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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 backdropRichard 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.

2009—Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and (per its website) the individual “responsible for all phases of the organization’s programs, including litigation,” takes part in a confidential strategy meeting with counsel planning to file a federal lawsuit against Proposition 8. After counsel files the complaint in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Ripston’s organization will file pre-trial and post-trial amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs, and Ripston will publicly “rejoice” over Judge Vaughn Walker’s August 2010 ruling against Proposition 8.

But when Ripston’s husband, arch-activist Stephen Reinhardt, is assigned to the Ninth Circuit panel charged with reviewing Walker’s ruling, Reinhardt somehow will decline to recuse himself from the case.

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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 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—May 8



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2011—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.)

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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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 5



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1993—In Baehr v. Lewin, the Hawaii Supreme Court rules that traditional marriage is presumptively unconstitutional and orders the state to demonstrate a “compelling state interest” for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In 1998, the people of Hawaii respond by amending the state constitution to confirm that the legislature has the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples, and the legislature amends the constitution to define marriage as being between one man and one woman.

2003—In the fifth of seven unsuccessful cloture votes on President Bush’s 2001 nomination of the superbly qualified Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit, only two of the 49 Senate Democrats vote for cloture.   

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 4



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1984—When is an express signed waiver of Miranda rights not a waiver? When you try to conceal your identity by signing a false name. So rules federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin (in an unpublished opinion in United States v. Rodriguez). Rodriguez had been arrested on theft-related charges and was advised of his Miranda rights and informed that signing the waiver form would waive those rights. He signed the form, but, intent on concealing his identity, signed someone else’s name. Sarokin rules that “it does not strain logic to find the use of a name other than one’s own to be wholly inconsistent with a voluntary waiver of rights: defendant may well have believed that by using a false name he was not committing himself to anything.” 

In a remarkable display of chutzpah, Sarokin immediately follows this assertion with a “But see” citation to specific and contrary Third Circuit authority that he himself describes as standing for the proposition that “contention that signature was not one’s own is not relevant to the issue of the voluntariness of the confession.” A more blatant defiance of controlling authority of a higher court is difficult to imagine. 

2009—On the heels of Justice David Souter’s announcement of his decision to retire, Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe writes a letter to his protégé, Barack Obama, offering his nuggets of wisdom on how President Obama should seize the “opportunity to lay the groundwork for a series of appointments that will gradually move the Court in a pragmatically progressive direction.” Among the nuggets: Don’t nominate Sonia Sotomayor:

Bluntly put, she’s not nearly as smart as she seems to think she is, and her reputation for being something of a bully could well make her liberal impulses backfire and simply add to the fire power of the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas wing of the Court on issues like those involved in the voting rights case argued last week and the Title VII case of the New Haven firefighters argued earlier, issues on which Kennedy will probably vote with Roberts despite Souter’s influence but on which I don’t regard Kennedy as a lost cause for the decade or so that he is likely to remain on the Court.

Instead, Tribe recommends that Obama nominate Elena Kagan. As Tribe explains it, the techniques that Kagan deployed as Harvard law school dean “for gently but firmly persuading a bunch of prima donnas to see things her way in case after case” would give her much more of “a purchase on Tony Kennedy’s mind” than Justice Breyer or Justice Ginsburg have.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 3



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1984—Federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin modifies a consent decree to require that layoffs of New Jersey firefighters be on a proportional quota basis rather than (as state law provided) according to seniority. The result is that white firefighters with more seniority were to be laid off in favor of minority firefighters with less seniority. In an especially bizarre twist, Sarokin rules that his order constitutes an unconstitutional taking of the seniority rights of white firefighters, and he orders the federal government, which opposed his order, to provide compensation for the taking! Sarokin expresses sympathy for the white firefighters, stating that they are “not themselves the perpetrators of the wrongs inflicted upon minorities over the years [but] are being singled out to suffer the consequences.”

In June 1984, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Firefighters v. Stotts forces Sarokin to change his order and to have seniority govern layoffs, Sarokin changes his tone and attacks the white firefighters: “If they have not directly caused the discrimination to occur, many have certainly condoned it by their acquiescence, their indifference, their attitudes and prejudices, and even their humor.”

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 1



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1992—The Ninth Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Betty B. Fletcher and joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, rules that the provision of a government-paid sign-language interpreter to a profoundly deaf student who has chosen to attend a “sectarian” (read: Catholic) high school violates the Establishment Clause. One year later, the Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit (in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District) by a 5-4 vote. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s majority opinion states: “[Federal law] creates a neutral government program dispensing aid not to schools but to individual handicapped children. If a handicapped child chooses to enroll in a sectarian school, we hold that the Establishment Clause does not prevent the school district from furnishing him with a sign language interpreter there in order to facilitate his education.” Justices Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor and Souter dissent. 

2003—Two years after being nominated to the Fifth Circuit, the eminently qualified Texas supreme court justice Priscilla Richman Owen encounters another step in the Democrats’ unprecedented campaign of obstruction against President Bush’s judicial nominees. The first of five Senate cloture votes on her nomination fails to obtain the necessary 60 votes for approval, as only two of 49 Democrats vote for cloture. Owen’s nomination is finally confirmed more than two years later (and more than four years from her initial nomination)—on May 25, 2005.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 29



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1998—The Ninth Circuit’s hijinks in blocking the execution of Thomas M. Thompson for a 1981 rape and murder come to an end, with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Calderon v. Thompson.  Justice Souter’s dissent is joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer.  

2005—In a precious 13-page “open letter,” law professor Laurence Tribe discloses that he has decided to abandon his plans to complete the second volume of the third edition of his treatise on constitutional law.  No, the dog didn’t eat his drafts.  Rather, Tribe grandiosely explains, he has “come to the realization that no treatise, in my sense of that term, can be true to this moment in our constitutional history—to its conflicts, innovations, and complexities.” 

Among other things, Tribe tells the reader, “[t]here is an emerging realization that the very working materials of American constitutional law may be in the process of changing.”  For example, “contemporary developments in Islamic constitutional thought, the windows already opening or soon to be opened to us by the work of the supreme courts of Israel, India and South Africa, and our imminent appreciation of Chinese counterparts—all this may well work a great change in the starting points and sensitivities of American constitutional scholars.”  Ah, yes, of course.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 28



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2009—In a terribly muddled speech to the ACLU of Puerto Rico, Second Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor offers a blanket defense of freewheeling resort to foreign and international legal materials in determining the meaning of American constitutional provisions. 

Nominated a month later to the Supreme Court by President Obama, Sotomayor at her confirmation hearing will try to bamboozle Republican senators and the public about her views on this controversial issue.  For example, in answer to a question from Senator Sessions, Sotomayor will declare, “Foreign law cannot be used as a holding or a precedent or to bind or to influence the outcome of a legal decision interpreting the Constitution or American law that doesn’t direct you to that law.”  Similarly, she responds to Senator Coburn, “I will not use foreign law to interpret the Constitution or American statutes.” 

Only after the cameras are off, in her written responses to post-hearing questions, will Sotomayor reveal that she believes that it’s fine for American judges to draw freely on foreign and international law.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 26



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1987—In an unspeakably brutal crime, Donald Middlebrooks (a 24-year-old white male) and two accomplices kidnap Kerrick Majors, a 14-year-old black youth, decide to “have some fun” with him, tie his hands, and take him into the woods.  There, according to Middlebrooks’s videotaped confession, one accomplice, Roger Brewington, beats Majors with brass knuckles, hits him with a stick, and urinates into his mouth; Middlebrooks slaps Majors and hits him with a switch; and the other accomplice burns his nose with a cigarette lighter.  Brewington then abuses Majors’s private parts, beats and gags him, and slashes his wrist.  Middlebrooks asks Brewington to stop and initially refuses Brewington’s direction to stab Majors.  But after Brewington stabs Majors, Middlebrooks does so as well.  Majors dies at the end of the 3-1/2 hour ordeal.

Middlebrooks is convicted of first-degree felony-murder and aggravated kidnapping and is sentenced to death.  On appeal, the Tennessee supreme court, by a 3 to 2 vote, vacates the death sentence.  In a separate opinion, Chief Justice Lyle Reid, joined by Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey, goes even further, opining that the imposition of the death penalty for a conviction of felony-murder is cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution.  (The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected that conclusion under the Eighth Amendment.)  Perceiving themselves as part of the enlightened elite charged with overriding the riff-raff’s benighted views, Reid and Daughtrey condemn the death penalty generally:  “Implicit in death penalty jurisprudence is the recognition that the standards of decency are not static but evolving, that society is not stale but maturing, and that the level of community morality will continue to rise until the reasoned moral response of the people of Tennessee will be, if it is not already, that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.”  Ah, yes, in the eyes of the liberal judicial activist, no one exercising mature moral reasoning could possibly believe that the brutality inflicted on Kerrick Majors would call for the death penalty as a response.

In 1993, Daughtrey’s credentials as a liberal judicial activist earn her President Clinton’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  Meanwhile, on remand, Middlebrooks is again sentenced to death.  In 1999twelve years after Majors’s brutal death—the Tennessee supreme court, with Reid and Daughtrey no longer serving on it, unanimously upholds the death sentence.   

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 25



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1906—William J. Brennan, Jr., is born in Newark, New Jersey.  (For more on Brennan, see This Day entries for March 19 and March 22.)

1996—More Newark:  The New York Times reports that an 11-member council of the Third Circuit (which covers Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Virgin Islands) unanimously denied Judge H. Lee Sarokin’s request to move his chambers from Newark to San Diego.  A court administrator, in a comment that could apply generally to Judge Sarokin’s thinking, labels his request “extremely unusual.” 

Six weeks later, This Day all-star Sarokin announces that he will retire at the end of July—less than two years after his appointment to the Third Circuit by President Clinton.  In a letter to Clinton, Sarokin grandiosely claims that he has been targeted for public criticism for “protecting the constitutional rights of persons accused of crimes” and states his concern that his decisions will be used against Clinton in the upcoming presidential campaign.  (How could anyone withstand Bob Dole’s withering criticisms?)  In a letter to his Third Circuit colleagues, Sarokin unconvincingly maintains that his decision to retire was not based on the denial of his request to move his chambers.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 20



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2006—In Harper v. Poway Unified School District, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit rules that the First Amendment permits schools to impose viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions on student speech.  The case arose when Tyler Harper wore an anti-homosexuality T-shirt to his high school in response to the school’s sponsorship of a gay-rights event.  The school ordered Harper not to wear the T-shirt.  Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s majority opinion rules that schools may bar “derogatory and injurious remarks directed at students’ minority status such as race, religion, and sexual orientation.”  As Judge Alex Kozinski argues in his dissent, the school district “may have been justified in banning the subject [of homosexuality] altogether by denying both sides permission to express their views during the school day.”  But having permitted the pro-gay speech, the school can’t be allowed to gag other viewpoints. 

Harper’s complaint was rendered moot after he graduated from high school.  In March 2007, the Supreme Court granted Harper’s petition for certiorari and vacated (i.e., wiped from existence) the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

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This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 19



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1972—Dissenting from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sierra Club v. Morton that the Sierra Club lacks standing to challenge federal actions regarding a ski development, Justice William O. Douglas proposes “the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”  The question of standing “would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded.”  Under this rule, these inanimate objects—“valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life”—would be named parties.  “The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”  The “legitimate spokesmen” in court for the inanimate object would be “[t]hose who have [an] intimate relation with the inanimate object.”  “Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which [the inanimate object] represents will stand before the court—the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and the bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”

Needless to say, Justice Douglas is unconcerned by the massive increase in judicial power that would result from his proposed obliteration of constitutionally rooted restrictions on standing.  Concerns about “government by the Judiciary” are insignificant, he says, in light of the inadequacies of Congress (“too remote” and “too ponderous”) and the federal agencies (“notoriously under the control of powerful interests”) in addressing the problem.

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