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.

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.

For some state judges, lobbying is part of the job description

One of the most important themes of judicial interdependence is resource dependence. By conscious design, courts cannot produce or directly obtain many of the resources that they need to operate. These resources include immediate, survival-level needs like adequate funding and staffing, but they also include less tangible resources like public trust and legitimacy, and long-term needs like enabling legislation.

For better of for worse, most of the courts’ needed resources are in the hands of the legislature. Congress and state legislatures allocate funds to the judicial branch, determine the number of judges that the courts will have and the conditions upon which those judges will be selected, enact statutes granting courts jurisdiction to hear cases and authority to manage their internal affairs, and set the public tone in the way they treat the courts and individual judges.

So it should not be surprising to see judges directly asking legislatures for resources from time to time. The U.S. Courts submit a formal budget request to Congress every year, and on several occasions federal judges have testified before Congress on bills that affect the judiciary’s operations. And at the state court level, it is all the more prevalent. Many state chief justices provide a formal State of the Judiciary speech to their respective legislatures at the start of a new year, in which they lay out the work of the state courts over the previous year and lobby for resources to sustain or improve operations. That lobbying process may coincide with the speech, but often starts beforehand and continues long into the legislative session.

Consider New Mexico. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will present her State of the Judiciary speech on Thursday, but she has already set the groundwork for the courts’ legislative “ask.” Several days ago, she sat down with the editors of the Albuquerque Journal. That access enabled the Journal to report, with considerable depth, that the state judiciary would pursue two constitutional amendments and several statutory changes in the upcoming legislative session. The constitutional changes would affect the timing of participation in judicial elections and the court’s ability to effectuate administrative transfers among courts. The statutory changes would set aside certain requirements with respect to appeals and jury service in order to make those processes more efficient. And of course, the courts are asking for additional funding for specific projects.

Chief Justices bear significant administrative responsibilities: they are the CEOs of their court systems as much as they are judges. In that capacity, a little legislative lobbying–and lobbying in the media–is very much fair game.

On exasperated judges

This short opinion by United States District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, bemoaning the parties’ “whiny letters” and chastising counsel to “Please stop trying to become my least favorite lawyers” has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks. It is noteworthy because judges do not normally write like this, either in style or substance. They may think it–judges are human, after all–but to put it in an opinion for the world to see adds a dramatic, and intentional, touch.

This is not the first judicial opinion to call out the attorneys for conduct or argument that the judge finds annoying. Used judiciously (no pun intended), an occasional sprinkling of exasperation in an opinion can be very effective. It humanizes the judge–who among us hasn’t experienced the frustration of someone wasting our time?–and it underscores the judge’s role as guardian of the court system and the legal process. As the most visible members of the court system, judges must often police the system’s other users and remind them of professional and community standards. A carefully considered dose of exasperation can do the trick.

Here is an example of what I mean: In this 2017 opinion rejecting a proffered plea deal between the federal government and a corporate criminal defendant, U.S. District Judge William Young began:

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

Period. End of paragraph. Not the standard way to begin an opinion, to be sure. But that line (and a few others similar in tone) perfectly captured the court’s incredulity at the parties’ proposal. It also captured the court’s belief that allowing the specific form of corporate plea deal proposed by the parties would be detrimental to the public. Despite the occasional bits of snark, the opinion plainly speaks not just for its author but for the community that the law is intended to protect.

But it is also easy to go too far. As a law student, I read with amazement the colorful beatdowns of seemingly incompetent and evasive lawyers by U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent. No infraction or argument was too small to avoid Judge Kent’s notice. He berated counsel for drafting pleadings as if written in crayon, and mocked others for seeking to transfer the case out of Texas. His opinions were sarcastic and funny, but they were also cruel, and unnecessarily so. Rather than raising the bar for legal practitioners, they ridiculed the legal profession itself. (Judge Kent’s final coup de grace was his impeachment and imprisonment in 2009 for sexually abusing two female employees.)

Expressions of judicial exasperation can be uplifting, humanizing, or debasing. At their best, they identify the judge as a human being possessing better-than-average wisdom and professionalism, if not infinite patience. At their worst, they reveal the judge to be all too human and unable to conceal contempt.

It is difficult to always be the adult in the room, especially in this age where many of our most prominent citizens are prone to public tantrums. But always being the adult is the essence of the judicial role. Judge Gilmore’s order may elicit a certain amount of personal sympathy among her readers, but it does little to advance respect for the judiciary as a whole.

Native tribes in Alaska push for tribal courts

Several tribes native to Alaska are considering a push for their own tribal courts. One such court, for the Tlingit and Haida tribes, has been operating in Juneau since 2007.

The AP reports:

Marina Rose Anderson, the vice president and administrative assistant for the Organized Village of Kasaan, was among the officials who attended the conference. Issues that happen close to home should be handled close to home, Anderson said, rather than having people outside the community make legal decisions.

Her goal is to make the tribe as independent as possible, Anderson said.

Hoonah Indian Association Tribal Administrator Robert Starbard had similar thoughts.

“I think for us, the primary importance of a tribal court is that it gives additional legitimacy and eligibility to our sovereignty,” he said. “You cannot be sovereign if you cannot exercise control over what happens with your ordinances and laws. Tribal court is a mechanism that allows us to do that.”

Indeed.

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.

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.