Tag: Supreme Court

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?

Is The Washington Post Mocking Justice Stevens?

Justice John Paul Stevens has announced that he will retire from the Supreme Court this summer.

My Cato colleagues are weighing in on his “checkered” tenure.   Tim Lee writes, “if you enjoy your iPod and your uncensored Internet access, you have Justice Stevens to thank.”  I certainly appreciate Stevens’ contributions in that area.

On the other hand, Ilya Shapiro laments “the errant jurisprudential path that Justice Stevens blazed so honorably,” and charges that “Stevens admittedly and unabashedly asserted his own policy preferences instead of following the law.”  

When I picked up Saturday’s Washington Post, I wondered if its staff was trying to make the same point.  The front page contains excerpts from three opinions Stevens wrote while on the Court.  (I could not find them on the Post’s web site, so I can’t furnish a link.)  The first is from Bush v. Gore (2000):

Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.  I respectfully dissent.

The second is from Baze v. Rees (2008):

[The death penalty is] becoming more and more anachronisitic… I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty “represents the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes.”

And finally, from Citizens United v. FEC (2010):

While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

The first excerpt decries judges who decide cases based on their personal preferences, rather than what the law says.  The other two excerpts show Stevens incorporating his personal preferences into his rulings.

So we must consider the possibility that someone at The Washington Post subtly wanted to poke fun at Justice Stevens.  Unless it was inadvertent, which would make it even more amusing.

John Paul Stevens, Defender of High-Tech Freedom

I’m saddened to hear of the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Whatever you might say about his jurisprudence in other areas, one place where Justice Stevens really shined was in his defense of high-tech freedom.

Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in some of the most important high-tech cases of the last four decades. In other cases, he wrote important (and in some cases prescient) dissents. Through it all, he was a consistent voice for freedom of expression and the freedom to innovate. His accomplishments include:

  • Free speech: Justice Stevens wrote the majority decision in ACLU v. Reno, the decision that struck down the infamous Communications Decency Act and clearly established that the First Amendment applies to the Internet. In the 13 years since then, the courts have repeatedly beat back attacks on free speech online. For example, Justice Stevens was in the majority in ACLU v. Ashcroft, the 2004 decision that struck down another attempt to censor the Internet in the name of protecting children.
  • Copyright: Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion in the 1984 case of Sony v. Universal, the case in which the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the VCR by a 5-4 vote. The decision, which today is known as the “Betamax decision” after the Sony VCR brand, made possible the explosion of digital media innovation that followed. When the recording industry tried to stop the introduction of the MP3 player in 1997, the Ninth Circuit cited the Betamax precedent in holding that “space shifting” with your MP3 player is permitted under copyright’s fair use doctrine. The iPod as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist if Sony had lost the Betamax case. Justice Stevens also wrote an important dissent in the 2003 decision of Eldred v. Ashcroft, in which he (like the Cato Institute) argued that the Constitution’s “limited times” provision precluded Congress from retroactively extending copyright terms.
  • Patents: The explosion of software patents is one of the biggest threats to innovation in the software industry, and Justice Stevens saw this threat coming almost three decades ago. Stevens wrote the majority decision in the 1978 case of Parker v. Flook, which clearly disallowed patents in the software industry. Three years later, Stevens dissented in the 1981 case of Diamond v. Diehr, which allowed a patent on a software-controlled rubber-curing machine. Although the majority decision didn’t explicitly permit patents on software, Stevens warned that the majority’s muddled decision would effectively open the door to software patents. And he has been proven right. In the three decades that followed, the patent-friendly U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has effectively dismantled limits on software patents. And the result has been a disaster, with high-tech firms being forced to spend large sums on litigation rather than innovation.

So if you enjoy your iPod and your uncensored Internet access, you have Justice Stevens to thank. Best wishes for a long, comfortable, and well-deserved retirement.

Justice Stevens’ Legacy: Unquestionable Integrity, Questionable Legal Judgment

John Paul Stevens, the oldest-ever and (by the end of the term) second-longest-serving Supreme Court justice, has had a long career that, judging by his fitness regimen—the envy of men much younger than he—could have continued for many years yet.  Justice Stevens is to be commended for his record of service in a variety of positions in the public and private sector.

Unfortunately, the jurisprudential legacy he leaves behind is much more checkered than his personal integrity and professionalism: Justice Stevens “grew” from his country-club Republican roots to becoming the Court’s liberal lion.  While a friend of liberty in certain limited circumstances, he ultimately hangs his hat on supporting government action over the rights of individuals in contexts ranging from property rights (Kelo v. New London) to the Second Amendment (D.C. v. Heller) to free speech (Citizens United and Texas v. Johnson, the flag-burning case) to executive agency power (Chevron).  And even on those issues where friends of liberty can disagree in good faith as a matter of policy, such as abortion and the death penalty, Stevens admittedly and unabashedly asserted his own policy preferences instead of following the law.

Each of the candidates on the “short list” to replace Stevens—most notably Elana Kagan, Diane Wood, and Merrick Garland—has pluses and minuses in terms of their approach to the law (not to mention politically).  But in any case this summer’s confirmation hearings will again show the American people the different approaches to the judicial role.  At a time when the constitutional interpretation looms large in an electoral context—not least with the growing discomfort over the massive new health reform—voters will be able to see the dangerous consequences of following the errant jurisprudential path that Justice Stevens blazed so honorably.

State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.