Tag: Scalia

Justice Scalia’s Devilish Heart

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent interview with New York magazine has gotten a lot of attention, but for the wrong reasons. Many reactions center on his “shocking” revelation that he believes in the existence of the Devil. (Does it take a secular Jew to point out that this standard Catholic doctrine should be no more shocking than the belief that there’s a hell in addition to a heaven?) Better-informed observers will note with surprise the acerbic jurist’s repudiation of his “fainthearted originalism.” Nowadays, he said, he tries to be a “stouthearted” originalist, one who is willing to “take the bitter with the sweet.”

That approach to interpreting the Constitution would be a refreshing break with Scalia’s past, for his is not the track record of a consistent originalist. Yes, the good justice has been faithful and true to the original understanding of the Constitution’s terms in many cases – standing firm against Obamacare’s audacious expansion of federal power in NFIB v. Sebelius, for instance. Yet his heart was much less stout in the 2010 case of McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states. In that case, Scalia fell back on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause – and the very doctrine of “substantive due process” on which he has himself heaped such scorn – to “incorporate” the Second Amendment against the states.

A real originalist would have taken Justice Clarence Thomas’s tack, resurrecting the long-neglected Privileges or Immunities Clause. That Clause was widely understood at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1868 to empower the federal government to stop states from violating the rights of recently freed slaves, and by extension of all Americans. Yet in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clause didn’t restrict states’ police powers, but instead implicated only the rights attendant to U.S. (as opposed to state) citizenship.

That ruling, which unfortunately was never overturned, prompted later courts to resort clumsily to the questionable substantive due process doctrine to secure individual rights against the states. (To be sure, there has to be some substance to the Due Process – kangaroo courts don’t satisfy constitutional requirements – but that wasn’t the provision intended to secure natural rights.) By reviving the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Court could have put those rights on a much sounder textual footing and return federal constitutional law in this area to its original meaning. Instead, Scalia took the easy way out and “acquiesced” in a 140-year-old precedent “as much as I think it’s wrong” (quotes from the McDonald oral argument). The mind boggles.

Justice Scalia has written, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” If his jurisprudence is any indication, however, getting originalism’s loudest champions to adhere to it consistently seems to be no easier. 

H/t Josh Blackman, with whom I’ve previously written about Scalia’s weak heart and the proper way to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states.

Plea Bargaining in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued two rulings today related to plea bargaining.  What if a defense attorney fails to pass along a prosecutor’s offer to his client?  And what if a defense attorney gives a client really bad advice so an offer is rejected and, after a trial, the client gets a lengthy prison sentence?  The Supreme Court grappled with what should be the appropriate remedy, if any, in such circumstances.

Lurking in the background of these cases is the practice of plea bargaining itself.   Most Americans mistakenly think that we have a system of jury trials because they tend to hear about such cases on the news.   Well, yes, some people have jury trials and some people win the lottery–most do not.  According to the figures cited by the Court, “ninety-seven percent of federal convictions and ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas.”  Of the nine justices on the Court, seven did not perceive any problem with this situation.

Justices Scalia and Thomas couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room.   Unlike the majority, they said plea bargaining is a “necessary evil” and that it has been “a somewhat embarrassing adjunct to our criminal justice system.”  Here’s an excerpt from the Scalia dissent  in Lafler v. Cooper (joined by Thomas):

In the United States, we have plea bargaining a-plenty, but until today it has been regarded as a necessary evil. It presents grave risks of prosecutorial overcharging that effectively compels an innocent defendant to avoid massive risk by pleading guilty to a lesser offense; and for guilty defendants it often—perhaps usually—results in a sentence well below what the law prescribes for the actual crime. But even so, we accept plea bargaining because many believe that without it our long and expensive process of criminal trial could not sustain the burden imposed on it, and our system of criminal justice would grind to a halt.

Well, that is the standard explanation offered, but as I noted in this article for Reason magazine, please observe that the main justification for the way in which the overwhelming number of cases are handled is a pragmatic argument–i.e. there’s just no other way of handling so many cases!  The argument is not that plea bargaining is a terrific way to administer justice.  And what about that “risk” of “compelling” persons to plead guilty–does that not threaten, you know,  the constitutional right to trial by jury?   Without much elaboration, Justice Scalia just says we “accept” it for pragmatic reasons.  Oh.  Today is just not a day for originalism I guess.

For additional background, go here.

Justice Scalia Reads Cato’s Amicus Briefs

During Wednesday’s oral argument in Golan v. Holder (transcript here), Justice Scalia said something that was at once obvious and startling: 

It seems to me Congress either had the power to do this under the Copyright Clause or it didn’t.  I don’t think that powers that Congress does not have under the Constitution can be acquired by simply obtaining the agreement of the Senate, the President and Zimbabwe. I do not think a treaty can expand the powers of the Federal government. 

This proposition is obvious, because the Constitution vests Congress with limited, enumerated powers, which can only be increased by constitutional amendment, not by treaty.  But Scalia’s words were also startling because Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said exactly the opposite almost a century ago—or at least that’s how his opinion has been read—in the canonical case of Missouri v. Holland.  We filed a brief arguing that Holmes was wrong, and we are delighted that Justice Scalia agrees.

Thanks to Tim Lee for pointing out this exchange to me before I had a chance to read the transcript and to Georgetown’s Nick Rosenkranz, the principal author of our brief.

Thomas Stays the Course, Scalia Returns to the Fold

A bit lost in last week’s legal news regarding a majority of states now suing over Obamacare, the House voting to repeal Obamacare, and the anniversary of Citizens United, was the first interesting Supreme Court decision of the term.  Most notably, Justices Scalia and Thomas continued their valiant struggle to limit the scope of the constitutional misnomer that is “substantive due process” doctrine.

The case was NASA v. Nelson, a suit challenging the background checks for perspective NASA contractors as violating an evanescent constitutional right to informational privacy. The Court ruled unanimously against the challengers, with Justice Alito writing for the majority that, regardless whether such a right exists, it was not violated by the government’s probing questions on sexual history and mental health.

Justices Scalia and Thomas rightly found problems with this essentially useless ruling. Scalia, joined by Thomas, concurred in the result but wrote separately to say that if a right doesn’t exist then the Court should just say so.  He would have simply held that there is no constitutional right to “informational privacy”:

I must observe a remarkable and telling fact about this case, unique in my tenure on this Court: Respondents’ brief, in arguing that the Federal Government violated the Constitution, does not once identify which provision of the Constitution that might be. The Table of Authorities contains citations of cases from federal and state courts, federal and state statutes, Rules of Evidence from four states, two Executive Orders, a House Report, and even more exotic sources of law….  And yet it contains not a single citation of the sole document we are called upon to construe: the Constitution of the United States….  To tell the truth, I found this approach refreshingly honest. One who asks us to invent a constitutional right out of whole cloth should spare himself and us the pretense of tying it to some words of the Constitution.

In the course of his typically entertaining opinion we see Scalia back to his old self, caustically lambasting the “infinitely plastic concept of ‘substantive’ due process” and suggesting that it is “past time for the Court to abandon this Alfred Hitchcock line of our jurisprudence.”

Indeed, the seemingly oxymoronic concept of substantive due process has received much attention as of late, particularly in last term’s groundbreaking case of McDonald v. Chicago. McDonald, remember, examined whether the individual Second Amendment right articulated in District of Columbia v. Heller applied to the states.  I previously blogged about McDonald here and here, for example.

McDonald came out the right way but for the wrong reasons.  Rather than enforcing the right to keep and bear arms against the states via the Privileges or Immunities Clause, as nearly all constitutional scholars of every ideological stripe contend should be the case, the Court chose to invoke substantive due process.  Even Scalia agreed with this perversion, because apparently 140 years of bad precedent overrides originalism or whatever other interpretive theory he claims to support.  

Justice Thomas, on the other hand, agreed with the principled approach favored by most scholars (and Cato’s own amicus brief) and wrote separately to advocate overruling the Slaughter-House Cases and reinvigorate the Privileges or Immunities Clause.  Curiously, Justice Thomas couldn’t resist filing a separate one-paragraph concurrence in Nelson, seemingly for the sole purpose of citing—and reminding Justice Scalia of—his McDonald concurrence.

After all, Scalia is often regarded as the font of originalism.  In reality, he has proven himself to be an originalist of convenience, accepting corrupt interpretations when the mood strikes him.  During oral arguments in McDonald, for example, Scalia mocked attorney Alan Gura for daring to make an originalist argument that would overturn an old precedent.  Why challenge the substantive due process doctrine, wondered Scalia, when “even I have acquiesced to it?”

Scalia’s faint-hearted originalism does a disservice to that jurisprudential method.  With his acerbic wit, infectious personality, and unrivaled rhetorical skills, Scalia has become the poster-boy for originalism.  In response, the academic elite—who overwhelmingly reject originalism—focus on every Scalia opinion, hoping to catch a glimpse of the true justice who uses originalism to hide decisions often based largely on policy preferences.

Indeed, given Scalia’s pointed and insightful prose, there is always an opportunity to hoist him by his own petard.  In McDonald, for example, it was Scalia who, to use his own Nelson lines, “invoked the infinitely plastic concept of ‘substantive’ due process,” which of course “does not make this constitutional theory any less invented.”  For more on this, see “Judicial Takings and Scalia’s Shifting Sands,” the law review article I recently published with my colleague Trevor Burrus—in which we criticize Scalia’s conflicting views on constitutional fidelity in two cases from last term, McDonald and Stop the Beach Renourishment.

Recall that originalism involves a jurist’s resisting personal biases by trying to maintain fidelity to the very document that gives him his job.  This highly textualist approach is what makes Justice Thomas arguably the most predictable justice in the history of the Court.  And in the law, predictability is a good thing.  Underscoring this point is the concern about Justice Scalia’s vote in the Obamacare litigation—because of his concurring opinion in the medicinal marijuana case of Gonzales v. Raich—while Justice Thomas’s vote is assumed to be in hand.  (Precisely because Scalia is somewhat outcome-oriented, however, I personally don’t share that concern.)

I just hope that going forward, Justice Scalia will have the same thing for breakfast that he did the morning NASA v. Nelson came down.

H/t to my sometimes collaborator Josh Blackman; head over to his spectacular blog to read more extensive analysis.  And thanks to Trevor Burrus for his help with this post.

More on Property Rights (Plus Privileges, Immunities, Due Process)

Yesterday I blogged about the Florida property rights case, which I now consider the best unanimous opinion against my position I could ever imagine.  Although the property owners lost, four justices stood for the idea that courts no less than legislatures or executive bodies are capable of violating the Takings Clause (Fifth Amendment), while two others endorsed remedying such violations via Substantive Due Process (Fourteenth Amendment), and the remaining two didn’t express an opinion one way or the other.  For more on the case, see the blogposts of Cato adjunct scholars Tim SandefurIlya Somin, and David Bernstein.

An interesting side note involves Justice Scalia’s excoriation of Substantive Due Process (and Justice Kennedy’s use of it):

Moreover, and more importantly, JUSTICE KENNEDY places no constraints whatever upon this Court. Not only does his concurrence only think about applying Substantive Due Process; but because Substantive Due Process is such a wonderfully malleable concept, see, e.g., Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558, 562 (2003) (referring to “liberty of the person both in its spatial and in its more transcendentdimensions”), even a firm commitment to apply it would bea firm commitment to nothing in particular.

The great attraction of Substantive Due Process as a substitute for more specific constitutional guarantees is that it never means never—because it never means anything precise.

Scalia also calls Kennedy’s method “Orwellian”  – after having said that Justice Breyer uses a “Queen-of-Hearts” approach “reminiscent of the perplexing question how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”  Really, this is classic Scalia, a delight to read (and you should, here).

The problem with what Scalia says, as Josh Blackman points out, is that the Court is about to release its opinion in the Chicago gun case, McDonald v. Chicago and, based on the oral argument, is about to incorporate the Second Amendment via Substantive Due Process.  If SDP is so bad, how can Scalia (endorsed by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito) use it to protect a “new” right? – particularly when the Privileges or Immunities Clause was created for just this purpose!  One answer is that, to Scalia, “babble” – his term for SDP – is still worth more than “flotsam” (his term for P or I), as I discuss here.  Another is that, to put it bluntly, Scalia is a results-oriented non-originalist, as Josh and I discuss here.

Speaking of Blackman-Shapiro collaborations, for the correct way to apply the right to keep and bear arms to the states, see our law review article called “Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed.”  And Tim Sandefur, who authored Cato’s McDonald brief (read a summary here) just published a fascinating related article called “Privileges, Immunities, and Substantive Due Process.”  I haven’t read it yet but am very much looking forward to it. 

Tim also recently wrote a book defending economic liberties (which Justice Scalia also disparages in his Stop the Beach opinion), called The Right to Earn a Living: Economic Liberty and the Law.  I hear it makes for good beach reading.

Mixed Result in Complicated Property Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court came down with its ruling in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a case I previously blogged about here and here, and in which Cato filed a brief.

While the Court’s 8-0 ruling against the Florida oceanfront (now ocean-view) property owners was not the result we wanted, the part of the decision that was unanimously unfortunate turned on a narrow and probably mistaken interpretation of state property law.  Much more importantly, the remainder of Justice Scalia’s opinion makes clear that judicial takings are just as much a violation of the Fifth Amendment as any other kind.  “If a legislature or a court declares that what was once an established right of private property no longer exists,” Scalia writes for a four-justice plurality, “it has taken that property, no less than if the State had physically appropriated it or destroyed its value by regulation.”   And the test for whether the government—any part of it—has committed a taking turns on “whether the property right allegedly taken was established.” 

Moreover, that the Court ultimately found no taking here should provide no succor to courts and other state actors who wish to abuse property rights in the future.  The case could have easily swung the other way in a non-oceanfront circumstance or under a different state’s laws.  Indeed, two justices (Kennedy and Sotomayor) said that federal courts can still police judicial takings—under a different name—by using the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, while the remaining two (Breyer and Ginsburg) decided to leave the question for another day.  Nobody accepted outright the idea that courts cannot be held accountable for subverting property rights!

In short, state courts are now on notice that they violate long-held property rights at their peril.

Crocodile Tears? Liberals Lament Lack of Their Own on the Court

An interesting narrative has arisen among some on the left that the nomination of Elena Kagan shows what chumps Democratic presidents are.  That is, not only could President Obama have tapped a stronger “progressive” voice, but he – like President Clinton before him, and unlike Republican presidents – put avoiding political fights ahead of moving the Court left.  Since LBJ, Democrats have opted for a “moderate technocrat” like Stephen Breyer rather than a “lion” like William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall.  (Sonia Sotomayor was good and necessary for identity politics, the argument continues, but, let’s face it, she’s no liberal Scalia.)

Take this opening quote from a New York Times article that came out the day of the nominee’s announcement: “The selection of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be the nation’s 112th justice extends a quarter-century pattern in which Republican presidents generally install strong conservatives on the Supreme Court while Democratic presidents pick candidates who often disappoint their liberal base.”  Or Dahlia Lithwick’s op-ed in Slate about how liberal law students are so many lost sheep because their ideological heroes are deemed unconfirmable and therefore not part of the nomination discussion.

Well.  A few things on this: First, even if the argument were true, it’s simply not statistically significant because we’re only talking four Democratic appointments (Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Clinton, Sotomayor and Kagan by Obama; poor Jimmy Carter had none, the same number George W. Bush would have had had he not been re-elected).  Second, if you line up the Republican and Democratic nominees in recent decades, it’s conservatives who are disappointed (need I even mention John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter, let alone Earl Warren and Brennan himself, all Republican nominees).  Third, to say that someone like Ginsburg – a push-the-envelope feminist and ACLU lawyer – is a moderate is to center the jurisprudential spectrum around the law faculty lounge.  And fourth, as David Bernstein details, it is people like Richard Epstein – and other Federalist Society regulars like Dan Troy, Miguel Estrada, John Eastman, Frank Easterbrook, Stephen Bainbridge, and Todd Zywicki (as well as Cato’s own Roger Pilon, Randy Barnett, and Ilya Somin) – who would be considered filibusteringly beyond the pale, much more than Lithwick’s vaunted American Constitution Society stalwarts.

In short, if anything it is Republicans who can rightfully be disappointed in their presidents’ nominees – though Kennedy’s seat was of course originally to have been filled by Robert Bork. More unfortunately, it is libertarian law students who can lament that their kind lacks representation on the High Court – though note that the second choice for Kennedy’s seat was Douglas Ginsburg (the last judicial martyr of the drug war).  And so, as the Court remains securely to the left of the American people, just today ratifying radical assertions of federal legislative and judicial power, Elena Kagan is poised to fit right into that jurisprudential “mainstream.”  Good for the left, bad for the Constitution.