I am tempted to scream “STFU” once again to the Supreme Court, but Linda Greenhouse has said it in a much more refined and powerful way

Despite a poorly drafted statute, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell held that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as interpreted by the Internal Revenue Service, allowed for subsidies to participants if they purchased the insurance on a federal, rather than, a state exchange. Then, the Supreme Court decided to review that case. There was no split in the Circuits. There is no urgency to grapple with a simple question of statutory interpretation.

While it is true that a panel of the D.C. Circuit had gone the other way, that decision was vacated pending an en banc hearing. Why then did the Supreme Court take King v. Burwell for review now? Professor Bickel, the law professor who gave us the elegant theory of “passive virtues,” would have shaken is head in stunned disbelief. Indeed, it is almost like the members of the Court are looking for a fight.

Linda Greenhouse, with whom I seldom agree, has written a long article on this subject in the New York Times.  I urge you to read it. She concludes her powerful piece this way:

So this case is rich in almost every possible dimension. Its arrival on the Supreme Court’s docket is also profoundly depressing. In decades of court-watching, I have struggled — sometimes it has seemed against all odds — to maintain the belief that the Supreme Court really is a court and not just a collection of politicians in robes. This past week, I’ve found myself struggling against the impulse to say two words: I surrender.

Like Ms. Greenhouse, I, too, am about to surrender. At the Supreme Court, currently dominated by Justices nominated by Republican Presidents, five of the Justices speak and write glowingly about judicial modesty and restraint. There is increasing evidence that this is empty rhetoric. At the Court, law has seemingly become politics by another name.

Like Ms. Greenhouse, the Court’s “activist” behavior depresses me no end. I hate admitting that I am and have been a naive dumb ass.

RGK

PS For what it is worth, I honestly don’t care whether the ACA lives or dies.

 

 

Once more unto the breach but briefly

There is a race to get to the Supreme Court again on the ACA. This time the question is whether covered individuals get a subsidy if they bought the insurance on an exchange created by the federal government for a state because the state elected not to do so. The issue is purely one of statutory construction. Linda Greenhouse, who is generally not my favorite commentator, has a good explanation of this race here.

Remember my post on the Hobby Lobby case?  In that post, I suggested that the Supreme Court should be more attentive to Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues.” This most recent ACA argument–fought out now in the D.C. and Fourth Circuits–gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to live up to Bickel’s advice. Here’s how:

  • Every time a Circuit court changes the status quo–rules for the ACA opponents–the Supreme Court should stay the case.  Remember, as Bickel would, that a ruling against the ACA frustrates the will of the people as expressed by Congress, even though Congress passed the law with the narrowest of margins.
  • The Supreme Court should not take any ACA case on the federal vs state exchange issue until every Circuit court has ruled. There is no harm in waiting since a stay and the status quo would mean simply that insurance buyers would continue to get the intended subsidy and the opponents suffer nothing but the opportunity to make their statutory construction argument as quickly as they would like. There is even the possibility that the Court could avoid the question entirely if Congress, in the interim, cleared up the alleged statutory ambiguity.

Delay, delay, delay should be the mantra of the Court. Since both conservative and liberals, to their shame, now endorse the idea that law is merely politics by another name, the Court should do everything in its power to push back hard against such bilge. The world will not fall apart if the Supreme Court takes a “wait and see” attitude that lasts several years. More time to nap is almost always a good thing.

RGK

Remembering Alexander Bickel’s passive virtues and the Hobby Lobby cases

In the Hobby Lobby cases, five male Justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a President who hailed from the Republican party, decided that a huge corporation, with thousands of employees and gargantuan revenues, was a “person” entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because that corporation was “closely held” by family members. To the average person, the result looks stupid and smells worse.

To most people, the decision looks stupid ’cause corporations are not persons, all the legal mumbo jumbo notwithstanding. The decision looks misogynistic because the majority were all men. It looks partisan because all were appointed by a Republican. The decision looks religiously motivated because each member of the majority belongs to the Catholic church, and that religious organization is opposed to contraception. While “looks” don’t matter to the logic of the law (and I am not saying the Justices are actually motivated by such things), all of us know from experience that appearances matter to the public’s acceptance of the law.*

The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’spassive virtues“–that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute.** What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases?  What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would  have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?

Next term is the time for the Supreme Court to go quiescent–this term and several past terms have proven that the Court is now causing more harm (division) to our democracy than good by deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid. As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu.***

*“Americans continue to take a dim view of the U.S. Supreme Court’s performance, perhaps in part because most still think the justices base their decisions on their own political agenda rather than the law.” Rasmusssen Reports, (Tuesday, June 24, 2014) (Only “26% Rate Supreme Court’s Performance Positively.”).

**Bickel was not trying to protect the Court itself. On the contrary, he realized that there were “hot button” cases that an anti-democratic Court would of necessity be required to resolve. It was for those rare “fate of the nation” cases, where the Court’s legitimacy mattered most to public acceptance of a really important decision, that required the Court to conserve this very scare resource.

***Thanks to June Edwards, one of the smartest lawyers I know, for stimulating this post last evening (July 4, 2014) as we sat on her pleasant patio overlooking a fire works display that illuminated the entire City of Omaha from our perch in the western hills. By the way, Charlie, the dog, was fine because Joan must have fed him 3 or 4 burgers plus all manner of other treats.

Judge Posner says: The American people know more about the CIA than the federal judiciary.

A recent Harvard law graduate from Nebraska, while studying for the bar and umping little league games, graciously took time to write me about a fascinating interview with Judge Posner in the ABA Journal. See Joel Cohen, An interview with Judge Richard A. Posner,  ABA Journal (Jul 1, 2014 5:20 AM CDT). I strongly recommend reading the interview.  The interviewer does a fantastic job of drawing Posner out on all manner of things including his public writings and his public quarrel with Justice Scalia.

But, for present purposes, I will concentrate on one aspect of the interview. Then I want your take on Posner’s assertions and the implications we should draw from them. By the way, his views get to the heart of this blog.

Here is the exchange I want you to concentrate on:

JC: Do you have any concern when you engage in, for lack of a better word, a dust-up with Justice Scalia that it deflects from the respect the judiciary might have in the eyes of the public, or even the bar itself?

RAP: I don’t care about that.

JC: How can that be?

RAP: Because I don’t understand why the judiciary should be the most secretive branch of government. The public probably knows more about the CIA than about the judiciary. There are few secrets in the executive branch. Everybody leaks. And Congress—they’re totally exposed. But judges have the most extraordinary gift for secretiveness. Why should that be? Why should judges be able to conceal so much from the public?

JC: So, Judge, you now have an opportunity to air laundry that perhaps hasn’t been aired.

RAP: It’s not a matter of airing dirty laundry; it’s about the public having a realistic understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the judiciary. For example, there’s wasteful spending on the courts (particularly on the courthouses, which often are wastefully large). There’s a work-ethic problem for some judges—you always have that when you have tenure; you have it with academics, with civil servants. But the most secure tenure is that of a federal judge. Some judges work very hard until they drop—others don’t. And of course judges are not uniformly able. There’s also a problem of excessive delegation to staff, mainly law clerks. And at least three circuits, the 5th, 6th and 9th, now have pre-assignment of judges. A case is assigned to a judge before argument, and he is expected to circulate a memo about the case in advance of argument to the other judges on the (normally three-judge) panel. The danger is that the other judges won’t prepare adequately, feeling it’s the assigned judge’s case. I consider that a questionable practice, deserving full examination. And there are other problems as well, including problems with the overall management of the federal judiciary.

Is Posner right? What are the implications of sitting federal judges (active or senior) writing (or speaking about) “dirty laundry? What about blogs?  Add whatever thoughts come to your mind!

Here is my quick take. Posner is exactly right. We run the federal judiciary as a secret society. It is not. The federal judiciary is a public body that should be open and as transparent as the work of the courts permit. For example, I strongly believe that now is the time to video all federal judicial proceedings–everyone and in every court. We have the digital technology today to make these recordings available on a daily basis through CM/ECF. It could be done at low-cost, and it would open the federal judiciary to review by the public about the daily struggles, strengths and weakness of our federal courts. People throughout the world could see in near real-time what really goes on. In my view, what really goes on is largely triumphal. In any case, the people have a right to know.

I conclude with this idea.  A recent poll of our public showed that only 30% of the People (a record low) have confidence in the Supreme Court. That is a very bad thing. As Alexander Bickel said many years ago, in The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics and The Morality of Consent, judicial review stands in stark, very stark, tension with democratic theory. Thus the Supreme Court (and probably all federal courts ) must play a statesman-like role in national controversies leading public opinion, albeit infrequently, shyly, carefully and ever aware that survival of our anti-democratic courts turn on a public consensus that the federal courts have a central role to play in our democratic society even though the judges are unelected and life-tenured. If we lose the support of the people, the federal judiciary is doomed. For me, complete and utter transparency is the only effective antidote to the cynicism that abounds regarding the federal judiciary.

Enough. Tell me what you think about Judge Posner’s views and the implications we should draw from them. I am very interested in your thoughts.

RGK

*For what it is worth, Bickel, more than any other contemporary scholar, shaped and continues to shape my view of the proper role of federal judges writ large.

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