Roberts Court

  • July 18, 2014
    BookTalk

    The following interview of Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe about his book Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, Henry Holt and Co., 2014, ISBN 978-0-8050-9909-6) took place in the Ohio Room of the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C. on June 20 during the 2014 Convention of the American Constitution Society. The Interviewer is Frank Housh of the Housh Law Offices, PLLC, in Buffalo New York, Chair of the ACS WNY Lawyer Group and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

     

    Interviewer

    Your book seems to consciously avoid some of the characteristics of books written for the legal profession, such as voluminous footnotes and block quotes.  Was this a book meant for the general public?

    Laurence Tribe

    It wasn't so much that I consciously was not writing a book for lawyers. I was consciously not writing a book only for lawyers. I definitely want the legal community to get a better understanding than it seems to have displayed about what makes the Supreme Court operate the way it does, what drives the decisions, why the standard sort of press accounts are such oversimplified caricatures. At the same time, I certainly wanted to speak to my own colleagues and the people who teach constitutional law with fresh insights. So I didn't want it to be only for non-lawyers, but I wanted it to be very broadly accessible. So that for me, as soon as someone like Doris Kearns Goodwin said that she thought everybody would enjoy my book it, find it thrilling and fascinating, that's what I was aiming for—because I think that lawyers too often speak only to one another and judges and there's a kind of clique and almost a sort of inside mentality of the high priesthood of the law that I wanted to break through.

    Interviewer

    I guess that's what I meant by the question. It seems that you were constantly trying to avoid legal speak, legalese, that often accompanies writing by lawyers for lawyers.

    Laurence Tribe

    Right. And all the talk of levels of scrutiny and intermediate review and so on, things that are substitutes for thought very often, and that are pigeon holes, but very few birds are pigeons. 

    Interviewer

    I interpreted your book, especially the Prologue and Epilogue, as an attempt to write a historical perspective on the Roberts Court during its existence. Is that a fair statement? 

    Laurence Tribe

    It's not a retrospective view as it would be if I was writing about the Hughes, Taft, Stone,  Warren, or Burger Courts. It’s a Court in process; it's a Court that's ongoing. We're living through it and the world that we're living through is being constantly reshaped in profound and dramatic ways in respect to issues of personal anonymity, issues of whom you can marry, who can carry a gun, who can vote, what kinds of government action can be based on race and in what way, and what are the limits of the President's powers. It is really a book about things that are very much in the news and that affect all of us, but that most of us in a society that is self-governing understand far too little about. So I wanted to do my bit in overcoming that knowledge gap, that understanding gap.

  • June 18, 2014
    BookTalk
    Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
    By: 
    Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz

    by Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard Law School

    As the end of its 2013 Term fast approaches, the Roberts Court is unleashing major rulings seemingly every day. Addressing topics as varied as recess appointments, cell phone privacy, abortion clinic protest buffers, public sector unions, and securities class actions, these opinions (even those not yet announced) have already triggered heated debate. The clash of values this Term is fierce and unmistakable: religious liberty versus reproductive rights, digital privacy versus security, corruption versus free speech rights

    With critics lining up to praise or castigate the justices, a clear view of the Roberts Court is more important than ever. Only with a broad and even-handed understanding of the Court and its members can we fairly evaluate its decisions. And only by understanding where each justice is coming from, in an open-minded way that can be critical without trapping justices in scorn or stereotype, can we plan for the future.

    That’s why I wrote, with Joshua Matz, a book called Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution. Reflecting my decades of experience arguing before the Court and studying the Constitution—and Joshua’s learning as a former Harvard Law Review editor and SCOTUSbloggerUncertain Justice offers an overview of nearly every major opinion since John G. Roberts, Jr. was confirmed as Chief Justice in 2005. It also provides rich pictures of each justice and a panoramic view of the most important modern trends in American constitutional law. 

  • September 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Gene R. Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, UNC School of Law. This post is part of our 2013 Constitution Day symposium.

    In October, the Roberts Court will hear yet another case designed to allow it to work its unfettered magic on American campaign finance. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission will consider whether to unleash billions more dollars into the political system. As Ron White would put it, “now there’s some good news.”  

    McCutcheon asks, specifically, whether the almost forty-year-old aggregate limit on the amount any contributor can give directly to federal candidates and parties – now set at $123,200 – must fall. In what will likely be the Court’s most fateful campaign reform decision since Citizens United, there’s little doubt the cap will go. Who could possibly endure a political system that limits a person’s direct contributions to a measly one-eighth of a million dollars per cycle?   

    Having already laid waste to expenditure limitations in Citizens United, McCutcheon will, for the first time, invalidate a federal campaign contribution limit. It won’t be the last.

    Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General, has written that the McCutcheon case is “a not very thinly disguised first step to try to get an absolute, anything goes, no limits, regime on campaign contributions.” One could quibble, perhaps, with “first step’ moniker. But you get the point.

    It’s hard to believe, to be candid, that the uber-rich have a lot more they want to say politically. But apparently there is a good deal more they seek to buy. And on this potent and democracy-debilitating mission, John Roberts and The Four are just their huckleberry.

    One might think the purveyors of cash register politics would be satisfied with a system that allows private equity titans to pay half the income tax rate of fire fighters; gives massive subsidies to corporate farms as it slashes food stamps; and bails out Wall Street while it increases the payroll tax; but not so. More is, after all, better. And all is, apparently, best.

  • July 3, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Professor Anthony F. Renzo. Professor Renzo is teaching Constitutional Rights at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

    The close of the latest term of the Roberts Court provided more evidence of the conservative majority’s interest in protecting corporate America and government officials from being held accountable for violating the rights of everyday Americans. This includes hostility to challenges to abusive and unconstitutional actions by the federal government in its perpetual war on terror and the massive spying network that this war has spawned.

    The prime example from the latest term is the high court’s opinion in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which slammed the courthouse doors on a challenge to the broad and unchecked spying powers authorized by Congress in the 2008 Amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)(50 U.S.C. § 1881a.)  That Amendment, §1881a, vastly expands the government’s electronic surveillance powers by authorizing sweeping wiretaps even if the targets are not foreign agents or linked directly to terrorism. These powers include dragnet type surveillance operations of large categories of phone or email addresses that are not limited to any one individual or any particular place. While the statute limits targets to “non-U.S. persons,” the private conversations of those targets with American citizens and residents are not excluded from its scope. In any event, to the extent the statute imposes any meaningful limitations on the scope of the surveillance it authorizes, these limitations do not have the force of law because §1881a eliminates the requirement of a judicial warrant based on individualized probable cause. In effect, §1881a  strips the FISA Court of its checking power, replacing independent judicial review with a certification process that effectively makes the assertions of the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence conclusive evidence of the legality of the Executive’s own spying operations with no meaningful judicial oversight or constitutional scrutiny.

  • June 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has been itching to gut the landmark Voting Rights Act for some time and today it took a big step toward doing so. The conservative bloc led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which includes a formula for determining the states, towns and localities that must obtain approval or preclearance from the federal government for proposed changes to their voting laws and procedures.

    In its 2009 opinion in Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Mukasey, the conservative justices avoided the constitutional challenge to the heart of the Voting Rights Act, but nonetheless reiterated their desire to gut it.

    This time around a constitutional challenge brought by officials in a mostly white Alabama County gave the conservative bloc what it needed. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts noted that in Northwest, his conservative colleagues “expressed serious doubt about the Act’s continued constitutionality.”

    Roberts continued, “We explained that Sec. 5 ‘imposes substantial federalism costs’ and ‘differentiates between States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty.’ We also noted that ‘[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.’ Finally we questioned whether the problems that Sec. 5 meant to address were still ‘concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.’” Sec. 4 includes the forumla for deciding what jursidictions must comply with the VRA's Sec. 5 preclearance provision. 

    Though the case raised constitutional claims of equality among Americans, like ensuring minorities are not deprived of a fundamental right to vote, the conservative justices in Shelby were much more interested in equality among the states. As they put, citing Northwest, a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty. Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation ‘was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority.’ Indeed, ‘the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized.’”

    “The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles,” Roberts wrote. “It suspends ‘all changes to state election law – however innocuous – until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.”

    The conservative bloc was also incredibly confident that voter discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, mostly in the South, is a thing of the past. The majority pointed to an increase in minority registration and turnout.

    While voter discrimination allegedly subsided, Congress made the VRA more stringent and its formula for determining covered jurisdictions remained static, the majority groused. “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Roberts wrote.

    When Congress reauthorized the VRA in 1996, which it did overwhelmingly, it should have altered its coverage formula, Roberts argued. “It instead reenacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” he said.

    Roberts also claimed that the majority was carefully invalidating a provision of the VRA, and maintained the Court was providing “no holding” on Section 5. Instead Roberts said Congress could create a new formula.

    The dissent, lodged by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, however, found that the majority had usurped a job for Congress, and in a rather sloppy manner. (Congress, Ginsburg wrote, should be given deference in its constitutional authority to create appropriate legislation to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments.)