Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 19

1994—D.C. Circuit chief judge Abner J. Mikva resigns from the court in order to pursue what for him might be a less political position—White House Counsel to President Clinton. A member of Congress when appointed to the D.C. Circuit by President Carter in 1979, Mikva transported his policymaking to the bench. As chief judge, he was widely blamed for destroying the collegial atmosphere on the D.C. Circuit through his partisan posturing and maneuvering. Here are a couple of examples of Mikva’s creative opinions:

In Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Watt (1983), Mikva authored the lead opinion in a 6-5 en banc ruling holding that the National Park Service’s no-camping regulations for the national Mall and Lafayette Park could not be enforced against demonstrators who were seeking to sleep in those parks in order to call attention to the plight of the homeless. In Judge Mikva’s view, the regulations violated the demonstrators’ First Amendment speech rights. A dissenting judge by the name of Scalia, joined by a fellow named Bork, disputed the notion that “sleeping is or can ever be speech for First Amendment purposes.” On review, the Supreme Court (in Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence) rejected Mikva’s conclusion by a 7-2 vote. 

In Steffan v. Perry (1993), Mikva, purporting to apply rational-basis review, wrote a panel opinion ruling that Department of Defense Directives excluding homosexuals from military service could not constitutionally be applied to someone who had identified himself as a homosexual but who had not been shown to have engaged in homosexual conduct. In Mikva’s judgment, it was irrational for the Department of Defense to employ the rebuttable presumption that (in Mikva’s summary) “a person who, by his own admission, ‘desires’ to engage in homosexual conduct has a ‘propensity’ to engage in repeated homosexual conduct.” One year later—after Mikva’s resignation—the en banc D.C. Circuit reversed Mikva’s ruling (with three judges dissenting).

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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