Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • June 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    The Supreme Court’s decision upholding a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians surprised no one, but that makes the victory for liberty and equality no less important. Two years ago, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared unconstitutional a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The Court held that there was no legitimate purpose served by the federal government refusing to recognize same sex marriages.

    Virtually every lower court, except for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, interpreted Windsor as providing a basis for invalidating laws prohibiting same sex marriage. As a result, as the Supreme Court considered the issue, marriage equality existed in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The issue before the Court was less about whether to extend marriage equality and more about whether the Court would take it away from all of the states where it existed by virtue of Court decisions.

    Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision reflects that there is no legitimate government purpose served by denying gays and lesbians of the right to marry. A history of discrimination never is enough to justify current discrimination. The argument based on procreation was silly.  Gay and lesbian couples will procreate – by adoption, surrogacy, and artificial insemination – whether they can marry or not. Their children should be able to benefit from marriage, the same as children of heterosexual couples.

    The Court’s decision will be regarded as a historic landmark for advancing equality and liberty. It is the Court playing exactly the role that it should in society:  protecting those who have been traditionally discriminated against and extending to them a right long regarded as fundamental.

  • June 23, 2015
    BookTalk
    The Grasping Hand
    "Kelo v. City of New Lond" and the Limits of Eminent Domain
    By: 
    Ilya Somin

    by Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He writes regularly for the popular Volokh Conspiracy Blog, affiliated with The Washington Post.

    Ten years ago today, in Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could condemn fifteen residential properties in order to transfer them to a new private owner for purposes of promoting “economic development.” Although the Fifth Amendment only permits the taking of private property for  “public use,” the Court ruled that  virtually any potential public benefit qualifies as such, even if the government fails to prove that the supposed benefit will ever actually materialize. My new book The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain, is the first work by a legal scholar about one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial modern decisions.

    In the book I argue that Kelo was a grave error. In chapters 2 and 3, I discuss why economic development and “blight" condemnations that transfer property to private interests, are unconstitutional under both originalist and most “living constitution” theories of legal interpretation. Though the ruling was consistent with previous precedents, the Supreme Court can and should have either overruled those badly flawed prior decisions or at least limited their scope (as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor advocated in her dissent).

    These types of condemnations victimize the poor and the politically weak for the benefit of powerful interest groups, and often destroy more economic value than they create. Since the Supreme Court first ruled that a “public use” can be almost anything the government says it is, hundreds of thousands of people have lost homes or small businesses to  blight and economic development takings. Most were poor, racial or ethnic minorities, or lacking in political influence. Kelo itself exemplifies some of these patterns. The residents targeted for condemnation lacked the influence needed to combat the formidable government and corporate interests arrayed against them, including Pfizer, an influential pharmaceutical firm that expected to benefit from the condemnations.  Moreover, the city's poorly conceived development plan ultimately failed: the condemned land lies empty to this day, occupied only by feral cats. The only “development” produced so far consists of some improvised shelters constructed for the cats, by neighborhood residents.
     
    The Supreme Court's unpopular ruling triggered an unprecedented political reaction. Polls showed that over 80 percent of Americans oppose the ruling, a sentiment that cut across partisan, ideological, and racial lines. This is one of the rare issues where Ralph Nader, Rush Limbaugh, and the NAACP, were all on the same side.

  • June 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    I do not like the idea of confederate flags on license plates issued by the State of Texas, but I found the Court’s reasoning very troubling in allowing the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to prohibit this. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Court in a 5-4 decision, held that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not violate the First Amendment in refusing to issue a license plate with the confederate battle flag.

    Texas, like all states, requires license plates on cars. In Texas, people can have either the general type of plates issued by the state or they may have specialty plates. One type of specialty plates are those where a non-profit organization asks the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board to approve a design and then issue plates with it. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a specialty license plate design featuring a confederate battle flag, but the Board rejected the proposal.

    The Supreme Court held that the Board did not violate the First Amendment because license plates are government speech and when the government is the speaker it cannot violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority said, “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” The Court explained, “Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, government would not work.” The government must be able to express messages such as to encourage recycling or energy conservation or vaccination of children.

    The Court said that the license plate is government speech and therefore the choice of the Board to not allow the confederate flag does not violate the First Amendment. The Court stressed that license plates have long communicated messages from the state and that license plate designs are perceived by the public as coming from the state. The Court said that Texas license plates are essentially government IDs. The Court stressed that Texas retains control over the content of its license plates. The Court said that Texas was not creating a forum for private speech, where the First Amendment would apply, but it was Texas speaking itself.

    It is easy to like the result in this case because confederate battle flags convey a message of racism that is inherently hurtful and divisive.   Indeed, it may be for exactly this reason that Justice Clarence Thomas was the fifth vote in the majority – joining Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan – in an alignment that is rare on the Court.  In Virginia v. Black (2003), Justice Thomas was the sole dissenter arguing that the government should be able to ban cross burning because of its vile history and hateful message.

  • June 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric Ruben, Jurisprudence Fellow, The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law

    Tomorrow, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit will rehear oral arguments in Peruta v. County of San Diego, a case that spawned an originalist opinion last year that would have drastically increased the number of people publicly carrying handguns in California and Hawaii.

    California, Hawaii, and seven states outside the Ninth Circuit have “may issue” laws and policies requiring applicants to show a heightened need for self-defense — something beyond a generalizable fear of being attacked — before they can receive a permit to carry concealed handguns in public. The plaintiffs in Peruta wanted to carry handguns, could not satisfy this requirement, and sued in federal court alleging a violation of their Second Amendment rights.

    Peruta represents one of the most significant Second Amendment cases since 2008, when the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, the Supreme Court held for the first time in over 200 years that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a handgun inside the home for self-defense. In 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted, modern semi-automatic firearms didn’t exist and elected officials weren’t struggling to find solutions to a massive gun crime problem. But Heller expressly rejected an analysis that took into consideration the government’s interest in dealing with a deadly modern-day problem. Rather, the Heller majority, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, relied almost exclusively on an historical analysis for its conclusion, asserting that “[c]onstitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them.” The history considered in Heller, however, arguably does not dictate Heller’s holding. Liberal and conservative commentators alike have criticized Heller’s originalism for providing a misleading historical cloak for an activist judicial ruling.

    Heller left unresolved many obvious issues, such as the scope of the right to bear arms outside the home and how lower courts should decide Second Amendment challenges — through a purely originalist analysis or by applying means-ends scrutiny that would take into consideration the government’s interest in preventing violent crime, death, and injuries. Those issues have been considered by lower courts in the hundreds of legal challenges to firearm regulations since Heller, and they are at the heart of Peruta.

    The Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits have held that “may issue” laws like California’s in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are constitutional. Those courts, and the majority of lower courts considering Second Amendment challenges since Heller, have refrained from grounding their decisions in originalism. The rejection of originalism as the sole basis for decision making is likely a reflection of the fact that (as in Heller) the history is often disputed and busy judges are neither trained nor equipped to answer nuanced historical questions on the basis of necessarily limited records. When the Second Circuit considered New York’s “may issue” statute in 2012, it found the history “highly ambiguous” and upheld the law under intermediate scrutiny, concluding that the law was substantially related to the achievement of an important government interest — public safety and crime prevention. The Third and Fourth Circuits employed similar analyses to uphold New Jersey’s and Maryland’s “may issue” laws in 2013.

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    Nothing in the almost two and a half hours of oral arguments altered my prediction that at the end of June 2015 the Supreme Court will hold that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage deny equal protection to gays and lesbians. The only question is whether it will be 5-4 or 6-3 to declare unconstitutional laws prohibiting marriage equality and whether the opinion will be written by Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    Why the certainty of this prediction? To begin with, the states that are defending their bans on same-sex marriage – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee –failed to articulate any legitimate justification for their laws. In reality, the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage stem from a moral condemnation of homosexuality, but the Supreme Court has been explicit that it will not accept such a justification for laws discriminating against gays and lesbians.

    So the states are trying to defend their laws by stressing tradition and the historic definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. But a tradition of discrimination is not an acceptable reason in the courts for continuing to discriminate. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state law that prohibited interracial marriage. Such laws had existed throughout American history, even in California until the 1940s. But the Court rightly gave no deference to this tradition and rejected the argument that the definition of marriage should be left to the political process.

    The primary argument made by the states is that marriage is linked to procreation and that only opposite sex couples can procreate without artificial assistance. Michigan, for example, declares in its brief:   “Separating marriage from procreation dramatically changes the state’s interest in the institution. . . .  It is the state’s interest to encourage opposite-sex couples to enter into a permanent, exclusive union within which to have and raise children that motivates state marriage laws.”