Tag: justice

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 the Supreme Court

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’s 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.

The Most Powerful Man in America Retires

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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.