Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Rightwing Supreme Court Justices’ Fair-Weather "State Sovereignty” Canard

Two days ago, Dan posted an entry by run75441 titled “SCOTUS Chastises Congress and the Executive Branch.”  The post’s title wasn’t quite accurate; run’s post was about Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual state-of-the-judicial-branch report, in which he was writing in his capacity as administrative head of that branch, not in his actual judicial capacity, and not for the other justices.

Run (who didn’t title the post; Dan did) deeply criticized Roberts for bragging about the austerity of the federal courts in recent years, including his own court, which, he also bragged, had decided on 64 cases in its last term.  That was down from, I think, 70 the term before, and the main reason for that reduction was that the ACA case consumed a full week of oral-argument slots– the full week at issue normally consisting of arguments in six–count ‘em, six!–cases; some full weeks consist of four arguments, leaving the justices slightly less exhausted than they are after the six-argument work weeks.

Roberts implied–he did not say so, expressly, but he did imply–that Congress and the White House take a cue from the justices and force the federal government to make do with less money.  To which I suggest that the justices really lead by example, and get rid of their four-justices-apiece law clerks, who do most of their work for them and start doing their legally-mandated jobs themselves.  After all, the federal government at least doesn’t pay salaries to congressional lobbyists–the equivalent of Supreme Court law clerks.

Anyway, I posted a comment to run’s post, and then asked Dan to add it as an update to run’s post, which he did.  My comment said:

The Supreme Court is rarely in session.  It’s seasonal, part-time work.  They usually hear argument in 10 cases a month, seven months a year.  In December, they didn’t hear even that many.
There’s really sooo much that can, and should, be said about the issue of (virtually universal lack of) access to the Supreme Court, and its repercussions.  Roberts’ bizarre, cutesy annual report is … oh … I don’t know …characteristically hubristic?

Run responded to my comment, and I then responded to his, writing:

What’s especially outrageous is the type of situation you’re talking about [a federal habeas corpus case challenging the constitutionality of aspects of the proceedings in a state-court criminal case]: The Supreme Court almost never agrees to hear cases on “direct appeal” (a legal term of art) from state supreme courts, in criminal or civil cases, with the major exception that they do often agree to do so in criminal cases when it is the state (i.e., the prosecution) that is asking them to hear hear the case in order to overrule a (rare) state supreme court ruling in favor of the criminal defendant. In state-court criminal cases, when it is the defendant who is asking the Supreme Court to hear the case in order to overturn a conviction, on constitutional grounds, the Supreme Court seems to figure that the criminal defendant can file a habeas corpus petition in a lower federal court.
Which they can, but the Supreme court has made that right an all-but-empty one–just a shell game, really–by interpreting a 1996 “jurisdictional” statute in a way that bars the lower federal courts from throwing out the state-court conviction on constitutional grounds in almost every case. With each passing Supreme Court term, the right to federal habeas review becomes even narrower, a seeming impossibility until it happens. In the last two years, the Supreme Court has treated that right as all but nonexistent. So the almost-total lack of access to the Supreme Court on direct appeal by state-court criminal defendants effectively removes access to constitutional review in federal court.
This is even truer in civil cases [including some that involve incredibly important, truly fundamental rights of the sort protected under international human rights laws, although they have nothing at all to do with, say, prison inmates; really–trust me on this], thanks to a set of perverse, gimmicky Supreme Court-created “jurisdictional” doctrines, which the Supreme Court has stood by and watched metastasize to remove any access to federal court in order to make a constitutional challenge, except for ExxonMobil, which asked the Supreme Court to limit the doctrine at issue, which the Court did, so narrowly as to apply in almost no other case, especially since the other, related doctrine actually bars access in the circumstance in which ExxonMobil was allowed to have it. (Sort of like Bush v. Gore.)
Anthony Kennedy, the leader of this state-courts-have-sovereignty-and-dignity! juggernaut, likes to say this is done in the name of liberty. (Isn’t everything the rightwing wants done in the name of liberty?!) Which reminds me of a political science class I once took on Maoism. [Maoism] included, basically, the routine use of Orwellian language, in which everything is the opposite of what its name or description indicates.
Of course, the current Supreme Court’s goal–the goal of the legal right since the early 1980s–is to turn the law into nothing but circuitous yellow-brick-road procedure: a dead-end labyrinth whose very purpose is its circuitry and fruitlessness. They’ve come incredibly close to succeeding.

There’s a whole lot more about this that can, and should, be said, and I plan to write in more depth about it.  Which will make me the only one writing for public consumption about it; the general news media covers only “substantive” legal issues (“substantive” being another legal term of art; legal issues are either “substantive” or “procedural.”)  And rarely covers even substantive issues that aren’t part of the culture wars debate.  Which is really nice for the legal right, because their justices and judges can, and do, do just about anything they want, completely under the radar.

But for now, I’ll just add that the judicial right, lead on this by Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, conflate state sovereignty with freedom, but, at least regarding those two and their wingy three colleagues and some (but not all of their lower-court compadres), do so only with respect (pun most definitely intended) to state courts.  To them, state legislative- and executive-branch actions (e.g., state statutes) are fair game for constitutional challenges, and they harbor no inhibition whatsoever about impinging upon state “sovereignty” in recognizing the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause when striking down as unconstitutional state statutes that the political right doesn’t care much for; Texas’s colleague-admissions affirmative action law, say.  (Sit tight for the upcoming oral argument there in that case.)  And their summary reversal of the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling late last year upholding the constitutionality of Montana’s longstanding campaign-finance statute is another example that comes (very) quickly to mind.  My mind, anyway.

To be fair to Kennedy, and certainly to his credit, he–and he alone, among the Fab Five–does extend this principle to state statutes that liberals don’t like.  Texas’s criminal anti-sodomy statute is one example, but there are other important ones as well.

But, in what appears to me to be nothing more than just old-fashioned professional courtesy, Kennedy effectively exempts state judicial branches from Supremacy Clause mandates to honor constitutional rights of individuals.  And state courts violate individual procedural and substantive rights, in criminal cases and in certain types of civil cases, with absolute abandon, comfortable in the knowledge that they can.  The result, far, far more often than not, is the very antithesis of freedom.  Except in the Matter Hatter-esque language that the legal right has found so useful.

So, next time Kennedy or Thomas writes an opinion singing the praises of state sovereignty–by which they almost always just mean state-court sovereignty–as advancing “freedom,” ask them (rhetorically, of course; they won’t actually hear you unless you retain Paul Clement to speak to them for you, which was basically run75441’s point) whether they think that, say, German Jews in the mid- and late 1930s were freer because Germany was a sovereign state.

I will, anyway.  Or maybe I’ll just ask the Mad Hatter. Orwell lives. These days, though, in this country it’s called “federalism.”


Occasionally, one of my AB posts goes viral (relatively speaking), racking up a couple thousand views on statcounter.  This is one that I hope does.  Actually, I hope it gets a million hits.

Yeah. A million hits would be good.

Is there such a thing as hitting the Supreme Court in effigy?

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Justice Scalia’s Super Body (And, no, it has nothing to do with the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause. Really.)*

First, Justice Anthony Kennedy wants to know what possible connection there is between Esther Kiobel, the wrongs she says unfolded in Nigeria, and the United States. The answer the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Paul Hoffman, gives is that his clients live here because the U.S. government gave them asylum. Also, Royal Dutch Petroleum does plenty of business here. 

Kennedy doesn’t like the sound of that. “Your position is that a U.S. company that allegedly commits a human rights violation could be sued in any court in the world?” he asks. Note the switch—now it’s our homegrown corporation, not a company called Royal Dutch, that’s the pirate.

Justice Antonin Scalia backs up Kennedy, asking whether it will be “some super body that decides what constitutes a violation” of human rights. This is not a superhero kind of super body. It’s the kind that usurps U.S. sovereignty. Hoffman tries to erase the image: The courts of nations around the world have long determined human rights norms, he says. But Scalia is with Kennedy: unhappy about a world in which U.S. corporations can be held liable for human rights abuses in foreign courts. Justice Samuel Alito doesn’t like Hoffman’s notion either, and Chief Justice John Roberts seems skeptical, too. 

Hoffman next addresses all the ways his clients could still get kicked out of court, even if they make it past today’s tangle with the Alien Tort Statute. They could be told to file suit in Nigeria, or the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, where Royal Dutch Petroleum is based. Hoffman concedes that it’s not clear from the record whether they’ve done so yet. (This is the doctrine called exhaustion, which is how it feels to be told to go back and start over somewhere else.) Kiobel and the other plaintiffs could also be told that another forum, outside the United States, is simply better. (This is the doctrine called forum non conveniens, the rare Latin phrase that makes sense without translation.)

Pardon me.  But it sure sounds like Scalia’s complaint is really with—Can this be?—the Founders, who, by enacting a statute that gives federal courts jurisdiction to hear claims by aliens for torts “in violation of the law of nations,” provided that it will be some super body that decides what constitutes a violation of human rights.  And (assuming that Scalia thinks there should be an “exhaustion” requirement, even though, clearly, there is not one in the language of the statute) who—those lame Founders!—failed to include an “exhaustion” requirement in the statute.

Ditto for Kennedy, who’s angry because he thinks that the very first Congress’s position was that a U.S. company that allegedly commits a human rights violation could be sued in any court in the world, even though the statute actually only provides for lawsuits in U.S. federal courts, not for lawsuits in other countries’ courts.  Or at least, he later explains, he’s angry, and worried, that if the United States Congress can pass a law that allows aliens to sue foreign corporations in United States courts for torts “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States, that might encourage other countries to retaliate and enact a similar, mirror statute.  And then, woe is Exxon Mobil. 

Repeatedly during yesterday’s argument, Kennedy raised issues with such a policy.

Why didn’t President Washington veto that law, for Chrissake!? Instead, the jerk, and that Congress, left it to a future generation of justices to rewrite the statute to limit it to lawsuits against U.S. companies and foreign companies that commit torts against a U.S. alien in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. (A generation of justices that includes four who, only three months ago, railed against their five colleagues for what the four railers said was an unconstitutional rewriting of a statute, no less. A very high-profilestatute.)

Oh, but wait. That original Congress actually did write the Alien Tort Statute to say that. Verbatim. Even though the statute could encourage other countries to retaliate and enact a statute of their own that allows a U.S. company that allegedly commits a human rights violation to be sued in a court in that other country for violations of the law of nations, as defined by some super body.

Other countries haven’t done that yet. But they could. Whether or not the Supreme Court rewrites the Alien Tort Statute to discourage them from doing so, they could. Too bad that didn’t bother President Washington enough for him to veto the statute.

Also repeatedly yesterday, Samuel Alito reiterated his own demand at the earlierargument to know what, pray tell, connection the events at issue in the case have with this country.  But a better question is, why is that any of the Supreme Court’s business?  As the Court’s conservatives—led obsessively in recent years by Kennedy and Thomas—repeatedly remind at the robotic urging of state attorneys general, the Constitution grants Congress, not the courts, the authority to determine what types of cases the lower federal courts have “subject-matter jurisdiction,” i.e., the legal authority, to hear.  
This congressional power is subject to the constraints of other parts of the Constitution—for example, the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause, which Kennedy, et al., forget (or pretend to forget) apply to limit state courts’ free rein lest those insignificant parts of the Constitution infringe upon the sovereign dignity (their words, not mine) of states, by which they mean the sovereign dignity of state courts.  But the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution by a new set of framers, not the vaunted ones of the late 1700s, so that part of the Constitution doesn’t matter very much to the state-courts’-rights-to-violate-the-constitutional-rights-of-individuals crowd.  Unless of course some state legislature has, say, infringed upon the equal protection rights of an upscale high school student in Texas who graduated just below the top 10% of her high school class.  Or some other state legislature has limited the rights of corporate people to buy state politicians. 
The defendant oil company in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum doesn’t claim that the ATS would violate the Constitution if it is interpreted to allow lawsuits against them, by aliens, in federal court.  They just argue that the statute shouldn’t allow this, because, well, the events at issue have no connection with the United States and no other country has a similar law.  This appears to be good strategy, since, at least when state-court criminal defendants raise constitutional challenges in separate habeas corpus proceedings in federal court, the defendants almost always lose because the Supreme Court has interpreted a 1996 “jurisdictional” statute as effectively delegating to state courts the authority to violate the Constitution’s many guarantees in criminal cases.  This requires the federal courts to ignore not only the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause but also the provision in the Constitution’s provision that bars the suspension of the right of habeas corpus.

Kennedy’s incessant refrain in these cases is that, well, this is what Congress intended, and under the Constitution it is Congress that has the authority to enact federal-court-jurisdiction statutes.  But, setting aside whether the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that 1996 statute is even conceivably an accurate reflection of the intent of that Congress in enacting it, and the expectation of President Clinton in signing it—It was an election year, but still … really?—Kennedy & Co. never appear concerned with the many, many, many policy problems caused by, say, thedramatic difference between the right of a federal-court criminal defendant or prisoner, and the right of a state-court criminal defendant or prisoner to effectively assert constitutional rights.  That is, by the fact that the Supreme Court has interpreted that statute as effectively eliminating that right by state-court defendants or prisoners.   

Or, say, by the utterly unexplained privileging of state judicial branches, which now are virtually free to violate individuals’ constitutional rights, at least if those individuals are criminal defendants, and the other two branches of state governments: the legislative and the executive branches.  Professional courtesy is, well, courteous, but there really legitimate reason to make it a constitutional principle?

Tomorrow, the Court will hear a case in which that very issue will be addressed.  Seven years ago, almost to the day, in a unanimous opinion issued in a case called Dye v. Hofbauer, without full briefing and oral argument, the Court interpreted that 1996 statute, known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), as requiring the state appellate courts to actually acknowledge the existence of a federal constitutional issue raised by the criminal defendant in the appeal, and then to actually analyze and rule on that federal constitutional issue, if the state courts were to be entitled to the “deference” that AEDPA requires the federal courts to accord the state courts when the state court ruling is challenged in federal court as unconstitutional.  A “deference” that in recent years has morphed into abdication—into a blatant flipping of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.  The case to be heard tomorrow is Johnson v. Williams, and in it, the Court will decide whether to overrule Dye—explicitly or, more likely, in effect without saying that that’s what it is doing.

All in the name of the Constitution, y’know.  The very same Constitution that is about to allow the justices to rewrite a jurisdictional statute written by the Founders, so that it complies with the policy preferences of the current Supreme Court majority.

When I read the transcript of tomorrow’s argument in Johnson, I’ll be looking for inquiries by Kennedy and Alito about the many policy problems with AEDPA, especially as the flip-the-Supremacy-Clause interpretation of it has metastasized over the years.  I won’t be holding my breath waiting to read that in the transcript, though, because I don’t want to turn blue.

Dye, by the way, was the first opinion issued by the Court, in the early fall of 2005, after John Roberts was sworn in.  But that was then, and Kennedy hadn’t yet fully gained his sovereign-dignity-of-state-courts sea legs.  Nor had he yet managed to convince the sycophantic so-called liberals to quietly join him in this juggernaut.  All the better for them to go along to get along when it’s a case that—bet on it—will get no mainstream-media attention.  

It’s not like Johnson is a noisy culture-wars case, after all.  Not at all like it is. 

UPDATED: Scotusblog’s Lyle Denniston posted an excellent pre-argument rundown on Johnson v. Williams this afternoon.

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Our Unserious Supreme Court: “Federalism,” “Jurisdiction,” Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., and Anthony Kennedy – [Typo-corrected and updated TWICE]

In the comments to my post of yesterday titled, “Welcome Back, Supreme Court Justices! (Well, for the next two weeks, anyway.),” Angry Bear colleague Dan Becker wrote:

Hi Bev, 

I have read about this case. Still unclear even after reading your piece as to what the law was for, to do and how the new interpretation changes it. Would love some more expansion on it.

With that, I wonder if it will really matter if that Trans Pacific Partnership goes through.

I wrote back:

Hi, Dan.  In my opinion, the biggest problem with most mainstream-media coverage of the Supreme Court is that they mainly cover only Supreme Court decisions that address what lawyers call “substantive” issues—the stuff that actually addresses bottom-line issues that most people think of as what the Supreme Court decides, such as whether something violates the First Amendment or the Fourth Amendment (e.g., search-and-seizure).  But a huge, huge part of what the Supreme Court does is decide “procedural” issues, especially “jurisdictional” issues (which make up a huge, huge part of “procedural” issues—and those issues concern the threshold question of who has access to court, and under what circumstances.

The Reagan-era rightwing legal types—federal judges appointed in the 1980s and people like John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who worked as political appointees in the Reagan Justice Dept., and others who “came of age” during that period—have engaged in a decades-long, extremely effective crusade to turn federal law into mainly procedural/jurisdictional law, and to do so in a way that, in effect, lets judges interpret these procedural/jurisdictional (and, closely related to jurisdictional, “immunity”-from-liability) law to bar nearly all constitutional civil rights cases, and many other types of cases, that the ideological right disfavors on substantive grounds, while finding no such procedural/jurisdictional bars when the issue is, say, property “takings” rights or one of the other two or three type of constitutional rights favored by the right. 

Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas are at the very forefront of this type of thing.  Kennedy’s views on this are truly bizarre and utterly unfounded in any reasonable interpretation of American law since the Fourteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.  He believes that state courts, unlike the two other branches of state government—the executive and legislative branches—are free to ignore constitutional rights, because otherwise the federal government (the federal courts) would be undermining “federalism” and thus the “dignity” of the states as “sovereigns.”  But he never explains why he recognizes that the two other branches of state government have no such exemptions from the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.  Thomas, by contrast, simply doesn’t recognize the Supremacy Clause at all, except for such things as gun-ownership rights, reverse-discrimination Equal Protection rights, property “takings” rights, and the right to commandeer, say, a public school event to proselytize on evangelical Christianity.

The Supremacy Clause is at Article VI, Clause 2.  It says:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

All that said, the issues in Kiobel [v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.] concern only the interpretation of a federal court-jurisdiction statute—access to federal court in a personal-injury/property-damage case.  The issues and arguments are so arcane (inside-baseball) that it’s hard to summarize them briefly, mainly because the issues in this go-around at the Court are different that the ones argued there last spring—but that doesn’t mean that the earlier-argued ones won’t ultimately be the issues on which the case is decided. 

So, [here’s] a good article on it all, that I think is understandable to lay people.

I also posted a PS to Dan, saying:

I don’t know enough about the specifics of the Trans Pacific Partnership provisions to know whether or not it would affect the application of the Alien Tort Act*, Dan.  It seems to me, from googling the pact, that it could, but I really don’t know.

Basically, what that crowd has done is erect a series of classic violations of the constitutional construct of equal protection of the law.  They’ve done so in two separate ways:

First, they have effectively closed down the Supreme Court except for a tiny, tiny handful of cases, almost always only when asked by a state or local government, a state or local government official (usually a prosecutor), a crusader on some issue, represented* for free by some rightwing lawyers’ group, or a corporation or very wealthy federal criminal defendant represented by some $1,000 per hr. Supreme Court “specialist.”  
They do this increasingly these days, apparently largely at the behest of Kennedy (at least when a lower court has violated the “sovereign dignity” of a state court in a state criminal case) by acting as a “court of error,” correcting what they claim is legal error by the lower court in contradicting what the good justices say is clear Supreme Court precedent, but by ignoring, year after year, so many other clear instances of lower courts ignoring Supreme Court precedent that it’s downright jaw-dropping, because, after all, they continue to claim, the Supreme Court isn’t a “court of error.”  (Antonin Scalia is especially vocal on this, except, of course, when he decides that it can serve that very purpose.)

And, second, they have deliberately established such convoluted procedural/jurisdictional rules that those rules are inherently (and, surely, by design) open to whatever interpretation the lower-court judges wish.  And almost always, what they wish is to dismiss lawsuits.  And so that’s what they do.  Most judges, irrespective of which president appointed them, do this these days, simply to lighten their civil case to, roughly, cases filed by large corporations.  (State-court judges caught on to this free-for-all a while back, and do the same.) 

But, as for the Supreme Court, many, many of us who actually follow it closely recognize that it’s become a perverse joke—a non-serious institution that continues to have profoundly serious control over very serious matters.  Sort of like other venerable American institutions—the old, once-venerable Wall Street brokerage firms, for example—that have been commandeered, morally, by the ideological right in the last three decades.  With similar results.


*Typo-corrected since original was posted.  The original said “repressed for free.”  It wasn’t Freudian; it was just a spell-check error.  I swear.
**Added since original was posted.


SECOND UPDATE:Here’s a good discussion of the “law of nations” language in the Alien Tort Statute*, and why, at least in the opinion of environmentalists, that—i.e., this substantive issue—rather than the procedural issues that the conservatives raise, is what Kiobel should be about.  The Court will address this substantive issue only if it rules against the oil company on the jurisdictional issues—are foreign corporations “aliens” within the meaning of the statute, and if so, does the statute limit its reach to cases with ties to the United States?  It seems really unlikely that it will decide that the statute applies to conduct untied to the United States—even though drawing that conclusion requires—horrors!—looking beyond the text of the statute to legislative history. 

Which, as luck would have it, is perfectly appropriate if that’s what it takes to rule in favor of an oil company and other mega-corporations.

*Correction, Oct. 2: The statute is known by two names: The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Alien Tort Claims  Act (ATCA). 

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Welcome Back, Supreme Court Justices! (Well, for the next two weeks, anyway.)

Well, it’s that time of year again—when the Supreme Court justices interrupt their primary careers of flitting around the world (some of them), or at least around the country (the remainder of them), to teach a law school course or two, to instruct high court justices in other countries on how to feign working full-time, and to reassure us all yet again that they’re all great friends. With one another.

That last one is not least.  It is instead a perennial, and a great relief to those of us who care more about the justices’ working conditions during their occasional-days job than with, say, the fact that as a practical matter, we really have no Supreme Court.  Which we don’t, except for the 68-or-so occasions each year when they deign to answer the call of duty, usually of a state whose dignity has been affronted by a federal appeals court that has placed some importance of a constitutional magnitude upon the dignity of an individual [pdf required] who wasn’t complaining of one of infringement upon one of the three or four rights that conservatives privilege over the right of states to violate them, or by a corporation that otherwise would have to deal with a class action lawsuit.  Or by the group Citizens United.

So … no more tips to law students to stay upbeat and focused.  Not from the leading expert on such matters, anyway.  And no more sycophantic predictions of the horrors that would befall society if cameras were allowed at the Court’s arguments and the news media selected only short clips of Antonin Scalia’s snideness or Anthony Kennedy’s state-courts-but-not-state-executive-or-legislative-branches-are-entitled-to-flip-the-Supremacy-Clause-in-order-to-save-our-republican-form-of-government rants.  Not to mention in order to save our Republican form of government.  Which the court did not, in an actual oral argument, anyway, opting instead for a summary order rather than full briefing and an in-court airing.

No, sir, no more such helpful insights from the ultimate experts until at least the third week of October, anyway.  They break then, after an exhausting five full—er, five half—days of oral argument and two, count- ’em, two, afternoon conferences, but, unlike other breaks during the winter and spring, only for about 12 days.  During which time, they do read a few of the law clerk “cert. pool” one- or two-paragraph memos recommending a denial of review on virtually every petition filed by a private party who is not represented in the petition by one of the—what? ten, or so?—de facto-gatekeeper Supreme Court“specialist” lawyers, who by sheer virtue of the fact that they charge about $1,000 an hour and will guarantee that at least one actual justice will read the petition—most certainly are special.  So it’s not as if these folks don’t work during their (many, many) off hours.  (I mean, on Court business! What?  Did you think I meant on writing incessantly banal or downright misleading and deeply self-serving books?)

Anyway … the justices kick off their term this year with a bang.  Of sorts.  This particular bang was supposed to occur last term, in a case called Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, that will decide whether a statute called the Alien Tort Statute, passed in 1789 to deal with piracy on the high seas, gives our country’s federal courts the authority to hear cases filed by non-Americans against foreign corporations, or foreigners at all, for injury to person or property that occurred outside the United States.  The statute provides that “[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  The case gained a lot of attention last spring when the justices heard oral argument on it, and some of them, but surprisingly not Samuel Alito, indicated that they wanted to rule that “aliens” did not include corporations, irrespective of whether they’re offshore ones or are instead incorporated in, say, Delaware and are therefore people at least for purposes of First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights.   

But shortly after the oral argument, a majority of the justices decided that Alito, not to mention Mitt Romney, had the better argument.  Corporations should be considered people, my friend, even when that means they can be sued under the Alien Tort Statute*.  At least until Super Pacs funded by these people can put in place enough members of Congress to enact a change to that statute.  Like, to repeal it.  But as it currently exists, the Statute should apply only to corporate people who also are American corporate citizens. 

Which is what Alito had suggested. The majority, egged on by Kennedy from the very outsetof the argument, already had decided that they should rewrite the statute to limit it to actions to which the United States has some association.  “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection,” Kennedy said. The quote was itself a quote, verbatim, from an amicus brief filed by Chevron Corporation.

So … voila!  So much for textualism in judicial interpretation of statutes. The text of this particular statute requires … originalism, the first-line-of-defense fall-back for the likes of Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  Unless, of course, some of those pirates targeted by the statute back in circa 1789 weren’t Americans. 


Back to plan A?

*Correction, Oct. 2: The statute is known by two names: The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Alien Tort Claims  Act (ATCA).  My original post called it the Alien Tort Act. 

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Can Your State Mandate That You Buy Broccoli or Join a Gym? (And why the excoriation of Donald Verrilli is misplaced)

The answer to the title’s question—Can your state mandate that you buy broccoli or join a gym?—depends upon which of the two possible grounds the 5-4 Supreme Court majority overturns the ACA’s individual-mandate provision.  And which grounds the majority selects also will determine whether under the Court’s new “liberty” jurisprudence, Social Security and Medicare also are unconstitutional. 

That’s because if, for all their posturing about the imposition on individual liberty of having to buy healthcare insurance that the individual may not want, they ultimately base their ruling not on that imposition on individual liberty to choose whether or not to buy a health insurance policy, but instead upon—and only upon—a narrow reading of the Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause, states will retain the right to mandate the purchase of health insurance (e.g., “Massachusetts’s “Romneycare”), and of auto insurance, and of broccoli, and of gym memberships.

If, on the other hand, the Commerce Clause ground is simply the fig leaf used to segue into an individual-liberty-to-choose-not-to-buy-health-insurance ground, then the ruling also will imperil the legal underpinnings of Social Security and Medicare, because while those programs were enacted not under Congress’s Commerce Clause power but instead under its taxing power, both programs require payment for insurance—one, a retirement annuity, the other, eventual health insurance—that the individual may not want and may never use. Not everyone lives to age 65, after all.

The Commerce Clause issue deals only with the breadth of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce and the things that impact it.  Or, in Commerce Clause jurisprudence lingo, the power to regulate “markets” that impact interstate commerce.  The Obama administration, and the Congress that enacted the ACA, have claimed that there are two separate “markets” that the ACA regulates: the market for health insurance and the market for healthcare itself.  The Commerce Clause issue does not address what statescan regulate, and what states are prohibited by concepts of “liberty” from regulating. For that, you have to look at the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause and the constitutional doctrine known as “substantive due process,” which concerns the limits of state governments’ powers to intrude into personal autonomy, personal decisions.  As I explained in a post earlier this week, it is the doctrine under which the Supreme Court has stricken state laws prohibiting the sale and use of contraception and state laws prohibiting sodomy, and those categorically prohibiting abortion (Roe v. Wade).

The Fourteenth Amendment applies only to the states, but its due process clause is virtually identical the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause.  The Fifth Amendment applies to the federal government, and the “substantive due process” doctrine applies to that Amendment’s due process clause in the same manner in which it applies to the Fourteenth Amendment’s.

For the last two years, the rightwing has conveniently conflated the Commerce Clause ground and the due process “liberty” ground, seamlessly seguing between the two but always calling the “liberty” ground the “Commerce Power” ground.  And, with two exceptions that until Tuesday’s argument seemed important, they’ve gotten away with it  The two exceptions were the two lower appellate court opinions, both of them written by conservative Republican appointees, upholding the constitutionality of the individual-mandate provision and, in doing so, noting both that the mandate provision concerns not only the market for healthcare insurance but also the market for healthcare itself, because a 1986 federal law requires hospitals that receive federal funds to treat people having medical emergencies, irrespective of whether or not the patient has healthcare insurance. 

What surprised me most about Tuesday’s argument is that Anthony Kennedy appears to have not readthe government’s brief on the individual-mandate provision.  He seemed utterly unaware of the nature of the government’s Commerce Clause claims and unaware of the 1986 law.  “Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?” Kennedy asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli early on.  Well, no, but if, as the government claims, one of the relevant markets under Commerce Clause jurisprudence is the market for—payment for—healthcare, then unless the ACA rather than the 1986 statute creates the obligation of hospitals to treat people who come there with medical emergencies and to admit them to the hospital if necessary rather than just treat them in the emergency room, then the ACA doesn’t create the market for healthcare of the uninsured.  Kennedy suggested that we don’t require hospitals to provide medical treatment to the uninsured, just as we don’t require someone in a position to stop a blind person about to step in front of a moving car, to do so.  And Scalia said we shouldn’t “obligate” ourselves to that.  We already have, which is one reason why the mandate provision comes within Congress’s Commerce powers.

Verrilli is being excoriated for answering ostensibly Commerce Clause questions with actual Commerce clause answers.  Especially for answering Kennedy’s and Roberts’s requests for a “limiting” Commerce Clause principle with a Commerce Clause answer.  Paul Clement, lead attorney for the challengers, is, by contrast, being praised for his brilliance in presenting his arguments, although his task was similar to that of a candy store owner offering children all the free candy they’d like.  Clement may be a brilliant appellate advocate.  But a monkey could have argued this one for the challengers, with the same effect.

Much is being made of Verrilli’s final few sentences on Tuesday—and Clement’s response to them.  And appropriately so.  Verrilli, ultimately realizing that the earlier questions were not really Commerce Clause questions at all, nor even Fifth Amendment substantive due process “liberty” questions, but instead public-policy questions, made an emotional plea that the Court respect the public-policy choice of Congress and the Obama administration in choosing to recognize a profound connection” between health care and liberty. “There will be millions of people with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and as a result of the health care that they will get, they will be unshackled from the disabilities that those diseases put on them and have the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty,” he said.

To which Clement responded, “I would respectfully suggest that it’s a very funny conception of liberty that forces somebody to purchase an insurance policy whether they want it or not.”  Perhaps.  But that’s a Fifth Amendment due process argument, not a Commerce Clause one.  And if it is upon that basis that the Court strikes down the individual-mandate provision in the ACA, those of us who think that the Social Security and Medicare statutes are constitutional under both the taxing power of Congress and generic “liberty” jurisprudence shouldn’t find the Court’s ruling in this case funny at all.

[Cross-posted at, front page.]

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