14 June 2004

Poultry (Second Glance)

Newdow's decision on standing is not correct. Based on the really excessive rhetoric in the concurrences, it may have been taken on pragmatic grounds: Avoid revisiting the Establishment Clause so directly, at least to keep this case from filling a complete volume in the United States Reports by itself. The decision is illogical, though. Viewing it through the choice-of-law principle of "false conflict" makes this clear.

A "false conflict" occurs when one party asks a court to choose between two sets of potentially applicable laws, but the laws don't actually contradict each other. Consider the kind of situation in Perry v. Household Retail Servs., Inc., 953 F. Supp. 1371, 953 F. Supp. 1378 (M.D. Ala. 1996). The underlying duty at issue was to not deceive consumers. This was true under either Alabama or Illinois law; in other words, it should have made no difference to the defendant's conduct which law applied. Similarly, a court would be able to protect against multiple recoveries by procedural devices that do not require choice of law; so there's no conflict there. The only potential conflict is in the elements of the claims, which were slightly different in definition. However, those are not behaviorally determinative; and they overlap considerably. Thus, there's no conflict that must be resolved, and the case should proceed under the theory that both sets of law may be applied.

The basic problem is that the dysfunctional family courts (redundant) of California (even more redundant) did not recognize the "false conflict" in their analysis of whether Mr. Newdow has the right to stand for his child, who is in the "main custody" of his daughter's mother Ms. Banning. The family court held, and the Supreme Court accepted, that Ms. Banning has a "veto right" over whether her daughter is subjected to "religious instruction" objected to by her father.

Nothing that either Banning or the School Board has done, however, impairs Newdow's right to instruct his daughter in his religious views. Instead, Newdow… wishes to forestall his daughter's exposure to religious ideas that her mother, who wields a form of veto power, endorses, and to use his parental status to challenge the influences to which his daughter may be exposed in school when he and Banning disagree. The California cases simply do not stand for the proposition that Newdow has a right to dictate to others what they may and may not say to his child respecting religion… The cases speak not at all to the problem of a parent seeking to reach outside the private parent-child sphere to restrain the acts of a third party. A next friend surely could exercise such a right, but the Superior Court's order has deprived Newdow of that status.

Slip op. at 13–14. Leaving aside the dubious neglect to ask the child what her wishes are, this gets the inquiry backwards by assuming a conclusion, thereby masking the false conflict. The assumed conclusion is that Ms. Banning has the right to use the public school system as an instrument of her "religious instruction" of her daughter. If the "under God" language in the Pledge is not "religious instruction," there is a false conflict, because there is then no state action implicating the Establishment Clause. If it is sufficiently "religious instruction" to implicate the Establishment Clause, though, we find another false conflict. Mr. Newdow is not asking the court to prohibit all religious instruction by Ms. Banning (although the timing and tenor of Ms. Banning's petition is highly suspicious and suggests post hoc manipulation and rationalization in an effort to use the daughter as a weapon against Mr. Newdow). Mr. Newdow is asking the court to rule that one particular forum may not be used to further such instruction—a forum that, if one accepts his reasoning, cannot legitimately engage in such instruction regardless of who asks for it. That's the false conflict.

Then there's the whole issue of allowing a state court of special (not general) jurisdiction to determine federal constitutional rights unrelated to the special court's jurisdictional mandate. But that's not something we would go into, particularly since procedure and substance are always inextricably intertwined—no matter how much someone may rationalize distinguishing the two on "federalism" (or any other) grounds.

The irony is that "prudential standing" very seldom involves "prudence" as most people understand that word. This is one of the few times that it does; it was prudent for Justice Stevens to find a way for the Court to evade its responsibility to decide this divisive issue. It was also wrong; and, perhaps, it reflects some serious problems with the way that "standing" has come to be understood over the last two centuries.