Category: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is Open for Business

Doug Kendall argues that a lot of recent big Supreme Court cases share only an ideological, and not a legal, consistency:

It is extremely hard to reconcile what the court has done in cause-of-action cases like Stoneridge with its approach to pre-emption cases like Rowe, Riegel, and Preston. In the cause-of-action cases, the court says Congress must unmistakably express its intention to allow people to go to court to enforce federal mandates. If Congress isn’t crystal-clear, potential plaintiffs are out of luck. But in the pre-emption cases, the court seems untroubled by a lack of clarity on Congress’ part, ruling that federal law pushes aside state actions or remedies when it’s not at all certain that’s what Congress so intended. There’s one thing these approaches do have in common: They both favor business interests.

Is the Supreme Court using law as a means to an end? As always, comments are open for a less skeptical interpretation. The politics of Supreme Court nominations over the past few years remind me of David Kuo’s book Tempting Faith, which argued that while cultural issues may be on the surface, the biggest political initiatives in the executive branch have been economic. Perhaps the same could be said of the judicial branch.


The Department of Justice’s Override of the Alabama Supreme Court

Can officials in the Department of Justice charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act require a state to comply with a local ordinance that the state’s highest court has held violates the state constitution? There is an interesting case rife with federalism issues scheduled for argument before the Supreme Court later this month that raises this question. The case, Riley v. Kennedy, is somewhat complicated, so at the risk of oversimplifying somewhat, I am going to give a very pared-down version of the facts. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I participated in a moot argument for the appellant.

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Opening the Floodgates of Litigation and Civil Rights Litigation

Floodgate_clamshell.JPGFor employee benefits law geeks like myself, the decision in LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg, and Assocs. was a watershed moment for a Supreme Court that had been reluctant to grant private rights of action to employee participants under ERISA. Although advocates for employees have celebrated the arrival of 401(k) breach of fiduciary claims, there have been many more commentaries around the internet about how LaRue will likely “open the floodgates of litigation” and overwhelm federal courts with frivolous ERISA class actions. Some examples:

Employers with defined contribution plans will likely face increased fiduciary liability exposures after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that plan participants can sue to recover individual account losses as a result of a fiduciary breach, attorneys say. – Business Insurance Magazine, Feb. 25, 2008

“It will open the door to a lot more litigation. I don’t think it will be an avalanche, but plan sponsors are definitely looking at death by a thousand cuts,” said Stephen Rosenberg, an attorney with The McCormack Firm in Boston, who blogs on ERISA issues. – Lawyers USA, March 10, 2008

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Missouri v. Holland, in Missouri

I spent the end of last week at the University if Missouri-Columbia, attending a great conference organized by Peggy McGuinness, on the (in)famous case of Missouri v. Holland. There, of course, Justice Holmes wrote for the Supreme Court, holding that Congress could enact legislation otherwise beyond its constitutional authority, in furtherance of a duly-enacted treaty obligation.

With a great line-up of panelists and a fascinating set of underlying issues to explore, we had what I thought was a fantastic day-and-a-half of discussion. In particular, and perhaps appropriately, we spent a substantial amount of time assessing the continuing significance of the decision, given the dramatic expansion of Commerce Clause authority since it was handed down in 1920. There is, of course, the “loaded-gun” notion that the very availability of the expansive authority invited by the decision constitutes a substantial threat. Likewise, one might question whether the Court’s decisions in Lopez and Morrison augur a potential revival of Missouri v. Holland as constitutional doctrine.

From my perspective, though, the most fascinating element of our discussions concerned the ways in which Missouri v. Holland might be significant, regardless of its jurisprudential force. I was struck, for example, by one participant’s recollection of an occasion on which U.S. treaty negotiators’ attempts to assert constitutionally grounded federalism constraints as a basis to resist a proposal by their foreign interlocutors were parried with invocations of Missouri v. Holland.

More broadly, I was interested to think about what continuing significance the decision has, for how we conceptualize the relationship of international, national, and state law. In the scheme of jurisdictional interaction exemplified by Missouri v. Holland, international law functions as a kind of trump card – an Ace available to the federal government to coerce state authorities. If Missouri no longer captures the political economy of U.S. federal-state relations, however, as I argue in my submission to the symposium, we might do well to reconsider that traditional conception of international law as a threat to state authority, and federalism more broadly.


Maps of the State Amici in D.C. v. Heller (plus: The State Amici and the 2004 Election)

Today thirty-one states, led by Texas, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the respondent in the historic Second Amendment case of D.C. v. Heller. I’m pleased to say that my own state’s attorney general, Oklahoma AG Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, is among the signatories.

The Thirty-One States’ brief suggests that D.C.’s full-blown bans on constitutionally protected arms should receive strict scrutiny. 31 States Br. at 31-32. Rejecting the U.S. Solicitor General’s call for a remand, the 31 States say that the D.C. Circuit’s judgment should be affirmed in full. Id. at 36. In another passage of great interest, these States also expressly support the incorporation of the Second Amendment against the States. Id. at 23 n.6 (“the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental and so is properly subject to incorporation”).

For its part, the District of Columbia attracted a group of five states as amici (three of which have no state constitutional right to arms), as well as Puerto Rico.

That leaves fourteen states that have chosen not to participate in Heller as amici on either side.

I’ll say more in another post about the 31 States’ brief, as well as the pro-Heller amicus brief filed on Friday by an absolute majority of each House of Congress and Vice President Cheney in his capacity as President of the Senate. For now, I just wanted to post these maps of the geographical distribution of the three groups of states in Heller. I hope those intrigued with American federalism and regionalism, as I am, will enjoy the food for thought.

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The Three Steps in D.C. v. Heller

It’s a pleasure to be back at Concurring Opinions. I much enjoyed guest blogging here last summer, and the management has been kind enough to invite me back for a few months to cover firearms law issues during the pendency of District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark Supreme Court case on the Second Amendment right to arms. I’ll cover the briefing, the oral argument on March 18, and the decision, which will probably be issued at the end of the term in June. I also hope to discuss some other firearms law topics such as ConocoPhillips v. Henry, a legal challenge to an Oklahoma law giving employees the right to store their self-defense guns in their locked cars while at work.

On to Heller. I commented on the certiorari briefing during my stint last fall with the fine folks at PrawfsBlawg. This post discusses the merits brief filed by D.C. as petitioner. We’re waiting for Mr. Heller’s merits brief next week, and then his crowd of amici in the week to follow.

The general character of the District’s merits brief is what you’d expect of a lead brief in a Supreme Court case of this magnitude — polished, efficiently written, and in many respects reflective of skilled and thoughtful advocacy. What I want to do here is consider the litigating stance of the District in light of the “pressure points” in Heller — the key moves that each side is asking the Supreme Court to make.

Here’s the question presented in Heller, which the Justices themselves drafted as part of the certiorari grant [bracketed text mine]:

Whether the following provisions — D.C. Code §§ 7.2502.02(a)(4) [banning handguns], 22-4504(a) [banning gun carrying, including at home], and 7.2507.02 [requiring all guns to be both unloaded and locked or disassembled] — violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes?

The question suggests that the Court has its eye on the right issues. It breaks down naturally into three interpretive steps:

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The Future of Sensory Jurisprudence

eye.jpg[This post continues the debate about Whose Eyes are You Going To Believe, the draft paper Dan Kahan, Don Braman and I have recently begun to circulate. For previous installments, see posts on Balkin, CoOp, Volokh (Kerr), and CoOp (our reply).]

As I hope we’ve made clear, our ultimate claim is not (cf. Kerr) that “Justice Scalia was privileging a conservative white male view” of Scott, but that judges need to be generally mindful of the possibility that their views of facts, and factual dissensus, are as culturally contingent as the public more generally. Thus, we argue for rhetorical humbleness, and for deciding cases on grounds other than a holding that no reasonable juror could see the facts in a certain way. It’s a modest response to the large problem of cognitive illiberalism in legal decision making.

In this post, I’m going to make a bigger claim, one which isn’t so much based on the paper or my co-authors’ views, but is instead just the kind of irresponsible extension of the data that blogging encourages. In short: it’s my view that Scott is a harbinger of a whole mess of cases on the near horizon: a sensory jurisprudence enabled by a total surveillance society.

Total surveillance as a concept is one well-explored by other authors on this blog. But even in Dan Solove’s well-known post – and subsequent highly downloaded article – about the “I’ve nothing to hide” problem, the doctrinal consequences of total surveillance were virtually ignored. And by doctrinal, I do not mean the privacy law consequences: I mean the likelihood that as surveillance becomes omnipresent in most public and some private places, judges will use surveillance evidence [“SE”] in an increasing number of cases to resolve factual disputes.

This use of SE would seem to promise more accurate, efficient, and ex-post legitimate litigation outcomes. The theory would go that most litigation is driven by a dispute about the facts: SE should dispositively resolve such disputes, promoting settlement and (at worst) streamlining trials. Best of all, opinions enlisting SE would be more likely to be persuasive. Thus, if Judge Cardozo, ruling on the relative fault of the parties in, say Palsgraf, could have just embedded a video of the events instead of describing it in his beautiful but inscrutable prose, perhaps readers/viewers would have more likely to agree with him. Or in a sexual harassment case, if the workplace was totally taped, evidence of a hostile work environment would be both clearer and harder to refute. And in the case of coerced interrogations, a judge could simply embed a video, instead of describing it, and say: “look, it’s obvious!”

The connection between SE and surveillance is (ironically) made stark in a video … but to see it, you’ll need to read past the jump.

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The Future of Federal Courts

In an earlier post, I offered some modest praise of the AALS annual meeting, as a potential venue for legal scholars to explore topics of interest beyond their core research areas. In between my efforts to actualize that theory at the recent annual meeting, though, I also attended several sessions of quite direct interest.

Among the latter, one of my favorites was a panel organized by the Section on Federal Courts, on The Federal Courts and the International System. Besides Ernie Young, who served as moderator, the panel included A.J. Bellia, Curt Bradley, Henry Monaghan, and Trevor Morrison, as well as Sarah Cleveland, who was invited to speak for the “international law” crowd. (As Sarah pointed out, Curt is also an international law scholar, if not the designated internationalist that day.)

Much of the discussion focused on the many intersections of international law and federal jurisdiction in recent years, including the succession of enemy combatant/military commission cases, the Supreme Court’s OT 2005 decision in Sanchez-Llamas v. Oregon, and its impending decision in the fascinating case of Medellin v. Texas – a complex intertwining of international and federal courts law that only a law professor could dream up, and even then, only as an exam question. Naturally, the nature of customary international law as federal or state law was discussed as well, if only for a bit.

At Ernie’s prompting, though, the panelists also took up – in sometimes heated discussion – the necessary and appropriate content of the standard Federal Courts course, given the self-evident “internationalization” of the federal courts. To what extent, the panel explored, do international law, international courts, and international questions belong in the Federal Courts canon? Naturally, the Hart and Wechsler casebook – arguably the keeper of that canon – was a focal point for much of this discussion.

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How Should Courts Handle Cultural Dissensus on Summary Judgment?

That’s the deep question unanswered by last year’s Supreme Court decision, Scott v. Harris. As Dan Kahan announced here on Balkin, he, current guest-blogger Don Braman, and I have written a paper testing the majority’s view that no reasonable jury could or would find for the plaintiff after watching this videotape. The experiment we conducted was simple and intuitive: we showed the video to a 1,350 member subject pool and asked them about it. Our first circulating draft, Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe? An Empirical (and Normative) Assessment of Scott v. Harris, can be downloaded here.

Overall, we found substantial support for the Court’s position: most members of the subject pool agreed with the majority about the risks posed by the police chase, the relative fault of the parties, and the ultimate questions of justification. But does majority support mean SJ is correct? Our thought was that that question can’t be meaningfully answered without some understanding of the characteristics of the minority of people who would disagree with the court. We wanted to identify who those people were and figure out whether there was any explanation that might explain their differing view of the tape besides that they are unreasonable. In particular, we wanted to test the hypothesis, grounded in cultural cognition theory, that the dissenters would not be random statistical outliers but persons disposed by shared cultural values and other characteristics to process visual information in the tape different from how the majority did.

ronOur results showed exactly that. Dissenters to the Court’s view of the facts and the appropriateness of summary judgment were linked by shared cultural styles that features a commitment to egalitarianism and communitarianism. By the same token, subjects who were strongly inclined to see things the Court’s way were linked by commitments to hierarchy and individualism.

Drawing on Joseph Gusfield’s work on “status collectivities,” we imagined four potential members of the venire: Pat, Ron, Linda, and Bernie. You can see their pictures to the left. Ron is a rich Goldwater republican from Arizona. Bernie is a socialist professor from Vermont with average income. Linda a social worker from Philadelphia, whose income is also at the mean. And Pat is the average American in every respect.

Using statistical simulations, we found that these individuals would have very different reactions to the video, based on their distinct forms of culturally motivated cognition of the risks involved. Take, for example, subjects’ reaction to the statement “[t]he danger that Harris’s driving posed to the police and the public justified Officer Scott’s decision to end the chase in a way that put Harris’s own life in danger.” The graphic below illustrates how Ron, Linda, Bernie and Pat will respond.

New Picture.jpg

At least three-fifths (64%, +/- 4%) of the persons who share Linda’s characteristics “disagree”—about one-half either strongly or moderately—with the statement and thus the result in Scott. Those who hold Bernie’s characteristics see things in nearly exactly the same way as those holding Linda’s. Pat does agree with the Scott majority, although not without a bit of equivocation. There is a 60% (+/- 3%) chance that a person drawn randomly from the population would either moderately or strongly agree that the police were justified in using deadly force. There is, however, a 16% (+/- 3%) chance that he/she would be only “slightly” inclined to agree, and over a 20% chance that he/she would conclude upon watching the tape that use of deadly force was unreasonable. Finally, over 80% of the individuals who share Ron’s characteristics would find that the police acted reasonably.

What does dissensus of this character mean for how courts should resolve summary judgment motions in cases like, and unlike Scott? When minorities of the venire would process visual information in particular way, but that minority sees things the way they do because they are linked by values?

I’ll explore these questions in subsequent posts (as will, I think, Don.)

Previous Posts:

Hoffman, The Death of Fact-finding and the Birth of Truth

Crocker, Do Texts Speak for Themselves?

Kerr, What Are the Facts in Scott v. Harris?


Trust Law Meets Statutory Interpretation

For my final guest post, I want to talk about a case argued before the Supreme Court on Monday (November 26): LaRue v. DeWolff, Boberg, & Assoc. The case involves the appropriate interpretation of ERISA provisions governing individual pension plan participants’ right to sue the fiduciaries who administer their plans. While the subject might bore the average lawyer, as one who teaches courses both on statutory interpretation and on trusts, I find it intriguing. So, here goes: LaRue is a participant in an ERISA-covered Section 401(k) pension plan that is sponsored by his employer, DeWolff. DeWolff administers the plan and so qualifies as an ERISA fiduciary. Under the plan, participants may choose among several investment options and may direct DeWolff, as plan administrator, to invest the amounts allocated to their individual accounts in specified percentages. LaRue claims that DeWolff breached its fiduciary duties to him by failing to follow his investment allocation instructions, resulting in a loss of approximately $150,000.

Enter ERISA Sections 502(a)(2) & (a)(3), 29 U.S.C. 1132(a)(2) & (a)(3), under which LaRue seeks to have the plan reimbursed for that alleged $150,000 loss (after which the plan would allocate the funds to his individual account). ERISA Section 502(a)(2) authorizes a participant and others to sue a fiduciary (like DeWolff) to recover “losses to the plan” resulting from a breach of fiduciary duty. Section 502(a)(3) is a catch-all provision that authorizes a plan participant and others to sue for, among other things, “appropriate equitable relief . . . to redress” “any act or practice which violates” ERISA.

The issues thus become: (1) Does Section (a)(2) authorize a plan participant to sue for recovery that would inure to his individual account rather than to the benefit of the plan as a whole?; and (2) Does LaRue’s claim to recover the alleged $150,000 loss constitute a claim for equitable relief (as opposed to a legal claim for compensatory damages), as required under (a)(3)?

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