Monday, December 11, 2006

Robertsian jurisprudence

Remember when the new Chief Justice said that he preferred to decide cases on the narrowest grounds possible so to assure substantial majorities?

"If it is not necessary to decide more to a case, then in my view it is necessary not to decide more to a case," Roberts said at Georgetown. "Division should not be artificially suppressed, but the rule of law benefits from a broader agreement. The broader the agreement among the justices, the more likely it is a decision on the narrowest possible grounds."
Today, we got a real taste of that kind of jurisprudence.

In Carey v. Musladin, decided today, the Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit, which itself overturned a California murder conviction (i.e., SCOTUS reinstated the conviction). The defendant shot and killed a man outside his ex-wife's home. The decedent's family attended the trial wearing buttons displaying the decedent's picture. Timely objections raised, affirmed on direct appeal. In a federal habeas action, the conviction was overturned by the Ninth Circuit, citing the same principles that prohibit forcing a defendant to wear prison garb, or to be surrounded by police throughout the trial.

So what did the Court decide? They didn't rule that allowing the family to wear the dead man's picture was prejudicial. They didn't rule that it wasn't prejudicial either. They ruled that they hadn't ruled.
Given the lack of holdings from this Court regarding the potentially prejudicial effect of spectators’ courtroom conduct of the kind involved here, it cannot be said that the state court “unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.” [28 U.S.C.] §2254(d)(1). No holding of this Court required the California Court of Appeal to apply the test of Williams and Flynn to the spectators’ conduct here. Therefore, the state court’s decision was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.
In other words- they punted. Final score 9-0 to reverse- six in the majority authored by Justice Thomas, Justices Souter, Stevens, and Kennedy each filing an opinion concurring in the judgment.

If this is the Chief Justice's vision, then dark days lay ahead jurisprudentially speaking. Here is a unanimous decision that is virtually useless as precedent. With the Court taking so few cases, it makes little sense that they would take a case and then decide it on narrow procedural grounds. Expect no Browns or Mirandas anytime soon.


Orin said...


Are you sure you want the Supreme Court to be more active? What if they reach decisions you thing are wrong?

Orin Kerr

Charles Thomas said...

As opposed to limiting making the holding so narrow as to be totally useless?

As someone who cares deeply about the law and the directions it takes, yes I would worry about the Court taking a small issue and making it far reaching. But as a practitioner, it would have been much more helpful for the Court to have ruled one way or the other.

All the Court did was ensure that the issue will come back someday.