Fisher v. University of Texas, raises an important question about the constitutionality of affirmative action in university admissions, but it also poses a jurisdictional riddle. When Fisher came to the Supreme Court a few years ago, there was fairly extensive debate, including at oral argument, as to whether the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case. But in ruling in favor of the plaintiff and remanding the case, the justices said not a word about jurisdiction. Last year, I wrote a post asking whether Fisher I should be understood as a precedent on jurisdiction. Now the case is back at the Court, and UT is again pressing jurisdictional arguments. Will these renewed arguments have any sway, and should they?
Can constitutional theory be both persuasive and determinate? A recent, must-read exchange between Michael Dorf and Larry Solum implicitly raises this question. In the exchange, Dorf ultimately posits the “Brown test,” which demands that any constitutional theory must make possible the result in Brown v. Board, but need not require that result. The exchange (which Paul Horwitz has already collected and commented on here) illustrates that there are importantly different ways of assessing a constitutional theory’s determinacy. Below, I outline relevant features of the Dorf/Solum posts, explore the relationship between theory and determinacy, and suggest a reformulation of the Brown test. In short, I suggest that evaluations of constitutional theories should emphasize what the theories most encourage, as opposed to what is possible, necessary, or reasonable under those theories.
Debates over signaling, or unconventional precedential guidance to lower courts, played an important role in the same-sex marriage litigation leading up to Obergefell. Now, signaling is back thanks to religious accommodation litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Remarkably, lower courts have started to develop case law on whether and when signaling is appropriate.
James Burnham has a new Green Bag piece on dismissing indictments, and it’s deservedly getting attention. In a nutshell, Burnham argues that the way that federal courts review indictments has facilitated over-criminalization. By simply reading a federal rule according to its terms and bringing criminal practice in line with civil procedure, Burham believes that federal courts can take a significant step toward curbing ever-expanding criminal liability. (By way of disclosure, I know Burnham from my law firm days and commented on a draft of his piece.)
Obergefell has spawned an interesting discussion about the use and abuse of rhetoric in Supreme Court opinions. (E.g., here, here, and here.) One especially salient charge is that the Court’s opinions in Casey, Lawrence, and now Obergefell all rely on “showy profundities,” as Justice Scalia has put it. But the rhetoric at issue may simply reflect a certain kind of philosophical writing, as evidenced by a forthcoming paper by Vincent Phillip Muñoz. (By way of disclaimer, I clerked for Justice Kennedy several years ago.)
The Fourth Circuit made headlines yesterday in United States v. Graham, which holds in part that “warrantless procurement of [cell site location information] was an unreasonable search” in violation of the Fourth Amendment. There’s a lot going on in the Graham majority and dissent, and I recommend Orin’s ongoing posts on the merits. But it’s also interesting to consider Graham’s treatment of Supreme Court precedent regarding the “third-party doctrine.”
In my view, much of the disagreement between the majority and dissent in Graham is about whether to adopt the best reading of the Supreme Court’s third-party precedents or, instead, to narrowly read those precedents in light of new factual developments, other Supreme Court precedents, and the lower-court judges’ own first-principles views of the law. In this respect, Graham is hardly anomalous. When doctrines become out of date, the Court sometimes encourages lower courts to engage in narrowing from below, thereby facilitating the Court’s own reconsideration of precedent. The third-party doctrine is properly viewed as such an area.
It’s not the most important thing about Obergefell—or even the second most important—but it’s noteworthy that rhetoric played a remarkably overt role in the Court’s opinions, particularly in the sharp criticisms leveled by the dissenting justices. I offer a few thoughts below. By way of disclosure, several years ago I clerked for Justice Kennedy, author of the Obergefell majority.