Supreme Court, Legal Feed

Liberals & the Court

An interesting essay in the Atlantic discusses the end of liberal love for the Court, but first it explains why that love appeared in the mid-twentieth century:

Fundamentally, though, many liberals loved the Supreme Court for the same reason they loved the law: a vision of universal harmony and justice brought about by reason and persuasion, not the brute forces of political power. Victory in the political arena is always incomplete and uncertain, not to mention grubby. Politics appeals to our baser instincts of greed and fear and competition—which, of course, is why it is so powerful. By contrast, law—whether through “neutral principles” or “reasoned elaboration” or elaborate moral theories, to name a few of the core organizing ideas of 20th-century legal theory—holds out the promise of something objective, something True. To win in the court of the Constitution is to have one’s view enshrined as just, not only for today but with the promise of all time.

Court's Green Light to Discriminate

This article at The Atlantic reveals part of what was wrong with the Court's ruling on the Muslim Ban and how the ruling gives the administration a green light to discriminate.  The author demonstrates how for Justice Roberts the only discrimination that is illegal is when it is explicitly stated, discriminatory effects alone don't count.  By this logic of Roberts's, most of the Jim Crow laws banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act would be okay.

Also, the strange inconsistency (hypocrisy) of the last month:

1) Vaguely "anti-religious" statements of a minor public official in Colorado mean the baker didn't receive due process and his religious freedom was denied, yet

2) Explicitly Islamophobic statements by the President are not relevant, so no one's religious freedom was discriminated against.

Criticizing Religion

Ari Ezra Waldman makes an important critical point about this week's Masterpiece Cake Shop ruling:

Third, the opinion includes troubling conclusions. As we discussed yesterday, the Court found that statements from Commissioners sitting on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission evidenced so much anti-religious bias that they denied the Christian baker a fair, impartial hearing. But those statements don’t really evidence bias. Here was the most offending statement:

I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.

In reaction to this, the Court said, “To describe a man’s faith as ‘one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use’ is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical—something insubstantial and even insincere.”

But that is not at all what the Commissioner did. His comment called out using religion as a pretext for discrimination. And besides, the Commissioner is one hundred percent correct. Christianity justified the HolocaustReligion was used to justify slavery. Religion was used to justify Jim Crow, apartheid, and laws against interracial marriage.

This raises an important question. If saying something true, yet critical about religion as an institution is an example of expressing hostility toward religion, then is every comment critical of religion evidence of bias? Are we never allowed to say anything negative about the harms that can be wrought by fundamentalism? It’s now hard to imagine the forces of equality getting a fair hearing if no one can say anything negative about the forces of bigotry when they use religion to justify their hatred.

Granted, Masterpiece Cakeshop is neither a huge triumph for bigotry nor a devastating loss for equality. But it is not harmless. It allowed bigotry to win today and may have several dangerous effects.

It is actually a sign of taking an argument or idea seriously to engage it in critical public discourse.  Religion is not and should not be immune from criticism.  That is how religions improve and advance like anything else.

SCOTUS & the travel ban

In this CNN article about today's SCOTUS decision on the (immoral) travel ban, the key paragraph is this one:

"That's going to be an extreme headache. Think about how the people at the border, at airports are going to make that decision," said Page Pate, CNN legal analyst. "Who is going to make this decision? If we leave it to the folks on the front line, that's just going to lead to more litigation."

SCOTUS often seems unaware of the real world implications of their decisions.  This could sow unnecessary chaos.  They should have maintained the hold until they ruled on the merits of the issue itself.

I'm reminded of something I read about Sandra Day O'Connor when she retired.  Her version of conservatism was Platonic--that the philosopher-kings should make decisions that maintained order and didn't create disruption.  The author said this is why she ultimately ruled in Casey v. Planned Parenthood for reproductive choice instead of against it as had been anticipated, because she didn't want to create chaos by overturning Roe.  

Also, there's this description of English common law I read this morning in the essay on the life of the mind by philosopher Roger Scruton:

It was there, as a member of the Inner Temple, that I first became acquainted with the common law of England, and I was astonished by what I found. The meticulously reported cases, going back over cen­turies, were not only an eloquent expression of life as my ancestors had known it, but also an illustration of thought in action. The laws governing the English, I discovered, have emerged from the judgments of the courts, and not been imposed upon the courts by government. Those brought up on Roman law or the Code Napoléon find this amazing, since they see law as a deductive system, beginning from first principles and working downward to the particular case. But common law arises as morality arises, from the desire to do what is right, not from the desire to expound the principle that makes it so. And often the principle eludes us, even when the rightness of the act is clear. Readers of Jane Austen will not need to be reminded of this. Like morality, the common law builds upward from the particular to the general. For justice is done in the particular case, and until tried in the courts, abstract principles have no more authority than the people who declare them.

The facts of the case may never have been considered before, and the judge may have no explicit rule of law, no precedent, and no act of Parliament to guide him. But still there is a difference, the common law says, between a right and a wrong decision. Thus it was in the celebrated case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) in the law of tort, in which water from the defendant’s reservoir had flooded the mines of the plaintiff and put them out of use. No similar case had come before the courts, but this did not prevent Mr. Justice Blackburn from giving judgment in the following terms: “We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie liable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”

Until Rylands v. Fletcher no such rule had ever been formulated. But in Blackburn’s eyes, he was not inventing the rule; he was discovering a legal truth buried in the heart of things, bringing it to the surface, and clarifying matters that no politician had yet addressed. He thereby set the standard for environmental legislation in my country, and laid the foundations for the doctrines of enterprise liability in American law.

American law is supposed to be based on English common law, and historically common law was used to interpret our own law.  This excerpt shows both the folly of today's decision and the so-called "originalist" position of many of the current conservatives on the court.

Changes to the Court

Here is an intriguing list of recommended changes to the Supreme Court, including expanding the number of seats to 19.  One goal of such a move would be that every president would then likely get a few appointments, lessening the fighting over each seat and bringing a wider diversity of people and voices to the court.  The author's main objection to 9 is that we have invested far too much power into a small number of people and often the one moderate who becomes the decisive vote.  Most nations now have far larger highest courts than we do and generally don't have the number of cases decided by one vote that we do.

More on Gorsuch

This Atlantic essay is particularly informative.  The author interprets Gorsuch as being in the tradition of Jeffersonian natural law and concludes, "he will likely be even more willing to enforce constitutional limitations on any excesses committed by the president who appointed him."  That a particularly good thing.

The essay details Gorsuch's views on euthanasia.  They are not views I agree with, as they are rooted in a Kantianism that, while I respect its intellectual integrity and consistency, I do not believe is adequate for real life ethical commitments.  These are, of course, debates within philosophical ethical theory, but my ethics on these points are particularly informed by my experience as a minister providing pastoral care for persons and families making end-of-life decisions.  Plus, I'm a virtue theorist, not a deontologist.

But I continue to be impressed with what I read about him. These were my earlier thoughts.

Neil Gorsuch

Vox has a very good introduction to the judge and his approach to the law.  He sounds acceptable to me.  I have never opposed justices for their ideological positions (I'm too young to have known enough when Bork was being debated).  I've only objected to Thomas and Harriet Miers because they didn't seem to be the best qualified.  I may disagree with Judge Gorsuch on some issues, but he passes my test for someone who is qualified, respected, and within the broad mainstream of American constitutional law.

Yes, I do think the GOP Senate stole this seat, but blocking this nominee will not heal that breach of constitutional norms.

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia is the only Supreme Court Justice I've personally encountered.  In February 1992, six years into his tenure and when he was still among the junior members of the Court, I was representing Oklahoma in the United States Senate Youth Program funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.  We spent a splendid week in D. C. meeting with and hearing from government officials and touring behind-the-scenes in places like the State Department.  Among the highlights of the week was our presentation from and question and answer session with Justice Scalia in the Supreme Court chamber.  Afterwards, a Hearst reporter along for the ride said something like, "Most journalists crave a chance for a q&a with a justice like you high school students just had."

Scalia was sharp, brilliant, funny, and charming.  Passionate about the law and about conveying appreciation for the Constitution and the rule of law to us students.  I enjoyed him.  My, albeit limited, personal experience chimes with the beautiful reflection that liberal scholar Cass Sunstein offered this week about his friendship with Scalia.

But.  And the but is big.  Scalia's jurisprudence was harmful to people and maybe damaging to the Republic.  As Jedediah Purdy explains in this piece from The New Yorker.

My disenchantment with Scalia began with Bush v. Gore.  At the time I was completing my Ph. D. in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and the debacle of the Florida election was a constant topic of conversation in the department lounge.  The liberals (of whom I was not a part, being one of the few people in the department who had voted for Bush) were worried that the Supreme Court could decide the election, cutting short the messy, democratic process.  I said, "That won't happen.  Justice Scalia, for instance, knows that the House of Representatives must settle presidential election disputes and will refuse to insert the Court."

Upon reflection, the final 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore (remember there was first a 9-0 ruling and then a 7-2 ruling as well) may have been the beginning of the end for my time as a conservative and a Republican.

As Purdy explains in his piece, Scalia's originalism did not resolve partisanship but masked it, which did become apparent when Scalia was no longer writing dissents.

So, another example is D. C. v. Heller, in which Scalia, without precedent, interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to bear arms instead of a right of the state militias.  Justice Stevens' dissent (one of his best and most eloquent) was, to me, a far more convincing originalist argument.  He demonstrated persuasively that the 18th century meaning of the amendment was connected with the militias not an individual right.  The best persuasive evidence being the existence at the time of laws limiting and regulating individual gun ownership.  To me that case revealed the hypocrisy in Scalia's jurisprudence and, as Purdy pointed, out, originalism simply became a different form of partisanship instead of the way out of it.

Then, in Citizens United the Court, again, without precedent, granted rights to corporations.  As Purdy writes, "Much of his jurisprudence protected the powerful, such as corporations with money to spend on elections, and white plaintiffs against affirmative action."  Scalia could find no Constitutional principle for granting legal protections to harmed minorities--gays and lesbians for instance--but could invent legal protections for corporations.

And, then the deal was sealed in the Hobby Lobby case.  For years as the religious exemption discussion swirled around contraception and gay rights I kept quoting Justice Scalia in the Peyote case from the early 1990's: "The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability."  He thought that carving out religious exemptions to neutral laws would be a horror-- "any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy."

And, yet, when it was a conservative corporation making a case that also would impact exemptions from neutral laws for Roman Catholics (of which Scalia is one), Scalia overturned his own precedent.  To me, that was the final straw.  His jurisprudence was inauthentic and harmful to people and the Republic.