Tag: Supreme Court

The Court Restores a Fundamental Right

Today is a big victory for gun rights and a bigger one for liberty.  The Supreme Court has correctly decided that state actions violating the right to keep and bear arms are no more valid than those taken by the federal government.

It could not have been otherwise: the Fourteenth Amendment, coming on the heels of the Civil War, says clearly that never again would the Constitution tolerate state oppressions, and that all individuals possess certain fundamental rights.  It is equally clear that the right to keep and bear arms is one of those deeply rooted fundamental rights, not least because the Framers thought so highly of it as to enumerate it in the Second Amendment.

Still, Justice Alito’s plurality opinion leaves a lot to be desired, in that his ultimately correct conclusion rests on a dog’s breakfast of Substantive Due Process “incorporation” doctrine that arose only because the Privileges or Immunities Clause was strangled in its crib by an 1870s Supreme Court that refused to reconcile itself to the changes in constitutional structure wrought by the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justice Thomas’s response to this tortured attempt to fit a square fundamental right into a round procedural guarantee is the right one: “I cannot accept a theory of constitutional interpretation that rests on such tenuous footing.”

Only Justice Thomas grapples with the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, surveying the rich history of the terms “privileges” and “immunities” to find that the right to defend oneself is part and parcel of the inalienable rights we all possess—and indeed it is “essential to the preservation of liberty.”  The Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment—the most important “Framers” in this context—plainly deemed this right “necessary to include in the minimum baseline of federal rights that the Privileges or Immunities Clause established in the wake of the War over slavery.”  All arguments to the contrary lack legal, historical and even philosophical basis.

And so it is a very good thing, again for liberty, that the Court needs Thomas’s fifth vote to rule as it does: while the plurality declines to reconsider the old and discredited Privileges or Immunities precedent, Thomas’s clarion call for a libertarian originalism provides a step on which to build in future.

Finally, as we celebrate the belated recognition of a precious right—the one that allows us to protect all the others—we must be shocked and saddened to see four justices (including Sonia Sotomayor, who at her confirmation hearings suggested she would do otherwise) standing for the proposition that states can violate this right at will, checked by nothing more than the political process.  This is a nation of laws, not men—a republic, not a pure democracy—and thus it is disconcerting to see, as we do time and time again with this Court, that the only thing separating us from rule by a crude majoritarian impulse is one vote.  Thank God that, in this case, that vote was Justice Thomas’s.

More Questions for Kagan

Building on Tim’s post about George Will’s latest column, and under the category of great minds thinking alike—at least with respect to what we need to see at the Kagan hearings next week—I also have an article proposing lines of questioning for the Supreme Court nominee

Several of my issue areas overlap with Will’s, and then I conclude:

Of course, Kagan will attempt to deflect these queries—or give a law professor’s explanation without providing her own views (which caused Sen. Arlen Specter to vote against her nomination to be solicitor general).

But the role of a justice is different from that of the solicitor general, who merely uses existing law to argue the government’s case. Moreover, as a leading scholar argued in an influential 1995 article, “the Senate ought to view the hearings as an opportunity to gain knowledge and promote public understanding of what the nominee believes the Court should do and how she would affect its conduct.”

That scholar? Elena Kagan.

She continues: “The critical inquiry as to any individual similarly concerns the votes she would cast, the perspective she would add, and the direction in which she would move the institution.”

If senators ask tough questions about the scope of government power, and Kagan refuses to answer, Kagan will have failed the Kagan standard.

Read the whole thing (which I’m told has been published in several papers around the country this week).  Josh Blackman also has an interesting series of questions.

George Will Has Questions for Elena Kagan

George Will has some excellent questions for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. 

Here’s an excerpt:

The government having decided that Chrysler’s survival is an urgent national necessity, could it decide that Cash for Clunkers is too indirect a subsidy and instead mandate that people buy Chrysler products?

If Congress concludes that ignorance has a substantial impact on interstate commerce, can it constitutionally require students to do three hours of homework nightly? If not, why not?

Can you name a human endeavor that Congress cannot regulate on the pretense that the endeavor affects interstate commerce? If courts reflexively defer to that congressional pretense, in what sense do we have limited government?

In Federalist 45, James Madison said: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” What did the Father of the Constitution not understand about the Constitution? Are you a Madisonian? Does the doctrine of enumerated powers impose any limits on the federal government? Can you cite some things that, because of that doctrine, the federal government has no constitutional power to do?

It is unfortunate that Will’s column did not make the hard copy of today’s Washington Post.  (The column is dated today, but it’ll likely appear in his regular Sunday space.) Senators on the Judiciary Committee need to read this stuff.

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.

The Unbearable Vagueness of “Honest Services Fraud”

Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur, who authored an amicus brief in the case of Skilling v. U.S., writes on his home blog:

Today, the Supreme Court decided the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron, who had been convicted of the crime of “honest services fraud.” The statute, however, is so vague, that nobody knows what the term “honest services fraud” actually means. Pacific Legal Foundation (joined by our friends at the Cato Institute) filed a brief in the case arguing that statutes that are so vague violate the constitutional guarantee of due process of law—and that the constitutional protection against vague laws should apply in the business realm the same as anywhere else. Vague laws are dangerous because you cannot know what they prohibit and cannot therefore avoid breaking the law. It is unfair and unconstitutional to hold vague statutes over their head in such a way.

Unfortunately, the Court has in the past been reluctant to apply it outside the regular criminal context, on the theory that businesses are wealthier and can afford expert legal advice. But in a case like this, even the experts have no idea what the statute actually means. The federal circuit courts are in disarray as to what it means. And nobody should be convicted under a statute that is so broadly and vaguely worded, that even the prosecuting lawyer can’t tell you what that law actually means.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Problems Overturning Citizens United

Congress has been trying to overturn the Citizens United decision for the past four months. (Citizens United invalidated bans on speech by groups taking a corporate form). Their effort — the DISCLOSE Act — now seems bogged down in the House of Representatives. The National Rifle Association argues that they should not have to disclose their small donors. The labor unions also have complaints:

Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg this week that “the final bill should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions. We believe the legislation should counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business and guarantee effective disclosure of who is paying for what.”

Here’s the problem: The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress cannot regulate campaign finance to achieve equality of influence.  Ms. Tune is calling for changes in DISCLOSE to “counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business.” If Congress enacts those changes, how can the law be defended against the charge that Congress is seeking to legislate a greater equality of influence? Won’t the parts of the law demanded by the unions be unconstitutional?

FLASH: Liberal White House Nominates Liberal Judge!

From the first round of Clinton Library documents regarding Elena Kagan’s White House service, we can now all be shocked – shocked! – that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a liberal.  It’s a mystery why the punditocracy thought someone who despaired at Ronald Reagan’s election, staffed the Michael Dukakis campaign, clerked for Thurgood Marshall, and advised Bill Clinton would be anything else.  But this is what passes for news in Washington these days.

We already knew that the solicitor general was a genial but cautious careerist, rarely expressing her own opinions but forever strategizing over the next rung on the ladder that would take her to her high school dream of sitting on the Supreme Court.  And we knew that she was a moderate legal academic – meaning she sits comfortably to the left of the country as a whole.  Well, now we know that Kagan is a technocrat who is for abortion rights, affirmative action, and campaign finance regulations, but against guns.

Some conservatives may see this as an “a-ha” moment, and rabid progressives may be breathing a sigh of relief.  But really these so-called revelations are not going to change the story, either in terms of the final confirmation vote or in the court of public opinion.

What the media should be asking, and what the American people deserve to know, is how Kagan views the Constitution – especially what limits it places on an out-of-control federal government.  In a prophetic 1995 book review, the nominee expressed frustration at the “vapid and hollow charade” that the confirmation process had become and demanded that both senators and judicial nominees engage in more substantive discussions.  Let’s see if the Kagan hearings meet that Kagan standard.