Category: Supreme Court


“Machine Guns” That Aren’t: Did the D.C. Code Mislead Justice Breyer?

Magritte.jpgAn emergent theme of October Term 2007 seems to be avoidable mistakes in high-profile Supreme Court opinions. We’ve been surprised by the failure of Court and litigants in Kennedy v. Louisiana to notice the federal military death penalty for child rape, and by Justices Stevens and Scalia’s mischaracterization, in D.C. v. Heller, of the Court’s 1939 Second Amendment precedent, U.S. v. Miller, as “upholding a conviction” for violating a federal firearms law. See 2008 WL 2520816, *26 (opinion of the Court), * 34 (Stevens, J., dissenting). Actually, Miller won in the lower court and was never convicted.

I think I’ve found another mistake, this time in Justice Breyer’s Heller dissent. This one is subtler than the Kennedy error, but it significantly damages the persuasiveness of the Breyer dissent.

Justice Breyer joined Justice Stevens’s dissenting opinion in Heller, which concluded flatly that the Second Amendment “protects only a right to possess and use firearms in connection with service in a state-organized militia,” 2008 WL 2520816, *37 (Stevens, J., dissenting). However, Breyer also authored a separate dissenting opinion that mounts an alternative argument for the constitutionality of the D.C. handgun ban.

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Legal Times Panel on ’07-’08 Term

I am in DC visiting family, and so I decided to attend the Legal Times’ panel “Sizing Up the 2007-2008 Supreme Court Term,” which was held this afternoon at Georgetown Law Center. It was an interesting panel. Tony Mauro moderated, and the speakers included Ted Cruz (who until recently was the solicitor general of Texas and now is at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius), Walter Dellinger (O’Melveny & Duke Law School), Pattie Millett (who recently left the US Solicitor General’s Office to join Tom Goldstein at Akin Gump’s Supreme Court practice), and Malcolm Stewart (a veteran assistant in the US Solicitor General’s Office whose oral argument recordings I’ve used to teach my students about appellate advocacy).

There were several great moments at the panel, including Stewart’s description of “the Two Courts.” The better-known Supreme Court issues 3 or 4 controversial decisions every term, often by a 5-4 margin, and its actions are reported closely by the NY Times and the Washington Post. The other Supreme Court decides more technical questions, such as the interpretation of statutes and federal rules, and its opinions remain largely unknown to the general public though they are in many ways the more important cases for the legal profession. Columnist James J. Kilpatrick once expressed this same concept in the following way —“For every Roe vs. Wade, there are dozens of cases like Unitherm Food Systems Inc. vs. Swift-Eckrich Inc.”

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More Coverage on Factual Error in Child Rape Decision

There has been some interesting fall-out from the NY Times article I blogged about yesterday. DOJ has admitted that it erred in failing to file a brief in support of the Kentucky statute that proscribed the death penalty for child rape, and it has indicated that it may support a petition from the state of Louisiana to rehear the case. More coverage and commentary can be found in the New York Times, as well as at the Volokh Conspiracy and at Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy.


The NYT on the UCMJ


In today’s New York Times, Linda Greenhouse points out what appears to be a factual error in the Kennedy v. Louisiana majority opinion. Justice Kennedy’s majority said that 30 of the 36 states with the death penalty and the federal government do not proscribe the death penalty for child rape. But the Uniform Code of Military Justice was revised by Congress in 2006 to add child rape to the military death penalty. Greenhouse notes that this provision of military law escaped the attention not only of the members of the Court, but also the attention of the ten parties who filed briefs in the case.

In addition to questioning why no one in the federal government brought the UCMJ provision to the attention of the Court, Greenhouse explores how the parties’ research failed to uncover the provision. Jeff Fisher’s explanation of how his appellate team found an older provision but not this more modern one reads like an ad for Shepards. And lawyers for the state of Louisiana, the party that would have been helped by the information, are obviously ducking the Times’ calls.

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Meet Your Second Amendment: D.C. v. Heller Decided (Updated)


It’s a momentous day. With the Supreme Court’s landmark Second Amendment decision this morning in District of Columbia v. Heller, American constitutional law has just gained a newly enforceable, individual liberty. The imposition by the U.S. government of a U.K.-style system of sweeping gun bans and prohibitions on armed self-defense is now off the table. Such laws are a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

In this post, I want to look back at the issues I discussed in my earlier CoOp post, “What to Watch for in D.C. v. Heller,” and offer some brief thoughts about how they featured in Justice Scalia‘s opinion for the Court. Before I begin, let me recommend Larry Solum’s typically thoughtful analysis of many of the interpretive techniques employed in the Heller opinion.


1. Recognition of an Individual Right to Arms: You bet. The right is recognized as squarely individual; the “militia” referred to in the preface was and is a popular militia. The Court rejects any requirement of participation in the National Guard or another organized militia.

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So Let’s Say Justice Scalia Writes D.C. v. Heller …

Antonin_Scalia,_SCOTUS_photo_portrait.jpg.jpgTomorrow may be the big day. (Or we might have to wait again. At least I’m improving my calcium intake.) Court-watchers have noticed that, with the issuance of yesterday’s opinion by Justice Souter in the right-to-counsel case of Rothgery v. Gillespie County, the only case left from the Supreme Court’s March sitting is D.C. v. Heller, and the only Justice who hasn’t written any majority opinions from that sitting is … Justice Antonin Scalia. Tom Goldstein thinks it’s “exceptionally likely” that Scalia was assigned to write the Court’s lead opinion in the most important Second Amendment case in American history.

What could that mean for the decision in Heller? As I’ll explain, I think a Scalia-authored opinion would be great news for those who are mainly concerned with the Second Amendment as a limit on federal gun control, but somewhat ambiguous news — at least in the short term — for those who hope for the incorporation of the Second Amendment as a check on state and municipal governments.

In the Heller oral argument, Justice Scalia was the clearest voice in favor of the broad individual rights view of the Second Amendment — what pro-rights scholars often call the “Standard Model.” He emphatically rejected the various “collective rights” theories of the Second Amendment, under which it protects only a prerogative of state governments rather than a right of individuals. Justice Scalia also brought up Blackstone’s emphasis on the right to arms as a necessary adjunct of the right of self-defense, and suggested that D.C.’s high crime rates, far from supporting gun prohibition, were instead “[a]ll the more reason to allow a homeowner to have a handgun.” Scalia suggested that under U.S. v. Miller, individuals have a Second Amendment right to keep and use a broad class of firearms in “common use” at this time — though not arms that are “uncommon” for private citizens, such as machine guns.

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What to Watch For in D.C. v. Heller

lookout2.jpgThe Supreme Court’s next scheduled opinion day, Monday, June 16, could yield a decision in the landmark Second Amendment case of D.C. v. Heller. My guess is that we’ll see Heller on or after June 23, at the very end of the Term. I guess that simply because Heller is the biggest case of the year, it raises wide-open constitutional issues, and it was argued late in the Term, in mid-March.

Either way, here are key points to look for when the opinions arrive. As you’ll see, many of them only come into play if a majority of the Court interprets the Second Amendment as securing an individual constitutional right to arms. Since I think this is the more likely (but by no means guaranteed!) outcome, I’ll run with that assumption in much of what follows.

1. Recognition of an Individual Right to Arms? The threshold issue. Will the Court recognize a genuinely individual right to arms, i.e., one that is not contingent upon participation in a state-regulated military organization? Like most observers, I interpreted the oral argument as revealing that there were between five and seven votes among the Justices for a genuine individual right.

2. What Purposes Does the Right Protect? Privately owned firearms can potentially serve a variety of legitimate purposes. Some of these are civic purposes: deterring tyranny; protecting against invasion or internal disorder; promoting military readiness through individual practice with firearms. Others are private, personal purposes: self-defense against criminal violence; hunting; participating in the shooting sports. Assuming that the Court recognizes an individual Second Amendment right to arms, will it interpret that right in a way that stresses protection for the private purposes of citizen arms — as urged by the provocative amicus brief of Professor Nelson Lund? Or will it emphasize the civic purposes of citizen arms — as it seemed to do in the 1939 Miller decision? Or will it (correctly, in my view) embrace both kinds of purposes, as do many state constitutional decisions? The answer to this question will greatly influence the success of future Second Amendment challenges to restrictive gun legislation. …

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Confusion in United States v. Santos

The Supreme Court this past Monday handed down its decision in United States v. Santos, a case that turns on whether the phrase “proceeds of some form of unlawful activity” in the federal money-laundering statute, 18 U.S.C. §1956(a)(1), means “profits” (net income) from the unlawful activity or simply any “receipts” (payments) from the unlawful activity. (The unlawful activity at issue in the case was illegal gambling). In a closely divided ruling, the Court opted for the “profits” construction. But discerning the precedential effect of the Court’s ruling is a little like trying to make sense of Alice in Wonderland. The Justice’s opinions in the case are of the by-now-familiar fractured variety: Justice Scalia authored the plurality opinion, joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Thomas — except for Part IV, in which Justice Thomas did not join; Justice Stevens concurred in the outcome reached by the plurality, but not in its reasoning; Justice Alito authored a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Breyer; and Justice Breyer issued a separate dissent joined by no one else.

Significantly, Part IV of the plurality opinion, which Justice Thomas refused to join, focuses entirely on the plurality’s differences with Justice Stevens and ends by seeking to characterize “the stare decisis effect of Justice Stevens’ opinion” — given that his vote is necessary to the outcome of the case. Justice Stevens’ opinion parts company with the plurality because Stevens refuses to construe the word “proceeds” in the federal money laundering statute always to mean “profits” from the underlying predicate crime. Rather, he argues that “proceeds” can mean either “profits” or “receipts,” depending on the unlawful activity at issue. Characteristically for Justice Stevens, the determinative factor is Congress’ intent regarding the particular unlawful activity at issue. In the case of illegal gambling, however, Justice Stevens is unable to discover any specific legislative intent about whether “proceeds” was meant to cover merely “profits” or also “receipts.” So, faced with (1) “a lack of legislative history speaking to the definition of ‘proceeds’ when operating a gambling business is the ‘specified unlawful activity’” and (2) his “conviction” that “Congress could not have intended” the four-fold sentence enhancement (from 5 to 20 years) that would result from treating the use of gambling receipts to pay the expenses of operating an illegal gambling business as a separate offense (money laundering) from the operation of the gambling business itself (underlying offense), Justice Stevens agrees with the plurality that the Rule of Lenity should tip the scales in favor of interpreting “proceeds” to mean “profits” in this case. Got that?

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Cross-Examining Film

Thanks for having me here at Concurring Opinions. I haven’t blogged for some time – reminding myself there is life outside of the Web – but for the next month I am excited to reengage my blogging-self and hopefully some readers of this blog.

One of my summer projects is to think about how to turn some of my more theoretical writing on law and film into a practical “how to” piece on lawyering in the courtroom with filmic evidence. To that end, I have been watching lots of police films (a subset of what I have called “evidence verite”). These films can be found without much effort on YouTube or VideoSpider. Anyone else out there know of good sites storing this kind of film footage, I would love to hear about it. I found one piece of footage that is the subject of a recent court case – Jones v. City of Cincinnati, 521 F.3d 555 (6th Cir. 2008) – which can be found here. This film, of the police using a tremendous amount of force to subdue Nathanial Jones (who subsequently died), is an excellent example of how the film frame (what is seen and what is not seen due to the limits of the camera’s size and angle) can affect the viewer’s response to the images. When watching this film, we must imagine the blows delivered and the pain received because both are off-camera. How we imagine them might depend on our experience with police brutality more generally. (We do hear the police and the criminal suspect protesting loudly.) Do we imagine Hollywood violence (which way does that cut for the defendant here)? Do we have any experience seeing this kind of violence first or second hand so that it is hard to imagine anything but the worst? The boundaries of imagination are hard to predict and therefore a formidable opponent in a court of law. Imagination is obviously not evidence in a court of law, although it likely wields mighty influence nonetheless. A former student suggested to me that not seeing the blows Nathanial Jones suffered makes us more callous to the pain he received. I tend to think that is the case.

The Sixth Circuit in Jones v. City of Cincinnati affirmed the district court’s refusal to dismiss the case on defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion and said this in relation to the film: “Where the evidence ‘captures only part of the incident and would provide a distorted view of the events at issue,’ as the district court concluded with respect to the videotape, we do not require a court to consider that evidence on a 12(b)(6) motion.” Id. at 561. To this, I would say “no kidding,” but we will have to wait and see what the trial court does on a Rule 56 motion. Given the Supreme Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris, I remain skeptical that a court can resist the myth of film’s obviousness and objectivity.

For those who need a refresher, Scott v. Harris was the 2007 Supreme Court case concerning a high speed police chase that resulted in the police ramming the suspect’s car causing him to become a quadriplegic. A police camera on the cruiser recorded the chase from the point of view of the police car, and the Supreme Court said that the trial court should have considered the facts in that case “in the light depicted by the videotape” despite contradictory testimony. For an excellent analysis of the flaws of that case, see Howard Wasserman’s short piece here . For an even shorter analysis, see my Op-Ed here . For a longer more empirical analysis of the video in the case, see Kahan et al. here.

How do courts and lawyers deal with filmic evidence in light of film’s inevitably partial nature? That is what my new piece is working through with some practical tips on cross-examining film in a courtroom. The piece should be up on-line soon. For those who want a preview, feel free to email me.


The “Mischief Rule” Rule and the VRA in Riley v. Kennedy

Election law experts have been quick to speculate about what the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. Kennedy, handed down this past Tuesday, means for the future of Section 5 (the preclearance provision) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Rick Pildes argues that the decision reflects a trend, which began in the 1990s, of “greater skepticism from the Court” “regarding the boundaries of the special coverage regime under Section 5 of the Act.” Rick Hasen worries that the decision bodes ill for the Court’s upcoming review of the constitutionality of the recently-renewed Section 5 in the NAMUDNO case. But what is most interesting to me, as a matter both of statutory interpretation and of election law, is Part IV of Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion, which employs a classic Hart & Sacks Legal Process approach —the “Mischief Rule”— to argue that Section 5 preclearance should be required in a case such as this.

Before delving into this most interesting argument by Justice Stevens, a little background: VRA §5, of course, subjects certain “covered jurisdictions” (which earned that designation through a history of suppressing minority voting rights) to a presumption of bad faith behavior in election administration. It operates by freezing in place the election administration procedures in such covered jurisdictions, and requiring that such jurisdictions obtain “preclearance” from either the Justice Department (DOJ) or the District Court for the District of Columbia before they may make any changes to voting/election procedure. The typical preclearance lawsuit thus tends to involve a proposal by a state entity to implement some new change to election procedure in a covered jurisdiction, and a challenge by a minority group arguing that the proposed change will have the effect of disenfranchising minority voters. Riley turns that classic procedural posture on its head: In 1985, Alabama passed a law adopting a new election practice (changing the procedure for filling midterm vacancies on the Mobile County Commission from gubernatorial appointment to special election), obtained the preclearance required by Section 5, and held an election (in 1987). Soon thereafter, the Alabama Supreme Court invalidated the law under which the election took place on the ground that it violated the Alabama Constitution. When the next midterm vacancy arose (in 2005), the governor sought to fill it by appointment, prompting litigation. The question presented before the Supreme Court = Whether Alabama must obtain fresh preclearance in order to reinstate the election practice —i.e., gubernatorial appointment— that was in place before the special election procedure, ultimately struck down by the Alabama Supreme Court, was enacted? Does reinstatement of the gubernatorial appointment procedure constitute a change/abandonment of the special election procedure used in 1987, and thus require Section 5 preclearance?

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