Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Is Justice Scalia Senile?

The legal community has been buzzing since Justice Scalia issued one of his dissents last Tuesday.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s factual error has been called “unprecedented” by legal experts. As Talking Points Memo noted,

It’s common for the Supreme Court to make typographical corrections and insubstantial edits to a decision after its release. But it’s exceedingly rare to see a factual error that helps form the basis for an opinion. Legal experts say Scalia’s mistake appears to be wholly unprecedented in that it involves a justice flatly misstating core facts from one of his own prior opinions…

Scalia was dissenting from a 6-2 decision upholding the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate cross-state coal pollution. To help back up his judgment, he cited a 9-0 opinion he wrote in 2001 called Whitman v. American Trucking Association. But the EPA’s stance in that case was the exact opposite of what Scalia said it was in Tuesday’s opinion.

Scalia has been a polarizing figure in the legal community, often criticized for using his obvious brilliance to twist precedent and law in order to get his preferred result. Critics note that his professed “originalism” is employed very selectively in service of his ideological preferences. Tuesday’s error, however, is of an entirely different order.

And that raises some eyebrows–and questions.

Where were his law clerks? Didn’t they alert him to the error? How could he misstate facts from a decision that he himself had written —and not just misstate some peripheral matters, but totally mischaracterize the parties basic positions?

Scalia has become more irascible in recent years; more contemptuous of longstanding Court rules and dismissive of the ethical guidelines that apply to others in the judiciary. This latest behavior raises a troubling question: is the Justice getting senile? And if so, what–if anything–can we do about it?

When the Court was first established, lifespans were shorter.  The average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice through 1970 was 14.9 years. Among those who’ve retired since 1970, it has jumped to 26.1 years.

Maybe we should consider a 20 year term for Justices. Long enough to shield them from political pressure, but not long enough to risk having them serve well into their dotage.

Good Stuff!

I frequently think of that old Tom Lehrer lyric: “Remember why the good Lord made your eyes. So don’t shade your eyes–plagiarize! But always call it research.”

In that spirit…Don Knebel is a local attorney who blogs for the Center for Civic Literacy, and his most recent submission is so good, I have to call it “research,” and share it. (By the way, those of you who read this blog should check out CCL’s….we have a number of thought-provoking bloggers contributing to the conversation there.)

Don takes a look at the most recent in a long line of public prayer cases, and hazards a prediction or two:

On November 6, 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on one of the most vexing issues under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution —  When does the Constitutionally required governmental allowance of religious practices cross the line into Constitutionally prohibited governmental endorsement of religion?  The specific issue in the case is whether the town council of Greece, New York, should be allowed to continue opening its sessions with prayers having a distinctly Christian point of view.  The decision in the case won’t come for months, but I am going to predict the outcome of that case, something I have never done before.  When the decision is released, I will review how close I came to predicting the actual result.

During the arguments, the attorney for the two citizens of Greece who complained about the Christian prayers asked the Court to declare that Greece can only offer prayers that are acceptable to everyone but atheists and polytheists.  I predict the Court will not determine what should be in a public prayer.  First, parsing prayers to see whether they pass muster with persons of disparate faiths would put the government directly into the business of regulating both speech and a person’s practice of his or her religion, both of which the First Amendment says its cannot do.  More important, no conceivable prayer is acceptable to all the world’s believers, even if for some reason we were to leave out atheists and polytheists.  Even a prayer to a generic “creator” is contrary to the beliefs of many Buddhists that the universe was never created and that there is no God.  A prayer to a “Heavenly Father” won’t cut it for someone who believes in the Mother Goddess or denies the existence of heaven.   So we aren’t going to have prayer guidelines as a result of this case.

I also predict that the Supreme Court will not bar town councils from opening their sessions with prayer.  Such a result would be contrary to a long tradition in this country, predating the Constitution, of seeking divine guidance when doing the people’s business.  In prior cases, the Court has recognized that history.  The current Court, which opens its own sessions with a prayer that “God save the United States and this honorable court,” is not about to reverse itself on that issue.

So if the Supreme Court will not outlaw prayers and will not mandate acceptable prayers, how will it resolve the claim that sectarian governmental prayers are effectively endorsing a particular religion, in violation of the First Amendment?  I predict that Court will say that governmental bodies can open (or close) their sessions with prayer so long as they provide realistic opportunities to pray for citizens holding a variety of religious beliefs, including none at all.  So, if a citizen believing in the redemptive power of mushrooms wants to invoke the spirit of the Great Mushroom at a meeting of the town council, that person will have to be given a reasonable opportunity to do just that.  That is what it means to live in a pluralistic country, founded on religious tolerance and personal freedom.

Perhaps when members of the Church of Satan, professed atheists and others with non-traditional beliefs begin opening governmental meetings we will all start to recognize how truly diverse we have become and begin to curb our urge to pray aloud in public, something Jesus recommended a long time ago.  Matthew 6:5-6.  Eventually we may come to see that for governmental meetings and other public occasions, a respectful moment of silence, during which we can call upon whatever power is most meaningful to each of us, will do just fine.  Stay tuned.

A Question of Trust

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy has introduced a bill that would require the Supreme Court to develop a code of ethics. (Surprising at it may seem, the high court does not have such a code, although all other courts do.)

The bill was prompted by several recent controversies over judicial recusal, especially a number of cases in which Scalia–who has grown more voluble and intemperate over the years– has spoken publicly on the merits of cases that were highly likely to come before the Court (historically, and under existing codes of ethics, a judicial no-no) and then refused to recuse himself when the cases were argued.

There has also been considerable criticism of Justice Thomas, who has failed to recuse himself in cases where his wife has a clear interest in the result. Justice Kagan has been criticized for sitting on cases in which she was involved to some extent as Solicitor General.

As a scholar of constitutional courts noted on a listserv the other day, “the US is still rare in the world in making recusal of a judge a matter for the personal decision of that judge, without any way to contest it.  In the German Federal Constitutional Court, for example, the decision to remove a judge from a particular case is made by the rest of the judges in that Senate with the judge in question not participating.    We should have some comparable process here.”

Codes of ethics are about more than recusal, of course. They are centered on avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, in recognition that the legitimacy of public institutions and especially the Courts is dependent upon public trust.

Ethics codes typically limit the value of gifts that may be accepted, or forbid their acceptance at all. That includes junkets, generously paid speaking engagements, and other activities or favors that might produce bias. And most codes of ethics require a measure of disclosure significantly greater than is current Court practice.

In a government based on separation of powers, the legislature may lack the authority to tell the Court to clean up its act–and the Court gets the final word on that issue. In a Court as ideologically divided as this one, I suppose decisions about recusal could themselves become politicized. The GOP’s Tea Party wing will probably oppose Murphy’s bill, since most of the shenanigans these days are by conservative jurists. So passage of this measure is hardly a slam-dunk.

That said, it really is indefensible that the Supreme Court exempts itself from ethical principles that apply to other judicial and administrative entities. Even Congress has a Code of Ethics, however honored in the breach it may be.

When Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with a litigant (Dick Cheney) whose case is then pending before the Court; when Thomas sits on a case despite the fact that his wife’s organization is an interested party, I think skepticism about their ability to render a dispassionate verdict is understandable–and foreseeable.

Such behavior erodes the public trust, and it greatly diminishes the stature of the Court.

There is a reason Courts should be–and be seen to be–incorruptable. They are, after all, in the business of disappointing litigants; every time someone wins, someone else loses. If credible charges of favoritism or bias can be leveled, even if untrue, citizens ultimately lose respect for the rule of law.

Judges–especially Supreme Court Justices– used to take great pains to avoid the slightest appearance of impropriety; they used to aspire to be “as pure as the driven snow.” Lately (as Mae West memorably put it), they’ve drifted.




What Planet Do They Live On?

Yesterday, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court effectively eviscerated the Voting Rights Act.

Without bothering to identify precisely what part of the constitution it violated, the Court invalidated Congress’ most recent identification, in Section 4, of the states subject to the operation of Section 5. Section 5 requires that the states so identified obtain prior approval of changes to their voting laws.

According to the majority decision, efforts to suppress minority voting are no longer a problem in the states subject to the act.  The current coverage system, according to Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, is “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

Evidently,  the newspapers on whatever planet Roberts lives on haven’t covered the persistent and concerted efforts at vote suppression that have characterized the last two election cycles.

As the New York Times noted,

The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Texas announced shortly after the decision that a voter identification law that had been blocked would go into effect immediately, and that redistricting maps there would no longer need federal approval. Changes in voting procedures in the places that had been covered by the law, including ones concerning restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.

In a saner age, the opinion would not be so devastating; it explicitly allows Congress to “update” the list of states subject to Section Five.

If we had a Congress rather than a partisan zoo, that might actually happen. As it is, however, remedial action is unlikely. When an aide to a Republican House member was asked when Congress might revisit the matter, he responded “Sometime after the Rapture.”

It’s going to get very ugly.

Prognosticating and the Supremes

As any lawyer will attest, predicting the outcome of Supreme Court cases is foolhardy in the extreme. But I’ve never let the prospect of making a fool of myself stop me, so I’m going to go out on a limb and do just that.

Yesterday, as practically everyone within earshot of a news report knows, the Court heard the first of two important cases on marriage equality. Yesterday’s arguments dealt with the appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision striking down California’s Proposition Eight; today’s will center on the constitutionality of DOMA, the “Defense of Marriage” Act.

I expect the Court to strike down DOMA, which–among other things–allows the federal government to treat marriages recognized by different states differently. Throughout our history, laws governing marriage have been the province of state governments. DOMA allows the federal government to treat legally married citizens from some states very differently than legally married citizens from other states. I expect the Court to follow its own ample precedents on federalism and equal protection; I’m pretty confident DOMA will fall.

That said, the betting in legal quarters on Proposition 8 has always favored a Court cop-out.

When the Justices asked for briefing on the issue of standing, most lawyers following the case saw that as a signal that they were looking for a way to dispose of the case on procedural grounds, that they were looking for a way to avoid ruling on the merits of the question whether marriage–which the Court has repeatedly ruled is a “fundamental right”–must be made available to gay citizens as well as straight ones.

As disappointing as it would be to have the Court sidestep that question, a decision to the effect that only the Governor and Attorney General of California had standing to appeal the judgment (or a ruling that review had been “improvidently granted”) would have the effect of reinstating the lower court’s decision. Although such a decision would affect only California, that state has some 11% of the population of the U.S. The number of citizens living in states with marriage equality would grow dramatically, adding to the pressures that are already mounting elsewhere.

As numerous observers have noted, in the absolute worst-case scenario, the Court’s decisions in these cases can only slow the inevitable. Same-sex marriage will be a national reality within the next few years, with or without the Court’s assistance. A decision containing a ringing affirmation of equality would be lovely, but its absence will not alter the eventual result.

So there you have my predictions. I hope I’m wrong about Proposition 8, but given the questions thrown at the litigants during yesterday’s arguments, I doubt it.

At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see.