Garrett Epps

Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. He covers the Supreme Court for theatlantic.comHis book, American Epic: Reading the US Constitution was published in August 2013 by Oxford University Press.

Recent Articles

Reagan's Court v. the Libertarians'

I n 1983, Chief Justice Warren Burger asked Congress to create a new national appeals court to resolve cases the Supreme Court was too busy to hear. At the Reagan White House, a cheeky 28-year-old Harvard Law graduate named John G. Roberts was horrified. “The President we serve has long campaigned against government bureaucracy and the excessive role of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. Burger’s proposal would create “an additional bureaucratic structure to permit the federal courts to do more than they already do.” Anyway, Roberts continued, the Supreme Court already made too many decisions. “There are practical limits on the capacity of the Justices, and those limits are a significant check preventing the Court from usurping even more of the prerogatives of the other branches. The generally-accepted notion that the Court can only hear roughly 150 cases each term gives the same sense of reassurance as the adjournment of the Court in July, when...

Reading the Tea Leaves in the Supreme Court Opinions

Jaime Fuller
Two features of the scene in the courtroom at the Supreme Court Thursday flow together to spark curiosity. For one, the justices appeared unusually agitated. Justice Sonia Sotomayor looked as if she’d been up all night, for example, while (as Tony Mauro also noted) Justice Antonin Scalia was downcast and tight-lipped. Had something happened in the days or hours before the opinion to spark this emotional response? In his bench dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed that the act had been so mutilated by the Court’s decision that it should be struck down in its entirety. That struck me at the time as odd. The Medicaid expansion, as I explained yesterday, is an important part of the act. Even so, it’s not the heart of it—that was the individual mandate. The government had argued that, if the Court struck the mandate, it should also strike the provisions guaranteeing that the people with “preexisting conditions” can’t be turned down for insurance and barring insurers from discriminating...

Court Stays Clear of Tinkering with the First Amendment

(Flickr / mr_mayer)
Xavier Alvarez got twin pieces of good news Thursday. First, thanks to the Court’s decision in the Health Care Cases, Medicaid in California may soon be funded to supply mental-health services to crazed compulsive liars like him. Second, and of more immediate interest to him, he won’t be doing a year in the federal slam for falsely claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor. United States v. Alvarez was second banana on the Supreme Court stage Thursday, blasted out of the headlines by the stunning decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. But the case had been closely watched in the First Amendment community. That’s because it represented an attempt by the government to find a brand-new, gaping hole in free-speech protection—a First Amendment exception for liars like Alvarez. Alvarez, as has been reported earlier , is a half-crazed poseur who likes to claim, among other things, to have played for the Red Wings, to be the ex-husband of a Mexican movie star—and to hold the...

Roberts's Solution to a Non-Problem

(Flickr/dbking)
On the fourth day of the Battle of Gettysburg, General Richard S. (“Bald Dick”) Ewell, riding behind the lines, was hit in the leg by a Union sniper’s bullet. Unfazed, the one-legged general remarked, “It don't hurt a bit to be shot in a wooden leg.” It may be that the federal government was shot in a wooden leg today. Overall, that’s true—the ACA survived, by one vote, a case that could have voided it in its entirety and wreaked havoc on federal power generally. But in particular, in the Court’s major new cutback on federal power—the limits on the use of Congress’s spending power to convince the states to sign on to an expanded Medicaid program—the federal government was wounded by being forbidden to do something it really never wanted to do. The federal government can’t coerce states by threatening to cut off existing program funding as a penalty for refusing to accept more money for new programs, the important opinion said. That means the ACA can go ahead as planned—because the...

It's Roberts's Court Now

(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
(AP Photo/Nick Ut) For months before today’s announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Health Care Cases , the conventional wisdom had centered on two things: (1) The vote would be 6-3; and (2) Chief Justice John G. Roberts would write the opinion. Roberts would jump the way Justice Anthony Kennedy jumped and then write the opinion to shape doctrine for the future. It’s a good day for conventional wisdom when it is half right, but that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) survived, 5-4, with a majority opinion by Roberts and an angry dissent by Kennedy was an outcome few people would have predicted. All told, it was a morning of surprises. It was a good morning for the Obama administration, whose signature policy initiative (for good or bad) survived largely intact. But it was a better day for John Roberts, who displayed John Marshall-level command of the Court, and produced a result that moves current jurisprudence only a little—but will enable it to move far to the right if a...

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