Tag: amicus briefs

Justice Kennedy Discusses Cato’s View on Use of Foreign Law

One quick addendum to my previous commentary on this week’s decision in Graham v. Florida the use of foreign law by U.S. courts: Toward the very end of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion, in part D where he gratuitously nods to world opinion about juvenile life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences, he takes issue with one of the lesser arguments we make in our brief, that no international treaty prohibits such sentences.  (See page 31 of the Graham opinion – note that Cato itself is not mentioned because we were one of 13 groups signing the brief – and pages 14-16 of our brief.)  Kennedy says that the issue of whether international law prohibits the United States from imposing the juvenile LWOP sentences is beside the point, that the proper question to ask is whether such sentences are “cruel and unusual.” 

Well, yes, that’s the correct standard under the Eighth Amendment, and I’m glad that Justice Kennedy did not side with opposing amici and those in the legal academy who argue that various international conventions (or customary international law) do require such a prohibition.  But Kennedy’s point here raises a further question: why is what someone in France or Japan or Brazil or Saudi Arabia says on the matter relevant to what is cruel and unusual under U.S. law?

Supreme Court Further Reduces Constitutional Limits on Federal Power

As Roger has just blogged, the Supreme Court in today’s Comstock decision has ”turned an instrumental power, dependent on Congress’s other powers, into an independent power.”  That is, Justice Breyer’s decision has imbued the Necessary and Proper Clause – which merely gives Congress the power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for “carrying into execution” one of the powers enumerated in Article I, section 8 – with independent authority to justify federal power.  Thus, in effect, Congress has the power to do anything it deems “necessary and proper” (or, indeed “convenient or useful”), quite apart from whether that thing relates to an enumerated power or not.  I explained here why this view – and Breyer’s elaboration on it during oral argument – is wrong.

Without exaggeration, the Comstock decision is one of the most harmful Supreme Court decisions in recent memory.  If there is anything worse than the Court’s radical expansion of the Necessary and Proper Clause, it is that seven justices signed onto this sweeping pronouncement.  While it isn’t surprising that Justice Breyer, joined by his “progressive” colleagues, would have such an expansive view of federal power, it is disconcerting that Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority opinion in its entirety.  And while Justice Kennedy separately counsels that “the Constitution does require the invalidation of congressional attempts to extend federal power in some instances,” it’s hard to see what those instances are in the wake of Comstock.  Justice Alito also has some qualms about the reach of the Necessary and Proper Clause but unfortunately is left satisfied that here “there is a substantial link to Congress’ constitutional powers” (adding yet another exception that swallows the constitutional rule on limited congressional power).

Only Justice Thomas, whose magisterial dissent is joined by Justice Scalia, sees today’s decision for what it is, the transformation of the Necessary and Proper Clause into a sort of federal police power, the existence of which the Court has long denied.  As Thomas says, ”the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.”  (This is of course counter not only the Court majority but also the immortal words of President George W. Bush that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”)

About the only good thing about this opinion is that it declined to expand Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause – an alternative justification for the law at issue that the government offered unsuccessfully in the court below and which Solicitor General Elena Kagan abandoned before the Supreme Court.

For more coverage of Comstock, see Josh Blackman’s series of posts and Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Also, here is Cato’s brief on the case (which I summarize here) and my description of Kagan’s response to some of the points we raised.

Even Unpopular Causes Get Full First Amendment Protection

Under Washington’s constitution, a popular vote must be ordered on any bill passed by the legislature if a specified percentage of state voters sign a petition for a referendum. Washington’s Public Records Act makes public records, including such referendum petitions, available for public inspection. In 2009, opponents of same-sex marriage used the referendum procedure to attempt to reverse a state law which expands the rights of state-registered domestic partners. Proponents of the law sought access to the petition and two of the petition signers sought a preliminary injunction to prevent disclosure of their personal information, arguing that the PRA violates their right to speak anonymously.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the right to access trumps the right to anonymity. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the First Amendment right to privacy in political speech, association, and belief requires strict scrutiny when a state compels the public release of identifying information about petition signers, and whether compelled disclosure of such information is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest.

Cato filed a brief supporting the petition signers, in which we argue that the Court should establish a bright-line rule prohibiting laws that mandate the full disclosure of petition signers’ identities and contact information. Public disclosure carries significant burdens and unconstitutionally chills the exercise of First Amendment rights when no compelling government interest is at stake.

If the Court finds that the state has a compelling interest in public disclosure, disclosure exemptions are constitutionally required. Failure to require exemptions would permit the government to suppress the expression of offensive or unpopular ideas and would discourage individuals from associating in the first place.

Finally, our brief argues that even exemptions are not a substitute for strict scrutiny and provide inadequate protection where disclosure is not justified by compelling state interests. Exemption rules still chill speech, by their nature as an ad hoc process without fixed standards; the government is ill-suited to identify which groups should be exempt from disclosure, as is evidenced by their poor track record of erroneously suppressing controversial or unpopular speech.

The case, Doe v. Reed, will be argued in April.

Actually, Justice Breyer, the Constitution Enumerates Specific Powers, not Limitations on Otherwise Plenary Federal Power

Today I went to the Court to watch the argument in United States v. Comstock, which I blogged about previously and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  As I also blogged previously, Cato’s arguments so concerned the government that the solicitor general spent four pages of her reply brief going after them.

At issue is a 2006 federal law that provides for the civil commitment of any federal prisoner after the conclusion of his sentence upon the appropriate official’s certification that the soon-to-be-released prisoner is “sexually dangerous.”  The problem is that, while states have what’s called a “police power” to handle this sort of thing – to appropriately deal with with threats to society from the dangerously insane and so forth – the federal government’s powers are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution.  And I’m sorry, there’s no power to civilly commit people who have committed no further crime beyond those for which they’ve already been duly punished.

The government, having abandoned its Commerce Clause argument – a big loser in the lower courts – relied at the Supreme Court on the Necessary and Proper Clause.  This clause says that Congress shall have the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution [the specific powers listed in Article I, section 8], and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States.”

In other words, we have a government of delegated and enumerated, and therefore limited powers.  As Ryan Lirette put it in National Review Online last week,  ”Congress may not search every corner of our country looking for problems to vanquish.  Instead, Congress must be able to justify each law it passes with a specific congressional authorization.”

The solicitor general contends that civilly committing the sexually dangerous is “necessary and proper” to regulating the federal prison system – which itself is not an enumerated power but ancillary to enforcing federal criminal laws that Congress is appropriately empowered to make.  At the argument, solicitor general Kagan further justified the relevant provision as related to “responsibly” releasing federal prisoners.

I don’t think her “cascading powers” theory of the Necessary and Proper Clause is a winner – for reasons I describe in my recent podcast – and Justice Scalia also wasn’t convinced.  Justice Breyer, however, at one point asked where the Constitution prohibited the federal government from “help[ing] with” a problem it identified (see page 31 of the transcript) and in general was hesitant to find limits to congressional action to solve big policy areas.

Breyer has it all backward: We don’t operate on the premise that the government has full plenary power to do whatever it thinks is best, for the “general welfare,” for “the children,” for “society,” or for any particular group, checked only by specific prohibitions.  Instead, our system of government – our constitutional rule of law – provides for islands of government involvement in a sea of liberty.  It is individual people who can do whatever they want that isn’t prohibited by law, not the government.

And so we’ll see soon enough which vision of the relationship between citizen and state the Supreme Court embraces.  Along with Justice Breyer, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg also were not very sympathetic to the federalism and libertarian arguments ably presented by federal public defender G. Alan Dubois.  Along with Justice Scalia, Justice Alito was (refreshingly) skeptical of undue government power – and one would expect (the silent) Justice Thomas to be in that category as well.  Justice Sotomayor also asked some interesting questions inquiring into the federal government’s ability to hold someone indefinitely – including on the relationship of that power to the Commerce Clause authority underlying most federal exercise of power – so she could go either way.  Finally, the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy were, uncharacteristically, not all too active – seeming to question both sides equally – so it’s hard to predict how the Court will ultimately rule.

Vague Laws Defy the Rule of Law

Following Enron’s downfall, the federal government charged company CEO Jeffrey Skilling with “honest services fraud” connected to the alleged manipulation of Enron’s market value (and other securities irregularities).  This charge — also at issue in two other cases before the Court this term — is based on a statute which says, in its entirety: “For the purposes of this chapter, the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

Skilling was convicted, and his conviction was upheld by the Fifth Circuit.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the application of the “honest services fraud” statute to Skilling (as well as the issue of potential jury bias stemming from pretrial publicity in Houston).  Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation, filed an amicus brief supporting neither party, arguing simply that vague statutes such as the one at issue here offend due process.

We take no position on whether Skilling committed a crime, or even the crime at issue here (whatever that may be).  Instead, we argue that the Court should clarify that the constitutional prohibition on vague laws protects sophisticated and unsophisticated defendants alike in the realm of economic regulation, as well as in criminal law.  The due process requirements of fair warning and definiteness apply equally in the contexts of white collar business crimes, business torts, and civil regulations.

Vague laws involve three basic dangers:  First, they may harm the innocent by failing to warn of the offense.  Second, they encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement because vague laws delegate enforcement and statutory interpretation to individual government officials.  Third, because citizens will take extra precautions to avoid violating the law, vague laws inhibit our individual freedom.

For more on this issue, see Tim Lynch’s posts here and here, Gene Healy’s op-ed, or the related policy forum and podcast.

Use Your Law Deferment to Work for Liberty!

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations. Cato has been running a deferred associates program for the last few months and we are now extending it for as long as top-notch candidates want to ride out the economy with us.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies. This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review. Start and end dates are flexible. Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, availability of stipend, etc.) to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato [dot] org.

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues. For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato [dot] org (jcoon [at] cato [dot] org.)

Cato’s Legal Arguments Worry U.S. Government

Last month, Cato (joined by Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett) filed a brief in United States v. Comstock, a case regarding the constitutionality of a law authorizing the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, “the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers.” Moreover, the government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8), “is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely ‘carries into execution’ the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section.” The commitment of prisoners after their terms end simply cannot fit into one of the enumerated powers.

While we of course hope that the Supreme Court pays attention to our brief, we know that Solicitor General Elana Kagan, at least, is concerned enough about our arguments to spend several pages of the government’s reply brief addressing them (see pages 5-9). 

For more on Comstock, see its case page on SCOTUSwiki, which now has all the briefs and will around the Jan. 12 argument date be populated with argument previews and reviews, as well as links to media coverage.