Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—May 22

A gavel sits on the chairman’s dais in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2019 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

1991—Federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin delivers a This Day classic. The backdrop: Richard R. Kreimer, a homeless man, camped out in the Morristown, New Jersey, public library, was belligerent and disruptive, stared at and followed library patrons, talked loudly to himself and others, and had an odor so offensive that it prevented areas of the library from being used by patrons and from being worked in by library employees. The library then adopted written policies setting forth minimal standards of patron behavior. After Kreimer was expelled multiple times for violating the policies, he sued.

Poetically pronouncing that “one person’s hay-fever is another person’s ambrosia,” Judge Sarokin rules that the library is a traditional public forum like a street or sidewalk, that the library’s policies are overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment, and that they violated substantive due process, equal protection, and the New Jersey constitutional guarantee of free expression. On appeal, the Third Circuit will unanimously reverse Judge Sarokin on every ruling.

By in effect concocting a right for Kreimer to disrupt a public library, Sarokin deprived other citizens of the right to use a library in peace. Not incidentally, Sarokin was said to be very finicky about the conditions of his court’s library. (For a fuller discussion of this This Day classic, see Part I here.)

With the ardent support of Senate Democrats like Patrick Leahy (“a judge of proven competence, temperament, and fairness,” “an excellent choice”), President Clinton will appoint Sarokin to the Third Circuit in 1994.

2015—First Amendment speech rights receive very uneven protection from progressive judges, depending on what viewpoint is being expressed. So it is that Second Circuit judges Rosemary S. Pooler and Peter W. Hall rule (in Children First Foundation, Inc. v. Fiala) that the First Amendment allows New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles to exclude an adoption organization’s proposed “Choose Life” plate from its “custom” license plate program pursuant to—get this—the DMV’s statutory authority to reject license plates that are “patently offensive.”

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