Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 9

1993—Missouri 17-year-old Christopher Simmons plans a brutal murder and assures his friends that they can “get away with it” because they are minors. In the middle of the night, Simmons and a friend break into the home of Shirley Crook, awaken her, cover her eyes and mouth with duct tape, bind her hands, put her in her minivan, drive to a state park, walk her to a railroad trestle spanning the Meramec river, tie her hands and feet together with electrical wire, wrap her whole face in duct tape, and throw her from the bridge. Exactly as Simmons plans, Mrs. Crook drowns an unspeakably cruel death in the waters below.

Simmons confesses to the murder. At the death-penalty phase of his trial, the judge instructs the jurors that they can consider Simmons’s age as a mitigating factor, and the defense relies heavily on that factor. The jury recommends, and the trial judge imposes, the death penalty.

A dozen years after Simmons’s summary execution of Mrs. Crook, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, relies on “international opinion” to overturn its own precedent and to rule (in Roper v. Simmons) that execution of offenders who were 17 at the time of their offense violates the Eighth Amendment. (See This Day for Mar. 1.) In dissent, Justice Scalia observes that the majority’s “startling conclusion” that “juries cannot be trusted with the delicate task of weighing a defendant’s youth along with the other mitigating and aggravating factors of his crime … undermines the very foundations of our capital sentencing system, which entrusts juries with ‘mak[ing] the difficult and uniquely human judgments that defy codification and that ‘buil[d] discretion, equity, and flexibility into a legal system.’”

2010—In California, federal district judge Virginia A. Phillips rules (in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States) that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law governing homosexuals in the military violates substantive due process and First Amendment speech rights and that the plaintiff organization is entitled to a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law.

The Obama administration’s sabotage of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell litigation—including then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s irresponsible failure to seek review of a rogue Ninth Circuit ruling that applied a higher level of scrutiny to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—helped set the stage for Phillips’s ruling. Indeed, Phillips states several times in her opinion (in slightly different formulations) that the Department of Justice “called no witnesses, put on no affirmative case, and only entered into evidence the legislative history of the Act.” But Phillips compounds the Obama administration’s malfeasance by misstating and misapplying the relevant standard for facial challenges.

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