Category: Jurisprudence


The Perils of Textualism

I am enjoying Garrett Epps’ new book on Reading the Constitution, and he makes an excellent observation that I am going to use to illustrate the limits of textualism.

A basic proposition of American constitutional law is that there are three branches of government.  The Constitution, though, does not say this.  In fact, the text uses the word “branch” to mean something else.  In Article One, Section Two, eligibility of voting for the House of Representatives is restricted to those who can vote for “the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”  Likewise, the Seventeenth Amendment refers to eligibility for voting in the Senate to “the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.”  These are the only uses of “branch.”

Just reading the text, then, the answer might be that we have two branches in the federal government.  The Senate and the House of Representatives.  Or that we have no branches, because only state governments have them.  Beware literal readings of a document.


The Privy Council

68px-Royal_Arms_of_the_United_Kingdom_(Privy_Council).svgIn spite of my love of all quirky legal things English, until recently I had not focused on the Privy Council.  This ancient body advised the Crown before the modern Cabinet system began, but for lawyers its most interesting role was as the highest court for (some) appeals from British courts and for the colonies of the Empire.  Couple of oddities worth pointing out:

1.  For a time the Privy Council was the highest court for Canada and other former colonies.  The notion of having a foreign body as a Supreme Court raises fascinating jurisprudential questions.

2.  The Privy Council is still the highest court (at least for some cases) from New Zealand.

3.  Privy Council opinions never have dissents (the opposite of the seriatim approach that long prevailed in other royal courts).


The Meaning of Settled Law

In my advanced con law class this semester, one question that we are going to discuss goes like this:  “Is Obamacare settled law?”  The practical answer to that question is no.  That fact, though, runs against a more orthodox or formalist view of the problem.

The Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act in 2012.  Why did that not settle the question?  The answer is the Republican Party takes the position is that the statute should be repealed.  As long as that is true, then you cannot say that the law is settled.  (It may be settled constitutional law, but it is not settled law.)  You can say something similar about contested Supreme Court cases.  Roe v. Wade is not settled law because one of the two parties takes the view that it should be overturned.  It doesn’t matter that Roe is forty years old and has been endorsed by scores of judges and scholars.  Nowadays, law is only settled when both major political parties are on board.

The Republican presidential campaign in 2016 will go a long way towards determining the status of the Affordable Care Act.  One would expect that some of the candidates will call for the Act’s repeal, but some might say something along the lines of “It’s Time to Move On,” or “That’s a Fight We Cannot Win.”  If that latter view prevails, then (and only then) will the Act be settled.


Kozinski Unplugged

Alex_KozinskiWhat makes Alex Kozinski tick? That is the question that many have asked ever since the Romanian-born lad, who once considered himself a Communist, tasted the “forbidden luxuries” of bubble gum and bananas while in Vienna. It was at that pinpoint in time that he became “an instant capitalist.” Fast forward four decades or so and Kozinski, now the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, continues to baffle folks on all sides of the ideological divide. “I disagree with the liberals on the bench half of the time,” he chuckles, “and the conservatives the other half” is how he put it in a 2006 Reason magazine interview.

Ever the maverick, always the wit, and unvaryingly brainy, the trimmed jurist (he’s lost weight) is just as comfortable listening to a rough version of “Gloria” by Jim Morrison and the Doors as he is with taking in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D (recorded by Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

Make no mistake: Alex Kozinski is an acquired taste. Like anchovies, his flavor is bold – a true delight to uninhibited types, a true displeasure to staid types. Dating Game pick, Anthony Kennedy law clerk (while on the Ninth Circuit) and thereafter clerk to Warren Burger, assistant White House Counsel to President Reagan, Special Counsel of the Merit Systems Protection Board, chief judge on the Court of Federal Claims, and now circuit judge, he relishes a lively give-and-take during oral arguments and likewise welcomes the thrill of an exhilarating bungie jump. In other words, he likes to mix it up.

So who is this all-American with an accent who enjoys complex judicial work almost as much as a savory corned-beef sandwich at Attman’s Deli in Baltimore? Who is this man who flies his fanciful flag when others shy away into the quiet of the dark? Some answers to such questions can be found in a recent Reason magazine interview with the Chief Judge. Entitled “Judge Alex Kozinski: From Communist Romania to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” the transcribed and video Las Vegas exchange with Matt Welch is quite revealing. At times serious, at times humorous, and at other times surprising, the interview exemplifies the kind of diverse brand of thinking and speaking that is quintessentially Kozinski.

With the kind permission of the folks at Reason, I am happy to share a few snippets of the recent interview with the Judge, who, by the way, is also my good-hearted friend . . . notwithstanding our sometimes different takes on life, law, and rock-n-roll. With that said, here’s Alex:

On tyranny:  “[O]ne time I [said] something that sounded somewhat critical of the government, and my father almost lost his job over it. . . . There was a newspaper called Free Romania, and I was seven years old. [People in my father’s office asked:] ‘Do you know how to read?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes.’  And they said, ‘Can you read [the paper] here?’ And I said, ‘Well, why is it called Free Romania? All those people are in prison.”

On Communism: While Communism may seem good on paper, it is really “a prescription for oppression. It [is] a prescription to give people power over other people that are not subject to lawful control or lawful checks . . . . [I]t inevitably leads to corruption [and] it inevitably leads to oppression.”

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Slippery Slopes

With the . . . ahem . . . annual avalanche of Supreme Court opinions on the way, I thought I’d raise a question about how slippery slope arguments play out.  The reason advocates make this sort of argument is that they want to convince someone not to do something.  If A leads to B and B is seen as unacceptable, then people will be less likely to do A if they are convinced that there is no line between them.  The problem, of course, is that this tactic can backfire.  It might convince people that there is no distinction between A and B when they thought that there was, and thus make B more likely once A happens.

In practice, how often does the former scenario happen as opposed to the latter one?  I’m not sure that there is a good study on this question, though we can all come up with examples on either side.


Legal Fictions and Constitutional Change–Part Two

A second fiction that is used to manage constitutional change is the “right/remedy disjunction.”  Sure you have a constitutional right, the Court says.  You just don’t have a remedy.  This sounds better than having no right at all, but upon reflection it is not if there will be never be a remedy.

Some leading candidates in this category are Marbury, Worcester v. Georgia, Giles v. Harris, Perry v. United States, and Ex Parte McCardle (sort of).  All of these cases left the right at issue intact but found creative ways to say that there was no remedy.  I’ll go through some more techniques later this week.


Legal Fictions and Constitutional Change

Enough with the anti-partisan principle already!  I hear you.

I was asked a few months ago to write an essay on “constitutional change” for a book about the Constitution.  After scratching my head, I decided that the best way to approach this topic would be to describe various fictions that the Supreme Court uses to make (and conceal) dramatic constitutional change. The next batch of posts will about that subject.

Let’s start with a famous example.  In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion emphasized the importance of education in the Court’s decision.  Over the next four years, other cases were filed challenging state segregation of facilities such as parks, golf courses, drinking fountains, etc.  The Court responded with per curium opinions that invalidated those segregation policies without any explanation except “see Brown.”   The fiction in Brown was that it was just about education.

This is what we might call a “dicta/holding” mismatch.  In other words, the Supreme Court makes the medicine go down easier by understating the breadth of the holding in the breakthrough case and then applying the real holding without explanation.  Step One is easy to understand.  Step Two is necessary to avoid inflaming or antagonizing public opinion (at least that’s the best justification).

More tomorrow.



Stating the Facts in Judicial Opinions

Modern judges are responsible for reciting the facts of cases in their opinions.  But before the 20th century, it was a frequent practice for the facts to be written by someone else, usually a court official (called an auditor or reporter) but sometimes by one of the advocates. [In contracts, see, e.g.,Lawrence v. Fox (NY 1859); Boothe v. Fitzpatrick (Vermont 1864); Cotnam v. Wisdom (Ark. 1907)].

The result sometimes created conflicts between what the judge appeared to assume the facts to be and the way they had been stated.   That may have been a factor that led to abandoning the old-fashioned practice and having judges write their own facts.  Would judges have preferred to avoid writing the facts or favor laying them out for themselves?

I wonder what was the reason for the old-fashioned approach.   What were the other reasons for its displacement by the modern approach?  Has it made a particularly important difference in many cases?   When one sees such ancient opinions in casebooks for first year classes, what should students be told to make of that old practice as a matter of legal method?  Informed insights are eagerly sought.


Bright Ideas: Mark Weiner on his new book Rule of the Clan

Sometimes fortune smiles upon you. I met Mark Weiner when we started law school. My life and my work is much better for it. Mark is a scholar and more. He obtained his B.A. in American Studies from Stanford, his J.D. from Yale, and his PhD in American Studies from Yale.

His most recent project is his excellent book, The Rule of the Clan. Ambassadors, professors from all around the world, members of the 9/11 commission, and publishers have embraced the book. Mark argues, and I think rather well, that the state has a quite important role to play, and we ignore that to our peril. Publishers Weekly has said:

A nuanced view of clan-based societies … Weiner’s argument is a full-throated defense of the modern centralized state, which he sees as necessary to protect human rights: “In the face of well-intended but misguided criticism that the state is inimical to freedom, we must choose whether to maintain the state as our most basic political institution or to let it degrade.” An entertaining mix of anecdote and ethnography.

The New York Journal of Books has called the book “accessible, mesmerizing, and compelling.”

I wanted to get into how Mark came up with the project, why it matters, and, for the writers out there, the process of writing about such a complex subject but in a way that is accessible to a general audience. So I asked Mark whether we could do a Bright Ideas interview. He graciously agreed.

Mark, the book is great. I want to jump in and ask, What do you mean by “clan”?

Thanks, Deven. In my book, I consider clans both in their traditional form, as a subset of tribes, but also as a synecdoche for a pattern by which humans structure their social and legal lives: “the rule of the clan.” Clans are a natural form of social and legal organization. They certainly are more explicable in human terms than the modern liberal state and the liberal rule of law. Because of the natural fact of blood relationships, people tend to organize their communities on the basis of extended kinship in the absence of strong alternatives.

So why clans now?

Two reasons. First, the United States is involved militarily in parts of the world in which traditional tribal and clan relationships are critical, and if we don’t understand how those relationships work, including in legal terms, we have a major problem.

Let me give you an example from Guantanamo. In the book, I tell a story of a college friend who was in charge of the team there interrogating detainees from Saudi Arabia. (I should note that my friend finds torture morally repugnant and against the national interest, as do I, and that she has advocated for this view in meaningful ways.) Over the course of her work, my friend realized that because of the first-name/last-name structure of the detainee tracking system, basic information about detainee tribal affiliations hadn’t been gathered or had been lost. This meant, among other things, that we couldn’t fully appreciate the reason why some of these men had taken up arms against us in the first place—for instance, because the United States had become embroiled in their centuries-long, domestic tribal war with the House of Saud.

Our ignorance about these issues is what I call the contemporary “Fulda Gap.” Our lack of knowledge about more traditional societies hinders our ability to understand the motivations of those who oppose us and leaves us vulnerable—and, even more important, it diminishes our ability to cooperate with our friends and to assist liberal legal reformers abroad in ways that are both effective and ethical.

The second reason to study clans, and ultimately for me even more important than the first reason, has to do with our own political discourse here at home. You could say that I became interested in clans because of widespread ideological attacks against the state within liberal societies—that is, attacks on government. By this I mean not simply efforts to reduce the size of government or to make it more efficient. Instead, I mean broadside criticisms of the state itself, or efforts to starve government and render it anemic.

I think you are saying there is something about clans that helps us organize and understand our world. What is it?

It’s often said that individual freedom exists most powerfully in the absence of government. But I believe that studying the rule of the clan shows us that the reverse is true. Liberal personal freedom is inconceivable without the existence of a robust state dedicated to vindicating the public interest. That’s because the liberal state, at least in theory, treats persons as individuals rather than as members of ineluctable status or clan groups. So studying clans can help us imagine what our social and legal life would become if we allow the state to deteriorate through a lack of political will.

By the way, the idea that the state is somehow inimical to freedom—that we gain individual freedom outside the state, rather than through it—is hardly limited to the United States. It was a core component of Qaddafi’s revolutionary vision of Libya. Or consider Gandhi, who advocated for a largely stateless society for postcolonial India. Fortunately for India, his vision wasn’t realized. Instead, we owe the prospects for further liberal development there to the constitution drafted by B. R. Ambedkar.

Hold on. From Indian independence to Libyan revolution seems a long jump. Can you help me connect the dots?

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The Language of Civic Republicanism

It’s an honor to participate in this online discussion of Jim’s and Linda’s book, Ordered Liberty, which offers a theory of liberal constitutionalism that seeks to mediate tensions between rights, responsibilities, and virtue.  Their work is always engaging, learned, and timely.  I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share some thoughts about it.

There are many provocative concepts worth pushing on, but I thought I might begin by observing that it is possible to read their thoughtful book as requiring the use of civic republicanism as the primary language through which to fight over constitutional rights.  If this is correct, I would begin by asking the question: what work does the language of civic republicanism do in their theory?

Jim and Linda posit that fostering responsibility for oneself and responsibility to others (family and community) characterizes the general project that may be undertaken by the state.  At times, this “formative project” is called “securing the capacities for democratic and personal self-governance.”  So, again, how much lifting does the ideology and rhetoric of republicanism accomplish?

One possibility is that civic republicanism organizes constitutional debate.  It operates as a set of rules of exclusion, putting certain kinds of arguments off limits while including other kinds of arguments if they are properly constructed.  Departing from communitarians and natural law theorists, Jim and Linda believe that moral arguments are permissible in constitutional debate so long as they have been translated into the language of civic republicanism: a speaker doesn’t refer to comprehensive moral doctrines, but instead resorts to some set of liberal values, or virtues.

If civic republicanism merely organizes a conversation, then it may be doing little more than establishing a range of possible outcomes, all of which might be compatible with the goal of inculcating some agreed-upon set of virtues and responsibilities.  The authors’ discussion of home schooling suggests that, after taking the extremes off the table (a right to home school without qualification/ no right to home school), there are any number of possible policy arrangements that might inculcate responsibility and virtue.  Similarly, in discussing BSA v. Dale, Jim and Linda don’t quite come out and say the case was wrongly decided or rightly decided, but are content to suggest ways in which the opinion might have taken autonomy and responsibility better into account.  This hesitation could be treated as evidence that, once extreme solutions are taken off the table and the language of virtue and responsibility is used in some minimally proficient way, their theory is indifferent to which outcome is selected so long as the choice is defended in the right vocabulary.  This vision can, in a slightly different light, resemble a procedural approach to constitutional law.

But it may seem unsatisfying for a constitutional theory not to help us choose among attractive possibilities.  Can we imagine a civic republicanism that does more work, one that more strongly shapes particular outcomes?  In other words, can the framework of virtues and responsibilities aid us in sifting through possibilities and identifying better solutions from among plausible ones?  Perhaps, but in a pluralistic community we would need to know something more about particular responsibilities (to whom), which virtues should be maximized (since in reality many different virtues may be at stake and in tension), and whose virtues should be prioritized (more on this later) before we could assess which outcome would best facilitate a virtue-based agenda.

Perhaps what Jim and Linda offer is something short of a comprehensive theory (the authors seem skeptical of grand theories and perfectionist approaches) but more than a rule-bound approach.  It is a demand that constitutional discourse occur under certain grammar rules, coupled with a handful of meta-principles.  At times, Jim and Linda seem to be arguing that civic republicanism (at least the version favored by the authors that takes both rights and responsibilities seriously) yields substantive meta-norms.  For instance, their critique of Sunstein’s theory of minimalism suggests they favor a strong adjudicative norm of judicial engagement.  They don’t seem to think that judges should avoid controversial cases simply out of a fear of backlash; to the contrary, they believe (as I do) that judges must undertake to articulate rights as part of a duty to ensuring deliberative politics.

The authors praise solutions that neither spell out absolute rights nor deny individual autonomy.  They especially like solutions of “shared sovereignty” grounded in the idea that multiple communities have a claim on individuals (see, for example, their discussion of cases involving the rights of schoolchildren or abortion), and solutions that foster dialogue among different branches of government (see their analysis of the gay marriage rulings).  All of these strategies of decisionmaking may encourage deliberation, though in ways that individuals might occasionally fear, precisely because they challenge one’s worldview.  What I am less certain of is what civic virtues are being maximized through shared sovereignty solutions.  Is it an ideal mindset associated with citizenship?—for instance, Jim and Linda sometimes speak of “reflective” judgment.  Perhaps the best legal decisions foster certain habits of citizenship, e.g., considering a viewpoint different from one’s own, consulting all communities with a stake in the outcome?  Or are shared sovereignty solutions preferred on the view that multiple decisionmakers might increase the chances of better, more informed decisions, or at least culturally supported ones?

So, the upshot is this: how thick or thin, and how substantive or procedural in nature is the language of rights, virtues, and responsibility?