Tag: Supreme Court

Does Elena Kagan Support Limited Government?

After Justice Stevens announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, President Obama spoke of wanting to nominate someone with a “keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.” If Solicitor General Elena Kagan has that understanding, she probably got it from books.

We get a glimpse of that in this morning’s New York Times. Drowning her sorrow in vodka and tonic after Ronald Reagan took the White House in 1980 – during that summer she’d worked on the losing Senate campaign of liberal Democrat Liz Holtzman – the young Ms. Kagan would write in the Princetonian, “Where I grew up – on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans.” She described “the Manhattan of her childhood,” the Times adds, as a place “where those who won office were ‘real Democrats – not the closet Republicans that one sees so often these days but men and women committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government.’”

Ms. Kagan would go on from Princeton to Oxford, Harvard Law, clerkships with Judge Abner Mikva and Justice Thurgood Marshall, a stint in private practice in Washington, a professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, then back to Washington for service in the Clinton White House, and finally a return to Harvard Law as professor, then as dean, before being tapped by Obama as solicitor general.

That’s an impressive rise, to be sure. Whether it has acquainted Ms. Kagan with the lives of ordinary Americans is open to question. But it surely has acquainted her with the modern conception of the Constitution, which is at some remove from the document itself. Whereas the Constitution as written creates a government of limited powers, modern “constitutional law” has allowed an all but unlimited federal government – nowhere more evident than in Ms. Kagan’s sponsor’s cardinal achievement to date, ObamaCare.

In this time of the Tea Party movement (witness this weekend’s developments in Utah), when the cry is “Give us back our Constitution,” the question, “Are there any longer any limits on federal power?” will doubtless be prominent during the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings. Ms. Kagan has a slim publishing record for someone with her background, so the hearings will be especially important for answering that question. One hopes that at least the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee will be resourceful and diligent in pressing the question.

Kagan Nomination Launches Constitutional Debate

As expected, and despite an exhaustive review of shortlist candidates, dead-end leaks about Hillary Clinton, and other distractions, President Obama settled on the long-time prohibitive favorite to be his next Supreme Court nominee.  Elena Kagan became the justice-in-waiting the moment Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed, so you didn’t have to be Tom Goldstein to have predicted this.  The president wanted a highly credentialed non-judge who would serve for a long time and wouldn’t cost too much political capital.  He got a 50-year-old solicitor general and former dean of Harvard Law School – the first female in each post – whose record the Senate (and media, and activists) already examined in a confirmation process that put her into her current post.  That her appointment would put three women on the high court for the first time also doesn’t hurt.

Kagan is certainly not the worst possible nominee from among those in the potential pool – that would’ve been Harold Koh, had President Obama been most inclined to appoint the first Asian-American justice – but others would have been better in various ways.  Although all Democratic nominees would be expected to have similar views on hot-button “culture war” issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control, Diane Wood is a renowned expert on antitrust and complex commercial litigation, for example, and Merrick Garland would almost certainly bring a stronger understanding of administrative law.  Although some on the left are concerned that replacing Justice John Paul Stevens with Kagan “moves the Court to the right,” there is no indication that the solicitor general is anything but a standard modern liberal, with all the unfortunate views that entails on the scope of federal power.  Another concern is her mediocre performance in her current position – the choices of which legal arguments to make from those available to her in defending federal laws in Citizens United and United States v. Stevens, for example, were not strategically sound – though she may well be better suited to a judicial rather than advocacy role.

In any event, with Democrats still holding a 59-seat Senate majority, Elena Kagan’s confirmation is in no doubt whatsoever.  The more interesting aspect of the next couple of months, culminating in hearings before the Judiciary Committee, will be the debate over the meaning of the Constitution and what limits there are to government action.  In an election year when a highly unpopular and patently unconstitutional health care “reform” was rammed through Congress using every procedural gimmick imaginable, voters are more sensitive to constitutional discourse now than they have been in decades.  From bailing out the financial and auto industries to fining every man, woman and child who doesn’t buy a government-approved health insurance policy – and, coming soon, regulating carbon emissions – the Obama administration is taking over civil society at a rate that alarms Americans and fuels both Tea Party populism and interest in libertarian policy solutions (which Cato is happy to offer but wishes were implemented on the front end instead of being invoked as a response to destructive statism).  The Kagan nomination is the perfect vehicle for a public airing of these important issues.

Senators should thus ask questions about the meaning of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the General Welfare Clause, to name but three provisions under which courts have ratified incredible assertions of federal power divorced from those the Constitution discretely enumerates.  If Elena Kagan refuses to answer such queries substantively – employing the usual dodge that she may be called upon to interpret these clauses as justice – we can rightfully hold that response against her, as she herself counseled in a law review article 15 years ago.

How the World of Campaign Finance Is Changing

Journalists are looking closely at the DISCLOSE bill, Congress’ response to Citizens UnitedCQ says DISCLOSE will loosen independent spending by the parties on their candidates.

Why is Congress liberalizing party spending? CQ explains:

According to one GOP attorney, opponents of the Supreme Court’s decision are realizing that they will have a difficult time challenging the constitutional right of outside groups to spend money, so this bill is a response to free up the parties to compete.

Mark that. Citizens United has altered the incentives regarding speech. In the past, Congress tried to suppress speech to win elections. Now leaders must liberalize in order to compete for votes.

A Contrarian Cheer for Twombly

My new article, Procedure’s Ambiguity (now up on SSRN and also available here) is a rare bird in the world legal scholarship: it defends the Supreme Court’s much-reviled pleading decisions, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal.

It is, in fact, a rare bird even in the small world of articles defending Twombly and Iqbal. Others claim these cases, by directing lower courts to dismiss implausible claims, will deter frivolous suits, save judicial resources, and the like. I find these defenses, while plausible, too speculative and take a very different tack–one that builds on the growing literature on so-called “pluralist” approaches to interpretation. Judicial pluralists favor interpreting ambiguous statutes in ways that mimic approaches to which interest groups would, hypothetically, agree. And Twombly and Iqbal, I argue, are cases after judicial pluralists’ own hearts: They reflect a fair compromise—one, I argue, that mimics the bargain different groups with a stake in procedural rulemaking would, if given the chance, reach among themselves.

Students Have the Right to Free Speech, Too

A northern Texas school district attempted to banish all religious expression from its schools by prohibiting virtually all non-verbal student speech in any school-related context.  Officials used this broad policy to promote an anti-religious orthodoxy and root out any and all religious speech. The Supreme Court made clear, however, in its seminal school speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students enjoy First Amendment rights, and that core political and religious speech cannot be suppressed without showing that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process.

Here, the Fifth Circuit upheld all of the district’s regulations and found that Tinker did not supply the relevant legal standard.  It instead applied the intermediate scrutiny “time, place, and manner” test of United States v. O’Brien. At issue is whether the school district’s speech policy should be evaluated under Tinker’s “substantial disruption” standard or under O’Brien’s intermediate scrutiny.

Cato, joined by three groups that promote religious liberty, filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case because the Fifth Circuit’s approach permits schools to enforce sweeping speech codes by which virtually all speech may be prohibited.  Permitting a wholesale content- and viewpoint-neutral ban on all speech or a form of speech as an alternative to the Tinker standard will result in the erosion and eventual elimination of student speech rights.

The name of the case is Morgan v. Plano Independent School District; the Court will likely decide by the end of June whether to hear the case this fall.


‘Taking the Rest of His Life Away’

Upon sentencing a 24 year old to 27 years in federal prison on a drug charge, the Federal Judge Alan Bloch lamented, “I was basically taking the rest of his life away.”

Go here to read about that case, which is coming before the Supreme Court for review.  For related Cato scholarship on sentencing, go here and here (pdf).  For Cato work on the drug war, go here.

George Will on Judicial Activism

George Will offers conservatives a useful reminder about “judicial activism” and what the Supreme Court ought to be doing:

Conservatives spoiling for a fight should watch their language. The recent decision most dismaying to them was Kelo (2005), wherein the court upheld the constitutionality of a city government using its eminent domain power to seize property for the spurious “public use” of transferring it to wealthier interests who will pay higher taxes to the seizing government. Conservatives wish the court had been less deferential to elected local governments. (Stevens later expressed regret for his part in the Kelo ruling.)

The recent decision most pleasing to conservatives was this year’s Citizens United, wherein the court overturned part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The four liberal justices deplored the conservatives’ refusal to defer to Congress’s expertise in regulating political speech.

So conservatives should rethink their rhetoric about “judicial activism.” The proper question is: Will the nominee be actively enough engaged in protecting liberty from depredations perpetrated by popular sovereignty?