Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Globalizing the Supreme Court's thinking

The ever vigilant judicial watcher, Chuck Lane of the Washington Post, has a keen observation in today's paper on yesterday's Supreme Court ruling against the death penalty for juveniles:

For the Supreme Court itself, perhaps the most significant effect of yesterday's decision is to reaffirm the role of international law in constitutional interpretation.

The European Union, human right lawyers from the United Kingdom and a group of Nobel Peace laureates had urged the court in friend-of-the-court briefs to strike down the juvenile death penalty.

In saying that this strong expression of international sentiment "provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions," Kennedy lengthened the recent string of decisions in which the court has incorporated foreign views -- and decisively rejected the arguments of those on the court, led by Scalia, who say it should consider U.S. law exclusively.

There were actually six votes in Kennedy's favor on that point yesterday, because in her dissenting opinion O'Connor agreed with Kennedy that international trends affect the meaning of "cruel and unusual punishment" in modern times.

I'd like to hear about further commentary on this issue, if anyone knows of any.

UPDATE: Publius over at Legal Fiction has unknowingly answered my request, for sometime in the near future: "It's simply a great case study for both lawyers and non-lawyers. It shows Scalia's jurisprudence at both its best and worst. It also gives me an opportunity to justify the reference to international norms." Keep an eye there, if you're interested.

Also, in a humorous jibe at Glenn Reynolds, Julie Saltman finds an unlikely (and rather illogical) supporter of international norms creeping into Supreme Court decisions.

Further Update: The Economist also reminds us of this precedent:
But it is not the first such case. In the 2002 ruling in Lawrence v Texas, the Supreme Court struck down a state statute forbidding private homosexual conduct. The court ruled that: “Where a case’s foundations have sustained serious erosion, criticism from other sources is of greater significance…[T]o the extent Bowers [a previous case that had upheld the anti-sodomy law] relied on values shared with a wider civilization, the case’s reasoning and holding have been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, and other nations have taken action consistent with an affirmation of the protected right of homosexual adults to engage in intimate, consensual conduct.”
Ken Anderson, my old colleague from Human Rights Watch, now a professor of law at American University and one who holds some critical and unpopular notions about international nongovernmental organizations (many of which I share), takes this issue on directly. Apparently, this issue was broached in January when Justices Breyer and Scalia spoke at American U. You should definitely read Ken's post about that, as well as Julian Ku of Opinio Juris. Meanwhile, this is what Ken has to say about the ruling at hand:
The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, went wildly farther than any other case in invoking international opinion, foreign law, and international law, and I find that very disturbing. It is particularly disturbing in that this is no longer merely a hobby-horse of Justice Breyer's, but something joined by Justices Kennedy and, remarkably, by Justice O'Connor, who dissented from the holding on the death penalty but specifically joined the majority in its reliance on international opinion.

Press coverage has been focused on this practice as though it will remain limited to Supreme Court cases. It will not. The language of the majority approving the practice of paying attention to foreign and international sources is more than broad enough to constitute an invitation to litigants in matters ranging from run of the mill statutory cases to the most profound Constitutional "values" cases - abortion, the death penalty, firearms, church and state issues, and free speech. Both ordinary lawyers and the whole human rights NGO community will now gear up to introduce all these materials into all levels of court cases in this country, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. The other side will have no choice but to respond in kind, seeking vindication of its own side in the same foreign and international materials. Judges will rapidly become used to the idea that this material is as good as any other.

I would predict that, unchecked by an explicit rejection of this material by the Supreme Court itself, the use of this material will spread throughout the US judicial system like an internet virus - because both sides will have to assume in any litigation that it now matters. Corporate defendants will have to search through all this material to find material for their own side; conservative legal groups will have to be able to come up with their own citations from this material, because they will have no surety that such material will not persuade the judge. Certainly numerous activist judges will find it a potent source of material for reaching their own subjective conclusions - just as Justice Scalia predicted and as the Supreme Court just did. But that won't be the worst of it. The worst of it will be the speed with which these materials and their invocation become utterly routine, far outside cases of judicial activism, with the strong possibility of a sea change in the nature of legal authority in this country. Indeed, I think the shift will at least begin to become widely noticeable up and down the court system - and essentially unstoppable - even by the end of Bush's second term.

There is really only one solution to a problem invited from the top, and that lies with a shift in the balance of power in the Court. I would say that attitudes toward foreign law and international legal materials in US constitutional adjudication has now risen to be at the very top of questions for prospective court nominees, and not just Supreme Court nominees. It is also time for Congress to take up specific measures to ensure that Article III courts are limited to US legal materials in Constitutional adjudication. This is the kind of long term, fuzzy, domestic issue that the Bush administration has shown itself frankly unable to focus on - too abstract, too long term, too indirect in its bad effects, and beyond the political event horizon - but it needs to understand the extraordinary nature of the end-run around US law that the Supreme Court has handed activists and NGOs, by handing it to everyone. It is actually a much more important long term issue than tort reform - yet it seems to me highly unlikely that the Bush administration will understand that the Supreme Court has essentially tossed down the gauntlet and that it must act, with Congress, now if it hopes to avoid, twenty five years from now, the conclusion that a sweeping invigoration of the legal materials underlying judicial activism of the Left took place on its watch.
Final update (I promise): More from Julian Ku and Ken Anderson. I'll let the lawyers battle this one out.

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