Ever since the Supreme Court made a conservative turn in 2006, critics have pointed to rulings that shut the courthouse door to the little guy--especially the little guy who's trying to sue a giant corporation, such as a manufacturer of medical devices or drugs. In those cases, the Court has said product liability lawsuits are barred under federal law. The rationale is that since federal regulators had approved the devices and the drugs in the first place, the companies aren't liable for defective designs.
What critics don't mention is that some of the liberal justices have been on board with some of those decisions favoring the corporations. And today, the Court showed once again that simplistic narratives aren't always accurate. In a unanimous decision, the justices paved the way for a lawsuit against Mazda Motor Corp., rejecting the company's argument that it should not be subjected to lawsuits over its failure to install shoulder belts in the back seats of its minivans.
The case came about in 2002, when a Mazda minivan crashed and killed a passenger in the back seat. The girl was wearing a lap-only seat belt--the 1993 van didn't have shoulder belts for the back seat.
Her parents, who were in the front seat, were wearing lap AND shoulder belts, and they survived. They sued Mazda, saying the automaker should have put lap and shoulder belts in the back seat too, and that if the van had those seats, their daughter would have survived the crash.
Mazda fought the suit, saying its minivans met all federal safety regulations in effect at the time, and so the family's lawsuit could not go forward. A California appeals court agreed.
But the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Breyer, said those federal safety regulations don't bar lawsuits over lap-only seat belts. Justice Breyer said there was no proof the government wanted to preempt these types of lawsuits back then or today--and he noted that the Administration had argued the lawsuits should go forward.
The regulations have changed since the 2002 crash, and new cars now have lap and shoulder belts in the back seats. But older vehicles on the roads--and the administration says there are about 1 million of them--have the lap-only belts.
Q: Seriously. Can New York really ban smoking outside, away from building entrances--even in "windswept" Battery Park (as the NYT put it) or Central Park? I mean, bars and restaurants are one thing, but a park?
A: Yes. We don't have a constitutional right to smoke (or, for that matter, a constitutional right to wear a Green Bay Packers jersey to work after the NFC championship game). Right now, nearly 80 percent of the people in the US live under some type of smoking ban, whether it's in bars, restaurants, workplaces--or on public property. And courts across the country have repeatedly upheld those bans--saying smoking is not a fundamental right and the government has an interest in protecting public health.
So the New York law may sound extreme, but it isn't that unusual---or even as far-reaching as bans in other parts of the country. The county that includes Minneapolis, for example, is planning to ban smoking on any public property--even if smokers are in their own cars.Continue »
In a 6-2 decision, the justices said Congress had effectively shut the courthouse door to these lawsuits in 1986, when it created a special vaccine court designed to compensate victims of vaccine injuries.
The decision immediately was hailed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said it would safeguard the nation's vaccine supply by protecting vaccine makers from potentially crippling legal liability--which could have driven manufacturers out of the vaccine market.
"Childhood vaccines are among the greatest medical breakthroughs of the last century," said the organization's president, Dr. O. Marion Burton. "Today's Supreme Court decision protects children by strengthening our national immunization system and ensuring that vaccines will continue to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in this country."Continue »
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has announced he's asking the Supreme Court to step in now and decide the constitutionality of health care reform--instead of waiting for the case run its normal course through the federal appeals court.
"Currently, state governments and private businesses are being forced to expend enormous amounts of resources to prepare to implement a law that, in the end, may be declared unconstitutional," he said in a statement. "Regardless of whether you believe the law is constitutional or not, we should all agree that a prompt resolution of this issue is in everyone's best interest."
Not to go out on a limb here, but I would rank the odds of success on this petition as, oh, zero. This is a highly unusual request, and the Court doesn't like highly unusual requests. It typically sticks to its traditions, which in this case would mean letting appeals run their course.
There are practical reasons for doing so: letting this case play out gives the justices the benefit of more opinions/dissents from the appellate courts as they weigh different sides of the issue.
Moreover, Cuccinelli is asking the Court to expedite a case he WON, not to block a ruling against him. If the Court were inclined to step into the case now, and there is no reason to think it is, the justices would be more likely to act on an appeal from DOJ in the Florida case--where the judge threw out the entire law.
But there is no motion for expedited review from DOJ in the Florida case. And in Virginia, DOJ pointedly refused to join Cuccinelli in asking the Supreme Court to jump in and skip the appeals courts, saying in a statement today that it's better to let the case proceed the normal way.
So why the rush from Cuccinelli?
Wait. A. Minute. Surely he's not trying to get the Court to take HIS case instead of the Florida case, so the landmark decision for the law books will be his litigation, not the group effort from Florida?
Nah. Surely not.
We expect Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The only difference is that new Justice Kagan will be there this year instead of Justice Samuel Alito, who is out of town. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also will sit out this year--but they never go, so you can't read anything into that.
As I suggested yesterday, it seemed almost inevitable that we'd have at least five there. We have a new Justice who presumably feels obligated or flat-out wants to attend her first SOTU. We have three other liberals who typically attend, as well, and we have Justice Kennedy, also a perennial SOTU enthusiast.Continue »
No, he's not mad. He's out of town.
As we all surely recall, the president's dust-up with Alito last year started when Mr. Obama took the unusual step of lashing out at the Court -- with six of the justices sitting right in front of him -- for a recent decision on campaign finance reform. When Mr. Obama said the ruling would open the floodgates for foreign corporations to spend unlimited money on elections, the Democrats in the chamber all jumped up and yelled and clapped and cheered--like all they were in the Duke student section at a Blue Devils game or something. That seemed like a bit of an overreaction, but they were pretty excited about campaign finance reform, I guess.Anyway, with all the whooping and hollering going on, the Justices just sat there, silently and obviously verrrry uncomfortably. And Justice Alito was caught on camera shaking his head and mouthing the words "not true." (watch at left)
That was Big News, and the White House kept the story going, with a press release the next day that Justice Alito was wrong, and President Obama was right, na-na-na-na-na. And that, shall we say, did not sit very well with members of the Court.
And ever since, we've all wondered whether any of them would return to another State of the Union. Ever again.
So we can take Alito off the guest list. But don't go all "Justice Alito is still mad as hell over what happened last year, and he's not going to take it anymore, so he invented an excuse to go up to Baltimore for the night." No. Negative. Alito had a long-standing teaching engagement in Hawaii.Continue »
When you think of the tradition-bound Supreme Court, there's a tendency to imagine the justices still writing opinions with quill pens, as they ponder the great legal questions in their hushed chambers.
But that obviously is not today's Supreme Court. Elena Kagan, the Court's newest justice, tells C-Span she likes to read briefs on her Kindle.
In an interview that updates C-SPAN's impressive October 2009 documentary on the Supreme Court, Kagan says technology means the justices don't have to lug so many stacks of briefs around when they're delving into the cases.Continue »
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been denied bail by a judge after surrendering to British authorities over a Swedish arrest warrant because he was considered a flight risk. Consequently, Assange will stay in jail until another hearing next week. He opposes extradition -- he has argued he is willing to cooperate with the Swedes and can be interviewed via videotape.
Can he be extradited to the U.S.?
If Assange is charged for releasing classified U.S. State Department cables -- which will be difficult under existing U.S. laws -- the government will need to get him here for trial. At this point, the government doesn't have jurisdiction over him, so it couldn't try him unless another country agreed to extradite him. Although we have extradition treaties, the question is whether the offense -- releasing the cables -- is also a crime in, say, Sweden. And that's unclear -- most European countries have pretty strong laws protecting journalists, and Sweden may see inadequate basis for extraditing him here based on a novel application of our Extradition Act. They could well be unwilling to send him here for charges and trial.
What would Assange be charged with?
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week that Assange had committed a crime... but it's not clear under what law. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has said he should be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, but that's a tough row to hoe. The Supreme Court ruled in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 that media outlets are allowed to publish classified info under the First Amendment.Continue »
The appeals court panel hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the California gay marriage ban indicated this afternoon they will rule it violates the rights of gays and lesbians -- with the only question being just how broadly the ruling will be.
(That of course assumes the appeals court will reach the question -- they first have to decide whether the Prop. 8 supporters have legal standing to defend the law.)
If they reach the merits, the judges today were clearly were skeptical of arguments by the lawyer for Prop. 8 supporters. But at the same time, they also seemed reluctant to issue a sweeping ruling for gay marriage.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, one of the court's staunchest liberals, repeatedly pressed attorney Ted Olson on whether the court could rule for gay and lesbian couples in a relatively narrow way. He asked whether the court would have to rule that the Constitution guarantees gays and lesbians a fundamental right to marriage -- or whether the court simply could rule that it is unconstitutional to pass a law taking away a pre-existing right. (Remember, gays and lesbians had the right to marry in California for a short time.)
Olson, who equated the gay marriage ban to laws that once prohibited interracial marriage, initially seemed to argue for the sweeping ruling. But he later backed off and suggested he also would be satisfied with a ruling that struck down the gay marriage ban as unconstitutional because it simply took away a pre-existing right.Continue »
The story of Russell James Dixon, one of nine people pardoned by President Obama Friday, is a hard-luck tale borne of poverty in rural Georgia -- with redemption achieved through work, family and church -- not to mention frequent coon hunts with his grandchildren.
Dixon has no contacts in Washington and used no lawyers to win his pardon. He is unknown outside his small town of 2,000 people. His daughter helped him fill out his pardon papers. His crime, 50 years ago, wasn't a violent one: he made moonshine. His preacher, local banker and the Rabun County sheriff vouched for his character.
"I wanted to clear my name, before I die, and have a clean record," said Dixon, who turns 73 next Tuesday. "I figured I wouldn't ever get it done."
And there also is this: Dixon likes to hunt for coon and deer with his "grandyoung-uns," as he calls them. He thought someday he might like to buy a new shotgun, which he couldn't do with a felony conviction.
He is in the first group of people pardoned by Mr. Obama, who received hundreds of requests. And experts say he is typical of modern-day presidential pardons.
"It's a pattern. That certainly is who George W. Bush pardoned. Of the 189 pardons Bush did, I don't think there were more than a handful who were folks of any stature or consequence," said pardon attorney Margaret Love. "This is the kind of typical, ordinary, bread-and-butter crime that presidential pardoning has always been about."
Dixon's bread-and-butter crime was moonshining in hardscrabble Rabun County, up in the most northeastern corner of Georgia. He was convicted and sentenced to two years probation in 1960.Continue »
Along the way, he also takes time to sling a few arrows at conservatives who opposed his choice of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Conservatives, he says, were condescending (he refers specifically to a quote from Ann Coulter) and elitist in their opposition to Miers, and he's clearly still peeved by the revolt that led to her withdrawal. In fact, that's why he regrets nominating her.
"While I know Harriet would have made a fine justice, I didn't think enough about how the selection would be perceived by others," Mr. Bush writes. "I put my friend in an impossible situation. If I had to do it over again, I would not have thrown Harriet to the wolves of Washington."
Five years later, it's almost hard to believe the unlikely sequence of events that led to Roberts and Alito joining the Supreme Court. Remember that Mr. Bush first tapped Roberts to replace O'Connor after her surprise resignation. About six weeks later, when Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, Mr. Bush asked Roberts to fill that spot instead. Mr. Bush then turned to Miers to replace O'Connor. And when Miers was forced to withdraw her nomination, Mr. Bush finally tapped Alito.Continue »
The Nation's piece on illegal immigrants working on Lou Dobbs' estate and horse farm -- and most of the subsequent breathless and overwrought coverage of the article -- completely misses the point.
"Lou Dobbs, American Hypocrite," the story's headline screams. But the piece doesn't deliver -- something you'd never know if you watched the coverage on it.
In its story, the Nation implies that Dobbs somehow hired undocumented workers, despite being one of the country's most vocal critics of immigration reform. But read the article closely. Reporter Isabel Macdonald is careful to dance around the issue -- she never says Dobbs hired the workers himself, only that illegal immigrants were doing some landscaping and caring for his daughters horses. So her piece is technically accurate, though pretty misleading and does nothing to further what should be a serious debate on immigration reform.
Here's the problem: Lou Dobbs didn't hire those workers. As Macdonald conceded on Dobbs' radio show yesterday, his contractors did. He knew nothing about it, and under the law, he did nothing wrong.
If the Nation had just fronted that in the piece, it would have focused attention on the real problem and the real issue. And just as important, it would forced Dobbs into a substantive debate, instead giving him a chance to play the victim -- to argue he was just the target of a "smear piece."
A federal judge in Michigan has rejected a constitutional attack on President Obama's health care overhaul, ruling that Congress did not exceed its authority when it passed the landmark legislation requiring people to buy health insurance.
Federal Judge George Caram Steeh rejected claims by the Thomas More Law Center and several Michigan residents, who argued they should not be required to buy into a health plan that could fund abortions. Today's decision focused on two constitutional issues: whether the law violated the Commerce Clause, because it exceeded Congress' authority, and whether it amounted to an unconstitutional tax.
Although the decision is the first case to reach the merits on the Commerce Clause, it should go without saying that the issues are far from resolved. It's like a tropical storm brewing in the ocean that hasn't quite made it to hurricane status. For one, this case is certain to be appealed, and more importantly, the two major lawsuits -- one in Florida and another in Virginia -- have yet to be decided. Those lawsuits involve challenges by more than a dozen state attorneys general and governors.Continue »
Some of the more liberal justices, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appeared sympathetic to the protesters and worried about restricting speech. Some of the conservatives, like Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared ready to suggest there are limits to the First Amendment--and a funeral protest is a pretty good place to draw the line.
But that doesn't get you to five votes---and I'm not betting the family farm that even those three are sure things.
In her first case as a sitting justice this morning, Kagan came off like a seasoned, savvy pro. She hit lawyers with precise questions that weren't unduly aggressive, and she made her points. What's more, she showed why many people think she'll be a true force on the Court: She effectively drew in other the justices with her questions--asking a follow up to a question by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, and then striking true gold by piquing the interest of human jump ball Justice Anthony Kennedy.
When Justice Kennedy perks up and tells a lawyer, " I want to know your answer to Justice Kagan's question," that means one thing. Justice Kagan is having a Very Good Day.