The Problem with Justice Thomas’s Dignity Argument

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Category: Constitutional Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Justice Thomas, in his fervent dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate same-sex marriage bans, has some interesting things to say about the concept of dignity. His view of human dignity is that it is innate and therefore inalienable: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them.”

The punchline, of course, is that the majority’s reasoning, which relies heavily on a Constitutional reading that sees dignity at the heart of liberty and the Due Process Clause, is flawed – gays and lesbians are not deprived of dignity (and therefore liberty) by their inability to marry, because “the government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” Essentially, Justice Thomas says, as long as the state leaves me alone, my liberty and dignity are intact.

Justice Thomas’s invocation of slavery and internment to illustrate his qualms about the dignity argument arguably undermines the moral force of his point. Moreover, it rests on a narrow and theoretical concept of dignity.   Read more »

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Rodriguez v. United States: Supreme Court Says No to Prolonged Traffic Stops

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Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Last week, the Supreme Court decided City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the fourth and final of its search-and-seizure cases this term. In Patel, the Court overturned a city ordinance requiring hotel operators to share information about their guests with the police.

Patel confirmed this as a good term for Fourth Amendment rights, joining Grady v. North Carolina (GPS tracking of sex offender counted as search for Fourth-Amendment purposes) and Rodriguez v. United States (police improperly extended traffic stop to conduct dog sniff of car). Less favorable, though, was Heien v. North Carolina (no suppression of evidence obtained after traffic stop that was based on officer’s reasonable mistake of law).

The remainder of this post will focus on Rodriguez, which strikes me as the most interesting of the Fourth-Amendment series. Broadly speaking, at issue was the extent to which the police can go on a fishing expedition when they pull over a driver for a traffic violation.   Read more »

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Ohio v. Clark: The Supreme Court’s Latest Pronouncement on the Confrontation Clause

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Category: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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By guaranteeing criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers, the Sixth Amendment limits the ability of the government to use hearsay evidence against defendants at trial. Importantly, though, the Confrontation Clause only limits the use of statements that are “testimonial” in nature. A pair of Supreme Court cases from 2006 clarified what makes a statement testimonial, but left an important question unanswered. Last week, the Court finally provided an answer (sort of) in Ohio v. Clark.

Clark featured an unusually unsympathetic defendant who was convicted of physically abusing his girlfriend’s two very young children.   Read more »

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ObamaCare Upheld . . . Again

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Category: Health Care, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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1024px-William_Hogarth_004Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the widely anticipated case of King v. Burwell, ruling that the language of the statute authorizes tax credits for individuals who use health insurance exchanges set up by the federal government as opposed to the states.  The result of the ruling is that the Affordable Care Act continues to operate and that millions of previously uninsured Americans will continue to receive health insurance under ObamaCare.  Many observers had predicted an adverse ruling from the Court, and a period of uncertainty (if not chaos) if the use of federal health insurance exchanges was struck down.  Today’s ruling by the Court means that there will be no disruption in the workings of the Affordable Care Act.  Coupled with this week’s passage of “fast track authority” for a Pacific trade bill, the ruling also cements a record of legislative accomplishment for President Obama that will add to his legacy.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Court voted 6-3 in favor of the Administration’s proffered reading of the statute.  Some observers had predicted a narrower margin.  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the majority.  The Chief Justice’s opinion also was crucial in upholding the Affordable Care Act in the NFIB v. Sebelius case in 2012, and it therefore appears that future historians will inevitably evaluate John Roberts’ career as Chief Justice in light of his prominent role in the survival of ObamaCare. Read more »

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Predicting King v. Burwell: This Term’s Most Consequential SCOTUS Case

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Category: Health Care, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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I am just going to come out and say it:  I have been a long-time proponent of universal, single-payer style heath care for our nation. I am a firm believer that private insurance companies should play no role whatsoever in the provision of health insurance for Americans. It is for this reason that I was so dismayed when President Obama proposed a health care reform regime with the existing private health insurance infrastructure (and Medicaid) as its foundation. I was even among those political wonks who wanted Congress to vote down the Affordable Care Act (ACA) once it became apparent that the ACA exchanges were not going to offer a “public option” to exchange participants. In the years since the law’s passage, I have become an ardent supporter of the law because it is moving our nation in the direction of universal health insurance coverage.

As a law student and constitutional law scholar, I am surprised that the Supreme Court opted to take King on appeal. By the time SCOTUS granted certiorari, the circuit split had been resolved by an en banc ruling of the DC Circuit. What is more troubling is that the petitioners do not appear, by any objective standard, to have standing to bring this suit. Standing is a concept that all first year law students are well acquainted with; it is equally obvious that the petitioners have suffered no judicially cognizable injury by operation of the IRS regulation interpreting the exchange subsidies as applicable to state-run and federally-run insurance exchanges. I have read the petitioners’ standing argument — it is so ridiculous that it does not bear recital here.

Even if one is able to get past the standing issue, an interpretation of the challenged statutory language that petitioners claim limits the availability of subsides to state-run insurance exchanges runs contrary to the canons of statutory interpretation. A comprehensive law that regulates the health insurance system of an entire nation and affects a good portion of our nation’s economy should not hinge on the meaning of a term that is ambiguous in isolation, but definite and decisive when taken in the context of the statute. The term “state,” as used in the ACA, has a broad meaning that encompasses “state” in the scholarly sense of a nation-state and the customized meaning of “state” as a sub-national unit of government.

There are many moral and political arguments that one can make in favor of upholding the decisions of the DC and Fourth Circuits. As a law student writing from a legal perspective, I put these arguments to the side. What is unfortunate for the four (or more) members of the Supreme Court who voted to take up this silly challenge is that the law (and precedent) is not on their side. I predict that the Supreme Court will uphold the decisions of the DC and Fourth Circuits on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice Roberts joining the court’s four moderate justices.

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Elonis v. United States: SCOTUS Again Adopts Narrowing Construction of Criminal Statute

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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As I noted in my post last week, the Supreme Court has a variety of interpretive tools at its disposal to rein in the ever-expanding reach of federal criminal law. Right on cue, the Court demonstrated the use of one of these tools this week in Elonis v. United States.

Elonis, a self-styled rapper, posted a variety of lyrics with violent themes on his Facebook page. Some of these lyrics related to his wife, some to coworkers, and some to law-enforcement personnel, among others. Elonis was eventually convicted under 18 U.S.C. §875(c), which prohibits individuals from transmitting in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.”

The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that Elonis’s jury had been improperly instructed.   Read more »

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Yates v. United States: Overcoming Plain Meaning

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As we enter the home stretch of the Supreme Court term, I have been reviewing the criminal cases already decided by the Court this year. For my money, the most interesting is Yates v. United States, which presents a classic statutory interpretation problem. This was the fish case that got a fair amount of whimsical press coverage when it came out. Even the Justices proved incapable of avoiding fish puns in their opinions, but I’ll do my best not to get caught in that net. (Oops.)

Yates captained a commercial fishing vessel that was catching undersized grouper in violation of federal law. Following an inspection, some of the illegal catch was thrown back into the sea on Yates’s orders, presumably to avoid penalties. Yates was eventually convicted under 18 U.S.C. §1519, which authorizes a prison term of up to twenty years for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States . . . or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter.”

On appeal, the question was simply whether a fish counted as a “tangible object.”   Read more »

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Armed Forces Appeals Judges Hear Arguments, Offer Advice in Eckstein Hall Session

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Category: Federal Law & Legal System, Judges & Judicial Process, Marquette Law School, Public
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“When you’re done, sit down.”

Pithy but important advice on how to present an oral argument to an appeals court was one of the beneficial things Marquette Law School students had a chance to hear Tuesday. That was when the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces convened for a session in Eckstein Hall, followed by a question and answer session with the court’s five judges.

The court, an Article I entity which hears oral arguments in about three dozen cases a year, heard oral arguments in the appeal of an Air Force staff sergeant, Joshua K. Plant. He was convicted in 2012 of two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, adultery, and child endangerment and given a sentence that included 12 years of confinement. Included in Tuesday’s proceedings: Joshua J. Bryant, a third-year Marquette law student, who presented amicus curiae arguments in support of the sergeant’s appeal.​

First, here’s the case the court heard. Then, we’ll summarize some of the advice. Read more »

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The Notorious R.B.G.

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Category: Feminism, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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20150103_135911-1Those of us who teach in gender and feminist studies have long been familiar with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; we regularly deal with her work as both a lawyer and as jurist. This past January, I had the honor of hearing her speak at a conference in Washington, D.C., and was awed by her. So over spring break, I decided to start reading a new book, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, edited by Scott Dodson. I’m not that far into the book yet, but what I’ve read has only made me admire her more.

I’m far from being Justice Ginsburg’s only admirer. She has quite the following, including this woman, who had a portrait of Justice Ginsburg tattooed on her arm. One man put her 35-page dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to music. Another admirer dubbed her “The Notorious R.B.G.,” a take-off on rapper The Notorious B.I.G, and there’s a whole blog devoted to all things R.B.G. Google “Notorious R.B.G.” to find t-shirts and other merchandise. It’s a title the Justice herself seems to enjoy. (Listen to the video clip here.)

Ironically, while I was starting my book over spring break, Justice Ginsburg celebrated her 82nd birthday. She seems in no way ready to step down from the court. After all, she reminds us, Justice John Paul Stevens served until he was 90. In honor of her birthday, one site gathered some of her best quotes. My favorite: “People ask me sometimes . . . When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is: When there are nine.”

Wouldn’t have expected anything less from her.

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Judge Brett Kavanaugh Calls for “Rules of the Road” for Separation of Powers Issues

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Category: Congress & Congressional Power, Federal Law & Legal System, Political Processes & Rhetoric, President & Executive Branch, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh

So Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys leaps for a pass as the playoff game with the Green Bay Packers is about to end. He comes down with ball on the one-yard line. Or does he? Or course, you know the answer—he doesn’t, the referees rule, a call that is hotly debated nationwide (and helps the Packers to victory in the Jan. 11 NFL playoff game).

The referee’s call required making a decision on the spot under great pressure and scrutiny. But to Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit, a big reason the call was made in a way that stood up to later scrutiny was that the rules for deciding what was a legitimate catch were established ahead of time, with thought and clarity.

And that is, in substance, much of the message Kavanaugh delivered in the 2015 Hallows Lecture at Marquette University Law School on Tuesday. The lecture, titled “Separation of Powers Controversies in the Bush and Obama Administrations: A View from the Trenches,” examined five different policy areas where controversies over separation of powers at the top of the federal government have arisen in recent years. In all five areas, Kavanaugh said, it pays off when “the rules of the road” are developed before a crisis comes.  Read more »

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Residency Venue in Cases with Foreign Corporate Defendants

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A few years ago, Congress passed the Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act of 2011, in part to resolve, as the title suggests, uncertainties concerning the old venue statute. The effort succeeded in various regards, but Congress may have unwittingly created a new problem in the course of correcting others. Specifically, it’s not clear how to determine residency venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1) when at least one of the defendants is a foreign corporation.

The statute seems to provide two contradictory solutions: First, venue is appropriate in a district only if at least one defendant resides there and all defendants—including the foreign corporation—reside in the state in which the district is located. In this analysis, 1391(c)(2) decides residency questions for all corporate defendants such that a foreign corporation, like any other, is a resident of the given state only if it is subject to personal jurisdiction there. Read more »

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Grilling By Judges? It’s Not Just for Moot Court.

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Category: Federal Law & Legal System, Legal Practice, Legal Research, Legal Writing, Marquette Law School, Public
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NSAPerhaps it is because I just spent an enjoyable few weeks judging the Appellate Writing and Advocacy class moot court rounds, that lately I have taken a few detours while doing research. While reading some of the NSA phone data cases, I watched an enlightening and very entertaining appellate argument online. We may wait a long time to see video recordings of U.S. Supreme Court arguments, but the Circuit Courts of Appeal oblige us for some of their cases, which is a bonus for everyone including students.

Several plaintiffs’ lawsuits that challenge the National Security Administration’s phone records surveillance program are making their way through the federal courts. Plaintiffs in these cases have claimed the NSA data grab violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment or that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the original basis for the surveillance under President George W. Bush, cannot reasonably be interpreted as allowing the program. For students who participate in a moot court competition, or are considering it in the future, video of the oral arguments in these cases provides an opportunity to learn something about the privacy issues and also to see the types of questions and atmosphere an attorney might expect from a federal appellate panel.

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