Dec. 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.
Dec. 27 1988—In Blum v. Witco Chemical Corp., federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin reconsiders whether to enhance an attorney’s fee award by a multiplier to compensate plaintiffs’ attorneys for the risk they had undertaken in handling the case on a contingency-fee basis. The Third Circuit had rejected Sarokin’s previous adoption of a 20% enhancement and had provided him extensive instructions on the daunting task of making sense of Justice O’Connor’s controlling concurring opinion in an intervening Supreme Court case on contingency enhancement. (Several years later, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6 to 3, will conclude that O’Connor’s approach cannot “intelligibly be applied,” as it rules that contingency enhancements are never permissible.)
Sarokin complains that the “Supreme Court has sent a Christmas gift to this court delivered via the Third Circuit” (the Third Circuit decision was actually rendered in early September) and that “the instructions are so confusing and inconsistent that this court has been unable to put the ‘gift’ together.” He states that he “fears” that the Supreme Court and Third Circuit “have designed an erector set from which no attorney will ever be able to build a valid claim for a contingency enhancement.” “Reading between the lines” of the higher-court opinions, he states that “one may conclude that multipliers or other enhancers are so disfavored as to be virtually non-existent.” But, stating his own view that “enhancers should be the rule and not the exception,” Sarokin then somehow proceeds to award a 50% enhancement—2-1/2 times higher than his original multiplier.
On review, the Third Circuit disallows the multiplier. In her unanimous panel opinion, Judge Sloviter (a Carter appointee, as it happens) sets forth what could be an appropriate epitaph for Sarokin’s entire judicial career: “the district court, without concealing its disapproval of both the Supreme Court’s decision and ours, proceeded in accordance with its own views.” Sloviter proceeds to document how Sarokin “applied the incorrect legal standard” in “at least four respects essential to [his] decision.”
Dec. 30 2004—In United States v. Bad Marriage, a divided Ninth Circuit panel rejects the 41-month prison sentence received by the aptly named Mr. Bad Marriage. Released from tribal jail so that he could attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Bad Marriage instead attacked his girlfriend. His guilty plea to a charge of assault resulting in bodily injury came on top of 35 prior state-court convictions and some 60 convictions in tribal court. Applying the Sentencing Guidelines’ rules for upward departures, the sentencing judge departed from the usual sentencing range based on his judgment that Bad Marriage was likely to commit other crimes.
On review, the majority opinion by Judge Warren Ferguson somehow sees fit to thunder that the case is “a powerful indictment of the criminal justice system” and that the problems of alcohol abuse and crime on Indian reservations “cry out for treatment, not simply more prison time.” Never mind, as dissenting judge Callahan points out, that Bad Marriage was released from jail to get treatment when he instead assaulted his girlfriend. In the end, the panel’s spurious rejection of the upward departure causes Bad Marriage to be subjected to more prison time: Resentencing Bad Marriage after the Supreme Court’s January 2005 ruling (in United States v. Booker) that the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, the district judge imposes, and a different Ninth Circuit panel affirms, a 49-month sentence.
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.