<b>November 1, 2020</b>
<u>A mixed but troubling picture
One way to evaluate the Supreme Court’s performance is to rank its decisions as liberal or conservative. The debate over the replacement of Justice Ginsburg proceeded along those lines, and a scholarly appraisal of recent decisions, written before the issue of a replacement arose, largely analyzed them in those terms. I’ll look at that before attempting a different approach.
In the August 20 issue of <i>The New York Review of Books</i>,1 David Cole found that “the Court’s term was much less conservative than anyone had expected . . , declaring that federal civil rights law bars LGBTQ discrimination, striking down a Louisiana restriction on abortion, and invalidating President Trump’s effort to rescind deportation protection and work authorization from ‘Dreamers’. . .” Also, the Court held that “about half of Oklahoma belonged to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation for purposes of authority to prosecute Native American defendants.” (There had been other, earlier, liberal results, including the granting of constitutional protection to same-sex marriage2).
The Court went both ways on efforts to see Trump’s financial records, holding that the Manhattan District Attorney had authority to pursue the president’s personal and business financial records, but that Congressional subpoenas for Trump records did not take into account the separation of powers. As noted below, I don’t think that the Court always applies that rule to itself.
On the conservative side the Court “restricted immigrants’ rights to judicial review of deportation orders, and required states to fund scholarships for religious schools if they funded secular schools. It excused Catholic schools from abiding by civil rights laws in hiring and firing teachers who provide religious instruction, and upheld President Trump’s order permitting employers to deny their employees contraceptive coverage.”
On October 13 the Court added another decision to the conservative list, in effect terminating the census count.3 That, as <i>The New York Times</i> reported,4 “would only worsen existing undercounts of the people census workers have had the most trouble reaching, including those in racial minority groups, poor people and young people,” i.e., likely Democratic voters.
Professor Cole added: “in a series of unexplained or barely explained decisions reviewing requests for emergency stays of lower court orders, the Court four times ruled against efforts to protect voting rights, and twice cleared the way for federal executions by summarily overruling lower courts that had identified serious legal questions that still needed to be resolved.” (More recent rulings on voting have gone both ways.) Those issues and contraceptive coverage also appear in the cases discussed below).
My reaction to the Court’s work, over a period of years, is based primarily on its record as to normal and proper principles of adjudication. The list that follows isn’t neutral or representative of all of the Court’s work; I have selected decisions in which the Court failed to adhere to those principles. However, there are enough of them to reveal, I think, a Court which is not functioning well. (The results in these cases also were wrong on the merits, and all tilted to the right).
What follows is a brief summary; the decisions referred to below were discussed in greater detail in previous posts, which are noted. My comments refer to decisions of the Roberts Court or, in the case of item 1, its intellectual predecessor. I’ve identified the author of the lead opinion in each case.
1. Engaging in partisan politics.
In <i>Bush v. Gore</i>,5 the Court decided the 2000 election by halting recounts in Florida, the electoral votes of which would determine the election, in the process overruling the State Supreme Court, which had directed the recount. By doing so, it gave the presidency to George W. Bush, who had lost the national popular vote by 543,895 but, after the recount was halted, won Florida by 537, and the electoral vote 271 to 266. Although the <i>per Curium</i> opinion signaled its departure from precedent by noting that ”[o]ur consideration is limited to the present circumstances,” and although the decision has not, until now, been relied upon, it may be resuscitated. In a concurring opinion last week, in a case which produced another negative result regarding the counting of ballots6, Justice Kavanaugh cited <i>Bush v. Gore</i> in a way which may portend similar Supreme Court intervention in this year’s election. Add that three members of the Court — Roberts, Kavanaugh and Barrett —worked for the Bush forces during the 2000 controversy7, and that decision looms larger.
2. Going beyond the issues presented.
One basic principle of adjudication is that a decision should not be based on an issue which has not been briefed and argued by the parties; otherwise, they have no opportunity to address matters the Court may find determinative. The Court violated that rule in <i>Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission</i>.8 If that is done innocently, it is a failure by the court to do justice, as an unfair and possibly erroneous result may be reached. If it is done intentionally, it reveals that the court has an agenda which it needs a case to serve. <i>Citizens United</i> almost certainly falls into the latter category.
Some opinions are transparent attempts to make a case which does not exist legitimately. <i>Citizens United</i> is an example; it substituted a parade of hypothetical evils for evidence.
3. Misinterpreting the Constitution.
The Roberts Court has been inventive in its reading of the Constitution. Possibly the most egregious example is <i>Heller v. District of Columbia</i>.9 In that decision, the Second Amendment was rewritten: its limiting reference to militia was expunged, and unmentioned uses for firearms were inserted and thereby given Constitutional protection.
<i>Shelby County v. Holder</i> 10 struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. The Court relied on the Tenth Amendment (after misstating it) to find that Congress did not have power to treat states differently regarding voting procedures, ignoring the grant of authority to Congress under the Fifteenth Amendment, which deals, as the Tenth does not, with voting rights.
<i>National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius</i>,11 the Obamacare decision, is odd in more than one respect, but its significance here is that it misinterprets, and limits, the Commerce Clause.
5. Misuse of precedent.
Several problems exist; the first is that precedent has been ignored. <i>Heller</i>, to add to its sins, is an example; it brushed aside <i>United States v. Miller</i>, which had relied on the inconvenient reference to militias.
The second problem is that, instead of applying the holdings in prior cases, which is the legitimate form of precedent, the Court has relied on quotes from majority opinions which are not necessary to the holding, <i>i.e., obiter dicta</i> or, worse, from dissenting opinions.12 As Justice Stevens put it in <i>Citizens United</i>, “the majority opinion is essentially an amalgamation of resuscitated dissents."
Also, the holdings of prior opinions have been misstated or misused. In <i>McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission</i>13, involving campaign contributions, the Court cited <i>Sable Communications of California v. FCC</i>,14 which didn’t involve campaign spending or contributions, or money in any way. It dealt with regulating content — actual speech — and there is nothing in <i>McCutcheon</i> about regulating content.
In <i>Sebelius</i>, the Court quoted a rule recited in <i>Maryland v. Wirtz</i> as authority; however, <i>Wirtz</i> didn’t follow that rule. As a bonus, the opinion misconstrued a quote from <i>The Federalist Papers</i>.
<i>Shelby</i> cited, in support of a theory of state sovereignty, <i>United States v. Louisiana</i> (1960), in which the state asserted sovereignty as a defense to a claim by the federal government (and lost), and <i>Texas v. White</i> (1869), which referred to state sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation, hardly relevant. The <i>Shelby</i> opinion also claimed: "Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation ‘was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority:’ Coyle v. Smith" even though, as it acknowledged, <i>Coyle</i> concerned a different issue, the admission of new States, and <i>South Carolina v. Katzenbach</i> (1966) limited the principle of equality to that context.
<i>McDonald v. Chicago</i>15 applied the Second Amendment to the states, based on <i>Heller</i>, the holding of which is as follows: “the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense." Instead, McDonald claimed this:“Two years ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller . . . , we held that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense. . . ." Later, it was somewhat closer to the mark, stating that <i>Heller</i> established “a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home," but that still spreads gun rights far and wide, limited only by an undefined concept of “lawful purpose.” The <i>Heller</i> opinion encouraged such mis-construction by stating that various largely irrelevant sources “guarantee the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” The loose language of both opinions is a gift to the gun lobby.
6. Substituting the Court’s opinion for Congress’ findings.
In <i>Shelby</i>, the Court ignored Congress’ findings of fact, thereby invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act. Its excuse was that those findings were obsolete, although only seven years old. In effect, the Court held that it had the authority to approve or disapprove of any finding of fact by Congress, a departure from basic practice, and an incursion into the separation of powers.
The Court’s arrogance was revealed also in <i>McCutcheon</i>: “[W]e do not doubt the compelling nature of the ‘collective’ interest in preventing corruption in the electoral process. But we permit [!] Congress to pursue that interest only so long as it does not unnecessarily infringe an individual’s right to freedom of speech . . . ." Allegedly protecting First Amendment rights, the Court will decide whether any given law, enacted by the people’s representatives, is inconsistent with the Court’s political outlook which, in <i>McCutcheon</i>, had less regard for the “collective” than for those who can spend money on elections.
7. Misinterpreting statutes.
In general, the Court doesn’t think much of Congress’ ability to draft statutes, but if the Court wanted to ignore a statute, the one involved in <i>Burwell v. Hobby Lobby</i>16 would have been the perfect candidate, as it made little sense. Instead, the Court rewrote it to suit its aim, which was to allow a corporation to avoid providing contraceptive coverage — as required by regulations under the Affordable Care Act — as part of its health care plan for employees. Along the way, it confused corporations and owners, granted corporations religious rights, and found that the possible use of a contraceptive by a third party (an employee) violated the owners’ and corporation’s religious beliefs, or maybe it was their “exercise of religion.”
8. Avoiding the issue.
In <i>Rucho v. Common Cause,</i>17 the Court chose not to interfere with partisan gerrymandering. That probably should not have been a surprise; the Court already had declared, in Shelby, its lack of interest in protecting the right to vote. It excused its inaction in part by confusing the terms “political” and “partisan,” allowing it to protect partisan motivation by pretending it was merely part of a valid political process. It cited <i>Baker v. Carr</i>18 for the proposition that a “political question” is non-justiciable; however, <i>Baker</i>, which established the one-person, one-vote principle, did not apply that rule.
9. Misplaced deference to views of the founding era.
<i>Bucklew v. Precythe</i>19 denied a challenge to a state’s method of execution; the prisoner’s claim was that, because of his medical condition, that method would cause great suffering. The Court held against him, applying the standards of the Eighteenth Century regarding cruelty and ignoring the principle that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," a principle reaffirmed in 2002, in another Eighth Amendment death penalty case.20 The <i>Bucklew</i> opinion is originalism run riot.
As a result of these dubious decisions, we have a
troubling attitude toward elections, and bad law on money in politics, gun
control, voting rights and state sovereignty, gerrymandering, the Commerce
Clause, religious rights of corporations and the death penalty. It may get worse.
2 Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015)
3 Ross v. National Urban League, 592 U. S. ____ (2020)
5 531 U.S. 98 (2000). My comments are scattered; see 8/10/13. The opinion was per Curium; of the majority, only Justice Thomas still is on the Court.
6 Democratic National Committee v Wisconsin State Legislature
7 https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/17/politics/bush-v-gore-barrett-kavanaugh-roberts- supreme-court/index.html
8 Kennedy; 558 U.S. 310 (2010); discussed on 2/6/10.
9 Scalia; 554 U.S. 570 (2008); 7/6/08
10 Roberts; 570 U.S. 529 (2013); 7/1/13, 2/24/16, 10/8/19
11 Roberts; 567 U.S. 519 (2012); 7/6/12, 11/15/15
12 I discussed this on 5/13/14 in connection with McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
13 Roberts; 572 U.S. 185 (2014); 5/13/14
14 492 U. S. 115 (1989)
15 Alito; 561 U.S. 742 (2010); 7/11/16
16 Alito; 573 U.S. 682 (2014); 7/15/14
17 Roberts, 588 U.S. ___ (2019); 10/8/19
18 369 U. S. 186, 217 (1962)
19 Gorsuch; 583 US __ (2019); 4/13/19
20 Atkins v. Virginia, 536 US 304 (2002)