A recent prediction in this space turned out to be premature. In my post about the Seventh Circuit’s en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College—which held that the word “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964  includes “sexual orientation”—I forecast that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant cert and reverse the Seventh Circuit. For unknown reasons, the defendant-employer in Hively decided not to seek appellate review of the controversial ruling, foiling my prophesy. Instead, Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana will defend Hively’s employment-discrimination lawsuit on the merits.
What prompts a man to change his mind on a serious matter after 35 years, and should the reversal be met with pride (for eventually getting it right), or chagrin (for taking so long)? For reasons of vanity, I’m going to take a positive tack and choose the former.
“Wisdom,” Felix Frankfurter once remarked, “too often never comes, so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Allow me to explain.
Looking back at the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990, one has to be struck by the extent to which the ADA’s lofty sentiments have been overwhelmed by its adverse results. If it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the ADA is a veritable Autobahn of wishful thinking gone awry. Yet no one seems inclined to reroute the ill-fated traffic; some states are even widening the highway with additional lanes.
The unexpected retirement of Judge Janice Rogers Brown, 68, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will trigger a well-deserved celebration of her extraordinary judicial career, both as a federal appellate judge (since 2005) and previously as a member of the California Supreme Court (1996 to 2005). It will be difficult for President Donald Trump to appoint a replacement that comes anywhere close to filling the shoes of the of the forceful, fearless, and independent Brown, whose nomination by President George W. Bush to the nation’s second most influential court in 2003 was delayed for two years by Democratic opposition.
Going back to the tumultuous reign of Abraham Lincoln, political scientists have long been fascinated with the “Imperial Presidency,” and this interest was heightened further by the executive overreach that characterized the administration of Barack Obama. Some scholars contend that the modern presidency has morphed into a de facto monarchy, wielding power far in excess of what the Framers contemplated in Article II of the Constitution.
But that is only part of the problem. The republican form of government envisioned by the Founding Fathers rested on several essential principles that—unfortunately—became highly attenuated during the 20th century, including robust state sovereignty (federalism), the separation of powers, and the checks and balances inhering in each branch jealously guarding its power from “encroachments” by another. As James Madison memorably stated in Federalist 51, in order to keep the branches in check, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” It turns out that all three branches have been overly ambitious—some more than others.
The reputation of Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) as one of the greatest of American lawyers rests largely on two courtroom performances: in the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb in Chicago in 1924, and the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Both were extensively covered by the news media and later became the subject of numerous plays, books, and movies. Darrow’s 12-hour-long closing argument at the sentencing hearing in the case (the teenaged “thrill killers” had confessed, and Darrow convinced them to plead guilty for tactical reasons), which persuaded the trial judge to spare the defendants’ lives, is regarded as a classic of courtroom oratory. The bizarre case was fictionalized in the 1956 book and 1959 film Compulsion, and inspired aspects of the play and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie Rope (and, some believe, the ransom delivery sequence in 1971’s Dirty Harry).
Since the unexpected—and, in certain circles, inconceivable—election of Donald Trump as President, federal courts have aggressively obstructed his executive orders on immigration, leading to complaints that activist judges are staging an insurrection or even a coup d’état against a President they consider illegitimate. I’ve indulged in a bit of this commentary myself, but—unfortunately—the problem is deeper and more serious than a few rogue judges resisting Trump’s policies. Much of the nation’s elites, and especially the legal class that dominates the judiciary, are in a bipartisan revolt against the bourgeois social order and the constitutional loyalties it underwrites. Trump’s election has merely exposed the extent of the longstanding (and widening) cultural chasm that divides the lumpenproletariat (Hillary’s “deplorables”) from the self-anointed elites.
The latest tract by Erwin Chemerinsky, liberal law professor and dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law, is depressingly familiar. Like his Enhancing Government: Federalism for the 21st Century (2008), The Conservative Assault on the Constitution (2011), and The Case Against the Supreme Court (2014), his new book is a diatribe masquerading as legal scholarship. The usual villains—conservative Supreme Court justices, malevolent government officials, rapacious corporations, racist police officers—are pitted against the wrongly accused, helpless consumers, and oppressed victims of discrimination. Closing the Courthouse Door: How Your Constitutional Rights Became Unenforceable presents one-sided vignettes drawn from actual…
The March 1 oral argument was an astounding anti-climax to a manufactured drama
In a prior post, I discussed the Pidgeon v. Turner case, now pending before the Texas Supreme Court, involving a taxpayer challenge to same-sex spousal benefits. Oral argument was held on March 1. The taxpayers challenging the city of Houston’s policy of granting same-sex spousal benefits to city employees were represented at oral argument by Jonathan Mitchell, a former Scalia clerk, former Texas solicitor general, and now a visiting professor at Stanford law school. The city of Houston was represented by Douglas Alexander, a leading appellate practitioner in an Austin law firm whose partners include former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. The oral argument was superb, and both counsel fielded numerous questions from the fully-engaged justices.
Daniel Horowitz’s Stolen Sovereignty: How to Stop Unelected Judges from Transforming America (2016), published before the presidential election, is proving to be prescient—even prophetic.