Garrett Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. He covers the Supreme Court for theatlantic.com. His book, American Epic: Reading the US Constitution was published in August 2013 by Oxford University Press.
Most Supreme Court arguments last one hour—30 minutes for each side. At unpredictable intervals, however, the Court grants one party several extra millennia of agony as a once-solid case disintegrates in full view of the entire courtroom.
At the opening of each oral argument session, a Supreme Court clerk announces, “All those having business before this honorable Court draw nigh and you shall be heard.”But does the Court really listen?
United States v. Alvarez, which I wrote about yesterday, is fascinating in its complexity. The government in this case has asked the Court to hold that it can punish people who lie, regardless of whether they lie to extort money, win political office, or just to impress people at the corner tavern. The principle is breathtaking in its sweep. In the past, the Court has approved statutes that punish knowingly reckless false statements of fact—but only when those statements cause some measurable harm.
The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Perry v. Brown drew a letter to the Court suggesting the decision stemmed from “mold infestation” in court buildings. The correspondent is not the only person who hates the decision but has trouble explaining, in legal terms, why.