Tag: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Restores Constitutional Order, Strikes Down Outdated Voting Rights Act Provision

In striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court restored a measure of constitutional order to America. Based on 40-year-old data showing racial disparities in voting that no longer exist, this provision subjected a now-random assortment of states and localities to onerous burdens and unusual federal oversight. Recognizing that the nation has changed, the Court aptly ended the extraordinary intrusion in state sovereignty that can no longer be justified by the facts on the ground.

“If Congress had started from scratch,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, “it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way.” And so this law must fall.

Of course, the Court really should’ve gone further, as Justice Thomas pointed out in a concurring opinion. The Court’s explanation of Section 4’s anachronism applies equally to Section 5. In practice, however, Congress will be hard-pressed to enact any new coverage formula because the pervasive, systemic discrimination in voting that justified such an exceptional intrusion into the normal constitutional order is now gone.

And that’s a good thing. Today’s ruling underlines, belatedly, that Jim Crow is dead.

New Hampshire Court’s School Choice Decision Was Flawed and Unprecedented

Last week, a New Hampshire trial court declared that the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program could not fund students attending religious schools. The Granite State’s STC program grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder mocked supporters of the program who criticized the decision. Welner argues that school choice advocates should have expected this decision, declaring that it was “unsurprising” that the court should find the program (partially) unconstitutional. But what Welner calls unsurprising is actually unprecedented.

Only toward the bottom of his post does Welner reveal that the only high courts to address the issue thus far—the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona supreme court—have ruled STC programs constitutional in their entirety. Indeed, though all but two of the remaining ten states with STC programs have similar “Blaine Amendment” provisions in their state constitutions, opponents haven’t even bothered to challenge their constitutionality. Additionally, other state courts have ruled on the question of whether tax credits constitute “public money” in a manner consistent with the previous STC cases, demonstrating that the courts’ rulings were not the aberrations that Welner imagines them to be.

If school choice supporters had a reason not to be surprised, it was because the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State shrewdly went judge shopping. That’s why they brought their lawsuit in Strafford County instead of Merrimack County, where the state capital is located. Their strategy seemed to pay off, as the judge’s decision relies heavily on the dissenting opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona supreme court decisions, and misapplies the limited precedent from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the final decision rests with the New Hampshire supreme court. As I detail below, logic and precedent suggest that they should overturn the lower court’s decision.

Supreme Court: Government Can’t Force Federal Contractors to Waive Their Rights

Despite its awkward name and somewhat technical details, AID v. AOSI provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to make a very simple point: The federal government can’t force its contractors – whether they’re corporations (as in this case) or individuals – to promote policies that are unrelated to the program for which they receive federal funds. The Court correctly ruled that executing a program to combat HIV/AIDS is unrelated to advocating for or against the legalization of prostitution. One can imagine other instances: Treating drug abuse has little to do with one’s views on drug legalization. Running an adoption agency can be done whether one is pro-choice or pro-life. Missiles can be built regardless of whether the contractor favors a particular foreign policy stance.

As Cato argued in its amicus brief, such “policy requirements” significantly burden political speech, the constitutional protection of which lies at the very heart of the First Amendment. Had the government’s position been accepted, it would eviscerate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which the Supreme Court has long recognized to prevent the conditioning of generally available federal benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights. The Court has never given Congress carte blanche to give contractors Hobson’s Choices, whether relating to the freedom of speech or other constitutional rights. Today it thus strengthened the principle that Congress’s power to condition funding is limited to ensuring that its funds are used to properly implement the program that Congress wishes to fund, not to compel private organizations to adopt express “policies” that don’t relate to the use of those federal funds.

For more on AID v. AOSI, see my recent op-ed.

Cato Brief Gains National Acclaim

Remember Bond v. United States, that typical story of adultery, federalism, and chemical weapons?  Cato has actually filed four briefs in Bond, most recently last month, the last three making the point that the president can’t expand federal constitutional powers simply by signing a treaty.

Our arguments are based on a 2005 law review article by Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, the primary author of these last three briefs. It’s certainly unusual for a law review article to play a pivotal role in a Supreme Court case, but, as those following Bond know, there’s little “usual” about this case. 

Maybe that’s why the national media is starting to pay attention to our attempt to get the Supreme Court to be faithful to this particular corner of the Constitution: last week, the National Law Journal declared our Bond filing its “brief of the week.”

For more on this case, and our arguments, watch the lunch panel we had on Friday, featuring Nick Rosenkranz and Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Bond in October.

Government’s Legal Arguments Shrivel on the Vine

Yet again the unanimous Supreme Court has slapped down a government attempt to deprive property owners of their civil rights.  What was at stake in Horne v. Dept. of Agriculture wasn’t even the property – raisins! – but the mere ability to challenge the government’s desire to take that property without meaningful judicial review.

Nobody should have to suffer a needless, Rube Goldberg-style litigation process to vindicate their constitutional rights. Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought to impose on raisin farmers Marvin and Laura Horne when they protested the enforcement of a USDA “marketing order” that demanded that the Hornes turn over 47% of their crop without compensation.

These New Deal-era regulations are bad enough – forcing raisin “handlers” to turn over some of their crop to the government so it can control raisin supply and price – but here the government kept throwing up obstacles to the Hornes’ attempts to assert that they shouldn’t legally be subject to them.  The government demanded about $650,000 from the Hornes and didn’t want to give them a day in court until they paid the money and jumped through assorted administrative hoops.

The Supreme Court correctly rejected that absurd position and reversed the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that upheld it, reinforcing the line drawn by five other circuit courts.  “In the case of an administrative enforcement proceeding,” Justice Thomas wrote on all his colleagues’ behalf, “when a party raises a constitutional defense to an assessed fine, it would make little sense to require the party to pay the fine in one proceeding and then turn around and sue for recovery of that same money in another.”

Indeed, there’s no reason to treat Fifth Amendment takings claims any differently than lawsuits against government violations of other constitutional provisions.

Here’s more background on the case and Cato’s amicus brief.

Maryland v. King and the Surveillance State

Ilya, Jim, and Roger have already ably covered many of the legal issues in yesterday’s major Fourth Amendment case, Maryland v. King, in which the Court narrowly approved DNA testing of arrestees. I’ve got an article in the Daily Beast this morning using Scalia’s dissent as my jumping-off point. Excerpt:

If there’s ever a time when Antonin Scalia really rises to the occasion, it’s when he serves as the Supreme Court’s liberal conscience….

[A]long with the good [from DNA testing] comes a new potential, warned against by civil libertarians, for the authorities to use DNA access to track citizens through life. Who was at the closed-door meeting of political dissidents? Swab the discarded drinking cups for traces of saliva, match it to a universal database, and there you’ve got your list of attendees. Want to escape a bad start and begin life over in a different community? Good luck with that once your origins are an open book to officialdom.

In his dissent, Scalia warns of such a “genetic panopticon.” (The reference is to Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a prison laid out so that inmates could be watched at every moment.) And it’s closer than you may think. Already fingerprint requirements have multiplied, as the dissent points out, “from convicted criminals, to arrestees, to civil servants, to immigrants, to everyone with a driver’s license” in some states. DNA sample requirements are now following a similar path, starting reasonably enough with convicts before expanding, under laws passed by more than half the states as well as Maryland, to arrestees. (“Nearly one-third of Americans will be arrested for some offense by age 23.”)  Soon will come wider circles. How long before you’ll be asked to give a DNA swab before you can board a plane, work as a lawn contractor, join the football team at your high school, or drive?

With the confidence that once characterized liberals of the Earl Warren–William Brennan school, Scalia says we can’t make catching more bad guys the be-all and end-all of criminal process:

“Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches. The Fourth Amendment must prevail. … I doubt that the proud men who wrote the charter of our liberties would have been so eager to open their mouths for royal inspection.”

Incidentally, some of Scalia’s most scathing passages blast the majority for dwelling on objectives that Maryland might have accomplished by DNA testing, such as establishing a John Doe arrestee’s true identity, when in fact the state knew perfectly well who Alonzo King was when it collared him. Scalia nailed this rationale as merely pretextual, and just in case you doubted that, in a Washington Post interview just yesterday about the case, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler frankly acknowledged that “the real reason for the law is solving crime.” Nothing there about a need to establish arrestees’ identities. The state’s own website explaining the law tells a similar story in its final sentence when it describes the 2009 change in the law.

One More Note on the DNA-Swab Case: Judicial Alignment

Roger Pilon and Jim Harper have already commented on the substance of Maryland v. King, but I wanted to highlight an aspect of the ruling that has raised some eyebrows, the lineup of justices.  Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Breyer.  Meanwhile, Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Scalia’s hard-hitting dissent.  Breyer with the “conservatives,” Scalia leading the “liberals”; what’s going on here?

Not that much, actually, in terms of jurisprudential surprises.  As Orin Kerr points out, Justice Scalia has been on the defendants’ side in every non-unanimous Fourth Amendment case – King (DNA-swabbing of arrestees), Bailey (detention incident to search), Jardines (dog-sniffing a home), and McNeely (warrantless blood draw of DUI suspect) – while Justice Breyer has been on the prosecutors’ side in each of those cases.  

And the current term isn’t an anomaly.  In 2009, for example, Scalia joined the majority in overturning the Court’s precedent that had allowed police to search a car upon arresting its driver in the case of Arizona v. Gant (which Scalia mentions in a law-nerd-witty footnote 6 of his King dissent). The same thing happened in another case that year, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, this time involving the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. Indeed, in both of those 2009 cases, Justices Scalia and Thomas joined Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg (then also the most “liberal” justices).

What happens in such cases is that the most originalist justices, those who like clear bright-line rules rather than mushy standards or balancing tests, join with justices who bend over backward to grant relief to criminal defendants, against those with law-and-order (Alito) or technocratic (Breyer) or establishmentarian (Roberts, Kennedy) tendencies.  Granted, Justice Thomas has been less consistent in that sense this term, but that’s the dynamic to consider when looking at seemingly weird splits in criminal procedure cases.