Tag: justice

Giant Cross on Public Land Declared Constitutional (SCOTUS)

On 20 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. (2019), that a 40 feet (12m) Cross monument erected in 1925 as a World War I memorial did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In its reasoning, the Court took a step away from the Establishment Clause test set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

The monument was erected by the residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland, with the help of a local American Legion, as a memorial for the county’s soldiers who fell in World War I. The cross had been built on private land which was later acquired in 1961 by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. However, at that point, the American Legion reserved the right to continue using the site for memorial-related ceremonies. Since the acquisition in 1961, public funds have been used to maintain the monument. In 2014, the American Humanist Association sued in a District Court alleging that the Cross violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it was located on public land and public funds had been used for its maintenance.

Justice Alito, writing for the Majority, held that keeping existing religious monuments must be distinguished from erecting new ones He gave four reasons for that. Firstly, it is often difficult to identify the exact purpose of monuments erected decades earlier (per Salazar v. Buono, 559 U. S. 700). Secondly, long-standing monuments might take on non-religious purposes such as historical significance or cultural heritage (per Van Orden and McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U. S. 844). Thirdly, the message of an old monument might evolve over time (as per Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460, 477). Fourthly, removing long-standing religious monuments which take on historical significance or cultural heritage is no longer being ‘neutral’ in relation to religion. Therefore, according to the Majority, the passage of time creates a strong presumption of constitutionality (pp16–21). Furthermore, Justice Alito pointed to the relationship between the cross and World War I. For example, the US adopted cross as part of its military honors, such as Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 and the Navy Cross in 1919. On top of that, the fallen soldiers’ final resting places abroad were marked by white crosses (or Stars of David) (pp21-24). Based on those criteria, the Majority held that the Cross in this case did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Cross was almost 100 years old, giving it historical significance and it had a secular meaning (in addition to a religious one) as a war memorial (pp28-31).

The case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. (2019) is especially important in the context of the Establishment Clause test which is to be applied in cases of publicly displayed religious symbols or publicly held religious ceremonies. Under the Lemon test set out in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), such a symbol or ceremony must satisfy a threefold test in order to be deemed constitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment:

  • the statute must have a secular legislative purpose
  • the principal or primary effect of the statute must neither advance nor inhibit religion
  • the statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion, considering:
    – character and purpose of institution benefited

    – nature of aid the state provides
    – resulting relationship between government and religious authority

For almost 50 years, federal Courts have been applying the Lemon test, yet no consistency in jurisprudence has been achieved. This leads many to argue that the Lemon test is a failure and the Supreme Court should move towards some other way of adjudicating the constitutionality of publicly displayed religious symbols and publicly held religious ceremonies. In American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. (2019), the Court appears to be doing just that.

The Majority held that “Lemon ambitiously attempted to distill from the Court’s existing case law a test that would bring order and predictability to Establishment Clause decisionmaking“; however, “if the Lemon Court thought that its test would provide a framework for all future Establishment Clause decisions, its expectation has not been met. In many cases, this Court has either expressly declined to apply the test or has simply ignored it” (e.g. Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills Sch. Dist., 509 U. S. 1). In fact, “the [Lemon] test has been harshly criticized by Members of this Court, lamented by lower court judges, and questioned by a diverse roster of
scholars.” Consequently, the Court is moving from “evaluate […] cases under Lemon and toward application of a presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices” (pp12-16).

In terms of concurrence, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Kegan, agreed that “there is no single formula for resolving Establishment Clause challenges. The Court must instead consider each case in light of the basic purposes that the Religion Clauses were meant to serve: assuring religious liberty and tolerance for all, avoiding religiously based social conflict, and maintaining that separation of church and state that allows each to flourish in its ‘separate spher[e]’” He also agreed that “ordering its removal or alteration at this late date would signal ‘a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions’.” And, “the case would be different […] if the Cross had been erected only recently, rather than in the aftermath of World War I” (p1-3). On the other hand, Justice Kegan, in her separate Concurring opinion, attempted to save at least parts of the Lemon test arguing that although “rigid application of the Lemon test does not solve every
Establishment Clause problem, […] that test’s focus on purposes and effects is crucial in evaluating government action in this sphere” (p1).

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, in his separate Concurring opinion, argued that, based on its text and history, the Establishment Clause did not apply to States at all. He had been holding this opinion at least since the 2002 case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U. S. 639, 677–680. He argued that the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing, 330 U. S. 1, which incorporated the Establishment Clause against States on the grounds that the Free Exercise Clause had already been incorporated, was wrongly decided. According to Justice Thomas and his originalist approach, the Establishment Clause was supposed to protect the States’ right to establish a State-wide religion. Furthermore, based on a literal approach, the Establishment Clause applied only to ‘laws’, not monuments or ceremonies (pp1-3). Nevertheless, Justice Thomas argued that even if the Establishment Clause were to be applied against States, the 40 feet Cross monument would not offend it because of the lack of any coercion on the part of the State (pp3-4). Finally, Justice Thomas also agreed that the Lemon test was not adequate for its purpose and even called it ‘long-discredited’ saying that he would “take the logical next step and overrule the Lemon test in all contexts” as the “test has no basis in the original meaning of the Constitution” and “has ‘been manipulated to fit whatever result the Court aimed to achieve‘” (per McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U. S. 844, 900 (2005) (Scalia, J., dissenting)) (p5).

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented. They argued that the cross was an inherently Christian symbol and using it “as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol” (p2). However, not all crosses violated the Establishment Clause. “When a religious symbol appears in a public cemetery—on a headstone, or as the headstone itself, or perhaps integrated into a larger memorial—the setting counters the inference that the government seeks “either to adopt the religious message or to urge its acceptance by others” (per Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005), at 737 (Souter, J., dissenting)) (p16).

The case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. (2019) is yet another example of litigation concerning publicly-displayed religious symbols. However, unlike its predecessors, it seems to establish crystal-clear criteria, at least in relation to long-standing monuments. In doing so, it confirms that the Supreme Court is moving away from the test laid down in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). This is no surprise given how much criticism the Lemon test has attracted over the years. But it also illustrates the Court’s willingness to do away with long-established precedents, something that has been more and more prevailing lately.

Racial Bias in Jury Selection Punished (SCOTUS)

On 21 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in the case of Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), that a persistent use of peremptory challenges to remove black jurors during a series of trials against Curtis Flowers violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The only African-American on the bench, Justice Thomas, dissented.

Curtis Flowers was accused of four murders in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. Altogether, he had six separate jury trials. The first three ended with convictions which were later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. During these, no African-American sat on the jury despite the fact that the population distribution near Winona was approximately 50% African-American. Next two ended with a mistrial due to hung juries. The sixth trial was held in 2010. During the voir dire procedure proceeding the trial, the prosecution used peremptory challenges to dismiss five African-American jurors, leaving only one African-American on the jury. This trial ended with a conviction and the death sentence. Flowers appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court arguing that the use of peremptory challenges to dismiss African-American jurors violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as explained in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). The conviction was upheld and Flowers petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear his case.

Peremptory challenges allow attorneys from both sides to dismiss potential jurors during the voir dire procedure proceeding a trial without stating a reason. Usually, both side have a certain number of such strikes which varies form one State to another. Peremptory challenges come on top of challenges for cause which allow attorneys to dismiss any number of jurors suspected of bias. In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the US Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based solely on their race as this practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), written by Justice Kavanaugh, and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts, pointed to “four critical facts, [which] taken together, require reversal“:

“First, in the six trials combined, the State employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors that it could have struck—a statistic that the State acknowledged at oral argument in this Court… Second, in the most recent trial, the sixth trial, the State exercised peremptory strikes against five of the six black prospective jurors. Third, at the sixth trial, in an apparent effort to find pretextual reasons to strike black prospective jurors, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. Fourth, the State then struck at least one black prospective juror, Carolyn Wright, who was similarly situated to white prospective jurors who were not struck by the State.” [pp2-3]

As to the importance of each fact, the Court held that:

“We need not and do not decide that any one of those four facts alone would require reversal. All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is that all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.”  [p3]

In issuing its verdict, the Court felt that it was not doing anything beyond applying the holding of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground. We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.” [p3]

The Majority opinion also briefly analysed the historical relationship between the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the right to serve in juries. This included, apart from the 14th Amendment itself, the judgment in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, 71 (1873), the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the judgments in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U. S. 303 (1880)Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483 (1954) and Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202 (1965).

Then, the Majority opinion summarised the main principles established by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986):

“First, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s insistence that a defendant demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes in order to make out a claim of race discrimination…
Second, the Batson Court rejected Swain’s statement that a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption or belief that the black juror would favor a black defendant…
Third, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors were all “equally” subject to race-based discrimination…
Fourth, the Batson Court did not accept the argument that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them in any individual case and in essence balance things out…” [pp13-15]

The Court also listed the types of evidence which could be relied on by the Defendant when bringing a Batson challenge: 

  • “statistical evidence about the prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors as compared to white prospective jurors in the case;
  • evidence of a prosecutor’s disparate questioning and investigation of black and white prospective jurors in the case;
  • side-by-side comparisons of black prospective jurors who were struck and white prospective jurors who were not struck in the case;
  • a prosecutor’s misrepresentations of the record when defending the strikes during the Batson hearing;
  • relevant history of the State’s peremptory strikes in past cases; or
  • other relevant circumstances that bear upon the issue of racial discrimination.” [pp16-17]

Based on the history of Flowers’s case and the holding in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the Majority opinion held that the prosecution had not given sufficient race-neutral reasons to justify the exclusion of the five African-American jurors during Flowers’s 6th and final trial. This led the Court to conclude that his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment were violated and the conviction had to be reversed.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, the only African-American on the bench, dissented arguing that the Court “almost entirely ignores—and certainly does not refute—the race-neutral reasons given by the State for striking [five] black prospective jurors” in Flowers’s final trial [p2]. Justice Thomas claims that the Court “never should have taken this case” because it did not present any real question of law and the Court only wanted to “reconsider the factual findings of the state courts” [p4]. He also points to a bigger picture – the Majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019), and its effect on Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), will make it “impossible to exercise a peremptory strike that cannot be challenged by the opposing party, thereby requiring a ‘neutral’ explanation for the strike. But requiring an explanation is inconsistent with the very nature of peremptory strikes.” [p40].

Justice Thomas finishes his Dissenting opinion with his own views on peremptory challenges:

In sum, as other Members of this Court have recognized, Batson charted the course for eliminating peremptory strikes… Although those Justices welcomed the prospect, I do not. The peremptory system ‘has always been held essential to the fairness of trial by jury’.” [p40]

It seems that Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. (2019) was as much about a racial bias in the jury selection as it was about the nature and place of peremptory challenges in today’s criminal justice system.

New Justices Appointed to UK Supreme Court

The UK Supreme Court has announced that three new Justices will join its bench in 2020. Lord Justice Hamblen will join on 13 January 2020, Lord Justice Leggatt will join on 21 April 2020 and Professor Andrew Burrows will join on 2 June 2020. They will replace Lady Hale of Richmond, Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill and Lord Wilson of Culworth. At the same time, Lord Reed, the current Deputy President of the Court, will take up the position of President of the Court which is now held by Lady Hale.

Lord Reed was appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court in February 2012. Prior to his appointment, he served as a Judge in the Scottish Court of Session between 1998 to 2012. He is also a member of the panel of ad hoc judges of the European Court of Human Rights and a Non-Permanent Judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. He was educated at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford. Lord Justice Hamblen served as an Assistant Recorder in 1999 and as a Recorder from 2000. He has sat as a Justice in the High Court from November 2008. He was educated at St John’s College, University of Oxford and Harvard Law School. Lord Justice Leggatt sat as a Recorder on the Western Circuit for 10 years. He was also appointed to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court in 2012, later promoted to the Court of Appeal. He was educated at King’s College, Cambridge and the Harvard University. Professor Andrew Burrows is Professor of the Law of England at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls College. He has been sitting as a part-time judge for over 20 years, first as a Recorder and then as a Deputy High Court Judge. He was educated at Prescot Grammar School, Knowsley, Merseyside and Brasenose College, Oxford (UK Supreme Court).

The UK Supreme Court was established in 2009 by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 replacing the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords which had served as the UK’s highest Court for centuries. Unlike in the United States, Justices of the UK Supreme Court are selected by a non-political panel and are subject to mandatory retirement.

Former Justice Kennedy Awarded Liberty Medal

The National Constitutional Center has announced that it would award its 2019 Liberty Medal to former Justice Anthony Kennedy “for his efforts to preserve, protect, and defend liberty by inspiring Americans of all ages to learn about the Constitution through civic education and civil dialogue.” The ceremony will take place on 27 October 2019. The National Constitutional Center is a private, nonprofit organization serving as a leading platform for constitutional education and debate, bringing together people from across America to learn about, debate and celebrate the US Constitution. The Liberty Medal was established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the US Constitution in order to recognise individuals working to secure the blessings of liberty to people worldwide. To date, recipients have included President George W. Bush, Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor, Kofi Annan, Malala Yousafzai and Colin Powell (NCC).

Justice Kennedy sat on the US Supreme Court for 30 years between 1988 and 2018. He was considered a Swing Vote casting the deciding vote in many 5-4 cases, including on affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas, 579 U.S. (2016)), gay marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015)), gun rights (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)), death penalty (Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)) and abortion (Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)). He was replaced by Justice Kavanaugh nominated by President Trump.

Former Justice Stevens Dies at 99

On 16 July 2019, at the age of 99, passed away former Justice of the US Supreme Court John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens was appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1975 as the only nominee of President Ford. He retired from the bench in 2010. At the time, he was the second-oldest-serving justice in the history after Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was 90 years and 309 days when he retired in 1932.

Justice Stevens, although appointed by a Republican President, by the end of his time at the Court became one of the most liberal Justices. Justice Stevens wrote Majority opinions in landmark cases including Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984) (forcing Courts to give deference to government agencies’ interpretation of statutes they administer), Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) (allowing the federal government to prosecute patients using medical marijuana even where such use is legal under state law) and Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, 549 U.S. 497 (2007) (forcing EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants). He also voted with the Majority in Grutter v. Bollinger539 U.S. 306 (2003) (to uphold affirmative action).

Justice Stevens was in dissent in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) (voting to uphold a prohibition on flag-burning), United States v. Lopez514 U.S. 549 (1995) and United States v. Morrison529 U.S. 598 (2000) (voting to wider the federal government’s powers under the Interstate Commerce Clause), Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) (voting to disallow a display of the Ten Commandments on a monument located at the Texas State Capitol in Austin), District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) (voting against an individual right to own firearms at home) and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) (voting to allow restrictions on corporate spending on political campaign).

After his retirement from the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens was replaced by Elena Kagan nominated by President Barack Obama.

An Evening with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch (September 2019)

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch joins National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen for a special Constitution Day conversation exploring his new book, A Republic, If You Can Keep It. Justice Gorsuch draws on his 30-year career as a lawyer, teacher, judge, and justice to explore essential aspects of our Constitution, the role of the judge under our Constitution, and the vital responsibility of each American in maintaining a healthy republic.

Scope of Double Jeopardy Clause Limited (SCOTUS)

On 17 June 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 7-2, in Gamble v. United States, No. 17-646, 587 U.S. (2019), that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment did not protect the petitioner against federal prosecution for an unlawful possession of firearms on the basis that the had already been tried for this act  before a State court. The Majority opinio written by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice Roberts demonstrates a strong literal approach to constitutional interpretation, an faithful adherence to the document’s original meaning and a great concern for federalism.

Justice Alito, writing for the Majority, held that the Double Jeopardy Clause, which protects against being ‘twice put in jeopardy’ ‘for the same offence’, remained subject to the doctrine of separate sovereignty, specifically allowing for prosecution by a State and the federal governments based on the same charges. The Majority opinion in Gamble v. United States applies a strict literal interpretation of the Fifth Amendment (Part IIA), in doing so relying on Justice Scalia’s reasoning in Grady v. Corbin, 495 U. S. 508 (1990) where he distinguished between protection against being prosecuted for the same ‘offence’ and the same ‘act’ (at 529). Justice Alito therefore argues that, as originally understood, an ‘offence’ is defined by a law and law can only be defined by a sovereign. Given that States are sovereign creators of laws, a federal offence and a State offence pertaining to the very same conduct are not in fact ‘the same offence’ and therefore the Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply.

Justice Alito refuses to consider an argument based on the legislative history of the Double Jeopardy Clause holding that “the private intent behind a drafter’s rejection of one version of a text is shoddy evidence of the public meaning of an altogether different text.” (Part IIA). But at the same time, he claims that even if the legislative history was to be relied on, it would support the doctrine of separate sovereignty. This, however, by no means is a rejection of the importance of the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment. The Majority opinion deals extensively with the argument that the doctrine of separate sovereignty goes against the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy pre-dating the adoption of the Fifth Amendment, but it rejects this argument as both unsubstantiated (Part IIIA) as well against a long strain of US cases going back as far as 1847. The Majority invokes the case of Fox v. Ohio, 5 How. 410 (1847) where, at 435, the Supreme Court held that “offences falling within the competency of different authorities to restrain or punish them would not properly be subjected to the consequences which those authorities might ordain and affix to their perpetration.” (Part IIB).

Finally, Justice Alito adds yet another layer of argument – federalism. For him, States could be compared to foreign countries in terms of their sovereignty vis-a-vis the federal government. Justice Alito argues that in the absence of the doctrine of separate sovereignty, American courts would not be able to try people who have been tried in foreign courts as this would inevitably trigger the Double Jeopardy Clause. In fact, he states that “[the] Constitution rests on the principle that the people are sovereign, but that does not mean that they have conferred all the attributes of sovereignty on a single government” (Part IIB).

On the other hand, Justice Gorsuch, in his Dissenting opinion, rejects the Majority opinion as grounded nowhere in the Constitution. He argues that the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment as well as the English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy all point to the word ‘offence’ as not having any technical meaning allowing for a double set of prosecution by a State and the federal governments.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, used his Concurring opinion, submitted in addition to the Majority opinion which he joined, to re-emphasise his latest criticism of the doctrine of stare decisis as an inviolable rule:

“Given that the primary role of federal courts today is to interpret legal texts with ascertainable meanings, precedent plays a different role in our exercise of the ‘judicial Power’ than it did at common law. In my view, if the Court encounters a decision that is demonstrably erroneous—i.e., one that is not a permissible interpretation of the text—the Court should correct the error, regardless of whether other factors support overruling the precedent. Federal courts may (but need not) adhere to an incorrect decision as precedent, but only when traditional tools of legal interpretation show that the earlier decision adopted a textually permissible interpretation of the law. ” (Part C)

Beyond the impact on the Double Jeopardy Clause, Gamble v. United States appears to be important as it falls within the recent trend of cases decided by the US Supreme Court based on some form of historical approach. In this case, both the Majority and the Dissent argued mainly over the history of the western legal tradition, the legislative history of the Fifth Amendment and the old English common law understanding of the rule against double jeopardy. Crucially, this includes not only the five originalists, but also the four liberals.

Originalist Approach to Capital Punishment Prevails (SCOTUS)

On 1 April 2019, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4, in the case of Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019), that a person sentenced to death, who wants to challenge the method of execution on the grounds that it would cause excessive pain, must demonstrate that alternative methods of execution are available and would cause considerably less pain. Strictly speaking, the decision does not introduce any new rule to this area of law as this approach was already confirmed in Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, 576 U.S. (2015), however it is illustrative of the growing dominance of the originalist approach among the Court’s majority.

The case concerned Russell Bucklew who had been sentenced to death for raping his former girlfriend and murdering her lover. He challenged the use of lethal injection, as an execution method, on the grounds that his medical condition (cavernous hemangioma) could prevent the execution from being effective and cause him tremendous pain before death. The challenge was brought under the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting ‘cruel and unusual punishments’.

Since the 1970s, when dealing with challenges to the capital punishment under the 8th Amendment, the Supreme Court, in its majority opinions, has used a mixture of originalism and more liberal methods of interpretation to establish what form of punishment could be considered ‘cruel and unusual’, therefore forbidden. This has produced two sets of decisions. First, those decisions which declared the death penalty unconstitutional in certain circumstances, such as where used against mentally impaired perpetrators (Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)), those who committed the relevant crime while still being a minor (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)) or where no death was caused (Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)). Those decisions had the liberal members of the Court (previously: Justices Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun; more recently: Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan) in the majority, usually with Justice Kennedy or O’Connor joining them, employing some progressive methods of interpretation such as an evolving standard of decency, ie, the idea that whether something is constitutional or not (here the death penalty or various methods of its execution) changes over time as social norms change. In those cases, conservative members of the Court (Alito, Roberts, Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, etc) were always in dissent.

The second set of decisions upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty as such and all methods of its execution (Glossip v. Gross, No. 14-7955, 576 U.S.  (2015), Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008)) and minimised the number of procedural hurdles that need to be cleared before the penalty can be imposed (Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991); Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993)Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348 (2004)Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517 (2006)Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163 (2006)Leal Garcia v. Texas, 564 U.S. 940 (2011)). Those decisions were usually issued with a majority opinion based on a ‘soft’ form of originalism (sometimes with a trace of more liberal methods of interpretation) and were supported by Justices such as Kennedy, O’Connor, Alito and Chief Justices Roberts or Rehnquist. However, they were always accompanied by concurring opinions of Justices Thomas and Scalia employing what might be called ‘hard’ originalism. In those decisions, the liberal members of the Court were always in dissent.

The difference between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ originalism in capital punishment cases is accurately summarised by Justice Gorsuch in his majority opinion in Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019). The soft originalism:

“…teaches that where (as here) the question in dispute is whether the State’s chosen method of execution cruelly superadds pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method of execution that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the State has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason.” (p13)

On the other hand, under their ‘hard’ originalist approach to the 8th Amendment, Justice Scalia and Thomas:

“…argued that establishing cruelty consistent with the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning demands slightly more than the majority opinion there (or the Baze plurality opinion it followed) suggested. Instead of requiring an inmate to establish that a State has unreasonably refused to alter its method of execution to avoid a risk of unnecessary pain, Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia contended that an inmate must show that the State intended its method to inflict such pain.” (p14)

The case of Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. (2019) is significant as it illustrates how the new majority of the Court (with two Justices appointed after 2016) gravitates towards ‘hard’ originalism. First of all, the very fact that the majority opinion was written by Justice Gorsuch, who is a proud originalist, sets the tone of this decision from the start. Secondly, in his opinion, Justice Gorsuch conducted a thorough analysis of the use of the capital punishment at the time of the adoption of the 8th Amendment as the only benchmark against which all decisions in this area must be taken (pp8-10). Then Justice Gorusch, speaking on behalf of the majority, confirmed the validity of old precedents upholding various methods of execution such as by firing squad (Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130 (1879)) or using electric chair (In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890)) (pp10-11). What is more, appreciating the difference in approach between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ originalists, Justice Gorsuch, and with him the majority, did not disapprove of the ‘hard’ originalist approach and instead concluded that:

“…revisiting that debate isn’t necessary here because, as we’ll see, the State was entitled to summary judgment in this case even under the more forgiving Baze-Glossip test [ie ‘soft’ originalist approach].”

Furthermore, even though Justice Thomas submitted his own concurring opinion, he dedicated it almost in its entirety to Justice Breyer’s dissent:

“I adhere to my view that “a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain.” Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S. 35, 94 (2008) (opinion concurring in judgment); ante, at 14 [ie ‘hard’ originalist approach]. Because there is no evidence that Missouri designed its protocol to inflict pain on anyone, let alone Russell Bucklew, I would end the inquiry there. Nonetheless, I join the Court’s opinion in full because it correctly explains why Bucklew’s claim fails even under the Court’s precedents. I write separately to explain why Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion does not cast doubt on this standard…” (p1)

At the same time, Justice Kavanaugh, who also submitted his concurring opinion despite joining the majority, dedicated it solely to:

“…the Court’s additional holding that the alternative method of execution need not be authorized under current state law—a legal issue that had been
uncertain before today’s decision.” (p1)

Finally, what also makes Justice Gorusch’s opinion so significant is making it abundantly clear for future litigants that the 8th Amendment “forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death”.

Compensation for People with Quashed Convictions Limited (UKSC)

On 30 January 2019, the UK Supreme Court held 5-2, in the case of R (on the application of Hallam) v Secretary of State for Justice [2019] UKSC 2, that people convicted of criminal offences, who have their convictions subsequently overturned, had no right to compensation unless they could demonstrate that the new evidence proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt‘ that they had not committed the offences.

The Appellant in this case spent about seven years in prison before his conviction was eventually quashed for being unsafe in light of newly discovered evidence. He then applied for compensation under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (as amended by section 175 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014). The entitlement to compensation under Section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 is based on the concept of ‘miscarriage of justice’ which is defined under section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 as occurring ‘if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person did not commit the offence‘. The Appellant’s application for compensation was refused by the Secretary of State for Justice on the grounds that, inasmuch as newly discovered evidence cast doubt on his conviction as to render it unsafe and therefore resulted in quashing, it did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Appellant had not committed the offence. The Appellant brought judicial review proceedings against the decision claiming that the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was incompatible with the presumption of innocence under Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the majority opinion written by Lord Mance, the five Justices held that based on the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, most notably the case of Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09), the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 did not breach Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case was concerned with claims for compensation where new evidence rendered the conviction unsafe because, had it been available at the time of trial, a reasonable jury might or might not have convicted. This type of claims also falls short of the requirement contained in section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, yet the European Court of Human Rights did not consider it incompatible with Article 6(2) of the ECHR. Even though Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09) was never concerned with the requirement to prove innocence beyond reasonable doubt itself, the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights prompted the majority in R (on the application of Hallam) v Secretary of State for Justice [2019] UKSC 2 to uphold section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and confirmed that the Appellant had no right to compensation despite spending seven years in prison.

Lord Reed and Lord Kerr dissented. Lord Reed, with whom Lord Kerr agreed, accepted that compensation could be denied under Allen v UK (App. no. 25424/09) in cases where new evidence rendered the conviction unsafe because, had it been available at the time of trial, a reasonable jury might or might not have convicted, but argued that section 133(1ZA) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was nevertheless incompatible with the presumption of innocence under Article 6(2) of the ECHR, because it effectively required the Secretary of State for Justice to decide whether persons, whose convictions had been quashed, established that they were innocent (para 187).

Given the outcome of the case, it is possible that the European Court of Human Rights will have a final say on the issue.

Civil Asset Forfeiture Limited (SCOTUS)

On 20 February, the US Supreme Court unanimously held, in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), that the prohibition on excessive fines contained in the 8th Amendment applied to States (as well as the federal government) and prevented Indiana from confiscating a Land Rover worth $42,000 just because it had been used during a drug transaction. The judgment is significant because it is a rare case of the Court limiting States’ civil asset forfeiture powers but also because of its discussion of the Bill of Rights’ selective incorporation process.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool used by law enforcement to confiscate private property from persons suspected of illegal activity without necessarily charging them with any wrongdoing. According to some estimations, between 2011 and 2014, local and state agencies confiscated $2.5 billion in approximately 62,000 cash seizures conducted ‘without search warrants or indictments’ (The Washington Post). When it comes to the federal government, in 1985, the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund brought in $27 million but by 2017, that figure skyrocketed to $1.6 billion (The Atlantic). In Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, referred to the protection from excessive fines as a historically important safeguard recognised as early as the Magna Carta. However, the effective application of the Excessive Fine Clause of the 8th Amendment is a novelty in the Court’s jurisprudence as the Court found a violation of the Excessive Fine Clause for the first time in 1998, in United States v. Bajakajian524 U.S. 321 (1998).

The 8th Amendment prohibits, among other things, ‘excessive fines [being] imposed’. In Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas212 U.S. 86 (1909), the Supreme Court held that excessive fines were defined as fines ‘so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law’. In Austin v. United States, 509 U.S. 602 (1993), the Court ruled for the first time that the Excessive Fines Clause applied to civil asset forfeiture conducted by the federal government, but the case was silent on its potential application to States’ actions.

Originally, just as the other Amendments constituting the Bill of Rights, the 8th Amendment was meant to apply only against the federal government. After the Civil War, with the enactment of the 14th Amendment, the Courts began to apply various safeguards contained in the Bill of Rights against States as well as the federal government. Throughout that time, the Courts usually invoked the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment as the provision rendering the Bill of Rights applicable against States. In Timbs v. Indiana, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), 7 Justices, in the opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, held that the 8th Amendment applied against the State of Indiana by virtue of the Due Process Clause. On the other hand, Justice Thomas, while concurring in the outcome of the case, produced a separate opinion on the issue of the selective incorporation where he explained that the application of the Bill of Rights against States was possible by virtue of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, rather than the Due Process Clause. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the majority opinion, also wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing with Justice Thomas on the issue of the selective incorporation.

The ruling is expected to have a considerable impact on the the use of civil asset forfeiture as it establishes a strong protection against its abuse, now applicable to both the federal and States’ governments. The case also signals potential future discussions among Justices on the effect of the 14th Amendment on the selective incorporation.

Chief Justice Roberts Caught Up in Politics (SCOTUS)

It does not come as a surprise to anyone that the judicial appointment process in the United States has become very divisive in the recent years. With the refusal of Senate Majority Leader McConnell to hold a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s replacement for Justice Scalia in 2016, then the ugly confirmation hearing of then Judge Gorsuch for the same position in 2017 and the infamous confirmation hearing of then Judge Kavanaugh in 2018 as the replacement for Justice Kennedy, the US Supreme Court has become a central issue of a public debate in Washington. Unfortunately, this has not left the Court unaffected.

The latest bit of surprising news from the US Supreme Court came on 8 February 2019 when the Court, in the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019)issued a stay of a new Louisiana law restricting access to abortion by requiring that physicians obtain surgical privileges in a nearby hospital before they are legally permitted to carry our the procedure. The decision of the Court relates only to an order preventing the law from going into effect until lower Courts rule on its constitutionality and is not a judgment on the merits. Nevertheless, the decision came as a surprise to many commentators because the case was decided 5-4 with Chief Justice Roberts siding with a liberal minority, something Justice Kennedy used to do from time to time in the past. Immediately after the decision was published, many conservative commentators declared Chief Justice Roberts to be the new Swing Vote (Fox News). However, it seems that the there is more to Chief Justice Roberts’s decision than just being the new Swing Vote.

 

Judicial Philosophy

With the appointment of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, President Trump has hoped to solidify a strong originalist majority on the US Supreme Court for decades to come. In fact, 4 out of 5 Republican-appointed Justices now do in fact identify as originalists, of some form at least (Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh). The case of the 5th, Chief Justice Roberts, is less straightforward. He is undeniably a conservative, but his underlying judicial philosophy has never been clearly articulated.

In fact, he has already been regarded by conservative commentators as an unreliable vote for a while now. As early as 2006, Chief Justice Roberts voted along side the 4 liberal Justices in Jones v. Flowers, 547 U.S. 220 (2006) holding that, before a home could be seized and sold in a tax-forfeiture sale, owners must receive effective notification. Perhaps the most famous case of Chief Justice Robert’s liberal sympathies was the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012) where the Chief Justice sided with the 4 liberal Justices and upheld the core of ObamaCare. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts rescued ObamaCare twice, again in 2015 in the case of King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), this time together with Justice Kennedy in a 6-3 decision though. Finally, in December 2018, Chief Justice Roberts again sided with the 4 liberals in declining to hear the case of Planned Parenthood v. Andersen, No. 16-3249 (10th Cir. 2018) therefore leaving intact the pro-choice judgment of the Court of Appeals in favor of Planned Parenthood.

Although Chief Justice Roberts has voted with the conservative/originalist majority (against the 4 liberal Justices) concerning many crucial issues such as abortion (Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007)), affirmative action (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007)), campaign financing (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)), religious freedom (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. ___ (2014)), gay rights (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)) and the exlusionary rule (Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016)), it is clear from his voting record that Chief Justice Roberts has never been a full conservative/originalist, at least not the way Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito have been. He probably sits somewhere in between his former colleague Justice Kennedy and the pure originalists. He has voted with the 4 liberals less often than Justice Kennedy, but more often than any other Republican-appointed Justice in the recent decade.

 

Court Composition

Beyond the question of Chief Justice Roberts’s judicial philosophy, he appears to see himself as the man shaping the legacy of the today’s US Supreme Court. It is not without meaning when the Court is referred to by a name of the Chief Justice that presides over it. From the liberal Warren Court to the conservative Rehnquist Court, each Chief Justice has always left his imprint on the Court’s jurisprudence. Since 2005, the US Supreme Court is referred to as the Roberts Court and the Chief Justice does not take this responsibility lightly.

Between 2005 and 2018, what could be described as the ‘early’ Roberts Court, had no clear one majority. Although, Republican-appointed Justices held the majority, they did not share one common judicial philosophy. It all changed in 2018 with the retirement of Justice Kennedy who, although had been appointed by President Reagan, had some liberal sympathies and often sided with Democrat-appointed Justices. Now that Justice Kennedy has been replaced by Justice Kavanaugh, Chief Justice Roberts has 4 strong liberals to his left (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan) and 4 strong originalists to his right (Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh) which leaves him in the very middle. Because Chief Justice Roberts is not a strict originalist unlike the other 4 Republican appointees, now that Justice Kennedy is gone, he has been naturally pushed towards the centre.

 

Court Legitimacy

On top of this internal dynamics of the US Supreme Court, there are also a whole range of external factors affecting the functioning of the Court. The political climate in Washington, especially around the judicial appointment process, has left Chief Justice Roberts genuinely worried about the Court’s legitimacy. According to the latest poll conducted in February 2019, 35% of voters choose the U.S. Supreme Court as the branch of the US Government that they trust the most but this is down from 45% in February 2017 (Fox News). The Court is clearly suffering collateral damage of the political fights between the Republicans and Democrats within the other two branches of the Government, perhaps in the Senate in particular which plays a vital role in the appointment process.

This was clearly visible in November 2018 when, in response to President Trump referring to a Judge who had ruled against his Administration as an ‘Obama Judge’ (as the Judge was indeed an Obama appointee), Chief Justice Roberts issued an official statement replying that “We do not have Obama Judges or Trump Judges, Bush Judges or Clinton Judges… What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated Judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.” (The Washington Post).

 

Conclusions

Given this combination of factors – Chief Justice Roberts’s lack of strong originalist beliefs, his personal responsibility for ‘his‘ Court, the natural push towards the centre in the absence of Justice Kennedy and the political fights within the other two branches of the Government – Chief Justice Roberts probably feels like he is forced to preserve the legitimacy of the Court by all means necessary.

Finally, inasmuch as Chief Justice Roberts might not be a full-blown originalist, it does not mean he has no leading judicial philosophy whatsoever. However, it appears that the Chief Justice’s judicial philosophy is more about the form than the substance. He has been a firm believer in a form of judicial formalism dictating that cases should be decided based on recent precedents and with a strong presumption of constitutionality of federal law. Chief Justice Roberts does not like judicial activism and that includes both the liberal push to expend the powers of the federal Government and socio-economic rights and the originalist push towards the opposite. The Chief Justice seems to like his status quo and judicial precedent because those values promote the Court’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

It is this judicial philosophy that explains how Chief Justice Roberts has been able to side with the liberals in upholding ObamaCare in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012) and King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___ (2015) (ie the presumption of constitutionality) and in protecting abortion access in Planned Parenthood v. Andersen, No. 16-3249 (10th Cir. 2018) (ie existing status quo) while at the same time he has voted for campaign financing freedom in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)) (ie existing status quote) and against gay rights in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)) (ie existing status quote / precedent).

This also explains why in February 2019 Chief Justice Roberts sided with the 4 liberals in issuing a stay of a new Louisiana law restricting access to abortion in June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019)The law attempted to impose restrictions on who can perform abortion procedures in a similar way to a 2013 Texas law which the US Supreme Court had struck down in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016). For Chief Justice Roberts, the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019) was probably all about the precedent. The Court already ruled on this issue and the precedent must be followed. Given that this case was about nothing more than a stay while the issue was being considered by lower Courts, it must have been unthinkable for the Chief Justice to allow lower Courts to strike down a law that the US Supreme Court had upheld only 2 years earlier.

 

Epilogue

This is, however, not the end for the type of abortion restrictions which are subject of consideration in June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019)This is because the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016)ie the case establishing the precedent Chief Justice Roberts decided to defend, had been decided 5-4 with the Chief Justice dissenting. This case was decided by the 4 liberals joined by Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts was in the minority along with the other originalists. This is why the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019) describes Chief Justice Roberts so well – he was willing to vote with liberals against a law which he had voted to upheld only 2 years earlier because this was what was required to preserve the Court’s legitimacy.

That being said, the case of the new Louisiana abortion law might still return to the US Supreme Court in 2020 for consideration of on the merits and this time Chief Justice Roberts might have another go at it. With Justice Kennedy gone and Justice Kavanaugh already voting against the stay (ie in favour of the law), the Chief Justice will have the chance to flip the 2016 precedent and uphold the restrictions as constitutional. Whether he will do so remains to be seen. One thing is clear however at this point, for Chief Justice Roberts, if any Court is to flip a precedent of the US Supreme Court, it must the US Supreme Court itself.

Justice Ginsburg Hospitalised with Cancerous Growths in Lungs (SCOTUS)

On 21 December 2018, the US Supreme Court announced that Justice Ginsburg had had surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to remove two malignant growths from her left lung. It was also reported that doctors had found ‘no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body’ and no further treatment was planned at this point. Apparently, the growths were spotted during tests she had after fracturing her ribs in a fall on 7 November 2018. Since her appointment in 1993, Justice Ginsburg has already had 3 cancer-related procedures (ABC).

Justice Ginsburg is the oldest sitting Justice of the Court. She was originally appointed by President Clinton in 1993 at the age of 60 as the second woman ever appointed to the US Supreme Court. She is a known liberal who openly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election (CNN). In fact, it is common knowledge that Justice Ginsburg will not voluntarily retire during a Republican president. Given her age, she was pressured to retire during the second term of the Obama’s presidency in case his predecessor turned out to be a Republican but she did not cave (NY Times). Now that President Trump appoints strictly conservative judges to the federal benches, Justice Ginsburg embraces herself to wait out his term in office. During the next presidential election in 2020, she will be 87 but her retirement plans will necessarily depend on whether President Trump is re-elected or not. If President Trump wins again in 2020, Justice Ginsburg will have no choice but to endure yet another 4 years on the bench. If successful, this would bring her to over 91 thereby beating the current record-holder, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who stepped down at the age of 90 years and 10 months. She would also beat her former colleague Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010 at the age of 90 years and 2 months. Justice Ginsburg, despite her history of cancer and regular nodding-off during official events, remains active both as an opinion writer on the bench as well as a public speaker outside the Court.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Announces She Has Dementia (SCOTUS)

On 23 October 2018, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced she had dementia (SCOTUSBlog). Justice O’Connor was born in 1930 and was appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan as the first woman in history. She sat on the bench until 2006 when she retired and was replaced by Justice Alito appointed by President Bush. Justice O’Connor went down in history not only as the first female Justice of the US Supreme Court but also as the Court’s early Swing Vote. Appointed by a Republican President, Justice O’Connor believed in a limited federal government and as such was part of the so called Rehnquist Revolution whereby the US Supreme Court intended to set limits to the powers of the federal government. With cases such as United States v. Alfonso D. Lopez, Jr., 514 U.S. 549 (1995) and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), the Rehnquist Court strove to return to the concept of the federal government as a government of enumerated powers after several decades of a rapid federal expansion. Justice O’Connor joined the other Republican-appointed Justices in deciding those cases.

In fact, Justice O’Connor started as a reliable conservative vote siding with (Chief) Justice Rehnquist 87% of the time during her first 3 years on the bench (Greenburg). Since 1984 until 1998, Justice O’Connor’s support for (Chief) Justice Rehnquist’s opinions ranged from 93.4% to 63.2% (Los Angeles Times). With the passage of time, Justice O’Connor started to slowly drift towards the liberal side of the Court and between 1994 and 2004, she voted with the liberal Justices a total of 28 times (Harvard Law Review). This included some key issues such as affirmative action (Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003)), religious liberty (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)) and abortion (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)). In any event, Justice O’Connor will always be a symbol of an ever-changing Supreme Court.

Impeaching a Supreme Court Justice

The next day Justice Kavanaugh had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, some Democrats called for his potential impeachment, should they flip the House of Representatives after the November mid-term elections (The Washington Post). Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution stipulates that “... all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors“. Accordingly, the impeachment process has several elements. Firstly, the alleged wrongdoing must fall within the scope of an impeachable offence. Secondly, the House of Representatives must approve the Articles of Impeachment with a simple majority vote. Thirdly, the Senate must convict (i.e. removed from office) with at least 67 votes or otherwise the proceedings result in an automatic acquittal. Although a Justice of the Supreme Court (and any other federal Judge), as an Officer of the United States, is subject to impeachment, it is very unlikely that Justice Kavanaugh will be (successfully) impeached in any foreseeable future. First of all, it is not clear anyone could be impeached for any alleged wrongdoing taking place prior to the taking of the office. In Justice Kavanaugh’s case, most allegations were at least 30 years old therefore not in any manner connected with the office from which a successful impeachment would seek to remove him. Secondly, even if the Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives in November, it is not clear they will have 218 House Members willing to vote in favour of the Articles of Impeachment, given how many of them would be coming from Red States supporting Justice Kavanaugh. Thirdly, even if the House votes to impeach, the impeachment will inevitably fail in the Senate given that the Constitution requires a two-thirds super majority to convict (i.e. remove) a person subject to the impeachment proceedings. As of now the Democrats do not even have a simple majority in the Senate and even if they manage to flip it in November, it will not amount to a two-thirds majority. From a purely legal point of view, raising the possibility of the impeachment of Justice Kavanaugh could not be taken seriously. This is even more so considering that no Justice of the Supreme Court has ever been removed from office by way of impeachment. In 1804 Justice Chase was impeached by the House of Representatives but a year later the impeachment failed in the Senate. In terms of lower courts Judges, only 14 have ever been impeached and of those only 8 have been actually removed from office by the Senate and an overwhelming majority of them on the grounds strictly related to their functions as a Judge, such as taking bribes or abuse of power (Federal Judicial Center). The possibility of impeachment by Congress is an extremely powerful tool which goes against the traditional separation of powers and therefore, by design, its use is severely restricted only to the most serious examples of the abuse of power.

Justice Kavanaugh Joins SCOTUS

On the night of 6 – 7 October Judge Kavanaugh was officially confirmed by a 51-49 majority of the US Senate as a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was considered a swing vote, voted ‘present’ therefore opposing the candidacy. Another Republican swing vote, Susan Collins of Maine, aligned with a Republican majority after a forceful defence of Judge Kavanaugh on the Senate floor the day before. The Republicans also picked up one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia who is facing a tough re-election fight in his deeply red state. The vote comes after weeks of investigations and hearings concerning sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Kavanaugh put forward by 3 different women, among which was that of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, which was a subject of a special Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (summary of allegations: Business Insider UK). In the last days of the process, many Senators saw protesters roaming the Senate halls demonstrating both their support and opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This also included many examples of disorderly behaviour leading to hundreds protesters being arrested (The Guardian). The opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation was based on a whole range of arguments, from those related to his judicial record, through the non-disclosure of old communication records, to those concerning sexual misconduct allegations and his short temper. On the other hand, the Republicans complained that the Democrats were adamant to derail the confirmation process with malicious behaviour from the start and none of their arguments had any merits. At the end of the day, however, Judge Kavanaugh has been dully confirmed and will now join the other 8 Justices of the Supreme Court who have already returned to work from their summer break.

The appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is bound to create a reliable originalist majority for the first time in almost 80 years, i.e. since Justice Owen Roberts abandoned the originalist approach in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) thereby ending the so called Lochner era in the Court’s jurisprudence. Although since 1937 the Court has seen periods with a majority composed of Republican-appointed Justices, they have not been consistently originalist in their judicial philosophies. It was the appointment of Justice Scalia to the bench by President Reagan in 1986 that brought the originalist philosophy back from the exile to the mainstream. Since then, other originalists have been appointed to the Court, including Justice Thomas (1991), Chief Justice Roberts (2005), Justice Alito (2006), Justice Gorsuch (2017) and now Justice Kavanaugh. Although the originalism of Chief Justice Roberts is admittedly less rigorous than that of Justice Thomas, and in the incoming years he might be even moving more towards the centre, it seems that the current Court is bound to be concerned with the original meaning of the Constitution more than at any other point within the last 80 years.

These changes to the composition of the Supreme Court will have a profound impact on a whole range of cases which are likely to reach the Court in this term. Firstly, on the subject of the 2nd Amendment, the Court might be asked to decide what types of firearms are covered by the 2nd Amendment and whether the Amendment applies to all public spaces in addition to one’s home. In this respect there appears to be a circuit split between the 9th and the 7th Circuit Courts of Appeals (Peruta v. County of San Diego, 824 F.3d 919, 939 (2016) v Moore v Madigan (USDC 11-CV-405-WDS, 11-CV-03134; 7th Cir. 12-1269, 12-1788)). Secondly, on the never-ending issue of ObamaCare, the Court will likely be asked to resolve the question whether the ObamaCare’s Individual Mandate (and possibly other parts of the statute with it) has been rendered unconstitutional by The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017 which eliminated the tax/penalty for not complying with it. At this point, several Red States are suing claiming that the elimination of the tax has rendered the Individual Mandate unconstitutional as now, in the absence of any tax attached to it, it could only be construed as an exercise of the Congress’s power to regulate inter-state commerce which was already declared invalid by the US Supreme Court in its famous 2012 case (Texas Tribune). However, the lawsuit goes even further and claims that the Individual Mandate is inseverable from the rest of the law, or at least from its certain parts, such as the community rating, and if it is in fact struck down by the Court, it might drag other parts of the ObamaCare with it. Given that the Trump Administration decided not to defend the lawsuit, the case is now bound to proceed further up the ladder towards the Supreme Court (The Atlantic). Thirdly, the Court might be asked to rule whether the DACA programme (and its rescission via executive action) is constitutional. The Trump Administration announced in 2017 that it would rescind the DACA programme altogether as incompatible with federal immigration laws on the books. However, on 3 August 2018, a DC District Court ruled in the case of Trustees of Princeton University v United States (1:17-cv-02325-JDB) that the rescission of DACA was unlawful because the Administration did not supply the Court with any valid reason for its decision. Now an appeal in this case is expected by the Trump Administration. Fourthly, also on the immigration subject, the Court might be asked to finally resolve the question of the legality of the so called sanctuary cities. In 2017 the Department of Justice decided to withdraw funding from cities refusing to cooperate with the federal government in respect of immigration enforcement and in March 2018 it sued the State of California for its sanctuary policies. On the other hand, in return, two of California counties sued the Department of Justice claiming that such a withdrawal of funds was unconstitutional and persuaded a local District Court as well as the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to grant an injunction (The Washington Post). Fifthly, the Court is likely to be asked again to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action as last decisions on this subject have been extremely closely decided with Justice Kennedy always casting the deciding vote. So far there is no case pending before any federal court concerning affirmative action, however, there have been some moves by the Trump Administration to limits its impact, such as reversing President Obama’s policy on affirmative action in schools (NY Times) or investigating the impact of affirmative action programmes at the Harvard University on the Asian-American minority admissions (CNN). Finally, the Court will most likely, again, deal with abortion. On 4 May 2018 the State of Iowa passed into law in the so called ‘heartbeat’ Act banning abortions as soon as fetal heartbeat could be detected, which usually happens around the sixth week into pregnancy, which now constitutes the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in the Polk County District Court for a declaration of unconstitutionality as well as an interim injunction against the law which was granted on 1 June 2018 (Des Moines Register). The case is now being considered on its merits but regardless of the Court’s decision, it is bound to be appealed and eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Overall, given the multitude of important issues which await consideration by the US Supreme Court, the new originalist majority of the Court might leave a unique legacy for decades to come.

President Trump Unable to Flip Appeal Courts Circuits

President Trump has made clear on several occasions that judicial nominations are one of his top priorities. In terms of Appeal Courts, as of 15 September 2018, he has successfully appointed 26 Circuit Judges, with further 10 nominations pending before the Senate and another 3 positions awaiting his nomination (13 vacancies in total). Many commentators have been pointing out that President Trump might not only change the constitution of the US Supreme Court by appointing Judge Gorsuch (and most likely Judge Kavanaugh) to its bench, but also flip majorities of at least some Appeal Circuits. However, upon a closer examination, this seems rather unlikely, at least in President Trump’s first term in office.

The US Courts of Appeals are grouped in 11 Circuits in addition to the so called special DC Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, the 1st Circuit is the only one which has not had any vacancies since the last general election and as such it has a stable 4-2 Democratic majority. The 2nd Circuit has 3 vacancies but even if filled by President Trump, it will retain a Democratic majority of 7-6. The 3rd Circuit has 2 vacancies and it has already seen 1 judge appointed to its bench by President Trump in addition to 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents so assuming President Trump fills those 2 empty seats, the Circuit will be evenly split 7-7 between the Republican and Democratic appointees. The 4th Circuit has also had 2 judges appointed to its bench by President Trump on top of 4 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents but it retains a stable Democratic majority of 8-6. The 5th Circuit currently has 1 vacancy, 5 Trump appointees and 6 other Republican-appointed judges making its overwhelmingly Republican 12-5. The 6th Circuit is also overwhelmingly Republican with 4 Trump appointees on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to a strong 11-5 Republican majority. The situation is similar in the 7th Circuit which has 4 Trump appointees in addition to other 5 judges appointed by previous Republican Presidents adding up to a stable 9-2 Republican majority. This is again seen in the 8th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 3 judges on top of 7 other Republican-appointed judges adding up to an overwhelming Republican majority of 10-1. The most liberal of all the Circuits, the famous 9th Circuit currently has 7 vacancies, 1 Trump appointee and another 5 Republican-appointed judges but even assuming all those vacancies are filled by President Trump, the Circuit will nevertheless retain a stable Democratic majority of 16-13. A stable Democratic majority of 7-5 will also hold in the 10th Circuit where President Trump has appointed 2 judges on top of another 3 appointed by previous Republican Presidents. The 11th Circuit is another Circuit which is evenly split 6-6 between the Democratic and Republican appointees after President Trump has appointed 3 judges in addition to another 3 Republican-appointed judges already on the bench. Finally, the DC Circuit consisting of 1 Trump appointee and 3 other Republican-appointed judges also retains a stable Democratic majority of 7-4.

Given the structure of vacancies inherited by President Trump, it is unlikely that his appointments will be able to flip any Appeal Circuit. As of 15 September 2018, despite any appointments made so far, and any other likely to be made in President Trump’s first term, Democratic-appointed judges hold majorities in 6 Circuits (1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th, 10th and the DC Circuit) and Republican-appointed judges hold majorities in 4 Circuits (5th, 6th, 7th and 8th). The only difference made by President Trump’s appointments to the Appeal Courts could be observed in the 3rd and 11th Circuits which moved from stable Democratic majorities to being evenly split. In any event, with the appointment of Judge Gorsuch and the likely appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, it is not the Appeal Courts where President Trump intends to make his judicial legacy most visible.

After the Hearings: Kavanaugh Likely to be Confirmed

Between 5 and 7 September 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh. The Committee composed of 21 members (10 Democrats and 11 Republicans) questioned Judge Kavanaugh on his judicial record and philosophy. As expected, it was a hugely contentious hearing with constant shouts from the audience leading to multiple arrests and Democratic Senators attacking the nominee’s credibility and independence. However, after 3 long days, Judge Kavanaugh came out of the hearings without any significant blunder. Most of the time he followed the so called Ginsburg Rule declining to answer any question concerning any legal issue which could possibly come before the Court. Perhaps most crucially, Judge Kavanaugh also described Roe v Wade as an ‘important precedent’ therefore making it possible for the 2 pro-choice Republican Senators Lisa Murkowsky of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine to support his nomination. The 2 Senators are considered the swing votes in the upcoming confirmation vote given that the Republicans need all their Senators to vote yes, assuming the vote would go down along the party lines, which is likely. Now that Judge Kavanaugh has not raised any red flags for any Republican Senator, he is likely to be confirmed by the Senate by the end of September so that he can join the Court by 01 October when its term starts.

The confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will indeed be a historical moment. For the first time in almost 80 years the US Supreme Court will have a reliable originalist majority. The last time there was an originalist majority on the Court was prior to the so called ‘switch in time that saved nine’, i.e., before Justice Owen Roberts abandoned the originalist approach in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) thereby ending the so called Lochner era in the Court’s jurisprudence. For the next 80 years the Court will almost consistently decide cases coming before it based on the premise that the US Constitution is a living document whose meaning changes over time. Now all this is about to change. This, of course, does not mean that the Court will suddenly start overruling 80 years of precedents. However, given how much is at stake, it is no surprise the liberal forces are very anxious about their legacy.

Justice Ginsburg Has no Plans to Retire

On 29 July 2018, Justice Ginsburg, who is currently 85 years old 
declared that she planned to remain on the Supreme Court for at least 5 more years (The Guardian). The Justice is already the oldest sitting Justice of the Court. She was originally appointed by President Clinton in 1993 at the age of 60 as the second woman ever appointed to the US Supreme Court. She is a known liberal who openly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election (CNN). In fact, it is common knowledge that Justice Ginsburg will not voluntarily retire during a Republican president. Given her age, she was pressured to retire during the second term of the Obama’s presidency in case his predecessor turned out to be a Republican but she did not cave (e.g. NY Times here). Now that President Trump appoints strictly conservative judges to the federal benches, Justice Ginsburg embraces herself to wait out his term in office. During the next presidential election in 2020, the Justice will be 87 but her retirement plans will necessarily depend on whether President Trump is re-elected or not. If President Trump wins again in 2020, Justice Ginsburg will have no choice but to endure yet another 4 years on the bench. If successful, this would bring her to over 91 thereby beating the current record-holder, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who stepped down at the age of 90 years and 10 months. She would also beat her former colleague Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010 at the age of 90 years and 2 months. Justice Ginsburg, despite her history of cancer and regular nodding-off during official events, remains active both as an opinion writer on the bench as well as a public speaker outside the Court. Given her spirit, she might as well be capable of achieving the title of the oldest ever sitting Justice of the US Supreme Court, that is provided nothing unexpected happens of course.

Judge Kavanaugh to Replace Justice Kennedy

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On 09 July 2018 President Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Kennedy. Judge Kavanaugh is a Judge of the Court of Appeals for the powerful DC Circuit and has been serving in this capacity for 13 years. He had been initially appointed to this Court by President Bush after having served under him as a White House staffer. Even more interestingly, in the 1990s, Judge Kavanaugh worked with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr investigating business deals of then President Bill Clinton in relation to the Whitewater development which famously led to the impeachment and then the eventual acquittal of President Clinton on the charges of perjury and the obstruction of justice in 1999.

Judge Kavanaugh is known to be an originalist with a strong record on gun laws (Heller v. District of Columbia (2011)) and the separation of powers (PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (2017)). On the other hand, many conservative members of the Senate point out that he helped save ObamaCare’s individual mandate when the case was before the Court of Appeals by construing it as a tax (Seven-Sky v. Holder (2011)) and voted to uphold massive data collection by the NSA outside the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy (Klayman v. Obama (2015)). Finally, Judge Kavanaugh seems to have no clear record on the right to abortion (but see Garza v. Hargan (2017)) – the most crucial issue for the vast majority of progressive Senators.

In the incoming months, Judge Kavanaugh will face a Senate confirmation hearing and will be asked to answer multiple questions about his judicial and administrative past. The hearing will most likely be a contentious one with many Democratic Senators already vowing to vote against him. However, with a 51 majority, the Senate Republicans are likely to confirm Judge Kavanaugh in time for a new session of the Supreme Court beginning in October 2018. The vote will probably go down along the party lines with a few Democrat Senators from typically Red States perhaps voting for Judge Kavanaugh to strengthen their position before the November mid-term elections.

Justice Kennedy Retires (SCOTUS)

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The most powerful man in America has finally retired. There was no one in the country’s past 30 years who had a bigger impact on the law of the United States than Justice Kennedy. No President, no Majority  Leader, no State Governor had power coming even close to that of Justice Kennedy, aka the Swing Vote. The number of cases Justice Kennedy single-handedly decided is breathtaking. He is the man who allowed gay people to marry (Obergefell v. Hodges 2015) and buy firearms (District of Columbia v Heller 2008) at the same time. It seems that President Trump is now likely to appoint another young judge in the vein of Justice Gorsuch, his first pick. Whoever President Trump chooses to replace Justice Kennedy will be subjected to the most vicious confirmation process this country has ever seen. Probably even more vicious than the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas. The President is set to announce his pick on Monday, 9 July.