ACSBlog

  • October 7, 2016

    by Lena Zwarensteyn

    This week, the Supreme Court opened its October Term with only eight justices to hear oral arguments. In the 237 days the Court has operated at less than full capacity, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has remained steadfast in his refusal to allow the chamber he leads the opportunity to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide “advice and consent” on President Obama’s nominee. While President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Chief Judge Merrick Garland, has been patiently waiting for any signal of a public confirmation hearing, he joins a cadre of other languishing judicial nominees. The vacancy on the Supreme Court is mirrored in federal courts across the country and is reaching crisis proportions. As Professors Michael Gerhardt and Richard Painter note in their new Issue Brief, “The New Normal:  Unprecedented Judicial Obstruction and a Proposal for Change,” there are 108 current and future vacancies in our federal courts. This represents more than 10% of our federal judiciary, and the shutdown of this vital branch of government means that Americans are shut out.

    Americans seeking their day in court do so in a judicial system that is significantly overburdened and understaffed. The Senate Majority claims they have done enough, yet they have not even done the minimum to ensure that justice is administered in a fair and efficient matter. Since the Republicans took over the Senate leadership in 2015, they have only confirmed 22 Article III judicial nominees to the Courts. Compare this to other presidents who faced oppositional Senate leadership: President George W. Bush had 68 judges confirmed in his final two years in office and President Bill Clinton had 73 judges confirmed in his final two years in office.  One has to go back to the 1950s to find a remote comparison, and even then President Dwight Eisenhower had twice as many judges confirmed in his final two years (44 judges) compared to President Obama.

  • October 7, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Elise C. Boddie, Professor of Law, Henry Rutgers University Professor, Robert L. Carter Scholar

    Buck v. Davis, which was argued in the Court earlier this week, raises a troubling question:  will a person who was sentenced to death, after his trial counsel introduced evidence that his race makes him more likely to be violent, be procedurally barred from raising an ineffective assistance of counsel claim that challenges the constitutionality of that death sentence?  This question is highly technical, but crucially important. At a time when the country is increasingly attentive to grievous racial bias in our criminal justice system, Buck poses a very grave threat to the public’s confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judicial process. [Disclosure:  My former employer, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., represents Mr. Buck.] 

    The facts of Buck alone are deeply disturbing, but the case also raises larger questions about our broader system of justice in matters of race. That this case had to wind its way all the way to the Supreme Court for the possibility of relief, now for the second time, shows how doctrinal and procedural complexities in capital litigation undermine racial justice. It also reveals how differently race is regarded in the criminal justice system when compared to standards of judicial review in civil constitutional litigation. The cavalier treatment of race by the state and lower federal courts in Mr. Buck’s case is wildly inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of equal protection doctrine, which treats any governmental use of race as presumptively unconstitutional, regardless of motive or context. Indeed, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court twice heard a challenge to a university’s race-conscious admissions policy, even though race had no demonstrable impact on the university’s decision to deny admission to the white plaintiff. There is a tragic irony in the lopsidedness of this judicial scrutiny, where even the faintest consideration of race triggers close review if it threatens to disadvantage a white plaintiff, but the overtly discriminatory use of race—in a way that may have led a black man to be sentenced to death—is buried by courts in procedural technicalities.  

    The case has a lengthy and complicated history, but the core facts are as follows:  Mr. Buck was convicted of capital murder. During sentencing, his court-appointed counsel introduced expert testimony, exploited later by the prosecution on cross-examination, that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black. Let me repeat that:  Mr. Buck’s own attorney inserted evidence into the sentencing proceedings that Mr. Buck’s race was a legitimate factor for assessing his proclivity for future violence. Texas juries are required to find “future dangerousness” unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt before a defendant can be sentenced to death. There is good reason to believe that this expert testimony —which perpetuates deeply rooted racial stereotypes that black people are predisposed to violence—could have persuaded at least one Texas juror that the death sentence was justified for Mr. Buck. If the Court agrees, it could clear the path for Mr. Buck to challenge the constitutionality of that sentence. (He is not challenging his conviction.)

  • October 6, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ron Fein, Legal Director at Free Speech For People

    Why do we want to limit the influence of money in politics and what do we tell the courts? For 40 years, since the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the legal arguments for limiting big money in politics have been compelled to focus on “corruption” as the only reason.

    Not anymore. On Wednesday, Free Speech For People (along with partners Indian Law Resource Center, American Independent Business Alliance, American Sustainable Business Council and retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson) filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of the state of Montana’s campaign contribution limits against a challenge led by noted campaign finance reform opponent James Bopp. The amicus brief advances a political equality argument. The district court had chastised Montana’s voters, who passed the contribution limits by a 1994 ballot initiative, for trying to achieve political equality.

    As background, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance precedent has long insisted that limits on political contributions must be grounded in concern about “corruption” and its appearance. In years past, justices with a pragmatic sense of political reality understood “corruption” to include broader concerns of influence and access; more recently, the Roberts Court constrained it to just mean “quid pro quo” corruption, not much more than bribery. And certainly corruption is one legitimate concern.

    But that is not the only, or perhaps even the main, reason that Americans want to limit the influence of big money. A more fundamental principle is political equality. This concept has been part of our constitutional history since before we had a Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” not equal in assets or abilities but in their unalienable right “to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. And when the Constitution was submitted for ratification by the states, James Madison assured hesitant readers, worried that Congress would be dominated by the wealthy, thus: “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune.”

  • October 4, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Joshua Smith, Law Clerk at Debevoise and Plimpton

    On Sept. 21, 2016, ACS’s New York Lawyer Chapter and the NYU Student Chapter co-hosted a Supreme Court Preview event at NYU School of Law featuring Above the Law’s Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice. This is an annual event, but this year’s was different. They spent as much time talking about who was not on the Court as they did the issues before the Court. And those issues this term are not exactly rising to the level of exciting fare to which we have become accustomed.

    Because the Supreme Court has the unique ability to choose its own docket, we can read between the lines of the cases it chooses and discover what the Court thinks about itself. For example, the Lochner Era Court fiercely defended the interests of an industrial class facing a barrage of court challenges from workers seeking protections in the workplace. The Warren Court tackled the tough questions of post-war America, including racial justice, the rights of criminal defendants and the right to privacy. In the past decade, the Roberts Court has been defined as one receptive to corporate interests, issuing opinions allowing corporate political spending and pushing back on the proliferation of class action suits.

    The message between the lines from the Court regarding the upcoming term is less ambitious. The Court is telling us that it is not functioning. As Joe and Elie pointed out, instead of the typical docket with many high-profile cases resolving closely disputed legal questions, this year’s term is loaded with cases to avoid the embarrassing 4-4 splits from the end of last term. This year’s headliners wrestle with questions more mundane, such as damages for design patent infringements, local zoning regulations as a governmental taking and whether a state can provide resources to build a playground at a parochial school without violating the establishment clause.

    For 234 days, the Supreme Court has been attempting to function with only eight members. This is in spite of President Obama’s nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, undisputedly the most qualified Supreme Court nominee in decades. Despite his credentials, Judge Garland has become a political football, with the Senate refusing to even grant him a hearing during a heated election year. Senate leaders have articulated numerous justifications for this delay, but none counter two simple facts. First, the president is elected for a full four year term without regard to the electoral calendar. Second, on six occasions in the 20th century, Supreme Court justices were confirmed during a presidential election year. Already, Judge Garland has waited longer for a confirmation vote than any nominee in history. We still have another month until Election Day.

  • October 4, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Carolyn Shapiro, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at Chicago-Kent College of Law

    As the Supreme Court’s new Term begins, one of the key questions is how the Court will be affected by Justice Scalia’s absence. As interesting as the question of how the Court itself responds, however, is the question of how litigants behave – and what we can learn from that behavior. One datapoint came shortly after Justice Scalia’s death in February 2016, in a major antitrust case involving Dow Chemical. In this case, known in the lower courts as In re Urethane Antitrust Litigation, a class of purchasers of certain polyurethane chemical products sued Dow Chemical for price fixing. The plaintiffs prevailed at trial and obtained a $1.1 billion jury verdict. On appeal in the 10th Circuit, Dow Chemical argued, among other things, that the case was inappropriate for class adjudication and that the plaintiffs’ method of calculating damages was improper. The 10th Circuit upheld the jury verdict and Dow filed a petition for certiorari (Dow Chemical Co. v. Industrial Polymers, Inc., No. 14-1091) in March 2015.

    Although Dow Chemical was an antitrust case, the issues it presented echo class-action-related issues in a wage-and-hour case that the Court heard last term, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo. In both cases, the defendant challenged the use of averages or representative proof of damages and argued that differences between the damages different class members may be entitled to rendered class (or collective) actions inappropriate. In Tyson Foods, for example, the defendant claimed that it was improper for the court to certify a class or collective action where the plaintiffs calculated damages by extrapolating from the time it took for certain employees to perform the tasks (donning and doffing protective and sanitary gear) for which they had not been paid overtime. In Dow Chemical, the class relied on a damages expert who looked at prices paid by some class members and extrapolated to classwide damages and Dow Chemical argued that differences between damages actually suffered by individual class members rendered class certification improper. Indeed, the Court took no action on the cert petition in Dow Chemical while Tyson Foods was pending, a sign that it considered the issues in the cases related and that the outcome of one might affect the other.