Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 25

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

1992—Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion in Hudson v. McMillian—four months into his service on the Court—produces a spasm of confused outrage from the Left. As Thomas explains in the opening of his dissent, the sole issue before the Court is a legal one: Must a prisoner alleging that he has suffered “cruel and unusual punishment” establish that he has suffered a significant injury? The court below had found the prisoner’s injuries to be “minor,” and that factual determination was not under review by the Court. Addressing the legal question, Thomas reads the Court’s precedents as requiring showing of a significant injury, and he abides by that view. He also declares: “Abusive behavior by prison guards is deplorable conduct that properly evokes outrage and contempt. But that does not mean that it is invariably unconstitutional. The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas further notes that the prisoner had state-law remedies available and, if those remedies were not adequate, a federal due-process claim.

The next day, this hitherto obscure case is featured in the lead article on the front page of the New York Times. Linda Greenhouse’s article highlights the injuries suffered by the prisoner, but fails to mention that the lower court’s finding that the injuries were minor was not under review by the Court. She also quotes extravagant language from Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion that, responding to Thomas’s position that the same legal standard should govern both excessive-force and conditions-of-confinement claims under the Eighth Amendment, falsely implies that Thomas denies the factual “difference between punching a prisoner in the face and serving him unappetizing food.” Greenhouse juxtaposes Thomas’s dissent with his confirmation testimony about his compassion. She also highlights a supposed “close alliance” between Thomas and Scalia.

One day later, a New York Times editorial, viciously titled “The Youngest, Cruelest Justice,” falsely asserts that Thomas’s dissent “contended that since the prisoner suffered only a split lip, loosened teeth, and a broken dental plate, he had no constitutional complaint.” The editorial feigns “crashing disappointment” with him. Happily, unlike others subjected to the gaseous pollutants of the Greenhouse effect, Thomas remains unaffected.

2019—Ninth Circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt probably holds the record for the most unanimous reversals by the Supreme Court, so it’s only fitting that he somehow managed to rack up another one in an opinion issued in his name eleven days after his death.

“Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” That’s the punchline in the Supreme Court’s per curiam ruling in Yovino v. Rizo. The Court vacates the Ninth Circuit’s en banc ruling issued on April 9, 2018. Reinhardt died on March 29, 2018, but the Ninth Circuit listed him as the author of the six-judge majority opinion.

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