Sunday, April 22, 2018

At Supreme Court, Originalism's Illusory Promise Exposed

      "The life of the law has not been logic," the great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once proclaimed, "it has been experience." Holmes' embrace of legal realism in a series of lectures before his judicial career challenged the legal formalists of the era who saw law as nothing more than "syllogisms" or "the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.".
      The formalists of the 19th century stunted the development of the law by preventing workers or others from joining together to protect their interests or recover for the often deadly injuries of the industrial era. Today, a new generation of legal formalists are defying Holmes' practical wisdom by looking not to experience or even to logic, but to what they believe can be discerned as the "original meaning" of the Framers who wrote the U.S. Constitution some 225 years ago.
      Originalists promise in part that originalism can yield definite answers to hard legal issues and thus force judges to decide cases solely on the basis of law instead of their personal views. But the promise is an illusion, as seen in the dueling opinions of the two originalist justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court's closely divided decision last week [April 17] in an important immigration law case.
      Thomas and Gorsuch clashed on the question of whether the Due Process Clause authorizes courts to strike down laws as unconstitutional on account of vagueness. The two justices came out on opposite sides of the 5-4 decision in Sessions v. Dimaya, with Gorsuch joining the four liberal justices in ruling in favor of the immigrant in the case. Thomas joined with three other conservatives in the main dissent and wrote a separate, history-based dissent for himself alone.
      Thomas and Gorsuch disagreed about the significance of old court decisions dealing with vague laws from 18th century England and 18th and 19th century America. The debate was worthy of an advanced seminar in legal history, but for Filipino immigrant James Dimaya the stakes were anything but academic.
      Dimaya, who immigrated legally to the United States at age 13 in 1992, was facing deportation because of two burglary convictions a decade ago in his adopted home in the San Francisco Bay area. The government moved to deport him under a provision in immigration law that mandates removal for anyone convicted of a "crime of violence." The provision defines that term as a "felony . . . that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense."
      Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled a similarly phrased provision in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) as unconstitutional under the so-called void-for-vagueness doctrine. Thomas agreed with the result in Johnson v. United States (2015), but in a separate opinion he called the void-for-vagueness doctrine inconsistent with the original meaning of the Bill of Rights' Due Process Clause..
      In the new case, Gorsuch noted that none of the other justices had responded to Thomas's view and took on the task himself. Reviewing the cases, Gorsuch concluded that void for vagueness "serves as a faithful expression of ancient due process and separation of powers principles . . . ." Thomas reiterated his "doubts about whether the vagueness doctrine can be squared with the original meaning of the Due Process Clause."
      Paradoxically, Thomas and Gorsuch both favorably cited a 19th century decision by Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington as evidence for their opposing views. Presiding as circuit justice in a Pennsylvania case, Washington found a federal law prohibiting seamen from making a "revolt" too vague to allow the government's case to go to the jury.
      Commenting on the two opinions, Evan Bernick, a lecturer at Georgetown Law School and a fellow with the school's originalist Center on the Constitution, sees "not a lot of difference" between Thomas and Gorsuch. Thomas, he explains, would apply vagueness doctrine "on a retail basis" — one case at a time — while Gorsuch would strike down a vague law in its entirety as serving the original purpose of the Due Process Clause.
      Eric Segall, a law professor at Georgia State University and a sometime critic of originalism, sees the difference between the two justices as an example of the difference between an "old" originalism that emphasized judicial deference and a "new" originalism better disposed to so-called "judicial engagement." The shift, in Segall's view, shows that originalism has become "a political symbol" more than a legal methodology. "Once you say no deference," he explains, "given the indeterminacy of history, originalism will not be able to limit judicial choices."
      Bernick and other originalists, such as Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler, reject the criticism. "No method of interpretation is entirely determinate," Adler replies. Originalism constrains the range of outcomes in constitutional cases, he argues, "but it does not reduce every single case to a single permissible outcome." Bernick similarly views originalism as "marginally more discretion-reducing" than other methods of constitutional interpretation.
      Originalists achieved their biggest victory to date in the Second Amendment gun-rights decision in Heller (2008), written by the godfather of originalism, the late justice Antonin Scalia. Writing for the four dissenters, Justice John Paul Stevens argued just as strongly as Scalia that original meaning pointed the other way. "History is always going to be unclear," Segall contends. With Gorsuch proudly identifying himself as a "committed originalist," legal history may figure prominently in future cases too, but Court watchers should not expect history to provide definite answers.

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