Category: Supreme Court


Can There Be An “Undeclared” Canon of Statutory Interpretation?

How do canons of statutory interpretation come into being? What qualifies a court’s method of reasoning in a statutory case as a rule or canon of construction? Last week, I wrote about the Supreme Court’s use of the passive voice as an interpretive guide in two somewhat recent criminal cases. Does this mean that we now have a “passive voice” canon of statutory interpretation, at least in criminal cases?

In a recent article, The Hidden Legacy of Holy Trinity Church:  The Unique National Institution Canon (forthcoming, 51 William & Mary Law Review __ (2009))—in which I argue that the Supreme Court quietly has employed a “unique national institution canon” to give preferential legal treatment to certain special/unique American entities (Christian churches, baseball, railroads, tobacco, Native Americans)—I touch on this question of how different interpretive methodologies become canons or rules of statutory construction.

One position might be that any time the Supreme Court, as the highest court in the land, uses an interpretive methodology, that methodology becomes a rule or canon of statutory construction. This seems to be the view taken by William Eskridge, Philip Frickey, and Elizabeth Garrett in their Legislation casebook, which contains an appendix compiling “The Supreme Court’s Canons of Statutory Interpretation.” More generally, I would suggest that interpretive methodologies rise to the level of canons of statutory construction when they can lay claim to one or more of the following: (1) frequent use by the Supreme Court; (2) longevity, as when the methodology originated in English courts or long has been listed in Sutherland’s definitive treatise on Statutes and Statutory Construction;(3) grounding in some fundamental tenet of the American legal system (e.g., the Constitution); or (4) fostering consistency with longstanding judicial treatment of particular words or subject matters.

The expressio unius maxim, for example, gained its canonical status primarily through longevity—it is a Latin maxim used often by the English courts and is prominent in Sutherland’s—and also has been used frequently by the Supreme Court. The Rule of Lenity similarly derives its authority from its longevity (Justice Scalia has defended the canon on the grounds that it “is almost as old as the common law itself”) and from its basis in the fundamental constitutional due process principle that criminal laws should give fair notice of the behavior that is outlawed.  Interpretive techniques with a shorter historical pedigree, such as the whole act and whole code rules, have achieved canonical status because they promote the consistent treatment of statutory words, phrases, sections, and subject matter.  And one of the newest additions to the statutory interpretation canon, the federalism clear statement rule, earned its stature through frequent Supreme Court use coupled with a grounding in the fundamental constitutional principle of federalism. Read More


The Passive Voice in Statutory Interpretation

Thanks to Dan et al. for the opportunity to guest-blog this month.  For my first guest post, I want to highlight a little-noticed tool of statutory construction that has reared its head in a handful of recent Supreme Court decisions: inferences based on Congress’s use of the passive voice in criminal statutes. I first noticed Supreme Court reliance on the passive voice to construe a criminal statute in Justice Kennedy’s dissenting opinion in Jones v. United States (1999).  Jones involved construction of the federal carjacking statute, 18 U.S.C. §2119, which then read as follows:

“Whoever, possessing a firearm as defined in section 921 of this title, takes a motor vehicle . . . from the person or presence of another by force and violence or by intimidation, or attempts to do so, shall—

(1) be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both,

(2) if serious bodily injury (as defined in section 1365 of this title) results, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 25 years, or both, and

(3) if death results, be fined under this title or imprisoned for any number of years up to life, or both.”

Defendant Jones had participated in a carjacking with two other men.  While Jones and one of the other men held up the victims, a third man had stuck his gun in one of the victims’ ears and later struck that victim on the head.   The issue in the case was whether clauses (1), (2) and (3) of §2119 are sentencing provisions, specifying punishment/sentencing possibilities for the offense set forth in the first paragraph, or whether they are three different offenses (one being a carjacking offense, two being carjacking + serious bodily injury, and three being carjacking + serious bodily injury resulting in death).  The classification mattered because the indictment did not charge any of the facts relating to bodily injury mentioned in clauses (2) or (3) and the jury instructions defined the elements of the government’s burden of proof with reference only to the first paragraph of §2119.  If clauses (2) and (3) were deemed sentencing provisions, this would not matter, and Jones could be sentenced to 25 years based on the serious bodily injury caused to one of the victims; if clause (2) and (3) were read as separate offense provisions containing new elements, then the government’s failure to plead these elements in the indictment and prove them before the jury would preclude it from seeking the 25-year penalty against Jones.

In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court concluded that “the fairest reading of §2119” was to treat the serious bodily harm provision as an element of a separate offense, rather than as a mere sentencing enhancement. Justice Kennedy, joined by three other dissenters, disagreed—relying in part on the fact that the statute “uses the active voice in the main paragraph and the passive voice in clauses (2) and (3).”  While recognizing that the rule was not an absolute one, Justice Kennedy argued that “[i]n the more common practice, criminal statutes use the active voice to define prohibited conduct”— and the passive voice when listing sentencing factors.   This inference based on the statute’s use of the “passive voice” certainly did not do all, or even the bulk, of the work in leading Justice Kennedy (or the other dissenters) to the conclusion that clauses (2) and (3) should be read as sentencing enhancements, but the dissenters did emphasize it to bolster/corroborate their reading of the statute.

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Me, Justice Stevens, and the Dublin Marathon

Here is a sentence I never expected to write. So there I was on Monday in the middle of running the Dublin Marathon when I decided to listen on my Ipod to a C-Span podcast interview with Justice Stevens. I had traveled to Dublin to run the actual Dublin marathon and to co-host Antitrust Marathon IV: Marathon with Authority, a round table discussion co-hosted with the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and the Irish Competition Authority.

Around Mile 11, I was hurting and turned from a combination of Irish rock and random songs to some pod casts. After some short New York Times and NPR pod casts, I remembered that I had downloaded a series of C-Span interviews with the current Justices and Sandra Day O’Connor.

I have a special fondness for Justice Stevens. We are both Chicagoans, Cub Fans, and Northwestern Law grads. More improbably, we even had the same antitrust professor (James Rahl) at Northwestern, albeit about 35 years apart. That plus the fact he was primarily an antitrust litigator before going on the bench was enough to get me to devote the next 30 some minutes, and about 3 miles, to the Stevens interview.

A lot of it was a fluffy discussion of his chambers and personal history. But mixed among the fluff and the questions for non-lawyers (What is certiorari?), there were a handful of interesting tidbits. Justice Stevens talked about the reasons and impact of not participating in the cert pool, the importance of writing his own first drafts, and his interest in having the court hear a few more cases than its current docket. There are no smoking guns or shocking revelations, but Justice Stevens does mention the need for Justices from diverse legal backgrounds, such as veterans and litigators, as an important mix for the Court to have on the bench. Justice Stevens is of course both and as far as I know the only current Justice to actually have made his living as a litigator.

The main thing I came away with was the genuine niceness of the good Justice which was my impression from the only time I ever met him. In 1993, I taught in a summer program in Innsbruck, Austria where Justice Stevens was lecturing. Instead of staying for the three days as promised, he stayed and lectured the entire week and interacted warmly with the students and the rest of the faculty. At one point, a student asked him to sign the packet of course materials which he did after class. Because he did not want to play favorites, he then stayed and patiently signed for more than a hundred students.

In the pod cast interview, Stevens demurred on picking a most important or favorite case. But when asked about a most memorable experience, he didn’t hesitate and proudly mentioned throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game at the age of 85.

With that, I grinned, quickened my pace a bit, and headed up the next of an endless series of hills on my way around Dublin on a surprisingly warm and sunny late October day.

I have not listened to the rest of the interviews. But if anyone else has, please post if there are particularly revealing or interesting moments.


The Yale Law Journal Online: Citizens Not United: The Lack of Stockholder Voluntariness in Corporate Political Speech



The Yale Law Journal Online is pleased to announce the publication of Citizens Not United: The Lack of Stockholder Voluntariness in Corporate Political Speech by Elizabeth Pollman, a Stanford Law Fellow and former practitioner at Latham & Watkins LLP.  Pollman’s piece covers the potential for sweeping changes to corporate political speech law in light of the Supreme Court proceedings in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.


The Civil Procedure, Civil Rights, Class Action Connection to the Chicago Olympic Bid

By this point, everyone probably knows that Chicago finished last among the finalists for the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Truth be told, I am personally glad that Rio got the games, but civic pride had me hoping that we would come in second, rather than last. I certainly knew a few people who really wanted the games for our fair city, but most actual Chicagoans I talked to were neutral to negative about the whole enterprise, but quite fascinated by the possibility of being able to rent out their homes to tourists for exorbitant sums.

A less known aspect of the now failed bid was the connection between the bid and one of the landmark cases taught in most civil procedure, civil procedure, and complex litigation courses. A temporary 80,000 seat stadium was planned for the opening and closing ceremonies and certain track and field events including the finish of the marathon. The stadium was to have been constructed in Washington Park, a south side neighborhood just west of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago campus. The park would have been the site of massive improvements and some sort of smaller permanent facility would have survived the end of the Games.

The residential portion of Washington Park immediately to the south of the actual park was the site of one of the many ugly incidents in the early part of the 20th century as many Chicago neighborhoods sought to maintain segregated communities in the face of the tremendous expansion of the African-American population that came to Chicago seeking work. At one time, the Washington Park neighborhood was all white and subject to a racially restrictive covenant. In the depths of the depression, a white home owner sold to a middle class black family. The family endured harassment beyond description as angry mobs howled outside their home and the family faced daily threats and numerous incidents of vandalism and violence.

On the legal front, there were also attempts to enforce the racially restrictive covenants that were still lawful in the days before the Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kramer. But first, the white land owners had to establish that the covenant was enforceable as a matter of contract law. The covenant was to take effect only when 95% of the owners had executed it. An action in the Illinois courts held that the requisite percentage of owners had signed the covenant. Then certain white home owners sought to enforce the covenant against the new black owner arguing that he was bound by the results of the earlier state court litigation.

By now, you may have figured out that I am describing the landmark case of Hansberry v. Lee. In the United States Supreme Court, Justice Stone wrote on behalf of a unanimous court (three Justice concurring in the result). As my civ pro students can tell you, the case holds that Mr. Hansberry could not be enjoined from purchasing or living in his home as a result of the earlier litigation, since he had been neither a party in the earlier case nor adequately represented by either side in what had amounted to a class action under Illinois law. The case matters today for all manner of principles we explore at length in civil procedure, class action, and mass litigation courses, but it also stands as an important early landmark on the way to the later civil rights rulings of Shelley v. Kramer and eventually Brown v. Board of Education.

To better understand the personal issues at stake for the Hansberrys throughout this ordeal, we have the moving play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, who was a young child when her family moved into their new neighborhood. For a detailed and sensitive history of the underlying facts and the convoluted sets of litigation leading up to Justice Stone’s opinion, we are also fortunate to have Jay Tidmarsh’s chapter on the case in Civil Procedure Stories.

I would like to think that the Olympic Games would have done some good for Washington Park and all the surrounding neighborhoods that Mr. Hansberry and others suffered so greatly to integrate, but as a somewhat cynical Chicagoan I suspect that the burdens would have shared by the public at large and the benefits enjoyed by a privileged few. But if you’re ever in town, I hope you will consider visiting Washington Park and seeing where an important part of legal history took place and where a very different type of sporting history was nearly made this past week. If you get there in the next two weeks, there is even a pretty good circus on the site of where the Olympic Stadium would have been.


Mainstreaming Accountability

Ninth Circuit Judge Milan Smith, who just rejected John Ashcroft’s claim of qualified immunity in Abdullah Al-Kid v. John Ashcroft, wrote that the Bush Administration’s alleged practice of abusing of the material witness statute was “repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.”

Notably, Judge Smith was quoted last year saying the following about the Ninth Circuit:

[Smith] credits this “mainstreaming” [evidenced in a lower reversal rate] of the Circuit to two main factors: the reduction in influence by Carter appointees and the changing dynamic of the confirmation process.

“It’s very rare anymore that you’re [going to] have three Carter judges sitting together [on a panel],” said Smith.

Smith believes the current composition of the Circuit explains the reduction in extreme opinions: “We have 27 active judges and 22 senior judges [on the Circuit] . . . . Of those, Carter appointed 15 in total.”
Of the 15 Carter appointees, two have passed away, one has retired completely from the court, and nine have moved into senior status, a form of semi-retirement whereby a judge vacates his seat and hears a diminished caseload but keeps his full salary. Almost every Carter appointee is now over the age of 70, and Smith stated that it will not be long before the remainder of them “leave this vale of tears.” Only three Carter appointees remain active, including former Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and well-known Judge Stephen Reinhardt. According to Smith, the less critical atmosphere which allowed the appointment of these more strident and ideological judges changed during the Reagan administration.

I wonder how the Carter-holdouts felt about this set of comments when they appeared?  Maybe Judge Smith was misquoted.  But if this article represents his thought, it’s pretty clear that he seems himself as a pragmatic “mainstream” conservative, who wants to be seen as reasoanble and apolitical, making his evident annoyance with the government’s position in the Ashcroft case all that much more remarkable.


Conference: Important Questions of Federal Law—Assessing the Supreme Court’s Case Selection Process

YLJ Online

The Yale Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic and The Yale Law Journal Online, the forthcoming online platform of The Yale Law Journal, will host a half-day conference, “Important Questions of Federal Law”: Assessing the Supreme Court’s Case Selection Process, on September 18, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The conference will consider the nature and causes of changes in the Supreme Court’s docket in recent years, as well as suggestions for reform of the certiorari process. The conference is made possible by the generous support of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund. Practicing attorneys, judges, academics, and students are invited to attend. There is no charge for the conference, but space is limited, so all attendees must pre-register here. Breakfast and refreshments will be provided. If you are unable to attend, podcasts of conference sessions and downloadable papers from the panelists will be made available by Yale Law School’s main website. Select papers will also be published by The Yale Law Journal Online. Information on the conference can also be downloaded by clicking here.  For more information on The Yale Law Journal Online and the conference, please contact YLJ Online Editor Kathleen Claussen here.

Unilateral Disarmament

David Fontana and Micah Schwartzman complain in TNR that President Obama has failed to appoint young judges to federal appeals courts:

The president has so far nominated five judges to federal circuit courts. On average, these nominees are 55 years old, more than a decade older than Sotomayor was when she was nominated to the Second Circuit. (She was 43.) For years, Republicans have been nominating sharp young conservatives to the lower federal courts. Now, rather than looking for young legal talent of its own, a Democratic administration seems to be favoring older nominees. In our view, this is a major mistake.

I think Fontana and Schwartzman are right that older appointees are a mistake for the Democratic party, even though they are probably better for the nation as a whole. (I favor more seasoned judges, particularly as life spans lengthen.)

This is one of many examples where Democrats are trapped in a difficult dilemma by Bush administration practices. If they appoint older judges, they let the circuit courts’ current rightward skew persist longer. But if they retaliate with relative youngsters, we lose the experience and insight that only age can bring to the courts. Same goes for executive appointments: many transparently political appointees of the Bush era have “burrowed in” to permanent positions at agencies, and balance probably requires similar strategies close to the end of the Obama administration — even if long-serving bureaucrats could do a better job in such positions.

Similar dynamics affect government transparency policies. For example, the Brennan Center recently “gave the Obama administration an F for its use of State Secrets” and has criticized it for continuing several Bush era policies of opacity. Here, again, a change would probably be for the better — but we all know that if a terrorist attack occurred, Dick Cheney’s acolytes would be on TV the next day declaring that Obama’s openness helped cause the carnage.

The health reform debate provides a final example. Bush’s plan for Medicare Part D was essentially an unfunded benefit. Rather than take on the tough task of real cost containment, he and the Republican Congress delegated it to fragmented private insurers with little power to make it happen. Conservatives now complain about a dodgy cost curve in Obama’s plans, but denounce virtually every proposed effort for cost containment as “socialized medicine.” Obama’s political fortunes probably rise if he follows the Bush path, but the country will be better off if he and Congress embrace fiscal responsibility.

In light of these examples, I think Fontana and Schwartzman have shed light on a larger phenomenon of the dangers of unilateral disarmament in an increasingly partisan age. If rules of cooperation like the filibuster exist at any less a status than constitutional norm, perhaps the Dems should think deeply about the proper deployment of the “constitutional option” pioneered by those on the other side of the aisle.


In Favor of Wise Latinas

It is time to stop privileging gender and race in Supreme Court nominations. History shows a very clear and disturbing pattern of decisionmaking along gender and racial lines.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the numbers, and you will see an existing, overwhelming pattern of decisionmaking based on race and gender. Here goes: For 180 years, every single person to sit on the Court was a white male. The list of Supreme Court justices between 1789 and 1967 is an unbroken chain of nearly 100 white men.

Since 1967, we’ve seen a total of two women and two Black men on the court. That is, four of the fifteen Justices since 1967 (27%) have been women or Black men, while eleven of the fifteen (73%) have been white men.

Supreme Court history has been one of total domination by white men for 180 years, followed by a period of token representation for other groups, but always a large controlling majority of white men. Not bad for a demographic group which currently makes up only 1/3 of the U.S. population! Read More


Truthseeking and Criminal Procedure in the Supreme Court’s Last Term

Many thanks to Concurring Opinions and Dan Solove for inviting me to guest blog and to Dan for the kind introduction. I look forward to the visit and am excited to be part of C.O.’s talented and diverse group of bloggers.

As the Supreme Court’s term has just ended, I could not help but comment briefly on some of the Court’s pronouncements on criminal procedure. Because of my interest in comparative criminal procedure, I was curious to observe how in several recent opinions (Herring v. United States; Montejo v. Louisiana; Kansas v. Ventris), the Court suggested that “truthseeking” was a central concern of our criminal justice system and may trump individual liberties in certain cases. Specifically, the Court construed the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule more narrowly than before, out of concern that these individual rights and remedies interfere with the goal of truthseeking. For those familiar with the “inquisitorial” systems of continental Europe, the focus on truthseeking would sound familiar. European courts have long emphasized the preeminence of the search for truth in the criminal process. But is the adversarial American criminal justice system moving toward a new understanding of its goals, similar to that prevalent in inquisitorial systems? Are we moving away from our entrenched “anti-inquisitorialism“?

One of the latest decisions of the term suggests that truthseeking does not always win the battle. In D.A.’s Office v. Osborne (a 5 to 4 decision), the Court denied the existence of a due process right to DNA evidence after conviction. In that case, the State of Alaska conceded that there was no reason to doubt that the retesting of the evidence requested by Osborne would conclusively establish his guilt or innocence. If Obsorne were to be proven innocent, the retesting could also help determine the true offender.

The only reason given by Alaska for denying Osborne access to the DNA evidence was that it would interfere with the state’s interest in finality. The Court’s majority agreed and also declared its reluctance to interfere with Alaska’s decision by creating a federal constitutional right to access DNA after conviction. The Court acknowledged that 47 states and the federal government already provide for such access. It was interesting to note that both the majority and the minority made this point in favor of their position-the majority as a reason to defer to local democratic processes which are already addressing the question, and the minority to show that a consensus has emerged that post-conviction DNA access is part of our shared understanding of fundamental fairness.

In the end, for five justices, truthseeking was outweighed by the interest in finality of judgments and deference to states. If the 2008-09 term is any indication, the Court seems inclined to elevate the position of truthseeking relative to individual rights. But the Court is willing to let it take a back seat when it believes that it too severely threatens state prerogatives or the efficiency of the criminal justice system.