Tag: Supreme Court

Tuesday Links

  • Why the Supreme Court should strike down the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board: “Imagine a government agency with the authority to create and enforce laws, prosecute and adjudicate violations, and impose criminal penalties. Then throw in the power to levy taxes to pay for all the above. And for good measure, make the agency independent of political oversight.”

A Victory for Property Rights

Ilya Shapiro warns us that the U.S. Supreme Court probably will not uphold property rights in a case involving Florida beachfront property.  But property rights did receive an unexpected boost in New York yesterday, where an appeals court overturned a taking for the benefit of Columbia University.

Reports the New York Times:

A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that the state could not use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University to obtain parts of a 17-acre site in Upper Manhattan, setting back plans for a satellite campus at a time of discord over government power to acquire property.

In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the “scheme was hatched,” using terms like “sophistry” and “idiocy” in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.

The $6.3 billion expansion plan is not dead; an appeal has been promised, and Columbia still controls most of the land. But at a time when the government’s use of eminent domain on behalf of private interests has become increasingly controversial, the ruling was a boon for opponents.

“I feel unbelievable,” said Nicholas Sprayregen, the owner of several self-storage warehouses in the Manhattanville expansion area and one of two property owners who have refused to sell to the university. “I was always cautiously optimistic. But I was aware we were going against 50 years of unfair cases against property owners.”

New York state is not a particularly friendly venue to property rights, but the judges rightly saw through the claims made by state official to justify seizing property from a private person for the benefit of a private organization.  The ruling could be reversed, but nevertheless is an important affirmation that property rights warrant constitutional and legal protection even in New York.

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.

How Will the Court Vote on “Incorporating” the Second Amendment?

Yesterday I described the brief Alan Gura filed on behalf of the petitioners challenging Chicago’s gun ban in the Supreme Court – asking the Court to apply the individual right to keep and bear arms to the states.

Late last night, Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy sketched out his predictions of whether the individual justices would go for Gura’s main argument: that the indefensible Slaughter-House Cases should be overturned and thus that the Court should “incorporate” the rights at issue via the Privileges or Immunities Clause.  (Cato supports this argument, as we’ll show in the brief we’ll be filing next week.) He concludes that Justice Thomas is the only vote available for this claim. According to Orin, the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Alito are too enamored with stare decisis to overturn an 1873 precedent, Justice Kennedy isn’t an originalist and likes substantive due process too much, and the other four are too afraid of Lochner and Institute for Justice-style economic liberty arguments to go there.

As George Will would say: Well. Orin could turn out to be right, but I think his analysis is too simplistic. I was just about to write my response when I saw that Josh Blackman, with whom I have a law review article forthcoming on these issues, already said it best in the comments to Orin’s post:

First, I think you present a binary choice; incorporate through Due Process OR incorporate through privileges or immunities. The question presented asked about both routes of incorporation. Neither path is by necessity mutually exclusive. As Gura’s brief makes clear, the Court could incorporate through the Due Process Clause, and alternatively recognize that the right to keep and bear arms is also among the Privileges or Immunities of Citizenship. The Court need not displace 100 years of substantive due process jurisprudence with this single case. And from a practical perspective, basically the entire Bill of Rights has been incorporated. So, unless some people start clamoring about states quartering troops in theirs homes, this would be a one time deal. Such a holding would do little to upset the apple cart, or as we put it, open Pandora’s Box.

Second, I think you may over-simplify Scalia’s views on originalism and stare decisis. Our article shows that Scalia, while on the Supreme Court, has never voted in favor of a substantive due process incorporation. The last such case was in 1982. Can Scalia really cite the doctrine that he excoriated in Lawrence, Casey, and elsewhere based solely on reliance interests? It is no secret Scalia likes guns, and he wants to incorporate the 2nd Amendment. But he does not want to enlarge substantive due process. Is he stuck between a rock and a substantively hard place? The Privileges or Immunities Clause provides an alternative method for Scalia. He could write a classic originalist opinion tracing the right to bear arms during Reconstruction, and find that it applies to the State.

Finally, fellow Volokh conspirator Randy Barnett (and Cato senior fellow) also disagrees with Orin, offering this perspective:

When choosing between the two pending cases in the Seventh Circuit, why would four Justices grant cert on the McDonald case in which the challenge was focused on the Privileges or Immunities Clause and deny cert on NRA case, which confined its argument to the Due Process Clause? Why would they have rejected the City of Chicago’s proposal which limited the question presented to Due Process?

Faced with this background and the actual question presented, I wonder how would Orin have briefed the case. Would he have offered any of the analysis in his post? Would he have told the Court just to ignore the Privileges or Immunities Clause? Or might he not have assumed as an experienced litigator that the Justices could write a Due Process Clause “incorporation” opinion in their sleep–heck, their clerks could write that opinion in their sleep–and then devoted the bulk of his brief to describing the meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause in context?

Ultimately, Orin’s analysis is based in what he thinks will be the Justices’ dislike for the interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause described in the brief. The conservatives will hate the references to “natural rights” while the liberals will hate the references to “property.” Fair enough. But notice that the brief does not offer Alan Gura’s theory of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. All the phrases to which Orin objects are taken from quotes from the historical sources. Was Gura supposed to conceal these sources from the Court or faithfully report them? Orin may think this case is a hoot, but for the parties and the Court it is serious business.

In short, Orin’s legal realism/conventional wisdom may turn out prescient – and all the rest of us are engaged in a quixotic originalist/libertarian crusade – but I’ll put my money elsewhere.

Heller Counsel Argues for an Originalist Revolution

Alan Gura, who successfully defended the individual right to keep and bear arms under Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller has now filed his brief in the case that seeks to apply that right to the states, McDonald v. City of Chicago.  (Cato earlier filed a brief supporting Alan’s cert petition, the background to which you can read about here.)

The question presented in this case is: Whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated as against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities or Due Process Clauses.  Remarkably, only 7 of the brief’s 73 pages are devoted to the Due Process Clause, which is the constitutional provision by which almost all the the Bill of Rights has been “incorporated” against the states.  Indeed, the brief argues that the Due Process Clause “has incorporated virtually all other enumerated rights” and so there is no reason to make the Second Amendment an exception.

The rest of the brief is far more interesting, arguing for overturning the ill-fated Slaughter-House Cases, which eviscerated the Priviliges or Immunities Clause in 1873.  Slaughter-House forced the Court to start protecting natural rights and fundamental liberties under the oddly named “substantive due process” doctrine – and it remains a bugaboo for legal scholars of all ideological stripes.  Overturning it would potentially open the door to challenges against legislation that violates a host of unenumerated rights, such as the right to enter into contract or to earn an honest living. 

Understandably, libertarians are excited at the prospect of Privileges or Immunities’ revival.  But so too are liberals, at the thought of potentially filling an empty constitutional vessel with positive rights (to health care, education, pensions, etc.).  I believe this to be an overstated threat from the perspective of constitutional interpretation – as opposed to legislation – and have an article coming out with Josh Blackman in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy in January making this point.  (The article, titled “Opening Pandora’s Box? Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Incorporating the Second Amendment,” will shortly be up on SSRN, but for now you can read the abstract/introduction here.)

In any event, P or I (as it’s known) is a vastly superior way of giving people in the states the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. But it’s ambitious to argue this way rather than settle for the traditional jurisprudence.  As Orin Kerr says at the Volokh Conspiracy, “It’s certainly an attention-getting way to brief the case. It’s not just arguing for a win: It’s arguing for a revolution.”

For further discussion of Alan’s McDonald brief – which Cato will be supporting with an amicus brief next week – see Lyle Deniston’s write-up at SCOTUSblog.

How Is Sotomayor Doing?

I was one of those who opposed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, mainly because the pick was based on race and gender rather than merit and she was disingenuous and obfuscatory at her confirmation hearings. Well, the Court still hasn’t decided any cases argued with Justice Sotomayor on the bench – and the first term isn’t always indicative of the kind of jurist a new justice will be – but we do have some early statistics about her performance.

It turns out that, unlike her next most junior colleague, Justice Alito – who hung back early in his tenure while learning the rhythms of the Court – Justice Sotomayor has not been a shrinking violet in her questioning of advocates. Indeed, according to a National Law Journal tally, during the 13 November arguments that just concluded, she asked 146 questions (or 11.2 per case), which is even ahead of where Chief Justice Roberts was at this point in his career.  And, because Sotomayor speaks more often than her more reserved predecessor, Justice Souter, she has made a “hot” bench even hotter.

By another indicator, however, Sotomayor ranks at the bottom of the Supreme Court table: Apparently her questioning has not yet generated a single laugh (as measured by such indications in the argument transcript).  Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia leads in that department – as he long has, both in absolute and per-question terms – with the Chief being the only other justice in double figures.  Joining Sotomayor with a goose-egg so far this year are Justices Ginsburg and Thomas (who hasn’t asked a question since 2006).  If you’re curious about last year’s final standings, see here.

For what it’s worth, all this accords with the sense I’ve gotten from the handful of times I’ve been to the Court for oral argument so far this term. To my mind, Sotomayor is still acting as a Court of Appeals judge – or maybe even a district judge – asking simpler questions about the factual record or procedural history rather than the broader issues the Court tends to grapple with.  And therefore I’ll go out on a counterintuitive limb here to predict that, as Sotomayor settles into her new role, her questioning will become less frequent but more substantive.

As it Turns Out, There Are Limits on Congress’s Power

In 2006, Congress passed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. One provision of the law authorizes the federal government to civilly commit anyone in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons whom the attorney general certifies to be “sexually dangerous.” The effect of such an action is to continue the certified person’s confinement after the expiration of his prison term, without proof of a new criminal violation.

Six days before the scheduled release of Graydon Comstock — who had been sentenced to 37 months in jail for receiving child pornography — the attorney general certified Comstock as sexually dangerous. Three years later, Comstock thus remains confined in a medium security prison, as do more than 60 other similarly situated men in the Eastern District of North Carolina alone.

Comstock and several others challenged their confinements as going beyond Congress’s constitutional authority and won in both the district and appellate courts. The United States successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case.

Cato, joined by Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett, filed a brief opposing the government. We argue that the use of federal power here is unconstitutional because it is not tied to any of Congress’s limited and enumerated powers. The government’s reliance on the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8, is misplaced because that clause grants no independent power but merely “carries into execution” the powers enumerated elsewhere in that section. The commitment of prisoners after their terms simply is not one of the enumerated powers.

While the government justifies its actions by invoking its implied power “to establish a federal penal system” — itself a necessary and proper auxiliary to certain enumerated powers — civil commitment is unrelated to creating or maintaining a penal system (let alone any enumerated power). Nor can the law at issue fall under the Commerce Clause, because civil commitment involves non-economic intrastate activity.

As the Supreme Court recognized almost 150 years ago in Ex Parte Milligan, “[n]o graver question was ever considered by this court, nor one which more nearly concerns the rights of the whole,” than the government’s unconstitutional assertion of power against its own citizens. In this spirit, the Court should affirm the Fourth Circuit’s rejection of this blatant government overreach.

United States v. Comstock will be argued on January 12.  You can read Cato’s brief here.