Bench Memos

This Week in Liberal Judicial Activism—Week of July 7

High on a judicial power trip?
   
July 9 1987—In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in California v. Ciraolo that a person growing marijuana in his back yard does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that protects his premises against inspection by police lawfully operating an aircraft at an altitude of 1,000 feet.  Exercising the illogic that earned her an appointment by President Clinton to the Eleventh Circuit in 1993, Florida justice Rosemary Barkett (in State v. Riley) rules that surveillance of a back-yard greenhouse by a helicopter lawfully flying at 400 feet violates the Fourth Amendment  because “[s]urveillance by helicopter is particularly likely to unreasonably intrude upon private activities.”  But the relevant question, as the Supreme Court makes clear in reversing Barkett (in Florida v. Riley), is whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the first place, and that question turns, under Ciraolo, on whether “helicopters flying at 400 feet are sufficiently rare in this country to lend substance to [the defendant’s] claim that he reasonably anticipated that his greenhouse would not be subject to observation from that altitude.” 
   
July 10 2003—Under the Nevada constitution, the legislature cannot raise taxes except by a 2/3 vote of both legislative houses.  Or so it says.  But when Nevada governor Kenny Guinn can’t get the legislature to fund his education budget, he runs to the Nevada supreme court for help.  By a vote of 6 to 1, the court (in Guinn v. Legislature of the State of Nevada) somehow orders the legislature to proceed “under simple majority rule” to raise taxes.  Citing the “impasse that has resulted from the procedural and general constitutional requirement of passing revenue measures by a two-thirds majority,” the court orders that “this procedural requirement must give way to the substantive and specific constitutional mandate to fund public education.”  (For more, see this analysis by Eugene Volokh, who describes the ruling as “one of the most appalling judicial decisions I’ve ever seen.”)  Three years later, the Nevada supreme court quietly repudiates its ruling.
   

For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here. 

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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