A Cautiously Conservative Supreme Court

Ideological lines turn out to be more fluid than partisans had imagined when Barrett was named.

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

July 1, 2021, in the Wall Street Journal

‘Every time a new justice comes to the Supreme Court,” Justice Byron White used to say, “it’s a different court.” Activists expected that to be especially true when Justice Amy Coney Barrett arrived last year. The leftist pressure group Demand Justice denounced the nominee to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “a far-right, activist judge whose confirmation would threaten to upend the lives of millions of Americans” and predicted her vote would doom ObamaCare.

Reality is seldom so simplistic. ObamaCare survived California v. Texas with a 7-2 majority, including Justice Barrett. Of the 65 cases the court reviewed this term, it decided only nine by 6-3 votes along conventional ideological lines, and only three of those could fairly be described as involving hot-button political controversies. One was Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, which held that a California labor regulation requiring agricultural employers to allow labor organizers on their property constituted “a per se physical taking” for which the employers were entitled to just compensation. The others were decided on Thursday as the term ended: Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee on election regulation and Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta on forced disclosure of nonprofit donors.

Yet it’s true the court has entered a new phase—one characterized by modest conservative victories, unpredictable alignments of justices, and surprising unanimous judgments. The driving forces are doctrinal differences among the court’s six conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts’s preference for incremental rather than sweeping change, and the embrace across ideological lines of the principle that judges should follow the language of the law. As Justice Elena Kagan said in 2015, “We’re all textualists now.”

The same day the court ruled in favor of ObamaCare, it unanimously held that Philadelphia had violated the First Amendment by decreeing that a Catholic foster-care agency couldn’t operate in the city unless it certified gay couples. The deeper issue was the fate of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a landmark decision holding that generally applicable laws burdening religious practice don’t violate free exercise, no matter that the burden may be great and the government’s interest slight.

In Fulton v. Philadelphia, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch voted to overturn Smith. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion for the other six justices didn’t go that far, but it remade the doctrine by holding that religious conduct must be treated no worse than equivalent secular conduct. That means a law isn’t “generally applicable” under Smith if it permits secular exceptions.

Fulton is a victory mainly for the chief justice’s incrementalism, which has its virtues—among them that it makes the court’s rulings easier for the losing side to accept. It’s no small matter that the court was able to rule unanimously for religious freedom in a case widely expected to be contentious. At the same time, Fulton makes Smith easier to overturn by weakening its rationale and reliance on its sweeping rule. In a concurrence, Justices Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh suggested they are open to doing so.

Fulton wasn’t the only surprising show of unanimity. In Caniglia v. Strom, all nine justices rejected a “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements for home searches—a case that might have splintered on concerns about gun violence or the needs of law enforcement. Twice the court unanimously overruled immigration decisions from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals favoring aliens; one of those decisions was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Other unanimous decisions rejected expansion of recent sentencing reductions for crack offenders, authorized money damages against state officials who violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, limited human-rights suits premised on foreign conduct, recognized First Amendment protection for a public-school student’s out-of-school speech, and declined to tighten jurisdictional limits on suits against major corporations. (So much for claims that the Roberts Court is in thrall to big business.)

Behind much of this agreement is the court’s convergence on textualism, the method of interpretation Justice Antonin Scalia advocated as a corrective to judicial policy making. The two unanimous immigration cases, as well as the crack-sentencing one, elevated clear statutory text over policy arguments. Likely the court’s outnumbered liberals have come to realize that only textualist reasoning can achieve a majority on today’s court.

There’s an asymmetry to this. Liberal justices’ methodological flexibility enables them to vote strategically with whichever conservative colleagues favor the most congenial result. Conservatives justices tend to be exacting on questions of text and doctrine, which can split their votes even when they agree on central issues or approach. Yet political conservatives can take heart from the court’s actions this term—and look optimistically toward the next. The justices agreed to hear cases in the 2021-22 term that give them opportunities to scale back precedents on abortion and expand them on gun rights.

The clearest area of positive reform this term concerns Congress’s attempts to shield executive-branch agencies from presidential control and democratic accountability. In U.S. v. Arthrex, the court found a constitutional violation in a scheme authorizing patent judges to render decisions free from review by the head of the Patent and Trademark Office, an officer subject to presidential oversight. In Collins v. Yellen, it held unconstitutional a restriction on presidential removal of the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The court invalidated only the offensive restrictions. But that limited remedy overcomes the principal objection—“widespread disruption”—to restoring presidential control by overruling the entire line of cases that authorize the headless “fourth branch” of government. That has been a central goal of the conservative legal movement since the 1970s.

To be sure, incrementalism can go too far. Some of the chief justice’s opinions, including Arthrex, are so carefully hedged that the rules they announce are little more than that one party prevailed and the other lost. A similar complaint can be leveled at Justice Stephen Breyer’s 8-1 opinion in the student-speech case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., which provides little guidance for lower courts or school administrators. Justice Alito offered more in a concurrence, but only Justice Gorsuch joined it. Likewise, Justice Breyer’s opinion in the ObamaCare case declined to rule on the merits, holding instead the challenges lacked standing yet without addressing their central argument to the contrary.

All these opinions were assigned by the chief justice and joined in full by his most junior colleagues, Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett. They are rightly concerned about overreaching and appear resolved in each case to decide no more than need be decided. Judicial restraint is essential and admirable, but clarity about the law is necessary for the rule of law to function. As the new justices gain confidence, the court should strike a truer balance.

Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Both practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-cautiously-conservative-supreme-court-11625164373

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Sept. 29, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

The effort to sink Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation cries out for investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding alleged material misstatements by lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick. And a new book by two New York Times reporters contains a potentially explosive revelation.

In “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly report that Leland Keyser —who was unable to corroborate high-school friend Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of youthful sexual misconduct—says she felt pressured by a group of common acquaintances to vouch for it anyway. The book quotes an unnamed male member of the group suggesting in a text message: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is”—a remark the reporters describe as reading “like a veiled reference” to Ms. Keyser’s “addictive tendencies.” (The authors quote her as saying she told investigators “my whole history of using.”)

A concerted effort to mislead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate, especially if it involved threats to potential witnesses, could violate several federal criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. 1001 (lying to federal officials), 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of official proceedings) and 18 U.S.C. 1622 (subornation of perjury). Investigating and, if the evidence is sufficient, prosecuting such offenses would deter similar misconduct in the future.

It’s bad for the country when nominees are subjected to what Bill Clinton calls “the politics of personal destruction.” It intensifies political polarization and bitterness, traduces due process, dissuades good people from government service, and injures the reputation of the judiciary and other institutions.

The Senate and FBI could also consider changing the background-check process for nominees. Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents seem to have expected a full-fledged criminal-style inquiry into Ms. Ford’s allegations, although Senate Democrats had sat on them for months. But that’s not how background investigations work. They’re carried out by a special unit whose job is to verify information the nominee has provided and gather additional information that may reflect on his character and reputation. This process does not involve the same sort of searching questions that are characteristic of a criminal investigation. Nor do FBI background investigators routinely assess individual witness credibility. They reach no conclusions but collect information and then forward it to the White House and Senate. It is then up to the elected officials to decide who and what to believe. It is a political, not a criminal, process.

This is a matter of practice and tradition, not law. The FBI could be asked to conduct background investigations in a manner more comparable to its criminal and intelligence work, where agents will assess witness credibility and use those assessments to guide the focus and course of the inquiry. It should be especially vigilant to the possibilities of collusion and witness tampering, which are uniquely troubling in high profile confirmation battles.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/probe-the-effort-to-sink-kavanaugh-11569786380

Democrats Abandon the Constitution

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

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.

Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:

• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.

The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.

• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.

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Kavanaugh’s Foes Politicize the FBI

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Kristi Remington

October 1st, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The bipartisan bonhomie occasioned by the reopening of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s background investigation dissipated quickly. By the weekend, Senate Democrats—who had demanded the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—were challenging its credibility, objecting to its scope and focus, and lamenting that the White House had any involvement in shaping the process.

The reopened investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham—reflecting the White House’s view—potentially entailed interviewing Deborah Ramirez, who claims that Judge Kavanaugh committed lewd conduct while a freshmen at Yale, and the three purported witnesses named by first accuser Christine Blasey Ford—Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser—all of whom have attested they have no memory that would corroborate her accusation. Julie Swetnick’s sordid and implausible claims were to be left out, and if any new allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were to emerge, these also wouldn’t be investigated.

President Trump told reporters Monday: “The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason.” That qualification is crucial. It is clear that Judge Kavanaugh’s opponents are clamoring for an open-ended fishing expedition that, probably by design, would go on much longer than a week. They are insisting that the FBI investigate Judge Kavanaugh’s drinking while in high school and college and interview anyone who might know about it. Two such people have already come forward, and there are no disincentives for new claimants, possibly driven by partisan or personal animus, to emerge.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) tried to justify his demand to broaden the FBI investigation by claiming that heavy drinking was “directly relevant” to the sexual-assault allegations. If this approach were adopted, the FBI would have to interview a very large pool of witnesses about Judge Kavanaugh’s alcohol intake, and possibly many other personal traits, over many years. Never mind that alcohol use is a standard FBI question, certainly asked in the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s previous six background investigations.

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Kavanaugh hearing antics showed Dems’ contempt of Congress

By David B. Rivkin Jr.

Sept. 9, 2018, in The Hill

Democrats like to pillory President Trump for destroying American institutions and breaking the norms of conduct. Yet, during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats blatantly and flippantly violated Senate norms, rules and traditions — and inflicted in the process considerable damage on the institution.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) interrupted the very first sentence of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) opening statement. Protesters constantly interrupted questions asked by senators of both parties, as well as Kavanaugh’s answers; they were challenged only by Republican senators. But even in this chaotic atmosphere, Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) decision to violate the committee’s confidentiality agreement with the executive branch, pursuant to which the committee received documents that otherwise would have been withheld, was particularly egregious.

On Wednesday night, Booker asked Kavanaugh about an email exchange dating to the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. He quoted a committee confidential document — that is, a document that no senator had the authority to make public, and which Kavanaugh did not have in front of him.

Early Thursday, to ensure that  Kavanaugh and the American public would be able to see the emails for themselves, Grassley worked with the Department of Justice and former President George W. Bush’s attorney to release several committee confidential documents, including the one Booker had quoted. They were taken off the “committee confidential” roster at 4 a.m.

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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.

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