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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 9



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2008—With opinions about to be issued concerning the en banc petition in Ricci v. DeStefano, Second Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor and her panel colleagues—fellow Clinton appointees Rosemary Pooler and Robert Sack—evidently realize that they have failed in their bid to bury the claims by 19 white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter that New Haven city officials engaged in racially discriminatory practices by throwing out the results of two promotional exams. They therefore convert their nonprecedential summary order dismissing the firefighters’ claims into an otherwise virtually identical per curiam precedential ruling dismissing the claims.

Three days later, the Second Circuit issues an order denying en banc rehearing by a 7-6 vote. In a blistering dissent, Judge José Cabranes (also a Clinton appointee) condemns the panel’s mistreatment of the firefighters’ claims. As he sums it up:

This per curiam opinion adopted in toto the reasoning of the District Court, without further elaboration or substantive comment, and thereby converted a lengthy, unpublished district court opinion, grappling with significant constitutional and statutory claims of first impression, into the law of this Circuit. It did so, moreover, in an opinion that lacks a clear statement of either the claims raised by the plaintiffs or the issues on appeal. Indeed, the opinion contains no reference whatsoever to the constitutional claims at the core of this case, and a casual reader of the opinion could be excused for wondering whether a learning disability played at least as much a role in this case as the alleged racial discrimination.

And then this killer understatement:

This perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal.

Cabranes expresses his “hope that the Supreme Court will resolve the issues of great significance raised by this case” and his judgment that plaintiffs’ claims are “worthy of [Supreme Court] review.”

The Supreme Court proceeds to grant review and, one year later—while Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination is pending—reverses the panel decision.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 7



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1965—In Griswold v. Connecticut, the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut prescribed a contraceptive device for a married woman and contrived to get himself arrested for violation of an 1879 state law against use of contraceptives—a law that had never been enforced. In his majority opinion declaring a constitutional right for married persons to use contraceptives, Justice William O. Douglas (see This Day for April 4, 1939) infamously asserts that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance” and that “[v]arious [of these] guarantees create zones of privacy”—all of which, of course, it is the Court’s power and duty to discern. Douglas then cites six cases that supposedly “bear witness that the right of privacy which presses for recognition here is a legitimate one.” In fact, those cases did no such thing. (One case, for example, held merely that a homeowner’s conviction for resisting an inspection of his rat-infested home did not violate due process.)

Douglas purports to confine his ruling to the marital relationship: “We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights—older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred.” That this celebration of marriage would come from Douglas, who, in the year he penned it, was divorcing his third wife (after two years of marriage) and marrying his fourth, might suggest that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. The Court’s ruling seven years later in Eisenstadt (see This Day for March 22, 1972) would confirm that sense.

1993—New Jersey legal journals report that federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin personally accepts from the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution the “C. Everett Koop Award for significant achievement toward creating a smokefree society.” Remarkably, Sarokin receives the award for his handling of a personal-injury action against cigarette manufacturers—the very matter (see This Day for February 6, 1992) in which the Third Circuit had already taken the extraordinary action of removing him from the case for “judicial usurpation of power,” for violating “fundamental concepts of due process,” and for destroying any appearance of impartiality.

2006—In a notorious speech at Radcliffe in which she recounts her 1960s-nostalgia-inspired “crying jag” at a Simon and Garfunkel concert in 2003, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse rants about “the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom” and “the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.” Greenhouse later defends these comments as “statements of fact,” but the Times’s public editor criticizes her for violating her “overriding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions”—and for “whining” about “the difficulties journalists face in being citizens.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 5



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1968—Sirhan Sirhan assassinates Democratic presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy just after midnight during the celebration of Kennedy’s victory in the California primary. Sirhan’s death sentence for the crime is voided when the California supreme court in 1972 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 misimagines contemporary standards to be. (See This Day for February 18, 1972.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 1



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1992—In Davis v. Davis, the Tennessee Supreme Court decides a battle between a divorcing couple over rights to their frozen embryos stored in a fertility clinic. Writing for the court, Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey undertakes a lengthy excursus that culminates in an ad hoc balancing test weighted strongly in favor of destruction of the human embryos: “Ordinarily, the party wishing to avoid procreation should prevail.…” Daughtrey extrapolates 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. She then relies on skimpy psychotherapy articles to concoct a right of a voluntary “gamete-provider” to avoid unwanted genetic parenthood.

The obvious explanation for Daughtrey’s various frolics and detours is that Davis was decided weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was expected—wrongly, as it turns out—to use its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and to restore abortion policy to the democratic processes. By her opinion, Daughtrey contrives to establish a Tennessee version of Roe. (In 1993, President Clinton appoints Daughtrey to the Sixth Circuit.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 31



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1990—In an otherwise insignificant case (Shriners Hospitals v. Zrillic), Florida chief justice Rosemary Barkett, completely botching case law governing the federal Equal Protection Clause, asserts that “underinclusive or overinclusive classifications fail to meet even the minimal standards of the rational basis test” and, on that misunderstanding, invalidates a six-month statutory time period. There is, she says, “no rational distinction” between a period of “five months and twenty-eight days” and a period “a few days longer.” Somehow that same insight escaped her in a separate case (LeCroy v. State) in which she concluded that the Constitution imposes a bright-line age minimum for offenses that can result in the death penalty.

Barkett’s proposition would go far towards transforming supposedly deferential rational-basis review into strict scrutiny and thus invites judicial activism. Indeed, because it is difficult to imagine that the review would be applied consistently (few laws would survive if it were), her approach would lead to arbitrary and selective application. (In 1994, President Clinton appoints Barkett to the Eleventh Circuit.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 29



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1992—According to Jan Crawford Greenburg’s Supreme Conflict, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes a note to Justice Harry Blackmun asking to meet him “about some developments in Planned Parenthood v. Casey … [that] should come as welcome news.” The news is that Kennedy is retreating from his conference vote to apply a deferential standard of review to the abortion regulations under challenge. One month later, Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter issue a joint opinion in Casey that is breathtaking in its grandiose misunderstanding of the Constitution and of the Supreme Court’s role. (More on this in a month.)

2001—Does the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 require that the PGA Tour allow a disabled contestant to use a golf cart in its professional tournaments when all other contestants must walk? Answering in the affirmative (in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin), Justice Stevens’s opinion for the Supreme Court determines that walking is not “fundamental” to tournament golf. An excerpt from Justice Scalia’s classic dissent:

“If one assumes … that the PGA TOUR has some legal obligation to play classic, Platonic golf … then we Justices must confront what is indeed an awesome responsibility. It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States … to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? The answer, we learn, is yes. The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a ‘fundamental’ aspect of golf. Either out of humility or out of self-respect (one or the other) the Court should decline to answer this incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 27



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2009—Odd bedfellows, indeed! Supposed constitutional conservative Theodore B. Olson, solicitor general under President George W. Bush, betrays the legal principles that he has purported to stand for over the course of his public career as he joins forces with liberal David Boies, his adversary in Bush v. Gore, to file a lawsuit asking a federal district court in California to invent a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 26



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2009—Implementing his threat to select a justice who will make decisions based on empathy, President Obama nominates Second Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill the seat of retiring justice David Souter. During the confirmation process, the “wise Latina” (at least in her own self-conception) will demoralize and disgust her supporters on the Left, as she implausibly masquerades as a caricature of a judicial conservative and even emphatically repudiates Obama’s empathy standard.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 23



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1957—Three Cleveland police officers arrive at Dolly Mapp’s home seeking a suspect wanted in connection with a recent bombing. After Mapp refuses to admit them, the police forcibly enter and search the home and discover obscene materials. Mapp is convicted of possession of these materials. The Ohio supreme court rules that the search of the home was unlawful but that Mapp’s conviction resting on evidence resulting from the search is valid.

In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 3, overrules its own 1949 precedent that held that the Constitution does not require that evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution be excluded from criminal trials in state court. The Court instead applies to state criminal trials the exclusionary rule that it first imposed on federal criminal trials in 1914. In dissent, Justice Harlan (joined by Justices Frankfurter and Whittaker) concludes his analysis with this observation: “I regret that I find so unwise in principle and so inexpedient in policy a decision motivated by the high purpose of increasing respect for Constitutional rights. But in the last analysis I think this Court can increase respect for the Constitution only if it rigidly respects the limitations which the Constitution places upon it, and respects as well the principles inherent in its own processes. In the present case I think we exceed both, and that our voice becomes only a voice of power, not of reason.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 22



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1991—Federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin delivers a This Day classic. The backdrop: Richard R. Kreimer, a homeless man, camped out in the Morristown, New Jersey, public library, was belligerent and disruptive, stared at and followed library patrons, talked loudly to himself and others, and had an odor so offensive that it prevented areas of the library from being used by patrons and from being worked in by library employees. The library then adopted written policies setting forth minimal standards of patron behavior. After Kreimer was expelled multiple times for violating the policies, he sued.

Poetically pronouncing that “one person’s hay-fever is another person’s ambrosia,” Judge Sarokin rules that the library is a traditional public forum like a street or sidewalk, that the library’s policies are overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment, and that they violated substantive due process, equal protection, and the New Jersey constitutional guarantee of free expression. On appeal, the Third Circuit unanimously reverses Judge Sarokin on every ruling.

By in effect concocting a right for Kreimer to disrupt a public library, Sarokin deprived other citizens of the right to use a library in peace. Not incidentally, Sarokin was said to be very finicky about the conditions of his court’s library. (For a fuller discussion of this This Day classic, see Part I here.)

With the ardent support of Senate Democrats like Patrick Leahy (“a judge of proven competence, temperament, and fairness,” “an excellent choice”), President Clinton appointed Sarokin to the Third Circuit in 1994.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 20



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1996—What’s one way to deal with unhelpful precedent? Just ignore it entirely, as Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Romer v. Evans does. In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that it is constitutionally permissible for states to make homosexual conduct criminal. A decade later, the Court in Romer addresses the constitutionality of Colorado’s Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment (adopted by statewide referendum) that prohibited all levels of state government from bestowing special protections upon those engaged in homosexual conduct. Without ever mentioning Bowers, Justice Kennedy (joined by five of his colleagues) declares that Amendment 2 reflects an improper “animus” and therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause. (Seven years later, in his opinion in Lawrence v. Texas overruling Bowers, Kennedy cites his Romer ruling as having seriously eroded Bowers.) Justice Scalia, in dissent (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas), responds:

“In holding that homosexuality cannot be singled out for disfavorable treatment, the Court contradicts a decision, unchallenged here, pronounced only 10 years ago and places the prestige of this institution behind the proposition that opposition to homosexuality is as reprehensible as racial or religious bias. Whether it is or not is precisely the cultural debate that gave rise to the Colorado constitutional amendment (and to the preferential laws against which the amendment was directed). Since the Constitution of the United States says nothing about this subject, it is left to be resolved by normal democratic means, including the democratic adoption of provisions in state constitutions. This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that ‘animosity’ toward homosexuality is evil.”

2008—A Ninth Circuit panel rules (in Witt v. Department of the Air Force) that the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas requires that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute governing homosexuals in the military “must satisfy an intermediate level of scrutiny under substantive due process.” Despite relevant Supreme Court precedent, the panel somehow fails even to consider whether the military context calls for a lower standard of scrutiny.

More evidence of the panel’s sloppiness is provided by its assertion that the Court in Lawrence “did not mention or apply the post-Bowers [v. Hardwick] case of Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), in which the Court applied rational basis review to a law concerning homosexuals.” In fact, Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion spends two full paragraphs presenting Romer as the second of two major post-Bowers cases that supposedly cast “even more doubt” on the holding in Bowers, and it later summarizes its conclusion that Bowers had “sustained serious erosion” from Romer.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 18



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1991—The New York Times and the Washington Post report that in 1990 Charles E. Smith, a wealthy real-estate developer, made gifts to Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in the amount of $140,000. Of that total amount, $80,000 was given before Justice Brennan’s retirement in July 1990. According to Brennan, Smith was a “dear friend” and “made these gifts in recognition of my public service.” The Times and the Post immediately launch investigations into such matters as whether Smith had ideological affinity for Brennan’s liberal judicial activism and was rewarding that activism and whether and when Smith had made any previous promises concerning the gifts. Just kidding: There is no sign that follow-up investigations of any sort ever took place.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 17



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1954—In Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous Supreme Court abandons available originalist justifications for its ruling that state-segregated schools violate the Equal Protection Clause—justifications that would have been far weightier, and commanded far more public respect, than its own makeshift reliance on contemporaneous psychological research of dubious relevance. Contrary to conventional understanding, the Court declines to revisit its notorious 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and instead limits itself to the question whether the separate-but-equal rule of Plessy “should be held inapplicable to public education.”

1993—Tennessee chief justice Lyle Reid and justice Martha Craig Daughtrey dispute the ruling by the Tennessee supreme court in State v. Marshall that obscenity is not protected speech under the Tennessee constitution. The majority’s ruling, they extravagantly contend, hands “the right most essential to personal dignity and democratic government, the freedom of expression, … into the willing grasp of the censor.” Daughtrey was appointed by President Clinton to the Sixth Circuit later in 1993.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 15



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2008—The California supreme court, by a vote of 4 to 3, invents a right to same-sex marriage under the state constitution. Chief justice Ronald M. George’s majority opinion offers the usual false assurances that he’s not just making it up and imposing his own policy preferences. Even more brazenly, George tries to defend his usurpation of the “people’s will” by arguing that the “provisions of the California Constitution itself constitute the ultimate expression of the people’s will.” In a sense, yes—when those provisions are faithfully and properly interpreted and applied. But not when judicial activists like George abuse them.

Six months later, California’s citizens vote to override the court’s ruling by approving Proposition 8, a measure that amends the state constitution to protect traditional marriage.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 14



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1970—President Richard M. Nixon, in one of the misdeeds for which he most deserves infamy, appoints Harry A. Blackmun to the Supreme Court. Blackmun, a boyhood friend of Chief Justice Warren Burger, had served on the Eighth Circuit since 1959. Before that, he had been in-house counsel for the Mayo Clinic. His appreciation for the outstanding work done by the fine doctors at the Mayo Clinic is said to have led him to regret that he himself did not become a doctor. Those with a proper appreciation of Blackmun’s Supreme Court decisionmaking—including, but by no means limited to, his notorious opinion in Roe v. Wade (see This Day for January 22)—might fairly observe that the medical profession’s loss was the nation’s … loss.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 13



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1993—In dissent in University of Miami v. Echarte, Florida chief justice Rosemary Barkett flouts U.S. Supreme Court precedent as she opines that a statutory cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution. Nominated a few months later by President Clinton to the Eleventh Circuit, Barkett concedes at her confirmation hearing that she “should not have done that.” But, hey, activism happens—when, that is, reckless judges like Barkett are involved.

To make matters even worse: Barkett’s dissent adopts the position taken in an amicus brief submitted in the case by the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. While the case was pending and while Barkett was facing a retention election, this same group created an annual award named after her, the Rosemary Barkett Award. In November 1992, one week after her successful retention election, Barkett presented the first annual Rosemary Barkett Award at the group’s annual convention. So much for the fact and appearance of impartiality.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 12



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2005—Federal district judge Joseph F. Bataillon, appointed by—surprise!—President Clinton, rules that the Nebraska constitutional provision defining marriage as “between a man and a woman” violates First Amendment associational rights, the Equal Protection Clause, and the Bill of Attainder Clause. One year later, a unanimous Eighth Circuit panel reverses all of these rulings.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 10



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2006—Mississippi attorney Michael B. Wallace, nominated to the Fifth Circuit by President Bush, is victimized by the ABA.  In a scandalous process marked by bias, a glaring conflict of interest, incompetence (see here and here), a stacked committee, violation of its own procedures, cheap gamesmanship, and ultimately, flat-out perjury, the ABA committee rates Wallace “not qualified.”   After Democrats regain control of the Senate in 2007, Wallace’s nomination is not resubmitted.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism



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2010—Happy Mother’s Day!  No thanks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in 1974 co-authored a report proposing that Congress abolish Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and replace them with an androgynous Parents’ Day.  Observing Parents’ Day would, she explained, be “more consistent with a policy of minimizing traditional sex-based differences in parental roles.”  In that same report, the oh-so-“moderate” Ginsburg stated her strong sympathy for the proposition that there is a constitutional right to prostitution and a constitutional right to bigamy; criticized the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts for perpetuating stereotyped sex roles; and urged that prisons be co-ed rather than single sex.  (See here for relevant excerpts from the report.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism



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2006—When left-wing activist and divorce specialist Marna Tucker is somehow selected as the D.C. Circuit member of the ABA committee that rates federal judicial nominees, Senate Democrats engineer the occasion for Tucker to conduct a (supposedly) supplemental review of White House lawyer Brett M. Kavanaugh, who had previously received an overall “well qualified” rating.  Tucker instead launches a scorched-earth investigation that produces a jumble of biased and incoherent allegations, and the ABA committee reduces Kavanaugh’s overall rating to “qualified”.  Amidst the ensuing Democratic smears, Kavanaugh ends up being confirmed to the D.C. Circuit by a vote of 57-36.  (See here for a fuller account.)

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