Tag: elena kagan

Kagan: Revenge of the Grinds

I’ve been saying for a while that to understand the Obama administration specifically and much of today’s liberal Left more broadly, you need to conceive of it as a sort of extension of the intellectual and policy culture of high-end legal academia. The nomination of Elena Kagan, best known as a successful Harvard law dean, extends this familiar pattern. Assuming Kagan coasts to an easy confirmation, she’ll join a liberal caucus on the Court that more than ever resembles a faculty meeting.

To the dismay of some on the left, Kagan, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor before her, counts as a “cautious and confirmable” pick – a reliable liberal vote, almost certainly, but not particularly known for disturbingly big ideas or impassioned rhetorical gestures. (The Obama administration does contain plenty of law professors of the latter type – from big thinker Cass Sunstein to liberal firebrand Harold Koh – but has not yet chosen to nominate them to the Court.)

Consider the likeliest speed bump on Kagan’s road to confirmation, her decision to bar military recruiters from Harvard, which resulted in a prolonged and losing showdown with Congress. That episode will be the hardest thing on her record for many Democratic senators to accept (though accept it they will). But it was an overwhelmingly, even near-unanimously popular position to take at top law schools. By way of comparison, recall the mini-furor over Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comments, which she’d repeatedly delivered in various versions on the academic conference circuit. There, the notion that a judge’s ethnic background could and should make for different and better decisions was met with predictable applause and little challenge; when aired in wider public debate, it proved hotly controversial and the nominee prudently backed away.

Obama spokespeople spent much of last week rumbling about the need for judges with a common touch who’d stand up for the people. This fed speculation that they might mix up the Court by picking an elected official, trial lawyer or crusading prosecutor. Just kidding! For better or worse, we’re in for more law made by Harvard, Yale and Chicago intellectuals.

Kagan Nomination Launches Constitutional Debate

As expected, and despite an exhaustive review of shortlist candidates, dead-end leaks about Hillary Clinton, and other distractions, President Obama settled on the long-time prohibitive favorite to be his next Supreme Court nominee.  Elena Kagan became the justice-in-waiting the moment Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed, so you didn’t have to be Tom Goldstein to have predicted this.  The president wanted a highly credentialed non-judge who would serve for a long time and wouldn’t cost too much political capital.  He got a 50-year-old solicitor general and former dean of Harvard Law School – the first female in each post – whose record the Senate (and media, and activists) already examined in a confirmation process that put her into her current post.  That her appointment would put three women on the high court for the first time also doesn’t hurt.

Kagan is certainly not the worst possible nominee from among those in the potential pool – that would’ve been Harold Koh, had President Obama been most inclined to appoint the first Asian-American justice – but others would have been better in various ways.  Although all Democratic nominees would be expected to have similar views on hot-button “culture war” issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control, Diane Wood is a renowned expert on antitrust and complex commercial litigation, for example, and Merrick Garland would almost certainly bring a stronger understanding of administrative law.  Although some on the left are concerned that replacing Justice John Paul Stevens with Kagan “moves the Court to the right,” there is no indication that the solicitor general is anything but a standard modern liberal, with all the unfortunate views that entails on the scope of federal power.  Another concern is her mediocre performance in her current position – the choices of which legal arguments to make from those available to her in defending federal laws in Citizens United and United States v. Stevens, for example, were not strategically sound – though she may well be better suited to a judicial rather than advocacy role.

In any event, with Democrats still holding a 59-seat Senate majority, Elena Kagan’s confirmation is in no doubt whatsoever.  The more interesting aspect of the next couple of months, culminating in hearings before the Judiciary Committee, will be the debate over the meaning of the Constitution and what limits there are to government action.  In an election year when a highly unpopular and patently unconstitutional health care “reform” was rammed through Congress using every procedural gimmick imaginable, voters are more sensitive to constitutional discourse now than they have been in decades.  From bailing out the financial and auto industries to fining every man, woman and child who doesn’t buy a government-approved health insurance policy – and, coming soon, regulating carbon emissions – the Obama administration is taking over civil society at a rate that alarms Americans and fuels both Tea Party populism and interest in libertarian policy solutions (which Cato is happy to offer but wishes were implemented on the front end instead of being invoked as a response to destructive statism).  The Kagan nomination is the perfect vehicle for a public airing of these important issues.

Senators should thus ask questions about the meaning of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the General Welfare Clause, to name but three provisions under which courts have ratified incredible assertions of federal power divorced from those the Constitution discretely enumerates.  If Elena Kagan refuses to answer such queries substantively – employing the usual dodge that she may be called upon to interpret these clauses as justice – we can rightfully hold that response against her, as she herself counseled in a law review article 15 years ago.

Court Ruling Is About Free Speech, Not Animal Cruelty

As expected from the oral argument in U.S. v. Stevens last fall - when Justice Alito was alone in expressing some support for the government’s position - the Court on Tuesday upheld the First Amendment by declining to add a category of unprotected speech. This was not, after all, a case about the “human sacrifice channel” or Michael Vick’s greatest dog fights. Indeed, cruelty to animals should be and is punished everywhere in the country. Instead, at issue here was a broadly drawn “depiction of animal cruelty” statute that could have ensnared Spanish tourism brochures or hunting instructional videos. More fundamentally, the Court rightly rejected the government’s proposed weighing of the “value” of speech against its “social cost.” That’s simply not the way Americans view the First Amendment.

The case is also notable because a solid majority of the Court rejected the “speech balancing test” defended by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, often mentioned as being on the short list of candidates to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.  Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, joined by all of the panel’s liberal justices, went so far as to call that argument by Kagan “startling and dangerous.”  That is the kind of legal reproach that tends to be revisited at confirmation hearings.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

Responses to My Comments About Sotomayor

As might be expected, I have received much email responding to my CNN.com commentary about Obama’s Supreme Court pick. Some of it has been favorable, some less so (and some simply incoherent). One particular email covered most if not all concerns – and quite thoughtfully at that – so I thought I would share this exchange with a reader who emailed me his comments:

I read  your piece “Sotomayor Pick Not Based on Merit”, where you write, “in over 10 years on the Second Circuit, she has not issued any important decisions”.

Granted that I’m a layman, not a legal scholar or anything - this list seems quite impressive, and, as a whole, pretty non-ideological.

In reviewing this list, I found myself disagreeing with her here and there, but I couldn’t find something that really irked me. Can you?

According to the authors, “Since joining the Second Circuit in 1998, Sotomayor has authored over 150 opinions, addressing a wide range of issues, in civil cases.” And that “To date, two of these decisions have been overturned by the Supreme Court; a third is under review and likely to be reversed.” 2 out of over 150, is not a bad record at all.

You also write that she’s “far less qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court than Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland or Solicitor General Elena Kagan.”

I did a bit of research on them, and I’m not sure why you reached that conclusion. They are all qualified, in some respects Wood and Kagan are a bit more impressive, but you give the impression that she’s not highly qualified, and I don’t see evidence for that. On the contrary, she seems highly qualified - she has a long judicial and academic record, she has dealt with a myriad of issues, and has authored a vast amount of rulings, which, as far as I’ve seen, don’t appear to be ideological or particularly “activist.” She strikes me as someone balanced and sensible, with a slight tilt to the left.

You also write, “this does not a mean that Sotomayor is unqualified to be a judge — or less qualified to be a Supreme Court justice than, say, Harriet Miers” - but, c’mon, how can you even compare her to Miers? Miers was truly unqualified. She’s hardly intellectually impressive in any way, to put it mildly, and nothing about her record was impressive or even remotely suggesting she’s qualified to serve as a Justice. She was basically a manager of a law firm, with zero qualifications to serve as a SC justice. By even mentioning her name while discussing Sotomayor, you’re giving the impression there’s an analogy there, where there’s really none. Sotomayor is light-years ahead of Miers. You can’t be serious.

You also make a big issue over Ricci v. DeStefano. Well, I personally would side with the firemen, and it’s unfortunate that Sotomayor hasn’t, but to be fair, she hasn’t even written a decision about that.
We don’t know what her reasoning was. She merely signed, along with the rest of the panel, to uphold the lower court’s decision. It’s hard to build an entire case against her based on something like that. She has written over 150 other decisions, why not focus on them? Why pick one, that doesn’t even have any arguments in it, and make it the central issue, when there are over 150 reasoned decisions to analyze?
Why not review them, and give the public a deeper assessment, rather than focusing on ONE, which doesn’t even have any arguments or reasoning in it?

I’m generally a Cato fan, I get the mailings every day, I’m a moderate libertarian by philosophy, I’m just not sure why Cato is opposing her nomination. I like to think of Cato as non-partisan, just as I am, but on this issue your and Pilon’s opposition/criticism smacks from political partisanship and is not based on the evidence. So it seems to me.

Thanks for reading.

Here is my response:

Thanks for writing and for the thoughtful comments. A few points:

1. My argument is explicitly NOT that her opinions are disagreeable. I’ve waded through a fair number and read every public report on them produced thus far (including the very helpful SCOTUSblog summary you cite). Like you, some I agree with – most, actually, because most cases at this intermediate appellate level are not controversial (legally or politically), even if complex – some I don’t. But there’s just not much “there” there – intellectual depth, scholarly merit, etc. – at least by the elevated standards for elevation to the Supreme Court and in comparison to more accomplished jurists like Wood and Garland. She’s a competent judge, but we have 500 of those in the federal judiciary alone. (And none of this is to disparage her tremendous personal story; I write this from Princeton, where she had a truly impressive four years.)

2. Her reversal rate (I think there are six cases now) is a non-issue. The Supreme Court reverses over 60% of cases it hears and hears fewer than 2% of cases it is asked to review. So, statistically, we can say nothing about Sotomayor in that sense. A couple of her reversals are a bit strange, but on technical issues that, again, don’t lend much to the overall debate.

3. Yes, she’s much more qualified than Miers (though it’s a little unfair to say Miers was a mere “law firm manager” – she was White House counsel and apparently a decent lawyer in private practice).  I threw that line in there to show I can pick on Republican nominees too.

4. While Roger, whom I copy here, has discussed suspicions of Sotomayor’s activism or radicalness – and I think it’s clear she has more of those tendencies than Wood or Kagan – this is not the thrust of the my CNN commentary. We just can’t tell from her opinions, which are all over the map – other than the speeches at Berkely and Duke and then the Ricci case.

5. Ricci is important for two reasons: a) on the merits, the decision is blatant racial discrimination – and the Supreme Court looks likely to overturn Sotomayor’s panel; b) perhaps more importantly, the failure to grapple with the complex constitutional and statutory issues is a serious dereliction of judicial duty – as pointed out by Jose Cabranes in his dissent from denial of en banc rehearing. Regardless of the merits of the case, the way it was handled – as a per curiam summary affirmance released late on a Friday, meant to sweep the case under the rug – is outrageous. Sotomayor was 100% complicit in that.

6. In no way are my (or Roger’s) comments partisan. Cato’s interest here isn’t in any particular personality but rather: 1) that official appointments be made irrespective of racial/ethnic/identity politics, and 2) even more importantly, that the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution in a way that treats the judicial enterprise not as one of enforcing social justice or otherwise rewriting the law it when a result is inconvenient. The talk of “empathy” is disturbing precisely because it is the antithesis of the rule of law. And this is why Republican Judiciary Committee members must generate a public debate on judicial philosophy and not merely attempt to tear down this nominee. If they don’t demand substantive answers on serious constitutional questions, they will be complicit in the deterioration of our confirmation processes.

All the best,
Ilya

I look forward to following and commenting further as the confirmation process plays itself out.

Handicapping the Justicial Horserace

The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal  that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.

Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.

The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.

As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.

For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.

Who Will Replace Justice Souter?

You could call it the end of an error.  David Souter, the “stealth justice” who George H. W. Bush nominated mainly to avoid a confirmation battle and who so disappointed conservatives, is finally free to leave a city he never took to and return to his native New Hampshire. 

Little more can be said about Justice Souter. He has always been inscrutable, at first leaning right, shifting toward the middle in the landmark 1992 cases of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion) and Lee v. Weisman (prayer at high school graduation), and ending up at the left end of the Court alongside Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer – all the while employing an unpredictable jurisprudential method.  And he has always been reclusive, refusing reporters’ and scholars’ interview requests and being the biggest opponent of video cameras inside the Court.  Perhaps most memorably, Souter gained notoriety after his vote in Kelo v. New London (allowing the taking of a private home for the benefit of a developer) spurred property rights activists to petition for the use of eminent domain to turn his farm into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.”

Speculation now turns to possible replacements, and what President Obama will do with his first chance to fill a seat on the high court.  Will he risk a big political battle on this issue so early in his term, or will he appoint someone more confirmable but less pleasing to his base? 

He is under great pressure to appoint a woman, and the three leading female candidates are new Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood.  Kagan would be an almost-certain pick a year from now, but having been just confirmed to be the so-called Tenth Justice, she might be seen as too green for elevation.  Sotomayor — because she is Hispanic and despite a mixed judicial record — was the odds-on favorite until the Court took up the employment discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano (argued just last week), an appeal of a bizarre opinion Sotomayor joined that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race.  That leaves Wood, a renowned authority on antitrust, international trade, and federal civil procedure, whose age (58) suggests that this is likely the last vacancy for which she will be considered.  Wood offers a seriousness of purpose and no ideological ax to grind, and is thus the best nominee supporters of constitutionalism and the rule of law can hope for at this time.  (Full disclosure: I took two classes from Judge Wood in law school.)