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.
I was one of those who opposed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, mainly because the pick was based on race and gender rather than merit and she was disingenuous and obfuscatory at her confirmation hearings. Well, the Court still hasn't decided any cases argued with Justice Sotomayor on the bench -- and the first term isn't always indicative of the kind of jurist a new justice will be -- but we do have some early statistics about her performance.
It turns out that, unlike her next most junior colleague, Justice Alito -- who hung back early in his tenure while learning the rhythms of the Court -- Justice Sotomayor has not been a shrinking violet in her questioning of advocates. Indeed, according to a National Law Journal tally, during the 13 November arguments that just concluded, she asked 146 questions (or 11.2 per case), which is even ahead of where Chief Justice Roberts was at this point in his career. And, because Sotomayor speaks more often than her more reserved predecessor, Justice Souter, she has made a "hot" bench even hotter.
By another indicator, however, Sotomayor ranks at the bottom of the Supreme Court table: Apparently her questioning has not yet generated a single laugh (as measured by such indications in the argument transcript). Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia leads in that department -- as he long has, both in absolute and per-question terms -- with the Chief being the only other justice in double figures. Joining Sotomayor with a goose-egg so far this year are Justices Ginsburg and Thomas (who hasn't asked a question since 2006). If you're curious about last year's final standings, see here.
For what it's worth, all this accords with the sense I've gotten from the handful of times I've been to the Court for oral argument so far this term. To my mind, Sotomayor is still acting as a Court of Appeals judge -- or maybe even a district judge -- asking simpler questions about the factual record or procedural history rather than the broader issues the Court tends to grapple with. And therefore I'll go out on a counterintuitive limb here to predict that, as Sotomayor settles into her new role, her questioning will become less frequent but more substantive.
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.
I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court. The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign. Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.
After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment's authors experienced firsthand. They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum. Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United. That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about "level playing fields" and speculation over the "appearance of corruption." The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!
A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case. It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan -- in her inaugural argument in any court -- all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws. And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate! (She went on to also reverse the government's position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government's compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)
Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion. That is, the larger -- and more interesting -- question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech. Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial "minimalism." The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument -- "we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats" -- and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.
One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the "democratic process." While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she'll behave now that she doesn't answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government "reform."
Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat -- in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area -- was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery). I didn't notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would've tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.
Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.
All Americans should take pride in seeing our first Hispanic Supreme Court justice (not counting Benjamin Cardozo). While this moment should have belonged to Miguel Estrada—who was denied even a vote by an unprecedented Democratic filibuster—we should nevertheless celebrate Sonia Sotomayor’s rise from very humble beginnings to reach the highest court in the land. Although her selection represents the very worst of racial politics—she is not a leading light of the judiciary and would not have been considered had she not been a Hispanic woman—her career achievements show that the American Dream endures.
What makes the American Dream possible, however, is the rule of law, which in this country is ultimately guaranteed by the Constitution. The Constitution provides for a very specific government structure, with checks on each branch’s powers designed to maximize liberty and eliminate arbitrary and capricious rule. To that end, officers of the judicial branch—judges—are to make their decisions irrespective of the race, religion, or riches of those who come before them. And judges are to interpret the Constitution as written text. If they set aside the text and rule based on their own notions of fairness, then they act as unelected legislators or, worse, extra-constitutional amenders of our founding document.
Nominee Sotomayor knew all this, which is why the testimony she gave at her confirmation hearings disclaimed many of her previous speeches and writings, even going so far as to reject President Obama’s “empathy” standard—the idea that a judge applies the law differently when a litigant is sympathetic in some politically correct way. While she was evasive most of the time—reason enough to vote against her—when she did say something about judicial philosophy, it was often indistinguishable from the words of John Roberts or Samuel Alito (as evidenced by the frustration of left-wing commentators). And for good reason: in poll after poll, the American people overwhelmingly support a vision of the judicial role as one of enforcing the law as written, not of imposing their own policy preferences or vision of justice.
Kudos from this exercise go to those Republicans whose hard questions and thoughtful statements elevated the discussion of the Constitution beyond mere abstractions, so Americans could better understand the significance of ideological differences over the judicial role, or the use of foreign law in interpreting the Constitution, or property rights, or employment discrimination. In walking away from so many controversial positions, Sonia Sotomayor established a new standard to which all future nominees will at least have to pay lip service. While confirmation was almost a foregone conclusion from the start because of the Democrats’ strong Senate majority, the Republicans played well the cards they had been dealt by engaging in a serious discussion about constitutional interpretation and jurisprudential philosophy.
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.
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.