Misimagined “contemporary standards”, anti-religious bigotry, Blackmun’s tinkering, and quota lies:
Feb. 18 1972—In a Brennanesque opinion in People v. Anderson, the California supreme court, by a 6-1 vote, misconstrues the state constitution’s prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment to reflect “contemporary standards of decency” and rules that the death penalty violates what it imagines contemporary standards to be. All pending death sentences, including those of Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, are voided. Nine months later, the people of California, expressing actual contemporary standards, override the ruling by voting overwhelmingly to amend the state constitution to authorize the death penalty.
Feb. 20 1980—Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens dissent from Justice White’s majority opinion in Committee for Public Education v. Regan, which rules constitutionally permissible a New York statute authorizing the use of public funds to reimburse private schools (both religious and secular) for performing various testing and reporting services mandated by state law. The dissenters would have permitted a statute that provided such aid only to secular private schools, but imagined that the inclusion of nondiscriminatory support for state-mandated costs incurred by private religious schools violated the Establishment Clause. Blackmun laments “a long step backwards,” and Stevens calls for “resurrect[ion]” of the mythical “wall” of separation. (For more on the “wall” myth, see This Week entry for February 10, 1947.)
Feb. 22 1994—Justice Blackmun’s law clerks, perhaps concerned that he is falling behind on his citechecking responsibilities, melodramatically announce (in a dissent from denial of certiorari in Callins v. Collins) that he “no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” No, he’s not abandoning his lawless abortion jurisprudence. Rather, he is announcing that he will henceforth—in the few remaining months of his 24-year career on the Court—regard the death penalty as unconstitutional.
According to liberal legal scholar David J. Garrow (in this essay), Blackmun’s records show, “especially after 1990, … a scandalous abdication of judicial responsibility.” Among other things, “his clerks were almost wholly responsible for his famous denunciation of capital punishment” in Callins. One memo from a clerk to Blackmun regarding a new draft of the Callins opinion encapsulates the role reversal: “I have not altered any of the cites. It is therefore unnecessary for you to recheck the cites for accuracy.”
Feb. 23 1993—When is a quota not a quota? The St. Petersburg Times reports that Florida chief justice Rosemary Barkett, a member of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, defends a commission report that recommends passage of legislation requiring that all of Florida’s decisionmaking boards and commissions be half male and half female by 1998. Barkett explains: “It is not in the context of a quota system. It is simply an acknowledgment that women make up one-half of the population of this state.” Oh.
Impressed by her willingness and ability to deny the obvious, President Clinton months later nominates Barkett to an Eleventh Circuit seat, where she serves with distinction (of a sort) to this day. (For more on Barkett’s egregious record, see here—and stay tuned.)
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.