Author: Gerard Magliocca


More on Signed Appellate Opinions

Paul Horwitz has written a characteristically thoughtful post over at PrawfsBlawg on the issue that I raised the other day about whether we should still permit per curiam opinions.  I have a couple of additional observations on my end:

1.  Without signed opinions, outsiders would find it hard to assess the quality of individual appellate judges.  This matters when you want to think about possible candidates for promotion.  Instead, you’d have to rely on insider information that would be less reliable (“I heard from so-and-so’s law clerk that Judge X wrote that opinion.”).

2.  There is an exception to Point #1.  When judges sit on panels of three, the dissenter would always be named.  Thus, what we’d know about appellate judges would come largely from their dissents.  Or one could imagine more separate concurring opinions if that was the only way to get one’s name out for public consumption.  I’m not sure that this be a great system for assessing judges.

3.  Why do people care that a given opinion was written by Henry J. Friendly?  I think the answer is that they think that opinion will just be better.  While all panel opinions are formally equal, that does not mean that they are equally useful.  Knowing the judge’s reputation (good or bad) reduces search costs for attorneys and scholars, and that matters in the real world.

One last thought–there is a strong argument in favor of anonymous publication as a way of forcing people to focus on the arguments and not on the personalities.  (Hello, Publius.)  Of course, that argument could apply just as well to law review articles as it does to opinions.





Conspiracy in the Lincoln Assassination Trial

On Friday, the DC Circuit issued its decision in Al Bahlul v. United States.  The opinion held that Congress exceeded its Article I powers by authorizing a military commission to try a Guantanamo detainee for the crime on conspiracy.  I cannot claim any special expertise on this question, but the dueling opinions (Judge Rogers for the Court and Judge Henderson in dissent) do address one point that I know something about–the trial of John Wilkes’s Booth’s accomplices.  We are in the midst of the 150th anniversary of that military trial, which I spent a chapter discussing in my biography of Bingham.

The Court declined to rely on the Lincoln assassination military trial as authority for Al Bahlul’s conspiracy conviction, and I think that this was correct.  First, the assassins were not charged with conspiracy.  The actual charge was “traitorous conspiracy,” not conspiring to commit treason.  What is that?  Basically, it was a charge invented just for them to avoid Article III’s requirements for proving treason while still conveying the idea that they had done something treasonable.  The dissent (which oddly spends a lot of time citing Chief Justice Rehnquist’s book that discusses the Lincoln trial, rather than the primary sources), errs in reaching the opposite conclusion.

Moreover, the Lincoln assassination commission was filled with irregularities and thus is not a precedent people ought to read broadly.    The District Court opinion that rejected the habeas corpus petition of some of the convicted men was not convincing, and even if it was right the special circumstances presented by the murder of the President in wartime are far removed from the cases of the Guantanamo detainees.


Per Curiam Opinions

The decision of the Fifth Circuit–sure to be before the Supreme Court next Term–upholding the new Texas abortion regulations raises the question of whether per curiam opinions should still exist.

If a decision is truly a joint work (say by all three members of a panel), then perhaps that title makes sense. I think the “Joint Opinion of X, Y, and Z” is better, but that’s a semantic point.  Appellate courts, though, should not be calling an opinion “per curiam” to shield its author from identification.  We deserve to know who wrote a published opinion.

The only plausible rationale for not identifying an opinion’s author is that in organized crime or terrorism cases judges may fear retaliation.  But this is a rare circumstance.  More often what they probably fear is public scrutiny and accountability.


Thoughts on Zitovsky

I did not have this case in my top tier of ones that I’m following this term, but let me throw out a couple of observations.

1.  There is a question about whether Zitovsky had standing, as Will Baude explained in a recent NY Times op-ed.  None of the Justices said anything about this, which is one more piece of evidence for the idea that standing doctrine in the Supreme Court is only prudential.

2.  Not much was accomplished here by judicial action.  The Court would have been better off going with the idea that this is a political question (that point was rejected in a prior Supreme Court case on the same facts).  Both here and in Noel Canning the separation-of-powers question was intellectually interesting, but that’s all.  Congress and the Executive have been clashing over diplomatic issues since the dawn of the Republic–they can work it out on their own.

3.  Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion has the better of the argument.  Since Congress can take many valid actions that undercut diplomatic recognition, such as not funding an embassy, refusing to confirm an ambassador, or letting an unrecognized government leader speak to a Joint Session, I don’t see why passports are any different.  Justice Kennedy’s opinion is not persuasive on the point.



The Presumption of Constitutionality

As part of my research on separation of powers, I’ve been asking myself the following:  Why is an Act of Congress presumed to be constitutional?  The Supreme Court has said that this is true many times, and this presumption is important. Randy Barnett made a major contribution by pointing out that you could instead have a “presumption of liberty” in certain situations.

Here are two possible defenses of the constitutionality presumption:

1.  If the democratically elected branches agree that a law is constitutional, then that call is entitled to a presumption of validity.

2.  If two of the three branches agree that a law is constitutional, then that judgment is entitled to some deference.

One of these ideas draws a distinction between the elected and unelected branches.  The other is just a question of numbers (two versus one).

But there is a problem with these answers.  Congress can unilaterally enact a statute with a two-thirds majority in each House.  And a law that came from an override of a presidential veto would still get a presumption of validity.  Now a response to this could be,  “Two-thirds of two houses of Congress is the equivalent of two of the three branches, or that sort of lopsided majority gives the statute enough democratic legitimacy to earn a presumption of validity.”  Maybe, but I’m not sure.

Another possible answer, though, is that Acts of Congress deserve the benefit of the doubt is that Congress is the superior branch.  That is true whether the President signs the bill into law or not.  Since I’m making the “the three branches are not equal” argument in my paper, I am drawn to this explanation.  But I need to think more about why Acts of Congress are presumed valid.


Justice Kennedy’s Papers

The Justice has replied (through the Court’s public information office) that he has no details to announce yet on the disposition of his papers.  I’m not sure whether I will get any more replies to my letters, but we’ll see what happens after the end of June.

Blogging is light because I have paper edits that are pressing.  Next week I should be back guns blazing.



Why Do We Have Bicameralism?

A key structural feature of Article One is bicameralism.  Why is Congress set up in this way?  There are many possible answers.  First, Congress was modeled on Parliament, which had two chambers–Lords and Commons.  Second, splitting Congress into two parts allowed the Framers to reach a compromise on the issue of representation (one house directly elected and one for states).  Third, dividing Congress was a way of creating an internal check on the legislative branch.

Let’s think about this last reason for a moment.  Why should Congress be internally divided while the Executive Branch and the Supreme Court are not?  Madison’s answer to this (in Federalist #51) was that Congress was the most powerful branch, so an internal check was essential.  Did this mean that as divided Congress was now coequal to the other branches?  Of course not.  A division just made it less likely that Congress would exercise its superior power.  The upshot being that bicameralism is further evidence that the three branches are not coequal.

As Orin pointed out in a comment to my prior post, though, it is far from clear what consequence should follow from the observation that the branches are not coequal.  I hope to elaborate on that in a post next week.  In the meantime, Happy Memorial Day Weekend!


A Presumption in Favor of Congress

I’ve posted twice about the thought that the Constitution does not make the three branches equal.  In fact, the text and the original understanding created Congress as the superior branch.  Only much later (starting with Andrew Jackson) was there a notion that the three branches were co-equal, and this did not become a widely held view until long after ratification.

Well, so what?  The answer is that when courts decide a separation-of-powers questions, there should be a presumption that Congress prevails.  In other words, Justice Jackson’s concurrence in Youngstown is wrong.  When we are in a “zone of twilight” where no legislation speaks to whether a certain power rests with Congress or the President, those claims should not be in equipoise.

Would a presumption in favor of Congress have made a difference in prior separation-of-powers cases?  That I’m less sure about, as I need to work my way through the opinions.


The Dormant Commerce Clause

Today’s opinion in Comptroller v. Wynne produced two dissenting opinions (one from Justice Scalia and one from Justice Thomas) arguing that the Dormant Commerce Clause should be repudiated.  (Justice Scalia makes some allowance for stare decisis in that context, but not much.)

I think there is a lot to be said in favor the view that the Dormant Commerce Clause is a doctrine that rests on weak or poorly-reasoned foundations.  In practical terms, I suppose the question is would Congress adequately police state economic discrimination against other states if the Court stopped doing that?  One can think of cases where a state’s regulations might prompt federal preemption, but most of the time you would think that Congress would dismiss the issue as insubstantial.  Perhaps the power to address this could be delegated to an agency, and the same issues now addressed under the Dormant Commerce Clause would become administrative law matters subject to only “arbitrary and capricious” review in the courts.  That might be a better approach, come to think of it.