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Category: Supreme Court

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Bartelt’s Dog and the Continuing Vitality of the Supreme Court’s Tacit Distinction between Sense Enhancement and Sense Creation

Last Term, in an amicus brief in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. __, several colleagues and I highlighted the Supreme Court’s long, albeit not always clearly stated, history of distinguishing between sense-enhancing and sense-creating technologies for Fourth Amendment purposes.  As a practical matter, the Court has consistently subjected technologies in the latter category to closer scrutiny than technologies that merely bolster natural human senses.  Thus, the use of searchlights, field glasses, and (to some extent) beepers and airplane-mounted cameras was not found to implicate the Fourth Amendment.  As the Court explained, “[n]othing in the Fourth Amendment prohibit[s] the police from augmenting the sensory faculties bestowed upon them at birth with such enhancement as science and technology” may afford.  460 U.S. at 282 (emphasis added).  In contrast, the Court has held that technologies that create a new capacity altogether, including movie projectors, wiretaps, ultrasound devices, radar flashlights, directional microphones, thermal imagers, and (as of Jones) GPS tracking devices, do trigger the Fourth Amendment.  To hold otherwise, as the Court has stated, would “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy,” leaving citizens “at the mercy of advancing technology.”  533 U.S. at 34-36.

In fact, of the landmark cases involving technology and the Fourth Amendment during the past 85 years (from United States v. Lee, 274 U.S. 559, in 1927 to Jones in 2012), only in one instance did the Supreme Court appear to deviate from this distinction between sense enhancement and sense creation.  In that case, United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, and its successors, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, and Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, the Court held that the use of trained narcotics-detection dogs (more apparently similar to using a new capacity than merely enhancing a natural human sense) did not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  In our amicus brief in Jones, we rationalized Place, Edmond, and Caballes by arguing that dogs were unique, being natural biological creatures that had long been used by the police, even in the time of the Framers.  Further, we argued, a canine sniff, unlike the use of, say, a wiretap or a thermal imager, “discloses only the presence or absence of narcotics, a contraband item.”  462 U.S. at 707 (emphasis added).  Still, the apparent ‘dog exception’ was rankling. Read More

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Double deference

I know that I am supposed to be caught up along with everyone else in the same-sex marriage cases, but I am still distracted by Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, decided last week at the Supreme Court. In a separate opinion designed to push the buttons of what Scotusblog’s John Elwood called Supreme Court nerderati, Justice Scalia again called for the reconsideration of the principle of Auer deference. Auer says that just as courts should defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous provisions in their organic statutes, so should they defer to agencies’ reasonable interpretations of ambiguous provisions in regulations that they themselves promulgate. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito suggested that they would also be open, in a different case, to reconsidering Auer.

Read More

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Counting to Five

Here is a link to a terrific post by Tom Goldstein that raises two very interesting points:

1.  The Court could vacate and remand Perry for reconsideration in light of Windsor (the DOMA case).  That would not resolve the standing issue, but would allow the Justices to dodge the issue.

2.  If Justice Kennedy did not vote to grant certiorari, voting to dismiss the writ as improvidently granted could be contrary (at least in spirit) to the rule that you only need four Justices to vote yes on certiorari for the Court to hear the case.

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Some Thoughts On Florida v. Jardines

Amidst all of the discussion of gay marriage at One First Street NW today, you may have missed that the Supreme Court decided Florida v. Jardines.  In a five-four opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court held that bringing a police dog within the curtilage (in this case, the front porch) of the home to sniff for drugs constitutes a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.  As Orin Kerr predicted, the opinion turned on the lack of implied consent to approach with a dog, which converted the detectives’ action into a trespass.  Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Scalia’s opinion.  Justice Alito wrote for the dissent, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and the Chief Justice.  Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, wrote separately to note that they “could just as happily have decided [the case] by looking to Jardines’ privacy interests.” Read More

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Stanford Law Review Online: Anticipating Patentable Subject Matter

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Dan L. Burk entitled Anticipating Patentable Subject Matter. Professor Burk argues that the fact that something might be found in nature should not necessarily preclude its patentability:

The Supreme Court has added to its upcoming docket Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., to consider the question: “Are human genes patentable?” This question implicates patent law’s “products of nature” doctrine, which excludes from patentability naturally occurring materials. The Supreme Court has previously recognized that “anything under the sun that is made by man” falls within patentable subject matter, implying that things under the sun not made by man do not fall within patentable subject matter.

One of the recurring arguments for classifying genes as products of nature has been that these materials, even if created in the laboratory, could sometimes instead have been located by scouring the contents of human cells. But virtually the same argument has been advanced and rejected in another area of patent law: the novelty of patented inventions. The rule in that context has been that we reward the inventor who provides us with access to the materials, even if in hindsight they might have already been present in the prior art. As a matter of doctrine and policy, the rule for patentable subject matter should be the same.

He concludes:

“I can find the invention somewhere in nature once an inventor has shown it to me” is clearly the wrong standard for a patent system that hopes to promote progress in the useful arts. The fact that a version of the invention may have previously existed, unrecognized, unavailable, and unappreciated, should be irrelevant to patentability under either novelty or subject matter. The proper question is: did the inventor make available to humankind something we didn’t have available before? On this standard, the reverse transcribed molecules created by the inventors in Myriad are clearly patentable subject matter.

Read the full article, Anticipating Patentable Subject Matter at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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The Yale Law Journal Online: New Essays

The Yale Law Journal Online has just published Courts as Managers: American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock and Summary Disposition at the Roberts Court, by Alex Hemmer, and Emerging Counties? Prospects for Regional Governance in the Wake of Municipal Dissolution, by Ashira Pelman Ostrow. 

Ostrow writes that

[i]n Dissolving Cities, Professor Michelle Wilde Anderson suggests that municipal dissolution could enable counties to serve regionalist goals. This Essay argues that, on balance, municipal dissolution will not trigger the emergence of counties as agents of regional reform. Modern metropolitan regions span city, county, and state borders. As the scale of the region expands, state and local governments, including counties, will increasingly lack the territorial jurisdiction and regulatory capacity to respond to complex metropolitan problems. The Essay concludes by considering the role that the federal government can play, and has historically played, in facilitating regional collaboration at the appropriate scale. 

As Hemmer explains, 

Summary disposition is a procedural innovation—added only belatedly to the Supreme Court’s rules—in which the Court dispenses with a case without briefing or oral argument. It presents a puzzle for students of appellate decisionmaking: how can a case be significant enough to merit the Court’s consideration, but not significant enough to warrant the benefits of adversarial procedure? Commentators have asserted that the Roberts Court is more likely than its predecessors to use summary disposition to resolve cases, but this Essay presents the first systematic look at its use of that procedure. The Essay finds that—contrary to general understanding—the Roberts Court has not used summary disposition more than its predecessors did. Rather, it has used the procedure in different and potentially dangerous ways.

Preferred citations:

Alex Hemmer, Courts as Managers: American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock and Summary Disposition at the Roberts Court, 122 YALE L.J. ONLINE 209 (2013), http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/1/23/hemmer.html.

Ashira Pelman Ostrow, Emerging Counties? Prospects for Regional Governance in the Wake of Municipal Dissolution, 122 YALE L.J. ONLINE 187 (2013), http://yalelawjournal.org/2013/01/03/ostrow.html.

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The Stanford Law Review Online: Defending DOMA in Court

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Matthew I. Hall entitled How Congress Could Defend DOMA in Court (and Why the BLAG Cannot). Professor Hall argues that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group lacks standing to defend DOMA:

In one of the most closely watched litigation matters in recent years, the Supreme Court will soon consider Edith Windsor’s challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court surprised many observers by granting certiorari, not only on the merits of Windsor’s equal protection and due process claims, but also on the question whether the defendants—the United States and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives (the BLAG)—have Article III standing to defend DOMA. The United States has agreed with plaintiffs that DOMA is unconstitutional, prompting the BLAG to intervene for the purpose of defending DOMA’s constitutionality. No lower court has yet addressed whether the BLAG has standing, so the Supreme Court will have the first crack at the issue. But it turns out that the answer is straightforward: Under settled precedent, the BLAG lacks authority to represent either the United States or Congress, and having claimed no interest of its own, it therefore lacks Article III standing.

He concludes:

Congress could solve these problems by statute or resolution, but until it does so the BLAG is a mere bystander, with no stake in defending DOMA. This lack of standing may play a decisive role in the Windsor litigation. Both the BLAG and the executive branch defendants appealed the District Court’s judgment to the Second Circuit, and petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. If the BLAG lacks standing, however, then it had no authority to appeal or to seek Supreme Court review, and the Court’s jurisdiction must turn on whether the United States, which has agreed with the plaintiff that DOMA is unconstitutional, has standing to proceed with the case. Interestingly, the BLAG itself has argued that no such standing exists—a controversial position that is beyond the scope of this short piece. But if the BLAG is correct, then there is no case or controversy before the Court, and the Court will have to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The widespread expectation that Windsor will be a significant decision appears to be well-founded. But it remains to be seen whether its significance will lie in the area of individual rights or in the areas of federal court jurisdiction and the separation of powers.

Read the full article, How Congress Could Defend DOMA in Court (and Why the BLAG Cannot) at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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Book Review: A Brief History of Judging – From the Big Bang to Cosmic Constitutional Theory

J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, Cosmic Constitutional Theory (2012)

Opining on Justice Stephen Breyer’s book, Active Liberty, Judge Richard Posner wrote that “a Supreme Court Justice writing about constitutional theory is like a dog walking on his hind legs; the wonder is not that it is done well but that it is done at all.” Much the same could be said about Cosmic Constitutional Theory by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, the latest jurist to write about his own constitutional theory—or in Judge Wilkinson’s case, a self-professed lack of a constitutional theory.

Judge Wilkinson views all theories of constitutional laws as “cosmic” in the metaphyhsical sense. “[T]he search for cosmic theory has caused us to forget some mundane and humdrum truths, and that future generations will not look kindly on the usurpations that pursuits of unattainable ends have brought about.” Living constitutionalism, the hallmark of the Warren Court, is “activism unleashed.” Originalism—in many respects a moderating-jurisprudence born in reaction to living constitutionalism—to Judge Wilkinson is merely “activism masquerading as restraint.” Pragmatism—the approach endorsed most prominently by Judge Posner—is “activism through antitheory.” Constitutional theories are activist all the way down, to borrow another cosmic image. So, if living constitutionalism, originalism, and pragmatism are out, what is the best judicial philosophy? To Judge Wilkinson, that is the wrong question. In his view, the ideal jurisprudence is none at all. “So what is my theory?” he asks, rhetorically. “The answer is I have no theory.”

But it is not quite that simple. The sine qua non of Judge Wilkinson’s view of the judicial power is to permit the people, through self-determination and the democratic process, to rule for themselves. This very rejection of a constitutional theory is, in essence, a theory in and of itself. His anti-theory, one could call it, fails to address a number of curious constitutional counterfactuals the book raises, but does not resolve. What if other judges, applying Judge Wilkinson’s non-philosophy, had to decide divisive cases, where the will of the people was at odds with individual liberty? Think of cases involving segregation, eugenics, disenfranchisement, or criminal rights.

Elsewhere, Judge Wilkinson has written that “[w]hen a constitutional question is so close, when conventional interpretive methods do not begin to decisively resolve the issue, the tie for many reasons should go to the side of deference to democratic processes.” Judge Wilkinson punts on these important questions quite unconvincingly: outlier “[d]ecisions like BrownGideon, and Miranda represent success stories because they vindicated foundational principles essential to the functioning of our nation. But I doubt there are now Browns and Gideons waiting to be born.”

To simply shoo away any future constitutional conflicts by saying the Supreme Court has already decided the important cases is short-sighted, and as Gerard Magliocca put it, somewhat reminiscent of the 19th Century Patent Commissioner who purportedly boasted that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” This is not the case with respect to inventions, and it is certainly not the case with respect to future unexpected constitutional crises. Further, this position does nothing to address whether a Judge Wilkinson sitting on the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court decades earlier would have decided cases any differently. Unexpected changes in our society—disputed presidential elections, a war on terror, broccoli mandates, and other constitutional black swans—will happen, and the Supreme Court will confront them.

More pressing, is from what, or more precisely, from where Judge Wilkinson would derive these “foundational principles essential to the functioning of our nation.” Indeed, it is quite debatable what the foundational principles of our nation are, and what makes them essential to the functioning of our nation. Originalists would say that the foundation of our nation is the Constitution as understood by the founding generation. Living Constitutionalists would say that the foundation of our nation is evolving principles that reflect present circumstances.

And what are these principles to Judge Wilkinson? Addressed almost in passing, he notes that “[o]ne foundational premise of the American experiment is that self-determination is a valuable good.” Judge Wilkinson assumes—almost as if it is incontrovertible—that the foundational principle that separates a bad (read activist) opinion from a good (read restrained) opinion is one that promotes self-governance. But he does not show why this is so, nor does he prove why this is Article III’s ideal explication of “the judicial power.”

Cosmic Constitutional Theory serves as a worthy embodiment of Judge Wilkinson’s quarter-century of minimalist jurisprudence on the Fourth Circuit, and offers salient and vigorous critiques of today’s most popular schools of constitutional thought. However, where the book falters is by failing to come to grips with the foundation of Judge Wilkinson’s own anti-jurisprudence.

- Josh Blackman, Assistant Professor, South Texas College of Law

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Stanford Law Review Online: Software Speech

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Andrew Tutt entitled Software Speech. Tutt argues that current approaches to determining when software or speech generated by software can be protected by the First Amendment are incorrect:

When is software speech for purposes of the First Amendment? This issue has taken on new life amid recent accusations that Google used its search rankings to harm its competitors. This spring, Eugene Volokh coauthored a white paper explaining why Google’s search results are fully protected speech that lies beyond the reach of the antitrust laws. The paper sparked a firestorm of controversy, and in a matter of weeks, dozens of scholars, lawyers, and technologists had joined the debate. The most interesting aspect of the positions on both sides—whether contending that Google search results are or are not speech—is how both get First Amendment doctrine only half right.

He concludes:

By stopping short of calling software “speech,” entirely and unequivocally, the Court would acknowledge the many ways in which software is still an evolving cultural phenomenon unlike others that have come before it. In discarding tests for whether software is speech on the basis of its literal resemblance either to storytelling (Brown) or information dissemination (Sorrell), the Court would strike a careful balance between the legitimate need to regulate software, on the one hand, and the need to protect ideas and viewpoints from manipulation and suppression, on the other.

Read the full article, Software Speech at the Stanford Law Review Online.