Justice Antonin Scalia died today. It is a profound loss to the Court, the nation, and to the study of law. Everyone should mourn his loss, no matter which side of the political spectrum they are on.
Yet, due to Scalia’s divisiveness, there will no doubt be many uncouth tweets, posts, and op-eds in the coming days from those who disagreed with him more often than not. While there are other justices on the “conservative” side of the Court, Scalia’s pugnacious and often vituperative opinions have a way of either getting under your skin (if you disagree) or making you triumphantly raise your fist in the air (if you agree). In my opinion, Scalia was not only finest writer ever to sit on the Court, he was one of the best rhetoricians in history.
In the coming days, we will see many reactions from across the political spectrum. I predict, and hope, that many of Scalia’s ideological opponents will give the man the respect he deserved. And perhaps that, more than anything, will be the testament to his enduring legacy. By any objective measure, Scalia is among the greatest justices in our history. With his penetrating logic and his colorful wit, Scalia was the most forceful and visible advocate for originalism, a theory of constitutional interpretation that was derided when he ascended to the bench and is now, for both liberals and conservatives, mainstream.
During law school, many of my classmates would comment on their intense dislike for Scalia. I always responded by pointing out how many opinions he had published in our textbooks. Those opinions weren’t just in there because they were comparatively fun to read, which is true, but because a Scalia opinion has a way of clarifying the legal questions at issue. They are perfect pedagogical devices.
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.
Richard Thaler writes in the New York Times:
Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym...Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?
Yes annnnd...yes. Next question.
Surely, the justices have the conceptual resources to draw a distinction between the health care market and the market for broccoli. And even if they don’t, then all the briefs, the zillions of blog posts and a generation’s worth of economic literature can help them.
If drawing a constitutionally meaningful distinction between the markets for health insurance and broccoli is child's play for Thaler, he should school all the brief- and blog-post-writers who so far have failed. That would have been a more productive use of his thousand words than his build-up to this thesis:
If you are opposed to a policy, state your case based on the merits — not on the imagined risk of what else might happen down the road. The path of that road is so unpredictable that it may even produce a U-turn.
Good grief. Slippery-slope arguments are about principles. As in, "If you concede this principle because you don't mind the result here, you will no longer have it to protect you against that bad result there." Thaler's thesis would lead, for example, to all manner of civil-liberties violations by the state because there simply isn't enough political support to protect all the civil liberties of various minorities. But Thaler doesn't want us to think about things like consequences or the future.
The potential for U-turns makes no more sense as an argument against invoking slippery slopes principles, because principled arguments can help generate the U-turn that opponents of, say, ObamaCare want to see.
I take silly arguments like this to be evidence that ObamaCare supporters are in complete panic mode.
In today's decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court unanimously found that the Ninth Circuit had jumped the gun in certifying what would have been one of the largest class actions in history, a job-bias action against the giant retailer on behalf of female employees. A five-justice majority led by Justice Scalia found that the plaintiffs had clearly not met the requirements needed to have the case certified for class treatment; four dissenters led by Justice Ginsburg would have sent the case back for more consideration.
While some press commentary simplistically treated this case as a "Which Side Are You On" parable of workplace sexism, both the majority and the dissent spend much time grappling with more lawyerly issues specific to class actions as a procedural format, such as the exact role of "common questions," whose implications will inevitably be felt in litigation far removed from the employment discrimination context. To sweep hundreds of thousands of workers (or consumers or investors) into a class as plaintiffs even if they personally have suffered no harm whatsoever -- to use sexism at Arizona stores to generate back pay awards in Vermont, and statistical disparities to prove bias without allowing defendants to introduce evidence that a given worker's treatment was fair -- bends the class action mechanism beyond its proper capacity. Also to the point, it is unfair.
Because both class action law and employment discrimination law are in the end creatures of federal statute, the elected branches will have the last word. Advocates of expansive employment litigation can be expected to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn key elements of today's decision, a strategy that has worked well for them in the past on issues like back pay, "disparate-impact" law and the scope of coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While we will soon be hearing a drumbeat to that effect, Congress should resist it, because the majority's opinion today is to be preferred as a matter of policy, fairness, and liberty.
In particular -- to take just one of the policy issues in employment law brought to center stage by today's case -- plaintiffs seek to establish that Wal-Mart's policy of decentralized manager discretion over pay and promotions is itself an unlawful practice because (they argue) it allows too wide a scope for (unconscious or otherwise) bias on the part of store managers, notwithstanding the company's adoption of overall policies banning sex bias. The majority led by Scalia marveled that Wal-Mart's corporate non-policy -- that is, its decision not to micromanage its local executives on personnel choices -- would wind up being legally interpreted as amounting to an affirmative centralized decision to discriminate. But it's not -- and we should be glad lawyers at every big company aren't yet insisting that every local HR decision be sent to a distant headquarters for fear of liability.
Today POLITICO Arena asks:
Is there anything inappropriate about Justice Scalia's speaking about the Constitution before Rep. Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus, as the New York Times editorial board suggests? Is it time to drop the fiction of a judicial monastery with justices detached from the political process?
There is nothing inappropriate about Justice Scalia's speaking today before the congressional Tea Party Caucus -- or any other group, for that matter, that is well within the mainstream of American politics. As POLITICO reports, Rep. Bachmann's event is open to all members of Congress, and several Democrats have said they'll attend.
The complaint by the editorial board of The New York Times -- that "the Tea Party epitomizes the kind of organization no justice should speak to" --reflects nothing more than that corner's refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Tea Party, notwithstanding last November's elections. When the board goes on to condemn the Tea Party's "well-known and extreme point of view about the Constitution," it might better direct its wrath at James Madison. After all, as the principal author of the Constitution, he's the Framer who promised in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be "few and defined" -- the "extreme" view the Times editorialists regularly condemn.
In deciding cases, judges and justices need to be detached from politics, of course: They belong to the "non-political branch." But that hardly precludes them from talking about the Constitution in political contexts. If anything, it is the Congress that needs to be more attentive to the Constitution its members take an oath to uphold. That, in fact, is the root of our problem today. And we have the Tea Party to thank for noticing it.
Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).
Essentially, Florida's "beach renourishment" program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had -- exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the "mean high water mark," etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into "beachview" property. After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court -- "SCOFLA" for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio -- reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.
As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless.”
I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat. That is, Justice Stevens recused himself -- he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program -- and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly. And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.
By my reckoning, Justice Scalia's questioning lent support to the property owners' position, as did Chief Justice Roberts' (though he could rule in favor of the "judicial takings" doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here). Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice. Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights. With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote. Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.
For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog. Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.
Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term. The Court already heard one argument -- in the Citizens United campaign finance case -- but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn't really count.
In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front-loaded its caseload -- with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already. Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:
- the application of the Second Amendment to state gun regulations;
- First Amendment challenges to national park monuments and a statute criminalizing the depiction of animal cruelty;
- an Eighth Amendment challenge to life sentences for juveniles; a potential revisiting of Miranda rights;
- federalism concerns over legislation regarding the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons;
- a separation-of-powers dispute concerning the agency enforcing Sarbanes-Oxley;
- judicial takings of beachfront property; and
- notably in these times of increasing government control over the economy, the “reasonableness” of mutual fund managers’ compensation.
Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra-close attention.
Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice -- and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court. While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity. Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent -- and the first term is not necessarily indicative.
Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right. We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument -- questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights -- so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.
In short, it's the first day of school and I'm excited.