Theory on framework issues

Friday, July 10, 2009

5.10 Against the writ of certiorari

(Tenth in series: The interpretation of statutes and the denial of judges' powers.)

Let's apply this theory of constitutional interpretation to the modern problem of nonprecedential opinions: oppositionists interpret the judicial power, limited to cases and controversies, as excluding the right to choose which cases make law. To apply the structure-function theory, first evaluate the interpretation for fit with the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances. The separation of powers departmentalizes the major government functions; so the interpretation offered strengthens separation of powers by drawing a firmer line between judicial and legislative functions. Giving government branches certain contrafunctional duties furthers the system of checks and balances, but checks and balances, partly countervailing against separation of powers, is harder to assess. The checking power must facilitate the intruding branch's stymying of other branches but not initiating their functions. The power to choose which cases are precedential is suitable for fostering an independent judicial agenda, not well tailored to block those of other branches: think of the presidential veto or congressional ratification of presidential appointments.

Nonprecedential opinions violate a core structural feature of the U.S. Constitution, but criticism hasn't been influential among most judges. To assess the practice's durability under the structure-function theory, you must also consider how far our other norms depart from constitutional blueprint. If even without the distortion introduced by nonprecedential opinions, the judiciary still assumes legislative functions, the pull toward reforming the practice diminishes. Seemingly unnoticed by the critics of unpublished opinions, the judiciary's usurpation of legislative functions long predated nonprecedenntial opinions. A still more important deviation from norms occurred when the Judges Act of 1925 gave the U.S. Supreme Court the power to choose its cases.

Case selection invokes a legislative function in the same way as nonprecedential opinions; choosing which cases to review is even further removed from deciding cases and controversies than deciding which cases to publish. The legislative nature of nonprecedential cases may seem greater because delaying the decision allows the court to base precedent creation on firmer nonjudicial information. Although the court must decide before hearing the case, and it doesn't know how the case will go, the appellate courts do well in prediction. The U.S. Supreme Court reverses 75% of cases it selects for review, a good percentage if the court wants to make law. When a court selects its cases, it makes a restrictive legislative selection without even hearing the other cases.

Little fanfare accompanied huge change introduced by the Judges Act, which Chief Justice William Howard Taft pushed for efficiency's sake. Lawyers missed the judicial-expansionist nature of the writ of certiorari because the Supreme Court was almost unreservedly popular during this politically reactionary era, and commentators viewed the Judges Act as decreasing the Supreme Court's power, Taft hardly being an "activist." The Judges Act of 1925 gives opponents of the political power of unrepresentative officials today an obstacle and an avenue seldom mentioned. Congress should strip the Supreme Court of its power to select cases. Limiting Supreme Court review to cases which show a conflict between federal circuits is one alternative, provided the Supreme Court must review all conflicting cases where a party appeals from the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court's power to select cases for review burdens democracy at the same time as it conflicts with constitutionalism. Politicians who tempt Supreme Court justices to exercise legislative power while criticizing them for pursuing a political agenda act as ineffectually or hypocritically as U.S. bank regulators.

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SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.