18 December 2014

$100K for Swearing at the Cops!

Anyone who has bothered to take a look at some of my older postings will know that a favorite topic of mine is getting arrested for swearing in public. It is well established that free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution protect even vulgar speech like swearing. As a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out in an article about an Atlanta woman who was arrested for swearing at the police:
“Ms. Barnes’ comments to the police may have been offensive, but no one in the United States of America should be chased down and arrested for their free speech,” said lawyer Cynthia Counts, who represented Barnes in her civil and criminal litigation. “The officers argued that it was a bad neighborhood and you shouldn’t disrespect the police because it could create issues,” she added.
Counts noted federal courts had overuled such reasoning after 1918 sedition laws made “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag or armed forces — or that caused people to view government institutions with contempt — a felony.
These are losers for cities and counties. In this instance, Cobb County settled out of court with this potty mouth for $100,000!! Hopefully, in the future Cobb County will train its police officers to ignore offensive speech directed at them.

11 December 2014

Getting a Hearing Before the Supreme Court: Only for Elites?

This week Reuters published a special report about the lawyers who get their cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Their conclusion: if you want to access the Supreme Court you had better hire one of the 66 lawyers who seem to repeatedly be granted access to the Court. Part one of the report is entitled "A cadre of well-connected attorneys has honed the art of getting the Supreme Court to take up cases - and business is capitalizing on their expertise," which should give you an idea of the point the report is trying to make. The report is rather long but will give students a very good understanding of the process of having a case heard before America's highest court.

09 December 2014

The Power to Declare War

When was the last time the United States formally declared war on another country?

Students in my American Law courses (at least the ones who have already completed the Introduction Course) know the answer to this, and understand that the U.S. Constitution is a bit confusing when it comes to the question of when the President can send the military oversees to engage in battle.

Article I of the Constitution clearly give the Congress the power to declare war, however the President is Commander-in-Chief of the military and charged with defending the interests of the country. Custom plays an enormous role in this question, and arguably it has become custom to allow the President to commit troops oversees without a formal declaration of war, as this recent post on the National Constitution Center's blog clearly illustrates. 

28 November 2014

California Governor Criticized for Judical Appointments

California's Governor Jerry Brown has now appointed three judges to the California Supreme Court, and as this editorial at SFGate notes, none of them have judicial experience. The writer of the editorial thinks that's a problem. Read the rest of it to find out why.

24 November 2014

Divided Government and the Appointment of Supreme Court Justices

By now, students in all three of my courses are familiar with how vacancies on the United States Supreme Court are filled. And those of my students who have been paying attention to developments in the United States realize that Republicans will soon be taking control of the United States Senate, the body charged with approving the President's nominees to the Supreme Court. Lyle Denniston has an interesting post on the National Constitution Center website explaining who likely it would for a nominee of President Obama's to get through the hostile Senate.

22 November 2014

How Presidents Have Used Their Veto Power

While we have not expressly discussed the President's veto power in my courses this semester, this power does fit into the general discussion we have had concerning American government, and at least someone in one of my courses was curious enough about this power to ask whether the President can exercise this power for any reason, or only when he feels the bill he is being asked to sign violates the Constitution. I recently came across a short and informative blog post on the National Constitution Center's blog that anyone interested in the President's veto power should read.

14 November 2014

Nevada Gets an Appeals Court

The AP reports that Nevada is joining the 40 other states that have an intermediate level appeals court. To be honest, I'm amazed there are that many states without an appeals court. Anyway, the article points out why not having an intermediate level appeals court can cause problems:
That meant that every appeal from each of the state's 82 district courts - death penalty convictions, medical malpractice judgments, prison food complaints, administrative hearing reviews, driver's license revocations - had to be heard by a very busy seven-member Nevada Supreme Court.
The article goes on to note that last year the Supreme Court rendered about 2,300 rulings!

13 November 2014

Americans Don't Trust Their Courts

At least that is what Francis Barry argues in a recent Bloomberg News piece. Barry argues that the increasing number of amendments to state constitutions show a growing distrust of the judiciary. To understand why, give this short piece a read.

10 November 2014

Time for a change?

A recent Billings Gazette editorial points out the problems with open elections for judges in this era of outside groups spending unlimited money on trying to influence elections. The editorial also points out two other ways that states select judges, which might be more appropriate for Montana. The editorial is short and very informative.

06 November 2014

Judge Retains Seat

From the Associated Press: a day after elections an Illinois Supreme Court Justice appears to have retained his seat. This is a wonderful opportunity to review how some judges in the United States are selected. Here is what the AP had to say:
ST. LOUIS — An Illinois Supreme Court justice targeted for ouster by plaintiffs' attorneys who spent more than $1 million publicly characterizing him as partial to corporate interests appears to have retained his seat, which he won a decade ago in a race that set national spending records.
With more than 99 percent of Tuesday's votes counted, Lloyd Karmeier finished less than 1 percentage point above the 60 percent threshold he needed for retention. Several of the 37 southernmost Illinois counties making up Karmeier's district still were counting absentee and provisional ballots Wednesday.
Just from these two paragraphs we can tell a few things about how Supreme Court Justices are keep their seats in Illinois. While we cannot tell how they are actually selected (whether the governor does the selecting or some kind of committee), we can tell that each Justice must face a retention vote, and in order to survive the vote the judge must obtain a super majority of 60% of the vote. We can also tell that Justices on the Illinois Supreme Court apparently represent only a part of the state. This likely is meant to ensure that the Court is made up of Justices from throughout the entire state.

To review: some judges must face retention votes when their term expires. A retention vote is nothing more than having the name of the judge on the ballot with a "Yes" or "No" answer to the question of whether the judge should be retained. In Illinois a judge must get 60% yes votes in order to keep his or her seat. Remember, not all retention votes run this way. Each state can have their own system.

05 November 2014

Studying Law is Easy . . .

At least that is what Bundesgerichtshof Judge Thomas Fischer recently told Die Zeit. Fischer makes numerous observations about the shortcomings of the German legal education (whether they are fair or not, I will not judge) and more importantly, he draws a comparison to the study of law in common law countries:
ZEIT Campus: Was fehlt den Absolventen?
Fischer: Meistens die Softskills, also die sozialpsychologischen Fähigkeiten. Die werden fast nicht gelehrt: Verhandlungskompetenz erwirbt man im Studium nicht, den meisten mangelt es auch an kommunikativer Sorgfalt.
ZEIT Campus: Warum wäre das wichtig?
Fischer: Jura ist eine Wissenschaft, die sich fast ausschließlich mit Sprache beschäftigt. Sie müssen im Beruf Reden halten, Positionen verteidigen, Konfliktsituationen lösen und vor allem Empathie für fremde Personen haben.
ZEIT Campus: Kann man das an der Uni lernen?
Fischer: Im angloamerikanischen Raum fordern Professoren die Studenten ständig auf, ihre Meinung zu sagen und sich mit Gegenpositionen auseinanderzusetzen. Sie sind von Anfang an in einem System, das sie in die Lage versetzt, juristische Berufe auszuüben.
The rest of the interview is well worth a read. His views on the Repetitorien (he refers to it as a "sinnloser Aufwand") and why making big money working for a large law firm might not be worth it are amusing. The comments made by readers are rather amusing as well.

30 October 2014

Politicians as Supreme Court Justices

There once was a time where tried and test politicians were appointed to the highest court in America. Perhaps the most famous of these is former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was Governor of California before being appointed to the high court, and one former President sat on the Court AFTER serving as President! The National Constitutional Center recently posted an article tracing the history of appointing politicians to the high court in the context of whether President Obama might one day be interesting in serving there.

27 October 2014

Judicial Elections, Jury Nullification?

The headline of a recent Great Fall Tribune article reads "Supreme Court Candidate supports jury nullification." Within the next few weeks students in all of my courses should understand what the article means by "court candidate" (yes, some judges in America are elected by popular vote!) and "jury nullification." For a sneak peak, take a look at the article.

25 October 2014

Does Supreme Court Silence Mean Something

The National Constitutional Center recently posted an article focusing on what the Supreme Court means to say when it rejects hearing a case on appeal. The Center's Lyle Denniston explains:
At the beginning of each term, in early October, the court turns down hundreds of cases that have built up on its docket over its summer recess. If it had to explain each refusal, the task would be simply unmanageable. But it is frustrating, to the public as a whole and to lawyers, lower court judges and journalists, when the court does not say why it denies review of a really big case, or cases.
That happened, on opening day this term, when the Justices turned aside seven appeals dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage. In each of those seven, coming from five different states, a federal appeals court had ruled unconstitutional a state’s ban on such marriages – and each appeals court had done so with a full opinion, going over all of the reasons.
The rest of the explanation can be found here.

22 October 2014

Five Key UK Supreme Court Cases

Lord Neuberger talks about the five most important cases decided by the relatively new UK Supreme Court in the past five years. The article is worth a quick read.

10 July 2014

So what happens when a superstar gets selected for jury duty in New York? Find out here.

08 July 2014

SZ: "Fünf ältere Herren gegen das liberale Amerika"

The SZ recently had a piece with the catchy title above. Their take concerned a recent Supreme Court decision that some claim is anti-woman. Students of American Law should give it a quick look. It's in German!

07 July 2014

The always informative Constitution Center website has a fascinating post asking the question of whether it is too hard to amend the U.S. Constitution. For a review of what is necessary to make changes to the constitution, I encourage you to check out the post.

03 July 2014

Can Congress Sue the President

Republicans in Congress are mad. They are mad at President Obama for, as they claim, failing to enforce the laws they have passed. They are so mad that they are threatening to sue the President. But can they do that? In class, as part of our discussion about the "cases and controversies" requirement found in Article III of the Constitution, I have basically told you that the answer is no. See what the experts think.

02 July 2014

Unanimity on the Supreme Court

As students of American law well know, at least those who have read U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Court rarely speaks with one voice. Almost every opinion issued by the Court these days seems to have concurring and dissenting opinions attached to them. There is an interesting discussion going on among legal scholars in the U.S. about a new rash of unanimous rulings issued by the Court over the past few weeks. Some argue that this is a dawning of a new day, while others say that this unanimity is nothing more than window dressing (i.e. it is a mirage, it does not really exists). Follow the links above to get a taste of this very important discussion. Your ability to understand the discussion is one way to test whether you understand the importance of the rationale in a written court opinion.

13 June 2014

CSI and Juries

Much has been written about the so-called CSI effect on juries. Wikipedia defines the CSI effect as:
any of several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception. The term most often refers to the belief that jurors have come to demand more forensic evidence in criminal trials, thereby raising the effective standard of proof for prosecutors.
But recently Slate Magazine had an article casting the CSI effect in a different light:
How could forensic evidence, widely seen as factual and unbiased, nearly send an innocent person to his death? The answer is profoundly disturbing—and suggests that for every Earl Washington freed, untold more are sent to their deaths. Far from an infallible science, forensics is a decades-long experiment in which undertrained lab workers jettison the scientific method in favor of speedy results that fit prosecutors’ hunches. No one knows exactly how many people have been wrongly imprisoned—or executed—due to flawed forensics.
Anyone interested in how shows like CSI might influence jury trials in America should read the rest of this article.

09 June 2014

If You Think Today's Congress Is A Hostile Place, Think Again

The National Constitution Center has a great history piece on how violent things in the Congress leading up the American Civil War:
On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a metal-tipped cane, leaving Sumner seriously injured. Brooks received a $300 fine. The incident started when Senator Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, went on a two-day rant on the Senate floor after an incident in Kansas. Sumner made fun of Brooks’ relative, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who had suffered from a stroke, and he used language that compared the South’s use of slavery to prostitution.

03 June 2014

Supreme Court Under Attack

The Supreme Court has recently come under attack by several academics for reasons ranging from its unwillingness to televise its hearings to the life time terms (this link will take you to interesting piece arguing for term limits of the Justices) that the Justices serve. But in a recent blog post Prof. Geoffrey Stone asks the enticing question: "Do we need the Supreme Court?"

Stone sets forth 20 of the more controversial/landmark decisions and then asks:
How many of these 20 decisions do you think reflect good policy for the nation? Do you agree with the Supreme Court that on such matters the People should not be permitted through their elected representatives to act contrary to these decisions? What do you think led you to think that some decisions were "good" while others were "bad? Can you discern any principle that leads you to judge some decisions as "good" and others as "bad"? Or is it just a matter of opinion? When all is said and done, has the Supreme Court's exercise of the power of judicial review been good or bad for the nation? Do we need the Supreme Court?
His point obviously is whether nine judges should be determining important questions of law or whether elected representatives should be.  

Jealous Wife Cannot Be Charged Under International Treaty

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jealous wife who used a mixture of chemical toxins to harm her husband's lover could not be charged with a violation of the Chemical Weapons Treaty signed by the U.S. and incorporated into federal criminal law. The case provides us with an opportunity to review some of the concepts we have been discussing in American Constitutional Law. Specifically, the article raises questions about the role of the 10th Amendment in this case, and whether treaties can trump trample on state authority.

22 May 2014

Are Judges Really Like Referees?

In class I sometimes characterize the role of common law judges as being akin to referees. In a recent editorial entitled "Wading through the malarkey of judges as umpires" Prof. Alan Garfield makes a convincing argument why sometimes judges aren't really like referees. To be clear, when I talk about judges being like referees, I mean the role they play at the trial court level. Here Prof. Garfield is talking about appellate court judges, specifically Supreme Court Justices, whose job primarily is to apply the law, not oversee a trial. I encourage you read his piece.

20 May 2014

Judges for Sale

The New York Times is most certainly not a fan of judicial elections. As students in my courses know, many states in the United States select their judges through an open election process. In a recent editorial, the New York illustrated why this might be sometimes problematic:
In North Carolina’s Supreme Court primary on May 5, for example, Justice Robin Hudson endured attack ads charging that she coddled child molesters and “sided with the predators” in a dissent while on the bench. The ad’s source was not her two opponents but a shadowy independent group that received $900,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, which channels donations from corporations and individuals to promote conservatives in state politics.
 You can read the rest of the editorial here.

17 May 2014

Term Limits for Supreme Court Justices?

An editorial in The Week recently made the argument that it's time for America to limit the terms of its federal judges:
"Unlike in nearly every other democracy in the world, justices appointed to our highest court remain there for life. This is purportedly done to promote judicial independence. But in reality these lifelong Supreme Court appointments generate an absurd political spectacle: A court that is both nakedly partisan and less democratic."
 You can find the rest of the piece here.

08 May 2014

Americans Want Term Limits for Supreme Court

A new survey of Americans shows that a majority of them would like members of the Supreme Court to have term limits (something similar to the time limits placed on members of the Bundesverfassungsgericht). As students in my courses know, or will soon learn, federal court judges in the United States serve for life terms once they are appointed to the bench. As students in my Osnabrück courses should know, in order to impose such term limits, the language of the U.S. Constitution (Article III) will need to be changed, which is very unlikely for the reasons we discussed/will discuss in class.

03 May 2014

Selection of Judges in the United States

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published a very well-written editorial by the Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, which does an excellent job of explaining how the retention system of judicial selection works. Students interested in understanding how this method of judicial selection operates are encouraged to give it a read.

15 January 2014

Taking the Fifth

The Constitution Center has a great post explaining what "taking the Fifth" means:
Someone pleading the Fifth Amendment in a public proceeding is ingrained in our popular culture, thanks for decades of movies, television shows, and public hearings where the accused defiantly refuses to testify in a moment of high drama. In reality, a person isn’t pleading the entire Fifth Amendment, but just the part that refers to self-incrimination.
The post goes on to explain how this right was expanded to state court proceedings and hearings beyond the criminal courts. FFA students should take particular note of this article, as it touches upon concepts that you most certainly will be exposed to during your FFA studies.

13 January 2014

No Bar Exam Required

The State of Iowa is considering joining Wisconsin as the only states to allow graduates from in-state law schools to start practicing law immediately after graduation. No practical training, no bar exam! The Des Moines Register has a short article explaining the proposal:
Graduates of Iowa’s two law schools could begin practicing law in the state soon after graduation rather than waiting until they pass the bar exam, under a proposal before the Iowa Supreme Court.
The proposal would apply only to law school graduates who stay in Iowa to work. Law school graduates would still have to pass an ethics exam and screening and background checks, according to the proposal. It also would require students to take an Iowa-specific law and procedure course.

07 January 2014

Loser Pays Coming to America?

For the most part, the U.S. court system has tended to reject a loser pay system. As a general rule, each side is responsible for covering the cost of their legal representation, regardless of who wins. There are of course exceptions to this general rule, normally set forth in statutes that require a defendant in certain circumstances to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail.

But the problem of "patent trolls" is making the federal courts and Congress rethink their aversion to a pure loser pay system. Bloomberg News has more on this developing story.

04 January 2014

Federal Courts Divided Over NSA Spy Program

Two recent decisions by lower federal courts illustrate a big difference between how the court systems in the U.S. and Germany operate, at least the constitutional courts.

In Germany, the Basic Law allows for individuals to apply directly to the Constitutional Court if they believe state actors have violated one of their constitutional rights. This centralized form of judicial review has the advantage of avoiding the problem raised by the title of this post: namely two lower courts applying the constitution to similar facts in a different manner.

In the United States, on the other, where the constitution does not explicitly call for the creation of a constitutional court, questions concerning whether one's constitutional rights have been violated by state actors are answered by lower federal courts. The result, as is often the case, is a similar set facts can come before two different courts, and these courts can come to polar opposite conclusions.

Andrew Cohen's recent article in The Atlantic entitled "Is the NSA's Spying Constitutional? It Depends Which Judge You Ask" highlights how a decentralized system of judicial review can be messy at times. Of course, both the lower court decisions to which Cohen is alluding will be appealed, and eventually an important question of constitutional law like this one will be heard by the nation's highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court, so even in a decentralized system of judicial review, important questions of constitutional law are eventually settled.

For more on these NSA cases see Cohen's interview on PBS news and this article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.