Stare Decisis for Interpretive Methods?

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Scholarship, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Supreme CourtAlthough the Supreme Court decides dozens of cases every year, it has never decided how to decide those cases. That is, the Court has never adopted a governing approach to constitutional interpretation. Instead, the justices seem to bounce from one method to the next, even when considering the same subject matter. What explains this methodological pluralism? Why doesn’t the Court consider itself bound under the doctrine of stare decisis not only to follow the substantive results of earlier constitutional cases, but also the methodological tools it used in getting there?

Chad Oldfather has a new paper on SSRN that explores the answers to these questions, Methodological Pluralism and Constitutional Interpretation. Here is the abstract: Read more »

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Truth in Sentencing, Early Release Options Both Have Appeal, O’Hear Says

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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While truth in sentencing is highly popular with Wisconsin voters, some options that could allow prisoners to be released before serving their full sentences also have majority support, Marquette Law School Professor Michael O’Hear told an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” audience last week. Wisconsin may want to give renewed attention to such ideas in the pursuit of prison policies that are both morally appealing and fiscally wise.

O’Hear, who is associate dean for research at the Law School, summarized Wisconsin’s trends in incarceration in the last four decades, including increased prison populations, abolition of the parole board, and adoption of “truth in sentencing,” which makes a judge’s sentence close to the final word on how long a prisoner will serve. Changes that eased the truth in sentencing practices, including creation in 2009 of an Earned Release Commission, were largely reversed under Gov. Scott Walker in recent years.

The number of people in the Wisconsin prisons went from about 2,000 in 1973 to about 23,000 in 2004, O’Hear said. The total has leveled off since then. Strong political momentum to get tough on crime, including not letting prisoners out before they served their full sentences, underlay the trends, and Wisconsin’s boom in prison population was in line with what occurred in much of the nation, O’Hear said.

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Earned Release From Prison: Judges Not Necessarily the Best Deciders

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Judges & Judicial Process, Marquette Law School, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process
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PrisonIn 2009, Wisconsin expanded release opportunities for prisoners and established a new Earned Release Review Commission to handle the petitions.  Just two years later, however, the legislature reversed course, largely repealing the 2009 reforms and abolishing the ERRC. The 2011 revisions effectively returned authority over “early” release to judges. Critics of the ERRC, an appointed body, maintained that it was more appropriate to give release authority to elected judges.

However, last month’s Marquette Law School Poll indicates that Wisconsin voters would actually prefer to put early release into the hands of a statewide commission of experts rather than the original sentencing judge.

Among the 713 randomly selected Wisconsin voters who participated, a 52% majority stated that release decisions should be made by a commission of experts, as opposed to only about 31% who favored judges. An additional 13% stated that both options were equally good. The Poll’s margin of error was 3.7%.

We asked several questions to try to identify more specifically the perceived strengths and weaknesses of both options.   Read more »

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Oldfather Triangulating

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Scholarship, Marquette Law School, Public
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Professor Chad Oldfather’s recent article, Triangulating Judicial Responsiveness: Automated Content Analysis, Judicial Opinions, and the Methodology of Legal Scholarship (co-authored with Joseph P. Bockhorst and Brian P. Dimmer) – published in the Florida Law Review – has received a lot of recent scholarly attention. Professor Robin Effron of Brooklyn Law School and Professor Scott Bauries of the University of Kentucky College of Law each wrote responses (here and here) in the Florida Law Review Forum (the Florida Law Review’s online companion). In addition, Professor Corey Yung of the Kansas University School of Law also wrote an essay about the article. Congratulations, Professor Oldfather!

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Civility in the Courtroom

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Practice, Public
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It seems like the more of a digital society we become, the less of a civil one we are. People are on their devices constantly — while wandering the grocery store, in the middle of a movie at a theater, during dinners. How many times have you seen a group of people out and noticed that all of them are on their phones? While the source of the problem is debatable (maybe phones and tables aren’t to blame), there can be no dispute that rudeness and incivility is on the rise.  It is front and center in the national political discourse, and of course, Wisconsinites need only look as far as the Supreme Court or the Milwaukee County Sheriff to see first-hand examples.

But when I think about civility in the practice of law, it’s not the lawyers who are the problem; it’s the judiciary. I have never had opposing counsel question whether I was being candid, refer to me as intellectually dishonest, or tower over me and yell at me in the middle of hearing. All of those things have happened to me at the hands of members of the court. And how to deal with that is not something anyone ever teaches you in law school.

Judges do not have it easy. They have exploding caseloads and fewer and fewer dollars every year to deal with them. But at what point did the convenience of the court’s calendar start not just to overshadow the rights of the defendants and the needs of the victims and witnesses, but to completely consume it? Doing anything to disrupt the court’s calendar — whether it be by filing a motion requesting an evidentiary hearing, seeking an adjournment, or (gasp!) a defendant who actually exercises his right to a trial — causes a meltdown.

Recently, while waiting for my case to be called, I watched a judge grill a defendant at his final pretrial hearing about why he wanted a trial. “What is it you think your lawyer can do for you?” the judge asked, reminding the defendant that he had already confessed. But how does the judge know that? Because the state alleged it when the parties were discussing witnesses? There are lots of reasons people confess, if that is in fact what he did. And so what if he did confess; maybe his defense wasn’t that he didn’t do it, but that he was privileged to act in a particular way. I have no idea — I just saw a five-minute final pretrial hearing. But I was outraged that the defense attorney stood silent and let his client be questioned. The answer to the judge’s question is simple: the client wants a trial so he gets a trial. Why should never figure into it.

That sort of questioning has no place in a courtroom. It’s abhorrent. It’s unconstitutional. It’s uncivil.

Judges are under enormous pressure, but so is everyone else. A defendant exercising his rights by actively defending against the serious charges against him, should not be the cause of incivility. It should be celebrated.

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Seventh Circuit Honors the Late Judge John L. Coffey at Eckstein Hall

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Category: Federal Law & Legal System, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Seventh Circuit
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coffeyforwebJudge John L. Coffey, a man of strong conviction and strong faith, was remembered for his positive impact on family, the courts, and the legal profession in a ceremony April 17 in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall.

Nine judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit were on the bench at the ceremonial session in memory of Coffey, who died last November at 90. Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook said the location was appropriate because Coffey “thought the world of this school—this is where Jack Coffey would have wanted this celebration.” Coffey graduated from Marquette University in 1943 and from Marquette Law School in 1948 and was well known for his loyalty to Marquette.

Beginning in 1954, Coffey served as a judge in Milwaukee County, until he became a member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1978. He joined the federal appeals court in 1982. In 2012, he announced he would not take part in cases—although, as was noted during the session, he didn’t really say he was retiring either.

“Jack did not see much ambiguity,” Easterbrook said. He described Coffey as a passionate advocate who once emphasized a written point he was making by underlining, bold-facing, and italicizing the passage. “He missed only the opportunity to put it in a larger font,” Easterbrook said.

Coffey was “a rock when it came to defending his principles,” Judge Rudolph T. Randa of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin told the audience of about 200.

Marquette Law School Dean Joseph D. Kearney said, “Jack Coffey focused relentlessly on the future,” including the future of the Law School. Coffey was one of the first alumni to encourage Kearney to consider leading the Law School out of Sensenbrenner Hall.

Francis Schmitz, who was a law clerk for Coffey in 1983-84, said that working for Coffey “was not unlike the parental concept known as tough love.” The judge was a demanding, no-excuses, no- cutting-corners boss who cared greatly and compassionately about those who worked for him, Schmitz said.

Peter Robbins, a grandson of the judge, said Coffey asked for divine guidance every day because he sat in judgment of others. He believed in hard work—“he always endeavored to know more”—but his family meant everything to him, Robbins said.

Coffey’s son, Peter Coffey, recounted how his father was one of ten children, all of whom graduated from Marquette.

Easterbrook said that Coffey had a reputation of being a dissenter, but during Coffey’s time on the federal appeals bench, there were 93 cases heard en banc and Coffey was in the majority in 78. He wrote the opinions in 11, which, Easterbrook said, was more than his share. “We miss his presence in our circles,” Easterbrook said.

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Israel Reflections 2013–A Meeting with a Judicial Giant

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A highlight of our trip was meeting with Justice Aharon Barak. Barak has been hailed as the father of Israeli constititutional law, and Justice Elana Kagan called Justice Barak her “judicial hero.” His remarks covered a widespread range of topics from the development of Israeli law to several difference famous Israeli Supreme Court cases to the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two different students share their thoughts below:

From Alexandra Weiland:

On a recent trip to Israel with Marquette University Law School, our class was fortunate enough to meet with Justice Aharon Barak, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court. Barak’s contributions to the Israeli legal system could be characterized as staggering.  Read more »

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Remembering Professor Bork

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Published reports of the death of Robert Bork on December 19 not surprisingly dwelled on the most controversial events in his long life in the law.  As Solicitor General under President Nixon, Bork in 1975 carried out orders to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.  In 1987, Bork was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Reagan but then rejected by the Senate.  During the 1990s and 2000s, Bork, while employed by conservative think tanks, vigorously argued that elitist liberals were trying to take over the judiciary.

For my own part, I recall Robert Bork from my first year of law school and from the time before he became a prominent national figure.  It seems hard to believe, but I actually had Professor Bork for Constitutional Law.  I also had Professor Bork for Legal Research and Writing because the Yale Law School in those distant days folded each student’s instruction in legal research and writing into an arbitrarily selected substantive first-year course.

I have no evidence that Professor Bork ever read the assorted memoranda and briefs I wrote “under his tutelage,” but I certainly recall his approach to Constitutional Law.  Read more »

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We Should Be Careful That We Know What We Are Sticking To, When We Stick To The Constitution

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Like my colleague Ed Fallone, I spoke at the Marquette Constitution Day program on Monday, September 17, sponsored by the Marquette Political Science Department. We were joined on the program by Marquette Political Science professors John McAdams and Paul Nolette. The program was centered around the concept of “Sticking to the Constitution.”

For the sake of brevity, I will simply summarize my arguments.

1. The text of the United States Constitution is more important as a symbol of our commitment to democratic government and the rule of law than it is as a source of answers to contemporary problems.

2. The United States Constitution of 1787 has lasted as long as it has because it is extremely brief and extremely vague. These characteristics allow it to be adapted to just about any position on any question, and has thus allowed significant changes to occur in the governmental structure of the United States without the need to alter the text of the constitution. Had it been more specific and detailed, it would have been repealed or substantially amended long ago.

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Sticking It To The Constitution

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Yesterday, I spoke on a panel on the occasion of Constitution Day here at Marquette University.  What follows is a copy of my remarks: 

Today’s panel asks, “What does it mean to stick to the Constitution?”  This is another way of asking how we – you, me judges, lawmakers – should go about interpreting the meaning of the constitutional text.

Today, this interpretative question is often presented as a binary debate between either originalism or a “living Constitution.”

My argument today is that this clear dichotomy is nothing more than an illusion.  There is not a choice between two stark extremes.  This is because, in practice, most originalists and advocates of a living Constitution tend to meet in the middle.

So this debate between originalism and the living Constitution is often very loud and very energetic, but it tends to distract us from the real question.   Both sides of the debate behave as if the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution is important.  They argue very heatedly over how much weight to give to this original intent, in comparison to other factors such as changing circumstances or contrary precedent. Read more »

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Restoring Public Confidence in the Judicial System

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Category: Judges & Judicial Process, Legal Ethics, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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“[A] lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”  Taken from paragraph six of the Preamble[1] to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, this quote sets out our duty to educate the public.

In April 2009, then Wisconsin State Bar President Diane Diel discussed this very quote in a short article published in Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.[2]  The article focused on the negative effect judicial elections have on the public’s confidence in the judicial system — discussing current Justice Michael Gableman’s allegedly unethical ad that aired during his campaign against Justice Louis Butler and his subsequent disciplinary hearing — and the ever-controversial topic of judicial recusals, focusing on whether judges should be required to recuse themselves from deciding cases in which they received campaign contributions from an interested party.

Diel’s article seems to have foreshadowed the current turbulence in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has led to plunging confidence in the judicial system.   Read more »

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Dorsey v. United States: So Long, Saving Statute?

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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Last month, in Dorsey v. United States (No. 11-5683), the Supreme Court resolved an important circuit split on the interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The FSA softened the controversial mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses that have been in place since 1986.  There’s no question that crack offenders who committed their crimes after the statute’s effective date, August 3, 2010, benefit from the new regime.  However, the lower courts have divided over the handling of crimes committed before the effective date, but sentenced after it.  Although this may sound like a minor dispute, given the volume of crack offenses prosecuted in federal court and the eleven-month median time between indictment and sentencing in these cases, there may be hundreds or thousands of defendants who are affected by its resolution.

Such timing questions are often resolved by reference to the federal “saving statute” of 1871 (1 U.S.C. §109), which indicates that the law in place at the time of an offense should normally govern the penalty.  However, this is only a default principle; earlier Supreme Court decisions indicate that Congress can make reduced penalties applicable to all defendants if Congress demonstrates such an intent either expressly or by necessary implication.  Since the FSA did not expressly address the question one way or another, Dorsey turned on the finding of implied congressional intent.  By a narrow 5-4 margin, the Court decided that Congress had indeed intended to make the FSA applicable to all defendants sentenced after the statute took effect.

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