Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—December 25

1987—As a result of a Seventh Circuit ruling (in American Jewish Congress v. City of Chicago), the city of Chicago no longer displays a nativity scene in the lobby of the Chicago City-County building. In dissent, Judge Easterbrook laments the multi-factored balancing test established in Lynch v. Donnelly, where the Supreme Court permitted a nativity scene as part of a city’s Christmas display that also included “a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, [and] a large banner that reads ‘SEASONS GREETINGS’. As Easterbrook puts it:

“It is discomfiting to think that our fundamental charter of government distinguishes between painted and white figures—a subject the parties have debated—and governs the interaction of elements of a display, thus requiring scrutiny more commonly associated with interior decorators than with the judiciary. When everything matters, when nothing is dispositive, when we must juggle incommensurable factors, a judge can do little but announce his gestalt.”

1989—Thanks to the Supreme Court’s jumbled ruling months earlier in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, the city of Pittsburgh can display a Hanukkah menorah next to a Christmas tree but can’t display a nativity scene. The Court’s own summary of its lineup signals the clarity that it provides:

“BLACKMUN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III-A, IV, and V, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined, an opinion with respect to Parts I and II, in which STEVENS and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined, an opinion with respect to Part III-B, in which STEVENS, J., joined, an opinion with respect to Part VII, in which O’CONNOR, J., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part VI. O’CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in Part II of which BRENNAN and STEVENS, JJ., joined.. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE and SCALIA, JJ., joined.” Got that?

1998—For the fourth Christmas in a row, Jersey City is barred by a district-court order from displaying on City Hall grounds a menorah and a nativity scene, this time as part of a proposed display that would also include a Christmas tree, large plastic figures of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, a red sled, Kwanzaa symbols on the tree, and signs stating that the display was one of a series of displays put up by the city throughout the year to celebrate its residents’ cultural and ethnic diversity. Less than two months later, a divided panel of the Third Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Samuel Alito, will rule that the display is constitutionally permissible. 

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