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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 4



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1939—Two weeks after President Roosevelt nominates SEC chairman (and former Yale law professor) William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court, the Senate confirms the nomination by a 62-4 vote.  On the Court from 1939 until 1975, Douglas is the longest-serving justice in history.

In his 2003 New Republic review of a biography of Douglas (Wild Bill:  The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, by Bruce Allen Murphy), Seventh Circuit judge Richard A. Posner offers this succinct summary of Douglas’s judicial career:  “For Douglas, law was merely politics.”  Here’s Posner’s colorful fuller assessment:  “Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended.  Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.” 

As Posner acknowledges, one can, of course, “be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge.”  By the evidence, Douglas was both a terrible person and a terrible judge.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 3



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2008—Some nine months after his nomination to the Fourth Circuit, federal district judge Robert J. Conrad has still not been afforded a confirmation hearing, even though he received the ABA judicial-evaluations committee’s unanimous highest rating of “well qualified” and enjoys the strong support both home-state senators.  Trying to defend his obstruction of Conrad, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy accuses Conrad of having made “anti-Catholic comments about a nun.”  In fact, Conrad, himself a Catholic, had in 1999 criticized a nun for “the near total contempt [she] displayed for the Roman Catholic Church.”  Conrad’s nomination will expire months later without his ever receiving a hearing.

2009—The lawless judicial attack on traditional marriage and on representative government continues, as the Iowa supreme court rules unanimously (in Varnum v. Brien) that a “state statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.” 

Central to the court’s ruling is its assertion that “equal protection can only be defined by the standards of each generation.”  An intelligent citizen not attuned to the deceptive rhetoric of living-constitutionalist judges would sensibly imagine that that proposition would mean that the court would defer to the standard of the current generation of Iowans reflected in the statute that Iowa adopted in 1998.  But what the court really means is that each generation of judges is free to expand the meaning of equal protection according to its own subjective standards—and to shrink the realm of representative government.  Or, as the court puts it in activist gobbledygook:

“The point in time when the standard of equal protection finally takes a new form is a product of the conviction of one, or many, individuals that a particular grouping results in inequality and the ability of the judicial system to perform its constitutional role free from the influences that tend to make society’s understanding of equal protection resistant to change.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 1



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2008—Wisconsin voters, presented the opportunity to alter what one commentator aptly called the “4-3 liberal majority [that had become] the nation’s premier trailblazer in overturning its own precedents and abandoning deference to the legislature’s policy choices,” defeat associate justice Louis B. Butler Jr.’s bid to remain on the court and elect Michael Gableman in his place. But in September 2009, President Obama acts to foist Butler’s bad judging back on the people of Wisconsin, as he nominates Butler to a federal judgeship in the Western District of Wisconsin.  

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 31



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1958—In Trop v. Dulles, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, invalidates the sentence of forfeiture of citizenship imposed on a soldier who deserted during wartime.  Illustrating two of the gimmicks of the liberal judicial activist—abstraction far removed from the text of the Constitution and invocation of the Living Constitution—Chief Justice Warren’s plurality opinion declares that the “basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment[’s bar on cruel and unusual punishments] is nothing less than the dignity of man” and that the Eighth Amendment “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  (Somehow those “evolving standards” are seldom broadly reflected in actual legislation.)    

Justice Frankfurter’s dissent for four justices points out that wartime desertion is a capital offense “and has been so from the first year of independence.”  Therefore, “to insist that denationalization is ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment is to stretch that concept beyond the breaking point.”  Asks Frankfurter rhetorically:  “Is constitutional dialectic so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”  Even far more in recent decades than in 1958, the answer to Frankfurter’s question is plainly yes.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 30



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1989—According to the logbook maintained by the staff of the Morristown public library, squatter Richard R. Kreimer “spent 90 minutes—twice—staring at reference librarians.”  In response to this and other highly disruptive behavior, the library crafts written rules that prohibit, among other things, “unnecessary staring”.  But, in a wild ruling, federal district judge (and, later, Clinton appointee to the Third Circuit) H. Lee Sarokin declares the rules facially unconstitutional.  (See This Day entry for Feb. 14, 1992, for more on this case and the Third Circuit’s reversal of Judge Sarokin’s ruling.)

2001—After nearly six years in which his preliminary injunction has operated to prevent Indiana from implementing an informed-consent statute for abortion that is materially identical to the provisions that the Supreme Court held to be constitutionally permissible in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, federal district judge David F. Hamilton enters a permanent injunction against the statute.  In doing so, Hamilton rests heavily on a statistical study, conducted by a sociologist at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, that related entirely to the effects of a waiting-period provision in Mississippi.  Never mind that the Seventh Circuit had already determined, in a 1999 case involving Wisconsin’s informed-consent law, that the Mississippi study should not be relied on.  A Seventh Circuit panel (with abortion radical Diane Wood in dissent) later reverses Hamilton’s injunction.

In 2009, Hamilton, a former ACLU activist, will become President Obama’s first nominee to a federal appellate seat.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 29



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2000—In dissent (in City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M.), Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Ginsburg, opines that an ordinance generally barring public nudity violates First Amendment speech protections.  Amidst discussion of pasties and G-strings, Stevens complains that the ordinance was adopted in response to a specific concern about nude dancing at strip clubs rather than about public nudity in general.  So what?  As Justice Scalia responds:  “As far as appears (and as seems overwhelmingly likely), the preamble, the councilmembers’ comments, and the chosen definition of the prohibited conduct simply reflect the fact that Erie had recently been having a public nudity problem not with streakers, sunbathers or hot-dog vendors, but with lap dancers.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 27



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1931—Stephen Reinhardt is born in New York.  Appointed to the Ninth Circuit by Jimmy Carter in 1980, Judge Reinhardt has earned notoriety as the “liberal badboy of the federal judiciary.”  In his overtly political view of judging, “The judgments about the Constitution are value judgments.  Judges exercise their own independent value judgments. You reach the answer that essentially your values tell you to reach.”  Undeterred by, and indeed defiantly proud of, being perhaps the most overturned judge in history (frequently by a unanimous Supreme Court), Reinhardt declares, “They can’t catch them all.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 26



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2009—In an academic paper titled “Bias and the Bar:  Evaluating the ABA Ratings of Federal Judicial Nominees,” political scientists Richard L. Vining, Jr., Amy Steigerwalt, and Susan Navarro Smelcer present their statistical findings that “suggest the presence of some systematic bias towards Democratic nominees in the ABA’s ratings.”  Among their findings:  “In sum, when we isolate the effect of ideology, we find that, all else being equal, liberal nominees are more likely to receive the highest possible rating than their conservative counterparts.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 25



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1993—In her plurality opinion in Wyche v. State, Florida chief justice (and, thanks to President Clinton, current Eleventh Circuit judge) Rosemary Barkett strikes down as facially unconstitutional an ordinance that prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution.  Barkett strains to misread the ordinance as not requiring, as an element of the crime, a specific intent to engage in prostitution.  Further, she asserts that even if specific intent were required, the ordinance would still be unconstitutional because of the hypothetical possibility that it could be applied in a manner that would chill First Amendment speech. Never mind that it’s difficult to see how the ordinance would reach any constitutionally protected activity, much less the substantial quantum needed for First Amendment overbreadth doctrine to apply to a facial challenge.

In two other cases that same day (E.L. v. State and Holliday v. City of Tampa), Barkett similarly strikes down as facially unconstitutional ordinances prohibiting loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity.  So much for the ability of crime-ridden communities to combat the scourges of prostitution and drugs.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 24



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1997—By a vote of 4 to 3, the Ohio supreme court rules in DeRolph v. State that Ohio’s existing system of financing its public-school system violates the state constitution’s declaration that the General Assembly “make such provisions, by taxation or otherwise, as will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”  The court orders the General Assembly to “create an entirely new school financing system.”  (How a school system can ever be “thorough and efficient” so long as self-serving teachers unions have clout is a mystery that the court did not explore.)

2009—Reviewing yet another Ninth Circuit grant of habeas relief on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Supreme Court (in Knowles v. Mirzayance) again unanimously reverses the Ninth Circuit.  Perhaps it is not surprising that a court laden with so many incompetent judges is inept at determining what constitutes incompetent legal advice.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 23



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2009—President Obama nominates radical transnationalist Harold Koh to be State Department legal adviser, a position that would give Koh a cornucopia of opportunities to advance his agenda of having American courts import international law to override the policies that American citizens adopt through the processes of representative government.  (See here for more detail.)  Three months later, the Senate confirms Koh by a 62-35 vote.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 22



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1972—Who knew that contraception had such generative power? A mere seven years after Justice Douglas’s majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut (a contrived case involving a law that had never been enforced) holds that married persons have a right to contraception hidden in the “penumbras” and “emanations” surrounding a right to marital privacy, Justice Brennan’s majority opinion in Eisenstadt v. Baird extends that right to unmarried persons. Dismissing as immaterial the marital relationship that Douglas had posited to be pivotal, Brennan, in a wondrous bit of bootstrapping, uses the Griswold holding as the basis for an equal-protection ruling (“whatever the rights of the individual to access to contraceptives may be, the rights must be the same for the unmarried and the married alike”) that undermines the very foundation of Griswold.

Brennan’s hijinx don’t end there. With Roe v. Wade already pending (it was first argued in December 1971), Brennan smuggles into his Eisenstadt opinion this assertion: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” One year later, Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe quotes this passage immediately before declaring that “[t]hat right necessarily includes the right of a woman to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 19



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1957—President Eisenhower’s nomination of William J. Brennan, Jr. to serve on the Supreme Court is confirmed by the Senate. Brennan, a former New Jersey supreme court justice, is already serving on the Court by virtue of Eisenhower’s October 1956 recess appointment of him. Eisenhower’s selection of Brennan—which Eisenhower later identifies as one of his two biggest mistakes as president (see This Day item for March 1, 1954)—is said to have resulted from a recommendation by his campaign advisers that an appointment of a Catholic Democrat from the Northeast would attract critical voters. So much for basing Supreme Court selections on short-term political calculations. In retrospect, that recommendation appears to have been as unnecessary as it was foolish: Eisenhower wins re-election over Adlai Stevenson by a huge margin, 57%-42% in the popular vote and 457 to 73 in the electoral college.

In his 34 years on the Court, Brennan deploys his impressive backroom political skills in the service of liberal judicial activism. It is doubtful that anyone has done more to misshape the Supreme Court’s understanding of the Constitution.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 17



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1992—By order of a trial court, the sponsors of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston are required to allow the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston to participate in their parade. In 1994, in an error of judicial passivism, the Massachusetts supreme court rules that the parade is not an exercise of First Amendment rights and that compelling the parade organizers to comply with state law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation did not raise any significant First Amendment issue. In 1995, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay Group of Boston, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reverses: “The selection of contingents to make a parade is entitled to [First Amendment] protection.” 

2009—President Obama makes his first federal appellate nomination as he selects district judge David F. Hamilton for a Seventh Circuit seat.  Among the distinctions in the judicial record of the former ACLU activist are an extraordinary seven-year-long series of rulings (ultimately reversed by the Seventh Circuit) obstructing Indiana’s implementation of its law providing for informed consent on abortion; a reckless invocation of substantive due process to suppress evidence of violation of drug laws (also reversed by the Seventh Circuit); a ruling barring Indiana’s House of Representatives from permitting invocations that refer to “Christ” but permitting invocations by Muslim imams that refer to “Allah” (reversed, for lack of standing, by the Seventh Circuit); and a reputation among criminal defense lawyers as the most lenient judge in the district.  All of which, of course, leads the New York Times to proclaim Hamilton a “moderate”!

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 15



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1933—Ruth Joan Bader is born in Brooklyn, New York.  At her Supreme Court confirmation hearing sixty years later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, defending the invention of a constitutional right to abortion, decries the fact that her mother did not have the legal right to kill her in utero:  “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 13



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1963—Ernesto Miranda is arrested in Phoenix on charges of abduction and rape.  His interrogation by police yields a written confession.  His confession is admitted at trial, and he is convicted.

Three years later, in Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court rules by a 5-4 vote (with the majority opinion by Chief Justice Warren) that a confession made during custodial interrogation will be conclusively deemed involuntary and inadmissible unless police first provide what are now known as the Miranda warnings (or unless other effective safeguards are adopted).  It therefore vacates Miranda’s conviction.  In dissent, Justice Harlan states that “[o]ne is entitled to feel astonished that the Constitution can be read” to bar admission of a confession “obtained during brief, daytime questioning … and unmarked by any of the traditional indicia of coercion.”  Harlan also observes that the “thrust of the [Court’s] new rules” is not to protect against coerced confessions but “ultimately to discourage any confession at all.”

In response to Miranda, Congress in 1968 enacts a law providing that voluntary confessions shall be admissible in evidence in federal prosecutions, whether or not Miranda warnings were given.  In 2000, in a striking illustration of the staying power of activist precedents, the Supreme Court rules 7-2 in Dickerson v. United States that Miranda “announced a constitutional rule that Congress may not supersede legislatively,” and it voids the federal statute.  As Justice Scalia argues in dissent, the majority in Dickerson does not in fact hold that the use at trial of a voluntary confession, in the absence of Miranda warnings, violates the Constitution, but rather regards Miranda’s rules as merely “prophylactic.”  Thus, in voiding the federal law, the majority necessarily rules that it has the “immense and frightening antidemocratic power” “not merely to apply the Constitution, but to expand it, imposing what it regards as useful ‘prophylactic’ restrictions upon Congress and the States.”   

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 8



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1948—In McCollum v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court applies the “wall of separation” myth that it adopted the previous year (see This Day entry for Feb. 10, 1947) and strikes down a released-time program in which religious teachers, employed by their own religious groups, could provide religious instruction on school grounds at designated times to those students whose parents consented.  As law professor Philip Hamburger explains in Separation of Church and State, the McCollum case made clear that the Supreme Court’s misconstruction of the Establishment Clause “would go far beyond the [constitutionally unfounded] Protestant version of separation of church and state” and impose a secular version.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 6



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1857—Chief Justice Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott marks the Supreme Court’s first use of the modern liberal judicial activist’s favorite tool—“substantive due process”—to invalidate a statute.  In striking down the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern portion of the Louisiana Territories, Taney nakedly asserts:  “[A]n act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty and property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.”  

The dissenters in Dred Scott invoke, and properly apply, the originalist principles that liberal judicial activists regard as abhorrent.  As Justice Curtis declares rhetorically in exposing Taney’s deviation from originalist principles:  “[I]f a prohibition of slavery in a Territory in 1820 violated this principle of [due process], the ordinance of 1787 also violated it.”  Further:   “[W]hen a strict interpretation of the Constitution, according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws, is abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control its meaning, we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean.”

1996—On the anniversary of Dred Scott, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit, in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, rules that a Washington statute prohibiting physician-assisted suicide violates substantive due process.  The majority opinion, by notorious liberal activist Stephen Reinhardt, garners votes from eight of the eleven panel members.

A year later, the Supreme Court unanimously reverses the Ninth Circuit (in an opinion styled Washington v. Glucksberg).  But any assurance or clarity that the unanimous judgment might seem to provide is undercut by five separate opinions (by Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) signaling a willingness to concoct at some future point some sort of constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.

2003—Senate Democrats use the anniversary of Dred Scott to punish a Hispanic judicial nominee who has escaped from the liberal plantation.  Initiating the unprecedented use of the filibuster as a partisan weapon to block forever an up-or-down vote on a judicial nominee, 44 Democrats prevent a Senate floor vote on President Bush’s nomination of the superbly qualified Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit.  This is the first of seven unsuccessful cloture votes before Estrada ultimately withdraws his candidacy.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 1



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1954—The Senate, by voice vote, confirms President Eisenhower’s nomination of former California governor Earl Warren to serve as Chief Justice. Warren was already serving as Chief Justice pursuant to a recess appointment by Eisenhower in October 1953. Years later, Eisenhower calls his appointment of Warren “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.” That’s a highly dubious assessment, as Eisenhower also appointed Justice William Brennan. (To be fair to Eisenhower, his death in 1969, just months before the end of Warren’s time as Chief Justice but not much more than one-third of the way through Brennan’s tenure, prevented him from fully comparing what he accurately labeled his two biggest mistakes.)

2005—Relying on “international opinion,” the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, overturns its own precedent and rules in Roper v. Simmons that execution of offenders who were 17 at the time of their offense violates the Eighth Amendment. Roper starkly illustrates how the same justices who bow to the views of foreigners are disdainfully dismissive of the rights of American citizens to engage in self-governance in this country.

When he was 17, Christopher Simmons planned a brutal murder. He assured his friends they could ‘get away with it’ because they were minors. In the middle of the night, Simmons and a friend broke into a woman’s home, awakened her, covered her eyes and mouth with duct tape, bound her hands, put her in her minivan, drove to a state park, walked her to a railroad trestle spanning a river, tied her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrapped her whole face in duct tape, and threw her from the bridge. Exactly as Simmons planned, his victim drowned an unspeakably cruel death in the waters below.

Simmons confessed to the murder. At the death-penalty phase of his trial, the judge instructed the jurors that they could consider Simmons’s age as a mitigating factor, and the defense relied heavily on that factor. The jury recommended, and the trial judge imposed, the death penalty.

In his majority opinion (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer), Justice Kennedy aims to discern “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Kennedy looks to the 12 states that have no death penalty and the 18 states that, “by express provision or judicial interpretation, exclude juveniles from its reach” to conclude that a majority of states—30 in total—reject the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds. In dissent, Scalia counters that it makes no sense to count states that have no death penalty: “Consulting States that bar the death penalty concerning the necessity of making an exception to the penalty for offenders under 18 is rather like including old-order Amishmen in a consumer-preference poll on the electric car.”

Kennedy then finds “respected and significant confirmation” for his ruling in “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.” According to Kennedy, the fact that the United States, alone with Somalia in the world, has not ratified Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—which contains an express prohibition on capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles—supports his conclusion that the juvenile death penalty is unconstitutional. But as Justice Scalia observes in dissent, “Unless the Court has added to its arsenal the power to join and ratify treaties on behalf of the United States,” the United States’ non-ratification of Article 37 undercuts the majority’s position. Scalia also points out that the justices in the majority would never aim to conform American law to the rest of the world on matters like the exclusionary rule, church-state relations, and abortion. 

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 28



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2001—The Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 created a federal subsidy program that provides financial support for legal assistance to the poor in noncriminal matters. To keep the program from being used for political purposes, Congress has tightly regulated the use of LSC funds. One funding restriction, added in 1996, withheld LSC funds from entities that took part, on either side, in litigation to reform welfare.

In Legal Services Corp. v. Velasquez, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, rules (in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, joined by Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) that the 1996 funding restriction violates the First Amendment. Justice Scalia, in dissent (joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Thomas), explains that the case is “embarrassingly simple: The LSC subsidy neither prevents anyone from speaking nor coerces anyone to change speech, and is indistinguishable in all relevant respects from the subsidy upheld in [the Court’s 1991 ruling in] Rust v. Sullivan.”  

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