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Category: Constitutional Law

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Species of Structural Argument

Many thanks to Danielle et al. for letting me guest-blog this month.  Concurring Opinions is one of my favorite law blogs out there (second only to the “Bob Loblaw Law Blog”), so I’m honored to be a part of it.

I have recently been thinking some about the nature of “structural arguments” in constitutional law.  At a general level, I understand such arguments to assert claims about the Constitution as a whole, rather than any one provision of the document in particular.  But there are several ways of drawing inferences from the Constitution “as a whole,” some of which strike me as meaningfully different from others.  So, I have been trying to sort through various categories of holistically-oriented constitutional arguments that we might in one way or another regard as “structural.”  Here’s what I have so far: Read More

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FAN 25.1 (First Amendment News) — Mass. Gov. signs abortion buffer zone bill

The bill, titled an Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities, was signed earlier today by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

Pro-choice demonstrators in front of Supreme Court

Pro-choice demonstrators in front of Supreme Court

The law, which is effective immediately, allows a police to order a person who “impedes” access to a reproductive health facility to stand at least 25 feet away from the entrance (or driveway) of the facility. The officer’s order will remain in place for eight hours or until the facility closes for the day (whichever is earlier). The law defines “impede”  as making it impossible or very difficult to access the clinic. If the person does not obey the order, he or she will face criminal penalties (a fine and potential jail time).  The penalties increase with each transgression. There are also penalties for threatening to harm or harming a person going to or from the facility and penalties for attempting to stop a car from accessing or leaving the facility.

The new law comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in  McCullen v. Coakley, which struck down a 2007 Massachusetts buffer zone law as violative of the First Amendment.

In a prepared statement, Governor Patrick said: “I am incredibly proud to sign legislation that continues Massachusetts leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm.”

“This bill,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley, “takes an important step toward protecting the rights of women and public safety around reproductive health facilities. We now have new tools to help ensure access to these facilities free from intimidation and threats.”

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Titles of Nobility Awarded by States

There is a lot of tough news out there these days, so I thought I would try a light-hearted post.  I am an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.  Folks from Nebraska know what this means, but for the rest of you “admiral” is an honorific awarded by the Governor to folks who make a significant contribution to the state.  (Mine was based on the fact that I wrote an article in the Nebraska Law Review.)  You get a fancy certificate and my Admiralty students find it amusing.

Here’s my question.  Is my title unconstitutional?  The Constitution prohibits states from awarding titles of nobility.  Why does this not apply to Nebraska or to Kentucky, which awards honorary colonel positions?  The answer must be that “Admiral” or “Colonel” is not a title, but why is that?

One thought is that titles in the constitutional sense apply only to the ones awarded in Britain at the Founding.  Thus, Nebraska could not make dukes or barons, but it can make admirals.  Another thought is that a title refers only to something that confers legal benefits.  While those sorts of titles would be invalid, this answer is not sufficient.  If Nebraska awarded knighthoods that were just ceremonial, I think we would still conclude that was unconstitutional.

Accordingly, interpreting “titles of nobility” in the Constitution is partly an originalist task (What was a title in 1787?) and partly a functional one (Is a state doing something that is comparable in spirit to those in a harmful way?).

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FAN 25 (First Amendment News) — High Court again asked to intervene in state judicial elections

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Lanell Williams-Yulee

If the State has a problem with judicial impartiality, it is largely one the State brought upon itself by continuing the practice of popularly electing judges. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (2002)

The case is Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar. The issue in the case is whether a rule of judicial conduct that prohibits candidates for judicial office from personally soliciting campaign funds violates the First Amendment. In a per curium opinion, a divided Florida Supreme Court denied the First Amendment challenge. (See here re video and transcript of oral arguments in Florida Supreme Court.)

A petition for certiorari has been filed by Andrew Pincus, Charles Rothfeld, and Michael Kimberly with assistance from Ernest Myers and Lee Marcus along with Eugene Fidell of the Yale Law School Clinic.

→ Flashback: FAN 15, “Free Speech & Judicial Elections: The Return of Kaus’ Crocodile,” May 14, 2014

Facts – Here is how Judge Chris Helinger, a referee for the Florida State Bar described the key facts in the case: “The Florida Bar alleges that on or about September 2009, the Respondent became a candidate for County Court Judge, Group 10, Hillsborough County, Florida. On September 4, 2009, the Respondent signed a campaign fundraising letter wherein the Respondent personally solicited campaign contributions. The Respondent admits that she reviewed and approved the September 4, 2009 letter. The Respondent further testified that prior to approving the letter she reviewed Canon 7C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct regarding solicitation of funds. However, the Respondent testified that she interpreted the Canon to only apply if there was another candidate in the race. At the time the solicitation letter was sent no other candidate had been announced. Canon 7C(1) states that the prohibition of personal solicitation of campaign funds apply to any candidate for ‘judicial office that is filled by public election between competing candidates.’” In that regard, the Florida Supreme Court noted: “[T]he referee found that the Respondent misrepresented the fact that there was no incumbent in the judicial race for which she was running. Further, the referee found that the Respondent’s misrepresentation [which she claims was the result of a good faith mistake based on a misunderstanding of the Canon] was published in a newspaper article on November 3, 2009.”  (Source: here)

Offending Mass-Mail Solicitation Letter 

LANELL WILLIAMS-YULEE

_____________________________________________

Bringing Diversity to the Judicial Bench

Elect Lanell Williams-Yulee For County Court Judge Group 10 and Campaign Fundraiser

Dear Friend:

I have served as a public servant for this community as Public Defender as well as a Prosecutor for the past 18 years. Having been involved in various civic activities such as “The Great American Teach In,” Inns Of Court, Pro Bono Attorney, Metropolitan Ministries outreach program, as well as a mentor for various young men and women residing within Hillsborough County, I have long worked for positive change in Tampa. With the support of my family, I now feel that the time has come for me to seek elected office. I want to bring fresh ideas and positive solutions to the Judicial bench. I am certain that I can uphold the Laws, Statutes, Ordinances as prescribed by the Constitution of the State of Florida as well as the Constitution of the United States Of America.

I am confident that I can serve as a positive attribute to the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit by running for County Court Judge, Group 10. To succeed in this effort, I need to mount an aggressive campaign. I’m inviting the people that know me best to join my campaign and help make a real difference. An early contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250, or $500, made payable to “Lanell Williams-Yulee Campaign for County Judge”, will help raise the initial funds needed to launch the campaign and get our message out to the public. I ask for your support In meeting the primary election fund raiser goals. Thank you in advance for your support.

Sincerely,
/s/
Lanell Williams-Yulee, Esq.

(Source: here)

See YouTube video of TV political ad here.

State Judicial Elections 

As Professor Richard Briffault has observed: “The vast majority of judicial offices in the United States are subject to election. The votes of the people select or retain at least some judges in thirty-nine states, and all judges are elected in twenty-one states.” Consistent with the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct, states such as Florida have enacted laws or rules barring judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions.

Conflicts in Lower Courts  Read More

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FAN 24 (First Amendment News) — Stephen Barnett: The Little-Known Man Behind the Well-Known Words

We live by falsehoods. They feed the myths of the great figures whose words are etched in our collective memory as if they were tablets from on High. We know those words; we are moved by those words; and those words define who we are or yearn to be.

Words fitly selected and artfully strung together can change minds and even alter the arc of history. Take, for example, the following words:

Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. 

Of course, they are the words of Justice William Brennan — the famous words from his celebrated opinion in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Stephen Barnett

Stephen Barnett

Those words have had a profound impact on the direction of American law and culture. Their importance transcends the mere holding of the case and all the black-letter law that followed them. Talk about doctrine as much as you will; stress the importance of this or that theory of constitutional interpretation as you like; and laud or condemn either judicial activism or judicial restraint as you see fit; but in the end, nothing really matches a tantalizing metaphor or an alluring string of words.

This brings me to my point: For all the kudos that have been and continue to be bestowed on him, the naked fact is that Justice Brennan did not author the words that further enhanced his First Amendment reputation. Let me repeat: he did not write the words that made him yet more famous in free speech circles. One of his law clerks did.

His name? Stephen R. Barnett (1935-2009). Before venturing further, let me say this: I know, this is not news. Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel flagged this historical point on page 224 of their comprehensive biography of Justice Brennan. Though Tony Lewis did not mention this particular fact in his Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (1991), he did, nonetheless, mention young Barnett and his recollections of the internal history of the case.

While it is certainly true that Stern and Wermiel shed light on the Barnett authorship, the fact is that Professor Barnett’s great contribution to First Amendment history is otherwise ignored in virtually all academic literature, including casebooks.

→» So, here is the news part, if I may take the liberty: Let’s stop the charade — if judges insist on having their law clerks write their opinions, then credit for those opinions or for notable passages within them must be allowed, if only after a designated period of time not to exceed twenty years after the termination of the clerkship. Though I might be open to reconsidering the matter, for now I am inclined to say that confidentiality agreements should be deemed contrary to public policy if they deny that possibility. I say this as a former law clerk who continues to respect fair norms of confidentiality. (Of course, in my case it was easy since Justice Hans Linde, not his law clerks, wrote all of his opinions.)

Justice Brennan was a great jurist even if he did not write the famous passage from Sullivan or even if he did not author NAACP v. Button (his clerk Richard Posner did). That said, let’s raise a glass to Steve Barnett and let’s credit him whenever we quote that “robust” language from Sullivan.  

» One more thing, by way of a related point — You know these words: “whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” The author? Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of course, writing in Schenck v. United States (March 3, 1919).

But hold on. As Professor Lucas Powe has observed, in “the summer of 1918, Benjamin W. Shaw, defending (unsuccessfully until appeal) an Espionage Act case, uttered the following during his closing argument to the jury”:

‘Under all of the facts and circumstances disclosed by the evidence in this case, how can it be said that he wilfully [sic] said and did the things alleged? How can the words used under the circumstances detailed in the evidence have the tendency to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent?” 

John Fontana, “12 American State Trials 897, 932 (John D. Lawson, editor) (F.H. Thomas Book Co., 1920) (emphasis added), quoted in L. A. Powe, “Searching for the False Shout of ‘Fire,’” 19 Constitutional Commentary 345, 352, n. 61 (2002), discussed in Ronald Collins, The Fundamental Holmes  (2010), p. 234.

California Voters asked to weigh in on Citizens United Read More

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Originalism in Noel Canning, Part II (“Happen”)

My last post talked about the original meaning of “recess.” Next is the “happen” question: For President to fill a vacancy during a recess, must the vacancy arise during the recess, or can it pre-date the recess? The question has been framed as whether “happen” in the Recess Appointments Clause means “arise” or “exist.” (As a reminder,the Clause grants the President power to “fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.”) The majority may have the better of the argument here as well.

To the modern ear, “happen” sounds like it only means “arise.” But what about to the eighteenth-century ear? As the majority observes, Thomas Jefferson opined in 1802 that the phrase was susceptible of either meaning. Perhaps more important, since his direct claim might have been politically motivated, Jefferson actually used “happen” to mean “exist” in his own correspondence. Although Alexander Hamilton endorsed the arise view, he called it only the “most familiar and obvious sense” of the language, which is different from saying it is the exclusive meaning. Likewise, Attorney General Wirt opined in 1821 that, although “arise” was the more natural reading, “exist” was possible as well, “without violence to the sense.”

Dictionaries suggest that “exist” was a valid, albeit minority, meaning of “happen.” One ratification-era dictionary gives the definition “to be” (others provide only the arise meaning). The Oxford English Dictionary’s third definition is “to chance to be,” and it provides usage examples from before and shortly after the late eighteenth century. Ratification-era constitutions also give some support to the “exist” reading. Most, if not all, of the constitutions that grant recess appointment powers do not restrict them to vacancies that arise during a recess. If there was a gestalt sense of how recess appointment powers should operate, then, it appears to have reflected the “exist” view.

There’s more, but let’s move on to the concurrence. To support the “arise” view, it cites two early attorneys general, an 1803 scholarly interpretation, and early congressional practice. Not bad. One can quibble with some of this evidence—I’ll pick on one piece in a moment—but for now let’s assume it’s sound. Does it establish that the “arise” view was the sole meaning of the word happen? It seems hard to reach that conclusion unless one is compelled to choose an exclusive meaning for the term. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify dismissing the contrary evidence, which includes the views and usage of Thomas Jefferson, hardly an unlettered member of the founding generation. (The concurrence, in an unfortunate moment of overstatement, says that “no reasonable reader” would have understood the Clause the way Thomas Jefferson apparently did.)

If one must choose a single definition, then of course it’s reasonable to conclude that “arise” was the more natural or majority meaning. Was the Court compelled to choose? I don’t see why it was, and the concurrence doesn’t offer a reason. The Clause’s drafters had to balance the need for expediency against the desire for Senate involvement—the potential need to fill offices urgently, regardless of when vacancies arose, against the possibility of less Senate involvement than one generally might desire. It is not clear that they must have erred one way or the other. Neither choice is unreasonable, much less absurd.

Ultimately, then, I think the majority’s conclusion better reflects what we know of original meaning. The evidence suggests that the word was ambiguous, susceptible to two different readings. One seems clearly to have been a minority meaning, to be sure. But in the absence of a compelling reason to pick an exclusive position, it seems the proper approach as a matter of original meaning is to recognize that the text had two possible meanings, and leave it at that.

Now for the evidentiary quibble. As a general matter, I think the evidence for the “exist” view is weaker than commonly believed, and originalists should consider it more carefully. But here I’ll mention just one point: The concurrence leads with the opinion of Edmund Randolph, the nation’s first attorney general, and it seems to rely on him heavily. In an apparent attempt to bolster Randolph’s value as a source, the concurrence says that Randolph was “a leading member of the Constitutional Convention.” What the concurrence fails to note is that Randolph refused to sign the Constitution in part over objections to the presidential appointment power and recess appointment power. By the Virginia Convention, he had come to support ratification, but he still expressed hope that the appointment power and recess appointment power would be excised from the document, at least with respect to judges.

Is Randolph a reliable source of original meaning? Maybe. Or maybe when he had the opportunity to set precedents as the first attorney general, Randolph pursued his private agenda—including his opposition to recess appointments—irrespective of original meaning. Perhaps even contrary to original meaning.

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FAN 23 (First Amendment News) — Paul Smith & Erin Murphy Debate Campaign Finance Law

Paul Smith & Erin Murphy

Paul Smith & Erin Murphy

It was quite an evening as Paul Smith and Erin Murphy went back-and-forth in a lively exchange discussing the McCutcheon case, campaign financing law, and the First Amendment. Professor David Skover moderated as the two one-time case foes — Erin represented Shaun McCutcheon & Paul filed an amicus brief on the other side — debated the pros and cons of government regulation. In his own casual, confident, and witty way, Paul pushed his views while Erin took it all in stride, always calm, cautious, and pointed. The exchange took place at the Washington, D.C. offices of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz (there was a live videocast feed to the firm’s New York office). This was the latest First Amendment salon. The discussion ranged from the technical to the philosophical as the two advocates and the discussants teased out various arguments. In the end, Smith and Murphy came together with big smiles and a firm handshake (the pair worked on the same side in the recently decided Aero case.)

Among others, the discussants included: Lee LevineBenjamin GinsbergLaura Handman, James Swanson, Joel Gora, Adam Liptak, David Savage, Jess Bravin, Stephen WermielKatherine Bolger, and Jeff Bowman (former AA to FEC Chairman Scott Thomas).

John Seigenthaler (1927-2014) – the Man Who Loved Light 

“His commitment to the First Amendment was unflagging.” Ken Paulson

“A champion of the First Amendment, giant of journalism,  and a wonderful human being.”              – Judy Woodruff 

We lost John Seigenthaler last week — he was 86. I was privileged to have worked with John while I was at the Newseum’s First Amendment Center, first in Arlington, Va. and then in Washington, D.C. John founded the Center in 1991.

In a recent USA Today column, Ken Paulson (John’s friend and longtime colleague) observed:

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler

“John was . . . the first editorial page editor of the then-new USA TODAY in 1982, developing the most balanced opinion pages in the country. For every USA TODAY editorial there would be a countervailing view. John embraced light instead of heat.”

“He was fueled by his passion for the First Amendment, the sense that every voice has value. He liked to tell the story of a liberal woman who found conservative radio deeply offensive. He told her ‘whenever I want to hush Rush, I turn the knob.’ With a pained expression she responded, ‘Then I get G. Gordon Liddy.’ John would roar with each retelling.”

“In 1991 John retired from his newspaper role to found the First Amendment Center. It was a role he was born to. Long an advocate for the underdog, John was a passionate champion for the five freedoms that few Americans knew much about and inevitably took for granted.”

Gene Policinski, a friend who worked with John since 1981, offered this life assessment of his colleague: “John’s passion for the First Amendment was driven by a belief in equality and in the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ He had a lifelong commitment to the idea that this nation would not just endure but would prosper if its citizens could freely discuss, debate, and decide public issues without the burden of the heavy hand of government.” (see here, too)

→ For more about John and his remarkable life, see:

High Court Agrees to Hear Sign Ordinance Case  Read More

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The Strange Doctrinal Legacy of Lawrence v. Texas

I’m currently working on a project concerning the doctrinal legacy of Lawrence v. Texas and continue to be amazed at the varied ways judges have read Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. The Supreme Court’s opinions in the case have been cited over 700 times, but only rarely in an expansive manner. Justice Scalia’s parade of horribles, articulated in his dissent, has not been realized (particularly in regard to criminal laws). Laws criminalizing prostitution, public indecency, adultery, adult incest (even without blood relation), fornication, bigamy, bestiality, obscenity, and drug use have all survived Lawrence challenges.

However, in a few unanticipated areas Lawrence has had a notable effect. In one instance, Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbot Laboratories (9th Cir. 2014), Judge Reinhardt on the Ninth Circuit cited Lawrence, along with other Supreme Court opinions regarding sexual orientation, in a Batson challenge case.  Reinhardt concluded that “heightened scrutiny applies to classifications based on sexual orientation and that Batson applies to strikes on that basis.” As a result, the court held that the decision to exclude a juror on the basis of sexual orientation violated Batson and ordered a new trial.

A stranger application, in my opinion, arose from a defamation lawsuit in Massachusetts. The First Circuit did not resolve the issue but described the district court holding in the case as follows:  “… the court held that imputing homosexuality cannot be considered defamatory per se…” Amrak Productions, Inc. v. Morton, 410 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2005); Albright v. Morton, 321 F. Supp. 2d 130 (D. Mass. 2004). The district court’s holding was particularly unusual because it did not need to reach the issue at all. The district court held, and the First Circuit agreed, that the plaintiffs had simply failed to state a defamation claim.

What strikes me as remarkable after reviewing all the cases that have cited Lawrence is that the majority opinion has primarily had effects in areas of law far outside of what was anticipated. Indeed, anti-sodomy laws, like the one at issue in Lawrence, are still enforced in several states (primarily in cases involving prostitution crimes and minors). So, does that mean that commentators were just really bad at predicting the effect of the new Lawrence doctrine? Or did Scalia’s dissent serve its function by encouraging courts to read Lawrence narrowly in the areas of law with which he was concerned?

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The Dilemma of Thomas Marshall

120px-Thomas_R._Marshall_in_his_Senate_office_croppedA theme that I’m thinking about exploring in a future work is the unsuccessful resolution of constitutional crises.  We focus on the people who raise their game at these times (the Framers, Abraham Lincoln, etc.), but perhaps we would learn more by studying folks like James Buchanan.  What was he thinking in 1860 when he did not stop secession?

The best example of this genre is Vice President Thomas Marshall, who was Woodrow Wilson’s #2 when Wilson had his stroke in 1919.  I have a soft spot for Marshall, as he was a Hoosier and is buried near where I used to live.  But he has a poor reputation, since he did not take charge when Wilson became disabled and thus allowed the country to drift at what turned out to be a crucial time (establishing a new international order after WWI).

My initial examination suggests that this account is not correct.  Marshall did lay out a path for taking over the presidency in private conversations with congressional leaders and some Cabinet members.  He said he would do so if there was some declaration by Wilson’s wife and doctor that he was disabled, and/or a joint resolution of Congress saying that the presidency was vacant.  (The “and/or” is important but unclear to me so far.)  Neither came (more on that later) and thus he felt he could not act.

In fairness, Marshall was in a tough spot.  First, Wilson’s wife and doctor did their best to conceal the truth about his health.  Second, Wilson didn’t like Marshall, thus he was less inclined to turn over power than he might have been.  Third, Marshall was concerned about setting a precedent whereby the VP and some Cabinet members could simply oust the President on health grounds.  In the absence of any law or clear guidance, his answer was actually a sensible one.  He wanted some clear (if unorthodox) institutional authority from Congress in the absence of a presidential resignation (temporary or not).  It’s worth adding that there is an allegation that opponents of the League of Nations in the Senate blocked a joint resolution because they thought their chances of defeating the Treaty of Versailles were better with a disabled Wilson in office, though I’m not sure if that is true.