Archive for the ‘Appeals’ Category

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

Deterrence has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Interesting concurring opinion by Posner the other day in U.S. v. Craig. Basically, the defendant pled to four counts of creating child porn — which he created in an awful and horrifying way. He could have gotten 30 years for each count, but the judge gave him 50 (30 on one count, 20 on the other three). The defendant appealed the sentence. But it was within the Guidelines, and so was presumptively reasonable. And the judge didn’t ignore any mitigating factors. So the appeal was meritless and denied. A shocking sentence for a shocking crime, but hardly a shocking decision.

True to form, however, Posner went out of his way to make an economic evaluation of the sentence. What was it good for? Did tacking on the extra 20 years make any sense? Posner says no, and argues that judges need to take such things into account in the future when imposing sentences.

He engages in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. The cost to society? $30K a year now, more than double that as the prisoner grows old and requires medical care. Plus the lost productivity of the man being incarcerated. The benefit? For that he looks to the purposes of punishment. But not all of them.

He only considers (more…)

What Would Plato Do?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Wanda: What would an intellectual do?  What would… Plato do?

Otto: Apol-

Wanda: Pardon me?

Otto: Apollgzz.

Wanda: What?

Otto: Apologize!

Well, no.  He probably wouldn’t.  Not Plato.

And certainly not in the case of Troy Davis, whose final clemency request was denied this morning, and who now faces execution tomorrow evening for the killing of a police officer in 1989.  He was convicted at trial 20 years ago, but since then the reliability of that verdict has been called into serious question.  Seven of the nine major witnesses recanted their testimony, many claiming that the police pressured them to give false eyewitness accounts.  No forensic evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, the murder weapon was never found.  In the intervening years, ten new people have come forward to point the finger at another individual known to have been present at the scene.

So it’s possible that Troy Davis might not have shot the officer.  It’s possible that he might have.  Twenty years of second-guessing and changing stories make it uncertain.  But what is certain is that he was convicted, and that the conviction stands.

Should we be troubled by this?

We started pondering this after our kids’ bedtime story the other night.  We were reading to the lads from the Dialogues of Plato [what, you got a problem with that? Shut up, these are not your children.], specifically the Crito.  That’s the one where Socrates has been condemned to death, and his friend Crito shows up to talk him into escaping.  Boiled down to its essence, the Crito runs something like this: (more…)

Is it a victory if you have to fight the battle all over again?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

 

Let this be a lesson to any young appellate lawyers who might be reading this:  Focus on the result, not on the argument.

We’re wading through the various slip opinions and decisions that came down during March and April while we were on trial, and the Supreme Court decision in Pepper v. United States just floored us.  In a nutshell, Pepper got a huge downward departure at sentencing, for providing substantial assistance, getting 24 months plus five years of supervised release.  After Pepper had served his time and was now out on supervised release, the Eighth Circuit said his sentence was improper, and remanded for new sentencing.  The original departure was about 75% off the guideline.  At resentencing, the judge took 40% off, but then dropped it down to 24 months again based on extensive evidence that Pepper had gotten his life back on track in major ways.  The government appealed again.

On the second appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed again, saying that post-sentencing facts could not be considered in resentencing.  Only facts known at the time of the original sentence could be applied.  After a Supreme Court sojourn on Gall issues, the Circuit remanded for re-resentencing before a new judge.  At this new resentencing, the new judge gave him only 20% off, or 65 months plus 12 months of supervised release.

Pepper appealed, of course, trying to get that original 40% departure.  So it went to the Supreme Court again.

The Supremes held, quite correctly, that of course post-sentencing facts may be considered at a resentencing.  It is absurd to argue otherwise.  The prosecution would be allowed to present evidence of subsequent failings by the defendant, so why shouldn’t the defendant be allowed to present evidence of his rehabilitation?

So far, so good.  But did that mean that Pepper was entitled to that original 40% reduction?  No.  Because “in his merits briefs to this Court, Pepper does not challenge the scope or validity of the Court of Appeals’ mandate ordering de novo resentencing, and thus has abandoned any argument that the mandate itself restricted the District Court from imposing a different substantial assistance departure.”  And the “law of the case” doctrine doesn’t apply in a de novo proceeding when the entire sentence had been set aside, which is what happened here.

This is such a forehead-smacking moment.

The Supremes are all but saying that Pepper should have said the Eighth Circuit didn’t have the authority to set aside the entire sentence and order a de novo resentencing.  Had the argument been made, the Court might have held that the Circuit could only have remanded for resentencing applying specific rules, but couldn’t order a complete do-over in front of a new judge.

But Pepper didn’t ask for that.

So Pepper didn’t get it.

Instead, all he gets now is a re-resentencing that is permitted to take into account his post-sentencing rehabilitation.  Which may or may not get him the lighter sentence he originally sought.  If appellate counsel had kept their eyes on the goal of canceling the Circuit’s de novo order, they would have argued for it.  And they might have gotten it.  Instead, they focused on making a “law of the case” argument that, while clever, made little sense if the de novo thing was still there.

Ergh.

(PS — The concurring opinions are worthwhile reading, as they lay out some of the ongoing problems in the post-Booker world.  Thomas’s dissent, however, goes too far.  He would abandon the individual justice of sentencing where judges have discretion, and would return to the one-size-fits-all injustice of the Guidelines as Mandates.  Thank goodness he’s a minority of one in this case.)

Innocence Not Proven

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

 

A year and eight days ago, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting an “original writ,” and handed down a novel decision directing a federal court to revisit the murder conviction of Troy Anthony Davis by allowing Davis to put on evidence of actual innocence.  (See our original post on the decision here.)  Davis was convicted after trial of shooting a police officer to death in 1989.  He always claimed he was there, but didn’t shoot anyone.  Several witnesses said otherwise, and the jury found him guilty.  After some of the witnesses recanted, however, and evidence was discovered that indicated that the prosecution’s star witness was the real shooter, the issue of actual innocence was put into play.  With some serious debate among the Justices, the Supreme Court sent it back specifically for the district court to determine whether there was evidence not available at the trial would “clearly establish” his innocence.

Yesterday, the federal court finished hearing the evidence of actual innocence, and found nothing worth reversing the conviction.  “Mr. Davis vastly overstates the value of his evidence of innocence,” the court found.  “Some of the evidence is not credible and would be disregarded by a reasonable juror. … Other evidence that Mr. Davis brought forward is too general to provide anything more than smoke and mirrors.”  You can read the CNN story here, and the decision itself here (part 1) and here (part 2).

“This court concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment (barring cruel and unusual punishment) of the U.S. Constitution,” ruled U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr.  “However, Mr. Davis is not innocent.”  Although the state’s case “may not be ironclad, most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis of officer MacPhail’s murder.”  Repeating a phrase, it went on “ultimately, while Mr. Davis’ new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors,” Moore ruled. “The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value.”

We’d be surprised if there wasn’t yet another appeal.  We’ll save you our rant on why this process is precisely why capital punishment doesn’t work.  If you’re interested, you can read it here.

Will New York Get a New Emergency Exception?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Medium_Velocity_Impact_Spatter

The police need a warrant to search your home.  Except when they don’t.  The warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment is there to protect your privacy, and sorry, but sometimes your privacy isn’t the most important thing at the moment.

One exception to the warrant requirement is the Emergency Exception.  In a nutshell, it says the police are allowed to go into your home without a warrant when there is good reason to believe that someone inside is seriously hurt, or in danger, and needs their assistance right away.

Different states define the rule in different ways.  In New York, the rule was set in 1976 in the Mitchell case.  Mitchell has two objective conditions, and one subjective condition.  If all three are met, then the police are allowed to go in without a warrant.

Objectively, the circumstances have to be such that a reasonably prudent officer would have thought there was an emergency at the time.  Objectively, the officers on the scene had to have probable cause to believe that there was an emergency inside the house.

Subjectively, the officers had to actually be going inside to help.  They couldn’t be using the emergency as a pretext to really look for drugs, for example.

So far, so good.  Sort of.

One problem is that there is no requirement here that the police actually believe there is an emergency.  There is no subjective requirement that the police on the scene be aware of the circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to think there was an emergency.  There is no subjective requirement that the police on the scene actually think there’s an emergency.

That’s not a huge problem under the Mitchell rule, because the no-pretext prong sort of implies that the police need to subjectively believe there’s an emergency.

But what happens if you take away that no-pretext prong?  You get an absurd rule.  Police who did not themselves believe there was any emergency could still go in without a warrant — and hope that some clever prosecutor down the road can come up with a scenario where an objective cop, aware of all the circumstances that the police themselves might not have been aware of, might have thought there was an emergency.  And if you think no New York police officer would break down your door in the hopes that it can get justified down the line (if your case even gets that far)… well, the word “naive” springs to mind.

Well, guess what?  Back in 2006, in its Brigham City decision, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically rejected the no-pretext prong of the Mitchell rule.  The Court was being true to its 15-year trend of rejecting subjective rules in federal Fourth Amendment law.  The Supreme Court line of cases does not care whether the police had some pretext or ulterior motive.  So long as there was some legitimate basis for the police conduct, they don’t really care what the police themselves were thinking.

But New York hasn’t had to deal with the issue though.  Not, that is, until a case we argued earlier this year.  

-=-=-=-=-

This January, we found ourselves before the Second Department one month after the Supreme Court had reaffirmed (more…)

Can Yoo Be Sued?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

9th_circuit

In the early days of the War on Terrorism, the Bush administration wanted to know what interrogation techniques were legal.  So it asked the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel for a memo on what could and could not be done to prisoners.  Staff lawyer John Yoo was tasked with doing the research and writing.  He did his research, wrote his memo, and that was that.

Well, no.  That was not that.  Some people didn’t agree with his legal reasoning.  More people (most of whom never even read the memo) shrilly lambasted it as a “war crime.”  We’re not particular fans of the memo ourselves (see our parody of it here), but we think it’s beyond stupid to call it a war crime, or even the slightest bit of misconduct.  He did what any lawyer in that situation is supposed to do: he analyzed existing law, and gave his opinion of what the law said.  The fact that other people disagree, even disagree strongly, doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  The fact that his conclusions don’t comport with other people’s policies or principles still doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.  Even if he was wrong, that doesn’t mean he did anything wrong.

But now the 9th Circuit is struggling with the issue of whether Mr. Yoo can actually be sued for having written that memo.  Again, we’re no fans of the memo, but how he could possibly be sued for having given fair legal advice is beyond us.  Allowing this case to go forward, as we’ll discuss in a minute, would have enormously bad consequences for the government and the military.

-=-=-=-=-

The case was brough by Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, who was arrested in 2002 for plotting a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack.  Padilla was in military custody for about four years, during which time he claims to have been subjected to sleep deprivation, stress positions, extended periods of light and dark, and other interrogation techniques.  Padilla filed a lawsuit last year against John Yoo, claiming that Yoo’s memos “set in motion a series of events that resulted in (more…)

The Suspense is Killing Us

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

300 supreme court

There are four Mondays left in June.  Four more days in which the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decisions in the 27 or so cases still out there this term.  That’s about one case per day from now till then.  We’re picturing the Justices pulling all-nighters, stacks of empty pizza boxes in the halls at 2 a.m. next to the burn bags (do they still use burn bags there?), and sleepy zombie-like clerks dropping in their tracks every now and then.

Some of those cases have to do with boring old civ pro or shipping or labor law.  But a whole bunch are about the cool stuff, criminal law.  Here are a few of the criminal cases we’re watching particularly closely:

Black v. United States
Weyrauch v. United States
Skilling v. United States

This trio of cases attack the “honest services” fraud law.  18 U.S.C. § 1346 was supposed to prevent political corruption, but Congress wrote it so sloppily that it’s become a catch-all crime for federal prosecutors.  Anyone can get charged with it, and nobody knows what it means.  The Court telegraphed its dislike of the statute during oral arguments of all (more…)

Echoes of Injustice: Second Department Sends Cop Back to Prison in Racially-Charged Case from the 90s

Friday, May 28th, 2010

diguglielmo

When we first moved to NYC in 1997, we thought we knew what racial tension was. After all, we’d grown up in various parts of the South and out West, and had seen and heard quite a lot of invidious prejudice. But we hadn’t seen anything, by comparison. We’d seen dislike and resentment out there, but the vitriolic race relations of the 50s and 60s had died down by our childhood in the 70s and 80s. We weren’t prepared at all for the outright hatred various groups expressed for each other in the grand metropolis. That first year here in the Manhattan DA’s office was an eye-opener. The city, especially the outer boroughs, seemed less like a melting pot than a petri dish, with virulent strains of hatred all fighting each other. Many working-class whites routinely used epithets one almost never heard in the South any more, and openly despised black people. Lots of black people hated white people right back, and seemed to have a bizarre animus towards jewish people, who we’d always thought of as champions of civil rights. African immigrants hated African-Americans, who they saw as lazy and as giving them a bad name. Every ethnic group seemed to have a derogatory name that everyone else used.

And this internecine feuding was still turning to violence in the ’90s. We’d never heard about the Howard Beach or Bensonhurst dramas of the late ‘80s, but here in the city that tension was still high. Al Sharpton hadn’t yet faded into irrelevance, and it seemed like he and his protestors spent half their time marching in circles somewhere or other. Right before we started at the DA’s office, the Abner Louima case happened, leading not only to renewed distrust of the NYPD, but even more racial tension. And just when that started to die down, the Amadou Diallo shooting flared it up again.

It was shocking to us. But to our friends who’d grown up here, it was just normal background. It was just the way things were.

So that’s what the culture was like in 1996, when a fight between some Italian men and a black man over a parking spot turned violent, the black man swung a baseball bat at an older Italian man, whose son — an off-duty cop — shot the black man to death.

-=-=-=-=-

On October 3, 1996, in the suburb of Dobbs Ferry just north of the city, a black man named Charles Campbell parked his Corvette at a deli, in a spot reserved for deli customers. But he went into a different store across the street. When he came back, he saw the owner of the deli placing a sticker on the Corvette. Campbell got angry and started a fight. The deli owner, his son Richard DiGuglielmo (the off-duty cop), and a third man (Robert Errico, the cop’s brother-in-law) wound up fighting with Campbell.

The fight ended, and Campbell walked back to his Corvette. During the fight, his shirt had come off, and the deli owner brought it over to him while his son and the other man went back towards the deli. But then Campbell opened the back of the Corvette, grabbed a metal baseball bat, and kneecapped the old man with (more…)

Double Jeopardy Deadlock

Monday, March 29th, 2010

 

The Fifth Amendment says a person can’t be prosecuted twice for the same offense. So after a jury comes back with a verdict, if the government doesn’t like that verdict, then too bad, it doesn’t get a do-over. This is called “Double Jeopardy,” from the language of the Amendment saying you can’t “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

Sometimes, Double Jeopardy applies even when the jury never reached a verdict. Usually, if the judge declares a mistrial, there’s no jeopardy problem and everyone does the trial over again. But there are exceptions, such as when the mistrial was caused by prosecutorial misconduct. Or when a judge orders a mistrial for no good reason. There’s a presumption that judges shouldn’t go around declaring mistrials, that cases should be allowed to go to verdict. So when a judge calls “mistrial” for no good reason, the defendant isn’t going to be forced to go through the whole thing all over again.

[Aside: We had that happen in one of our cases, when we were a prosecutor. In the middle of a drug trial, we were severely injured in a motorcycle accident (and by “severely,” we mean “it took 6 weeks to stabilize to the point where they could do surgery to put the bones back in”), and as a result we couldn’t finish the trial. Drug cases being all pretty much alike, and prosecutors being pretty much fungible, the DA’s office sent over another lawyer to finish out the case. The judge instead declared a mistrial, over the objections of both sides. The office wound up having to consent to dismissal on Double Jeopardy grounds. Whaddayagonnado.]

Back in 1824, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Perez that one good reason the judge can declare a mistrial is when the jury is deadlocked. When the jury cannot reach a decision, it’s not like the defendant’s being screwed by an unfair judge or an abusive prosecutor. So a judge is allowed to ask for a do-over with a different jury.

“To be sure,” the Court said, “the power ought to be used with the greatest caution, under urgent circumstances, and for very plain and obvious cases….”

-=-=-=-=-

So that brings us to the case of Renico v. Lett, argued this morning before the Supreme Court (you can read the transcript here).

Reginald Lett was on trial for murder. The case was presented intermittently, five days out of two weeks, and the jury finally got to start deliberations at 3:24 p.m. on a Thursday. They deliberated for 36 minutes, then went home. On Friday (the 13th), they came in, deliberated for a mere four hours, and sent out a note. The note didn’t say they were deadlocked, but merely asked what would happen “if we can’t agree? Mistrial? Retrial? What?”

The judge brought the jury out and asked “is there a disagreement as to the verdict?” The foreperson said yes. The judge badgered the foreperson a bit, insisting on her predicting whether the jury could reach a unanimous verdict, and finally the foreperson said “no.” The judge immediately declared a mistrial.

Now this was highly unusual. Most judges, in our experience, give a supposedly deadlocked jury a few chances to go back and reach a verdict (three seems to be the magic number here in New York City). We’ve had jurors shouting at each other so loud that everyone could hear them plainly out in the courtroom. All that meant to anyone involved, however, was that they actually were deliberating. A zesty exchange of ideas is still an exchange of ideas.

At some point, either the second or third time the jury says they’re deadlocked, the judge will give an Allen charge. Basically, the jurors are told something like “everyone’s been working their asses off on this case for a long time, costing a shitload of money, and you jurors don’t seem to be holding up your end of the deal. If you can’t do your job, everyone’s going to have to do it all over again with some other jurors, who’ll have to deal with the same stuff you are. Now, take all the time you need, and don’t change your mind without good reason, but get back in there and someone change their mind so we can all go home.” (Ed. note: citation required.)

Depending on who your jurors are, this can be good or bad for the defendant. Generally, whoever’s side the holdout was on, loses.

But the judge in Renico v. Lett never did any of that. Hell, the jury never even said it was deadlocked to begin with. All the jurors wanted to know was (more…)

A New Emergency Exception for New York?

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

 

The Fourth Amendment says the police can’t go into your home or other private place without a warrant. Over the years, we’ve come up with a lot of exceptions to the warrant requirement. So many, in fact, that getting a warrant has become the exception, and the exceptions have become the norm.

That’s because privacy isn’t the only interest society has here. The various exceptions to the warrant requirement allow the police to go in when other important interests outweigh the privacy interest.

One common exception to the warrant requirement is the Emergency exception. Under the emergency rule, the police can go in when there is good reason to believe there’s someone inside who needs help right away — either they’re seriously hurt, or they’re in danger.

In New York, that rule was formalized by the Mitchell case in 1976. The Mitchell rule has two objective conditions, and one subjective condition. If all three are met, then the police would be allowed to enter under the emergency rule. The objective conditions require that a reasonably prudent officer would first have thought there was an emergency, and second would have had probable cause to believe the emergency was inside the place to be searched. The subjective condition was that the police had to actually be going inside to help someone — the emergency couldn’t be a pretext for some other ulterior motive such as looking for evidence.

For about 15 years, now, the U.S. Supreme Court has been rejecting subjective rules like that. So far as federal law is concerned, the Supremes don’t care if the police had some ulterior motive or pretext. So long as there was a legitimate basis for the police conduct, they don’t care what the police were actually thinking.

So in 2006, in the Brigham City case, the Supreme Court specifically addressed the three-part Mitchell rule, and said New York’s subjective condition is not required under federal law. All federal law requires is that the police had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there was an emergency, and probable cause to believe that the emergency was inside the place to be searched.

That’s only the federal rule, however. Federal law only provides a minimum of protections, a base line of individual rights. The states can’t give less protection, but they can certainly grant greater protections. So New York remains free to adopt the Brigham City rule, or keep the Mitchell rule, or come up with a new one. (New York could even get rid of the emergency exception altogether, though that would be a silly result — nobody wants the police to be forced to watch helpless from the sidewalk while someone is being beaten to death on the other side of a window.)

But to date, New York’s courts have neither adopted nor rejected (more…)

Supreme Court Noir

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Roberts Noir

The Chief was at it again.

Everyone had their theories. J.P. said the Chief had lost it, gone soft in the head. Nino thought he was just having fun. Sam didn’t say anything, so he was probably in on it.

None of us thought it made any sense, though. Except me. I had my own ideas. What the Chief was doing made perfect sense, if anything can make sense in this world. He was like me.

No, not like me. I only have contempt for the tedium, the routine drudgery the rule-boys keep feeding us. The Chief wanted to do something about it.

But his methods… Like some Frankenstein, trying to animate the dead… Well, maybe he was more like me than I imagined.

While sipping a cup of last night’s coffee, I decided I liked it. I silently congratulated the guy, and wished he’d keep it up.

-=-=-=-=-

At the beginning of the ’08 term, Chief Justice Roberts sparked a miniature kerfuffle when he opened a decision with a factual recitation in the style of Hammett or Spillane. It wasn’t half bad, and it certainly got the facts across without losing the reader’s interest. But it wasn’t at all what we’re used to reading in Supreme Court opinions. So one heard comments and criticisms in the corridors and over cocktails, for a few days anyway. But people got over it. After all, it was only a dissent to a denial of cert, and who even reads those? It’s probably the one kind of opinion where a justice could get away with a bit of fun. It was just a one-off, let it go.

Except it wasn’t just a one-off. It was just the beginning. Since then Roberts has kept at it, putting a bit of dramatic flair into his opinions. Particularly, it seems, in cases that aren’t all that dramatic to begin with.

Take today’s opinion, for example, in Beard v. Kindler. The issue couldn’t be more boring — whether a discretionary ruling on state procedure is something that can be pursued in a federal habeas claim. The case has nothing to do with the underlying facts of the case, but instead inquires into whether the state courts had regularly followed that procedure, and the general policy arguments for and against allowing habeas.

Yawn. If Dirty Harry or Mike Hammer were here, they’d be shooting or punching someone. They’d deal with the tedious legal processes and technicalities, but on their own terms.

And so did Chief Justice Roberts. He dealt with it on his own terms, in his own way, by opening his decision with a lengthy and dramatic recitation of the underlying events — events that have absolutely nothing to do with the discrete legal issue before the court.

Roberts told the gritty story of Joseph Kindler, which itself seems made for TV or a pulp novel: In 1982, Kindler and two associates robbed a store, only to get caught during the getaway. “In a harbinger of things to come, Kindler escaped.” When one of the associates agreed to testify against him, Kindler and the other one bludgeoned him almost to death with a baseball bat, shocked him repeatedly with a cattle prod, threw him in the trunk, hauled him to the river, tied a cinderblock around his neck, and threw him in the river, where he died of drowning and massive head injuries. He was convicted of murder, the jury recommended execution, but before sentencing Kindler escaped. Using smuggled tools and a lot of help from other inmates, he sawed through the bars of his maximum-security prison, and fled to Canada. He got caught there committing more crimes. Canada refused to extradite him, because he faced execution, and Kindler became a minor celebrity, going on TV and everything. Eventually, however, Canada agreed to extradite him, whereupon he promptly escaped again. With the help of his fellow inmates, he broke through a skylight in a high ceiling, climbed to the roof, then rappelled down a rope made of 13 bedsheets. Kindler made it, but when another tried to follow the sheet ripped, and he fell 50 feet to his death. Kindler was caught again after America’s Most Wanted did a segment on him. Several years later, he was eventually extradited back to the U.S. In the meantime, the state court had long since dismissed his original sentencing motions, as he had escaped before they were decided. The case has been going back and forth on appeal over that dismissal, ever since. The original arrest was in 1982.

Roberts tells it much more entertainingly than this, of course. But almost none of that was necessary or even relevant. It could just as easily have been replaced with “A jury convicted Kindler of capital murder for the brutal slaying of a state witness. The jury recommended a death sentence, and Kindler filed postverdict motions. Before the trial court had considered the motions or the jury’s death recommendation, Kindler escaped. While Kindler remained a fugitive, the trial court dismissed his postverdict motions. Seven years later, Kinder was returned to court, and moved to have his motions reinstated. The trial court found that the original judge had not abused his discretion, denied the reinstatement motion, and imposed the death sentence.”

Frankly, we like it Roberts’ way better.

And we hope he keeps it up, particularly in the more humdrum cases. It does no harm, and it might even keep one or two young associates from nodding off during some tedious night of research down the road.

Is Delay in Capital Appeals an 8th Amendment Issue?

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

holdup

Last week, we argued that capital punishment as practiced in America does not work, because it takes too long.

The appellate process can take decades, during which time the convict remains on death row, the victims get no closure, and any deterrent effect gets completely washed out. In fact, the huge gap between the crime and the punishment, and the uncertainty as to whether execution would even result, adds even more injustice into the system while imposing enormous unnecessary societal costs.

Our point was not that appeals should be limited — on the contrary, they are never more necessary. Our point was simply that the process takes so long that it nullifies the whole reason for capital punishment in the first place.

We did not explore, however, whether this delay ought to count as “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. We figured we’d leave that one for another day.

Well, today’s the day. In dueling opinions yesterday, Justices Stevens and Thomas went head-to-head over just that issue. We think they’re both right, and they’re both wrong.

-=-=-=-=-

The case is Cecil C. Johnson v. Phil Bredesen, Governor of Tennessee, et al., No. 09-7839. Stevens’ opinion can be found here, and Thomas’ can be found here.

Cecil Johnson was executed yesterday, after the Supreme Court denied cert.

In July 1980, a man robbed a convenience store in Nashville. During the robbery, the thief brutally murdered the store owner’s 12-year-old son, and two other men who were sitting in a taxi.

A couple of days later, Cecil Johnson’s father turned him in. There was no physical evidence that tied him to the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981.

For the next 29 years, Johnson plodded through the capital appeals process, persistently maintaining his innocence.

In 1992, Tennessee for the first time gave him access to evidence that might have undermined key testimony against him.

-=-=-=-=-

Justice Stevens argues that this 11-year delay, before Tennessee finally made that disclosure, is a state-caused delay that counts as “unacceptably cruel.”

Thomas replies that it is pure chutzpah for a convict to file appeal after endless appeal, and then claim that the resulting delay violated his rights. He caused the delay, not the government.

But they’re both wrong. The delay wasn’t caused by the government in the way Stevens says, and that only covered the first of three decades anyway. It doesn’t affect the other two decades that this case meandered through the courts. And the delay wasn’t caused by Johnson in the way Thomas says. It’s not Johnson’s fault that the courts took so damned long.

So if the government wasn’t to blame as Stevens argued, and Johnson wasn’t to blame as Thomas argued, then who is to blame?

-=-=-=-=-

It is the procedural setup itself that is to blame. We cannot blame a convict for seeking review, to ensure that he was properly convicted and sentenced, and to ensure that the government did not abuse its power and violate his rights. Far from it — we insist on it. Ensuring that the government did it right for this defendant helps protect all of us, and Americans want it that way.

But we can blame the delays that are built into the system’s procedural rules. There is no reason why it should take years to get from a challenged ruling to an appellate decision on that ruling. The only reason why it does take years is because the procedural rules allow it. And human nature being what it is, it is hardly surprising that lawyers and judges will take all the time they are permitted to argue and decide matters of life and death.

Some amount of delay is reasonable, of course — it would be equally unjust to impose time limits that are too short to permit thoughtful argument and careful analysis. But even with longer than usual time limits, there is no reason why state appeals couldn’t be exhausted within a year of sentencing, and federal challenges exhausted within another year. Two years, not twenty or thirty.

(Think this way: Give the defendant 30 days after sentence to file a notice of appeal, then another 60 to file his brief. 90 days is more than enough time to do the work. Give the prosecution a generous 60 days to reply. Take 30 days to prepare for oral argument, and then give the judges another 30 days to noodle it through and make a decision. That’s 210 days, and the first appeal is over. Subsequent appeals are going to go over the same ground, so time limits can be shorter now. Say another 30 days for the defendant to announce he’s taking it to the state’s supreme court. Then 30 days to brief it, 30 days for the prosecution to brief it, 30 days to prepare for oral argument, and 30 days to reach a decision. That’s 360 days. One year. Federal appeals and habeas shouldn’t take more than one more year. And we’re done.)

-=-=-=-=-

Okay, so the delay is preventable. It’s caused by government rule-making. And the rules can be changed to protect the defendant’s interest in speedy resolution while continuing to protect his interest in thorough vetting of his conviction.

But does that make this delay “cruel and unusual punishment” for Eighth Amendment purposes? Probably not.

Think about it. All that’s happening to the defendant during this delay is that he’s being incarcerated. In a world without capital punishment, he’d be in the same position. He’d still be incarcerated, while going through the same appellate process that every other inmate goes through. The same process, and the same incarceration, that clearly does not violate ordinary convicts’ Eighth Amendment rights.

So no, the appellate delay is not cruel and unusual. But it still totally defeats the purpose of capital punishment in the first place, and for that simple policy reason the death penalty should be banned until such time as the system works out a way to complete the appellate process soon enough and consistently enough to make it worthwhile.

-=-=-=-=-

There are other problems with Stevens’ and Thomas’ arguments. Stevens, for example, is about to retire after a long tenure on the bench, and recent years have seen him going all-out to make a legacy for himself. He is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, and will make any argument against it. As a result, he winds up trying to have it both ways, as Thomas unkindly points out — decrying both the length of the appellate process, as well as the perversity of carrying out executions before every appeal has been exhausted.

Thomas, meanwhile, flatly ignores the interests of justice, and gets hung up on whether the technical procedural requirements were satisfied. He forgets that the procedures are there to serve the interests of justice, and not the other way around. The rules are there to help ensure that defendants’ rights are protected, but the rules are not the only safeguard. The mere fact that the rules were satisfied does not necessarily mean that the system worked properly. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — need to be able to step back and determine whether this individual’s rights really were protected, and whether society’s policy interests were advanced.

Steering the Broken Machine

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Mississippi Gas Chamber

The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates
By John Temple
2009 University Press of Mississippi, 234 pages, $25.95
Amazon.com :: Barnes & Noble

The world is loaded with books about criminal lawyers. They fill the shelves in the mystery and thriller aisles, dominate true crime and related nonfiction genres. After all, a book about what we do is almost a guaranteed page-turner. Conflict? We got it — trials, accusations, at least two sides fighting in every case. Character? Our characters range from the noblest of all to the most despicable and inhuman. Plot? It’s already there, from the crime to the acquittal or execution. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’re not fighting over love or money, we’re fighting for people’s lives and liberty.

So it’s no surprise that there are so many John Grishams out there, and so many nonfiction books about criminal defense. And with so many books out there, you’d think that there would be plenty that give a fairly accurate insight into what criminal practice is really like.

And you would be wrong.

For it is rare indeed to find a book that really does the job. There are plenty that entertain, grip the reader, and even have something worth saying. But books that really draw the reader into our world, and let the reader see it with our eyes and our experience? Such books are few and far between.

Which is why we were genuinely delighted to read The Last Lawyer, by John Temple, an associate professor of journalism and associate dean at West Virginia University. Temple is not a criminal lawyer, he’s not a mystery writer, and that’s a good thing. He’s the kind of writer who comes from the outside, and digs deep into his subject. Like the lawyers and investigators he describes in this book, he clearly put in the time and effort to find out what really happened, who did it, how it happened, and why. And then he took all that data and crafted it into a story that is no less powerful simply because it is true.

True stories almost always suffer from bad writing. “But that’s how it really happened” is a crutch for lame writing, an excuse for having told a story poorly. Yes, real life does not play out according to a scripted dramatic formula. But that doesn’t mean reality can’t be presented that way. The Last Lawyer, however, tends to avoid this trap. With few exceptions, Temple grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

So okay, he’s a good writer. But what does he have to say? That’s the best part.

Because Temple really gets it. He really, really gets it. If you read only one book in your life about what it’s like to be a criminal defense lawyer, read this one.

-=-=-=-=-

When we’re reading a book that particularly engages us, it’s like we’re having a conversation with the author. We find ourselves picking up a pen and scribbling back at him. Books at our house sometimes become dog-eared and annotated beyond any hope of resale. Our copy of The Last Lawyer quickly joined their ranks.

Why, when we already do this stuff for a living? Were we picking fights, or pointing out errors? Not at all. Instead, we frequently found ourselves encountering an insight, or a way of looking at things where we hadn’t looked at it ourselves that way. And we’d go “oh!” or “aha!” And then we’d take that fresh insight and run with it a bit in our head, and it would lead to a new thought we’d always sort of known, but had never actually thought before.

Not as much as we do when reading Proust, Patrick O’Brian or Terry Pratchett. But often enough. Often enough.

-=-=-=-=-

The Last Lawyer takes you through Ken Rose’s decade-long fight to appeal the capital conviction of Bo Jones, a low-IQ Black man sentenced to die for a 1987 murder.

Trial counsel had done little of the work that needed to be done now, and the case had to be investigated from scratch.. Uncooperative witnesses, some who lied and others with good reasons to lie — these were the least of their worries. They had to deal with a client who just did not seem to get the concept. And worse, judges who didn’t get the concept, and couldn’t be bothered to make the effort in the first place. Prosecutors who were the opposite of sympathetic, who railed against attempts to make technical legal arguments, but who were perfectly happy to get a conviction on technicalities themselves. A broken legal system that, instead of seeking justice, becomes a machine for churning people into prison or the gas chamber.

The book takes you through ten years of this struggle, as Ken Rose and his team slowly and gradually discover the facts and arguments they need to save Bo Jones’ life. In the process, you get to see firsthand the best and the worst that our system has to offer. Like any other human enterprise, you see a handful of outstanding performers, another handful of ruinous subverters, and a huge majority of folks just going along to get along. You see a system with powerful inertia.

Our adversarial system is designed to achieve justice, but it needs honest and good-faith opposition to function properly. Both sides need to play by the rules, and try their best, if justice is going to result. And it needs judicial referees to keep a keen eye out, not only for fouls, but for merit as well. But the reader of this book sees law enforcement that isn’t always as honest as we expect it to be, prosecutors who stop trying to seek justice and instead get invested in winning at all cost, defense attorneys who stop protecting their client above all else and instead become mere grease in the wheels of this machine. And judges who have seen so many frivolous arguments that they can’t spot the valid ones any more, and who aren’t terribly inclined to look for them in the first place.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just the broken system. There is good out there. And you get to see that, too. The single most important variable in whether a case is won or lost is preparation. And you see how good lawyers prepare, do the hard work, take the time to do the job right. You see real dedication, not to ego or money or advancement, but to saving the life of a fellow human being. To seeking real justice. To making the system a little bit better, for all of us.

This is the day-to-day experience of a criminal lawyer. The sometimes odd personalities, the deep injustices, the soaring heights of the human spirit, and everything in between.

Go get the book.

More Harm Than Good: Why Capital Punishment Doesn’t Work

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Capital Punishment Sentence Length

Without much media fanfare, the Supreme Court has already decided two capital-punishment cases this month.

The first, Bobby v. Van Hook, came down on the 9th, and dealt with a case from early 1985. Nearly 25 years ago, Van Hook went looking for someone to rob, trolled a Cincinnati gay bar, and seduced a guy he met there. The victim invited Van Hook to his apartment, where Van Hook got him into “a vulnerable position.” Then Van Hook strangled his victim till he was unconscious, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, before taking off with his victim’s valuables. Van Hook later confessed, and was sentenced to death.

His appeals lasted for nine years, all of which were denied. He then spent the next 14 years litigating a single federal habeas petition. First, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of his confession, losing those arguments all the way up to a denial of certiorari by the Supremes in 2007. Then he tried a new argument, that he’d gotten ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, because all the work they had done wasn’t enough. The Sixth Circuit said his sentence should be reconsidered under new standards that had arisen 18 years after the fact. Ohio appealed, and the Supreme Court said you can’t apply these new standards retroactively like that. Van Hook argued that his counsel was ineffective under the standards at the time, anyway, to which the Supremes replied: “He is wrong.”

The Sixth Circuit being reversed, Robert Van Hook is now once again back in the queue for execution, nearly a quarter of a century later.

The second case decided was Wong v. Belmontes, which came out on the 16th. This case started way back in 1981, when Fernando Belmontes bludgeoned Steacy McConnell about 20 times with a steel weightlifting bar. She fought back desperately, to try to save herself, but ultimately Belmontes succeeded in killing her, so he could steal her stereo. He sold it for $100, which he spent on beer and drugs for that evening. He was convicted in California and sentenced to death.

His appeals went back and forth, and he lost. He tried to get federal habeas relief, but the District Court wouldn’t go for it. He appealed that, and the nothing-if-not-consistent Ninth Circuit bent over backwards to find instructional error, but the Supreme Court slapped that down in 2006. The Ninth Circuit tried again, this time finding ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing. In its ruling this month, the Supreme Court pointed out not only how much work went into the defense case at sentencing, but also how wise and skillful it had been. “If this counsel couldn’t make it work,” the Court seems to say, “then nobody could.” You just can’t mitigate away a case where the victim had obviously suffered so needlessly and brutally.

So now, the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and Fernando Belmontes is back on the capital-punishment track 28 years after the crime.

-=-=-=-=-

It being close to Thanksgiving, these decisions remind us of one of the first cases we ever worked on, back when we labored at all hours over Thanksgiving 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips, trying to prevent the execution of a retarded man, Walter Correll. Especially in light of the Supreme Court’s turnaround in the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, ruling that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, we always get a little gloomy when we think back on that case.

But these decisions also remind us that, Republican though we may be, we remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. Not because it’s inherently cruel or inappropriate, but because it takes so damn long to carry out. The way the death penalty works in this country results in real injustice, harms society, and just makes things worse.

-=-=-=-=-

Look at the graph we stuck up there at the top of this post. We made that graph based on data freely available from the United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can see the raw data here.

That chart shows the average elapsed time, from sentence to execution, for each year. This is the average, and as the recent cases attest, actual times can be much much longer. But on average, the wait has gone from 51 months (4-1/4 years), to 153 months (12-3/4 years). That is an insane delay!

Elsewhere in the statistics, we see that the average inmate on death row right now has been waiting for 141 months, or about 11-3/4 years.

That’s a long time, in anyone’s book.

Now don’t get us wrong — we’re glad of the opportunity this affords us to find evidence of actual innocence, DNA evidence, or other means to exonerate the truly innocent. We’re not advocating for speedier executions, here. It takes this long because that’s just how long it takes. Our system is set up to give a lot of opportunity to review death sentences before they’re carried out. There is no appeal after execution, so society wants to make sure that everything was done right, that the convict has been afforded every procedural and constitutional protection that our jurisprudence has devised. And it just takes a long time to do that.

Our point is that the death penalty is improper (among perhaps other reasons) because this necessary delay makes it counterproductive.

-=-=-=-=-

Why do we punish people in the first place? Punishment is when the awesome might of the government is brought to bear on an individual, taking away rights, liberties, property, and even his life. Why do we do that?

We do that because we’ve deemed some actions so harmful to society that, to protect itself, society has to impose this harm. But that begs the question. It’s more of a definition of “what is a crime” than “why do we punish, to begin with.”

We punish because, over history, societies have discovered that it works. At some instinctive level, you get retaliation. Someone hits you, so you hit them back without thinking. It’s a primal urge, not a civilized one, but it would be foolish to pretend that society does not have its own primal urges. We don’t punish strictly to hit back at those who would hurt us, not consciously perhaps, but it is part of the reason why.

A more civilized reason is deterrence. It’s like spanking a child — the criminal associates the punishment with the crime, and decides not to do that any more. And if the spanking is public and seen by others, then others will also realize that this could happen to them, and they won’t do it either.

Deterrence only works, of course, if the punishment is close enough in time to the offense to have a psychological effect. If you spank a kid for something he did three weeks ago, the only psychological message you’re sending is that you’re unfair and cruel, and thereby weakening your own authority.

Deterrence only works if the punishment is connected to the crime. If you spank a kid and he has no idea why you’re spanking him, you’re not deterring anything. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you are arbitrary and unjust. The kid doesn’t know what to expect from you, and will grow to fear and despise you.

General deterrence of other potential criminals only works if the punishment is known, in addition to being close in time and tied to the offense. If people don’t know that it happened, then there is zero deterrent effect from any particular offense.

Perception then, as in so much of life, is everything. You want the system set up in such a way as to create the impression that sentences are just and fair, but you also want the perception that sentences are also going to be imposed. That, if you commit this offense, that punishment is actually going to happen.

Ideally, a utilitarian and a social idealist might even agree that the best way to do this would be to create the perception that sentences are speedily and fairly meted out, without going to all the expense and social harm of actually imposing them.

The flip side of that would be the opposite of ideal, then. And the flip side is exactly what we’ve got.

In our present system, capital punishment is not imposed close in time to the offense. It takes a decade or two before it is carried out. That’s like spanking a kid three weeks later. Far from having any deterrent effect, it undermines faith in justice and weakens the law’s authority.

As practiced, capital punishment is not connected to the crime. It’s almost random. Some horrific murders get the death penalty, others don’t. The reasons for the variety are not obvious or predictable. Unpredictability = no deterrent effect.

And public perception? After all the randomness and delay, there may be a perception that you could get the chair for a given crime, but nobody really thinks you will get the chair. Folks just don’t have an experience of the death penalty as being imposed consistently enough that we simply understand, deep down at a visceral level, that a given crime is likely to result in one’s own death. At best, public perception is a vague theoretical possibility. At worst, and what is more likely, is the perception that the death penalty is so rarely imposed, and only after such an interminable (ha) delay, that it’s really not a factor worth considering in the first place.

(Of course it goes without saying that no punishment can have a deterrent effect on crimes of passion, where no thought went into the crime. But those kinds of crimes tend not to be death-penalty cases, so that argument isn’t really applicable here.)

Another purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, but it’s hard to get one’s act together after one is dead, so that one is out the window.

The only remaining purpose of punishment is removal — getting this threat to public safety off the streets.

Now this one has some promise. Execution certainly removes the offender from our midst. So does exile, though, without all the mess and expense (though dumping our worst threats on someone else could create bigger problems). Life without parole does the same job, though at theoretically great cost — 75% of all death-penalty inmates were under 35 years old when they went in (see more statistics), so they’ve got lots of decades of feeding, sheltering, guarding, clothing, counseling, treating, educating, etc. to pay for.

Unfortunately, as practiced, capital punishment is just a more expensive form of life without parole. At some point, an ordinary prisoner is going to run out of appeals, but the capital inmate doesn’t. And the capital appeals take priority over other judicial needs, while costing the system and everyone involved a lot more in time and resources. By the time someone actually gets executed, all the various costs involved more than cover the costs of a life sentence.

So if removal is the only concern, then life without parole would be the way to go. You don’t get any extra removal from execution. All you get is increased tax burdens, significant extra burdens on the judicial system, loss of enormous amounts of time and money all around, and the intangible losses from harm to the system’s perception and reputation and authority.

-=-=-=-=-

So, speaking as a fairly conservative Republican here, we just don’t see how capital punishment as practiced in America today makes the least bit of sense. It accomplishes little, at enormous unnecessary societal cost.

That’s not the message the Supreme Court probably intended to send with these two cases this month, but that’s the message we heard loud and clear.