We write a lot about “judicial emergencies”—situations where slow-downs in the judicial nominations process have led court systems to be woefully understaffed. These cases are not emergencies because judges have to work harder—they’re emergencies because when courts are overworked, access to justice is delayed.
Last week, Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen explained what is happening in Arizona, where Chief District Court Judge John Roll was murdered when he stopped by an event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to talk with her about the overcrowded courts. Roll had been planning to request that Arizona be labeled a “judicial emergency” in order to loosen restrictions on speedy trials:
Roll did not live to see his request granted. But on Tuesday, less than three weeks after he was shot by accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner, Roll's successor finally did declare a "judicial emergency" in the state after consulting with the 9th Circuit's Judicial Council. The move by Chief U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver allows federal judges in the state to wait for as long as 180 days between the time of the indictment or complaint and the time of trial, even if a criminal defendant wants to go to trial more quickly.
The administrative move could delay the Loughner case itself, depending upon whether the 22-year-old defendant's attorneys try to change the trial venue from Arizona to another state or if federal prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty against Loughner. Most federal murder cases do not go to trial quickly anyway, in large part because of the significant pre-trial work it typically takes for lawyers to prepare their cases. The government has not yet charged Loughner with a capital crime. The next hearing in the case is set for March 9.
The extraordinary action by Silver was taken because of the sheer volume of cases. According to the 9th Circuit: "The Arizona federal court has the third highest criminal caseload in the nation, driven by illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal cases have increased 65 percent since 2008, when the federal government greatly expanded its law enforcement efforts along the border. The bulk of the criminal caseload is assigned to the court's Tucson division, where three judges currently handle approximately 1,200 cases each" (emphasis added).
There are currently 101 empty seats in the federal courts, 49 of which have been labeled as judicial emergencies [pdf]. Chief Justice John Roberts recently pleaded with the Senate to stop holding up judicial nominees, saying their stalling had resulted in “acute difficulties for some judicial districts.” Justice Anthony Kennedy told the Los Angeles Times, “It's important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk.”
In an editorial memo last week, PFAW outlined the Senate obstruction that has been largely responsible for the slow pace of filling judicial vacancies in the Obama administration:
On the occasions when it has confirmed nominees to the bench, the Senate has slowed down the process to the point of absurdity. During the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, District Court nominees were confirmed in an average of 25 days. Under President Obama, the wait has averaged 104 days. For Circuit Court judges, the time has increased six-fold, from 26 days to 163 days on average.
Senators need only to look to Arizona to see the real impact that playing politics with judicial nominations has on the ability of citizens to get prompt access to justice.
The Constitutional Accountability Center has just released a statistical study of the current Supreme Court’s pro-corporate voting patterns. And guess what? The numbers back the trend that’s anecdotally hard to miss.
CAC’s statistical study tests empirically the idea that the conservatives on the Roberts Court tend to side with corporate interests. Our study examined every opinion released by the Roberts Court since Justice Samuel Alito began participating in decisions, and in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was either a party or an amicus curiae — a universe of 53 cases. This study reveals an overall success rate for the Chamber of 64% (34 victories in 53 cases), and a success rate of 71% in cases decided by a narrow (five-Justice) majority. The Court’s conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy) tend to vote together in their support for the Chamber, while the Court’s moderate/liberal bloc (including former Justice David Souter, who was on the Court for most of these rulings) was more centrist, casting only 41% of its votes in favor of the Chamber.
These data strongly support the proposition that there is a strong ideological component to the Justices’ rulings in business cases, with the Court’s conservatives frequently adopting the Chamber’s position. In one particularly startling finding, Justice Alito, since joining the Court, has never cast a vote against the Chamber of Commerce’s position in a closely divided case. This statistical evidence supports the charge by President Obama and Chairman Leahy that the Court’s conservative majority has a disturbing pro-corporate tilt, and this reality should provide an important frame for General Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearing.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled today that suspects being interrogated can only invoke their right to be silent if they say so explicitly—they can’t just remain silent. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissenting opinion, called the ruling a "substantial retreat from the protection against compelled self-incrimination that Miranda v. Arizona has long provided.” The Los Angeles Times explains:
In the past, the court has said the "burden rests on the government" to show that a crime suspect has "knowingly and intelligently waived" his rights.
But in a 5-4 decision Tuesday, the court said the suspect had the duty to invoke his rights. If he failed to do so, his later words can be used to convict him, the justices said.
The ruling comes in a case involving a murder suspect who, though read his Miranda rights, never said he would waive them. After three hours of interrogation, he offered a few monosyllabic responses that implicated him in the crime. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, went beyond the case in question to hold that suspects, rather than having to explicitly agree to be interrogated, have to explicitly invoke their Miranda rights in order to halt questioning.
Sotomayor pointed out that requiring a suspect to speak in order to remain silent doesn’t really make sense:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's newest member, wrote a strongly worded dissent for the court's liberals, saying the majority's decision "turns Miranda upside down."
"Criminal suspects must now unambiguously invoke their right to remain silent — which counterintuitively, requires them to speak," she said. "At the same time, suspects will be legally presumed to have waived their rights even if they have given no clear expression of their intent to do so. Those results, in my view, find no basis in Miranda or our subsequent cases and are inconsistent with the fair-trial principles on which those precedents are grounded."
She also criticized the majority for going beyond the decision necessary for the specific case in order to make new and broader rules:
If, in the Court’s view, the Michigan court did not unreasonably apply our Miranda precedents in denying Thompkins relief, it should simply say so and reverse the Sixth Circuit’s judgment on that ground. “It is a fundamental rule of judicial restraint . . . that this Court will not reach constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them.” Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation v. Wold Engineering, P. C., 467 U. S. 138, 157 (1984).
Two disturbing habits of the Roberts Court are on display here: the tendency to ignore the common-sense practicalities faced by the person with the least power in a given situation; and the zeal for going beyond the narrow bounds of a given case and carving out a whole new set of rules not necessary to the resolution of the case before them.
It’s a perfect example of how the Roberts majority, while displaying remarkable ambivalence to the practical implications of its rulings, isn’t just calling “balls and strikes”—it’s going to bat for its own unprecedented agenda.
As George Orwell might put it, all Supreme Court decisions are important, but some are more important than others. And in the history of our country, there can be little doubt that one of the Court’s most important decisions was its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 54 years ago this May 17th. Overturning the shameful “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and striking down school segregation laws, the ruling in Brown gave substance to the Constitution’s promise of equality for all. Without question, May 17, 1954 saw the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, at its very best.
Court watcher Jeffrey Toobin is launching his new book, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, with a round of media interviews. Asked by Time about "the impact of the two new Bush Justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito," Toobin could not have been more blunt — or correct: "This is a much more conservative institution than it was two years ago. There will be no surprises with the Chief and Justice Alito. They are committed fervent judicial conservatives, and they're not going to change."