Whatever Happened to Precedent?

Partisan Court Quick to Reject Past Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court and Tea Party Republicans have something in common.

Tea Party legislators in Congress have forced a shut down of the U.S. government because they oppose “Obamacare.”  This  tactic upsets longstanding practice and rejects the reality that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and was effectively ratified when voters returned President Barack Obama to office.

The conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t have to shut down the government to change a law. It merely uses it’s majority status to vote to overturn a precedent that it disfavors.

The New York Times reports the five-justice conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is now poised to use the case of McCullen v. Coakley, No. 12-1168, to overturn a 2000 precedent that placed restrictions on anti-choice protests at reproductive health care facilities.

Adherence to precedent – or the collective judgments of prior courts – dates back to English Common law. It is part of the concept of “stare decisis” that posits upholding precedent strengthens the legal system by placing decision-making in the realm of neutral legal principles and the accumulated wisdom of many judges and courts rather than at the whim of self-interested individuals and partisan courts.

Just as the GOP in the House appear to have little regard for the political process that led to the adoption of Obamacare, the current conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court appears to have little respect for decisions of prior U.S. Supreme Courts.

The Precedent

In Hill v. Colorado,  the Supreme Court in 2000 upheld a Colorado law that made it unlawful for any person within 100 feet of a health care facility’s entrance to “knowingly approach” within 8 feet of another person, without that person’s consent, in order to pass “a leaflet or handbill to, displa[y] a sign to, or engag[e] in oral protest, education, or counseling with [that] person … .”.

The Massachusetts law at issue in the McCullen case makes it a crime for speakers other than clinic “employees or agents . . . acting within the scope of their employment” to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within thirty-five feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility.”  If the Court  determines that Hill  permits enforcement of the Massachusetts law, it will decide whether Hill should be limited or overruled.

The growing partisanship of the Court can be seen by examining the Hill majority.

Hill was was decided by a vote of 6-3. Three Republican appointees on the Court voted with three Democratic appointees to uphold the Colorado law.  They were the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and retired justices Sandra J. O’Connor and David Souter. The Hill Court ruled:

The State’s police powers allow it to protect its citizens’ health and safety, and may justify a special focus on access to health care facilities and the avoidance of potential trauma to patients associated with confrontational protests.”

 The Court said that rules providing specific guidance to enforcement authorities serve the public’s interest in evenhanded application of the law. The majority also ruled the statute dealt not with restricting a speaker’s right to address a willing audience, but with protecting listeners from unwanted communication.

Prior to Hill, anti-choice protesters gathered daily in unruly mobs at reproductive health care facilities. They held graphic signs and shouted through bullhorns in an effort to intimidate women and deter them from entering the health care facility. This was part of a wider climate of fear in America that included anti-choice protesters targeting and, on several occasions, murdering health care providers and personnel who worked at reproductive health care facilities.

More Partisan

So, what’s different today? Primarily it’s the Court.

The Court was less partisan in 2000 when Hill was decided.

The three conservative justices who dissented in Hill  are Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony M. Kennedy, all appointed by Republican presidents. The Hill dissenters are joined on the Court today by Republican appointees Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.,  who  are among the most conservative justices since World War II.  The five-justice conservative majority on today’s Court outnumbers the four-justice Democratic-appointed, more liberal minority, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen J. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Kennedy is sometimes considered a swing vote  but the dissent that he registered in Hill  signals a  vote in favor of overturning restrictions on anti-choice demonstrators.

There were several cases in the last term of the Court that were marked by bitter partisanship, as the majority overturned established and long-held precedent.

There is something rather surreal about it all. To quote from Lewis Carroll:

Alice: [as a giant] And as for you… Your Majesty! Your Majesty indeed! Why, you’re not a queen,

[shrinking]

Alice: But just a – a fat, pompous, bad tempered old ty…!

[normal size]

Alice: Tyrant.

Queen of Hearts: [giggles] And uh, just what were you saying, my dear?

Cheshire Cat: Why, she simply said that you’re a fat, pompous, bad tempered old tyrant!

 [chuckles]

Speak Your Mind

*