The government shutdown has not resulted, so far, in the Supreme Court shuttering its doors and its 2013-2014 Term starts Oct. 7. The new Term might fairly be dubbed a stealth term, especially after two "blockbuster" ones that produced major rulings on health care reform, marriage equality, voting rights and affirmative action. But the new term, like many terms, carries the potential for significant change.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently tagged the Roberts Court as the most activist in terms of overturning acts of Congress. It's also a Court that has made it more difficult for many Americans to access the court system and produced win after win for business interests.
So let's look at a few of the cases that should be on everyone's radar. These cases should also remind us of the importance of judges who interpret the Constitution with a deep understanding of our challenges today and the ability to apply the Constitution's broad language and principles to them. For it makes little sense, as Erwin Chemerinsky notes in this ACSblog post, "to be governed in the 21st century by the intent of those in 1787 ...." For additional discussion of the forthcoming Term, see the annual preview hosted by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).
Earlier this year, a little more than a month after mass shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, President Obama discussed the challenges of trying to implement gun safety measures and announced more than 20 executive orders, including an order for the Centers for Disease Control to study ways to reduce gun violence. The president’s call for Congress to take action and approve modest new measures flopped … in the Senate. And even if senators had approved new measures promoting gun safety it is hard to believe they would have been considered in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are bent on protecting the financial industry and defunding of the Affordable Care Act.
But executive orders alone are hardly going to reframe the debate let alone significantly curtail gun violence. Yet another study shows how obstinate refusal to even basic reforms of gun regulation is needlessly taking innocent lives yearly.
In an extensive piece forThe New York Times, Michael Luo and Mike McIntire reveal that accidental deaths of children because of guns are far higher than government statistics show, primarily because of the success of the gun lobby in defeating all kinds of efforts, including research to promote gun safety. The Times reported that a “review of hundreds of child firearm deaths found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by authorities. As a result, scores of accidental killings are not reflected in official statistics that have framed the debate over how to protect children from guns.”
That debate has largely been controlled by gun enthusiasts and their lobbyists, who frequently blast any regulation as an encroachment on Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms. For, example, The Times noted that the National Rifle Association cited the inaccurate numbers of accidental child firearm deaths in its campaign to scuttle laws requiring the safe storage of guns. State lawmakers ape the NRA’s talking points, often arguing that safe-storage laws would undermine adults’ efforts to protect themselves from intruders.
Moreover the newspaper noted that the gun lobby has remained successful at making sure firearms remain exempt from “regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” As one expert lamented, “We know in the world of injury controls that designing safer products is often the most efficient way to reduce tragedies. Why, if we have childproof aspirin bottles, don’t we have childproof guns?”
The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, ruled in 2008 in D.C. v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. That ruling greatly enhanced the gun lobby’s cudgel against any consideration of new gun safety measures, such as ones intended to encourage parents to keep firearms stored safely.
If you are in prison today, you are likely a minority and poor, as Southern Center for Human Rights leader Stephen Bright noted in an interview with ACSblog highlighted earlier this week.
Many are also imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. A report from the Brennan Center notes that nearly “half the people in state prisons are there for drug crimes. Almost half the people in federal prisons are there for drug crimes. Only 7.6 percent of federal cocaine prosecutions and 1.8 percent of federal crack cocaine prosecutions are for high level trafficking.”
While the Department of Justice recently announced that prosecutors should not seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, Professor Alex Kreit notes that there are “many moving parts” to the nation’s costly war on drugs, which have developed over several decades. The drug war and its impact will not be erased overnight.
In an interview with ACSblog, Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Foundations, takes note of the lengthy war on drugs and its devastating impact on minority communities.
Taifa said, “Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, by mass incarceration.” And even with some progress, such as the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act, the statistics “remain staggering.”
She continued, “It is daunting to know that one in three young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system on any given day, at any given time; whether in prison, whether in jail, whether on probation, whether on parole.”
Taifa concluded that the situation has greatly harmed generations of minorities. “This absolutely must stop."
When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric. There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.
Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria. With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy? Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?
While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”
This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy.
As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.
Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.
Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”
From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)