Site Meter

Category: Supreme Court

0

Supreme Court docket down; citations to bloggers up

Linda Greenhouse’s NYT article is fascinating, noting that:

The reasons for the decline all grow out of forces building for decades. The federal government has been losing fewer cases in the lower courts and so has less reason to appeal. As Congress enacts fewer laws, the justices have fewer statutes to interpret. And justices who think they might end up on the losing side of an important case might vote not to take it.

The drop in the Court’s docket is fascinating, and Greenhouse’s article sets out some interesting potential contributing factors (noting a decline in filings by the Solicitor General, for instance).

Of possibly even greater interest to the professional navel gazers blogging world is Greenhouse’s familiar citation to of the legal blogosphere in her article. She mentions a SCOTUSBlog post by Tom Goldstein (which seems to have provided some of the initial idea for her own article); she also casually mentions a blog post by Orin Kerr.

Blog readers everywhere have to be wondering if Greenhouse’s article doesn’t provide its own answer. Supreme Court case load down . . . cites to bloggers up . . . could the two be somehow connected?

There is no correlation; grasshopper, there is only causation. And this one is easy: Supreme Court case numbers are down because of legal blogs.

Orin and Dan and Eugene and Stephen Bainbridge and Gordon Smith (and so on, and so forth) are successfully solving problems before the Justices get to them, and blogging the answers in real time. And given the blogosphere’s growth, it’s just going to get worse. The Court’s docket will continue to shrink until the frustrated Justices eventually cave in and begin blogging themselves (instead of just lurking). So just you watch — by next term, all new clerks will be required to know Movable Type.

Remember, you heard it here first.

7

Nazi Stolen Art Claims Pervade Record Auction

Welcome to the season of the major art auctions in New York. The New York Times (11/9/06) reported:

In a landmark sale, the biggest in auction history, nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of art changed hands last night at Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art. Soaring prices for blockbuster paintings by Klimt and Gauguin left thousands of spectators, who came to watch and to buy, gasping.

Not me. Instead I’m gasping at all the legal back stories involved in Wednesday night’s auction.

Picasso_angel_fernandez_de_soto.jpgThe most current one involved Christie’s lead item: Picasso’s “Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto” a.k.a. “The Absinthe Drinker.” On Monday, SDNY judge Jed Rakoff dismissed a suit brought against the auction house by an heir of a prominent Jewish Berlin banker who had owned the painting during WWII. The suit claimed title to the painting and sought its return or $60 million plus attorneys fees. Although Judge Rakoff ruled that the federal court had no jurisdiction over the matter, he hinted at his opinion on the merits stating, “I know that no one in the art world is just interested in money or in buying and selling paintings for profit. They’re guided by their belief in truth and beauty. But nevertheless, one might suspect that this is just a fight about money.” That suspicion was first raised by Christie’s who publicly questioned the motivation of the plaintiff in waiting 70 years to bring suit and then only days before this major auction. Christie’s attempted to take the high ground calling the plaintiff’s actions “a disservice to the restitution community.”

The painting has been owned by the foundation of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s (of “Cats” fame) since 1995. According to the plaintiff, his ancestor consigned the painting to his Swiss art dealer who sold it in the last months of his life. Christie’s contends the painting was sold after his death, but argues that either way it was a legal sale. The plaintiff’s suit rests on his claim the sale of the painting was under duress by the Nazis; a so-called “forced sale.” In this case, it seems that the Nazis seized the banker’s assets thereby forcing him to sell the art in 1934 in a depressed Berlin art market. This set of facts departs slightly from successful forced-sale claims in which art was sold in “Jew auctions” where Jewish art dealers were prohibited from making sales other than through Nazi-organized art auctions.

The lawsuit was re-filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday. Finally, just hours before the auction, Christie’s announced it was withdrawing the painting because “of eleventh-hour claims” that cast a “cloud of doubt” over title to the painting. The painting was estimated sale at $40 to $60 million. This means that if the painting were sold at say $50 million (all the other works sold exceeded their estimates), Christie’s lost $6 million, or its 12% commission (the lower commission charged for expensive works).

pAdele1.jpgAlso part of Wednesday’s auction were five Gustav Klimts that were the subject of a 2004 Supreme Court case, Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677. In that case, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of one of the paintings, willed the paintings to the Austrian Museum upon her husband’s death. She died, the WWII ensued and the paintings were seized by the Nazis. After the war, her husband willed them to their nieces and nephews. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act could be applied retroactively to Altmann’s case, thus paving the way for Altman to sue the Austrian Government in US Courts. In April of this year, the Austrian National Gallery was compelled by a national arbitration board to return the five paintings to Maria Altmann, the niece of the original owner. On Wednesday night, the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for $87.9 million, a Klimt record and almost double its estimate. The room reportedly exploded in applause.

Still another work in Wednesday’s auction was the subject of a legal dispute. “Berliner Strassenszene” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was only recently was turned over to the heirs of Jewish shoe factory owner Alfred Hess by the Bruecke-Museum in Berlin, where it hung since 1980. In that dispute, Hess’ widow contended she was intimidated into bringing the painting back to Germany from safety in Switzerland.

5

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

The Senate race is all about the Supreme Court, my friends tell me. If you want one type of Justice, vote Republican; if you want another type, vote Democrat. They’re right, of course. The Senate will have to confirm any appointments that Bush makes in the next two years. But just what kinds of results can we expect from a Democratic versus a Republican Senate? A quick survey of recent justices (excluding Justices Roberts and Alito, who are too new to really judge) shows:

Recent Justices Nominated by Republican President and Confirmed by a Democratic Senate

Clarence Thomas

David Souter

Anthony Kennedy

William Rehnquist

Recent Justices Nominated by Republican President and Confirmed by a Republican Senate

Antonin Scalia

Sandra Day O’Connor

The results are clear, aren’t they? If you would like to see justices similar to Justice O’Connor appointed, then vote Republican. And if you would like justices like Justice Thomas or Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed, then vote Democratic. History doesn’t lie, does it? Based on past history, for example, you can accurately tell your friends that you’re voting Republican this year because you didn’t much like Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist, and prefer Justice O’Connor.

I only hope this information doesn’t arrive too late to influence anyone’s political choices this election day.

5

Supreme Court Poll

Which of this year’s Supreme Court cases will be most significant?

  
Free polls from Pollhost.com

13

Expertise and the Blawgosphere

TortureRack.jpgA recent, well-publicized, comment thread over at the VC caught my attention. In it, Professor Ilya Somin explained his silence on the habeas/torture legislation as a combination of humility and utility maximization:

I try to limit blogging to issues where I have a comparative advantage: that is, questions on which I can say something useful or interesting that is unlikely to be said by others. I do not regard the VC as a forum for me to air all aspects of my world view, or even all of my views on contentious political issues. Little purpose is served by my simply repeating the same points on torture, detention or any other issue that have already been made by dozens of others.

Moreover, I take seriously the implications of some of my own scholarly work on political ignorance. Merely knowing a few basic facts that can be gleaned from perusing a newspaper is not enough knowledge to conclude that I have something original and important to say about an issue, except in very rare cases where the issue in question is unusually simple. My experience as an expert on political information is that there are far more issues that are more complex than most nonexperts believe than the reverse. In this regard, my general expertise on political information helps me keep tabs on my lack of expertise on specific issues.

Marty Lederman commented:

The odd thing is figuring out why many of the VC bloggers have not been *interested* in becoming more informed about these questions, and about this legislative initiative — *not* because they are bloggers or even legal bloggers (heaven knows we don’t want every legal blog to pretend to be expert in such questions), but because many of them are committed *libertarian* bloggers who are obviously impassioned and informed about many other arrogations of state power and threats to individual liberty.

It is a debate with some bite, I think, for this blog. We aspire to be a general interest law blog, with mostly serious content. But we have demonstrated little collective interest in the habeas/torture problem. Sure, we’ve had a few posts, but nothing like the sustained attention given by Balkinization, or Opinio Juris. The question I wonder about is whether a blog that claims to be a general interest legal forum has a duty – if it is to be respected – to weigh in the big legal questions of the moment.

Read More

4

It’s Time for the Supreme Court to be Heard

microphone.jpgWe are heading into the first full Supreme Court term in 19 years with a new Chief Justice, John Roberts, who is sure to consider changing some of the Court’s policies. So it seems worth asking once again why the Court does not immediately release audio broadcasts of all oral arguments.

Same-day release of oral argument audio tapes was unheard of until December 2000, when the Court permitted it in Bush v. Gore. Since then, the Court has several times allowed the immediate release of oral argument audio tapes in high profile cases, such as those concerning the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees and challenges to affirmative action programs in higher education. But the vast majority of oral arguments are inaccessible to anyone who cannot wangle a seat at a Supreme Court argument. An official at the Court’s Public Information Office said only that it was the Court’s “tradition” to withhold tapes of oral arguments for release until the start of the next term, months after the cases have been decided. The Court should rethink that practice.

Listening to the arguments provides insight into how cases will likely be decided and perhaps even a view of how future cases presenting related issues will be resolved – information that is too important to be reserved to the handful of Supreme Court bar members who can make it into the courtroom. Although transcripts of oral arguments are published on the Supreme Court’s website, they are not available until approximately ten days after the argument, and in any case a cold transcript is no substitute for an audio recording because the tone of voice, pace of response, and emphasis on certain words and phrasings is lost.

I was in the courtroom in 2002 for the oral argument debating the constitutionality of Virginia’s cross-burning law, and I can attest that only someone who heard the argument could have felt the power of Justice Clarence Thomas’ comments on the history of cross-burning, or understood the impact of his words on the justices’ view of that case. More generally, only those who hear the justices speak can detect sarcasm or disbelief in their voices, or know when they are truly asking questions and when they are making pronouncements about how the case should be decided.

Read More

12

Tied Up in the Tenth Circuit

tied_up.jpgI have been litigating a case in the Tenth Circuit that produced an unusual result. I lost before the panel, but a strong dissent from Judge Ebel convinced the Tenth Circuit to rehear the case en banc. Twelve judges sat on the case. On May 17, 2006, just a week after the en banc argument, I received the Court’s per curiam opinion announcing that it was evenly divided, 6-6. The Court thus affirmed the district court and vacated the panel opinion without issuing any law for the circuit. This frustrating result has created a mini-debate among those I have consulted about filing a cert. petition in the Supreme Court. Some of the experienced Supreme Court practitioners with whom I have discussed the case are convinced that the 6-6 split increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will grant cert., while others believe that the lack of any precedent on this issue in the Tenth Circuit detracts from its cert-worthiness. I would be very interested to hear from anyone with an opinion on the matter whether they think the Tenth Circuit’s tie vote makes this case a better, or worse, candidate for Supreme Court review. (Obviously, getting the Court to grant review is always a long shot; I’m just interested to know how people think this odd result from the en banc court will affect my chances).

For those who are interested, here is a little background information on the case: My client, Cornelius Peoples, filed suit in the Kansas District Court against prison guards employed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Mr. Peoples, a federal prisoner, alleges that guards at CCA’s Leavenworth, Kansas, facility failed to protect him from attacks by other prisoners even after he repeatedly requested that he be removed from his cell block for his own safety. Claiming a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights, he brought suit under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Although it’s clear that Mr. Peoples could have brought a Bivens action if he were incarcerated in a government-run prison, the circuits are divided on the question whether prisoners can sue private prison guards for constitutional violations. It has been an interesting case to litigate, but I am sorry that I have not been able to get a better result for my client.

3

Was Korematsu a “Legitimate” Supreme Court Decision?

Kim Roosevelt and I are debating the legitimacy of Korematsu v. United States over at my blog IsThatLegal. Kim’s arguing that the decision was wrong but nonetheless “legitimate” because it proceeded from a valid principle of deference to military decisionmaking, and I’m disagreeing.

Check it out, and share your thoughts in the comments, either here or there.

1

Justice Kennedy Swinging Left?

One of the questions I had going into this most recent Supreme Court term was the effect that Justice O’Connor’s impending departure would have on Justice Kennedy. While O’Connor was on the Court, she and Justice Kennedy were universally identified as the key swing justices, but the label was far more appropriate for O’Connor than it was for Kennedy. In the 136 5-4 cases in which the Court’s (more) liberal bloc held together during the period between OT1993 and OT2004, Justice O’Connor supplied the “liberals” with a fifth vote far more frequently than Justice Kennedy (32 times compared with Justice Kennedy’s 17). It goes without saying that the voting pattern of both O’Connor and Kennedy remained decidedly conservative during this period, since the (more) liberal bloc, unable to attract either of the swing justices, lost most of those 5-4 cases.

Following the Court this past term, I developed the impression that Justice Kennedy was swinging to the left more than he had in the past. But I did not try to put a number on that gut feeling until the term ended. Looking at the OT2005 statistics compiled by Tom Goldstein and his crew and by Georgetown, there’s some interesting evidence that Justice Kennedy might be shifting his voting pattern a bit.

During the 1993-2004 period mentioned above, Justice Kennedy provided the fifth vote to the more liberal four only 12.5% of the time. During this past term, however, that number increased (by my count) to almost half (5) of the (12) close cases where the four liberals held together against the conservative justices (Rapanos, LULAC, Randolph, Hamdan, and House — did I miss any?). And in Clark v. Arizona, Justice Kennedy dissented with Justices Stevens and Ginsburg against a majority consisting of Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and (doh!) Souter.

This is obviously too small a sample size to make any generalizations, but it will be interesting to see whether the trend continues next term. Still, there seems to be some reason to hope that Kennedy might pick up some of the slack left by O’Connor’s departure. I don’t want to make too much of this, though. Justice Kennedy still sides with his more conservative bretheren most of the time. And, as Rapanos shows, he can be stingy with his fifth vote, which means that when the more liberal justices win, the victories are likely to be incremental at best.