Tag: justices

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Skilling

This morning the Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in the case of Jeffrey Skilling.  The most important aspect of the case concerned the so-called “honest services” statute.  That law has been an amorphous blob that federal prosecutors could suddenly invoke against almost anyone.  All nine justices acknowledged the law had problems, but only three–Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy–said the law was unconstitutionally vague.  The other six justices bent over backwards to “save” the law from invalidation–they ruled that the law should be narrowly interpreted.  Here is, I think, the most telling passage from the majority’s ruling:

“As to arbitrary prosecutions, we perceive no significant risk that the honest services statute, as we intrepret it today, will be stretched out of shape.”

Instead of strict rules and limits on government power, the Court is content to offer leeway to the prosecutors–some risk of arbitrary prosecutions is acceptable you see. 

The burden ought to be placed on the government–legislators and prosecutors ought to be able to justify every single case.  Instead, this Court needs to be persuaded that a significant risk of abuse exists.  Here is a passage from a Supreme Court case from years ago that gets it right:

“A criminal statute cannot rest upon an uncertain foundation.  The crime, and the elements constituting it, must be so clearly expressed that the ordinary person can intelligently choose, in advance, what course it is lawful for him to pursue.  Penal statutes prohibiting the doing of certain things, and providing a punishment for their violation, should not admit of such a double meaning that the citizen may act upon the one conception of its requirements and the courts upon another.”

The second issue in the case concerned Skilling’s right to an impartial jury trial.  And it came as no surprise that the Court embraced a prosecutor-friendly view of the Sixth Amendment.  Skilling argued that the climate in Houston following the collapse of Enron was so hostile that he should have been granted a change in venue.  He’s right about that.  The prosecution should be indifferent as to whether they present their incriminating evidence in Houston or another city.  Instead, the Court shifts the burden to the accused and sniffs, “sorry, you have not clearly proven to us that you were prejudiced by biased jurors.  If someone could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they had a biased jury, well that would be another story.” 

Here’s a modest proposal: This  summer each justice should represent some persons accused of crimes. 

For additional background, go here.

An Appalling Breach of Decorum

This morning, Politico Arena invites comments on Obama’s SOTU attack on the Supreme Court.

My response:

I join my Arena colleagues, Professors Bradley Smith and Randy Barnett, in condemning the president’s remarks last night singling out the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision last week, which overturned law that the government itself admitted would even have banned books.  Not only was Obama’s behavior an appalling breach of decorum, but he didn’t even get his facts right.  As Brad, former FCC chairman, noted in his Arena post last night, and a bit more fully here, the decision did nothing to upset law that prohibits foreigners, including foreign corporations, from contributing anything of value to an American election.  Obama, the sometime constitutional law professor, should have known that.  At the least, his aides had plenty of time to research the question before he spoke.  This is just one more example of the gross incompetence or, worse, the indifference to plain fact that we’ve seen in this administration.

But it’s the breach of decorum that most appalls.  By constitutional design, the Supreme Court is the non-political branch of government.  Like members of the military, Supreme Court justices are invited to the State of the Union event, but they do not stand and applaud when the president makes political points that bring others to their feet.  For the president to have singled the justices out for criticism, while others around them stood and applauded as they sat there still, is simply demagoguery at its worst.  I would not be surprised if the justices declined next year’s invitation.  And Obama wanted to change the tone in Washington?  He sure has.

Likely Supreme Court Tie Would Be a Loss to Property Owners

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).

Essentially, Florida’s ”beach renourishment” program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had – exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the “mean high water mark,” etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into “beachview” property.  After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court – “SCOFLA” for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio – reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.

As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless.”

I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat.  That is, Justice Stevens recused himself – he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program – and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly.  And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.

By my reckoning, Justice Scalia’s questioning lent support to the property owners’ position, as did Chief Justice Roberts’ (though he could rule in favor of the “judicial takings” doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here).  Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice.  Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights.  With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote.  Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.

For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog.  Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

‘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.

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.

Supreme Speculation

With no hard news to report and the Supreme Court not in session — they’ll release opinions in the remaining cases on successive Mondays (plus the Tuesday after Memorial Day) beginning May 18 — Washington is abuzz with speculation over potential high court nominees.  While Senator Orrin Hatch earlier this week said he expected an announcement this week, the White House is far more likely to take its time vetting candidates, with no real pressure to announce a pick until the Court recesses at the end of June. 

Nobody other than the president himself really knows who’s favored, but ABC News’s Jan Crawford Greenburg — who will be contributing to this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review and speaking at our Constitution Day conference September 17 — has some fascinating scuttlebutt:

No clear favorite has emerged, but the pick has prompted an internal struggle between legal and political officials within the administration, sources say.

Political officials like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are favoring Sotomayor, who would be an historic pick as the Court’s first Hispanic justice.

Obama, the thinking goes, could score huge points with Hispanics, an important and increasingly powerful constituency, by nominating Sotomayor or another Latino. Sotomayor has a compelling life story, moving from the projects to the nation’s most elite educational institutions and then onto the federal bench.

But Sotomayor has not dazzled or distinguished herself on the appeals court as a forceful theoretician or writer — something Obama, the former constitutional law scholar who will drive this decision, is likely to want in his Supreme Court nominee, sources close to the process said. Moreover, she’s also been criticized for abrasiveness — which could be problematic on the high court.

Legal officials in the Administration want Obama to tap a candidate who would be a more obvious force on the Court, bringing both intellectual prowess and a proven ability to build coalitions. They favor either Kagan or Wood — prospects who could be considered judicial rock stars capable of going toe to toe with Scalia and Roberts.

I would expect Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and/or Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) also to be on the shortlist — more likely the former because she was one of Obama’s first supporters in the Senate (and whose replacement would be appointed by a Democratic governor).  Senators have historically been fairly easy to confirm because of the courtesy extended to them by their erstwhile colleagues.  Still, we haven’t had such a nominee — or anyone other than sitting appellate judges — in the poisonous post-Bork world, so all bets are off.

Were it not for Ricci v. DeStefano, Sotomayor would be a shoe-in on the simple formula of Princeton+Yale Law+Second Circuit+Hispanic woman.  Now, and also for the reasons Jan cites, that is looking less likely.  I still favor Wood because she has a proven judicial temperament, sterling qualifications in technical fields like antitrust and trade regulation, and would be no worse — and quite possibly better — than the other contenders on constitutional issues.  If I were putting money on it, however, I would have to go with Kagan precisely because she was so recently vetted and confirmed (61-31, with Arlen Specter voting ”no” under Scottish law because he felt she hadn’t sufficiently answered his questions).