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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 21



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1973—In their dissents in Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, Justice Douglas reiterates his belief that obscenity is fully protected by the First Amendment, and Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Stewart and Marshall, expresses the same position, “at least in the absence of distribution to juveniles or obtrusive exposure to unconsenting adults.” 

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 20



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2002—In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Stevens (for a majority of six justices), relies on the “direction of change” in state laws, the views of the supposed “world community” and of various professional and religious groups, and polling data to rule that execution of anyone who is even slightly mentally retarded violates the “evolving standards of decency” that it sees as governing application of the Eighth Amendment. (A person who has properly been found competent to stand trial, who is aware of the punishment he is about to suffer and why, and whose subaverage intellectual capacity has been found an insufficiently compelling reason to lessen his responsibility for a crime may nonetheless be “mentally retarded.”)

In dissent, Justice Scalia marvels at the majority’s ability to extract a “national consensus” from the fact that 18 of the 38 states that permit capital punishment have recently enacted legislation barring execution of the mentally retarded. Moreover, Scalia charges, the majority’s assumption that judges and juries are unable to take proper account of mental retardation “is not only unsubstantiated, but contradicts the immemorial belief, here and in England, that they play an indispensable role in such matters.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 18



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1980—Mere months before losing his bid for re-election, President Jimmy Carter puts ACLU activist Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the D.C. Circuit. Carter had nominated Ginsburg only two months earlier.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 17



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1974—Jacob John Dougan and four other members of his Black Liberation Army begin implementing their plan “to indiscriminately kill white people and thus start a revolution and a race war.” Armed with a pistol and a knife, they pick up an 18-year-old white hitchhiker, Stephen Anthony Orlando, drive him to a trash dump, stab him repeatedly, and throw him to the ground. As Orlando writhes in pain and begs for his life, Dougan puts his foot on Orlando’s head and shoots him twice—once in the chest and once in the ear. Later, Dougan makes tape recordings bragging about the murder and mails them to Orlando’s mother and to the media. Sample content: “He [Orlando] was stabbed in the back, in the chest and the stomach, ah, it was beautiful. You should have seen it. Ah, I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved watching the blood gush from his eyes.”

In 1992, on Dougan’s sixth appeal to the Florida supreme court, three dissenting Florida justices opine that the death penalty was a disproportionate sentence under the circumstances. Justice Parker McDonald’s dissent, joined by chief justice Leander Shaw and This Day Hall of Infamy inductee Rosemary Barkett, include these remarkable observations (emphasis added):

“This case is not simply a homicide case, it is also a social awareness case. Wrongly, but rightly in the eyes of Dougan, this killing was effectuated to focus attention on a chronic and pervasive illness of racial discrimination and of hurt, sorrow, and rejection. Throughout Dougan’s life his resentment to bias and prejudice festered. His impatience for change, for understanding, for reconciliation matured to taking the illogical and drastic action of murder. His frustrations, his anger, and his obsession of injustice overcame reason. The victim was a symbolic representation of the class causing the perceived injustices.”

The events of this difficult case occurred in tumultuous times. During the time of the late sixties and early seventies, there was great unrest throughout this country in race relations.… I mention these facts not to minimize what transpired, but, rather, to explain the environment in which the events took place and to evaluate Dougan’s mind-set.”

“Understandably, in the eyes of the victim, or potential victims, the aggravating factors clearly outweigh the mitigating; in the eyes of the defendant, his friends, and most of those situated in the circumstances of Dougan, the death penalty is not warranted and is disproportionate to the majority of hate slayings, at least where the victim is black and the perpetrator is white.”

“In comparing what kind of person Dougan is with other murderers in the scores of death cases that we have reviewed, I note that few of the killers approach having the socially redeeming values of Dougan.” (This apparently refers to the dissent’s earlier observations that Dougan was “intelligent,” “well educated,” “a leader in the black community,” “taught karate and counseled black youths,” and once “participated in a sit-down strike in defiance of a court order” at a lunch counter that refused service to blacks.) 

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 15



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1982—In a 5-4 ruling in Plyler v. Doe, Justice Brennan’s majority opinion holds that the Equal Protection Clause requires Texasto provide a free public education to children who are illegal aliens since it provides such education to children who are citizens or legal aliens. In dissent, Chief Justice Burger states:

The Court makes no attempt to disguise that it is acting to make up for Congress’ lack of “effective leadership” in dealing with the serious national problems caused by the influx of uncountable millions of illegal aliens across our borders. The failure of enforcement of the immigration laws over more than a decade and the inherent difficulty and expense of sealing our vast borders have combined to create a grave socioeconomic dilemma. It is a dilemma that has not yet even been fully assessed, let alone addressed. However, it is not the function of the Judiciary to provide “effective leadership” simply because the political branches of government fail to do so.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 14



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1993—President Clinton announces that he will nominate D.C. Circuit judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice Byron White. In addition to dissenting from Roe and favoring its overruling, White authored the Court’s opinion in 1986 (in Bowers v. Hardwick) rejecting as “at best, facetious” the notion that the Constitution confers a right to homosexual sodomy. In stark contrast to White, the former ACLU activist Ginsburg maintained that the Constitution protected a right to abortion and even required taxpayer funding of abortion, and she had stated her sympathy for the proposition that there is a constitutional right to prostitution and a constitutional right to bigamy. Somehow legal academics fail to rise in alarm at the prospect that Ginsburg’s appointment will alter the “balance” of the Court.  

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 13



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1966—In a 5-4 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, Chief Justice Warren’s majority opinion declares that a voluntary 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.”

2008—In Belmontes v. Ayers, Ninth Circuit arch-activists Stephen Reinhardt and Richard Paez join forces to rule that a murderer who had been sentenced to death received ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial. In dissent, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain explains that “the majority overstates the mitigating evidence, understates the properly admitted aggravating evidence, and ignores the further aggravating evidence that would have come in on rebuttal.”

Some 17 months later, in a unanimous per curiam opinion (in Wong v. Belmontes), the Supreme Court summarily reverses the ruling—the third time in this same case that the Court has reversed or vacated a ruling made by Reinhardt and Paez over O’Scannlain’s dissent (though Reinhardt can take consolation in the fact that one overturning was by a 5-4 vote and another was a “GVR”—an order granting, vacating and remanding in light of an intervening ruling by the Court). Among other things, the Court states that it “simply cannot comprehend the assertion by the Court of Appeals that this case did not involve ‘needless suffering’”: 

The jury saw autopsy photographs showing Steacy McConnell’s mangled head, her skull crushed by 15 to 20 blows from a steel dumbbell bar the jury found to have been wielded by Belmontes. McConnell’s corpse showed numerous “defensive bruises and contusions on [her] hands, arms, and feet,” which “plainly evidenced a desperate struggle for life at [Belmontes’] hands.” Belmontes left McConnell to die, but officers found her still fighting for her life before ultimately succumbing to the injuries caused by the blows from Belmontes. The jury also heard that this savage murder was committed solely to prevent interference with a burglary that netted Belmontes $100 he used to buy beer and drugs for the night. McConnell suffered, and it was clearly needless.

The Court also notes that the Ninth Circuit majority, in addressing for the first time the murderer’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, suddenly “changed its view of the evidence.” Mitigation evidence that it had, in an earlier phase of the litigation, called “substantial” somehow became “cursory” and “insubstantial.” Whereas Reinhardt had concluded that “[t]here can be little doubt” that counsel’s performance “was prejudicial,” the Supreme Court labels “fanciful” the notion that any prejudice resulted.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 12



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2008—In Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, rules that aliens detained as enemy combatants at Guantanamo have a constitutional habeas right to challenge the basis of their detention in the course of an ongoing war. In so doing, the majority invalidates the statutory scheme that Congress and the president developed. As Chief Justice Roberts states in his dissent (for all four dissenters):

Today the Court strikes down as inadequate the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants. The political branches crafted these procedures amidst an ongoing military conflict, after much careful investigation and thorough debate. The Court rejects them today out of hand, without bothering to say what due process rights the detainees possess, without explaining how the statute fails to vindicate those rights, and before a single petitioner has even attempted to avail himself of the law’s operation. And to what effect? The majority merely replaces a review system designed by the people’s representatives with a set of shapeless procedures to be defined by federal courts at some future date. One cannot help but think, after surveying the modest practical results of the majority’s ambitious opinion, that this decision is not really about the detainees at all, but about control of federal policy regarding enemy combatants. 

Justice Scalia (also on behalf of all four dissenters) condemns the “game of bait-and-switch that today’s opinion plays upon the Nation’s Commander in Chief,” including the majority’s abandonment of the “settled precedent” of Johnson v. Eisentrager on which the president relied. Deploring the majority’s “inflated notion of judicial supremacy,” Scalia concludes:

Today the Court warps our Constitution in a way that goes beyond the narrow issue of the reach of the Suspension Clause, invoking judicially brainstormed separation-of-powers principles to establish a manipulable “functional” test for the extraterritorial reach of habeas corpus (and, no doubt, for the extraterritorial reach of other constitutional protections as well). It blatantly misdescribes important precedents, most conspicuously Justice Jackson’s opinion for the Court in Johnson v. Eisentrager. It breaks a chain of precedent as old as the common law that prohibits judicial inquiry into detentions of aliens abroad absent statutory authorization. And, most tragically, it sets our military commanders the impossible task of proving to a civilian court, under whatever standards this Court devises in the future, that evidence supports the confinement of each and every enemy prisoner. The Nation will live to regret what the Court has done today.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 11



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1986—In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Justice Blackmun (in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), declares unconstitutional the informed-consent (and various other) provisions of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982. The ruling triggers three noteworthy dissents: Chief Justice Burger, who was part of the majority in Roe v. Wade, says that if the result in Thornburgh is consistent with Roe, then “we should reexamine Roe.” Justice White, the JFK appointee who dissented in Roe, expressly calls for Roe to be overruled. And Justice O’Connor observes that Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion “makes it painfully clear that no legal rule or doctrine is safe from ad hoc nullification by this Court when an occasion for its application arises in a case involving state regulation of abortion.” (Six years later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O’Connor will practice the same ad hoc nullification of legal rules on abortion that she decries.)

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—June 10



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1968—What does Chief Justice Earl Warren do when he encounters a 45-year-old precedent that has stood (in his own words) as an “impenetrable barrier” to suits by federal taxpayers (in their capacity as taxpayers) challenging the constitutionality of the uses for which Congress has authorized the expenditure of public funds? In Flast v. Cohen, Warren’s majority opinion for eight justices concocts an unprincipled, ad hoc exception for taxpayer suits challenging federal spending on Establishment Clause grounds.

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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 he 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’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 28



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1963—Retired justice Felix Frankfurter, having witnessed the appointment of his replacement, Arthur Goldberg, create a majority bloc of liberal activists on the Supreme Court, writes to Justice Harlan to lament “the atmosphere of disregard for law and to a large extent of the legal profession that now dominates the present Court and the Court on which I sat.” (Source: Seth Stern & Stephen Wermiel, Justice Brennan.) Decades later, the situation will be transformed—but, alas, for the worse—as “a large extent of the legal profession,” having been indoctrinated by the disciples of the Warren Court, will display a similar “disregard for law.”

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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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