Supreme Court

  • June 29, 2017

    by Caroline Fredrickson

    With people’s longevity increasingly approaching the century mark, lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court is itself getting old.  Some scholars on both sides of the ideological divide have offered a proposal: an 18-year term limit on Supreme Court Justices’ service. This idea may relieve the nominations process of painful political pressure and bring both accountability and better predictability into our judicial system. And, the term aligns with historic numbers – eighteen years is close to the average term of service on the highest court in the past 100 years.

    Why change a time-honored tradition?

    Today's Supreme Court is “polarized along partisan lines in a way that parallels other political institutions and the rest of society;” government scholar Norm Ornstein observes.

    “Lifetime appointments give presidents the incentive to overvalue younger, more ideological candidates and overlook those who are at the height of their careers,” the nonpartisan Fix the Court group asserts based on Ornstein’s writings.

    “Life tenure now guarantees a much longer tenure on the Court than was the case in 1789 or over most of our constitutional history,” Professors Steven G. Calabresi and James Lindgren point out in their paper. They also found Justices remain influential on the court well into their 80s, longer than ever before in American history. These days court vacancies actually delay justice; political storms form too quickly after a Justice who spent decades handing down decisions dies.

    Thus, 66 percent of Americans polled during last year’s monumental crisis wanted to end life tenure for Supreme Court Justices, as they endured the colossal failure to fill a departed Justice’s seat.

  • April 26, 2017

    *This piece is part of the ACSblog symposium: The Department of Injustice.

    by Christopher Wright Durocher

    On Monday morning, the Supreme Court declined to review a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the dismissal of Ricardo Salazar-Limon’s lawsuit against the City of Houston for a police officer’s alleged excessive use of force. Salazar-Limon was partially paralyzed as the result of injuries he sustained when Officer Chris Thompson shot him in the back during a traffic stop, though he was unarmed.

    The Fifth Circuit reasoned that there was no material dispute of fact in the case—the standard that must be met to avoid summary judgment—because Thompson testified during his deposition that he saw Salazar-Limon reach for his waistband, and, as Justice Samuel Alito notes in his concurrence, “Remarkably, Salazar-Limon did not state in his deposition or in an affidavit that he did not reach for his waist.”

    The problem, Justice Sonya Sotomayor explains in her dissent, is that this conclusion “is plainly wrong.”  As she describes it, there is a clear dispute of material fact:

  • April 18, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Jim Brosnahan, Senior Trial Counsel, Morrison & Foerster, and Author of the Upcoming Book: Trial Lawyer

    The Gorsuch confirmation hearings were, even to a casual observer, a catastrophic insult to the proper selection of a justice. Even by the standard that such hearings are political and not legal events, it highlighted the current failure of the practice of the political arts. Any selection of a Supreme Court Justice with lifetime tenure is a politically sacred happening. At this time, the reckless, almost daily, unconstitutional bursts of illegal energy emanating from the White House and supported by an attorney general who missed the Constitutional Law class will present a series of clear and present fundamental legal challenges to the Supreme Court. Nothing in what now-Justice Gorsuch testified to or what the ten million dollars in TV ads supporting him said gave the slightest assurance he will uphold the Constitution against this president. In all likelihood, that set of potential constitutional issues involving executive excess is the number one potential legal challenge that will face the Court in the next year or two.


    1. “He is qualified”

  • April 10, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece is part of the ACSblog symposium: "The Future of the U.S. Constitution"

    by Nancy Gertner, ACS Board Member and Senior Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School

    I want to stop focusing on the United States Supreme Court as if it is the site of all decisional law, or even all constitutional law. It is not. It takes fewer and fewer of the cases in which cert is sought; even fewer cases that are otherwise important are not in the mix at all. 

    I do not want to ignore the lower federal courts – district and appellate – as progressives have done, except insofar as these are routes to the Supreme Court. I want to imagine a system in which the lower federal courts are in fact common law courts, considering new constitutional issues on the merits, prefiguring arguments that may one day make it to the Supreme Court – or not—either way shaping the way justice is actually delivered.

    That is not the system we have. As I have written since leaving the bench, the lower federal courts for a variety of reasons, are schooled in what I have called “duck, avoid and evade.” They have resorted to a host of doctrines that narrow access to justice; they have created a set of procedural trip wires to avoid dealing with substantive issues on the merits; they have reduced civil rights cases, police misconduct litigation, to name a few, to kabuki rituals in which the plaintiffs regularly lose long before trial. This was not judicial restraint, as the concept is understood; this was avoiding substantive principled decision making of any kind. And when they engage on the merits, too often, rather than trying out new constitutional concepts, and new applications, they rigorously enforce the old. (I wrote about this in an article entitled “Opinions I Should Have Written.” Richard Re described a similar phenomenon as “Reversing From Below.”) Many lower court judges try to predict the direction of the Supreme Court, which for the past twenty years has become more conservative.  The Walmart decision for example, was used by some district courts to justify the dismissal of numbers of employment discrimination class actions, interpreting the decision far more expansively than was necessary. It was almost as if they were applying not just what the Court said, but what it implied, predicting the rightward direction in which it was moving. And these tendencies cut across the appointing president, the party affiliation, etc. There are obvious exceptions, but the trends are there. It is a version of what Robert Cover wrote about in Justice Accused, describing the Northern anti-slavery judges who enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with a rigor that was not required by the law. He called it “judicial can’t.”

  • April 3, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

    by Christopher Kang, ACS Board Member and National Director, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans

    The Senate Rules provide a 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed, and it appears less and less likely that Neil Gorsuch will be able to meet that threshold. If he cannot, Senate Republicans will face a choice—and yes, it is their choice—as to whether they should unilaterally change the Senate Rules through the nuclear option, so that Supreme Court nominees can be confirmed with just a majority vote.

    Most of the arguments against the nuclear option have focused on institutional interests for both the Senate and the Supreme Court. Retaining the 60-vote threshold would preserve the unique nature of the Senate that encourages broader consensus and less extremism. There also is a concern—on both sides—that reducing the confirmation threshold to a simple majority could lead to more ideological Supreme Court Justices and a more polarized Court.

    Those are compelling reasons in themselves, but there also is a far more practical question that Republicans must consider: How will Senate Democrats respond to this historic power grab? If Democrats follow the Republican response in 2013, it will freeze the Senate for thousands of hours, preventing Republicans from advancing their agenda.

    In November 2013, Senate Democrats invoked the nuclear option to lower the confirmation threshold for lower court and executive branch nominees. In response, over the next 13 months, Republicans forced Democrats to file cloture on 154 nominees, and they forced 131 cloture votes.