|Prof. A. E. Dick Howard moderated the panel.
Posted September 16, 2004
Supreme Court Review Kicks Off New Academic Session
Professors David Martin, Anne Coughlin, and Dean John Jeffries summarized
decisions from the Supreme Court’s last session to a packed and
appreciative crowd at Caplin Pavilion Sept. 9 in a review of key rulings
that traditionally starts the Law School’s new academic year.
Constitutional scholar and inveterate Supreme Court watcher A. E. Dick
Howard moderated the panel.
Executive Power Gets Detained
Martin called the Court’s last term “action packed” and
said that among the most important cases were a trio that involved
the “executive’s authority to detain what the administration
has called enemy combatants,” a term whose designation he controls
and, were it not for the Court’s intervention, he might apply
at his whimsy.
The risk of the president assuming “sweeping executive detention
power” challenged the concept of habeas corpus, which has roots
in the Anglo-American legal tradition going back to the Magna Carta,
and which the Court reaffirmed, Martin said. The writ of habeas corpus
allows someone being held in jail to force authorities to justify their
reasons for holding him in court, he explained. “It’s a
very important protection,” Martin said. “You simply can’t
just disappear some place. Somebody on your behalf can file a habeas
The Constitution says the protection of habeas corpus can’t
be suspended except in times of rebellion and it would require a legislative
act to suspend it, Martin explained.
”The central issue in the cases was a breathtakingly sweeping
claim of executive authority to detain people indefinitely and potentially
incommunicado . . . without meaningful accountability to the courts.” The
Court’s rulings placed limits on detentions, but left some questions
The case of Rasul v. Bush involved some 600 foreign nationals
held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, Cuba. In its 1950 Johnson
v. Eisentrager ruling, Martin said, the Supreme Court said that
the United States has no jurisdiction over such detentions when the
persons are held in territory over which the U.S is not sovereign.
The Guantanamo base situation is “absolutely unique,” he
said, because a treaty gives the United States an indefinite lease,
with “complete jurisdiction and control,” but also stipulates
that Cuba has “ultimate sovereignty.”
But since 1950, case law has developed so that such cases can be heard
when the person held is outside the immediate judicial district, and
last term the Court ruled 6-3 that jurisdiction does exist.
The question remains, does it apply to Guantanamo only? And what standards
must be met to justify detention? Meanwhile, the decision forced the
use of military tribunals to consider status issues, and one person
was recently released after having been held two years.
The cases involving two U.S. citizens, Yaser Hamdi (who was captured
in Afghanistan but discovered to have been born in Louisiana when his
father, who is from Saudi Arabia, was in graduate school there) and
Jose Padilla (arrested at O’Hare airport) “posed extraordinary
risks to civil liberties, particularly if the government can detain
the person with virtually no communication with family or with an attorney,” Martin
The government wanted the court to take its assertion that the detention
was valid at face value without investigating further, Martin said.
The court ruled that Padilla’s case was in the wrong court and
should be filed in South Carolina rather than New York. ”Maybe
they are worried about forum shopping,” Martin speculated. “So
that case is starting over.”
Congress’s 1971 non-detention act aimed at preventing the mistake
the United States made of imprisoning Japanese-Americans during World
War II. The act requires Congress to pass a law to allow such detentions
should they be necessary in the future.
|R-L, Professors Martin, Coughlin, and Dean Jeffries.
The court ruled that terms of the 1971 act were satisfied in the detention
of Hamdi and Padilla, but that they were further entitled to due process
to determine if they met customary wartime standards for detention,
including a timely chance to dispute the claim of their enemy combatant
status. Martin said he was troubled by the opinion in the ruling, which
suggested that the burden of proof could shift to the detained person,
rather than the government, once the government asserted that the detention
The Court decided these cases “in a way that leaves the court
in the central role,” Martin said. It did not throw the problem
of the definitions in the non-detention act back to Congress to develop
them better. Martin said the court could have forced the checks-and-balances
system to work better.
“This is a court that knows not the passive virtues. They are
happy to assert that they can set it up right.” Martin said that
Justice Antonin Scalia, reacting negatively to the decision, accused
the court of having a “Mr. Fix-It mentality.”
Sentencing Guidelines Get Wobbly
If the president’s detention powers seemed ominous for civil
liberties to professor Martin, the court’s 5-4 decision in the
case of Blakely v. Washington seemed no less so for criminal
sentencing guidelines to professor Anne Coughlin. The ruling “calls
into question criminal sentencing as it’s being carried out in
federal courts and state systems,” she said. “The Washington
state scheme knocked down by the decision appears impossible to distinguish
from federal sentencing guidelines.”
Coughlin called Blakely a “blockbuster case, really
earth shattering.” Judges she’s talked to describe the
decision as “Delphic” and say they have no idea what it
means, except that tens of thousands of sentences are now in doubt.
She said the decision is an instance of the court “rediscovering
the Sixth Amendment” which protects the rights of the accused
by having a jury decide on the elements of a crime, but the ruling
also seems to have invented “a new right of uncertain scope.”
Coughlin said the ruling has an “Alice-in-Wonderland kind of
quality because the solutions the court seems to apply don’t
seem satisfactory either.”
Blakely is a very significant extension of the four-year-old Apprendi
v. New Jersey case, in which the court said that sentences that
go beyond the usual instructions of sentencing guidelines to account
for aggravating circumstances in the crime must be decided by a jury.
“In Apprendi the court held that except for prior convictions,
every fact that raises a defendant’s sentence above the statutory
maximum is an element of the crime,” Coughlin explained. “This
means they have to charged and proven to the jury beyond a reasonable
doubt.” In the Apprendi case, a judge added to the sentence
because he found that the crime—firing into an African-American
home—also had racist motives.
In Blakely’s case, he and his wife were in the midst of nasty
divorce and custody hearings when he violently kidnapped her. She was
freed unharmed and he ultimately pled guilty to second-degree kidnapping.
The judge added 37 months to Blakely’s sentence, raising it from
53 to 90 months—still less than the 10 years the statutory guidelines
allow—after finding that Blakely had “acted with deliberate
Blakely argued that his sentence violated Apprendi because
a judge, not a jury, made the finding of deliberate cruelty that was
the basis for adding to the sentence and the Court agreed.
States had hoped the Court would use the case to cut down the reach
of Apprendi, Coughlin said, because the judge had not gone
beyond Washington's state guidelines, but the ruling only made their
The case matters especially because of the history of criminal sentencing
in the United States, she said. For about 200 years, the nation had
indeterminate sentencing. Judges could sentence criminals from “anywhere
from zero to 50 years.” That system saw “tons of variation
and arbitrariness, unfairness and, we now know, serious discrimination
based on factors we know are impermissible,” she said. The movement
to restrain judges’ discretion instituted the current guidelines.
“What’s the fix Blakely has in mind?” Coughlin
wondered, “to go back to indiscriminate sentencing,” but
with a jury finding all the elements of the crime?
Judges can have some discretion, but apparently legislators are not
allowed to channel it, she summed up. Meanwhile, some federal courts
are considering the federal guidelines dead, she said, and they are
trying to figure out what to do instead. Jury sentencing is one alternative,
but 95 percent of cases are resolved by guilty pleas, she noted, so
that’s an implausible solution.
An undesirable outcome, she said, would be to have harsher statutory
minimum sentences and also raise the maximums. The Court has granted
expedited review to a case that challenges the constitutionality of
federal sentencing guidelines directly and proponents of guidelines
are hoping for further clarification.
Ceremonial Deism Gets Invoked
Dean John C. Jeffries Jr. described two cases bearing on the boundaries
between religion and government authority.
In Locke v. Davey [Gary Locke is the governor of Washington],
Joshua Davey, a student at a Christian college studying to be a minister,
claimed the refusal by the state of Washington to provide a scholarship
for him under a state program that offered support for any area of
study except theology violated the free exercise of religion clause.
The Supreme Court rejected the claim. Since a 1986 Supreme Court decision,
it has been permissible for states to fund religious education with
public money on the same neutral terms that it funds education in other
subjects. Jeffries said the case illustrates the shift in attitude
over the last 35 years from a policy of preventing public money from
supporting religious study to the current era in which it is not just
allowed but, as Davey asserted, perhaps even required. In the last
generation, the question over whether it is unconstitutional to fund
religious education has changed from “are you absolutely forbidden
from doing something, to now, are you required to do so?” Jeffries
The court is focused on the point of the funding being neutral, he
explained. The problem with that is determining if government funding
is neutral, which depends on what baseline one begins from. “If
you start form the historical norm the government doesn’t fund
private activity, then the refusal to pay for studying to be a minister
is neutral. It doesn’t encourage religion. It doesn’t penalize
religion. It’s just neutral. But if you start from the proposition
that the government funds all other forms of study except devotional
theology, then the refusal to fund study religious study starts to
look like a penalty.”
Jeffries said that Scalia’s view, in dissenting from the ruling,
was that when the state makes a benefit publicly available, that benefit
becomes part of the baseline against which burdens are measured, and
when it withholds that benefit from an individual solely on the basis
of religion, it violates the free exercise clause. For the court majority,
on the other hand, the failure to fund is simply neutral on religion.
Jeffries said there is no way to tell analytically which view is better. “They
are both logically airtight starting from the baseline, and the entire
dispute depends on the choice of the baseline.”
The case Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow is more
curious. Michael Newdow, “an ordained atheist minister,” objected
to his daughter repeating the phrase “under God” in the
Pledge of Allegiance. The words were added in 1954 “to underline
the difference between the United States and Godless communism,” Jeffries
explained. Oregon law says students are free to remain silent while
the pledge is recited if they have objections to it.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that the phrase
violated the Establishment Clause, but the Supreme Court ruled 5-4
that because Newdow was separated from his wife and daughter, he did
not have standing to make his complaint. Worse yet for him, his daughter
declared that she is Christian and that she likes saying the pledge
and the “under God” part.
“As a matter of doctrine, the court’s standing decision
is very, very odd,” Jeffries said, “This is a case where
the Supreme Court blinked and intentionally did not decide an issue
that would be terribly controversial.” The dissenting side, Chief
Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra O’Connor and Clarence
Thomas, said that Newdow did have standing and that the pledge is “just
fine,” Jeffries said, which removes any doubt about where their
future votes lie.
Justice O’Connor’s position was particularly interesting,
he added. “For years she has been saying that the Establishment
Clause is chiefly aimed at government endorsement of religion. What
it’s really against is the government saying it’s good
to be religious. . . . She says that’s unconstitutional.” That
explains her position in the school prayer cases, Jeffries said, because
government endorsement of religion might be coercive of those who do
not share such a belief.
The court’s toleration for nativity scenes and other religious
references on government property is explained by O’Connor, Jeffries
said, through the concept she espouses called “ceremonial deism,” which
says that government references to religion “are not really endorsements
of religion because they are not really serious. They are just designed
to make the occasion seem important,” he said. “Examples
of ceremonial deism, I guess, would be the pledge of allegiance, the
'In God We Trust’ on coins, or when the Supreme Court marshal
opens the day by saying ‘God save the United States and this
honorable court,’” he said.
Just as the court “blinked“ at answering Newdow’s
contention, the concept of ceremonial deism seems destined for a showdown
too. “I just want to note,” Jeffries said, “that
there are plenty of people in this country who really do believe in
God who might not be comfortable with the notion that we say ‘under
God’ simply to indicate its nonreligious meaning and who might
think that references to God are to be taken seriously.”
Reported by M. Marshall