Tag: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules on Ricci v. DeStefano

In its opinion today in Ricci v. DeStefano, the Supreme Court came down solidly for upholding the equal protection of the law.

The political implications of this decision for the Sotomayor nomination are several, but her refusal to wrestle with the important issues at stake and to side summarily with the city, together with her many statements off the bench about “identity politics,” should make for very interesting confirmation hearings just two weeks ahead.

The Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit panel on which Judge Sonya Sotomayor sat, which had upheld, summarily, the lower court’s decision to allow the city of New Haven to throw out the results of a racially neutral promotion exam for city firefighters after whites did better than blacks on the exam.

As the Court said, all the evidence suggests that the city rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white. The city’s rationale for engaging in this intentional discrimination was to avoid a suit by black firefighters. But the city could take the position it did only if there were strong evidence that its test was racially biased or not job related or that there was some other equally valid non-discriminatory test that the city refused to administer. There was no such evidence, the Court concluded. Had the city been sued by the black firefighters, it would have won.

Thus, it’s rationale for throwing out the test results will not withstand scrutiny. The city engaged in outright intentional discrimination.

One Year After Heller

One year ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller. The decision affirmed the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to keep and bear arms and invalidated the District of Columbia’s draconian gun control regime.

The case generated a storm of media attention. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, one of nearly four dozen in the case.

The Cato Institute held a forum for Brian Doherty’s book chronicling this victory for liberty, Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle Over the Second Amendment. The Heller case also figured prominently in Cato multimedia from Robert A. Levy and Clark Neily.

Heller did not settle all of the questions related to the right to keep and bear arms. The incorporation of the Second Amendment against state bans and regulations is currently being litigated across the country. A three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Second Amendment is incorporated against the states. The Seventh Circuit and Second Circuit disagreed. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was on the Second Circuit panel that declined to incorporate the Second Amendment, and Roger Pilon notes that this may play into her confirmation hearings. The circuit split on incorporation sets the stage for a further appeal to the Supreme Court, and Alan Gura and the National Rifle Association have both filed petitions for a writ of certiorari. Robert A. Levy discusses this in his recent Cato podcast.

It will be interesting to see what the next year brings for the Second Amendment.

Victory for Decency at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, joined by the Rutherford Institute and the Goldwater Institute, opposing such abuses of school officials’ authority. The search in this case should have ended with the student’s backpack and pockets; forcing a teenage girl to pull her bra and panties away from her body for visual inspection is an invasion of privacy that must be reserved for extreme cases. School officials should be authorized to conduct such a search only when they have credible evidence that the student is in possession of objects posing a danger to the school and that the student has hidden them in a place that only a strip search will uncover.

Today’s decision should not come as a surprise. School officials were not granted unlimited police power in the seminal student search case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. Justice Stevens explored the limits of school searches in his partial concurrence and partial dissent, specifically mentioning strip searches. “To the extent that deeply intrusive searches are ever reasonable outside the custodial context, it surely must only be to prevent imminent, and serious harm.”

The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials.

The Supreme Court Decision on NAMUDNO v. Holder

In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a narrow decision today that avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 requires any change in election administration in certain states and counties—mostly but not exclusively in the South—to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. As I wrote earlier, this is a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

The ruling correctly allows a small utility district (and other political subdivisions) to seek relief—known as a “bailout”—from the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s onerous pre-clearance requirements. There is simply no reason for jurisdictions that have, at worst, gone decades without any voter intimidation or disenfranchisement—where the Act succeeded in stamping out or preventing racial discrimination—to continue to go before the Department of Justice for the most innocuous changes in state and municipal election procedures.

Here, for example, an electoral district that wasn’t even created until 1987 wants to move its polling locations from private garages to public schools, for ease of voting. Since Congress amended the Act in 1982, only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have been able to come out from under the thumb of federal oversight. Congress clearly never intended it to be so difficult to escape having to seek federal approval for such minor changes in election procedure.

This is one “bailout” that actually saves taxpayer money and makes common sense.

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of the Act’s Section 5—in the absence of the “exceptional conditions” the Court cited in 1966 as justifying “extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system”—remains in doubt. While it is a close call whether the Court need resolve that issue to dispose of the NAMUDNO case, Section 5’s validity as a matter of constitutional law and public policy is assuredly not a close call.

As Chief Justice Roberts notes in his majority opinion: “The evil that § 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”

Indeed, blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are exceedingly rare. Minority candidates run for and hold office at unprecedented rates—particularly in the South. The racial gap in voter registration—the primary concern of the VRA—is higher nationwide than it is in the covered states; in some covered states, blacks register and vote at higher rates than whites.

As Justice Thomas says in his partial dissent: “Admitting that a prophylactic law as broad as § 5 is no longer constitutionally justified based on current evidence of discrimination is not a sign of defeat. It is an acknowledgement of victory.”

A Nation of Lawlessness

The matter of Chrysler’s bankruptcy seems to have rendered quaint our system of checks and balances. President Obama is breaking the law and the other two branches are letting him get away with it. One can probably understand how a smitten public might casually allow this president a stipend of unconstitutional acts, since he doesn’t scowl like Nixon or stutter like Bush. But, even a popular president (in particular, a popular president) must be held in check by the legislative and judicial branches.

And that’s not happening.

On Tuesday at 4:00 pm, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “stayed pending further order” the bankruptcy-related transactions of Chrysler, giving hope the Supreme Court might hear the appeal filed on behalf of certain Indiana state pension and construction funds, who claim that their property rights as secured creditors were violated by the forced sale and that the use of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to support Chrysler and facilitate its restructuring was illegal. Only 28 hours later, the Supreme Court decided against taking the appeal, despite the seemingly compelling issues at hand.

Just as the Bush administration was telling Congress last September that there was no time to debate the merits of a financial bailout and that the only course was to give Treasury Secretary Paulson carte blanche immediately to spend $700 billion, the Obama administration was telling the Supreme Court this week that time was of the essence and that Fiat would walk away from the Chrysler deal if it wasn’t allowed to proceed right away. Was that the decisive factor in the Supreme Courts rejection of the appeal? It seems to me the appeal contains some serious constitutional issues worthy of judicial consideration (consideration that goes beyond merely rubber-stamping the Obama administration’s pre-packaged, politically-driven bankruptcy plan for Chrysler, which is what Judge Gonzalez appears to have done).

But it’s now a done deal, possibly facilitated by illegalities.

I’m struck by the relative quiet about this issue (in the mainstream media and the blogosphere). Maybe we’re all just too numb and shell shocked by the blitzkrieg of government interventions over the past 9 months that it’s no longer possible to feel alarmed or outraged by just another government act that would have been unthinkable this time last year.

Well wake up!

There is a compelling legal argument against using TARP funds to support automobile producers. (Obviously, there is a compelling economic argument, as well.) Convincing the courts to hear the argument and subsequently persuading judges (probably up to the Supreme Court) of its merits will likely be the last chance to spare us the nationalization of General Motors.

As you may recall, there wasn’t a whole lot of clarity about how the Treasury’s use of TARP funds would be limited or defined. Lots of discretion was granted the Treasury Secretary. However, Section 101(a)(1) of the law establishing the TARP stipulates:

“The Secretary is authorized to establish the Troubled Asset Relief Program (or ‘TARP’) to purchase, and to make and fund commitments to purchase, troubled assets from any financial institution, on such terms and conditions as are determined by the Secretary, and in accordance with this Act and the policies and procedures developed and published by the Secretary.” (My emphasis).

Neither Chrysler nor GM is a financial institution and therefore neither can receive TARP money.  There’s the argument, plain and simple.  Congress authorized funds for a defined use; the executive breached those boundaries, and thus acted illegally. Is it more complicated than that?

President Bush was the first to break the law by authorizing $17.4 billion in TARP funds for GM and Chrysler, circumventing the wishes of Congress, which had recently voted against an auto bailout.  And President Obama has followed suit, providing funding the Chrysler and GM during bankruptcy.

If there’s any doubt that TARP funds were not to be used for automobile companies, consider the fact that the same House of Representatives that passed the legislation creating the TARP in October also passed a bill specifically authorizing the use of TARP funds for automobile companies in December. (There was never a vote in the Senate so it never became law.)  Such legislation wouldn’t have been necessary if the intent of Congress was to allow TARP funds to be used for automakers originally.  Thus, there are two conclusions to draw here. First, the 110th Congress didn’t think the TARP legislation, which it had passed two months earlier, allowed TARP funds to be used for automakers; and second, Congress was too cowardly to bring the matter to the Supreme Court, thereby exercising its constitutional responsibility and allowing the judiciary an opportunity to exercise its.

Let’s hope the judiciary finds the opportunity to check the legality of the executive’s implementation of the legislature’s instructions, as far as the people’s money is concerned.

Should Judges ‘Have the Back’ of Police Officers?

Vice-president Joe Biden says we should rally behind the Supreme Court nomination of Sotomayor because she will “have the back” of the police.  Biden is a lawyer, a senator, and former chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, so he should know better than to pull a political stunt like that to curry favor with law enforcement groups.  The Constitution places limits on the power of the police to search, detain, wiretap, imprison, and interrogate.   The separation of powers principle means that judges must maintain their impartiality and “check” the police whenever they overstep their authority.  To abdicate that responsibility and to “go along with the police” is to do away with our system of checks and balances.

As it happens, The New York Times has a story today about one Jeffrey Deskovic.  He got caught up in a police investigation because he was “too distraught” over the rape and murder of his classmate.  When there was no DNA match, prosecutors told the jury it didn’t really matter.  Does Biden really want Supreme Court justices to come to the support of the state when habeas corpus petitions arrive on their desks and the police work is sloppy, weak, or worse?

On a related note, Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate fights another miscarriage of justice in Massachusetts.

More on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholars on Judge Sotomayor:

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Sotomayor’s record on criminal justice issues put her to the right of David Souter.  Good grief — that would mean that for Sotomayer just about all the barriers on state power come tumbling down: structural safeguards like enumerated powers, non-delegation, separation of powers and the limits pertaining to police and prosecutorial powers.

For more background, go here and here.