapon’s discharge and that type of recklessness was comparable to past precedents, making it clearly established and putting police officers on notice. The “clearly established” requirement was satisfied, largely by reference to federal appellate decisions in other circuits.

 However, in Echols v. Lawton,[3] the “clearly-established” requirement defeated the lawsuit. In Echols, the plaintiff had served seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit and that DNA evidence, examined as a result of work by the Innocence Project, finally exonerated him. Echols lost his family, his military career, and his health as a result of his long, imprisonment. He was released, after the State entered a nolle prosequi on the charges. A bill was introduced in the legislature to compensate him, and the Georgia Claims Advisory Board voted unanimously twice to support the bill. However, the bill was derailed when the prosecutor sent letters to key legislators, asserting the conviction was proper and, falsely, that Echols remained under indictment for the original charges of rape and kidnapping. The bill then died.

Echols sued the prosecutor for violations of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Eleventh Circuit, while finding the prosecutor’s actions, undertaken with deliberation, highly detestable and likely libel per se, nonetheless found that the violations were not “clearly established” in that circuit. Even if other circuits would have found no qualified immunity based on existing precedent, the Eleventh Circuit requires an on-point in-circuit precedent before qualified immunity can be denied. Echols now serves as a precedent for a future case, clearly establishing that a prosecutor cannot misrepresent to other government officials the case’s status. It is now “clearly established” that the same misconduct would not be immunized in the future. It did not matter that rules of ethics and rules specifically applicable to prosecutors plainly prohibited what occurred here; the court required a precedential decision from within the circuit, something that other circuits do not. Oddly, Supreme Court precedent does not even require a prior ruling on the issue.

Interestingly, the panel included a judge sitting by designation from the Sixth Circuit. He concurred in the decision, only because of the Eleventh Circuit requirement of a prior in-circuit decision, stating that his circuit would have denied qualified immunity.

The many decisions that provide qualified immunity insensibly to a host of situations where the violation is patent and the different standards applied by the circuits at this late date in the doctrine’s existence calls for its reexamination. Reconsideration of the doctrine is coming – sooner is much better than later.

 

[1] See Jameson v. McClendon, No. 3:16-cv-595, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/7013933-Jamison-v-McClendon.html.

[2] Stamps v. Town of Framingham, 813 F.3d 27, 29 (1st Cir. 2016).

[3] Echols v. Lawton, 913 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir.), cert denied, 139 S.Ct. 2678 (2019).

October 24, 2021 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Supermajority Requirement Would Solve Nothing

            If the solution is simple, it might not actually be a solution. Last week, another contributor to this blog suggested that a six-vote supermajority rule could help resolve concerns about the Supreme Court being just another political institution rendering political decisions. The suggestion struck me as misguided and ineffective.

            In recent weeks, no fewer than four justices have spoken out that they are not, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett put it, “political hacks.” Each made the point that they adhere to a judicial philosophy, rather than carry their political preferences into law. Although I have no doubt that each believes that to be true, the judicial philosophies that each espouses, on many of the hot-button issues that come to the Court, tend to coincide with views of the political party of the president who appointed them, which is why modern Supreme Court nominations generate deep political schisms. To be sure, there are occasional “strange bedfellows,” where the majority line-up includes justices thought to have incompatible philosophies/politics and where the results surprise. Still, most decisions seem to follow political views as much as judicial philosophy so that any distinction that exists appears, at best, a subtle one.

            Accusations that the Court is engaged in politics are not new and would not change if a supermajority requirement were adopted. Two of the most important constitutional law decisions issued by the Court, both of which were unanimous, were criticized as political and evinced a political tinge. The dispute in Marbury v. Madison,[1] for example, came out of the political growing pains of a new nation during the first transition of power from one political party to another. The Federalist administration of John Adams tried to seed the judiciary with party loyalists, just as Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was about to take office. In the rush of appointing “midnight judges,” some commissions were not delivered by Secretary of State John Marshall before his successor, James Madison, took office. It was Madison’s refusal to deliver those commissions that resulted in William Marbury’s lawsuit seeking to complete his appointment as a justice of the peace.

            The new Congress recognized the case would be decided by Federalist appointees, including John Marshall, himself a midnight judge. It cancelled the upcoming Supreme Court term, delaying the case. When the Court finally heard the matter, it was fully aware of the political stakes involved and how a politically problematic decision would generate retaliation against the Court. As the administration and Congress feared, the Court held Marbury was entitled to his commission. Yet, in a masterful twist, the Court also held it was without authority to provide relief because the congressional authorization giving the Court jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus conflicted with the Constitution’s limited grant of original jurisdiction. The Court struck down this extra-constitutional authorization, exercising the power of judicial review. It avoided a confrontation with the Jefferson administration over its power to order the seating of Marbury, while establishing the Court as the venue where the Constitution would be authoritatively construed and laws struck as unconstitutional. The decision was a balancing act that operated to preserve – and, indeed, strengthen – the Court as an institution.

            The second landmark foundational case, Brown v. Board of Education,[2] unanimously struck the separate, but equal doctrine. Though it now, deservedly, garners laurels, it generated a storm of criticism at the time, including a massive-resistance movement and Senator James O. Eastland’s declaration that the opinion was a “legislative decision by a political court.” The decision came to be in large part because Chief Justice Earl Warren used his political skills honed as governor of California and the Republican vice presidential nominee before taking the bench to work his colleagues so that a single authoritative opinion spoke for the Court. Similar “political” considerations resulted in the decision in Cooper v. Aaron,[3] signed by each of the justices as though co-authors, to express the Court’s emphatic intolerance of delays in desegregating Central High School.

            These decisions did not merely hew to some abstract concept of law existing somewhere only to be found, but recognized the legal questions being answered existed in a political world in which the Court’s authority would be questioned.

            Requiring a supermajority vote fails to assure public confidence and respect. It is not the line-up of the vote, but the reasoning and consequences that count. Some of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history boasted overwhelming support among the justices, such as: Dred Scott v. Sandford[4] (7-2, holding that African-Americans could not be U.S. citizens and likely precipitating the Civil War ); Plessy v. Ferguson[5] (7-1, creating the separate-but-equal doctrine); Korematsu v. United States[6] (6-3, upholding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II); and, Buck v. Bell[7] (8-1, finding no constitutional impediment to a state law mandating sterilization of those deemed “feebleminded” to prevent future generations from inheriting “bad” genes). In each of these cases, the political considerations were determinative.

            The point is that a 6-3 supermajority requirement provides no guarantee that the Court will render decisions divorced from politics – or – decisions that are sounder from some hypothetical purely legal perspective.  And a more closely divided Court is no more or less legitimate than one that garners an additional vote or two for its majority.

            The proposal aired in this blog specifically argued in favor of at least six votes to affirm or reverse a lower court decision. Without a supermajority, the proposal would let the lower court decision, whether it was made in federal or state appeals courts, stand, even if it were the product of a bare majority on that court or constituted a plurality opinion. Those consequences, however, would produce their own political dynamics – a Supreme Court able to avoid controversy due to a lack of supermajority support for one result or another, disharmony on federal questions across the circuits and state courts so that federal law would be different depending on where a person lived, and, possibly, even summary reversals of decisions disliked by a supermajority without an agreed-upon ratio decidendi, creating uncertainty about what rule of law applies. None of these consequences are more desirable than the current approach.

            A supermajority requirement simply would not depoliticize the Court.

 

[1] 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803).

[2] 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[3] 358 U.S. 1 (1958).

[4] 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857).

[5] 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

[6] 323 U.S. 214 (1944).

[7] 274 U.S. 200 (1927).

October 10, 2021 in Appellate Court Reform, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, October 9, 2021

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The controversial Texas abortion ban was blocked and then reinstated this week. The Texas law bans most abortions after about 6-weeks, making abortion virtually impossible in Texas. Judge Pitman of the District Court for the Western District of Texas blocked the ban, recognizing the deprivation of a constitutionally protected right. Judge Pitman wrote: “[T]here can be no question that [the law] operates as a ban on pre-viability abortions in contravention of Roe v. Wade, and ‘equates to a near categorical ban on abortions beginning six weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period, before many women realize they are pregnant, and months before fetal viability.’”  He ends the opinion by finding that “[f]rom the moment [the Texas law] went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution. That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.” See Judge Pitman’s decision and reports on the decision from NPR, Reuters, The New York Times, APNews, the Austin American Statesman, and The Washington Post.

  • Late Friday, the Fifth Circuit stayed Judge Pitman’s order.

Appellate Practice

The Advocate’s Society, Appellate Advocacy Practice Group: Networking Launch, is offering an online program titled “Dirty Tricks of Appellate Advocacy?” on October 26.

October 9, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 2, 2021

A Six-Vote Supermajority Requirement is the Solution to De-Politicizing the United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is struggling to maintain its institutional legitimacy. A recent poll showed that only 40% of Americans approved of the Court.[1] Three factors arguably explain the reasons underlying the public’s negative perception of the Court.

1.    Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts is a brilliant and accomplished jurist, and by all accounts a good person. But Roberts has contributed substantially to the Court’s compromised legitimacy. This might appear surprising at first glance, considering that Roberts cares deeply about preserving the Court’s legitimacy and is dedicated to ensuring that the Court is not viewed as a political institution.

Sadly, that very concern is precisely what has politicized the Court. The reason is that, in many cases, Roberts decides cases not based on a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional or statutory provision, but on what he believes will preserve the Court’s legitimacy, which essentially means that Roberts decides cases based on how he subjectively believes the public will react.

The problem with that approach should be obvious. It completely divorces the justices from the law, and from their obligation to reach outcomes based on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional and statutory text. In so doing, it enables nine unelected, life-tenured justices to reach outcomes based on their subjective views regarding what outcomes will be viewed as politically “legitimate.” The result is that the Court’s decisions are ipso facto political.

Roberts has been a disappointment on the Court. His approach betrays the rule of law and the judicial role. Put differently, when the justices base decisions on the desire to appear apolitical, they inherently politicize the Court. And Chief Justice Roberts is the Court’s most political actor.   

2.    The Shadow Docket

The Court’s shadow docket, in which it decides cases and important legal issues without oral argument. For example, in Whole Women’s Health, et al. v. Jackson, the petitioners applied for an order enjoining enforcement of a law in Texas that banned all abortions after six weeks, and that gave private citizens, not the government, the power to enforce the law. The Court denied the application, holding that it did not satisfy the standards required for granting a preliminary injunction. Although this interpretation was not incorrect, it showed that the Court couldn’t see the forest from the trees.

Any person with a pulse would recognize that, whatever one’s views on abortion, the law obviously violated the Court’s poorly-reasoned decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, both of which manipulated the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause to hold that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy before viability (i.e., approximately twenty-four weeks). Thus, because Texas’s law was so ridiculous, the Court should have voted unanimously to invalidate the law. Had the Court done so, it would have sent the message that the justices are not motivated by their policy preferences.  Instead, five members of the Court held that the Petitioner failed to satisfy the standards required for granting injunctive relief and allowed the law to go into effect. It should come as no surprise that the usual suspects – those who are almost certainly pro-life – signed onto this decision (Alito, Barrett, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Gorsuch).

So, when the justices express surprise and indignation that the Court is viewed as a political institution and claim that decisions are not based on the policy predilections, it is hard not to laugh.

3.    The Justices’ Political Views

If you believe that the justices don’t base their decisions on personal policy predilections, then you probably believe that the United States faked the moon landing or that most law schools are deeply committed to ideological diversity.

Think about it: could you imagine Justice Sotomayor ever invalidating an affirmative action program? Could you ever imagine Justice Thomas or Justice Alito relying on stare decisis to uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood? Could you ever imagine Justice Kagan supporting restrictions on same-sex marriage? No.

And don’t be fooled when the justices claim that their decisions reflect differences in interpretive philosophies. Uh-huh. It’s interesting – and amazingly convenient – that the justices’ interpretive philosophies so often comport with their policy preferences. That isn’t an accident.

This fact does not make the justices bad people. It just means that they are human. It means that their personal views impact their decisions, which is precisely why it is so critical for the Court to base their decisions on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional or statutory text. It is why the Court should refuse to hear most cases where the Constitution is silent or ambiguous, and instead defer to the democratic and political process. Doing so minimizes the risk that personal preferences will triumph over the law, and decreases the likelihood that constitutional meaning will depend on whether the Court’s majority is comprised of liberals or conservatives.  

Otherwise, justices will feel free to roam unconstrained in the Constitution’s penumbras,  seeking to discover new rights that reflect the “heady days of the here and now.”[2] That approach, which the Court has embraced at times, explains in substantial part why the public doesn’t view the Court favorably.

The Solution

Chief Justice Roberts is not the solution. Expanding the Court, for obvious reasons, is not the solution. The solution is to require a six-vote supermajority to affirm or reverse a lower court decision.

This solution would have several benefits that would preserve the Court’s legitimacy, protect the separation of powers, and promote democratic choice regarding issues upon which the Constitution is silent. Specifically, 5-4 decisions have been and continue to be the source of substantial disagreement and division. The Court’s decisions in National Federation of Independent v. Sebelius, Obergefell v. Hodges, Shelby County v. Holder, and Bush v. Gore are perfect examples. A six-vote majority would reduce the frequency with which the Court issues divisive, controversial – and politicized – decisions.

Furthermore, requiring a six-vote majority would almost certainly lead to incremental, rather than drastic, changes in the law and minimize the risk that the Court’s decisions will be perceived as political and illegitimate. To achieve a six-vote majority, the justices would be forced to compromise and reach a middle ground concerning decisions that affect, among other things, civil rights and liberties. As such, the influence of ideology or policy preferences in the decision-making process would likely be minimized.

Finally, a six-vote majority might incentivize litigants to stop seeking social change through the courts and instead concentrate their efforts on effecting change through the legislature. Doing so would limit the Court’s power in a principled way. The Court would still decide cases that involved violations of specific constitutional or statutory guarantees, but a six-vote majority requirement would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to create rights based on implausible interpretations of the Constitution and thus engender public backlash. 

Without principled reforms, the public perception of the Court will likely remain negative, and with several controversial issues on its current docket, the Court’s legitimacy is likely to go anywhere but up.

 

[1] See Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of Supreme Court Down to 40%, A New Low (Sep. 23, 2021), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)

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

October 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

If the public’s opinion of the Supreme Court falls in the woods, does anyone hear it?

    Next week, the Supreme Court will return to a crowded docket filled with high-profile cases on abortion rights, religious school instruction, and criminal procedure. The Court will also be returning to in-person arguments sure to generate high drama for court watchers. But with the new term starting, it may have gone unnoticed that public opinion about the Court has fallen precipitously over the past year.

    A Gallup poll released last week showed that American’s opinions of the Court have dropped to an all-time low of only 40 percent approving of its job performance, with another study by Marquette University noting a similarly precipitous drop in public approval. Some of the Court’s recent procedural changes may be an effort to rebuild its public image. As this blog has noted, the Court is changing its oral argument process to allow more individual questioning by Justices and less free-for-all interruption of the advocates—which may or may not be a positive development. But small tweaks to procedure are little salve to the many negative views of the Court as a wholly partisan institution that cannot resolve our nation’s most challenging and fundamental disagreements.

    Some of the disapproval may stem from the Court’s recent emergency rulings that have ended a nationwide eviction moratorium and allowed a Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect. Such rulings, issued through an opaque process with little input and no public discussion, likely undermine public trust in the Court’s good faith. But the rulings themselves are also notable for the controversial views they adopted largely in the dark. Such opinions are the product of long-standing issues with the Court’s public image that have gone unresolved.

    Partisanship on the Court, real or perceived, has undoubtedly increased in recent years. The nomination process has proven nothing but a political football for Congress. Those in the majority have permitted only favored nominations to go forward. Vetting prospective Justices may be high political theater, but it has little substantive meaning, aside from providing elected officials with the opportunity to publicly display loyalty to their tribe.

    Not surprisingly, the product of that partisan process is a more partisan bench itself, at least in the eyes of the public. Divergent interpretive methods and lengthy, impenetrable rulings give the public the perception that decisions are motivated solely by policy preference, rather than principled legal stances. Those on the right and the left assume that the philosophical underpinnings of most opinions are gobbledygook used to justify a result the Justice had in mind all along.

    Thus, Supreme Court reform has become a popular topic, especially for progressives convinced that adding Justices is the only way to equalize the Court’s intellectual balance. Whether such efforts would achieve balance or not, they are nakedly political. They seek not to reduce the partisan temperature on the Court, but to increase that on the Court’s liberal wing to equalize the passion of those Justices who lean conservative. Matching rancor with rancor forces politics further into the spotlight on the bench. New appointees would have an apparent mandate for progressive rulings, not intellectual honesty or judicial modesty.

    Are there any other options? Perhaps a merit-based selection process for federal judges would convince the public that the courts are not overtly political. Or perhaps simpler changes to the way the Justices approach the decision-making process could be effective. I do not mean to suggest that Justices should frequently cow to public opinion polls when writing their decisions. But they should tend to the institutional goodwill that the Court has long been afforded. The Court would do well to engage openly and honestly with even the most controversial issues. It should avoid decisions masking policy preferences in opaque, scholarly language, especially when deciding without the benefit of full briefing and oral argument. The Justices should write simple, straightforward opinions. They should avoid interpretive debates that have proven both tiresome and inaccessible to most members of the public. They should aim for simplicity, clarify, and honesty in expressing their views. Put another way, writing the way we teach new law students to write might serve the Justices well.

September 28, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)