25 June 2012

The Penultimate Day of Decisions

It was rather a strange morning at the Supreme Court. There was no decision in the health-care case, leaving it for Thursday (if I'm reading the calendar correctly). There were several other items of interest, both generally and specifically to authors.

Perhaps the most obvious matter of interest was the 5–4 summary reversal of American Tradition Ptnrship v. Bullock, No. 2011–1179 — the "Citizens United in Montana" case. By its summary reversal, the five-justice majority in Citizens United itself held that of course a Federal First Amendment decision prevents a state from enacting a contrary statute based on that state's constitution. The four dissenters in Citizens United merely dissented this time, which is somewhat unusual. Four justices have the authority to accept a case for full hearing; in this instance, these four justices recognized that nothing was going to change the opinion of the majority, so calling the case for full hearing would not change the result. Unfortunately, this entire little dance relies far too much on "I vas only folloving precedent" as a rationale — and the critical (fundamentally flawed) precedent is not Citizens United, but Buckley. In parallel with Justice Ginsburg's concurrence last week in Fox TV Stations, Buckley was as wrong when it was decided as was Pacifica Foundation: Money is not speech.

The Court also smacked down almost all of the Arizona anti-immigrant law (SB1070), with not-so-hidden directions to the state courts to interpret what it left in a way that would essentially eviscerate it. The part left standing is the "check your papers" provision (§ 2(b)), but if — and only if — the state courts construct that section, and the authorities implement that section, in a way that does not implicate other constitutional problems. For example, if the average time in custody for "brown people" due to the checks begins to demonstrably exceed the average time in custody for paler folk, that will at least allow an "as applied" challenge to the remaining part of SB1070. The rest of SB1070 was ruled out as preempted. In many ways, this is an entirely unremarkable opinion; constitutionally, it's rather clear that the Federal government both has explicit, enumerated power to regulate immigration and citizenship, and has taken many actions indicating that it occupies the field and leaves virtually nothing to the states. I expect that part of Thursday's orders will be a GVR (grant, vacate, and remand) of the corresponding opinion from the Eleventh Circuit on the closely parallel Alabama law.

Finally among actual opinions, the Court held that life without possibility of parole is not a constitutionally permissible punishment for juveniles... and particularly not for fourteen year old boys who committed their various "crimes" and engaged in their various "aggravating circumstances" when barely into their respective teens. Not so long ago, kids of this nature (or, perhaps, slightly less egregious) would have been sent to the military instead. That wasn't always great for the military, but I suspect that it "saved" a fair number of reprobates who would not have been "saved" by prison... and particularly not prison forever.

I'm still working my way through the grants and denials of certiorari; I probably won't have much to say on them until after the term closes later this week.