Supreme Court

  • October 5, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Victor Williams, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America

    On the first Monday in October, the Supreme Court returned from its long summer recess. Thus, the 2014 NLRB v. Noel Canning ruling -- which revoked President Barack Obama’s 2012 NLRB recess appointments – has well passed it first anniversary.

    The high court’s conjuring of an absolutist 3-day Senate recess minimum conjoined with a vague and unworkable “presumptive 10-day” Senate recess rule (with an added “unusual occurrence” complexity) continues to be analyzed.  Some in the academy acclaim Steven Breyer’s majority opinion as reflecting a new “pragmatic formalism” while most others praise it for at-least being opposite Antonin Scalia’s dissenting-concurrence which restated the D.C. Circuit’s uber- textualist ruling.  I continue to think it was a mistake for the judiciary to have involved itself in the political branch appointments battles.

    No reporter, academic, or commentator, however, has yet revealed that Noel Canning also revoked President Lyndon Johnson’s  January 1964 judicial recess appointments of civil-rights legends Leon Higginbotham, Spottswood Robinson, and David Rabinovtiz. In a just-published article in the Houston Law Review’s online edition, I expose the unconsidered Noel Canning consequence of the judgeship revocations.  As the recess commission were signed by Lyndon Johnson during an eight day intersession recess of the 88th Senate,  Noel Canning judged the recess 48 hours too short and the judgeships illegal.  The recess appointments  were “rendered illegitimate” for failing the “presumptive 10-day” recess test.  The eight day break was 48 hours too short.

    Six weeks after John F. Kennedy’s murder, LBJ forced the racial and religious integration of three federal courthouses. The new president signaled his administration’s commitment to civil rights and directly challenged racist and reactionary forces in both the Senate and the federal judiciary. The LBJ White House tapes tell the story for Higginbotham, Robinson, (expect a slight delay) and  Rabinovitz,  and as Johnson made sure he secured the most political capital for signing each commission in the coming battle for the Civil Rights Act.

  • September 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

     “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist, except as punishment for a crime ….”  This criminal punishment exception to the 13th Amendment is all the more brazen when one considers the inhumanity of lengthy prison sentences today – often handed out in assembly-line fashion, and dispensed more often to Blacks. Although we call our system a criminal justice system, its focus is punishment and it punishes very severely.  Punishment’s correlation to enslavement remains in the Constitution and, as such, must be closely scrutinized.

    As a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project in the 1980s, I often cited in my conditions of confinement briefs Chief Justice Warren’s notable 1957 quote in Trop v. Dulles. His statement heralded the importance of considering the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This principle recognizes a people’s moral growth due to advancements in attitude and approaches.

    During the height of the war on drugs with mandatory minimum sentences firmly in vogue, unnecessarily long sentences were robotically meted out with seemingly callous abandon.  Shocking punishments over the past 30 years of 10, 20, 30 years and life imprisonment for drug offenses hardly raised an eyebrow. These commonplace sentences snatched mothers from children, men from loved ones, and furthered the destabilization of families and communities. Such punishments should offend our society’s standard of decency. 

    But they have not.  

    In 1991 the Supreme Court ruled in Harmelin v. Michigan that mandatory life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the 8th Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment because, although the punishment was cruel, it was not unusual. It sounds ludicrous and left many of us flabbergasted.

    The twisted rationale reminded me of McClesky v. Kemp, decided a few years earlier in 1987. There the Court declined to provide relief in a death penalty case despite overwhelming evidence of racial bias because the justices feared that the floodgates would be opened to widespread racial challenges in other parts of criminal sentencing as well.   

    Lengthy sentences are cruel, but they are usual. Systemic racism exists, but that is the norm. Fortunately, since Harmelin, the Supreme Court has seen fit to use the 8th Amendment to ban the beating by prison guards of a handcuffed prisoner (Hudson v. McMillian, 1992); to prohibit the execution of a mentally retarded person (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002); to bar the execution of a prisoner for crimes committed while a minor (Roper v. Simmons, 2005); and to abolish life without parole for minors who commit non-homicidal crimes (Graham v. Florida, 2010).

  • September 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Joseph Kimble, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, WMU-Cooley Law School

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

    In Reading Law, Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner make this assertion about the interpretive theory called textualism, which they endorse and expound:

    [W]e must lay to rest at the outset the slander that [textualism] is a device calculated to produce socially or politically conservative outcomes. Textualism is not well designed to achieve ideological ends, relying as it does on the most objective criterion available: the accepted contextual meaning that the words had when the law was enacted. A textualist reading will sometimes produce “conservative” outcomes, sometimes “liberal” ones. [Reading Law, p. 16.]

    But that assertion is belied by the overwhelmingly conservative results that textualism does in fact produce, especially in the cases that matter most. Who can honestly doubt it?

    In a recent article, I’ve summarized six empirical studies. (See pp. 30–35 for details and attribution.) Four of the studies show a strong ideological bent in Justice Scalia’s opinions. Another concludes from an analysis of more than 600 Supreme Court cases that the textual canons of construction “are regularly used in an instrumental if not ideologically conscious manner.” The other study examines a 25-year set of the Court’s cases and concludes that a principal defense of originalism — its constraining effect on judges — “is overstated at best and illusory at worst.”

    In one of the studies, Professor Geoffrey Stone polled colleagues to identify the 20 most important Supreme Court cases since 2000. In every one, Justice Scalia voted for the conservative position. And Stone notes that originalism “in no way” explains that voting record.

    Besides the empirical studies, I cite 11 other sources that cast doubt on the neutrality and consistency of Justice Scalia’s textualism. (P. 35 note 96.)

  • September 11, 2015

    by Paul Guequierre

    Solitary confinement has been described as a living death. Jack Henry Abbot said about the practice: “Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you. When you neither move nor think in your cell, you are awash in pure nothingness. . . . Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”

    Solitary confinement, the topic of a new Issue Brief by law professor Laura Rovner released today by ACS, is viewed by much of the developed world as torture. The international community has almost universally condemned the use of long-term isolation. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and the Convention Against Torture, and declared that the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. So why then, is use of the practice so rampant in the United States? The good news is it’s gaining renewed scrutiny in the court of public opinion. The question is: How will federal courts respond?

    As long ago as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court criticized the use of solitary confinement. Justice Samuel Miller, who was a physician as well as a lawyer, observed that: “A considerable number of the prisoners [subjected to solitary confinement] fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

    And as recently as this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the practice, practically asking for a solitary confinement case, saying: “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.

  • September 3, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Leslie Brueckner, Senior Attorney, Public Justice

    *This piece first appeared at Public Justice Blog

    The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide an issue of huge importance to everyone who cares about access to justice. The question, in Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, is whether corporate defendants in class actions are entitled to bribe class representatives to abandon the rest of the potential class members. 

    Yes, you read that right. According to the corporation who was sued, it should be allowed to cancel out a class action against it simply by offering to settle the named plaintiff’s individual claims. Under the defendant’s view of the law, corporations accused of ripping off millions of people could avoid accountability by repeatedly picking off the few named plaintiffs who are willing to step forward. Campbell-Ewald has even gone so far as to argue that class representatives are bound by such offers, accepted or not, even if it effectively denies all other class members the ability to obtain any relief at all.

    The craziest part about the theory they’ve put forth is that it turns the whole notion of adequacy of representation 180 degrees. As we explained in an amici brief we just filed with the Court (along with the AARP), one of the most basic rules of class actions is that class representatives are supposed to represent the others impacted by the wrongdoing. Not only is this required by Rule 23 (the federal class action rule), it’s also required by the U.S. Constitution (due process, anyone?). This means not just that the class representatives are supposed to be competent, they are also supposed to be loyal to the rest of the class members. And that means the class representatives are not supposed to file potential class actions just to make money for themselves, they are supposed to be standing up for everyone in the class.