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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 30



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1971—By a vote of 6 to 1, the California supreme court rules in Serrano v. Priest that California’s “public school financing system, with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in school revenue, violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Specifically, “the right to an education in our public schools is a fundamental interest which cannot be conditioned on wealth,” and the state financing system “invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors.”

Two years later (in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez), the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, rejects Serrano’s analysis, as it rules that Texas’s similar system of financing public school education does not violate equal-protection guarantees. Citing Serrano, Justice Powell’s majority opinion adds this prescient “cautionary postscript”:

[T]here is nothing simple or certain about predicting the consequences of massive change in the financing and control of public education.… The complexity of these problems is demonstrated by the lack of consensus with respect to whether it may be said with any assurance that the poor, the racial minorities, or the children in overburdened core-city school districts would be benefited by abrogation of traditional modes of financing education.…  Additionally, several research projects have concluded that any financing alternative designed to achieve a greater equality of expenditures is likely to lead to higher taxation and lower educational expenditures in the major urban centers, a result that would exacerbate rather than ameliorate existing conditions in those areas.

Ah, the unintended consequences of liberal judicial activism: According to experts, the Serrano decision “overlooked the fact that 75% of poor children lived in high spending districts,” and it thus “actually led to lower school spending for most poor children” and to “equalized mediocrity.” Further, Serrano and its follow-on rulings are credited with triggering the property-tax revolt that culminated in California’s Proposition 13—“After all, the logic goes, if increased property taxes don’t help our schools, why should we be for increased property taxes”—and helped lead to Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980.

2006—In a front-page story in the New York Times, Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse reports a “sudden drop” in the number of female law clerks for the first full year of the Roberts Court. Justice Souter, who has no female clerks for that year, attributes the reduction to random variation, but Greenhouse observes that Justice Ginsburg had considered the drop sufficiently significant to take note of it in a speech to the American Sociological Association. Whatever Ginsburg’s sociological musings might have been, she ought to have had a keener understanding of the consequences of nondiscriminatory merit-based selection and random variation. In her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing, it was learned, much to Ginsburg’s visible embarrassment, that in her 13 years on the D.C. Circuit she had never had a single black law clerk, intern, or secretary. Out of 57 employees, zero blacks.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 26



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2009—In what Fourth Amendment expert Orin Kerr describes as the “most free-wheeling, ‘look ma no hands’ legal decision I’ve read in a long time,” a limited en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit, in a majority opinion by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski (in United States v. Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc.), announces a set of new rules governing searches and seizures of electronic records. Among the rules:  “Magistrates should insist that the government waive reliance upon the plain view doctrine in digital evidence cases.” In his partial dissent, Judge Carlos Bea complains that the majority’s “bright-line diktats” effect a “dramatic doctrinal shift” in a “rapidly developing area” and that the majority should instead have limited its decision “as precisely as possible to the case at hand.” Kerr observes that the court’s “laundry list of brand-new rules, introduced with no citations to any authority,” reminds him of the Warren Court’s inventions in Miranda v. Arizona.

One year later, in response to the Department of Justice’s petition for full en banc rehearing, the en banc panel will quietly amend its opinion to eliminate the set of new rules.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 24



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1995—The citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act authorizes “any person” to sue for violations of the ESA. Demonstrating why liberal judicial activists should be an endangered species, Ninth Circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt, joined by two other Jimmy Carter appointees (Harry Pregerson and William C. Canby, Jr.), rules in Bennett v. Plenert that the so-called “zone of interests test” that courts have developed (beyond Article III’s constitutional requirements) as a prudential limitation on standing overrides the broad language of the citizen-suit provision. Therefore, the court concludes, “plaintiffs who assert no interest in preserving endangered species”—in this case, ranch operators and irrigation districts who alleged that they would be harmed by reservoir levels designed to protect two species of sucker fish—cannot challenge violations of the ESA.

On review by the Supreme Court, not even the Clinton Administration will defend the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning. In a unanimous opinion (in Bennett v. Spear), Justice Scalia explains that the zone-of-interests test is a judicially self-imposed limit on standing that Congress is free to negate—and that Congress did so through the ESA’s citizen-suit provision.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 23



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2006—The New York Times reports that Michigan federal district judge Anna Diggs Taylor, who issued a wild ruling the previous week declaring that the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program is unconstitutional (see This Day for August 17, 2006), is a trustee and officer of a group that has given at least $125,000 to the Michigan ACLU, the plaintiff in the NSA case. 

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 19



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2005A front-page Washington Post article reporting on the release of Reagan-administration documents relating to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts carries the inflammatory headline, “Roberts Resisted Women’s Rights.” In fact, the documents show merely that Roberts had combated highly controversial leftist proposals involving gender quotas and comparable worth.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 17



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2006—In what one expert commentator aptly labels a “transparently political screed,” Michigan federal district judge (and Carter appointee) Anna Diggs Taylor rules that the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program is unconstitutional. Displaying its usual regard for the truth, the next day the New York Times editorial page praises Taylor’s “careful, thoroughly grounded opinion.” Alas for the paper’s poor editorialists, the following day the Times runs a front-page article—“Experts Fault Reasoning in Surveillance Decision”—that reports that “[e]ven legal experts who agreed with [Taylor’s] conclusion” say that her opinion “overlooked important precedents, failed to engage the government’s major arguments, used circular reasoning, substituted passion for analysis and did not even offer the best reasons for its own conclusions.” (How’s that for “careful” and “thoroughly grounded”?) Even Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, in the course of self-indulgently criticizing Taylor’s critics for self-indulgent criticism, complains that her opinion “seems almost to have been written more to poke a finger in the President’s eye than to please the legal commentariat or even, alas, to impress an appellate panel.” But Tribe concludes that “her bottom line is very likely to survive appellate review.”

In July 2007, the Sixth Circuit overturns Taylor’s ruling, as a divided panel rejects her threshold determination that the plaintiffs had standing to pursue their claims.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 16



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1996—One reason that the Ninth Circuit is so dysfunctional is that it fails to make responsible use of its en banc procedures to override panel rulings that conflict with Supreme Court precedent. In his opinion in Wicklund v. Salvagni, Judge Stephen Reinhardt rules that the judicial-bypass provision of a Montana statute requiring parental notice for minors’ abortions is unconstitutional under the Ninth Circuit’s 1991 ruling in Glick v. McKay. Reinhardt rejects the argument that the Glick ruling was contrary to Supreme Court precedent and does not raise the possibility of en banc review.  

In a per curiam ruling (in Lambert v. Wicklund), the Supreme Court, seeing no need for briefing or oral argument, unanimously reverses the Ninth Circuit holding on the ground that it is “in direct conflict with our precedents.”

1999—By a vote of 4 to 3, the Ohio supreme court rules (in State ex rel. Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers v. Sheward) that tort-reform legislation violates separation-of-powers principles and the ever-malleable single-subject rule.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 15



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1938—Stephen Gerald Breyer is born in San Francisco. An expert on regulation and a professor at Harvard Law School, Breyer serves from 1979 to 1980 as chief counsel to Teddy Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. His reward: On November 13, 1980—after Ronald Reagan has defeated Jimmy Carter in his bid for re-election and after Republicans have won control of the new Senate—Carter nominates Breyer to a newly created seat on the First Circuit. His nomination is promptly confirmed. In 1994 President Clinton appoints Breyer to replace retiring justice Harry A. Blackmun on the Supreme Court. (See This Day for July 29, 1994.) His jurisprudence has been aptly described by one perceptive critic as “judicial willfulness masquerading as judicial deference.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 12



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2010—In his final act of extraordinary malfeasance in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Judge Vaughn Walker refuses to stay his judgment against California’s Proposition 8 while the appeal process unfolds. Days later, a Ninth Circuit panel will overturn Walker—the remarkable third major smackdown that Walker will have earned from a reviewing court (twice from the Ninth Circuit, once from the Supreme Court) in this case before his ruling on the merits is even reviewed on appeal.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 11



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2006—In a separate opinion in Henyard v. McDonough, Eleventh Circuit judge Barkett, reaching out to address an issue that she concedes (with considerable understatement) “may not be directly before us,” opines that the Eighth Amendment should be construed to bar the death penalty for murderers “with a mental age of less than eighteen years.” What exactly Barkett means by “mental age” is confused. At one point, she quotes, with seeming approval, a definition of “mental age” as the “chronological age equivalent of the person’s highest level of mental capacity.” But she inconsistently equates it with “emotional level” and says that “even high IQ in an adult defendant” is compatible with “a mental age of a child.” Her test appears to be whether a murderer shares a “child’s inability to understand why the rules exist, to appreciate the consequences of breaking them for herself and for society, and to consistently make judgments based on the foregoing.”

Barkett’s test virtually ensures that most heinous murderers will be deemed to have a mental age below 18. Indeed, she states that there is “no dispute” that Richard Henyard—who carjacked a mother and her two daughters (ages 7 and 3), raped and shot the mother, and shot and killed the daughters—has a mental age below 18.

Barkett’s test would seem to establish that she has the mental age of a child. Does This Day perennial Barkett “understand why the rules exist”? Does she “appreciate the consequences of breaking them”—through her lawless judicial activism? Does she “consistently make judgments based” on those understandings? From the evidence that pervades This Day entries, the answers are no, no, and no.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 9



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1969—“Now is the time for Helter Skelter,” declares Charles Manson, triggering two nights of vicious killing by the “Manson Family” in Los Angeles. Some 2½ years later, in its own rampage (see This Day for Feb. 18, 1972), the California supreme court voids the death sentences that had been imposed on Manson and four other Family members.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 8



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2005—NARAL unleashes a mendacious television ad against confirmation of John Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The ad features a woman injured in the 1998 bombing of an abortion clinic, attempts to link her injury to an amicus brief that Roberts filed on behalf of the United States in 1991, and says that Americans should oppose a nominee “whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans.” Never mind that Roberts’s amicus brief, which argued that an 1871 law did not provide a federal cause of action against persons obstructing access to abortion clinics, did not take issue with the many laws that criminalize violence outside abortion clinics and did not in any way “excuse violence against other Americans.” Never mind that it was ludicrous to suggest that Roberts’s amicus brief was somehow responsible for the 1998 bombing (all the more so as the intervening enactment in 1994 of the so-called FACE Act imposed severe penalties against those obstructing access to abortion clinics yet failed to deter the bombing). And never mind that Roberts in fact had denounced abortion-clinic bombers as “criminals.” 

Days later, under harsh criticism from its usual allies, NARAL pulls the ad.

2006—In an act of collective idiocy, the ABA’s House of Delegates approves the ABA task force’s insipid report on presidential signing statements, a report that earned scathing criticism from leading academics across the political spectrum.  

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 7



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2006—Outgoing American Bar Association president Michael Greco, a zealous liberal who stacked an ABA task force on presidential signing statements with fervent opponents of the Bush administration and who did his utmost to load the ABA’s judicial-evaluations committee with hard-core partisans, delivers a ridiculously pompous farewell address. For example: “Our fellow Americans, as never before, are looking to our Association with hope, with trust, and with respect for our leadership.” And: “In our generation, it is the lawyers of America who by destiny and by choice are the guardians of the walls of freedom. It is the American Bar Association that is protecting the separation of powers and the balance of powers by checking the excesses of any branch of government that would overreach.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 6



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1993—In a harbinger of nominations to come, President Clinton’s first batch of nominees to the federal courts of appeals includes Tennessee supreme court justice, and liberal judicial activist, Martha Craig Daughtrey. Among other things, as a state supreme court justice, Daughtrey never voted to affirm a death sentence, and she joined an opinion condemning the death penalty (see This Day for Apr. 26, 1987). In an opinion full of frolics and detours, she extrapolated a state constitutional “right of procreational autonomy” from the provisions of the state constitution that protect freedom of worship, that prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures, that guarantee freedom of speech, and that regulate the quartering of soldiers in homes. (See This Day for June 1, 1992.) She also found that the state constitution protects obscenity. (See This Day for May 17, 1993.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 4



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2010—The Senate, by a 63-37 vote (with Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska among those voting no), confirms President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

2010—In a ruling that even a prominent proponent of same-sex marriage condemns as “radical,” Judge Vaughn Walker continues his wild course of misconduct in Perry v. Schwarzenegger by declaring that California’s Proposition 8 violates the federal Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Among other things, Walker denies that the male-female union has ever been one of the “characteristics” of marriage in the United States. In absurd “findings of fact,” Walker claims that the “evidence shows beyond any doubt that parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes” and that the “evidence shows beyond debate that allowing same-sex couples to marry has at least a neutral, if not a positive effect on the institution of marriage.” Never mind that plaintiffs’ own experts had rejected this latter proposition.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (which filed pre-trial and post-trial amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs), publicly celebrates Walker’s ruling: “We rejoice at today’s decision but there’s a long road ahead toward establishing true marriage equality for same-sex couples.” The next stop in that “long road ahead” is the Ninth Circuit, where—surprise!—Ripston’s husband, arch-activist Stephen Reinhardt will be assigned to the panel reviewing Walker’s ruling. Notwithstanding his wife’s personal involvement in the same case, Reinhardt will decline to recuse himself.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 3



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1993—By a vote of 96 to 3, the Senate confirms President Clinton’s nomination of D.C. Circuit judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Byron White. Confirmation comes a mere seven weeks after Clinton announced his decision to nominate Ginsburg.

And how, after all, could there have been any controversy over a former ACLU activist who, among other things, had stridently criticized the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling that the Constitution does not require taxpayers to fund abortions … who had stated her strong sympathy for the proposition that there is a constitutional right to prostitution and a constitutional right to bigamy … who had proposed abolishing Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and replacing them with an androgynous Parent’s Day … who had criticized the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts for perpetuating stereotyped sex roles … and who had urged that prisons be co-ed rather than single sex? (See here for documentation of the last several points.) That’s what the media call a “mainstream” and “moderate” nominee.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 31



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1996—The annals of This Week suffer a severe blow, as arch-activist H. Lee Sarokin resigns from the Third Circuit after less than two years of service. Imagine what he could have accomplished with more time! Even Sarokin’s reason—or, more precisely, his stated reason (see This Day for April 25, 1996)—for resigning is intensely political: he informs President Clinton by letter of his fear that “my decisions will continue to be used against you and others in the upcoming campaign.” In other words, Sarokin resigned in order to minimize the adverse impact that his ongoing rulings would have on the political fortunes of his favored candidates.

2007—Federal district judge David Hamilton’s reckless invocation of substantive due process to suppress evidence of marijuana and crack cocaine found in the apartment of a criminal defendant ends poorly, as the Seventh Circuit (in United States v. Hollingsworth) unanimously reverses his ruling.

But Hamilton’s lawless sense of empathy—also manifested in his extraordinary seven-year-long series of rulings obstructing Indiana’s implementation of its law providing for informed consent on abortion—evidently captures the attention of President Obama, who in March 2009 makes the former ACLU activist his first nominee to a federal appellate seat. In its headline on the nomination news, the New York Times touts Hamilton as a “moderate.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 30



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2003—The seventh cloture vote on President Bush’s nomination of the superbly qualified Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit yields the same result as the first cloture vote nearly five months before: Only four Senate Democrats vote for cloture, and the vote fails to end the filibuster. On September 4, 2003, Estrada withdraws his nomination. Commenting on the Democrats’ successful filibuster of the Estrada nomination, Senator Chuck Schumer turns faux-originalist: “my guess is that [if] the founding fathers were looking down on the Senate today, they’d smile.” Guess again, senator.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 29



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1994—By a vote of 87 to 9, the Senate confirms President Clinton’s nomination of First Circuit chief judge (and Teddy Kennedy’s former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee) Stephen G. Breyer to the Supreme Court. Breyer replaces retiring Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

Breyer’s path to the Supreme Court began when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to a newly created seat on the First Circuit on November 13, 1980—after Carter had lost his bid for re-election and after Republicans had won control of the Senate to be formed in January 1981. Less than one month later, on December 9, 1980, the Senate confirmed Breyer to the First Circuit.

2003—Senate Democrats force a third cloture vote on their filibuster of President Bush’s nomination of Texas supreme court justice Priscilla Owen to the Fifth Circuit. With only two Senate Democrats voting yes, the cloture vote fails. Owen, first nominated in May 2001, is ultimately confirmed in May 2005. 

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—July 28



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2004—In dissent in Williams v. Attorney General of Alabama, Eleventh Circuit judge Rosemary Barkett opines that an Alabama statute that prohibits the sale of sexual devices (which Barkett also refers to colloquially as “sex toys”) violates substantive due process. You might think that a case involving a challenge to the constitutionality of a statute prohibiting the sale of sexual devices would be about sexual devices. But, Barkett tells us, “This case is not, as the majority’s demeaning and dismissive analysis suggests, about sex or sexual devices.” Rather, “[i]t is about the tradition of American citizens from the inception of our democracy to value the constitutionally protected right to be left alone in the privacy of their bedrooms and personal relationships.”   

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