Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

SSM & S5MT -- two objections answered and six federalism scholars questioned

I’ve argued previously that one can reason back from Congress’s lack of power to enact legislation requiring states to provide marriage for same-sex couples to the conclusion that Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require states to provide marriage for same-sex couples. The argument is straightforward in form. If Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to provide marriage for same-sex couples, then Section 5 provides Congress with power to enact legislation compelling states to satisfy that requirement. But because Congress lacks such power under Section 5, Section 1 must not impose such a requirement.
 
This is a Section 5 modus tollens argument: If P, then Q; not Q; therefore, not P.
 
This is not a typical form of argument about the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. The interdependence of Section 1 and Section 5 is widely recognized, but this modus tollens argument breaks into the circle in an unusual spot. It uses the lack of congressional power to argue for the absence of a constitutional right. The argument usually runs the other way; one takes the presence or absence of a Section 1 right as a premise and uses that to draw a conclusion about the presence or absence of derivative congressional power under Section 5.
 
Is the usual way the only permissible way? Is there something wrong, as a matter of constitutional law, with arguing from the absence of Section 5 power to the absence of Section 1 right?
 
Two potential objections to Section 5 modus tollens come to mind.
 
One is that congressional power under Section 5 to enforce a Section 1 right is contingent on prior judicial recognition of such a right. 
 
This judicial pre-recognition requirement would be odd as a matter of original meaning given the evident congress-empowering function of Section 5. It would also extend beyond the requirements of current doctrine as I understand them. True, Boerne v. Flores requires congruence and proportionality between Section 5 legislation and the requirements of Section 1 as previously set forth by the Supreme Court. And given Baker v. Nelson, federal legislation that required states to provide same-sex marriage might be doomed under Boerne if enacted today. But if the Supreme Court simply had not spoken one way or the other on a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, I’m not aware of a doctrinal requirement that Congress would have to wait for explicit judicial recognition of such a right under Section 1 before enacting legislation to enforce it under Section 5.  The understanding of Section 1 underlying such legislation would be subject to displacement by a contrary judicial understanding of the requirements of Section 1 (something like a hypothetical Baker v. Nelson II (2015)). But the risk of invalidation because Congress predicts incorrectly what the Court would hold should not deprive Congress of the ability to predict. After all, maybe Congress and the Court will agree. If Congress had statutorily required states to provide interracial marriage the year before Loving v. Virginia, for example, that legislation would have and should have been valid even though enacted before the Supreme Court had explicitly confirmed the unconstitutionality of state prohibitions of interracial marriage.
 
A second potential objection to Section 5 modus tollens is that the legal validity of the premise about lack of congressional power simply cannot be known with the requisite legal certainty given legal uncertainty about the existence of a Section 1 right from which the existence of such Section 5 power could be derived. As long as this uncertainty persists, the assertion that “there is no Section 1 right because there is no Section 5 power” can always be met with the counter-assertion that “there is Section 5 power because there is a Section 1 right.”
 
This objection seems mistaken. If Section 1 right and Section 5 power stand or fall together, there is no reason in principle to think that we cannot eliminate legal uncertainty about one through legal certainty about the other. For example, we can know that Congress lacks power to eliminate equal representation of the states in the Senate. From that, we can infer that Section 1 does not provide an individual right to equal personal representation in the United States Senate. And we can be confident about the absence of such a Section 1 right even though one can generate plausible arguments for the existence of such a right from existing constitutional doctrine. 
 
What, if anything, can we know about Section 5 power without knowing one way or the other whether a Section 1 right exists? One place to start may a brief filed by a group of federalism scholars in United States v. Windsor. This brief expressed agnosticism about the existence of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage under the Equal Protection Clause. (I assume the scholars were similarly agnostic about the existence of such a right under the Due Process Clause or the Privileges or Immunities Clause as well, but this is not stated explicitly in the brief.) And the focus of the brief is on Congress’s enumerated powers, by which the scholars meant enumerated in Article I. The statements in the brief should therefore not be taken as assertions about the scope of congressional power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But in considering some of these statements about the absence of congressional power to define marriage, a question for those scholars and their lawyers is: Why not extend these claims to Section 5 as well? 
 
 Here are some statements from their brief about congressional power to define marriage:
 
‘[U]nder the Constitution, the regulation and control of marital and family relationships are reserved to the States.’ Sherrer v. Sherrer, 334 U.S. 343, 354 (1948). … Our claim is not that family law is an exclusive field of state authority, but rather that certain powers within that field—such as the power to define the basic status relationships of parent, child, and spouse—are reserved to the States.
[3-4]
 
The legitimacy of same-sex marriage is a difficult and divisive issue, yet it is one that our federalism has been addressing with considerable success. Congress may regulate in this area to the extent necessary to further its enumerated powers. But it may not simply reject the States’ policy judgments as if it had the same authority to make domestic-relations law as they do.
[5]
 
[T]he federal government lacks constitutional authority to determine marital status in a blanket way.
[7]
 
In divisive social controversies like the debate over same-sex marriage, federalism lets each State and its citizens decide how to proceed, largely free of national pressure.
[9]
 
State-by-state policy diversity also facilitates experimentation, which can help resolve divisive questions reflecting deep-seated individual views about rights.
[10]
 
Only states can confer and define marital status under their police powers.
[26]
 
This Court has frequently, and recently, echoed that determining family status remains a State power.
[27]
 
DOMA … interferes with the States’ exercise of their reserved power to define marriage for their own purposes.
[31]
 
These statements support the claim that Congress lacks authority to require States to adopt a particular definition of marriage, such as one that recognizes same-sex unions as marriages. To be clear, though, the brief cautions: “Any State’s choice remains subject, of course, to the Fourteenth Amendment’s constraints, and we do not argue that state sovereignty provides any reason to narrowly construe the Equal Protection Clause. But unless equal protection requires recognition of same-sex marriage, the Constitution best protects liberty of same-sex marriage’s proponents and opponents by guaranteeing each State the right to decide for itself.” Given this reservation, it would not be inconsistent for one of these scholars to affirm Section 5 power for Congress to require states to provide marriage to same-sex couples. But why not interpret the Equal Protection Clause in light of the Constitution’s reservation of authority to the states to define marriage? 

November 14, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Big D.C. Circuit loss for religious nonprofits in contraceptives mandate cases

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit unanimously rejected all RFRA, APA, and constitutional challenges to the federal contraceptives mandate brought by a collection of religious nonprofits. Judge Pillard wrote the opinion for the court in Priests for Life v. HHS, in which Judge Rogers and Judge Wilkins joined. 

There is much to consider in the 86-page opinion. But from an initial review, the opinion seems to be the best that the government could have hoped for. On the RFRA claim, for example, the panel not only concludes that the mandate imposes no substantial burden because of the "accommodation" for non-exempt religious nonprofits, but also goes on to conclude that the government's scheme is the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling government interest. The main problem for the government, though, is that the opinion reads much more like Justice Ginsburg's Hobby Lobby dissent and Justice Sotomayor's Wheaton College dissent than Justice Alito's opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby.  

(Note: Because I serve as counsel in a similar case that remains pending, I have tried to steer clear from getting too deep into blog analysis and criticism. I plan to maintain that course with respect to this opinion as well.) 

November 14, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Fallon on Justice Breyer's Concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry

The latest issue of the Harvard Law Review contains an extensive appreciation of a selection of Justice Breyer's opinions. I thought to note one essay as particularly well done: Professor Richard Fallon's discussion of Justice Breyer's decisive concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry--one of two companion Ten Commandments decisions issued by the Court in 2005. In that concurrence, Justice Breyer decided for a variety of reasons that, he said, defied codification by test or iron rule, that the monument that had stood for many years on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. Here is Professor Fallon (footnotes omitted):

Justice Breyer’s third ground for distinguishing prior cases, and especially McCreary County, seems to me to cut to the heart of the dilemma that the Supreme Court confronted. Even if the Texas monument’s long history did not dilute its religious message, that history served as a reminder that the Establishment Clause — read against the background of history — cannot, as Justice Breyer put it, “compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious.” From the beginning, religion has been woven in various ways into American public life. Recognition of this heritage does not, of course, point directly to the correct ruling in Van Orden. It does, however, help to identify the tension that Van Orden required the Court to resolve, or at least manage. Although the Supreme Court has frequently articulated a demand that the government must be neutral in matters of religion, neither that demand, nor what Justice Breyer referred to as the “Court’s other tests,” can “readily explain the Establishment Clause’s tolerance, for example, of the prayers that open legislative meetings; certain references to, and invocations of, the Deity in the public words of public officials; the public references to God on coins, decrees, and buildings; or the attention paid to the religious objectives of certain holidays, including Thanksgiving.”

Without purporting to offer a comprehensive resolution to the tension that the Court’s cases exhibit, Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence suggests a narrow prescription that embodies pragmatic good sense. Although modern governments may not initiate novel forms of support for religious institutions and beliefs, the Establishment Clause should not be read to mandate the chiseling out — which in some cases might be quite literal — of all religious symbols and practices that have long formed part of the architecture of American public life, American public buildings, and American public monuments. To read the Clause so stringently would provoke anger at and resentment of the Supreme Court’s perceived hostility to religion far disproportionate to any good that this approach would achieve....

There is more, and it's well-worth reading. I, too, admire Justice Breyer's Van Orden concurrence, but while my reasons are similar to Professor Fallon's, they are not identical. Perhaps the primary point of divergence in our perspectives is that my defense of historical settlements and practices as a guide to interpreting the meaning of the religion clauses does not depend either on judges' pragmatic calculations about the comparative social divisiveness of ruling this way or that, or on an overarching or master commitment to religious neutrality, but instead on the intrinsic worth of long-standing historical settlements and customs (doctrinal and social) as a method of conciliating the conflicts that attend these controversies:

The past lies in us and is constitutive of who we are, and though history may be epistemically uncertain, logical certitude is hardly the point of a theory of religious liberty. This point serves as the connection to social history. If the doctrinal negotiations of the past are worthy, though imperfect, counselors for the predicaments of the present--if they are that which we know, and their memory is that which we have--then the objects of those negotiations deserve our attention as well. Political communities are not a-temporal or static associations. They are trans-generational enterprises that depend on the transmission of political and social histories....

The past, in sum, is a beacon. It is a consolation, sometimes effective, other times not, against the ravages of conflict, incommensurability, sacrifice, and tragic loss. 

The Tragedy of Religious Freedom 123, 144.

November 14, 2014 in DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Immigration Law Symposium at the University of Oklahoma

Join us tomorrow for a symposium titled Chae Chang Ping v. U.S.: 125 Years of Immigration's Plenary Power Doctrine hosted by the Oklahoma Law Review. The symposium will be held in the Bell Courtroom of the law school from 9:30 to 12:30 on Friday, Nov. 14. CLE credit is available. Speakers include Rose Cuison-Villazor, Kevin Johnson, David Martin, Margaret Taylor, and yours truly. Unfortunately a cancelled flight will keep Victor Romero from joining us.

November 13, 2014 in Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink

Witte on "The Shifting Walls of Separation"

Prof. John Witte (Emory) has posted a (natch) excellent essay, "The Shifting Walls of Separation Between Church and State in the United States."  Here's the abstract:

This article analyses five distinct understandings of separation of church and state in the American founding era of 1776-1812 and the continued influence and manifestations of each of these five understandings in current American constitutional law. The last section argues that separation of church and state is a valuable constitutional ideal, so long as it is used prudentially not categorically, and so long as it remains balanced with other founding principles of religious freedom.

One of my very first publications, as a law professor, was a short Green Bag review of what was then (in 2000) Witte's new book, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment.   I have been learning from him ever since!

November 13, 2014 in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

Linda Greenhouse on King v. Burwell and "the devoutly Catholic chief justice" (Trinity Code Ed.)

Linda Greenhouse detects a possible conservative conspiracy to "put the heat on John Roberts." Her evidence is an opinion piece by John Yoo at National Review Online. In that piece, Yoo lays out four reasons that the Supreme Court is likely to agree with the petitioners in King v. Burwell that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act only authorizes subsidies to purchase insurance coverage for those who purchase from a state-established exchange. 

Yoo's reason three is that the case provides Chief Justice Roberts "the chance to atone for his error in upholding Obamacare as a valid use of the taxing clause in that case." Yoo argues that "it will be the mission of [Roberts's] Chief Justiceship to repair the damage." 

As the careful reader has no doubt already discerned from this language, Yoo is obviously trying to influence Chief Justice Roberts by appealing to his Catholicism. Linda Greenhouse explains: "His choice of the words 'atone' and 'mission,' with their religious resonance addressed to the devoutly Catholic chief justice, is no accident." Obviously. And that is really only scratching the surface. Maybe because Greenhouse is not Catholic, she did not know that part of our code is to send these religiously resonant messages in our third point. Because, the Trinity. (I have no idea whether Yoo is Catholic, but if not, he probably knows the Trinity code secret from some of his Catholic friends.)

Or maybe Greenhouse just did not want to pile on. Maybe her knowledge of the Trinity code is what explains her focus only on the first three sentences of Yoo's point three. Once you know what message is really being conveyed, you can ignore obvious surplusage like the fourth sentence: "Plus, the insincere misreading of the statute will grate especially hard on Roberts's professionalism--he seems to take seriously getting the right lawyerly answer to technical statutory questions." You see, Yoo obviously cannot believe that or expect his readers to believe it either. Plus, that fourth sentence, like this fourth sentence, begins with plus. Plainly surplusage, like this paragraph. (As any good Catholic coder would, I made my real point in the third paragraph. In case it wasn't obvious, and to help the uninitiated, that's why my third word in my third paragraph was "careful" and my third sentence was just one word: "Obviously." For those keeping score at home, extra points for just one word in sentence three of paragraph three and triple word score bonus for third word in title reading "no" spelled backwards.)

November 13, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The South Carolina same-sex marriage order, limits on judicial power, and judicial supremacy

A federal district court in South Carolina issued a decision today that applied binding Fourth Circuit precedent to require same-sex marriage in South Carolina. (HT: Howard Wasserman at Prawfsblawg.) The district court refused to issue a stay pending appeal but did issue a temporary stay to give state officials time to seek a stay from the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court. In doing so, the court noted that a stay request in a similarly situated case from Kansas is pending at the Supreme Court right now.

On one level, this was a super-easy case, as easy as they come. A federal district court must follow binding circuit-court precedent. But there are some tough issues in the case as well. Consider the juxtaposition of the decision on the merits (plaintiffs win and should get their marriage license) with the practical effect (plaintiffs cannot get their marriage license while the ruling remains  stayed). Consider, further, the district court's acknowledgment that the temporary stay was unwarranted under the normal test for a stay:

The Court is mindful that the strict application of the four part test for the granting of a stay would result in the denial of even this one-week temporary stay. However, sometimes the rigid application of legal doctrines must give way to practicalities that promote the interest of justice. Providing this Court's colleagues on the Fourth Circuit a reasonable opportunity to receive and consider Defendant Wilson's anticipated petition for an appeal stay justifies this brief stay of the Court's injunctive relief in this matter.

Part of the problem here is that nationwide constitutional change is a messy process when carried out via federal courts of limited jurisdiction. Even if one thinks the Constitution is what the courts say that it is, the Constitution today means something different in Columbus than it does in Charleston until the Supreme Court promulgates a ruling from its perch in the District of Columbia. (And even that assumes we know what the Constitution means in Charleston while the ruling effectuating same-sex marriage there is stayed.)

There are many problems with judicial supremacy, but one of its touted benefits is a settlement function of sorts to eliminate messy disputes about constitutional meaning once the court of supremacy has spoken. This settlement function is not always successful; some Supreme Court rulings exacerbate constitutional conflict, as with Roe v. Wade. But in theory, at least, judicial supremacy provides a solution to problems presented by constitutional change.

By providing, roughly speaking, that our country's supreme law is what the Supreme Court declares the Constitution to mean, judicial supremacy serves the functions served by all three kinds of secondary rules identified by H.L.A. Hart as necessary for a well-working legal system. These are rules of recognition, rules of change, and rules of adjudication. Judicial supremacy looks like a rule of recognition. You know what the law is by looking to what the Supreme Court says that it is. But it operates via rules of adjudication. These govern how and when the Supreme Court can declare what the law is. And it functions as a rule of change. Constitutional law changes as the Supreme Court, following rules of adjudication, authoritatively declares it to change (rule of recognition). 

November 12, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Section 5 Modus Tollens and Same-Sex Marriage via Federal Legislation

Suppose we assume that Congress lacks the constitutional authority to require states to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. From this assumption, it can be shown rather easily that the Supreme Court lacks the same authority, at least insofar as such authority depends on interpretation of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. We can call the way of showing this Section 5 modus tollens. The same-sex marriage version of it goes something like this:

(1) If Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides a constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex, then Congress has authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to require states to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions.

(2) Congress possesses no such authority.

-------

(3) Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide a constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex. 

This is a valid form of argument: (1) if P, then Q; (2) not Q; (3) therefore, not P. If the argument is unsound, it must be that one of the premises is wrong.

Perhaps one might question the connection between the existence of a Section 1 right and the existence of Section 5 enforcement authority. But premise (1) seems pretty solid. Even those Justices who insist on a pretty tight connection between Section 5 enforcement legislation and the existence of constitutional violations under Section 1 would recognize the validity of federal legislation that prohibits states from defining marriage in a way that causes widespread and recurring constitutional violations stemming from the regular denial of marriage to same-sex couples possessing a constitutional right to enter into marriage.  

The pressure point for the argument must be premise (2). Even if Congress generally lacks the power to insist on a particular definition of marriage, it possesses authority to enact legislation ensuring that state definitions do not cause constitutional violations. Just as Congress could have enacted a valid federal statute requiring the provision and recognition of interracial marriage, for example, Congress can enact a valid federal statute requiring the provision and recognition of same-sex marriage. That's how the argument would go, anyhow.

The interdependence of Section 1 and Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides some reason for caution relating to the judicial recognition of new rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The stakes are higher because individual rights and the growth of federal legislative authority go hand in hand. Judicial expansion of individual rights under Section 1 increases federal legislative authority under Section 5. As far as I am aware, however, the only federal circuit court opinion thus far addressing a version of this Section 5 argument in connection with a right to same-sex marriage is Judge Sutton's opinion for the Sixth Circuit in DeBoer v. Snyder.

Judge Sutton's discussion of Section 5 came in the portion of his opinion addressing why United States v. Windsor did not support the application of heightened scrutiny: "A decision premised on heightened scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment that redefined marriage nationally to include same-sex couples not only would divest the States of their traditional authority over this issue, but it also would authorize Congress to do something no one would have thought possible a few years ago--to use its Section 5 enforcement powers to add new definitions and extensions of marriage rights in the years ahead. That would leave the States with little authority to resolve ever-changing debates about how to define marriage (and the benefits and burdens that come with it) outside the beck and call of Congress and the Court. How odd that one branch of the National Government (Congress) would be reprimanded for entering the fray in 2013 and two branches of the same Government (the Court and Congress) would take control of the issue a short time later."

Given the convoluted mess of Section 5 doctrine at present, Judge Sutton may have overstated the expansion of Section 5 legislative authority that would actually result from adoption of heightened scrutiny to analyze the constitutionality of state laws defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. Fresh off of recognizing a new constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy could try to contain the federalism logic of that expansion, I suppose. But the linkage between Section 5 federal legislative enforcement authority and Section 1 individual rights recognition is undeniable and important. It has also been largely unappreciated up to this point.

November 11, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Monday, November 10, 2014

Three steps toward coming to understand why the Sixth Circuit's marriage decision was right

The Sixth Circuit's recent split-panel ruling on the constitutionality of four states' legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has unleashed a wave of commentary. Most of the commentary I've come across has been critical of Judge Sutton's opinion for the panel majority. 

Generally speaking, criticism by legal scholars has been more measured than popular criticism in both substance and tone; some academic critics have even acknowledged that Judge Sutton's opinion contains some respectable (or at least competent) legal arguments. My impression, nevertheless, is that most law professors (a substantial supermajority) have an opinion that resembles in substance and tone some of the more popular criticism. That may be one reason why it is hard to find commentary by law professors expressing agreement with Judge Sutton's opinion. 

Another reason is the nature of the issues. One of the biggest challenges confronting the judges deciding these appeals was figuring out the best doctrinal framework for analyzing the legal claims. The Supreme Court (at least those in a Supreme Court majority) can determine this by fiat. But lower-court judges do not have that power. Judge Sutton addressed this challenge by looking at the core Fourteenth Amendment claims through seven different lenses, all in an admirably concise twenty-six pages (part II of the opinion, sections A-G, pp. 13-38). These were: (1) the perspective of an intermediate court [II.A, pp. 13-17]; (2) original meaning [II.B, pp. 17-18]; (3) rational basis review [II.C, pp. 19-24]; (4) animus [II.D, pp. 24-28]; (5) fundamental right to marry [II.E, pp. 28-31]; (6) discrete and insular class without political power [II.F, pp. 31-35]; and (7) evolving meaning [II.G, pp. 35-38].

Given the challenges posed by the variety of analytical frameworks, and in light of the range of sub-issues presented by each, my overall assessment of Judge Sutton's opinion is very positive. (No surprise there, of course for anyone familiar with my previous assessments of the constitutional issues and of Judge Sutton.) Judge Sutton's discussions of Baker v. Nelson [II.A] and of rational basis review [II.C] are particularly praiseworthy.  

I had originally titled this post "in defense of the Sixth Circuit's marriage decision." But I abandoned that title because a post with such a title would have to be much longer or just part one of a series. Instead, I offer here three steps in a chain of reasoning designed to explain to critics of the Sixth Circuit's marriage decision where at least some of us who believe it to be constitutionally correct are coming from.

First, "[t]his [really, actually, truly] is a case about change--and how best to handle it under the Constitution." If the federal Constitution provides a right to marry a person of the same sex, then federal courts obviously must enforce that right regardless of what popular majorities think. But if the federal Constitution does not provide such a right, then federal courts have no authority to act as if it does. In resolving the legal questions surrounding the existence of such a right, Judge Sutton's consideration of the broader constitutional structure of which the Fourteenth Amendment is just one part was entirely appropriate.   

Second, the relatively new belief that the federal Constitution provides a right to marry a person of the same sex is most readily understood as resulting from a change in public opinion rather than a change in the content of constitutional law.  

Third, it is unlikely that the federal Constitution provided a right to marry a person of the same sex prior to the relatively recent changes in public opinion. It is possible, of course, but not likely.

There is more that one can say with respect to each of these three claims and how they relate. For example, a change in public opinion may have enabled judges finally to see that the Constitution has always (or at least since 1868) provided a right that prior generations have been unable to see. Or maybe the Constitution does and should change in response to changes in public opinion. But recognizing the centrality of change to the issues decided in the Sixth Circuit appeal should take critics a long way toward recognizing the reasonableness of Judge Sutton's disposition even if they are ultimately unmoved on the outcome.

November 10, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink

Another post on Yates v. United States

In light of press reports from last week's oral arguments in Yates v. United States, my prediction that petitioner would lose unanimously seems unsustainable. Be that as it may, I remain puzzled about the legal grounds on which various Justices on the Supreme Court might vote to reverse petitioner's conviction.

As briefed, Yates is largely a statutory interpretation case: Does the criminal statutory prohibition of intentional destruction of evidence to impede a federal investigation apply to the disposal of the best evidence of the underlying civil violation? The most straightforward way to answer no, I think, is through Bond-style statutory interpretation. This is an approach to statutory interpretation that places very heavy reliance on statutory context in interpreting the text. Here that context is the surrounding language, the nature of the specific problems that motivated Congress to act, and an already bloated federal criminal code. Reliance on context in some form or another is always important for interpretation, of course. The weight of that context relative to the text, and what counts as relevant context, though, often divides interpreters, as it did in Bond. Concurring in the judgment in that case, Justice Scalia viewed the majority's statutory interpretation to be more in the nature of MacGyver-style interpretation. And that is my impression of petitioner's interpretation in Yates: "As sweeping and unsettling as the [evidence destruction statute] may be, it is clear beyond doubt that it covers what [Yates] did; and [the Supreme Court] has no authority to amend it." 

There was some suggestion in the questioning at oral argument that constitutional concerns about fair notice were motivating some of the Justices' skepticism about the broad reach of the evidence-destruction statute at issue. This picked up on petitioner's arguments about constitutional avoidance and the rule of lenity. Standing alone, such arguments might not be enough for the Court as currently constituted. But these were only the last of petitioner's arguments in his opening brief. The lead arguments were about statutory context and the application of noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis. Based on oral argument, these arguments apparently have more traction with the Court than I previously appreciated. In any event, those looking for new arguments in Yates will have read up to this point in vain. But this is where it ends. We will see soon enough if the government's arguments were good enough. In the meantime, the criminal law professors' arguments are also looking to be stronger than I believed they would be. If those arguments end up being adopted in an opinion for the Court (as they were by various Justices at oral argument), kudos to Rick Garnett and Greg Sisk for being on the right side of interpretive history on this intra-MOJ split.

November 10, 2014 in Walsh, Kevin | Permalink