Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—August 4

Justice William O. Douglas

1973—On vacation in Yakima, Washington, Justice William O. Douglas issues an opinion in support of his single-justice order the previous day that purported to bar U.S. military operations in or over Cambodia. (Specifically, his order vacated the stay that a federal court of appeals had entered of a district-court order to such effect.)

Never mind that Justice Thurgood Marshall had, on August 1, denied the same application, or that the Court’s usual practice, as Douglas noted, “is to refer [a] second application to the entire Court.” Such practice, Douglas asserts, “cannot be followed” when the Court is in recess, “for the Justices are scattered,” making “[g]roup action by all Members … impossible.”

Claiming to “pay the greatest deference” to Justice Marshall’s denial, Douglas instead analogizes the legal issue to the “classic capital [i.e., death-penalty] case,” and blithely bulldozes past issues of justiciability, standing, and the political-question doctrine.

Disputing or disproving Douglas’s assessment that collective action by the justices is impossible during the recess, the Court, in an order written by Justice Marshall and agreed to by the seven other justices, overturns Douglas’s action that same day. Douglas, in dissent, contends that the statutory quorum rule governing the Court (which provides merely that six justices “shall constitute a quorum”) means that the Court can act only when at least six justices are physically present in the same place and does not allow the “telephonic disposition of this grave and crucial constitutional issue.”

2010—The Senate, by a 63-37 vote (with Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska among those voting no), confirms President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

2010—In a ruling that even a prominent proponent of same-sex marriage condemns as “radical,” Judge Vaughn Walker continues his wild course of misconduct in Perry v. Schwarzenegger by declaring that California’s Proposition 8 violates the federal Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.

Among other things, Walker denies that the male-female union has ever been one of the “characteristics” of marriage in the United States. In absurd “findings of fact,” Walker claims that the “evidence shows beyond any doubt that parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes” and that the “evidence shows beyond debate that allowing same-sex couples to marry has at least a neutral, if not a positive effect on the institution of marriage.” Never mind that plaintiffs’ own experts had rejected this latter proposition.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (which filed pre-trial and post-trial amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs), publicly celebrates Walker’s ruling: “We rejoice at today’s decision but there’s a long road ahead toward establishing true marriage equality for same-sex couples.”

The next stop in that “long road ahead” is the Ninth Circuit, where—surprise!—Ripston’s husband, arch-activist Stephen Reinhardt will be assigned to the panel reviewing Walker’s ruling. Notwithstanding his wife’s personal involvement in the same case, Reinhardt will decline to recuse himself.

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