« Home | Randall Thoughts » | Chief Justice Dad » | Global Warming and the Court » | So Much to Read » | Year in Review... Almost » | Rehnquist Memorial Service » | McConnell on Breyer » | Ten Remain » | Property Rights » | Happy Birthday, Clarence » 

Tuesday, June 27, 2006 

Nino Strikes Back

I'm really making some progress in yesterday's Court opinions. I'm halfway through US v Gonzales-Lopez and I finished Kansas v Marsh. While the majority opinion is interesting, I found Justice Scalia's concurrence in Marsh incredibly interesting. He uses the opinion to respond to some of the claims made by Justice Stevens and Justice Souter in their dissents.

He takes issue with Stevens' criticism of the Court even granting cert to hear the case. Scalia in the text...
Our solemn responsibility is not merely to determine whether a State Supreme Court ‚“ha[s] adequately protected [a defendant’s] rights under the Federal Constitution,‚” post, at 2 (Stevens, J., dissenting). It is to ensure that when courts speak in the name of the Federal Constitution, they disregard none of its guarantees‚—neither those that assure the rights of criminal defendants, nor those that assure what Justice Black, in his famous dissent in In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, 385 (1970) , called ‚“the most fundamental individual liberty of our people—the right of each man to participate in the self-government of his society.” Turning a blind eye to federal constitutional error that benefits criminal defendants, allowing it to permeate in varying fashion each state Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, would change the uniform “law of the land” into a crazy quilt.
Then the icy gaze of Scalia turns to the Granite State's favorite bachelor, Justice David Souter. Scalia states that Souter's dissent...
...essentially argues that capital punishment is such an undesirable institution‚—it results in the condemnation of such a large number of innocents—that any legal rule which eliminates its pronouncement, including the one favored by the dissenters in the present case, should be embraced.
Scalia then goes on to state that judges should not praise or criticize legislatures according to the judge's personal policy preferences. Not satisfied with taking on members of the Court, Tail Gunner Scalia takes aim at (I'm assuming) Europe...
There exists in some parts of the world sanctimonious criticism of America’s death penalty, as somehow unworthy of a civilized society. (I say sanctimonious, because most of the countries to which these finger-waggers belong had the death penalty themselves until recently‚—and indeed, many of them would still have it if the democratic will prevailed.)
Some judges are reluctant to criticize other judges on their court. Scalia is taking on entire hemispheres. You gotta love a guy like that.

Scalia uses a substantial portion of his concurrence to attack the idea that innocent people are being executed left and right...
It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case‚—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby. The dissent makes much of the new-found capacity of DNA testing to establish innocence. But in every case of an executed defendant of which I am aware, that technology has confirmed guilt.
Scalia then makes a point that I've been trying to make for a long time...
...the dissent focuses on the large numbers of non-executed “exonerees” paraded by various professors. It speaks as though exoneration came about through the operation of some outside force to correct the mistakes of our legal system, rather than as a consequence of the functioning of our legal system. Reversal of an erroneous conviction on appeal or on habeas, or the pardoning of an innocent condemnee through executive clemency, demonstrates not the failure of the system but its success. Those devices are part and parcel of the multiple assurances that are applied before a death sentence is carried out.
That is the system working. That's the whole idea of having multiple layers of protections for the accused. I'll leave the remainder of the opinion to Scalia himself. He goes on at great length, attacking the validity of a handful of studies cited by the dissenters.

This is where Court decisions get entertaining. There are already a lot of Scalia haters out there attacking him for this concurrence. Prof. Althouse points out the column in Slate by Dahlia Lithwick that goes after Scalia. She calls the concurrence "real wackiness" and a "scorched earth diatribe". In my post, I had a little fun with Scalia (the tail gunner remark and the attacking Europe thing). As the cliche goes, I kid because I love. I also kid because people like Lithwick don't. Scalia is trying to make his point in the most effective way possible. It is strongly worded and passionate. There is nothing wrong with that. Lithwick portrays it as being an unhinged rant. I think that's a bit unfair to the Justice. Unfortunately, most of the people who read her article won't read the actual opinion.

The funniest part to me is that Clinton's former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger has this response to Lithwick...
Whoa! Your critique of Justice Scalia's concurrence in the Kansas death-penalty case is pretty scorching. But to be fair to Scalia: Justice Souter's dissenting opinion starts this fight by raising potential death-penalty problems that are just not at issue before the court. Scalia then responds to these unnecessary jabs with massive verbal retaliation.
Souter drew first blood, legally speaking.

This post was entirely too long.

I think the point that Souter is trying to make here is that when a criminal is exonerated, it often times does expose a failure of the system. Consider the Wisconsin Innocence Project (for now, please ignore the knee-jerk reaction to mention Avery)... a group of people sifting through evidence to find possibilities of wrongfully convicted prisoners, based on concrete evidence that was overlooked, such as DNA or whatnot.

You could say that when the Innocence Project frees someone by using the legal system, that is a triumph for the judiciary system. Souter would call it a failure because, if this project didn't exist, those people would sit in prison for life or be executed.

If the government unfairly takes decades from some individual's life, then the system failed this person. And if they finally recieve an executive pardon, I won't be the first to wipe my brow and say "Whew! Glad to see the system works!"

I find it hard to believe that Scalia thinks it is a success merely because a group of people devote their lives to navigating the beaurocracy on their own time.

Whether or not Souter was right to discuss this in his dissent, I don't know. My point is that you can't possibly call something like a death-row pardon a "success."

I think that's a valid argument. If I can speak for Scalia (which I probably shouldn't), he is more concerned about the process. It doesn't matter to him who does the exonerating. It matters that the exonerating is possible on appeal, habeus, or even pardon. To him, the end result (the exoneration) is the success. The system allows outs, and that is what the Court has to look at - the system itself. I think that is why Scalia's point of view differs from yours. And I think he really likes the death penalty.

As Thomas points out in the majority, no human system will ever be perfect. Imperfection in the system does not necessarily mean that the system is unconstitutional. The system may be horrible policy, but that's for another branch of government to handle. That is where these fights over the death penalty belong, in the state legislatures. In fact, we may have one very shortly.

Post a Comment
Edit Comment

About me

  • I'm Steve
  • From Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
  • "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." P.J. O'Rourke
  • E-mail Me
My profile