In this provocative and insightful book, constitutional scholar and journalist Garrett Epps reviews the key decisions of the 2013-2014 Supreme Court term through the words of the nation's nine most powerful legal authorities. Epps succinctly outlines one opinion or dissent from each of the justices during the recent term, using it to illuminate the political and ideological views that prevail on the Court. The result is a highly readable summary of the term's most controversial cases as well as a probing investigation of the issues and personalities that shape the Court's decisions.
Accompanied by a concise overview of Supreme Court procedure and brief case summaries, American Justice 2014 is an engaging and instructive read for seasoned Court-watchers as well as legal novices eager for an introduction to the least-understood branch of government. This revealing portrait of a year in legal action dramatizes the ways that the Court has come to reflect and encourage the polarization that increasingly defines American politics.
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About the Author
Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for the Atlantic and the American Prospect. His most recent book, American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution, was named a finalist for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. Epps is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore.
Read an Excerpt
Preface: My Supreme Court, and Yours
In many ways, the United States Supreme Court is as determinedly opaque as the National Security Agency. Though it maintains a talented public-information staff, the institution itself takes no responsibility whatever for explaining itself to the public. The Court's work product—its oral argument transcripts, opinions, and orders—is made available promptly. The real work of the justices, however—deciding which cases to accept, discussing who should win cases and why, picking Justices to write opinions, critiquing the successive drafts—takes place behind a veil of secrecy that, for most of the Court staff and law clerks, would be professional death to pierce.
Years later, after a Justice has died, papers in a library may show how and why the Court decided some issue. Historians revel in these sources; for lawyers and citizens who must live today, they provide little help in understanding what the Court is up to today.
The Court's secrecy is only part of the reason why it is ill understood. A nine-member body has no "intention" the way an individual has. Thus the Supreme Court may not really "know" why it is doing what it is doing. Each decision is the sum of many calculations by lawyers, lower courts, and Justices to shape issues in a certain way that produces a result. In time, that result may come to seem inevitable. But it almost certainly was not. (Think of the Court's iconic school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. History shows us a bitterly divided Court grappling with the issue—until a unanimous opinion improbably emerged.) Wherever the justices may think they are going, the Court is quite likely to end up somewhere else, blown off course by the winds of history, politics, and judicial nominations. "It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards," the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard wrote in 1843. "But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards."
In the pages that follow, I had tried to give my sense of one year in the life of the Supreme Court—the "October 2013 Term," that begins on the First Monday in October 2013 and (formally) runs until the day before the First Monday in 2014. In reality, OT13, as Court watchers call it, reached its climax on the last day of June 2014, when the Court delivered its final opinions in argued cases and adjourned.
During the months between the first full conference of late September 2013 and the dramatic announcement of opinions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn on June 30, the Court heard argument in 72 cases and issued opinions in 70 of them (two were "dismissed as improvidently granted," or DIGed). It also decided whether to hear some 7,500 cases submitted by petition for certiorari. Its opinions ranged from interpreting areas of the Constitution seldom before interpreted (when is the Senate in "recess" for purposes of presidential "recess appointment"?) to resolving mundane questions of statutory interpretation (do individual retirement accounts meet the statutory definition of "retirement funds" under the federal bankruptcy code?). Each opinion takes the Court further into a legal future it cannot foresee. OT13, like every Term, is a way station. Not for a generation, perhaps, will we know where the trail was leading.
So view what you are about to read as a kind of traveler's diary. It makes no pretense to prophecy. I don't know where this Court is going.
My role as a court watcher is unusual. Though I am accredited to the Court's Press Gallery, my professional identity is as Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore. For twenty years, at five major law schools, I have studied and taught the Court's constitutional jurisprudence. In my reporting, I look for the legal sources of the Court's latest constitutional decisions; in my writing, I assess the Court's work frankly, and without any of the reticence that beat reporting sometimes imposes. I am not at the Court to be a dispassionate observer. I write what I think. Sometimes what the Court does delights me—not necessarily because it is what I would have decided myself but because I think it is conscientious, careful judging that shows respect for history and precedent; at other times, when the Court majority seems slapdash, petty, and partisan, I feel as Evelyn Waugh once professed to feel about reading the poet Stephen Spencer: "to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.''
At the opening of OT13, I was 63 years old. I grew up in the white middle class of the twentieth-century South. Until I was 15 years old, then, I lived under segregation—a regime of white supremacy enforced by legal coercion and extralegal violence. During the 1960s, as in a dream, I witnessed the collapse of this icy monolith and the birth of a new and freer order. For me, it was an event whose impact compares today to what many felt at the end of the Cold War.
That change occurred, in large part, because a generation of Americans decided—some eagerly, others with reluctance and dread—to bring to life the words "due process" and "equal protection" written into the Constitution in 1868. Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court did not liberate the South. Freedom came because of the bravery of the Civil Rights Movement and the persistence of a bipartisan coalition in Congress. But the Court played an important part.
Since that time, I have felt a kind of reverence for the Constitution, and for judges who follow it. That reverence led me after a career in journalism to law school and a second career following the Constitution and the Court. I feel elation when the courts and citizens read the document as a charter of equality and a set of rules for self-government. I feel anger and despair when they read it as a bulwark of privilege and paralysis.
I explain this only so that the reader will understand two things about American Justice 2014. First, of the Court's published opinions, I have concentrated on those that interpret the Constitution because I know a little bit about the subjects. I have almost nothing to say about Employee Stock Ownership Plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act or about the Copyright Act of 1978 as applied to the individual remote-antenna technology pioneered by Aereo, Inc. This book assesses how the Court cared for the Constitution during OT13, and refers to other cases if at all simply to illuminate ongoing constitutional disputes.
Second, what follows is my frank assessment of the decisions I discuss and of each of the nine justices as I observe them, watching them on the bench and reading reams of their writing. Not to hide the ball, I believe the Court reached essentially the right decision in Hall v. Florida (procedures for assessing potentially intellectually disabled defendants in capital proceedings), Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus (organizations' right to challenge laws against making "false statements" during election campaigns), and National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning (use of "recess appointments" to name members of the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate was holding "pro forma" session); I believe the Court erred, in some cases badly, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (aggregate limits on federal campaign contributions by individuals), Town of Greece v. Galloway (prayer at Town Council meetings), Schuette v. Coalition to Preserve Affirmative Action by Any Means Necessary (statewide referendum on affirmative action in higher education admissions), Harris v. Quinn ("agency fees" for state-paid home health-care workers), and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (religious objections to insurance coverage for contraception as required by the Affordable Care Act).
You may very well disagree with me on any or all of these cases. But read on: if this book brings any pleasure and profit, it may arise from whatever disagreement it stirs in the reader. With each passing year, as I learn more about the Constitution, I grow more convinced that the Constitution of 2014—the 1789 text and the 27 Amendments that "We the People" have added during two centuries of blood and hardship—serves its function not when it provides answers but when it sparks questions. Some interpreters of the Constitution claim to understand and follow the "original understanding" of its authors; others insist they are applying a "living document" as history changes the meaning of its words. Others disclaim what Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the Fourth Circuit called "cosmic constitutional theory," suggesting that judges should work with whatever lawyers' tools seem most suited to resolve a particular dispute. In the end, these methodological quarrels don't mean much to citizens. Whenever we debate the Constitution, we are in fact arguing not about words, or history, or legal precedent, but about what our country should look like tomorrow. Our deepest desires for our country are often at odds with those of our neighbor; arguing about the Constitution gives us an alternative to settling our disputes by shedding blood.
As a peace-keeping device, the Constitution has a mixed record. Its original version failed catastrophically in 1861, producing a grisly national festival of fratricide. But since the Constitution was born again in 1865-1870, it has succeeded well at providing us a set of rules for social argument and debate. It is, in effect, the deck of cards in our national high-stakes poker game. Those who read the cards differently than I do are welcome to do so. Walt Whitman, our great constitutional poet, once wrote of human identity that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Nowhere is that more true than of the Constitution and of its judicial vestals, the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court.
Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge some people who have contributed to the success of this venture. Damon Linker of the University of Pennsylvania Press proposed this project to me at the beginning of the Term, and has supported it stalwartly since then. I thank him and the staff at the Press for introducing me to the new world of ebooks. My assistant, Shavaun O'Brien, can, I am convinced, do anything between a 10 a.m. emergency email and lunch; she saved the project innumerable times. Dean Ron Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law encouraged me to explore a new kind of legal scholarship. My UB faculty colleague, Elizabeth Samuels, is as always a force for good in my work. My research assistants at the law school, Kristen Lim and Valerie Anias, provided crucial assistance, as did David Matchen and the rest of the staff of the UB Law Library. In the final stage of writing, I took refuge in the Duke University Law Library thanks to gracious hospitality from Profs. Paul Haagen and Dick Danner, and to Frances Conrad of the dean's office, it was idyllic. Kathy Bader was, as always, the perfect hostess during that frantic time.
As Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic Online, I have worked with a number of talented editors there, including Scott Stossel, Bob Cohn, John Gould, Jennifer Rothenberg Gritz, David Graham, and Emma Green. I was also lucky enough to gain admission to the Court's Press Room and Press Gallery; the staff of the Supreme Court Public Information Office have been patient, generous, even-handed, and good humored. In the Press Room, the brightest reporters in America decode the Court's workings for the public. I am in awe of their care, thoroughness, fairness, and knowledge of the law, and of their ability to make complex concepts clear. These professionals have shown innumerable kindnesses to an academic interloper. I freely confess that I steal from them almost daily.
Table of Contents
Preface: My Supreme Court, and Yours
Introduction: The Branch That Works
1. Balls and Strikes: Chief Justice John Roberts— McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
2. Justice of Hearts: Justice Sonia Sotomayor—Dissenting, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action by Any Means Necessary
3. Empathy for the Devil: Justice Antonin Scalia—Dissenting, Windsor v. United States Redux
4. Enter Laughing: Justice Elena Kagan—Dissenting, Town of Greece v. Galloway
5. Big Brother: Justice Anthony Kennedy— Hall v. Florida
6. In a Different Voice: Justice Clarence Thomas: Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus
7. Bringer of Chaos: Justice Stephen Breyer— National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning
8. The Alito Court: Justice Samuel Alito— Harris v. Quinn
9. No Exit: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Dissenting, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores
Afterword: Red and Blue Justice
A. A Brief Guide to Supreme Court Procedure
B. Justices of the United States Supreme Court, OT 2013
C. Major OT13 Cases Discussed in This Book