United States federal courts

Justice Samuel Alito's Deep Roots in the American Right

He's the most pro-corporate jurist on the Supreme Court. So decisions that grant companies religious rights or take aim at labor unions come quite naturally to him.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., delivers his remarks during a Federalist Society dinner gathering, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006, in Washington. This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post . S upreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ended this Supreme Court session with a bang, writing the majority opinion in two cases that gave for-profit corporations the right to make religious liberty claims to evade government regulation, and set the stage for the fulfillment of a central goal of the right-wing political movement: the destruction of public employee unions. Neither of the decisions was particularly surprising. Samuel Alito is the single most pro-corporate Justice on the most pro-business Court since the New Deal. Still, Alito's one-two punch was another extraordinary milestone for the strategists who have been working for the past 40 years to put business firmly in the driver's seat of American politics. Many would suggest that...

Daily Meme: The Court's Faux Colorblindness

"A blinkered view of race in America won out in the Supreme Court on Tuesday when six justices agreed, for various reasons, to allow Michigan voters to ban race-conscious admissions policies in higher education ... " So starts the New York Times 's righteous take-down of today's Supreme Court ruling in Schuette v. BAMN , in which the Justices upheld a Michigan law banning the consideration of race in admissions. The plurality's justification—six Justices in total agreed with the ruling, but differed in their reasons for doing so—for reversing the lower-court decision? As long as the voters want it, they get it . But the real news has been Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent, which the New York Times 's Adam Liptak called "the most passionate and most significant of her career." It is the first time Sotomayor—whose nomination conservatives bitterly opposed—has spoken up about race. "In my colleagues' view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination...

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Retirement, and the Value of Term Limits

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
T here is a debate among liberal intellectuals about whether it's appropriate to urge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to step down with the Democrats still in control of the Senate and White House. It's a discussion that brings up a lot of fascinating questions of public obligation and the respect due to individuals. But the key takeaway should be this: The decision about whether to retire should be taken out of the hands of individual justices. The argument for Ginsburg stepping down now, made most recentl y by the eminent legal scholar and dean of the law school at the University of California-Irvine, Erwin Chemerinsky, is straightforward and compelling on its own terms. If Ginsburg remains on the Court and leaves the Court with a Republican occupying the White House, the most likely result would be Antonin Scalia or John Roberts being the median vote on the Supreme Court. This would be a disaster for the country and, more to the point, for the values that Justice Ginsburg has spent her life...

The Indefensible Filibuster of Nina Pillard

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Flickr/Cliff S enate Republicans have continued their blockade of nominations to the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Tuesday, the GOP minority blocked a vote on the nomination of Cornelia ("Nina") Pillard to the D.C. Circuit. Fifty-six senators voted in favor of moving forward with the nomination. Pillard is typical of the circuit court judges the Republican minority has had a particular distaste for. First, she's not a white male. And second, she has utterly mainstream legal views that hardly meet the "extraordinary circumstances" the Senate allegedly requires to filibuster a judicial nominee. On the first point, Jennifer Bendery of Huffington Post observes that the three women the GOP minority has now prevented from getting up-or-down votes are part of a trend: Ten of the sidelined judicial nominees are women, two are openly gay and nine are minorities (seven are African American, one is Asian American and one is Native American). The lone executive nominee being blocked...

I Was Wrong about Elena Kagan

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
AP Photo/Susan Walsh O ne of the central arguments made by In the Balance , Mark Tushnet's terrific new book about the current Supreme Court bench ( reviewed here by Garrett Epps ), concerns the counterweight to the conservative faction led by Chief Justice John Roberts. If Democratic nominees are able to wrest control of the Supreme Court back from the Republican nominees who have controlled the median vote on the Court for more than four decades, Tushnet argues, it is Elena Kagan who is likely to emerge as the intellectual leader of the Democratic nominees. And despite what many liberals feared, there is every reason to think that this would be an outcome supporters of progressive constitutional values would be very happy with. When I say "many liberals," I include myself . My skepticism about the nomination, I should clarify, was not because I thought Kagan was a bad or unqualified nominee, or because I thought she was a closet reactionary. In the context in which Democrats had a...

Four Lessons Learned from This Year's Stuffed Supreme Court Docket

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(AP Photo/J. David Ake) A momentous Supreme Court term concluded on Wednesday with historic decisions on same-sex marriage. But while the previous term will be forever defined by the Court's narrow upholding of the Affordable Care Act, the 2012-3 term had an unusual number of important decisions for a contemporary court. There are several important lessons to take from the term as a whole: On Civil Rights and Liberties: One Step Up, Two Steps Back. As Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith observed (among many others) in their book The Unsteady March , progress on civil rights isn't a linear progression in which things start off terribly and keep getting better. Progress achieved in one generation can be substantially rolled back in the next; civil rights often advance for some groups while backsliding for others. (World War II catalyzed substantial civil rights advances for African-Americans; Americans of Japanese origin and suspected political radicals, conversely, saw substantial...

Justice Scalia's Infuriating Hypocrisy

The opening lines of Antonin Scalia's dissent in United States v. Windsor —where a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court overturned the 1997 Defense of Marriage Act on equal protection grounds—are straightforward: "We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation." For anyone interested in judicial restraint, it’s a compelling case. Too bad Scalia doesn’t fit that description. To wit, this unwillingness to strike down “democratically adopted legislation” was nonexistent just yesterday, when he joined John Roberts's opinion on Shelby County, Albama v. Holder . There, he agreed with the Chief Justice’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, despite the fact that it had been reauthorized by a near-unanimous Congress in 2006. What explains the difference between the two laws? Easy. Scalia (and Roberts, for that matter) don’t believe that racism is a problem anymore, so...

Antonin Scalia Is Angry. Again.

Flickr/The Higgs Boson
Ten years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws outlawing sodomy between consenting adults were unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas , Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent . "What a massive disruption of the current social order," he practically wailed from the page. He said that the Court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," and contrasted the Court with the good people of America, who "do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive." And perhaps most notably, Scalia lamented that under the rationale the Court's majority was using, the government wouldn't be able to prohibit gay people from getting married. To each other! He was right about that, anyway. But...

Now Hiring: A Few Good Judges

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Flickr/Cliff C hief Judge David Sentelle’s recent opinion in Noel Canning v. NLRB holding President Barack Obama’s recess appointments unconstitutional is a trenchant reminder that the D.C. Circuit is, as is often said, the nation’s “second most important court after the Supreme Court.” It has also been, historically, a stepping stone to the high Court. The court now faces four vacancies among 11 judgeships with Sentelle’s February 12 assumption of senior status. But the Obama administration is the first in decades which confirmed no D.C. Circuit judge and has only submitted two names for consideration. The importance and complexity of the circuit caseload means it requires all eleven judges to deliver justice. For this reason—and to increase ideological balance on the court, which has four active and five senior judges whom Republican presidents appointed—Obama and the Senate must expeditiously fill the D.C. Circuit openings. Because of its location and the minuscule number of cases...

Should Liberals Be Mad at Kagan and Breyer?

WikiMedia Commons
While the Supreme Court's decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act in NFIB v. Sebelius was generally good news, the decision did have one unfortunate side effect. The Court limited the use of federal spending power with respect to Medicaid, permitting Congress to withhold new grants but not existing Medicaid funds from states if they failed to adopt Obamacare. In other words, governors can reject new federal funds to implement the health-care law without losing the rest of their Medicaid money. Despite the consequences and dubious logic of this holding, however, it was joined by two of the Court's Democratic appointees: Clinton nominee Stephen Breyer and Obama nominee Elena Kagan. Given the escalating conservative outrage over Roberts's joining with the Court's more liberal faction on the other key elements of the case, several writers have wondered: Where's the liberal outrage against Breyer and Kagan? "In contrast to all the weeping and wailing that has accompanied what...

Roberts's Switch in Time

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Jan Crawford has a blockbuster story in which two sources confirm what many people inferred from the structure of the opinions—that Chief Justice John Roberts initially voted to strike down at least some parts of the Affordable Care Act before switching his vote. The story reveals some interesting things about Roberts and the Supreme Court, although we should also be careful about taking all the claims at face value given that they clearly reflect the positions of justices and/or clerks with an ax to grind. The most obvious takeaway from the Crawford piece is that there was a fairly substantial rift created on the Court by Roberts's eventual decision to uphold the bill. While some details about the internal deliberations of the Court generally leak out eventually—as clerks have less to fear in terms of reprisals or as court papers are released by retired justices—for these details to emerge less than a week after a decision is handed down is extraordinary. Clearly, some of the...

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...

A Tale of Two Justices

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John Roberts imagined himself as a consensus-builder after his confirmation to be the 17th chief justice of the Supreme Court, a justice in the mold of John Marshall charged with alleviating divisions on the Court by advocating judicial modesty. Some progressive observers took these claims very seriously. I was inclined to view them as essentially fraudulent. Well, score one for the optimists. Today, the Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in its entirety. While this outcome was not shocking, the vote lineup could be to many observers given that the final vote was 5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court's four liberal members to uphold the PPACA, while frequent swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy joined a remarkably radical dissent. The ultimate effects of NFIB v. Sebulius remain uncertain, but at the very least the case compels a re-evaluation of both Roberts and Kennedy. While Chief Justice Roberts deserves substantial praise for not striking...

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