August 8, 2009 – The First Hispanic Joins the Supreme Court

On this date, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic to take the oath of office to the Supreme Court. It was also the first time an oath-taking ceremony at the Court was open to broadcast coverage. Previously, oath-taking ceremonies held at the Court, other than formal investiture ceremonies, were private events and not open to the media.

Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, is also the Court’s 111th justice and its third female justice.

220px-Sonia_Sotomayor_in_SCOTUS_robe

Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton, and to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, to replace retired Justice David Souter.

July 23, 1936 – Birthdate of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

On this day in history, Anthony Kennedy was born in Sacramento, California. Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and entered private law practice in California. He befriended many politicians, including Ed Meese, and donated large sums of money to Republican officials in the state. When Meese went to work for Ronald Reagan, Meese recruited Kennedy to help Reagan draft a tax cut plan. Reagan was impressed with Kennedy and recommended him for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which Kennedy joined in 1975 as the youngest federal judge in the country.

When Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell retired in 1987, Reagan first nominated Robert Bork, but he failed to win confirmation. Reagan then turned to Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew himself from consideration after only nine days when allegations leaked concerning his past marijuana use. Reagan, on the advice of Meese, finally turned to Kennedy to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Kennedy’s nomination encountered little resistance and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and he took his seat on February 18, 1988.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Today, Kennedy is frequently viewed as the Court’s swing vote on social issues and has consequently held special prominence in several politically-charged, highly anticipated 5 to 4 decisions, including the notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (Docket No. 08-205), for which he delivered the opinion in 2010.

You can access an extensive list of articles about and analyses of the Citizens United decision here.

Supreme Court Revisionism

The New York Times reported recently:

The Supreme Court has been quietly revising its decisions years after they were issued, altering the law of the land without public notice.”

For example, this past April, Justice Scalia made a misstep in a dissent in a case involving the E.P.A. Under the heading “Plus Ça Change: E.P.A.’s Continuing Quest for Cost-Benefit Authority,” he criticized the EPA for seeking cost-benefit authority in a 2001 case. But as the New York Times noted, that “he got its position backward. Worse, he was the author of the majority opinion in the 2001 decision.”

After law professors pointed out the mistake, Justice Scalia quickly altered the opinion, revising the text and substituting the heading “Our Precedent.”

Justice Scalia, proponent of "originalism" except in the case of his own opinions

Justice Scalia, proponent of “originalism” except in the case of his own opinions

Now, there is a way to find out quickly and easily when revisions happen. David Zvenyach, General Counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, recently launched @Scotus_servo, a Twitter account that alerts followers whenever a change is made to a Supreme Court opinion.

The process uses an application written in JavaScript that crawls through the “slip” opinions posted to the Supreme Court website. If the application, which performs a crawl every five minutes, detects a change, it notifies the automated Twitter account, which tweets out an alert. Shortly thereafter, Zvenyach sends out a manual tweet that calls attention to the change. Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 11.36.36 AM

Since Zvenyach launched his twitter account, Joshua Tauberer (@JoshData) came up with a way to highlight the changes and he tweets them out in a “before” and “after” format like this example:

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 11.39.36 AM

These changes should make interesting complications for legal researchers.

June 14, 1943 – Justice Jackson Fixes A Star in our Constitutional Constellation

On this date, the Supreme Court decided West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624).

The Court’s opinion, delivered by Justice Robert H. Jackson, held that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

It might be noted in addition that up until 1942, many children in America used the “Bellamy salute” to accompany the American Pledge of Allegiance. (Francis Bellamy authored the Pledge, and described the salute shown below to accompany it.) After the Fascists adopted this style of salute, Congress officially adopted the hand-over-heart stance to be used while the Pledge is recited.

American students citing the Pledge with the Bellamy salute

American students citing the Pledge with the Bellamy salute

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Jackson memorably wrote:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Justice Robert H. Jackson

Justice Robert H. Jackson

June 1, 1916 – Louis Brandeis Joins the Supreme Court

On this date, Louis Brandeis began serving as the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court. His nomination, by President Woodrow Wilson, was bitterly contested. The controversy surrounding Brandeis’s nomination was so great that the Senate Judiciary Committee, for the first time in its history, held a public hearing on the nomination, allowing witnesses to appear before the committee and offer testimony both in support of and in opposition to Brandeis’s confirmation.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1964 that the nomination of Brandeis “frightened the Establishment”:

Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible.”

220px-Brandeisl

May 15, 1911 – The Supreme Court Orders the Dissolution of the Standard Oil Company

On this day in history, the Supreme Court ruled, in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States (221 U.S. 1) that the Standard Oil Company was in violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890 (26 Stat. 209). The Court’s remedy was to divide Standard Oil into several geographically separate and eventually competing firms.

You can read our detailed analysis of this case, here.

1904 Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House.

1904 Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House.

April 7, 2003 – The Supreme Court Decides Virginia v. Black

In the 2003 case Virginia v. Black (538 U.S. 343), three defendants were convicted in two separate cases of violating a Virginia statute against cross burning. In an opinion authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court struck down Va. Code Ann. §18.2—423 (1996) to the extent that it considered cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate:

We conclude that while a State, consistent with the First Amendment, may ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate, the provision in the Virginia statute treating any cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate renders the statute unconstitutional in its current form.”

In the opinion, Justice O’Connor recounted the history of the Ku Klux Klan and the display of a burning cross “used to communicate both threats of violence and messages of shared ideology.” She cited the Klan constitution which claims that the “fiery cross” is the “emblem of that sincere, unselfish devotedness of all klansmen to the sacred purpose and principles we have espoused.” She also adduced instances in which the burning cross was used by the Klan as “a sign of celebration and ceremony” such as at a marriage of two Klan members. Nevertheless, she acknowledged:

…while a burning cross does not inevitably convey a message of intimidation, often the cross burner intends that the recipients of the message fear for their lives. And when a cross burning is used to intimidate, few if any messages are more powerful.”

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Nevertheless, she was unwilling to compromise the First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, providing that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Citing previous rulings of the Court, she observed: “The hallmark of the protection of free speech is to allow “free trade in ideas”–even ideas that the overwhelming majority of people might find distasteful or discomforting.”

She admitted that “Virginia’s statute does not run afoul of the First Amendment insofar as it bans cross burning with intent to intimidate.” But the Court agreed with the Supreme Court of Virginia in its finding that the Virginia statute was “overbroad” in inferring intent from the burning of a cross by itself:

As the history of cross burning indicates, a burning cross is not always intended to intimidate. Rather, sometimes the cross burning is a statement of ideology, a symbol of group solidarity. It is a ritual used at Klan gatherings, and it is used to represent the Klan itself. Thus, “[b]urning a cross at a political rally would almost certainly be protected expression.” R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S., at 402, n. 4 (White, J., concurring in judgment) (citing Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S., at 445). Cf. National Socialist Party of America v. Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977) (per curiam). Indeed, occasionally a person who burns a cross does not intend to express either a statement of ideology or intimidation. Cross burnings have appeared in movies such as Mississippi Burning, and in plays such as the stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.”

Justice O’Connor did not address what would constitute sufficient proof of “intent to intimidate.” It seems she was willing to accept any explanation offered by Klan members, notoriously not given to self-incrimination.

In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas basically writes, “Oh, come on!” He argues:

In our culture, cross burning has almost invariably meant lawlessness and understandably instills in its victims well-grounded fear of physical violence.”

Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas

In addition he contended that the Virginia statute prohibited only conduct, not expression. However, he clarified:

Even assuming that the statute implicates the First Amendment, in my view, the fact that the statute permits a jury to draw an inference of intent to intimidate from the cross burning itself presents no constitutional problems. Therein lies my primary disagreement with the plurality.”

He went on to note that in other instances of potential harm, the Court had not imposed a scienter requirement. Indeed, he averred, “Considering the horrific effect cross burning has on its victims, it is also reasonable to presume intent to intimidate from the act itself.” He concluded:

…the plurality strikes down the statute because one day an individual might wish to burn a cross, but might do so without an intent to intimidate anyone. That cross burning subjects its targets, and, sometimes, an unintended audience, see 262 Va., at 782; see also J.A. 93—97, to extreme emotional distress, and is virtually never viewed merely as “unwanted communication,” but rather, as a physical threat, is of no concern to the plurality. Henceforth, under the plurality’s view, physical safety will be valued less than the right to be free from unwanted communications.”

In 2002, the Virginia legislature responded by enacting a new statute numbered § 18.2-423.01. The original Section 18.2-423, held unconstitutional, has not been repealed. The new statute, however, does not contain a prima facie evidence provision and applies to “objects,” not mentioning crosses in particular. The statute makes burning an object on the private property of another with the intent to intimidate a crime in itself; whereas, burning an object on a highway or other public place with the intent to intimidate must be “in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury.”

Ku Klux Klansmen and women at a cross "lighting" (as opposed to "burning") on November 12th, 2005.

Ku Klux Klansmen and women at a cross “lighting” (as opposed to “burning”) on November 12th, 2005.

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