What Kind of Judge Is Amy Coney Barrett?

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

Sept. 26, 2020, in the Wall Street Journal

It speaks volumes that the early opponents of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation have almost nothing to say about the work that has defined her career. Her scholarly and judicial writings place her at the center of the mainstream consensus on the judge’s role as an arbiter, not a lawmaker, who abides by the duty to enforce the law as written.

“A faithful judge resists the temptation to conflate the meaning of the Constitution with the judge’s own political preference,” she wrote in a 2017 article, shortly before she took the bench. That requires “fidelity to the original public meaning, which serves as a constraint upon judicial decisionmaking.” Judging also requires humility, to guard against “the feeling of infallibility” that often tempts judges to stray from the law. After all, “courts are not always heroes and legislatures are not always villains. They are both capable of doing good, and they are both capable of doing harm.” Ultimately, “the measure of a court is its fair-minded application of the rule of law.”

Her opinions for the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show skilled legal craftsmanship and sensitivity for the people whose rights are at stake. Among her most influential decisions is Doe v. Purdue University(2019), on the rights of college students accused of sexual assault. The case involved a male student who was suspended from school and expelled from ROTC based on his girlfriend’s accusation that he had groped her while she slept. He disputed the charge, but the university refused to disclose the evidence against him, to consider exculpatory evidence, and to interview witnesses—even the accuser, whose account it deemed more “credible” than his. All this was “fundamentally unfair,” Judge Barrett concluded, falling “short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension.”

The male student alleges that the university “tilted the process against men accused of sexual assault” to comply with since-rescinded U.S. Education Department guidance, and thereby discriminated against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. Judge Barrett’s decision, joined by two other female judges, allows that claim to go foward.

What’s notable about the opinion is Judge Barrett’s skill in working through the complexities of the parties’ arguments—which involved disputes over technical legal matters such as standing and remedies, among many others—without losing sight of the bigger picture. Her decision was not an unalloyed win for the male student, who lost on his claim for money damages. But the persuasive force of its reasoning made it an instant landmark in the wave of litigation sparked by the 2011 Education Department guidance. More than half the courts of appeals and dozens of district-court cases have already cited it.

Judge Barrett brought the same analytical acumen to bear in Kanter v. Barr (2019). Her dissenting opinion is an originalist tour de force on the Second Amendment’s application to “felon dispossession” laws, which restrict gun ownership by convicted criminals. The majority held that the government may categorically strip even nonviolent felons of Second Amendment rights. Judge Barrett took a narrower view based on the amendment’s text and history.

Surveying laws and practice around the time of the amendment’s framing in the late 18th century, she found support only for keeping weapons from those deemed dangerous and likely to misuse them. That category, she concluded, is “simultaneously broader and narrower than ‘felons’—it includes dangerous people who have not been convicted of felonies but not felons lacking indicia of dangerousness”—like the plaintiff, who had been convicted of mail fraud, or hypothetical felons convicted for “selling pigs without a license in Massachusetts” or “redeeming large quantities of out-of-state bottle deposits in Michigan.”

In U.S. v. Watson (2018), a Fourth Amendment case, the court considered whether police had reasonable suspicion to block a parked car based on an anonymous report that “boys” were “playing with guns” nearby. Judge Barrett, writing for a unanimous panel, concluded they didn’t. Because Indiana law permits carrying a firearm in public without a license, that tip didn’t create a reasonable suspicion of a crime, even if it might have been prudent for police to visit the scene and speak with those involved voluntarily. Judge Barrett rejected out of hand the government’s argument that a more forceful response could be justified based on the locale: “People who live in rough neighborhoods may want and, in many situations, may carry guns for protection. They should not be subject to more intrusive police practices than are those from wealthy neighborhoods.”

Judge Barrett has also been sensitive to the needs of law enforcement. In Sanzone v. Gray (2018), she joined two other judges in an unsigned opinion holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity from money damages when a suspect pointed a gun at officers immediately before he was shot. But she has also denied immunity in a series of cases in which officers allegedly lied or fabricated evidence in warrant affidavits. Her decisions hew close to the facts and the law, neither deferring to law enforcement nor accepting unfounded claims of abuse.

Judge Barrett has been especially attuned to overreaching by administrative agencies. She joined several opinions declining to defer to government agencies’ interpretations of their own regulations—a controversial doctrine known as Auer deference, which four Supreme Court justices said last year they were prepared to overturn.

She has also been aggressive in scrutinizing agencies’ factual determinations, particularly in Social Security cases. If C.S. Lewis was right that “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching,” then these decisions deserve special appreciation, because they hold the government to its burden when the outcome matters to no one but the litigants.

A final illustration of Judge Barrett’s temperament and discernment can be found in two decisions on immigration law. In Cook County v. Wolf (2020), she dissented from a panel opinion blocking the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, which restricts admission of aliens likely to depend on public benefits. Her dissent was vindicated when the Supreme Court stayed the injunction. In Morales v. Barr (2020), however, she wrote a ruling against an administration policy preventing immigration judges from “administratively closing,” and thereby delaying, deportation cases. While the two opinions differ in their bottom-line results, what they share in common is diligent and faithful statutory analysis following the example of Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Judge Barrett clerked.

Judge Barrett’s body of work shows her to be independent, discerning, diligent and fair. That’s why her opponents are likely to resort to personal attacks.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-kind-of-judge-is-amy-coney-barrett-11601154273

An originalist libel defense

By David B. Rivking Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

Read more »

Kavanaugh and the Ginsburg Standard

Don’t blame Brett Kavanaugh when he demurs at his confirmation hearing from answering questions on legal issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It’s the senators who will be in the wrong, for demanding commitments that no judicious nominee could provide. To answer “direct questions on stare decisis on many other matters, including Roe and health care”—as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for—would itself be disqualifying.

That principle has come to be called the Ginsburg Standard, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As she explained in the opening statement of her 1993 confirmation hearing: “A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case—it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.” Or, as she later responded to a question about constitutional protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation: “No hints, no forecasts, no previews.”

It would be a mistake to associate the rule too closely with Justice Ginsburg, who honored it inconsistently at her hearing, or to view it as driven only by policy considerations. In fact, the standard has deep roots in the law and history.

Begin with the Constitution. The Appointments Clause provides that judges, including Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the president “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” From the nomination of John Jay as the first chief justice in 1789 through the mid-1950s, public confirmation hearings were rare. Few nominees attended them when they did occur, and only a handful testified. Senators had no occasion to grandstand by demanding that a nominee declare his stance on legal controversies.

Read more »

A Champion of Constitutional Safeguards

Days before President Trump announced his choice of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats had vowed to oppose any nominee. Backed by an activist-fueled propaganda machine, they now will unleash relentless personal attacks—on Judge Kavanaugh’s Catholic faith, his “elitist” Yale degrees, his service in the George W. Bush administration.

As with the attacks last year on Justice Neil Gorsuch, they should be unavailing. Over Judge Kavanaugh’s 12 years on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, he has developed an impressive record as a legal thinker and a champion of the Constitution’s structural safeguards against overweening government.

Typical is a 2008 dissent in which Judge Kavanaugh concluded that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board was unconstitutionally structured because it improperly insulated the agency from political accountability. The opinion was a tour de force of historical exposition and originalist methodology—that is, interpreting the Constitution’s text as it was originally understood. The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, adopting the reasoning of Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent.

Yet he is equally wary of unbridled executive authority, as a 2013 case shows. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to proceed with licensing the proposed waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which the agency appeared to oppose on policy grounds, he wrote: “The President may not decline to follow a statutory mandate or prohibition simply because of policy objections.”

Read more »

Unappointed ‘Judges’ Shouldn’t Be Trying Cases

President Trump promised to nominate judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and that thought was no doubt foremost in his mind when he chose Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s vacant seat. On Monday Justice Gorsuch and his colleagues will consider whether the hiring of adjudicators deciding cases within federal agencies will also be subject to the kind of accountability that making an appointment entails.

So-called administrative law judges are not “principal officers,” so they are not subject to Senate confirmation under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The question in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission is whether they are “inferior officers.” In that case, the clause requires them to be appointed by principal officers, such as commissioners acting collectively or a cabinet secretary, themselves appointed by the president. The alternative is that they are mere employees, who can be hired by lower-level managers with no presidential responsibility.

The dividing line, the Supreme Court has explained, is whether the position entails the exercise of “significant authority.” There shouldn’t be much doubt on which side of that line the SEC’s judges fall.

In this case, the commission’s Enforcement Division decided to bring fraud charges against investment adviser Raymond Lucia in its own administrative court instead of a judicial court. The SEC alleged that Mr. Lucia misled participants in his “Buckets of Money” seminars when he used slides showing hypothetical returns based in part, rather than in whole, on historical data (as the slides themselves disclosed). The SEC assigned the case to an administrative law judge, Cameron Elliot. According to the record, Mr. Elliot sided with the SEC’s Enforcement Division in every one of his first 50 cases. Read more »

FISA Abuses Are a Special Threat to Privacy and Due Process

By  David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

Feb. 26, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The House Democratic surveillance memo is out, and it should worry Americans who care about privacy and due process. The memo defends the conduct of the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation in obtaining a series of warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The Democrats argue that Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled the Trump “dossier” on which the government’s initial warrant application was grounded, was credible. They also claim the FISA court had the information it needed about the dossier’s provenance. And they do not dispute former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s acknowledgment that the FBI would not have sought a FISA order without the Steele dossier.

The most troubling issue is that the surveillance orders were obtained by withholding critical information about Mr. Steele from the FISA court. The court was not informed that Mr. Steele was personally opposed to Mr. Trump’s election, that his efforts were funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that he was the source of media reports that the FBI said corroborated his dossier. These facts are essential to any judicial assessment of Mr. Steele’s veracity and the applications’ merits.

The FBI should have been especially wary of privately produced Russia-related dossiers. As the Washington Post and CNN reported in May 2017, Russian disinformation about Mrs. Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch evidently prompted former FBI Director James Comey to announce publicly the close of the investigation of the Clinton email server, for fear that the disinformation might be released and undermine the bureau’s credibility. Read more »