The argument for caution: Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent in June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Gee

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Some commentators expressed surprise last week when Chief Justice John Roberts cast the fifth vote to stay the enforcement of a Louisiana law restricting access to abortion in June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Gee. That law creates an admitting-privileges requirement for doctors who seek to perform abortions. The law thus implicates the 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the Court struck down a Texas law requiring abortion providers to hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and to comply with other regulatory mandates.  There, the Court reasoned that the Texas law served no rational purpose other than to unduly burden women seeking to exercise their right to choose. The stay in June Medical Services simply delays the Louisiana law’s implementation until the Court can take up its constitutionality in view of Hellerstedt, likely next Term.

Roberts’s vote favoring a stay should not have come as a surprise. Though the Chief has previously expressed doubts about the existence and scope of unwritten constitutional rights, he has been unwavering about the importance of adhering to precedent when it comes to maintaining the legitimacy of the Supreme Court itself. Staying the Louisiana law in light of Hellerstedt promotes that legitimacy by demonstrating the Court’s respect for its own recent jurisprudence.

More interesting than the Chief voting to impose the stay was Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent—the only separate opinion. While Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch did not disclose why they voted to deny the plaintiffs’ application for a stay, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that either (a) they do not view the Louisiana law as imposing an undue burden under the controlling precedent, Hellerstedt; or (b) they do not view Hellerstedt or the antecedent decisions from which it springs, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Roe v. Wade, as correctly decided. If you do not believe that the plaintiff’s theory of the case is grounded in a sound constitutional principle, it makes sense that you would not be inclined to permit the most recent articulation of that unsound principle to control.

In his dissent, Justice Kavanaugh made clear that he did not oppose the grant of the stay because he questions Hellerstedt’s constitutional footing. Rather, he viewed the stay as unnecessary given that the plaintiffs had raised a pre-enforcement facial challenge to the Louisiana law. In the absence of actual facts about the law’s effect, Kavanaugh noted, the parties offered, “in essence, competing predictions about whether [the doctors could] obtain admitting privileges” pursuant to the law. He favored denying the stay to see which circumstance would develop—whether the doctors in question would gain the admitting privileges the law required, which would obviate the plaintiffs’ challenge under Hellerstedt; or whether the doctors would be denied admitting privileges, which arguably would impose an undue burden under Hellerstedt.

This line of reasoning distinguishes Kavanaugh’s position in relation to the presumed views of the other dissenters. First, his dissent reflects the importance of factual development to judicial review: with facts in hand, the court can appreciate how regulations work in practice, and whether their enforcement is designed to undermine constitutional values. Second, Kavanaugh’s dissent shows some interest in having the court move incrementally, particularly in a case that implicates a recent precedent. There is value in slowness: as Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged in his confirmation hearings, adherence to precedent “plays an important role in promoting stability,” by showing appropriate respect for the decision-making limits of nine unelected judges.

Indeed, if Kavanaugh’s dissent is any indication, the Chief Justice has another colleague who appreciates that the Court’s ability to perform its constitutionally assigned role is inextricably connected to the esteem in which it is held. Consider the decision last Term in Carpenter v. United States, in which the Court concluded that, even when we share certain information with others, we have not necessarily sacrificed all privacy protections under the Fourth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Roberts made clear that context matters, and Carpenter explicitly saves for another day numerous questions regarding the reach of its holding. At the decision’s end, Roberts quoted with approval Justice Felix Frankfurter’s counsel that the Court, in the face of potentially far-reaching changes, should “tread carefully.” Kavanaugh’s short dissent in June Medical Services suggests that he may well be on board with that program.

The Importance of Being Chief Justice

I am delighted to present our first guest post, from my colleague Lawrence Friedman.

Successful lawyers excel at framing arguments. And for no lawyer in the United States is this skill more important than Chief Justice John Roberts. All of the justices of the Supreme Court seek to frame issues in ways that makes the results they reach seem inevitable. But only the chief justice speaks with the authority of his office outside the confines of the Court’s written opinions, opportunities that he seeks to maximize to ensure all of us that, regardless of how they rule in particular cases, the federal courts are just going about their business.

Consider two recent examples. The first is the chief justice’s response to President Trump’s belief that judges rule against his administration on the basis of politics. The chief justice would have none of it. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” he said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In each of these three sentences, Roberts essentially made the same point: federal judges are independent of politics and treat all who come before them equally. Note that Roberts did not dispute that federal judicial appointment process is political. Rather, he framed the issue in terms of what judges do after that process has ended.

The second example comes from the Chief Justice’s 2018 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. This annual update on the workload of the federal courts typically addresses a recent issue of note to the federal court system. All government reports should be so readable.

This year, the Chief Justice begins by recounting Justice Louis Brandeis’s effort, in 1928, to draft a dissent in Olmstead v. United States—an opinion that foreshadowed a doctrinal change nearly four decades later to the judicial understanding of the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections.

The Brandeis story captures the way in which the courts work – by reasoning their way to particular conclusions – and the nature of doctrinal change over time. And the story highlights the importance of judicial law clerks. Clerks are recently-graduated law students who assist the federal judiciary at all levels in resolving cases by providing research and drafting assistance.

But the story is not just about the importance of this resource to the judiciary. It also frames the Chief Justice’s report on the efforts of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group to determine the changes needed to judicial conduct codes to ensure that they adequately reflect concerns for confidentiality, mechanisms for reporting misconduct, and processes for investigating complaints.

As written, the report achieves its purpose. Members of Congress and the general public who take the time to read it are likely to be satisfied with the judiciary’s management of conduct issues and conclude there is no need for monitoring from outside. The judiciary, in other words, can take care of itself.

The point here is that, unlike his colleagues, Chief Justice Roberts must always keep an eye on the federal judiciary’s institutional reputation. The independence of the third branch is more fragile than that of the other departments of the federal government. The courts are possessed, as Alexander Hamilton famously put it, of neither the purse nor the sword. Congress, for example, controls not just the judiciary’s budget, but both the number of judges at every level and their jurisdiction.

We live in a time when the President of the United States regularly belittles the institutions of democracy, a time when serious proposals are being floated in the new House of Representatives to expand the number of Supreme Court justices to counter the perceived effect of recent appointments. Given his recent statements, the Chief Justice appears to be acutely aware that the federal judiciary’s independence, and popular respect for its rulings, turns on the extent to which the people believe that judges, once appointed, have no side to take in particular cases, and can keep their own house clean. If the pitched battles over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment and partisan gerrymandering are any guide to the future, the chief has his work cut out for him.

Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional law at New England Law | Boston and is the author, most recently, of Modern Constitutional Law.

Chief Justice releases Year-End Report

Per tradition, at 6 p.m. EST on December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts released his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Each year, the report focuses on one specific topic. For 2018, the topic–appropriately–was the work of the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct.

Many have already focused on the #MeToo aspect of this year’s report. I want to highlight something a bit different. Far beyond discussing the specific outcomes of the Working Group’s activities, Roberts spent quite a bit of time discussing the internal mechanisms by which the Working Group’s suggestions were implemented. He highlighted the roles of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the various Judicial Conference subcommittees that studied and implemented the Working Group’s recommendations. The enduring image is one of a slow, careful, and multi-layered process–exactly the image the Chief Justice was likely aiming for.

Although it never goes on for more than a few pages, the Year-End Report may be the most deliberately written document that the Chief Justice writes all year. One has the sense that every word had been carefully and repeatedly vetted. That the Chief would dedicate significant space to describing (even at a high level) the federal courts’ internal committee work is telling, and a welcome development for students of court organization.

Happy New Year to all.

Friedman on the Supreme Court’s cert denial in Gee v. Planned Parenthood

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Gee v. Planned Parenthood, a case involving the ability of Medicare recipients to challenge a Louisiana law regulating payments to providers of certain services. While not specifically about abortion, the case certainly was determined in the shadow of the national abortion debate.

At least four Justices are needed for the Supreme Court to take up a case, but here only three of nine wanted to take it: Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch. In an uncommon turn, Justice Thomas penned a dissent from the denial of certiorari, critiquing his colleagues for shirking their responsibility to decide cases that are or may be politically controversial.

Many people have weighed in on the Court’s decision and Justice Thomas’s dissent, but my colleague Lawrence Friedman has a particularly thoughtful and sensible take. Read the whole thing.

Chief Justice Roberts: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges”

Responding to President Trump’s characterization of a federal district judge who had ruled against the administration’s asylum policy as “an Obama judge,” Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement rejecting the notion entirely.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In a tweet, the President later responded, “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”

The situation is a bit more nuanced than either side’s statements suggest, of course. The Chief Justice is correct that the federal judiciary is composed of extraordinary individuals who try to do their best, irrespective of the parties or issues in a case. But each judge also cannot help but apply the law in a manner informed by personal experience and beliefs. It is far too crass for the President to assert that his legal setback was due to an “Obama judge,” but he is not entirely wrong that the judge in question might have viewed the issue differently than some of his peers on the district court bench.

Still, three cheers for the Chief Justice, trying to maintain the legitimacy of the judiciary in the face of ongoing populist attacks.

Kavanaugh accuser admits accusation was false

Judy Munro-Leighton, who alleged in an October 3 email to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had been raped by Brett Kavanaugh, has now admitted that she fabricated the story as a “tactic” to stop his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In her email, Munro-Leighton identified herself as the “Jane Doe” who had sent an anonymous letter to Senator Kamala Harris in September, alleging that Kavanaugh and a friend had raped her “several times each” in a car. No time frame or additional details were provided. After receiving the email, Judiciary Committee staffers tried in vain to reach Munro-Leighton for nearly a month. When they finally were able to connect with her in early November, she admitted that she had not written the original “Jane Doe” letter and that her email was a way “to grab attention.”

This is appalling. False accusations undermine the very fabric of the justice system, and false accusations against a judge threaten the legitimacy of the courts. They also represent an assault on real accusations, hurting the ability of real victims to tell their stories and seek some measure of justice.

Senator Charles Grassley has referred Munro-Leighton to the FBI for further investigation for the federal violations of making materially false statements and obstruction.

Good.

Justice O’Connor’s fortitude

JMS and SDOC

Like so many others, I was saddened by the news that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is battling early stages of dementia. Now 88 years old, Justice O’Connor has been in the national spotlight for nearly four decades. Even after she retired from the Court in 2006, she stayed very much in public life, first founding the iCivics program and then lending her name and cachet to the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan. Her absence from the public sphere will be missed.

So will her wit, razor-sharp mind, and commitment to the judiciary. A former Arizona state legislator, O’Connor never forgot the importance of justifying the work of the courts to other branches of government, and to the American people. Her opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) observed that the Court’s power lies “in its legitimacy, a product of substance and perception that shows itself in the people’s acceptance of the Judiciary as fit to determine what the Nation’s law means and to declare what it demands.” Her work with iCivics emphasized the importance of understanding our government institutions and holding them appropriately accountable. And her crusade against judicial elections over the past decade was grounded in the belief that when judges act like politicians, the integrity and legitimacy of the courts suffer.

I was lucky enough to spend time with Justice O’Connor once, about ten years ago. She came by the IAALS office in what I assumed would be a short meet-and-greet. She sat at a table with our (small) staff, and asked what we were working on. At the time, I was heavily focused on judicial performance evaluation. Justice O’Connor was interested–interested enough, in fact, to pepper me with detailed and remarkably incisive questions for about 20 minutes. It was both a terrifying and exhilarating experience–the closest I have ever come to a Supreme Court oral argument. And this was on a topic that she professed to know very little about.

The recent news has led to a cascade of well-wishes from across the political spectrum. Let me add to the chorus. My thoughts are with her and her family as she embarks on this new stage of life.

Above: Your humble blogger with Justice O’Connor, circa 2007.