The D.C. Circuit is unbalanced. Nine of the D.C. Circuit justices were appointed by Republican presidents, whereas only five were appointed by Democratic presidents. Some observers have misleadingly focused on the fact that of the eight active judges on the court, four were appointed by Democratic presidents and four were appointed by Republican presidents. However, this metric fails to take into account the six senior status judges who play a weighty role in the court’s decision making. Except for participating in en banc hearings, senior status judges are full-fledged members of the judiciary and routinely impact the court’s decisions.
In a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Goodlatte (D-Va.) cited the six senior status judges as doing the work of an estimated 3.25 full-time active judges. Senator Grassley also stressed the senior judges’ relevancy on the court, saying that “it is clear that the senior judges on the court are contributing a significant amount of work, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
An example of senior judges’ participation in a high-profile case is Gilardi v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, decided on Nov. 1. The case was before a three-judge panel comprised of Judge Brown and two senior judges, Judge Edwards and Judge Randolph. Undoubtedly, senior judges wield significant power and are still active decision-makers on the court. Looking at the Court’s fall calendar, most cases will be heard by a panel that includes at least one senior judge, so not including them when describing the court’s composition is deceptive.
This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a First Amendment challenge to a New York town's practice of solemnizing its local board meetings with Christian prayer. The argument revealed the weak constitutional footing on which the town stands when it argues that it may invite local clergy, the vast majority of whom are Christian, to deliver official invocations that are overwhelmingly Christian. It also served as a stark reminder of how the Supreme Court has failed citizens who are non-believers when it comes to this issue.
Posing the first question of the day, Justice Kagan asked whether similar official prayers would be permissible at Court sessions or congressional hearings. The town's lawyer responded in the only way a reasonable person could. He conceded that such prayers – those that invoke explicitly Christian beliefs – would indeed be unconstitutional, but argued that the town's prayers were different because they reflect a long history of legislative prayer, which includes state legislatures and the First Congress. Pressed further by Justice Kennedy to provide a justification for the prayers other than tradition, the town's lawyer, not surprisingly, came up short.
In fact, as the ACLU argued in its friend-of-the-court brief, tradition -- standing alone -- is a poor reason for flouting a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: The government should remain neutral on matters of faith and may not promote religion over non-religion. When elected officials violate this maxim by imposing official prayer at meetings, especially local governmental meetings, it casts those who don't subscribe to the promoted beliefs as outsiders, second-class citizens who must pay a steep price in spiritual terms for daring to exercise the right of participatory democracy.
by Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Editor’s Note: This Thursday, November 7, the ACS Pittsburgh Lawyer Chapter and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Student Chapter will host a Supreme Court Preview featuring Professor Tushnet and Professor Jules Lobel of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. To hear more from Professors Tushnet and Lobel about Bond and the rest of the Court’s October Term 2013, please RSVP here.
The Roberts Court is properly described as a business-friendly Court. It’s also a Court that is sort of friendly toward federalism, as the commerce clause holding in the Affordable Care Act decision – though thankfully not the ultimate outcome – shows. But, federalism and business interests sometimes come into conflict. Businesses operating on a national scale often hope that Congress will preempt state regulations, so that they face only a single national rule rather than fifty or more regulations different in every state and sometimes in a bunch of cities. And, when Congress doesn’t make it clear that its statutes preempt state regulations, businesses want the Court to interpret federal statutes to be preemptive.
On Tuesday, the Court heard oral argument in Bond v. United States, a bizarre case on its facts that raises important questions about the scope of Congress’s power to enact statutes implementing treaties. The arguments suggested that some of the Court’s conservatives, and perhaps Justice Breyer, were inclined to say that Congress couldn’t use its power to implement treaties to reach truly local activities (although the precise formulation of the restriction they might adopt wasn’t clear).
Everyone seemed to agree, though, that the Bill of Rights limited the power to implement a treaty. And, whatever you might say about the treaty power and federalism, that does indeed seem to be a consensus position.
The consensus might be on a collision course with business interests, though, for the same reason that businesses sometimes favor preemption and national regulation over state regulation. In a forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review, Marvin Ammori describes what he learned from general counsels at major commercial disseminators of information over the internet. For them, Ammori reports, Congress is basically just one state legislature or city council trying to regulate their activity along with a whole bunch of other legislatures – parliaments in France and Japan, and everywhere else. And, just as with preemption, these businesses might want to replace a system of lots of different regulations with one regulatory system.
Several years before the U.S. Supreme Court greatly hobbled the landmark Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal appeals court circuit provided a significant boost to ignoble state efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor and the elderly. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit turned away a constitutional challenge and upheld a stringent voter ID law in Indiana.
Recently Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who authored the Court’s opinion that was subsequently upheld the by the U.S. Supreme Court, said he erred. Posner (pictured), who now says laws like Indiana’s are “widely regarded” as tools to suppress the vote, suggested that his error in Crawford was partly due to poor presentation of the evidence that the law would disproportionately suppress groups of voters. (In this piece for ACSblog, longtime Supreme Court litigator Paul M. Smith, who argued Crawford before the high court, explains why Posner had plenty of compelling information to vote the other way and invalidate the Indiana law.)
Ifill writes, “Without a doubt, lawyers advancing claims of discrimination should have to prove their case. But judges also should be aware of their own lack of experience and knowledge.”
For example, Ifill cites a 2010 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that rejected a racial discrimination lawsuit, claiming there was not sufficient evidence that a white supervisor calling a black worker “boy” amounted to racism. Ifill then turned to the more recent Shelby County opinion, where the high court’s conservative justices banded together to decided “that they were better positioned than Congress to determine whether racial discrimination in voting still justifies the coverage regime that existed under” the Voting Rights Act. “Not even 15,000 pages of evidence and testimony could convince the court that Congress got it right.”
The problem here, Ifill explains is that we all imagine we are experts on what accounts for discrimination. The truth is we are not, including judges. “We are too often,” Ifill writes “unwilling or unable to defer to the substantiated experiences of those who stand directly vulnerable to discrimination in voting, housing, employment and countless other arenas.”
And many voters, primarily minorities, continue to suffer as state after state creates new and onerous hurdles to voting. Posner may now be able to acknowledge what many others do – too many state voter ID laws are all about suppressing the vote. But as Ifill explains, many judges are just ill-equipped to understand the scope and depth of discrimination despite the evidence provided them.
by Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Editor’s Note: This Thursday, November 7, the ACS Pittsburgh Lawyer Chapter and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Student Chapter will host a Supreme Court Preview featuring Professor Tushnet and Professor Jules Lobel of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. To hear more from Professors Tushnet and Lobel about Noel Canning and the rest of the Court’s October Term 2013, please RSVP here.
Courts of appeals panels with majorities appointed by Republican presidents have teed up a problem for the Supreme Court: Are the Court’s Republican appointees devotees of originalism or executive power – or, will they use originalism as an excuse for supporting executive power when the executive is a Republican but for opposing it when the executive is a Democrat?
National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning involves the president’s power to make recess appointments. Filibusters over nominations to the National Labor Relations Board had paralyzed the NLRB (aided and abetted by a Supreme Court decision holding that the NLRB couldn’t act through panels of fewer than three members), when Republicans in the Senate refused to go forward with nominations to fill three vacancies on the five-member board. Republican Senators also refused to allow a vote on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they opposed the Bureau’s existence (and by law, the Bureau’s powers were quite limited in the absence of an agency head). President Obama responded by seizing on a technical “recess” in the Senate – a series of days out of session punctuated by minutes-long “pro forma” sessions – as the basis for making recess appointments to the NLRB and the CFPB.
With its new “members” on board, the NLRB entered an order against Noel Canning, which appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that President Obama didn’t have the power to make the recess appointments because the recess appointment power allowed him to make appointments only when the Senate was between its major sessions – basically, between the adjournment of the House of Representatives pending an election and the new House’s convening. (A majority of the court of appeals also held that the recess appointment power extended only to vacancies that arose during that same period – not to vacancies that extended into a session of a sitting Congress.)