Tag: Supreme Court

Senate Panel Endorses Sotomayor

The judiciary committee’s vote to endorse Sonia Sotomayor is not surprising. None of the Democrats are from red states and so have little to fear from voters, while the quixotic Lindsey Graham—in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over experience—was the only Republican to have set aside legitimate qualms and voted for the “wise Latina.” But voting on a Supreme Court nomination is more than a matter of deciding whether a nominee is “qualified”—even if Sonia Sotomayor had been a leading light of the judiciary rather than just the best available Hispanic woman—or deferring to the president. Instead, Senator Dick Durbin had it right when he said during John Roberts’s confirmation hearings that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.”

Given Sotomayor’s repeated rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective or discernible from written text, her inability in oral and written testimony to even state a position on important cases and legal doctrine beyond an acceptance of precedent—by which she would no longer be bound in her new role—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably on the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings and on using foreign law to inform constitutional interpretation. Because of her evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like Sotomayor less now than when she was first nominated.

And so, in following the “burden of proof” paradigm and also respecting the logic of Senator Arlen Specter, who curiously evoked Scottish law at President Clinton’s impeachment trial to vote “not proven,” I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Message to the International Community: There’s Separation of Powers in Honduras

Roberto Michelleti, the interim president of Honduras, has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that should be read by members of the international community that continue to push for the immediate restoration of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency.

Michelletti states that

“The Honduran people must have confidence that their Congress is a co-equal branch of government. They must be assured that the rule of law in Honduras applies to everyone, even their president, and that their Supreme Court’s orders will not be dismissed and swept aside by other nations as inconvenient obstacles.”

The message is clear: there’s separation of powers in Honduras, and the country’s authorities cannot simply ignore the rulings of both Congress and the Supreme Court in order to reach an agreement. The international community, which is supposedly acting on behalf of democracy, should know that.

Sotomayor Doesn’t Deserve a Supreme Court Seat

Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week’s confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.

It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.

But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.

Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee’s evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.

And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt “burden of proof” paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Sotomayor Playing Out the Clock

As she began to do more and more yesterday, the nominee has started today’s hearings with a series of painfully drawn-out non-answers to Senator Kyl’s questions.

Kyl is pointing out the conflict between Sotomayor’s claim that in Ricci she was simply following precedent and the Supreme Court’s finding that there was no precedent on point—and so Sotomayor’s panel summary disposition was improper.

Sotomayor’s responses have ranged from explaining again the procedural posture of the case, to references to irrelevant background cases (not binding precedent), to recounting en banc voting procedures in the Second Circuit. It is clear that, even as the Republicans reload and regroup at every break and recess, Sotomayor has been counseled to talk and talk—again, in an excruciatingly slow rate—without really saying anything.

CP Townhall

Lack of Deep Thinking = Belief in the Living Constitution?

In a twist on the “lack of deep thinking” idea, part of what might be going on in Sotomayor’s head—why she keeps answering questions about judicial philosophy with reference to precedent rather than constitutional first principles is because she’s not an originalist. How can we hope for her to tell us her understanding of the meaning of the constitutional text, after all, if that text’s meaning changes with the times?

For example, Stuart Smalley Al Franken asked Sotomayor point blank, “do you believe the right to privacy includes the right to have an abortion?” The nominee began here response with: “The Court has said….” That is, it is not the Constitution—whatever your view of it may be, whether you think it contains a right to abortion or not—that is the supreme law of the land, but what nine black-robed philosopher-kings say. Of course, if your (non-)theory of constitutional interpretation is to keep “improving” the document—and to keep one step ahead of public opinion, so judges can effect social “progress”—then it’s irrelevant what the Constitution said before the Supreme Court put its gloss on it.

And if you subscribe to this “living Constitution” or “active liberty” theory, then naturally the life experiences of a “wise Latina,” along with lessons from foreign and international law—which, Sotomayor said as recently as her April speech to ACLU, get a judge’s “creative juices flowing”—are all valid parts of your jurisprudential toolkit.

CP Townhall

Hate Crimes Bill Becomes an Amendment

Unsure about prospects on passing the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act as a stand-alone bill, proponents intend to attach it as an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill. As I have said previously, this bill is an affront to federalism and counterproductive hater-aid.

Federal Criminal Law Power Grab

This legislation awards grants to jurisdictions for the purpose of combating hate crimes. It also creates a substantive federal crime of violent acts motivated by the “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person.”

This is a federalization of a huge number of intrastate crimes. It is hard to imagine a rape case where the sex of the victim is not an issue. The same goes for robbery - why grab a wallet from someone who can fight back on equal terms when you can pick a victim who is smaller and weaker than you are?

This would be different if this were a tweak to sentencing factors.

If this were a sentence enhancement on crimes motivated by racial animus - a practice sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Mitchell - then it would be less objectionable if there were independent federal jurisdiction.

Thing is, the federal government has already done this, with the exception of gender identity, with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (scroll to page 334 at the link):

If the finder of fact at trial or, in the case of a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, the court at sentencing determines beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or any property as the object of the offense of conviction because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person, increase by 3 levels.

The contrast between a sentence enhancement and a substantive crime gives us an honest assessment of what Congress is doing - federalizing intrastate acts of violence.

If Congress were to pass a law prohibiting the use of a firearm or any object that has passed in interstate commerce to commit a violent crime, it would clearly be an unconstitutional abuse of the Commerce Clause.

Minus the hate crime window dressing, that is exactly what this law purports to do.

What this really amounts to is a power grab - giving the federal government power to try or re-try violent crimes that are purely intrastate. Just as the Supreme Court invalidated the Gun Free School Zones Act in United States v. Lopez because it asserted a general federal police power, this law should be resisted as a wholesale usurpation of the states’ police powers.

The act also essentially overrules United States v. Morrison, where the Court overruled a federal civil remedy for intrastate gender-motivated violence. Forget a civil remedy; while we’re re-writing the constitution through the Commerce Clause let’s get a criminal penalty on the books.

Trials as Inquisitions

The hate crime bill will also turn trials into inquisitions. The focus of prosecution could be on whether you ever had a disagreement with someone of another “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.” Worse yet, it can turn to whether you have any close friends in one of these categories, as demonstrated in the Ohio case State v. Wyant. The defendant denied that he was a racist, which led to the following exchange in cross-examination on the nature of the defendant’s relationship with his black neighbor:

Q. And you lived next door … for nine years and you don’t even know her first name?

A. No.

Q. Never had dinner with her?

A. No.

Q. Never gone out and had a beer with her?

A. No… .

Q. You don’t associate with her, do you?

A. I talk with her when I can, whenever I see her out.

Q. All these black people that you have described that are your friends, I want you to give me one person, just one who was really a good friend of yours.

David Neiwert says that this won’t happen because of a constitutional backstop in the legislation. Unfortunately, the House version of the bill explicitly endorses impeaching a defendant in exactly this manner:

In a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense. However, nothing in this section affects the rules of evidence governing impeachment of a witness.

Worse yet, the Senate version of the hate crime bill, the one which will likely become law after conference committee, does not contain this provision. Instead, it explicitly says:

Courts may consider relevant evidence of speech, beliefs, or expressive conduct to the extent that such evidence is offered to prove an element of a charged offense or is otherwise admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Nothing in this Act is intended to affect the existing rules of evidence.

Anyone want to bet that an aggressive prosecutor could find that not having a close enough relationship with your neighbor counts as “expressive conduct” for the purposes of prosecution?

Future Push for More Federal Authority Over Intrastate Crimes

The hate crime bill also pushes a snowball down the mountain toward wholesale federalization of intrastate crime. In a few years this snowball will be an avalanche. By making any gender-motivated crime a hate crime, which will necessarily include nearly all rapes, we will define ordinary street crimes as hate crimes.

With a consistent average of 90,000 rapes a year, this expansion of hate crime definition will come back in a few years where those ignorant of the change in terms will wonder why hate crime is now rampant. “Rampant” only because we have made the relevant definition over-inclusive to the point of being meaningless.

And in a few years, we can revisit this issue with a fierce moral urgency to pass more feel-good legislation that upends state police powers in an effort to do something - anything - to confront this perceived crisis. A perception that Congress is creating in this legislation.

Sotomayor Displays a Lack of Deep Thinking

It strikes me that Sotomayor has been fairly forthright in her responses to questioning, not hiding too much behind the tired cliché that she can’t answer a question because it could lead to prejudging a case—certainly far less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even John Roberts.  Still, on several important issues, such as property rights, national security law, abortion, and even her overall judicial philosophy, she has appeared disingenuous in saying that she has no firm views on the subject—hiding behind precedent again and again as if first principles didn’t exist.  In other words, she says a lot—displaying a broad knowledge of cases and legal doctrine—without answering larger questions.  She answers questions about what the law should be with what the law is, questions about what the Constitution says with what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution.

This would be barely appropriate for a nominee to a lower court, who is, of course, bound by precedent.  But senators rightly want to know a Supreme Court nominee’s preferred legal theories, what her view of the Constitution is unencumbered by others’ attempts to interpret that document.

The more Sotomayor speaks, the more it becomes clear that these types of nonanswers, this inability to see (or lack of desire to express) a big picture view, is her own essence.  It continues a pattern that is evident from her judicial opinions, which are mostly unremarkable and, in the neutral sense of that term, unimpressive.  For all her career success and a personal story we should all celebrate, she is an average judge who apparently gives little thought to the broad swath of law and where her rulings fit into that.

That is, Sonia Sotomayor is not a Cass Sunstein or Larry Tribe or Elana Kagan or (fellow circuit judge) Diane Wood.  She is not a scholar or an ideologue.  Her liberality is reflexive and warmed-over, a product of the post-modern educational environment that formed her in the 1970s—complete with ethnic activism—but not an intellectual edifice.  This does not mean she isn’t a danger to liberty and the rule of law, or that her votes and opinions won’t harm the Constitution.  But it does indicate that, for all her bluster about being a “wise Latina,” she is little more than a left-leaning empty robe.

CP Townhall