Tag: Supreme Court

Lack of Deep Thinking = Belief in the Living Constitution?

In a twist on the “lack of deep thinking” idea, part of what might be going on in Sotomayor’s head—why she keeps answering questions about judicial philosophy with reference to precedent rather than constitutional first principles is because she’s not an originalist. How can we hope for her to tell us her understanding of the meaning of the constitutional text, after all, if that text’s meaning changes with the times?

For example, Stuart Smalley Al Franken asked Sotomayor point blank, “do you believe the right to privacy includes the right to have an abortion?” The nominee began here response with: “The Court has said….” That is, it is not the Constitution—whatever your view of it may be, whether you think it contains a right to abortion or not—that is the supreme law of the land, but what nine black-robed philosopher-kings say. Of course, if your (non-)theory of constitutional interpretation is to keep “improving” the document—and to keep one step ahead of public opinion, so judges can effect social “progress”—then it’s irrelevant what the Constitution said before the Supreme Court put its gloss on it.

And if you subscribe to this “living Constitution” or “active liberty” theory, then naturally the life experiences of a “wise Latina,” along with lessons from foreign and international law—which, Sotomayor said as recently as her April speech to ACLU, get a judge’s “creative juices flowing”—are all valid parts of your jurisprudential toolkit.

CP Townhall

Hate Crimes Bill Becomes an Amendment

Unsure about prospects on passing the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a stand-alone bill, proponents intend to attach it as an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill. As I have said previously, this bill is an affront to federalism and counterproductive hater-aid.

Federal Criminal Law Power Grab

This legislation awards grants to jurisdictions for the purpose of combating hate crimes. It also creates a substantive federal crime of violent acts motivated by the “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person.”

This is a federalization of a huge number of intrastate crimes. It is hard to imagine a rape case where the sex of the victim is not an issue. The same goes for robbery - why grab a wallet from someone who can fight back on equal terms when you can pick a victim who is smaller and weaker than you are?

This would be different if this were a tweak to sentencing factors.

If this were a sentence enhancement on crimes motivated by racial animus - a practice sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Mitchell - then it would be less objectionable if there were independent federal jurisdiction.

Thing is, the federal government has already done this, with the exception of gender identity, with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (scroll to page 334 at the link):

If the finder of fact at trial or, in the case of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court at sentencing determines beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense of conviction because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person, increase by 3 levels.

The contrast between a sentence enhancement and a substantive crime gives us an honest assessment of what Congress is doing - federalizing intrastate acts of violence.

If Congress were to pass a law prohibiting the use of a firearm or any object that has passed in interstate commerce to commit a violent crime, it would clearly be an unconstitutional abuse of the Commerce Clause.

Minus the hate crime window dressing, that is exactly what this law purports to do.

What this really amounts to is a power grab - giving the federal government power to try or re-try violent crimes that are purely intrastate. Just as the Supreme Court invalidated the Gun Free School Zones Act in United States v. Lopez because it asserted a general federal police power, this law should be resisted as a wholesale usurpation of the states’ police powers.

The act also essentially overrules United States v. Morrison, where the Court overruled a federal civil remedy for intrastate gender-motivated violence. Forget a civil remedy; while we’re re-writing the constitution through the Commerce Clause let’s get a criminal penalty on the books.

Trials as Inquisitions

The hate crime bill will also turn trials into inquisitions. The focus of prosecution could be on whether you ever had a disagreement with someone of another “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” Worse yet, it can turn to whether you have any close friends in one of these categories, as demonstrated in the Ohio case State v. Wyant. The defendant denied that he was a racist, which led to the following exchange in cross-examination on the nature of the defendant’s relationship with his black neighbor:

Q. And you lived next door … for nine years and you don’t even know her first name?

A. No.

Q. Never had dinner with her?

A. No.

Q. Never gone out and had a beer with her?

A. No… .

Q. You don’t associate with her, do you?

A. I talk with her when I can, whenever I see her out.

Q. All these black people that you have described that are your friends, I want you to give me one person, just one who was really a good friend of yours.

David Neiwert says that this won’t happen because of a constitutional backstop in the legislation. Unfortunately, the House version of the bill explicitly endorses impeaching a defendant in exactly this manner:

In a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense. However, nothing in this section affects the rules of evidence governing impeachment of a witness.

Worse yet, the Senate version of the hate crime bill, the one which will likely become law after conference committee, does not contain this provision. Instead, it explicitly says:

Courts may consider relevant evidence of speech, beliefs, or expressive conduct to the extent that such evidence is offered to prove an element of a charged offense or is otherwise admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Nothing in this Act is intended to affect the existing rules of evidence.

Anyone want to bet that an aggressive prosecutor could find that not having a close enough relationship with your neighbor counts as “expressive conduct” for the purposes of prosecution?

Future Push for More Federal Authority Over Intrastate Crimes

The hate crime bill also pushes a snowball down the mountain toward wholesale federalization of intrastate crime. In a few years this snowball will be an avalanche. By making any gender-motivated crime a hate crime, which will necessarily include nearly all rapes, we will define ordinary street crimes as hate crimes.

With a consistent average of 90,000 rapes a year, this expansion of hate crime definition will come back in a few years where those ignorant of the change in terms will wonder why hate crime is now rampant. “Rampant” only because we have made the relevant definition over-inclusive to the point of being meaningless.

And in a few years, we can revisit this issue with a fierce moral urgency to pass more feel-good legislation that upends state police powers in an effort to do something - anything - to confront this perceived crisis. A perception that Congress is creating in this legislation.

Sotomayor Displays a Lack of Deep Thinking

It strikes me that Sotomayor has been fairly forthright in her responses to questioning, not hiding too much behind the tired cliché that she can’t answer a question because it could lead to prejudging a case—certainly far less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even John Roberts.  Still, on several important issues, such as property rights, national security law, abortion, and even her overall judicial philosophy, she has appeared disingenuous in saying that she has no firm views on the subject—hiding behind precedent again and again as if first principles didn’t exist.  In other words, she says a lot—displaying a broad knowledge of cases and legal doctrine—without answering larger questions.  She answers questions about what the law should be with what the law is, questions about what the Constitution says with what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution.

This would be barely appropriate for a nominee to a lower court, who is, of course, bound by precedent.  But senators rightly want to know a Supreme Court nominee’s preferred legal theories, what her view of the Constitution is unencumbered by others’ attempts to interpret that document.

The more Sotomayor speaks, the more it becomes clear that these types of nonanswers, this inability to see (or lack of desire to express) a big picture view, is her own essence.  It continues a pattern that is evident from her judicial opinions, which are mostly unremarkable and, in the neutral sense of that term, unimpressive.  For all her career success and a personal story we should all celebrate, she is an average judge who apparently gives little thought to the broad swath of law and where her rulings fit into that.

That is, Sonia Sotomayor is not a Cass Sunstein or Larry Tribe or Elana Kagan or (fellow circuit judge) Diane Wood.  She is not a scholar or an ideologue.  Her liberality is reflexive and warmed-over, a product of the post-modern educational environment that formed her in the 1970s—complete with ethnic activism—but not an intellectual edifice.  This does not mean she isn’t a danger to liberty and the rule of law, or that her votes and opinions won’t harm the Constitution.  But it does indicate that, for all her bluster about being a “wise Latina,” she is little more than a left-leaning empty robe.

CP Townhall

Sotomayor Waffles on Property Rights

The hearing began after lunch with Senator Grassley probing Sotomayor’s views on Kelo v. New London and the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property right—one of the questions I would ask her. The nominee apparently thought the senator (who’s not a lawyer) needed a lesson in what went on in Kelo and how the Court ruled. Grassley, having been briefed by counsel, didn’t seem to care for that, pushing Sotomayor on whether she thought Kelo was correctly decided and how she views constitutional property rights generally.

Sotomayor said Kelo was a judgment of the Court that she accepts, but that any future case she would have to judge on its own merits. Well, of course, but that wasn’t the question on the table. Exasperated, Grassley asked Sotomayor whether a taking with no compensation would be constitutional. The “wise Latina” couldn’t formulate a proper response, smiling and explaining that what constitutes a “taking” is subject to legal analysis. Well, yes, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Finally, Sotomayor concluded that if a taking violated the Constitution, she would have to strike it down.

In short, according to Sotomayor, if something is unconstitutional, a judge can’t allow it. The technical term we lawyers use for this kind of sophisticated reasoning is “circular”—with the judge here getting to decide based on no discernible criteria whether something is constitutional. For more on the outrageous takings Judge Sotomayor has allowed, see George Mason law professor Ilya Somin’s analysis of the Didden v. Port Chester case. (Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, will be testifying at the hearings later this week.)

Update: Sotomayor and “Secret Law”

Sotomayor didn’t have much to say in response to Senator Feingold’s inquiries regarding national security law and civil liberties post-9/11, but the Wisconsin lawmaker’s questions about “secret law”—on which he didn’t press the nominee’s non-answers—made me think of the following: Both Ricci (the infamous firefighters race discrimination case) and Didden were “unpublished” summary dispositions.

If Sotomayor had not been nominated to the Supreme Court, causing hundreds if not thousands of lawyers to comb through her judicial opinions, would anyone have uncovered these blatant attempts to sweep controversial legal issues under the rug?  Are Ricci and Didden Sotomayor’s secret law?

CP Townhall

Update on the Sotomayor Hearings

After yesterday’s bloviating—much reduced by Joe Biden’s departure from the committee—today we’ve gotten into some good stuff. Sotomayor is obviously well-prepared. She speaks in measured, dulcet tones, showing little emotion.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy gave her the opportunity to explain herself on Ricci and on the “wise Latina” comment—which she has repeated in public speeches at least six times going back 15 years—and then built up the nominee’s background as a prosecutor and trial judge. Ranking Member Sessions and Senator Hatch (himself a former chairman of the committee) pounded Sotomayor on Ricci, asking her how she reconciles a race-based decision with clear Supreme Court precedent—and how her panel decided the case in two paragraphs despite the weighty statutory and constitutional questions.

Sessions in particular pointed out the inconsistency between her statement yesterday that she was guided by “fidelity to the law” and her history of calling the appellate courts as being the place where “policy is made” and profession of inability to find an objective approach of the law divorced from a judge’s ethnicity or gender. Sotomayor’s responses were not convincing; rather than agreeing with Justice O’Connor’s statement that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come out the same way on the law, the “wise Latina” comment plainly means the exact opposite.

And so the back-and-forth continues. One refreshing thing I will note is that only twice has the nominee said she can’t answer a question or elaborate on a response: on abortion, saying Griswold, Roe, and Casey are settled law; and on guns, declining to discuss whether the constitutional right to bear arms can be used to strike down state (as opposed to federal) laws. The former is a clear—but not unexpected—cop-out because, unlike a lower court judge, the Supreme Court justice revisits the nature and scope of rights all the time. The latter is actually the correct response in light of the three cert petitions pending before the Court in the latest round of Second Amendment litigation. Still, her discussion of the Second Amendment left much to be desired given her ruling in Maloney; as Jillian Bandes pointed out recently, you can’t discuss incorporation without a solid understanding of Presser.

CP Townhall

Opening Day at Judiciary Park: Sotomayor On Deck

The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.

It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.

Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it.  The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama.  Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.

In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside.  Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle.  These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.

In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.

Barnett on the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.  Excerpt:

Supreme Court confirmation hearings do not have to be about either results or nothing. They could be about clauses, not cases. Instead of asking nominees how they would decide particular cases, ask them to explain what they think the various clauses of the Constitution mean. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to arms? What was the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment? (Hint: It included an individual right to arms.) Does the 14th Amendment “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and, if so, how and why? Does the Ninth Amendment protect judicially enforceable unenumerated rights? Does the Necessary and Proper Clause delegate unlimited discretion to Congress? Where in the text of the Constitution is the so-called Spending Power (by which Congress claims the power to spend tax revenue on anything it wants) and does it have any enforceable limits?

Read the whole thing.