Supreme Court

  • April 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric J. Segall, Kathy and Lawrence Ashe Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law. Follow Professor Segall on Twitter @espinsegall.

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

    On April 28, the Supreme Court will hear arguments challenging the same-sex marriage bans currently in place in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan.  Here are my predictions for both the argument and the ultimate decision (in ascending order of certainty).

    1.      After the questioning stops and Chief Justice Roberts officially closes the oral argument with his consistent mantra, “The case is submitted,” no human being will ever be able to see any video recording (or photograph) of this historic day at the Court.  Sadly, this is a fact, not a prediction.

    2.      During the argument, Justice Thomas will 1) not utter a syllable; 2) look uncomfortable for most of the argument; and 3) eventually write a dissent saying he would of course not vote for the bans on same-sex marriage if he were a legislator but nothing in the Constitution prevents states from adopting them.  This could be avoided if Justice Thomas would just re-read the Equal Protection Clause (no “person” shall be denied the “equal protection of the laws”).

    3.      Justice Kennedy will try to out gun Judge Posner’s shredding of lawyers who tried to defend the same-sex marriage bans on the basis that they somehow further the states’ interests in the welfare of children and the family.  Kennedy will come close to matching Posner’s witty ire but he won’t succeed.

    4.      Justice Kennedy will eventually write a decision striking down the same-sex marriage bans on the basis that there are no rational reasons for the bans other than unconstitutional dislike of gays and lesbians.  His decision will not be as entertaining or persuasive as Posner’s, but it will count a whole lot more.

    5.      No Justice will ask about the perplexing amicus brief filed by “same-sex attracted” men (and their wives) arguing that overturning same-sex marriage bans would be an affront to their “dignity.”  Please don’t ask me to explain this brief.

  • April 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law. Follow Professor Winkler on Twitter @adamwinkler.

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

    Oral argument in the Supreme Court can be opaque, especially for those who aren’t well versed in the legal issues at stake or the precedents likely to be considered.  During oral argument, the justices aren’t interested in educating the citizenry.  They are trying to gain a better understanding of the case or subtly influencing the votes of their colleagues, so the questions and comments fly  quickly—and usually right over the heads of anyone but the experts.  Because oral argument in the same-sex marriages cases will draw an extraordinary amount of public attention, here’s a list of five things to watch for when the justices hold Court on April 28.

     

    1.    Justice Kennedy

    The first and most obvious thing to pay careful attention to is the questioning by Justice Anthony Kennedy.  With four justices who lean liberal and four who lean conservative, the Supreme Court has long been the Kennedy Court.  Because Kennedy has written all the major pro-gay rights decisions of the Supreme Court in recent years, many people assume he’ll vote in favor of marriage equality.  If I were a betting person, that’s where I’d put my money, too.  Yet it’s worth remembering that Kennedy’s opinions in those cases have always been compromises.  In Romer v. Evans, he declined to say that sexual orientation was a suspect classification.  In Lawrence v. Texas, he didn’t say gay intimacy was a fundamental right that triggered strict scrutiny.  In U.S. v. Windsor, half his opinion rested on states’ rights.  If Kennedy was serious in Windsor’s ode to the traditional autonomy of states over marriage, it could spell trouble.  That’s why it’s worth paying close attention to what Kennedy says at oral argument.  Is he skeptical of the state’s arguments?  Does he express concern about the implications of overturning the marriage bans?  Or does he emphasize the harms that come from denying LGBT couples marriage?  Kennedy, in this as in most other cases, is the vote that counts.

    2.    Baker v. Nelson

    Often lost in the current debate over marriage is that the Supreme Court has already held there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage.  Or at least that’s one way to read Baker v. Nelson, a 1971 case that raised the issue.  The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld that state’s restriction of marriage to one man and one woman, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.  The justices summarily affirmed the lower court decision “for want of a substantial federal question.”  In other words, the challenge to the marriage ban didn’t even raise a colorable constitutional claim.  Will the justices treat Baker as binding precedent warranting their deference under the principle of stare decisis?  There are good reasons to believe they won’t.  The law and society has changed immensely since 1971.  Back then, laws discriminating against women didn’t even trigger any form of heightened review.  Besides, do the justices ever really treat any prior decision as binding?

  • April 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Lisa Heinzerling, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center

    Most would agree that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is one of our least effective federal environmental laws.  It is a welcome development, then, that Congress has begun seriously to consider legislation to reform this statute.  However, a prominent TSCA reform bill now circulating in Congress – the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, sponsored by Tom Udall and David Vitter – may stymie meaningful federal regulation of chemicals while preempting the state laws that have stepped into the breach opened by the failure of TSCA.  This would leave us even worse off than we are today.

    It is common ground among experts in the law of toxic substances control that a major reason for the failure of TSCA is the paralyzing effect of a 1991 federal court decision – Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA – invalidating the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on asbestos.  There, the court piled on stifling analytical requirements as prerequisites for regulatory action on toxic chemicals and applied strikingly strict scrutiny to EPA's evaluation of the costs and benefits of banning asbestos.  So large does this decision loom in the failed history of TSCA that any law aiming to reform TSCA will almost certainly be viewed with close attention to how the law purports to change the features of TSCA that spelled doom for EPA's ban on asbestos in Corrosion Proof Fittings.

    Here is the rub: In two significant respects, the Udall-Vitter bill does not change the features of TSCA that undid EPA’s asbestos ban.  The bill retains the same overall formulation of the safety standard to be achieved (protection against “unreasonable risks”) and the same standard for judicial review (“substantial evidence”) that together brought down the ban on asbestos.  To retain these features of TSCA even though they proved so damaging in the litigation over asbestos is to signal that the Udall-Vitter formula for TSCA reform is not so reformative after all.

    For the safety standard, the Udall-Vitter bill pairs a standard of "no unreasonable risk of harm to health or the environment" with an instruction to EPA not to consider "cost or other nonrisk factors" in determining whether a risk is “unreasonable.”  For many years, courts have interpreted “unreasonable,” when used in health, safety and environmental statutes, to permit a balancing of costs and benefits.  It is thus confusing to pair the term “unreasonable risk” with an injunction not to consider costs and other factors besides risk.  Yet the Udall-Vitter bill does not provide further clarity; it nowhere defines “unreasonable risk.”

    Legal confusion has consequences.  When a statute is ambiguous, courts will defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of that statute.  The juxtaposition of language signaling a desire for cost-benefit balancing and language signaling a hostility to such balancing may be unclear enough to allow the EPA ultimately to exercise its discretion to choose which approach – cost-benefit balancing or no cost-benefit balancing – to adopt.  Whatever EPA's present inclinations in this regard might be, there is no guarantee they will remain fixed in future administrations.

  • April 14, 2015
    BookTalk
    The Workplace Constitution
    from the New Deal to the New Right
    By: 
    Sophia Z. Lee

    by Sophia Z. Lee, Professor of Law & History, University of Pennsylvania Law School

    “Right to work” is dominating the news, making headway in union strongholds and finding sympathy on the Supreme Court.  Yet the concept of a legal “right to work” harkens back to the early Twentieth Century when this and other substantive due process doctrines were used to strike down Progressive labor laws.  The New Deal Court supposedly laid to rest this “Lochner era” (thus named for an emblematic 1905 decision holding that a New York maximum-hours law violated workers’ and employers’ freedom of contract).  So how have right-to-work proponents managed to rally successfully behind such an anachronistic term?

    The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right provides the first legal history of the right-to-work campaign.  As it demonstrates – right-to-work strategists’ Lochner-era moniker notwithstanding – these savvy and forward-looking activists quickly replaced their substantive due process claims with ones based on the First Amendment.  In the process, they forged a modern conservative civil rights campaign that grew up alongside its liberal counterparts.

    The conservative activists who fought the union power unleashed by the New Deal had sturdy Lochner-era roots.  Even before the New Deal, employers had moderated their open-shop activism, insisting that they were anti-closed shops, not anti-union.  When activists first gathered under the right-to-work banner in the early 1940s, their argument that no one should have to join or support a union to keep a job was in keeping with that Lochner-era position.  In 1944, Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille brought the first right-to-work lawsuit over a one dollar assessment levied by his union.  DeMille’s suit likewise relied on Lochner-era substantive due process claims and precedent.

    But right-to-work activists quickly updated their legal claims to fit the emerging civil rights and civil liberties regime.  Even DeMille’s suit reflected this change: On appeal, DeMille’s lawyers added First Amendment forced speech claims based on the 1943 Supreme Court decision West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, which found that public schools could not compel students to salute the flag.  

    In the 1950s, right-to-work advocates pursued a coordinated litigation campaign akin to the NAACP’s challenge to public school segregation.  When their cases reached the Supreme Court in the 1950s and ‘60s, First Amendment forced speech and association claims, along with post-New Deal precedents, predominated.  Over succeeding decades, right-to-work advocates eliminated substantive due process claims from even the margins of their lawsuits.  The constitutionality of union security agreements comes before the Supreme Court today strictly as a First Amendment issue.

  • April 7, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Mark S. Kende, James Madison Chair Professor of Law and Director of the Drake University Constitutional Law Center, and Bryan Ingram, Notes Editor of the Drake Law Review

    In 2009, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board (DMVB) rejected a controversial license plate design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a Texas non-profit group.  The plate features a confederate battle flag surrounded by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896,” a faint confederate flag design in the background, an outline of the state in the upper-right-hand corner, the words “Texas” at the top of the plate, and the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans” at the bottom. 

    The DMVB’s action triggered a First Amendment battle between the state and the SCV, which is presently before the Supreme Court.  After the recent oral arguments, many believe the issue will hinge on whether the design constitutes government or private speech.  The question of whether such a plate contains racist hate speech is also relevant.  Most foreign nations ban racist hate speech.  The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has said racist hate speech is protected.  Some have called this American free speech exceptionalism, but the SCV says they are just committed to preserving the history and legacy of confederate veterans.