Archive for the ‘U.S. Supreme Court’ Category

Discerning Procedural Fairness in Appellate Courts   1 comment

Guest Blogger:
Roger Hanson

Two recent procedural fairness blogs try to identify workable criteria of procedural fairness in appellate courts and especially during oral arguments. The bloggers rightly point out the importance of how judges conduct the proceedings and emphasize the importance of civility in questioning both sides and letting both sides address the court..

However, isn’t the acid test that attorneys or pro se litigants apply whether the judges understand the issues in the case? If so, isn’t a pertinent and operational criterion that the judges know the facts? Presumably, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia flunked this test when he brought up the Cornhusker Kickback in the recent argument over the Affordable Health Care Act. His behavior suggested an incomplete and incorrect understanding of the provisions of the law under review.

A related test concerns what the judges say about the briefs in a case. If so, isn’t it also pertinent and feasible to assess appellate judges by expecting them to address the dispositive issues submitted in the briefs raised by counsel or pro se litigants? Certainly judges are entitled to ask other questions that they believe revolve around what they think are the dispositive issues. However, in the American appellate system where premium value is placed on the briefs, shouldn’t oral argument recognize this established value?

One more test might focus on the authorities raised in the briefs. If so, isn’t it feasible and relevant to assess whether the most eminent previous court decisions cited by counsel or pro se litigants received some recognition? Yes, judges can easily make new law, but they operate in a legal system where past authority counts. And in the recent Affordable Health Care Act oral argument, I didn’t hear a lot of discussion about previous and relevant U.S. Court of Appeals decisions. That omission was striking to me as an observer.

It seems to me that additional tests are possible that concern the judges understanding of the issues.Those tests are worthy of future research and legal analysis, in my opinion.

Roger Hanson lives in Denver and is engaged in legal research for the purposes of legal reform. He assisted the Right Honourable the Lord Woolf in his report of civil justice in England and Wales and has worked in Afghanistan and the Philippines in addition to American state and federal appellate courts. He always roots for the Kansas Jayhawks.

Supreme Court Gets a Passing Grade on Procedural Fairness—So Far   3 comments

In our last blog post, we said that the public attitudes about the judicial system at all levels could be significantly impacted by how well the justices of the United States Supreme Court adhered during oral argument to the elements of procedural fairness—voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthy authorities. So how did the justices do? It’s an important question: This case has the potential to increase the sense of legitimacy in judicial decisionmaking, and it also has the potential to be a train wreck.  Despite the importance of oral arguments, whether one of those two extremes will occur will be very dependent upon the final written opinion.  But the oral arguments certainly set the stage for how people will view the process by which this case is decided.

On the whole, the justices performed reasonably well during oral arguments. Most asked good questions that seemed to be honest attempts to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s positions. And this was certainly the case for the two justices whose role in the oral arguments probably mattered the most in public perception:  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy—Roberts because as chief justice he runs the show, and Kennedy because he is widely seen as the swing justice these days when the court is closely divided.

Both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy asked questions of attorneys both for and against the Affordable Care Act. And both tried to explore the issues in an even-handed way. For example, while Roberts asked tough questions of the government’s lawyer regarding the individual mandate, he also interrupted one of the attorneys arguing the other side to have him respond to what Roberts perceived as the government’s main point. Kennedy openly discussed “concerns” he had regarding each side’s position. To opponents of the law, Kennedy asked that they address his “concern in the case” that the young person who chooses to be uninsured is “very close to affecting” insurance rates for others “in a way that is not true in other industries.” Kennedy also asked detailed questions of the government, which based part of its defense on the principle that the government had exercised its taxing power as authority for the mandate for each individual to buy health insurance. Kennedy asked them to assume that the government indeed could have used its taxing power and directly created a single-payer national health plan. He then said that “it can be argued that this is what the government is doing; [the government] ought to be honest about the power it’s using and use the correct power,” to which the government’s attorney provided a response.

Chief Justice Roberts acted evenhandedly in presiding over the arguments. Although the justices and frequent court-watchers may be used to it, the public was no doubt surprised by how often justices interrupted one another—and also interrupted attorneys while the attorney was still responding to another justice’s question. Roberts frequently asked attorneys to return to the question that had initially been asked by another justice but not fully answered, ensuring that the advocates had a fair chance to respond to the important questions that the justices had posed to them. From a fairness standpoint, however, it would be much better if justices didn’t interrupt each other so frequently, and if they allowed attorneys to finish their answers to other justices’ questions.

Media accounts of the arguments have tended to focus on attempts to predict the outcome based upon questions asked or attitudes exhibited during oral argument. Arguments from judges who have carefully studied the briefs often will produce some questions that express tentative positions, which  is to be expected. While that may be the case, most of the questions still were usually fair ones that gave the attorneys a chance to respond to what the justices saw as weaknesses in their positions. Appellate advocates appreciate having the chance to address the points that are on the minds of the justices, and the justices generally gave them that chance.

Experienced lawyers—and judges—will tell you to be cautious about reading too much into a judge’s questions and comments during oral argument. Sometimes a judge will ask questions to confirm a tentative position the judge has arrived at based on the briefs. Sometimes a judge is aware of concerns a colleague has and will use the oral argument to garner support for a majority opinion. Sometimes a judge really has reached an immovable position. Two respected federal appellate judges once kept track—for 10 months—of how often oral argument had changed their minds in a case; one judge said it had 31 percent of the time and the other 17 percent. The confidence of pundits notwithstanding, it’s not always possible to tell how a case will come out based on the oral argument.

Only one justice simply seemed tone-deaf at times to the principles of procedural fairness:  Justice Antonin Scalia. From a fairness standpoint, the public wants to perceive that the justices are considering the issues based on neutral legal principles, not in any political way. Yet Justice Scalia was the only one to introduce partisan politics directly into the discussion.

During the argument about whether the Medicaid provisions were unconstitutionally coercive on the states, attorney Paul D. Clement was explaining that 26 states thought it was a bad deal for them. Scalia interrupted and framed the issue as a purely political one:  “Mr. Clement, I didn’t take the time to figure this out, but maybe you did. Is there any chance that all 26 States opposing it have Republican governors, and all of the States supporting it have Democratic governors? Is that possible?” Clement replied, “There’s a correlation, Justice Scalia.” The transcript shows that Scalia then said, “Yes,” followed by laughter from the audience. Scalia left it there, and another justice asked an unrelated question.

No one—Scalia, Clement, or anyone else—suggested how the party affiliation of the governors could relate to the legal issue being discussed. As far as we can tell, Scalia injected partisan politics directly into the discussion at this point solely to lead to a laugh line.  Humor does have a place in arguments before judges.  But a judge interjecting humor should be careful. Justice Scalia’s laugh line may well have come at a cost, as it undermined what we presume is the court’s desired perception that it decides case like this based on neutral legal principles, without consideration of partisan political overtones.

Justice Scalia made at least one other potentially questionable comment.  In an argument of this length, people—and justices are people—do make mistakes, but this mistake was profound and went to undermining the trust people need to have about judges. When discussing whether the entire law should be struck down if the court strikes down the individual mandate, Justice Scalia made a perjorative reference to a provision that was contained in the Affordable Care Act but ultimately did not become law:  “[I]f we struck down nothing in this legislation but the—what’s it called, the Cornhusker kickback . . . [i]t was the means of getting the last necessary vote in the Senate. And you are telling us that the whole statute would fall because the Cornhusker kickback is bad. That can’t be right.” Using the term “kickback” in referring to a provision that provided benefits to one state, Nebraska, in exchange for the vote of its senator sounds more like a political attack ad than the sort of question a neutral judge would ask. It’s odd that Justice Scalia would ask such a question because his consistent position is that in interpreting statutes, legislative-history materials (like Congressional debate transcripts) should not be consulted, let alone the sort of media coverage that led to public discussion of the Nebraska provision. And while the provision Scalia refers to as the “Cornhusker kickback” was in the Affordable Care Act, another bill repealed it before it took effect. So the use of this example seems gratuitously partisan, even if that was not the intention.

Justice Scalia made one other comment that runs contrary to the image the public wants for its Supreme Court justices, and once again he ran aground by attempting to inject humor into the proceedings. When the attorneys were arguing about whether some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act could remain in effect if the individual-mandate provision is struck down, Scalia invoked the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment while expressing astonishment that the attorney had suggested justices review the full statute to determine what could remain in effect:  “[W]hat happened to the Eighth Amendment? You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages?” The transcript shows laughter in response. But Scalia ended the exchange with a more serious suggestion that it really was unfair to ask a Supreme Court justice to read the Affordable Care Act in full:  “Is this not totally unrealistic? That we’re going to go through this enormous bill item by item and decide each one?”

Other justices suggested that such a review wasn’t needed, anyway, based on the nuances of past Supreme Court cases on how to decide whether to strike down an entire statute or only parts of it. But a member of the public listening to the argument could easily have been left with the impression that Justice Scalia—a lifetime appointee to the nation’s highest court—wasn’t willing to take the time to read the full statute passed by Congress to make his decision. The public wants judges who will take all the time needed to make a good decision on an important issue, and the public certainly regards the issues in play here as important ones.

It’s too early to fully evaluate the court’s handling of these cases from a procedural-fairness standpoint. The written opinion or opinions of the justices are likely to have a much more profound impact on how the American people view judicial decisionmaking than the oral arguments. Ideally, the opinion would be joined by more than five justices, which itself would suggest that the justices reached consensus on neutral principles that transcend party affiliation. But whatever the vote margin, opinions that honestly acknowledge the sincerity of opposing views while carefully explaining the basis for the decision (or dissent) will help the nation to respect the judicial process. Anything less could cause lasting damage.

Steve Leben and Kevin Burke

Focused on Fairness: The Public Turns Its Attention to the U.S. Supreme Court   2 comments

Beginning Monday, March 26, 2012, public attention will focus on the United States Supreme Court in a way that’s essentially unprecedented. Sure, there have been many important cases in the Court’s history, but few have had timing like this. It’s a Presidential-election year. The health-care cases divide the country, even if the precise legal issues are not yet well understood by the public. And there are lots of pundits poised to comment, few of whom will actually be objective.

In this environment, the Court will hold three days of oral arguments on issues surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the 2,400-page law called Obamacare by its detractors and the Affordable Care Act by its supporters. The nation’s 24-hour news cycle will be focused like a laser beam on the Court, but there will be no television cameras, no live radio broadcast, and no blogging, twitter, or other reporting from the courtroom.

Even so, what the public perceives about whether the justices gave a fair hearing to both sides may have a lasting impact on public attitudes toward the judicial system at all levels. What will the public be looking for? And is the Court equipped to provide it?

Based on decades of research, the public will be looking for the elements of procedural fairness—voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthy authorities. To be sure, the public will also make judgments about the merits of this case. But there is a lot more at stake: the legitimacy of the judicial process is also being tested.

To pass that test with the public, the Supreme Court needs to conduct the argument with a keen eye on the goal of demonstrating that courts decide issues in a way different than the political debates of a presidential campaign or the legislative process. Among other things, to achieve procedural fairness, the justices will need to let attorneys actually make some points without being interrupted, to appear willing to listen (better yet, actually be willing to listen), and to avoid arguing from a clearly predetermined position.

The normal case in the U.S. Supreme Court gets one hour for oral argument. This case is getting five and one-half hours spread out over three days. Allowing that extra time was wise from many perspectives. First, justices who want to explore the issues along with the advocates will have the time to do so, rather than feeling the need to quickly stake out a position and argue for it in an attempt to persuade colleagues in advance of the justices’ private case conference where decisions are made. Second, media coverage will emphasize the extent of time devoted to hearing argument in the case, said to be unprecedented in the modern era. Third, the media will be able to explain each of the major issues during the time slot in which argument is being made.

But even with ample time, the attitudes demonstrated by the justices will frame perceptions of their fairness. Senator John McCain attended the oral argument on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill that he had sponsored. When the Court ultimately ruled in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) that the government could not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, Sen. McCain spoke in an interview about the attitudes he had observed during oral argument:

“I was not surprised at the Supreme Court decision. I went over there to observe the oral arguments. It was clear that Justice Roberts, Alito, and Scalia, by their very skeptical and even sarcastic comments, were very much opposed to [the law.].” (CBS, Face the Nation, Jan. 24, 2010.)

Sen. McCain has certainly been around the block and heard harsh attacks. Yet he remembered several months after oral argument that there had been “very skeptical and even sarcastic comments” made by several justices.

Even though the Court refused C-SPAN’s request to televise the hearings, the Court will expedite release of transcripts and audiotapes from its normal practice, in which tapes aren’t released until the end of the week. This time, tapes and transcripts will be posted on the Court’s website as soon as they are available; the Court’s public-information office says that the morning session should be available by 2 p.m. each day and that the afternoon session on Wednesday, March 28 (the only afternoon session), should be available by 4 p.m. that day.

This means that the public will be able to hear—the same day—the tone used by justices in asking questions or, for some justices, making arguments. The admonition given recently in this blog by Minnesota appellate judge Francis J. Connolly is one that members of the U.S. Supreme Court should pay heed to next week: “We need to remember that we are not cross-examining a hostile witness but rather probing an attorney’s argument.”

Because of the media attention that will be focused on the U.S. Supreme Court next week, this will be a seminal moment for public perceptions of the justice system. The justices can do a great service to the country by demonstrating procedural fairness throughout the arguments.

Steve Leben and Kevin Burke

[For background about the Supreme Court’s proceedings on the health-care law, and for links to transcripts and audiotapes as they are released, go to SCOTUSblog.]