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“Alabama’s Dangerous Defiance”: A Disturbing Line Of Thinking In The History Of American Federalism

On Tuesday the Supreme Court of Alabama prohibited the state’s probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This decision effectively throws down the gauntlet, challenging the federal courts to make earlier federal rulings stick — including last month’s refusal by the United States Supreme Court to stay a federal judge’s decision requiring the state to recognize same-sex marriages. It draws on a disturbing line of thinking in the history of American federalism, one that, were it to gain currency as a model, could compromise our entire system of law.

The court’s position is that under the Constitution, it does not have to follow the rulings of lower federal courts; in its ruling, it promises to “defer only to the holdings of the United States Supreme Court.” (That said, Chief Justice Roy Moore’s public statements have been more equivocal; he told a radio host in Birmingham, Ala., “It would be a very hard decision, because I know there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that authorizes the Supreme Court of the United States or any federal court anywhere to misinterpret the word marriage.”)

Such extreme states’ rights positions first appeared during an epic battle between the great chief justice John Marshall and Spencer Roane, a member of the Virginia Court of Appeals. The two were bitter political and ideological enemies in the early years of the republic, and Roane had long railed against the authority of the federal Supreme Court over state courts. He repeatedly declined to implement federal decisions with which he disagreed, and refused to recognize the authority of federal courts to review state court rulings. In the end, however, Marshall prevailed.

And yet extreme states’ rights have been asserted more often in political rhetoric than in judicial proceedings. Even in the period of Southern “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision, state supreme courts did not try to interpose their own interpretations of the Equal Protection Clause or issue conflicting injunctions against state officials to block desegregation orders by lower federal courts (though some state legislatures did attempt to block Brown’s implementation).

Since the United States Supreme Court will rule on gay marriage in June, it’s easy to dismiss the Alabama court’s ruling as quixotic. But it raises a real issue: not what state courts can do, but rather what they should do. Because state and federal courts operate on entirely separate tracks, the state court’s position that it need not follow lower federal court rulings is technically correct. Yet if our judicial system is to function smoothly, both court systems must, from time to time, refrain from exercising their legal discretion to ignore the other’s handiwork.

The gay-marriage rulings bring this aspect of the state-federal relationship, called comity, into close focus. Alabama’s probate judges are subject to the jurisdiction of both state and federal courts. If both judicial systems exercise their authority concurrently and independently, issuing conflicting constitutional rulings, the probate judges are caught in a Catch-22. Respecting one court’s order necessarily will involve a failure to respect the other’s.

This isn’t just about state courts bowing to federal authority; federal courts have a number of “abstention” doctrines designed to respect the autonomy of state courts. The most famous, called Younger abstention, provides that federal courts should not intervene in pending state court criminal proceedings — even if a credible allegation of a federal constitutional violation exists.

In turn, state courts will often extend comity to the decisions of the local federal courts. Although state courts are not bound by lower federal court decisions, state officials are required to follow federal court orders (this distinction probably explains, at least in part, the willingness of state courts to voluntarily follow lower federal court precedents).

Gay marriage is exactly the sort of issue on which state courts should — and do — defer to lower federal courts. Five federal appellate courts have recently decided whether the Constitution requires a state government to recognize same-sex marriage: Four said yes; only the Sixth Circuit has held that they need not do so. The state courts and governments within these circuits have all acquiesced (Alabama is in the 11th Circuit, which has not ruled on the issue). In fact, Alabama’s State Supreme Court is the only one in the country to go to war with the local federal courts on the issue.

If State Supreme Courts followed the Alabama Supreme Court’s lead, a system of dual courts simply would not work. The United States Supreme Court, which hears only 80 to 90 cases per year, would not be able to disentangle the legal morass that would result if state courts routinely thumbed their noses at the decisions of their local lower federal courts.

Chief Justice Marshall observed, “If the legislatures of the several states may at will annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the Constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery.” This holds just as true if state courts exercise an identical nullification power over federal court orders.

The Alabama Supreme Court’s action represents an unfortunate departure from the cooperative norm that must prevail between these independent judicial systems. Other state judiciaries would do well not to follow its example.

 

By: Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr, Law Professor at the University of Alabama; Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, March 6, 2015

March 10, 2015 Posted by | Alabama Supreme Court, Federal Judiciary, Roy Moore | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“How To Make The Supreme Court More Accountable”: The Most Powerful, Least Accountable Public Institution In The Country

Justice Samuel A. Alito’s sister is a high-powered labor attorney who represents management in disputes with workers. Justice Elena Kagan’s brother, a teacher at an elite public school in New York, has protested the school’s admissions process because of low minority enrollment. And Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s son co-founded a tech company that broadcasts civil court proceedings.

Does having relatives involved in labor disputes, affirmative action battles, and cameras in courtrooms affect how Supreme Court justices decide cases and manage their institution? They say no, and we’re supposed to take them at their word. But is “trust us” really good enough for the nation’s highest court?

A confluence of recent events has made the Supreme Court the most powerful, least accountable public institution in the country. It is time to make the justices more accountable to the American people.

The court rules on wide-ranging issues fundamental to American life — where we can pray, who is eligible to vote and marry, how much regulation businesses should face, and who has access to health insurance. And with Congress gridlocked and relations between the legislative and executive branches at a historic nadir, the court’s opinions are binding and irreversible. So much for checks and balances.

In spite of this vast power, the justices have little accountability. Not only do they decide for themselves when to recuse themselves from cases in which they have conflicts; they also aren’t bound to a code of ethics the way the rest of federal judiciary is. They can decide how much information on investments and travel to release in their annual financial disclosure reports, and they determine when and where people can demonstrate near their building.

Yet for all the flaws and impenetrability at the Supreme Court, the problems could be solved rather quickly. Unlike the consensus required to make changes in Congress, the Supreme Court is largely in charge of its own rules — and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. himself could usher in most of the vital changes needed, including tightening requirements on recusals, requiring the justices to adhere to the Code of Conduct for U.S. judges, posting disclosure reports online, providing advance notice for public appearances and permitting live audio and video in the courtroom.

Roberts has been loath to implement any changes. Years ago when he was asked about the benefits of permitting live broadcasts of oral arguments, Roberts replied, “It’s not our job to educate the public,” as if saying he was comfortable hiding behind the cast-iron doors in perpetuity.

A new organization I’ve launched, Fix the Court, will take on some of what the court should be doing itself. Each week, we release information online about the justices related to five issue areas — recusals, disclosures, ethics, public appearances and media and public access. But public pressure is also needed to encourage the justices to be more transparent.

You may not have known, for example, that Justice Clarence Thomas ruled on Bush v. Gore while his wife was collecting candidates’ resumes to recommend to a new Bush administration. Or that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at a National Organization for Women conference soon after ruling on a case in which the group had submitted a brief to the court. (Ginsburg sided with NOW in the case.) Or that just last year, Justice Antonin Scalia was part of the court majority siding with anti-abortion advocates who said a Massachusetts law allowing a buffer zone around abortion clinics violated the 1st Amendment — even though his wife had been on the board of a pro-life organization and served as a “crisis counselor” to pregnant women. These are but a few of the examples where the justices may not have exercised proper discretion in hearing a case. There are dozens more.

Mustering public support for reform is the first step, and that shouldn’t be too difficult: Despite the well-documented political divisions across the country, Republicans, Democrats and Independents are united in their desire for a more accountable Supreme Court. Recent polling found that more than 85 percent of Americans of all ideologies support requiring the justices to follow the judicial code of conduct from which they are currently exempt. Large majorities also support cameras in the courtroom and compelling the justices to post disclosure reports online.

The recent elections were a stark reminder of how responsive and accountable Congress and the president can be to the will of the public. Frustrated voters displayed little reluctance sending a message to Washington lawmakers, kicking some out and starting over.

Supreme Court justices, rightly, can’t simply be voted out of office. But the time has come to end the special rules that exempt them from scrutiny by the American public.

 

By: Gabe Roth, Executive Director of Fix the Court, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 4, 2014

December 5, 2014 Posted by | Federal Judiciary, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Justice Denied”: Federal Judge Faces No Punishment Following Racially Charged Remarks

Last year, Judge Edith H. Jones of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals spoke to a conservative legal group and made a series of controversial remarks about race. There is no official transcript or recording, but affidavits from attendees pointed to deeply problematic language, especially from a sitting federal judge.

According to an ethics complaint, Jones, a Reagan appointee, told the audience that “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime.” A veteran attorney who was in the room said Jones “noted there was no arguing that ‘blacks’ and ‘Hispanics’ far outnumber ‘Anglos’ on death row and repeated that ‘sadly’ people from these racial groups do get involved in more violent crime.” She was also accused of having said defenses often used in capital cases, including mental retardation and systemic racism, are “red herrings.”

An investigation ensued, but the Associated Press reported yesterday that a panel of judges dismissed the misconduct complaint.

“It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are ‘disproportionately’ involved in certain crimes and ‘disproportionately’ present in federal prisons,” said the panel.

“But we must consider Judge Jones’ comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are ‘prone to commit’ such crimes,” the panel of judges said.

“In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial,” said the panel. “They resemble other albeit substantially more qualified, statements prominent in contemporary debate regarding the fairness of the justice system.”

One wonders if Americans from minority communities, whose legal fate rests in Jones’ hands, would have comparable confidence in the conservative judge’s impartiality.

My colleague Kate Osborn noted yesterday that one of the lawyers who filed the original complaint wasn’t impressed with the investigation, and is pushing the process forward. From a press statement:

The D.C. Circuit judges who dismissed the initial complaint this August repeatedly relied on Judge Jones’ own version of the facts about her Penn Law speech – in spite of conflicting sworn testimony from six people – five of whom were law students – who attended the lecture. The judges allowed Judge Jones to testify but did not allow those who filed the complaint or attended the lecture to do the same. The judges also received documents and other secret evidence that they and Judge Jones refused to disclose to complainants.

“Just as concerning as these instances of bias, the one-sidedness and secrecy surrounding the ethics complaint process and the untoward deference to the judge’s denials makes it unlikely that any claims of judicial misbehavior can be handled in a way that gives the public confidence that justice is being served,” said Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., national general counsel of the League of United Latin American Citizens, another party to the appeal.

An appeal has been filed with the Judicial Conference of the United States, requesting its Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability revisit the complaint.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 16, 2014

October 17, 2014 Posted by | Edith H. Jones, Federal Judiciary | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Legislative Interpretations”: Did Those Republican Judges Ever Go To Law School?

Six federal judges ruled Tuesday on the legality of subsidies being provided for low-income subscribers under so-called Obamacare. The two with solid Republican credentials found the program illegal.

With all due respect to these members of the esteemed federal bench, I have to question whether they really went to law school – or, if they did, whether they ever tended a class in legislation. Because if they did, they should have been aware of two fundamental principles of legislative interpretation: (1) courts should defer to the obvious intent of the legislature; and (2) they should also defer to the interpretation of legislation provided by the administrative agency charged with its enforcement.

The statute provides for health exchanges in the states to run the program, and provides a back up for federal exchanges to administer them when the states decline to participate. The statute includes a provision that allows the Internal Revenue Service to provide tax subsidies to those enrolled in the “state” exchanges.

It is clear that Congress never expected 36 states (mostly those controlled by Republican governors or legislatures) to opt out. It should be equally clear that Congress never intended to deny subsidies to those citizens living in opt-out states.

But the two Republican judges sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, blindly adopted the bizarre argument of the law’s challengers that under a literal reading of the statute only state enrollees were entitled to the subsidies.

On the same day, another federal appeals court sitting in Virginia unanimously ruled the other way. In that decision, Judge Andre Davis ridiculed the argument adopted by the two majority judges in D.C. He wrote that “[plaintiffs want to] deny to millions of Americans desperately needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose… could not be more clear.” But that was precisely the “tortured, nonsensical” position taken by the D.C. duo to the dismay of their colleague, the senior judge on the D.C. Circuit, Harry Edwards.

Then comes the Chevron doctrine. Chevron is a long-standing doctrine established by the Supreme Court that it was the obligation of courts when interpreting statutes to give deference to the interpretation of the statute by the administrative agency entrusted by Congress with its implementation.

In this instance, it was the Internal Revenue Service which had primary responsibility for implementing the health care subsidies. But the D.C. majority ignored the IRS interpretation.

To be fair to the D.C. majority, there is another doctrine which they chose to follow. It is called “textualism,” and its primary exponent is Justice Anton Scalia, the legal guru of conservatism. And this principle seems to say implement the clear terms of the statute no matter how absurd – or “nonsensical” – the result. But as Scalia’s critics like to point out, he generally invokes that principle only when it brings about a result he is ideologically comfortable with.

Obviously, these cases will have to be reconciled by the United States Supreme Court. And, fortunately for the millions of persons entitled to health care subsidies in the 36 states with federal health exchanges, Scalia’s “textualism” does not have a lot of adherents, even among his conservative colleagues on the high court.

 

By: Frank Askin, Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers Law School-Newark; The Huffington Post Blog, July 30, 2014

July 31, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Federal Judiciary, Tax Subsidies | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Breadth Of His Behavior”: Federal Judge Sent Hundreds Of Racist Messages

Last year, U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull, an appointee of George W. Bush, was caught sending a racist email about President Obama from his courthouse chambers. At the time, Cebull, Montana’s chief federal judge for nearly five years, defended himself by saying the message “was not intended by me in any way to become public.”

It wasn’t long before the Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opened a misconduct review, and on Friday, we learned that Cebull kept awfully busy disseminating offensive messages to his personal and professional contacts. The Associated Press reported over the weekend:

A former Montana judge who was investigated for forwarding a racist email involving President Barack Obama sent hundreds of other inappropriate messages from his federal email account, according to the findings of a judicial review panel released Friday.

Former U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sent emails to personal and professional contacts that showed disdain for blacks, Indians, Hispanics, women, certain religious faiths, liberal political leaders, and some emails contained inappropriate jokes about sexual orientation, the Judicial Council of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found.

Many of the emails also related to pending issues that could have come before Cebull’s court, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care and environmental issues, the council found in its March 15, 2013, order.

In case it’s not obvious, it’s critically important for federal judges to maintain a sense of credibility and impartiality. Once a jurist is exposed as a bigot, he or she can no longer expect to rule from the bench.

In Cebull’s case, the 9th Circuit was not lenient.

The panel issued a public reprimand, instructed that the judge receive no new cases for 180 days, ordered him to complete  new round of judicial training, and told the judge he must issue an apology that acknowledged “the breadth of his behavior.”

Judicial impeachment was ruled out because he was not found to have violated any state or federal laws.

All of this, however, happened 10 months ago. Why didn’t we hear anything until now? Because Cebull resigned the same month as he received the judicial council’s report, making the sanctions moot.

That said, Judge Theodore McKee, the chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit, petitioned the panel, arguing that the judicial council’s work should be made public. The committee agreed.

“The imperative of transparency of the complaint process compels publication of orders finding judicial misconduct,” the national judicial panel wrote in its decision.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 20, 2014

January 21, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry, Federal Judiciary, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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