constitutional law

“On sundry occasions in US history, the president has defied a check that a co-equal branch of the federal government has sought to place on him (to date, the president has always been a man). Such defiance, alone, is confrontation. But confrontation soon will escalate to crisis if the legislative or judicial branch abdicates its duty fully to check unwarranted executive behavior.”

The passage is drawn from my comment in response to the question whether the United States is in a “constitutional crisis” or “confrontation.” My comment appears as part of an expert legal roundup at Vox, compiled by journalist Sean Illing.

The comment begins with the observation that the U.S. Constitution is the product of crisis, and also a bold, 230-year experiment in which “Americans dared to promise equality in an unequal world, to prescribe government by the rule of law rather than the whim of one man” Setbacks continue. Respecting the promise of equality, “persons of color, women, and others continue to struggle … for their due place in the American polity.” Respecting the prescription for rule by law, it remains to be seen whether the unfolding separation-of-powers confrontation will constitute crisis.

The full roundup is here. Also contributing were: Victoria Nourse, Georgetown Law; Keith Whittington, Princeton; Jessica Silbey, Northeastern Law; Peter Shane, Ohio State Law; Mark Tushnet, Harvard Law; Alice Ristroph, Brooklyn Law; Sanford Levinson, Texas Law; Aziz Huq, Chicago Law; Tom Ginsburg, Chicago Law; and Ilya Somin, George Mason Law.

“With his four-page letter on Mueller’s report, Attorney General William Barr drives the obstruction-of-justice ball firmly into Congress’s court.”

So begins my comment on the Attorney General’s brief summary of the presumably much longer report submitted to him Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It appears as part of an expert legal roundup at Vox, compiled by journalist Sean Illing.

The comment proceeds to recount Barr’s quotation of Mueller: although the

“‘report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”

Still, Barr wrote that he found insufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of presidential obstruction of justice. That standard of proof is essential to conviction in criminal court – but not in impeachment proceedings, which, if launched, would  begin in the House of Representatives and end in the Senate. For that reason, the ball is in Congress’s court. However, I wrote, the further finding of no coordination or conspiracy to aid Russian election interference may means Congress lets the ball lie there.

The full roundup is here. Also contributing were: Victoria Nourse, Georgetown Law; Jessica Levinson, Loyola Law; Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, Stetson Law; Christopher Slobogin, Vanderbilt Law; Miriam Baer, Brooklyn Law; Keith Whittington, Princeton; Robert Weisberg, Stanford Law; Jimmy Gurulé, Notre Dame Law; Stephen Legomsky, Washington University Law; Frances Hill, Miami Law; Ilya Somin, George Mason Law; Jens David Ohlin, Cornell Law; Ric Simmons, Ohio State Law; and Peter Margulies, Roger Williams Law.

(photo credit)

Executive Branch Lawyering course, from left: Maria Eliot, Wade Herring, Professor Diane Marie Amann, Sarah Mirza, Hanna Karimipour, Jennifer Cotton, Taylor Samuels, Judge David J. Barron, Morgan Pollard, Keelin Cronin, Joe Stuhrenberg

Who decides how America wages war?

What does “commander in chief” mean?

What (national or international) laws govern the United States’ waging of war?

How and by whom are those law identified, interpreted, decided, and implemented?

Those questions and many more arose during the Executive Branch Lawyering course that I just had the honor of co-teaching with David J. Barron, Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit and also The Honorable S. William Green Visiting Professor of Public Law at Harvard Law School, where he had taught full-time before his 2014 appointment to the federal bench.

My own association with Barron – like me, a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens – dates to 2008. That year, Barron and I were among the charter contributors to “Convictions,” a legal blog published for a time at Slate. And in 2017 Judge Barron began serving on the Judicial Advisory Board of the American Society of International Law, with which I am affiliated thanks to my editorship of ASIL’s Benchbook on International Law (2014).

For an 18-month period between those years, Barron served as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, providing legal advice to then-President Barack Obama and to agencies in the Executive Branch. That experience formed the basis of the 1-credit course that he and I co-taught last week at my home institution, the University of Georgia School of Law.

Our texts included Barron’s 2016 book, Waging War: The Clash Between Presidents and Congress, 1776 to ISIS, as well as The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration, a 2009 memoir by Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, who had led OLC from 2003 to 2004 – plus executive orders, congressional enactments, judicial decisions, and other primary materials.

To prepare for sessions with Judge Barron, a topnotch group of 9 Georgia Law students and I examined a selection of historical moments when Presidents’ war-waging generated tensions, with other branches of government established in the U.S. Constitution and with other stakeholders. Of particular concern were instances related to executive detention in time of war, for example: treatment of British officers held during the American Revolution; General Andrew Jackson’s jailing of a judge who issued a writ of habeas corpus during the 1814 military occupation of New Orleans; and 2 capital military trials, the 1st of an Indiana civilian in the Civil War and the 2d of Nazi saboteurs in World War II.

Sessions with Judge Barron concerned US executive detention and related issues since the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The focus was on OLC’s legal, ethical, and practical duties in advising on such policies – and, through careful and extensive role-playing, on how Executive Branch lawyers go about the day-to-day work of giving such advice.

A most valued, and rewarding, teaching experience.

 

Pleased to have contributed to reporter Sean Illing’s Vox roundups of academic commentary on yesterday’s testimony by former FBI Director James B. Comey before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. (photo credit)

Illing 1st asked whether, in “Comey’s introductory remarks or in his exchanges with senators,” the witness made “a case that President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.” My response here.

Next, he asked about a statement released by the President’s personal lawyer, which said that Comey had engaged in “unauthorized disclosure of privileged information.” My response, which treated the constitutional doctrine of executive privilege, here.

Just had a chance to read in full the Marriage Cases – that is, U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 judgment in Obergefell v. Hodges – and was struck by the degree to which it upends tradition.

No, not that tradition.

What’s striking is not so much the holding that the Constitution guarantees a right to marry that extends to couples regardless of sex. That result has seemed reside in the it’s-only-a-matter-of-time category for a while now.

What’s striking, rather, is that in reaching this result, the Court explicitly revived an interpretive method that views certain constitutional clauses as interlinked.

‘The right of same-sex couples to marry that is part of the liberty promised by the Fourteenth Amendment is derived, too, from that Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the laws,’

14th Amendment 2Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a 5-member majority. He continued:

‘The Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause are connected in a profound way, though they set forth independent principles. Rights implicit in liberty and rights secured by equal protection may rest on different precepts and are not always co-extensive, yet in some instances each may be instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other. In any particular case one Clause may be thought to capture the essence of the right in a more accurate and comprehensive way, even as the two Clauses may converge in the identification and definition of the right.’

In support of this posited “synergy,” Kennedy cited numerous twentieth-century decisions, among them  Loving v. Virginia (1967), Zablocki v. Redhail (1977), and one I find a super teaching vehicle, Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942). He chose to stick close to the family-related subject matter at hand, and so omitted other examples of this method, such as Griffin v. Illinois (1956), requiring the provision of trial transcripts to rich and poor defendants alike. Each judgment evinces more concern for doing justice than for divining a single-clause source from open-ended terms like “due process” and “equal protection.” Some of these decisions also tend not to devote much time to shoehorning facts into “levels of scrutiny” – a judge-created superstructure not found in the Constitution’s text, and not invoked in last month’s Marriage Cases.

Far from aberrational, these developments follow a trend detectable in many constitutional opinions of the last couple decades. It bears echo to other Kennedy opinions, not to mention the duty to govern impartially posited by Justice John Paul Stevens during his many years on the bench. (Kennedy’s view that the Constitution’s framers intended today’s Court to interpret their words in an evolutive manner likewise jibes with writings of Stevens and another retired Justice, David H. Souter.)

Many law schools follow a format that puts the Due Process Clause in Con Law I and the Equal Protection Clause in Con Law II. That division has made for gaps or overlaps in teaching a number of issues. LGBT rights has been one of them. There are others – such as abortion – and one imagines the list will grow with the Court’s overt resuscitation of this method and others subsumed within what Kennedy calls “reasoned judgment.”

Time for those of us in U.S. legal academia to rethink how we teach constitutional law.

san_quentin_death_chamber

California’s capital punishment system has just been ruled unconstitutional.

Holding that the system violated the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney, whom President George W. Bush appointed to the federal bench in 2003. According to a Los Angeles Times report, he becomes the 1st federal judge to rule against the state’s system, and also the 1st to hold that systemic delay may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Carney set out his reasoning clearly and concisely in today’s 29-page ruling in Jones v. Chappell. In turn, the decision:

► Traced the tangled series of delays that is the state’s system. (Prior posts on that system here, here, and here.) Only 13 of the more than 900 persons whom California jurors have sentenced to death since 1978 have been executed, Judge Carney wrote. The typical time between sentence and execution is 25 years. The judge thus renamed the sentence (his emphasis): “life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

► Reiterated U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s insistence in Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 decision that set in motion a 4-year moratorium on the death penalty, that the Constitution

‘quite simply cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.’

The ruling recognized that the Court, in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), permitted states to reinstate modified death penalty systems. Even so, Judge Carney wrote:

In the 40 years since Furman, the Supreme Court has never retreated from that fundamental principle.

► Applied the principle to the case at hand, ruling that California’s system is so arbitrary as to serve no proper penological purpose. The judge focused not just on the defendant who must endure a condemned life on death row, but also on jurors who must go through “horrific” evidentiary proceedings to no ultimate end, on victims and  survivors denied “some semblance of moral and emotional closure,” and on “the citizens of the State” of California, who must endure the broken “promise” of retribution that accompanies the imposition of a death sentence.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris was reported to be considering the state’s next move in this litigation.

 

gassed

In this month that marks the centenary of World War I, the U.S. Supreme Court evoked an epic image of that global conflict. Thus was rejected today the prosecutorial conflation of chemical warfare with what the Court in Bond v. United States called an “unremarkable local offense.”

The image is the one above: John Singer Sargent’s 1919 painting, Gassed. Fully 20 feet wide and 7-1/2 feet tall, it hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London. (image credit) Writing for a 6-member majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., described the scene, one that Sargent had encountered in 1917 on a battlefield in France:

‘[T]wo lines of soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, clinging single file to orderlies guiding them to an improvised aid station. There they would receive little treatment and no relief; many suffered for weeks only to have the gas claim their lives. The soldiers were shown staggering through piles of comrades too seriously burned to even join the procession.’

The tragedy, Roberts wrote, contributed “to an overwhelming consensus in the international community that toxic chemicals should never again be used as weapons against human beings” – a consensus reflected in instruments like the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, which today has 190 parties. Among them is the United States, which, Roberts explained, “gave domestic effect” to the obligations it had assumed under that treaty in 1998, when it passed the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, 18 U.S.C. § 229 et seq. The statute makes the use of “chemical weapons,” a federal crime, punishable by death if the use resulted in death. It “‘goes without saying,'” Roberts concluded, that Congress had in mind tragedies along the lines depicted above – or at least as grave as the mid-1990s sarin gas attacks in Japan. He deemed well out of Congress’ mind the facts at bar: “an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water.”

This overturning of a federal conviction on federalism grounds did more than give perspective on the acts under review. It also avoided the asked-for reconsideration of Missouri v. Holland (1920), a precedent nearly as old as Sargent’s painting. There a unanimous Court upheld a federal statute that gave domestic effect to a 1916 treaty by regulating the hunting of birds that fly between the United States and Canada. Invoking the Constitution’s treaty-making and supremacy clauses, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote:

‘If the treaty is valid, there can be no dispute about the validity of the statute under Article I, § 8, as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government.’

Holmes’ terse reasoning invites questions, many of them bruited about in the months since the Court announced it would review the decision below in Bond. (See, for example, this article by my Georgia Law colleague Harlan Cohen.) Roberts’ majority opinion declined, but 3 Justices who disagreed with him accepted that invitation. “[T]he Treaty Power is itself a limited federal power,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurrence-in-the-judgment that Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, Jr., joined. In another concurrence-in-judgment Scalia, joined by Thomas, attributed others’ reluctance to revisit Holland to the nature of the case. “We would not give the Government’s support of the Holland principle the time of day,” they insisted, “were we confronted with ‘treaty-implementing’ legislation that abrogated the freedom of speech or some other constitutionally protected individual right.” Whether they are right remains a question for another day.