What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

The risk of upending settled doctrinal expectations

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Courts strive to avoid sudden, tectonic shifts in doctrine. The legitimacy of their decisionmaking depends upon two of the values that mark the rule of law: consistency and predictability. Absent adequate justification for a doctrinal shift and judicial decisionmaking starts to look like it is based more on caprice than reason.

The U.S. Supreme Court is not immune from the risks associated with such shifts—indeed, in two separate opinions in the past few weeks, Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that the Supreme Court consider radical changes in approach to long settled constitutional doctrines.

Concurring in the denial of certiorari in McKee v. Cosby, Thomas explained that, in an appropriate case, the court should reconsider the precedents underlying the First Amendment rule that public figures cannot pursue damages for defamation absent a showing of “‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that [the statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny, Thomas argued, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” that the Court “should not continue to reflexively apply.”

More recently, in Garza v. Idaho, Thomas (joined this time by Justice Neil Gorsuch) dissented from the majority’s ruling that, notwithstanding that a criminal defendant has waived the right to certain bases for appeal, prejudice should be presumed when his attorney does not pursue an appeal after being requested to do so. Thomas disagreed not only with the ruling but the basic premise of Sixth Amendment doctrine—that criminal defendants have a right to effective counsel. No modern precedent, he argued, including Gideon v. Wainwright, sought to square this rule “with the original meaning of the ‘right … to have the Assistance of Counsel.’” He suggested that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused only “the services of an attorney,” and assumptions to the contrary conflict “with the government’s legitimate interest in the finality of criminal judgments.”

Justice Thomas’s originalist approaches to defamation under the First Amendment and the right to counsel under the Sixth may be criticized on substantive grounds. As to the former, consider Eugene Volokh’s conclusion that “constitutional constraints on speech-based civil liability have deep roots, stretching back to the Framing era” and Sullivan is “entirely consistent with original meaning.” As to the latter, consider the textualist argument that the very existence of a right to counsel privileges the individual’s interest over a governmental interest in finality, and that ineffective counsel undermines the integrity of this premise.

Even setting aside these substantive concerns, Thomas’s opinions preview what Chief Justice Roberts may look forward to should more justices be appointed who share not just Thomas’s interpretive approach, but his willingness to cast aside settled rules in favor of a return to the presumed original understanding of the constitution. It is not just a dispute, in other words, about meaning, but about the way in which the Supreme Court goes about the business of constitutional rulemaking.

A radical alteration in settled doctrine runs the risk that the Court’s decisionmaking is unmoored from the past, and that the justices cannot be counted on to create reasonable expectations for the future. It is not just about a loss of respect, but the dilution of a hard-earned legitimacy. One of the reasons the American people abide by the decisions of unelected judges about the meaning of our most sacred secular text is because, agree or disagree, there is in most areas of constitutional law a continuity that has allowed public and private institutions and individuals alike to rely upon expectations the Court itself has set about the boundaries of its reach—expectations that allow us to make our own plans and plot own courses.

To return to one of Roberts’s favorite analogies: no umpire who decided, one day, to honor the strike zone as it existed in baseball’s infancy would last long on the job. The players, the pitching, the equipment, the field—all are different today. Umpiring has accounted for these differences, as managers and players well know. They have expectations about the range of possible calls an umpire might make when the ball hurtles toward the catcher’s glove, and they trust that those expectations will hold true from game to game, and across the seasons. Chief Justice Roberts has intuited that Americans rightly expect the same of their Supreme Court—and that they likely would find ways to marginalize the Court if it were otherwise.

Romania erupts with protests supporting judicial independence

Massive street protests erupted in the Romanian capital of Bucharest this weekend, after the country’s ruling Social Democrat party announced an emergency decree that would strip prosecutors of much of their power, and remove oversight of a prosecuting unit that investigates the judiciary. The party has alleged that the reforms are necessary to prevent “abuses” by the judiciary. Critics say the move is designed to intimidate judges and compromise judicial independence and the rule of law.

The country’s magistrates denounced the decree and staged their own protest on Friday, and the European Union has expressed “great concern” as well.

This has all the feel of the sham “reforms” put forth by Poland’s ruling party beginning in 2017. When any government undermines the rule of law, chaos is sure to follow.

New scholarship: Levy on Visiting Judges

Professor Marin Levy has posted a new article, Visiting Judges, on SSRN. It’s a very useful piece which describes the origins of the visiting judges program in the federal courts, and provides some insider perspective on the use of visitors on the federal courts of appeal (drawn from 35 interviews with appellate judges and staff).

One persistent theme in the judicial interviews is that visiting district judges benefit from learning about the appellate process and appellate culture. That makes good sense: a trial judge who better understands and appreciates how appellate panels think is more likely to structure a written opinion with appellate reviewers in mind. And many of the circuit courts in the study had formal programs that invited new district judges within the circuit to sit by designation in their first few years on the bench.

The appellate judges recognized that they, too, would benefit from sitting by designation more frequently on the district courts. Their circuits, however, had no meaningful tradition of doing so, and indeed, many of the appellate judges worried about their own competence on the trial bench.

But the benefits of trial experience for appellate judges are just as strong, if not stronger, than the benefits of appellate experience for trial judges. Appellate panels are routinely called upon to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion, or whether its assessments of witness credibility withstand scrutiny. Having to sit as a trial judge–to rule on evidentiary objections, instruct jurors, pore through records on summary judgment, sentence a defendant, or make quick decisions on motions for preliminary injunctions–would give appellate judges an essential perspective on the litigation trenches. (It’s worth noting that many judges interviewed stated that they had already served as trial judges or at least trial attorneys. But of course, that it not the case for all appellate judges, many of whom come from academia, state appellate courts, or some other non-trial practice.)

One might even imagine a formalized shadowing or training system, in which district and appellate judges take the time to show each other the ropes of their respective benches. Of course, such a program would require administrative planning and quite likely Congressional support and approval, but it would allow the benefits of experience to inure to both levels of the federal judiciary.

 

 

 

Maine considers tripling daily juror pay

A legislative committee in Maine has endorsed raising the daily pay of state court jurors from $15 to $50, a move which would shift the state from the nation’s bottom tier of juror pay to its top echelon. Legislators appear to understand that the current rate provides incentives to potential jurors not to show up to court. The proposed raise would require an annual outlay of an additional $1 million by fiscal 2020.