June 16, 2024 / by 


Alito Versus Law And Science


Our legal system only works if we have impartial judges whose decisions are based on facts. Samuel Alito is not an impartial jurist. He doesn’t care about facts. In this, he is only the most obvious of the six right-wing members of SCOTUS.


Roe v. Wade, discussed here, stood as precedent for 50 years, until it was thrown out by the right-wingers. Each of the people who signed onto the opinion, and John Robert, who didn’t, swore that stare decisis is a crucial aspect of judicial legitimacy, and recognized that Roe was binding precedent. That was a deception.

One important goal of stare decisis is to create certainty and stability in social relations. The legal term is reliance. We don’t overturn precedent without good cause. We might overturn a precedent because it is doing more harm than good. Thus, reasonable people see the wisdom in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws.

I do not think Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, but even if I did, that’s not enough. If overturning it causes more harm than leaving it in place, it should stand. Otherwise, we are not a government of laws, but a government by the feelings of five members of SCOTUS.

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Alito rips that principle to shreds in pursuit of his partisan ideology. He writes:

in this case, five factors weigh strongly in favor of overruling Roe and Casey: the nature of their error, the quality of their reasoning, the “workability” of the rules they imposed on the country, their disruptive effect on other areas of the law, and the absence of concrete reliance.

His justification for all these points is callous and absurd, but especially his rejection of reliance. In § III.E he explains that there are three kinds of reliance.

1. Areas of law requiring precise advance planning. This, of course, is not applicable.

2. Areas of concrete reliance. That’s not present in this case. The claims that women rely on Roe are “novel” and “intangible”, and it would be wrong to consider them.

That form of reliance depends on an empirical question that is hard for anyone—and in particular, for a court—to assess, namely, the effect of the abortion right on society and in particular on the lives of women.

That leads to impassioned arguments, he says, so who’s to say whether there’s any actual reliance. So what if there’s a hideous impact is on society and in particular on the lives of women? Those things are irrelevant in the austere legal world, lit by the incandescent power of the Judicial Intellect Of Sam Alito.

3. This ruling won’t affect other cases. He must think we’re stupid.


Alito uses the term “unborn human being” ten times in his opinion. Usually courts use neutral language, or the language of the parties. His choice of words is a signal about his beliefs. He thinks a human child, a separate person, is living in the womb, just waiting to be born. That’s not true. It’s a religious belief.

My thanks to commenter c-i-v-i-l for linking us to a peer-reviewed paper in Natural Sciences, Pseudo-embryology and personhood: How embryological pseudoscience helps structure the American abortion debate. The paper was written by a noted US embryologist, Scott Gilbert. I have the pleasure of knowing Professor Gilbert. The paper includes a review and explanation of six of the different views scientists hold regarding the onset of personhood.

1. Fertilization: the formation of a unique genome.

2. Gastrulation: the point of cellular division of the fertilized ovum at which the embryo can no longer form identical twins, but can only form one unique human person.

3. Emergence of the human EEG pattern pattern: the cerebral cortex begins to function.

4. Viability: the stage at which the embryo can survive outside the womb.

5. Birth.

In addition to these, Gilbert notes a sixth position taken by many scientists, that personhood is not a scientific category. The differences he describes between the state of the embryo at the five stages he lists show the problem.

Gilbert’s paper disposes of the notion that there is scientific consensus on the issue of personhood. He goes much farther in his analysis, explaining that the anti-abortion mob is creating a pseudo-science to justify their religious zealotry. He likens it to Eugenics which caused tremendous damage; it also seems like creationism.

He describes three myths that buttress this pseudo-science. One is th myth of the valiant sperm fighting its way on a perilous journey, racing to the waiting ovum, piercing it and filling it with new life. This is a story of masculine prowess: the male is the active force and the female is passive. It’s the myth of the journey of the hero as seen in the work of Joseph Campbell and others. He writes:

The female oviduct is not a passive racetrack, and the egg and its cumulus are active in attracting sperm and exciting them to swim faster. Although the sperm needs its propulsion to pass through the cumulus cells and extracellular covering that surround the egg, it does not bore through, drill through, or penetrate the egg, itself. Rather, when the sperm finds the egg, it lies next to it, spooning, and then the membranes of the sperm and egg melt together, and the two become one.

This is a beautiful and powerful picture: two human bodies working together to achieve new life. Alito deals with the beauty and complexity Gilbert outlines in his paper by claiming judges can’t solve the problem. His solution is to hand the decision to state governments. He knows full well that many of them don’t care about reality any more than he does, and that they will take away the liberty of the majority. He doesn’t care.

Partisan hackery

It’s easy to see that Alito is a partisan hack by reading his opinions and checking his voting record. In the face of his record, he refused to recuse from the Trump immunity case and the January 6 criminal case on the hilarious grounds that no one could think him anything but the soul of impartiality.

Journalist Lauren Windsor recorded Alito at a recent private event. The video reinforces the perception that he is a partisan, not an impartial judge. He has a Manichean view of US politics: the struggle between the forces of godliness and the secular left. In a rambling response, he describes it as a battle one side or the other must win, though possibly there are ways to live together in peace, but some matters cannot be compromised.

But there wasn’t a battle until a tiny minority funded by billionaires used the state to impose their religion on an unwilling majority. The majority was forced to defend its liberty. Alito thinks this is fine.

His wife, Martha-Ann, is a Fox News Grandma fulminating about the outrage of the day, and stewing in grudges for decades. This recording,  also captured by Windsor, is awesome. As Joan Walsh puts it in The Nation, she lets her freak flag fly.

Alito is a crank. Martha-Ann is a crank. They crank together.

What can we do?

1. Please read the Gilbert paper I linked. If nothing else, it will shore up your faith in intelligent observation of our shared reality.

2. Call Senator Durbin’s Judiciary Committee and ask them what they’re doing to protect us from biased judges. It isn’t just Alito and the other SCOTUS rogues. Trump put dozens of right-wing cranks on the bench, including Aileen Cannon, Matthew Kacsmaryk, and James Ho.

Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade (1973)  is at the heart of Jamal Greene’s book How Rights Went Wrong, my next book. It marks the apogee of the trajectory of the Warren Court, though it was decided after he retired. The opinion was handed down during my last year in law school, and I must have read it then, but I hadn’t read since. The name, if not the reasoning, became an icon for our understanding of our rights. And then, the current SCOTUS majority reminded us that they’re in charge of our liberty, and not some ancient version of SCOTUS from 50 years ago.

In this post, I’ll discuss the holding and reasoning of the Roe majority, written by Harry Blackmun.  I’ll skip over the preliminary holdings, including standing, justiciability, and procedural issues.

Introductory context

Blackmun begins his analysis by stating that the Court is aware that the abortion is “sensitive” and “emotional”, and that people hold “deep and seemingly absolute convictions” the subject. People’s views on the subject are influenced by a wide variety of factors, ranging from religious doctrine to worries about population. But he has a job to do.

Our task, of course, is to resolve the issue by constitutional measurement, free of emotion and of predilection.

Facts and legal claims

Jane Roe was a single woman residing in Texas. Texas law made abortion a crime with exceptions “… for an abortion by. ‘medical advice for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.’ “. At the time she filed Roe was pregnant and wanted a safe abortion in Texas because she couldn’t afford to go to a state where it would be legal.

Roe claimed that the Texas statutes were unconstitutionally vague, and “… that they abridged her right of personal privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Context and interests

Blackmun begins with a history of abortion laws from ancient times to the present “for such insight as that history may afford us”. He doesn’t mention the witch-hunter Matthew Hale. He then describes the past and current positions of three professional associations, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Public Health Association. These lay out the general legal and health situation at that time and the recommendations of those bodies.

Blackmun says there are three justifications for criminalizing abortion.

a) to discourage illicit behavior. Texas doesn’t make this argument.

b) to protect the pregnant woman. At the time of adoption of criminal punishment the procedures were dangerous, with a high mortality rate. With modern procedures, that is no longer the case, and abortions, at least in the early months, are safer than normal childbirth. Blackmun notes that there remain important health and safety issues that are properly the function of states. The interest of the states in protecting the woman’s health and safety increase as the pregnancy progresses.

c) to protect pre-natal life. Texas argues that “Only when the life of the pregnant mother herself is at stake, balanced against the life she carries within her, should the interest of the embryo or fetus not prevail.” Blackmun says that “as long as at least potential life is involved, the State may assert interests beyond the protection of the pregnant woman alone.”

The Roe side argues that there is no reason to think that any of these statutes were intended to protect the fetus. There is no legislative history to support that view, and what there is discusses the health of the pregnant woman. The same is true for the case law.

These are the interests at stake.

The right to privacy

Blackmun says that there is a line of SCOTUS cases in which the Court recognized a zone of privacy for individuals, and lists cases in which provisions of the Bill of Rights were applied to create individual rights to be let alone, including Griswold v. Connecticut, the birth control case. He doesn’t repeat the analysis of Griswold, merely pointing out its roots in the 9th Amendment.

Blackmun holds that the a woman’s decision to get an abortion is within this zone of protection. He recites some of the burdens that Texas imposes on women, and the damage it does to them and their families. But that’s not the end of the discussion.

He’s already said that Texas has an interest in protecting the health of the woman, and in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life. The right to privacy is not absolute. There are other interests that must be protected, and at some point the interests of that the state rightfully claims become dominant. He says this is the general position taken by most of the courts that have ruled on the issue.

Fetal personhood

In Section IX, Blackmun takes on the question of whether a fetus is a “person” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. Blackmun recites every use of the word person in the Constitution. He says that none of them can be read to include “prenatal application.” Other courts agree. But that doesn’t fully exhaust the interests asserted by Texas.

Texas claims life begins at conception. Blackmun says that doctors and scientists can’t answer that question and gives examples Therefore the judiciary certainly can’t.

Blackmun says that to override a woman’s right to privacy Texas must show a compelling state interest.

We repeat, however, that the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman, … and that it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life. These interests are separate and distinct. Each grows in substantiality as the woman approaches term and, at a point during pregnancy, each becomes ‘compelling.’

This leads to the three part rule of Roe. In the first trimester, the dominant interest is that of the woman, and the state cannot show a compelling interest in her decision or in the means of effectuation. In the second trimester, the risk increases, justifying reasonable regulation related to the life and health of the woman.

After viability, roughly at the end of the second trimester, the interest of the state in protection of the fetus becomes dominant, and reasonable regulation to protect the fetus is justified, so long as it doesn’t impact the life or health of the mother.


1. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Heath Organization,  Alito  claims that Roe is badly reasoned. Alito doesn’t like the history, maybe because it doesn’t mention any witch-hunters. He thinks Blackmun was required to show there were prior legal case recognizing a Constitutional right to abortion. He doesn’t like the three part regime. And he doesn’t like the idea of the zone of privacy at all.

Alito states that there is no basis in the Constitution for a right to an abortion. He says that whatever the privacy interests are, the states can evaluate them without regard to the Constitution. He flatly denies the existence of a constitutionally protected zone of privacy. He thinks the only limit on governmental intrusion is something he calls the principles of ordered liberty, which he doesn’t define, or something deeply rooted in our history and traditions. Alito says no new constitutional rights can ever exist, and we’re locked into a regime dominated by slavers and those willing to compromise with slavers; a regime where dominant males said women were second class citizens, despite the Reconstruction Amendments. Alito thinks federal and state governments can intrude into any area of private life with few exceptions.

Alito’s views are at the very beginning of his interminable opinion, and there’s a syllabus, a brief synopsis, at the beginning of the link. See for yourself.

Query: which opinion makes better sense of the world we live in?

2. After we go through Greene’s book we’ll take another look at this case.

King John Would Like a Word with Justice Alito

I am annoyed by folks who claim to love history and are blind to it. I am disgusted by folks who claim to love history, are willfully blind to it, and in their willful blindness try to use their power to inflict damage on others.

Why yes, I *did* listen to the oral arguments at SCOTUS today. Why do you ask?


Here’s an exchange between Justice Alito and Michael Dreeben, speaking for the government:

JUSTICE ALITO: Mr. Dreeben, you dispute the proposition that a former president has some form of immunity.

MR. DREEBEN: Mm-hmm.

JUSTICE ALITO: But, as I understand your argument, you do recognize that a former president has a form of special protection, namely, that statutes that are applicable to everybody must be interpreted differently under some circumstances when they are applied to a former president.

Isn’t that true?

MR. DREEBEN: It is true because, Justice Alito, of the general principle that courts construe statutes to avoid serious constitutional questions. And that has been the longstanding practice of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice.

JUSTICE ALITO: All right. So this is more, I think, than just a — a quarrel about terminology, whether what the former president gets is some form of immunity or some form of special protection because it involves this difference which I’m sure you’re very well aware of.

If it’s just a form of special protection, in other words, statutes will be interpreted differently as applied to a former president, then that is something that has to be litigated at trial. The — the former president can make a motion to dismiss and may cite OLC opinions, and the district court may say: Well, that’s fine, I’m not bound by OLC and I interpret it differently, so let’s go to trial.

And then there has to be a trial, and that may involve great expense and it may take up a lot of time, and during the trial, the — the former president may be unable to engage in other activities that the former president would want to engage in. And then the outcome is dependent on the jury, the instructions to the jury and how the jury returns a verdict, and then it has to be taken up on appeal.

So the protection is greatly diluted if you take the form — if it takes the form that you have proposed. Now why is that better?

MR. DREEBEN: It’s better because it’s more balanced. The — the blanket immunity that Petitioner is arguing for just means that criminal prosecution is off the table, unless he says that impeachment and conviction have occurred.

Oh, the horrors of forcing a former president to defend himself in a trial! So sayeth Justice Alito, he who cites a 17th century English witchburner of a jurist (who also invented the marital rape exception), in order to justify denying women bodily autonomy.

If Justice Alito is fond of citing old English judicial writings, let me walk him back another 4 centuries and introduce him to John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou.

Once upon a time — long before a bunch of rabble-rousing colonial insurrectionists said that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” — there was a little dustup between John, by the grace of God King of England etc., and a bunch of his barons, as well as various bishops and archbishops. The barons and clergy, distressed at what seemed to them to be very ill treatment at the hand of their king, expressed their frustrations in a manner that could not be ignored.

In June 1215, John and the barons negotiated an agreement. In it, after an introduction and 60 separate clauses in which King John agreed to various reforms and promised to make specific restitution in various particular cases that were demanded by his barons, the 1215 version of the Magna Carta ends like this:

* (61) SINCE WE [ed: John] HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons, and since we desire that they shall be enjoyed in their entirety, with lasting strength, for ever, we give and grant to the barons the following security:

The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter.

If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.

Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power. We give public and free permission to take this oath to any man who so desires, and at no time will we prohibit any man from taking it. Indeed, we will compel any of our subjects who are unwilling to take it to swear it at our command.

If one of the twenty-five barons dies or leaves the country, or is prevented in any other way from discharging his duties, the rest of them shall choose another baron in his place, at their discretion, who shall be duly sworn in as they were.

In the event of disagreement among the twenty-five barons on any matter referred to them for decision, the verdict of the majority present shall have the same validity as a unanimous verdict of the whole twenty-five, whether these were all present or some of those summoned were unwilling or unable to appear.

The twenty-five barons shall swear to obey all the above articles faithfully, and shall cause them to be obeyed by others to the best of their power.

We will not seek to procure from anyone, either by our own efforts or those of a third party, anything by which any part of these concessions or liberties might be revoked or diminished. Should such a thing be procured, it shall be null and void and we will at no time make use of it, either ourselves or through a third party.

* (62) We have remitted and pardoned fully to all men any ill-will, hurt, or grudges that have arisen between us and our subjects, whether clergy or laymen, since the beginning of the dispute. We have in addition remitted fully, and for our own part have also pardoned, to all clergy and laymen any offences committed as a result of the said dispute between Easter in the sixteenth year of our reign (i.e. 1215) and the restoration of peace.

In addition we have caused letters patent to be made for the barons, bearing witness to this security and to the concessions set out above, over the seals of Stephen archbishop of Canterbury, Henry archbishop of Dublin, the other bishops named above, and Master Pandulf.

* (63) IT IS ACCORDINGLY OUR WISH AND COMMAND that the English Church shall be free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places for ever.

Both we and the barons have sworn that all this shall be observed in good faith and without deceit. Witness the abovementioned people and many others.

Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign (i.e. 1215: the new regnal year began on 28 May).

Note the third paragraph, that begins “If we, our chief justice, . . .” In that paragraph, King John, by the grace of God King of England etc., is agreeing that he and his administration are not immune from accountability.

John and the barons agreed on a process for adjudicating disputes. They agreed on a panel that could both bring charges and judge them.  They agreed on how the panel should be chosen, and how the panel should select new members at the death of old ones. They agreed on how many members of the panel needed to agree in order for a judgment to be final. They agreed on a time frame for restitution. Most importantly, should John be found to have violated the terms of this document and yet refuse restitution, John, by the grace of God King of England etc., agreed that his castles and lands could be seized under order of the panel to make restitution for what he had done, or his officials had done on his behalf.

To be fair, the Magna Carta was changed and altered in the years and centuries that followed. But the original text of the original version makes it clear that even the King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou does not enjoy absolute immunity.

Trump may wish to be a monarch with absolute immunity and not a president.

Alito may wish to treat him as a monarch with absolute immunity and not a president.

But in a meadow at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, John, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, said no. That’s not how even a divinely appointed monarch is to be treated.

SCOTUS Lines Up Behind Trump’s Defensive Strategy


There is no doubt the Republicans on SCOTUS (hereinafter R-SCOTUS) are lined up behind Trump in his criminal cases. The timeline in the ridiculous immunity case and the decision in the Colorado ballot case are clear demonstrations of their commitment to his reelection despite his obvious unfitness for office.

The Colorado case

In Trump v. Anderson,  all nine members of SCOTUS agreed that Colorado can not keep Trump off the ballot under the  Insurrection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The per curium opinion offers several weak reasons to support this result.

Barrett and the Democratic appointees expressly dissented from the majority’s holding that only Congress can enforce the Insurrection Clause, and only with the approval of SCOTUS. The majority concludes with this:

These are not the only reasons the States lack power to enforcethis particular constitutional provision with respect to federal offices. But they are important ones, and it is the combination of all the reasons set forth in this opinion—not, as some of our colleagues would have it, just one particular rationale—that resolves this case. In our view, each of these reasons is necessary to provide a complete explanation for the judgment the Court unanimously reaches.

Restrictions on Congressional Enforcement of the Insurrection Clause

That last quote refers to the part of the per curium opinion saying that § 5 of the 14th Amendment

… limits congressional legislation enforcing Section 3, because Section 5 is strictly “remedial.” To comply with that limitation, Congress “must tailor its legislative scheme to remedying or preventing” the specific conduct the relevant provision prohibits. Section 3, unlike other provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, proscribes conduct of individuals. … Any congressional legislation enforcing Section 3 must, like the Enforcement Act of 1870 and §2383, reflect “congruence and proportionality” between preventing or remedying that conduct “and the means adopted to that end.” Citations omitted.

The women on SCOTUS agree that this is unnecessary for the decision. It’s purely a creation of the SCOTUS men. It prescribes no standards, and it arrogates power to SCOTUS at the expense of Congress.

I note that the claim that the 14th Amendment only applies to the actions of individuals is the invention of an earlier SCOTUS, in cases like US v. Cruikshank and The Civil Rights Cases, which I discuss here and here. The Congress that drafted the 14th Amendment thought it had the power to legislate against the KKK and other violent white supremacists acting in their private capacity. For example, in Cruikshank, SCOTUS said principles of federalism mean that the 14th Amendment only applies to state action. Those early  rancid decisions are never questioned even though we now have thousands of federal laws governing individuals.

The kicker is that any restrictions on Congress say nothing about limitations on the States. And any limitations SCOTUS dreams up to control Congress of power can just as easily be applied to the states, and with just as much historical and legal justification.

Manipulating the ridiculous immunity claim

Trump, who already defied the norm of a peaceful transition of power, also defies the principle that no one is above the law. He says that no president can be prosecuted for crimes committed while in office unless they are first impeached. He agrees with Richard Nixon “Well, when the president does it … that means that it is not illegal.”

This is an interlocutory appeal. The decision of the Circuit Court was clearly right. There was no need for SCOTUS to take this case at this state of the proceedings. No one thinks the president is entitled to blanket immunity. After sitting on it for two weeks, SCOTUS set the case for “expedited” review seven weeks later. Who knows when they’ll issue a ruling.

It would be stupid for SCOTUS to take up the claim that Trump is immune from prosecution for any and all crimes committed in his official capacity. So SCOTUS rephrased the question presented:

Whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.

This phrasing enables SCOTUS to screw up the trial by all sorts of legal trickery. For example, Trump is charged with “knowingly” participating in conspiracies. SCOTUS could hold that Trump is entitled to a presumption of immunity, and that the prosecution has the burden of proof on whether Trump intended to take actions outside his official duties. That would dramatically increase the burden on the prosecution.

I’m sure R-SCOTUS can come up with better ideas than mine.

Bad judging

I think R-SCOTUS members are bad at judging. They claim to be originalists, but that’s not what they did in the ballot case. The per curium opinion selectively quotes one iota of the history of the 14th Amendment and ignores the rest. It doesn’t address the mountains of information provided in the two amicus briefs filed by historians. It’s solely based on outcomes.

I discussed good judging in my post on Dobbs.  As I see it, good judging at the appellate level is solving hard problems in the way most likely to produce the best possible long-term results. Past cases and history are not absolutely binding, but provide guidance and wisdom (sometimes) from other judges. For this rule, I rely on Judge Richard Posner’s views, and those of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey’s pragmatism, but I won’t rehash that here.

What R-SCOTUS does is invent a bunch of reasons why their preferred outcome is right. The per curium opinion is jumbled to the point that they feel obligated to justify its lack of coherence.

The dissent relies on principles of federalism, as the majority claims to do. It then looks at the likely outcomes of the Colorado case and explains why those outcomes are bad for the nation. It says that the Constitution doesn’t require that bad outcome. The dissenters give us exactly what Posner expects: their judgment of what is best for the future. They may be right. They certainly are right to refuse to go beyond what’s needed to resolve the present case; that’s a critical guardrail against overreach.

Why though?

The per curium decision all but insures that Trump will not be subject to disqualification under the Insurrection Clause. The timetable for the absurd immunity claim, and the mischief that awaits us from their decision is additional insurance.

I do not understand why R-SCOTUS is in the bag for Trump. They have life tenure, a decent income, and constant security. They have enormous power, to the point that no law or rule is effective without their consent. They have a long to-do list of laws and rules destined for termination. Why waste any of their muscle on Trump?

The easy answer is that they’re corrupt. There’s plenty of evidence of that. Clarence Thomas? His insurrectionist-adjacent wife? And a free RV? Alito, with his giant salmon? Neil Gorsuch’s house? Brett Kavanaugh’s disappearing debts? John Roberts’ wife with her $10 million from BigLaw for legal recruiting? Their total indifference to ethics and the appearance of impropriety?

But that probably isn’t it, unless Trump or someone else holds receipts for this and whatever else there might be, and made it clear those receipts would become public. And I don’t see why that would benefit the filthy rich donors who put these people into power. They set that to-do list and they don’t need Trump to get it done.

Gratitude? At this level there’s precious little of that.

Is it the purely political calculation that any action taken against Trump is too dangerous? Are they worried that his hard-core followers, armed to the teeth by R-SCOTUS cases, will riot or even attack SCOTUS if they rule against Trump? Do they think that normal people will bitch but still comply with their rulings in his favor and accept his potential election peacefully?

Is there something worse that innocents like me can’t even imagine?

Open Thread: Trump v. Anderson before SCOTUS

[NB: check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

Because everyone will likely be restless and itchy about today’s hearing, I’m putting up an open thread.

Feel free to discuss Trump v. Anderson here but bring all your off-topic discussion to this thread, stay on topic in other threads.

Wikipedia page for Trump v. Anderson here, in case you need a primer:

Trump v. Anderson (No. 23-719, filed January 3, 2024)

In a nutshell, Colorado’s state supreme court found Donald J. Trump disqualified from the state’s primary ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment which bars candidates who have participated in insurrection or rebellion against the Constitution in spite of swearing an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Trump appealed the ruling; the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. ET.

You can listen to the arguments at https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/live.aspx – they are expected to run over the scheduled 80 minutes.

Long-time community member harpie has shared quite a few more resources pertinent to today’s arguments below in comments (thanks, harpie!).

~ ~ ~


— We have been moving to a new minimum standard to support community security over the last year. Usernames should be unique and a minimum of 8 letters.

— We do not require a valid, working email, but you must use the same email address each time you publish a comment here. **Single-use disposable email addresses do not meet this standard.**

— If you have been commenting here but have less than 1000 comments published and been participating less than 10 years as of October 2022, you must update your username to match the new standard.

Changes will be made soon to the comment system; if you have not already changed your username to meet the standard by the time the changes are rolled out, you may find your comments do not clear for publication until your username meets the standard.

Thank you.

Sandra Day

Sandra Day O’Connor has passed away. Don’t let anyone spoof you, she was one of the nicest, brightest and best people you could ever hope to meet. Gracious is not enough of a word to describe her. She went from the smartest girl in the room at Stanford Law to not being able to get a job because they were all helmed by men. From the NYT and Greenhouse:

“During a crucial period in American law — when abortion, affirmative action, sex discrimination and voting rights were on the docket — she was the most powerful woman in the country.

Very little could happen without Justice O’Connor’s support when it came to the polarizing issues on the court’s docket, and the law regarding affirmative action, abortion, voting rights, religion, federalism, sex discrimination and other hot-button subjects was basically what Sandra Day O’Connor thought it should be.

That the middle ground she looked for tended to be the public’s preferred place as well was no coincidence, given the close attention Justice O’Connor paid to current events and the public mood. “Rare indeed is the legal victory — in court or legislature — that is not a careful byproduct of an emerging social consensus,” she wrote in “The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice,” a collection of her essays published in 2003.

The idea seemed so novel that Ronald Reagan’s promise during his 1980 presidential campaign made front-page news. Only two years before that, a Broadway comedy, “First Monday in October,” featured a conservative female Supreme Court justice, and the very idea was played for laughs. When life imitated art on July 7, 1981, Paramount moved up the release date of the movie version of the play by five months, releasing it in August. Ultimately, of course, it was Sandra O’Connor who had the last laugh.

Sandra Day O’Connor was one of the good people in life, as was her too early departed husband John. Print and visual media will tell you the obvious, good and bad. I’ll tell you something different.

Long ago, one of her sons was kind of a friend. He lived in their house while she was mostly away in Washington. There was a raging party at said house, and there was a long line of girls at the main bathrooms. So I, ahem, went outside by the side of the house. As one does.

After finishing business, I walked out toward the front. Where there was suddenly some kind of black car/limo. It was Sandra Day. She came home early. During the party!

I helped her with her luggage and then asked a freaking sitting member of SCOTUS, if there was anything else I could do?

The response was: ‘Can you get me a beer”? So I could and did. Discussion with Sandra Day was incredible for the rest of the night.

Hard to describe how wonderful she was. Saw her occasionally at the local grocery store. Always a beautiful human. So, say what you will, she was better than that, she was.

The Supreme Court Has Always Been Terrible

Index to posts in this series

The Civil Rights Cases

The Slaughterhouse Cases and US v. Cruikshank are preludes to the final gutting of the Reconstruction Amendments in The Civil Rights Cases, decided in 1883. Earlier bills aimed at insuring the full citizenship of Black people were struck down by the Supreme Court but Congress kept trying, passing another Civil Rights Act in 1875.

The new law required all businesses to serve people equally regardless of race or prior condition of servitude. The Civil Rights Cases are a consolidated group of cases brought by Black people to enforce their right stay in a hotel, to visit a theater, to sit in the dress circle of a theater, and for Black women to ride in the Ladies Car on a railroad. The Court struck down the law on the same grounds as cases linked above. I have two further observations.

1. Writing for the majority, Joseph Bradley writes:

We have … felt, in all its force, the weight of authority which always invests a law that Congress deems itself competent to pass. But the responsibility of an independent judgment is now thrown upon this court, and we are bound to exercise it according to the best lights we have.

Bradley doesn’t say who threw the “responsibility of an independent judgment” onto him. He uses the passive voice to hide it. We know it can only come from the minds of the members of the Court. He also knew he could get away with this outrageous assertion of power. By 1883 Congress was controlled by the Democrats, then the part of White Supremacy, so they didn’t care. The presidency, then at a low ebb in power, was irrelevant.

The lives and liberty of Black people didn’t count, and nothing was left of the Reconstruction Amendments.

2. To add insult to injury Bradley offered this argument.

When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected. There were thousands of free colored people in this country before the abolition of slavery, enjoying all the essential rights of life, liberty and property the same as white citizens, yet no one at that time thought that it was any invasion of his personal status as a freeman because he was not admitted to all the privileges enjoyed by white citizens, or because he was subjected to discriminations in the enjoyment of accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery.

The Supreme Court had struck down that “beneficent legislation”. Bradley knew about the Colfax Massacre. He knew the army had been sent in to stop murderous groups like the KKK. He know about lynchings, rapes, robberies, and mob violence. He knew that states refused to protect Black citizens, and that Congress was trying to fill the gap. He knew full well the intent of the Reconstruction Amendments was to enable the federal government to protect Black Citizens. He just didn’t care.

Bradley would fit right in with the MAGA SCOTUS of today.

Our Current SCOTUS Doesn’t Care About The Consequences of Its Decisions

Three examples will suffice.

Gun Case. Here’s a section of the oral argument in Macdonald v. City of Chicago.

… BREYER: You’re saying they can have — no matter what, that the City just can’t have guns even if they’re saving hundreds of lives — they can’t ban them.


… SCALIA: There’s a lot of statistical disagreement on whether the Miranda rule saves lives or not, whether it results in the release of dangerous people who have confessed to their crime, but the confession can’t be used. We don’t — we don’t resolve questions like that on the basis of statistics, do we?

Miranda is not analogous, and the intellectual fraud Scalia knew it. The statistics the odious Scalia is talking about are real dead and injured people. Like this child. Scalia doesn’t care about these murders or what guns and gun violence do to our society. He thinks his views of the intent of the Founders are more important. He thinks the Founders would sacrifice thousands of dead people for the right to waltz around with an AR-15.

The OSHA Rule. Here’s a snippet from oral argument on the OSHA Covid vaxx or test rule.

… ROBERTS: No, it’s not so much that OSHA has less power. It’s that the idea that this is specific to particular agencies really doesn’t hold much water when you’re picking them off one by –one by one.

I think maybe it should be analyzed more broadly as this is, in effect, an effort to cover the waterfront. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.

But I don’t know that we should try to find, okay, what specific thing can we find to say, oh, this is covered by OSHA? What specific thing can we find to say that this is covered by the hospitals? What specific thing can we find to say, oh, no, we’re doing this because this is a federal contractor?

It seems to me that the more and more mandates that pop up in different agencies, it’s fair –I wonder if it’s not fair for us to look at the Court as a general exercise of power by the federal government and then ask the questions of, well, why doesn’t Congress have a say in this, and why don’t the –why doesn’t this be the primary responsibility of the states?

Roberts is saying it’s suspicious that Biden (and Trump before him) marshaled all government agencies to deal with the pandemic. He’s going to decide how the government can respond, no matter what the statutes say, and as Elizabeth Prelogar, the Solicitor General responds, he could just read the statute. But you won’t see Roberts taking any blame for the people who died, or spent days or weeks in intensive care, or got long Covid, because of his decision. For him, that’s just statistics. He doesn’t care.

Abortion. In Dobbs v. Jackson Whole Women’s Health Alito says SCOTUS doesn’t have to follow precedent, meaning Roe v. Wade, in part because no one can prove they rely on it. Reliance requires proof that one is planning in advance based on the precedent. No one plans to get pregnant then get an abortion. Presto, no reliance. There’s more, and it just gets more cruel.

Alito ignores the actual effect of Roe v. Wade: that women and their families can control their own lives, that their lives are valuable. The abstract idea that states should have a say in women’s lives is more important than an unknown number of deaths, thousands of dangerous pregnancies, and loss of dignity as citizens. Alito doesn’t care.


The Constitution doesn’t give SCOTUS the final say on our rights. It doesn’t say SCOTUS has the unrestrained power to throw out laws and rules created by the elected branches. That’s all invented by SCOTUS itself, taking power and control away from democratically-elected officials.

The Fox News Six would repeat every decision of the Reconstruction Era Supreme Court. They follow in the footsteps of people who don’t care.

The Major Questions Metadoctrine and The Slaughterhouse Cases

In my last post I show how US v. Cruikshank (1876) and The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) affect our gun control crisis. In this post I look at the connection between The Slaughterhouse Cases and Biden v. Nebraska, the recent case striking down Biden’s student loan reduction plan.

The Slaughterhouse Cases

I discuss The Slaughterhouse Cases here. The Supreme Court could have decided them strictly on the basis of the police power. The appellant butchers argued that the untrammeled right to earn a living was a right protected by the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment. That’s obviously not true. The Court later takes up the purposes of the Reconstruction Amendments, and there’s nothing to support the Appellants’ argument.

But Samuel Miller, who wrote the majority opinion, explains that he and the other members of the Court have thought it over, and “ we now propose to announce the judgments which we have formed in the construction of those articles, so far as we have found them necessary to the decision of the cases before us, and beyond that, we have neither the inclination nor the right to go.”

One of the advisory opinions that follow is that the Reconstruction Amendments were not intended to change the balance of powers between the federal and state governments. Miller justifies this by saying that if Congress wants to make an significant change the balance of powers between the states and the US, it has to do so in language acceptable to the Supreme Court.

Earlier in the opinion, MIller said that the Reconstruction Amendments were intended to insure that Black people had a full range of rights, just like White people. Section 5 gives Congress the power to enact laws to secure that right. So at the very least, the Reconstruction Amendments change the relations between state and US governments enough to permit the US to protect the rights of Black people. It’s hard to imagine clearer language, and Miller doesn’t even hint at one.

Furthermore, by the time of The Slaughterhouse Cases Congress had enacted two civil rights laws and three enforcement acts. This effectively is a declaration of Congress’ understanding of its power, and that of the President. Miller ignores the views of the other two branches. Only the opinion of five members of the Supreme Court counts. The Supreme Court is the unelected final authority in our democracy.

So, we have three points from The Slaughterhouse Cases:

1. If the Supreme Court majority wants to issue a ruling in a case, it will do so, regardless of precedents it might have established.

2. If Congress wants to accomplish a major change in our government it must figure out some language that even the Supreme Court is afraid to reject, but likely that’s impossible.

3. SCOTUS is supreme; it ignores the other two branches if it chooses.

Biden v. Nebraska

Majority Opinion. John Roberts’ majority opinion addresses the standing of the Appellants. Most of them don’t have standing, but no matter, because Roberts asserts that Missouri does and one is plenty. The basis for Missouri’s standing is that it had created MOHELA, an independent nonprofit governmental corporation, which owns and services student loans. MOHELA refused to participate in the lawsuit (I wonder why) but the Missouri AG claims that Missouri can sue in its place. He says MOHELA would lose an estimated $44 million in fees for loan servicing. None of that would ever go to Missouri, ever, but so what?

Roberts and the Fox News Six say MOHELA is an “instrumentality” of Missouri, the instrumentality might lose money which is an injury sufficient for standing, and that’s good enough. What he means is that standing is available because he wants to rule on the merits. Just like in The Slaughterhouse Cases.

In her dissent Elena Kagan explains that standing rules arise from the Constitutional requirement that SCOTUS only has jurisdiction of actual controversies. If a plaintiff isn’t injured, there is no standing.

It still contravenes a bedrock principle of standing law—that a plaintiff cannot ride on someone else’s injury. Missouri is doing just that in relying on injuries to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), a legally and financially independent public corporation. And that means the Court, by deciding this case, exercises authority it does not have.

On the merits, Roberts addresses the statutory power granted to the executive branch to waive or modify any provision of the student loan program in the event of a national emergency. He explains that “waive” doesn’t mean waive, and that “modify” doesn’t mean modify, if the change is big. A lot of money is a big change. He doesn’t even hint at the words Congress should have used to get its way.

He says his opinion is supported by what he grandiosely calls the Major Questions Doctrine, because there’s a lot of money at stake. I call it the Major Questions Metadoctrine, or MQM, for reasons that will appear.

Barrett’s Concurrence. Amy Coney Barret, who clerked for the odious Antonin Scalia, styles herself a textualist. She wants us to know that the MQM is very good, so she writes a concurring opinion. Most of is is technical legal stuff about canons of interpretation. Two points are worth mentioning.

1. Barrett cites a 2010 law journal article by John f. Manning, a Harvard Law professor: Clear Statement Rules and the Constitution. You don’t have to read past the abstract to find out what Manning thinks:

This Essay argues that such clear statement rules rest on the mistaken premise that the Constitution contains freestanding values that can be meaningfully identified and enforced apart from the specific terms of the clauses from which the Court derives them.

Barrett ignores this point entirely. The MQM is supposed to be a clear statement rule. There are a number of these, mostly directed to structural constitutional issues like federalism. The Slaughterhouse Cases could be seen as an application of a clear statement rule, if it weren’t so obviously unnecessary and wrong.

In Biden v. Nebraska the MQM is applied to enforce Congressional control over the purse. But as Barrett herself shows, that isn’t in the Constitution. In her view, this purpose is an emanation from the Appropriations Clause. The power of the purse is a judicial trope, already once removed from the text of the Constitution. The MQM is a further step from the Constitution. Thus, a metadoctrine.

2. Barrett offers a hypothetical to explain her view.

Consider a parent who hires a babysitter to watch her young children over the weekend. As she walks out the door, the parent hands the babysitter her credit card and says: “Make sure the kids have fun.” Emboldened, the babysitter takes the kids on a road trip to an amusement park, where they spend two days on rollercoasters and one night in a hotel. Was the babysitter’s trip consistent with the parent’s instruction?

This is a laughable hypothetical. The Biden Administration didn’t just decide for funsies to reduce student debt. There was an economic catastrophe caused by a pandemic that killed a million Americans and sickened tens of millions.

The correct hypothetical is not a trip to a theme park, but a trip to the emergency room paid with the credit card.

This is shoddy work, but it’s all we an expect from rigid ideologues. It’s also an ugly parallel with the Reconstruction Era Supreme Court.


The parallels to The Slaughterhouse Cases are, I hope, obvious.

1. SCOTUS will ignore every restriction on its use of power if five members want to.

2. There is no statutory language clear enough if five (or more) members of SCOTUS don’t like the policy.

3. SCOTUS is very supreme.

Cruikshank, Gun Control, And Bad Rulings

Index to posts in this series

We’ve looked at two early cases interpreting the Reconstruction Amendments, The Slaughterhouse Cases and US v. Cruikshank. These cases are still in force, and have done massive damage, to Black people especially and others who hoped to gain their rightful freedom; to the balance of power among the three branches of government; and to our jurisprudence. Recent 2nd Amendment cases are good examples of this damage.

Gun control

Recapitulation of the old cases. In The Slaughterhouse Cases the Supreme Court analyzes §1 of the 14th Amendment (text below). The second sentence bars states from abridging the privileges or immunities of “citizens of the United States”. The Court says this provision applies only to the tiny number of privileges or immunities that attach to people solely as citizens of the US. It doesn’t apply to their rights as citizens of a specific state.

The Court says that the !4th Amendment doesn’t change the relationship between state and federal governments. 83 US 77-78. It’s a negative argument: such a monumental change must be in very clear language, and this isn’t clear enough to suit the Court.

In Cruikshank, the Court examines the rights which the defendants allegedly illegally conspired to violate. One is the right to keep and bear arms for a lawful purpose. Here is the Cruikshank Court’s entire discussion of that issue.

The right there specified is that of ‘bearing arms for a lawful purpose.’ This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed; but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government, leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights it recognizes, to what is called, in The City of New York v. Miln, 11 Pet. 139, the ‘powers which relate to merely municipal legislation, or what was, perhaps, more properly called internal police,’ ‘not surrendered or restrained’ by the Constituton of the United States.

Citing several older cases, the Court says that the 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to keep and bear arms; all it does is bar the US from infringing on that right. It says that states can regulate the ownership of arms as part of their police power.

To summarize:
1. The 14th Amendment didn’t change the power relations between the state and federal governments.
2. Rights not specific to the Constitution are solely the domain of the states under their police power.
3. The 2nd Amendment does not grant any rights to anyone. It merely prohibits the US from infringing the right to bear arms.
4. Any important change in the laws or Constitution must be clear enough to suit the Supreme Court.

Current cases. Eventually the Supreme Court started applying the Bill of Rights to the states using the Due Process Clause. By the time Heller v. Dist. of Columbia was decided, most of the Bill of Rights had become more or less applicable to the states.

In Heller Scalia cites Cruikshank approvingly. He writes: “States, we said, were free to restrict or protect the right under their police powers.” He completely ignores the holding of Cruikshank and several older cases that the only function of the 2nd Amendment is to prohibit the US from infringing the right, as well as the holding that the right does not arise from the Constitution. He simply imposes his own textualist reading of the 2nd Amendment as if it were written today instead of 240 years ago.

A few years later in Macdonald v. City of Chicago Alito put SCOTUS in charge of controling state power over guns. The Seventh Circuit had upheld Chicago’s gun regulations, relying in part on Cruikshank. Alito says the issue is: “… whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated in the concept of due process,” an issue not considered by the lower courts. Cruikshank isn’t applicable because it only considered the Privileges or Immunities Clause.

Alito gives a short history of cases applying the Due Process Clause to the Bill of Rights starting with this: “The constitutional Amendments adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War fundamentally altered our country’s federal system.” He doesn’t tell us what that change is, or how it applies to guns.

He cites Heller for the proposition that the 2nd Amendment creates a right to bear arms. Then he announces that the right to and bear arms is covered by the Due Process Clause. There isn’t really an explanation for this. Alito just says it’s, like, you know, fundamental to the concept of ordered liberty, amirite, for every American to carry a gun for “self-defense”. Like this guy.

Then in Bruen, Clarence Thomas says that the only allowable limits on the the right to keep and bear arms are those the states imposed prior to either 1789 or 1868. Whatever that right was, the states obviously regulated it under their police powers, but Thomas doen’t even mention Cruikshank and The Slaughterhouse Cases. I guess Macdonald says it was unconstitutional for states to regulate guns after the ratification of the 14th Amendment, even though they had that right under Cruikshank and used it for 130 years.

Conclusion. The end result is that we can only regulate guns if five members of the NRA Court permit it. And now we learn that Bruen didn’t slake the blood lust of Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. They want to flood the country with ghost guns.

Why Not Overrule Those Old Cases?

I think one reason SCOTUS doesn’t overrule Cruikshank and The Slaughterhouse Cases is that it would change our understanding of our dual sovereignty system. In The Slaughterhouse Cases the Court said that a broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment “…would constitute this court a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the States, on the civil rights of their own citizens, with authority to nullify such as it did not approve as consistent with those rights, as they existed at the time of the adoption of this amendment.” Of course SCOTUS is already doing that, as in gun regulation cases.

But if we dropped the pretense that the states are the dominant power in deciding the rights of citizens, SCOTUS would lose one of its go-to arguments against federal laws it doesn’t like. Dobbs, for example, says that the right to abortion should be decided by the states. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act offends the dignity of the states (no, really), according to Shelby County v. Holder. And in NFIB v. Sebelius, SCOTUS says that the US can’t pressure the states to provide Medicaid to all their citizens, who, I note, are also citizens of the US, because state dignity is so important to suffering people.

There’s another possibility. The right-wing six simply don’t care about any of the traditional pillars of jurisprudence, such as stability, deference to the other branches, institutional reputation, and procedural constraints on power. And they’re careless. They don’t even try to be coherent or to clean up the loose ends of precedent that held for 150 years, or to create workable rules. See part IIIB of Breyer’s dissent in Heller and the dangers to society created by Bruen, as in the Rahimi case.

It’s bad enough that we’re goverened by five or six unelected lawyers. It’s worse that tbese second-rate people do such shoddy work.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Colfax Massacre And US v. Cruikshank

The Colfax Massacre took place on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax Louisiana. The 1872 Louisiana election was hotly contested by the Democrats who favored a return to antebellum conditions as fully as possible, and Republicans who worked to bring Freedmen to full citizenship. Wikipedia has a long entry on the Colfax Massacre, including a history of the build-up to that bloody Sunday.

The Louisiana militia, many of whom were Black, a mob of former Confederates and KKK members showed up with cannon and guns, and attacked. The militia surrendered or escaped. The mob caught and killed them, including those who surrendered, between 62 and 153 men; the exact number is unknown. There was only one survivor.

Eventually a few of the attackers were tried and convicted in federal court in New Orleans under the Enforcement Act of 1870. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the verdict in US v. Cruikshank. On appeal, the Circuit Court was divided on the question of whether the indictments charged a crime, or as we would say today, the constitutionality of the Enforcement Act.

The opinion is by Morrison Waite, the chief. The syllabus describes the indictment. It was based on §6 of the Enforcement Act of 1870:

‘That if two or more persons shall band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with intent to violate any provisions of this act, or to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same, such persons shall be held guilty of felony….

The Court says that this provision applies only to rights that arise under the Constitution or laws of the United States. It cites the Slaughterhouse Cases for the proposition that people are citizens of the US and of a state, and that one’s rights as a citizen of the US are different from ones rights as a citizen of each of the several states.

Next the Court gives us a short version of the theory we’ve seen before, that people form governments to promote their general welfare and protect their rights. The role of every government is the protection of the inhabitants, but they may only do so to the extent of their powers.

This, I think, is the key argument, given without explanation:

The people of the United States resident within any State are subject to two governments: one State, and the other National; but there need be no conflict between the two. The powers which one possesses, the other does not.

Waite knows this isn’t exactly true. The same act may offend the laws of both the state and the US. He gives examples: counterfeit coins, and assaults on a federal officer. Each may be an offense against both the laws of the state and the US.

He notes that the US government only has the powers in the Constitution. He sats his job is to find out whether the rights the defendants allegedly interfered with are granted by the Constitution or the laws of the US.

Counts 1 and 9 relate to the right of peaceable assembly. These are not granted by the Constitution, says Morrison Waite. They are the natural rights of any free government.

The government of the United States when established found it in existence, with the obligation on the part of the States to afford it protection. As no direct power over it was granted to Congress, it remains … subject to State jurisdiction. Only such existing rights were committed by the people to the protection of Congress as came within the general scope of the authority granted to the national government.

The 1st Amendment is couched in the negative, prohibiting US government from interfering with the right to assemble, while leaving the states free to regulate it as they saw fit. The right to assemble to petition Congress or the federal government is a federal right, and if the indictment alleged that that was the purpose of the assembly, this would be a crime. But it didn’t.

Counts 2 and 10 concern the right to keep and bear arms. This also is not given by the Constitution. The 2nd Amendment merely “… is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government…” leaving citizens to seek the protection of the states under their police powers.

Counts 3 and 11 assert the right not to be deprived of life or liberty without due process. The Court is offended by this charge, which it says is nothing more than a standard murder charge. The right to life is a natural right, obviously not granted by the Constitution. Waite says that the 14th Amendment doesn’t add to the powers of the US government. It’s merely an additional guarantee of the right every citizen has under state protection.

Counts 4 and 12 claim that the defendants conspired to deprive black citizens of their right to equal treatment with white citizens as respects their various rights. Waite says this is merely one group of citizens killing another. The 14th Amendment doesn’t add to the powers of the US to protect one group of citizens from another.

Counts 6 and 14 allege violation of rights connected with voting. The Court says that suffrage is a right granted by the states. All the 15th Amendment does is to prohibit discriminate in granting the right to vote on account of race. Thus the right to vote is not a right granted by the US.

Counts 7 and 15 concern voting. Waite says that elections were state elections, and so the US isn’t involved.

Counts 5, 12, 8 and 16 all involve direct allegations that the defendants acted together to deprive the dead of their rights as citizens on account of their race. Waite asserts that the pleading of these counts is defective because it doesn’t specify the facts sufficiently. It merely recites the statutory language. In order to be adequate, it must describe the facts in sufficient detail for the defendants to protect themselves, and to insure that they are not tried twice for the same offense.


1. The attitude of the Court is summed up by this quote: “The charge as made is really of nothing more than a conspiracy to commit a breach of the peace within a State.” The New York Times noted this in its headline. That’s bullshit. This was a race riot, the exact thing Congress was aiming at.

2. Like The Slaughterhouse Cases, this case takes up issues unnecessary for the decision, as the dissent points out, and as Waite does with several counts. The case can and should be decided on the limited ground that the indictment is insufficient. There was no need to reach constitutional questions.

3. The Court doesn’t look at whether the Reconstruction Amendments changed the powers of the states and the US as regards race, why they don’t give the federal government the power to protect at least Black citizens, as an additional safeguard of their rights as citizens. This would be an example of the powers of the two governments do deal with the same events on different grounds.

4. The Court thinks the important thing about this case is the line between the powers of the states and the US. It protects the power of the states to control the lives of their citizens, regardless of the consequences for Black citizens.

There is no indication that Louisiana took any interest in the murder of 150 Black people. As best I can tell, the locals didn’t even investigate the murders. Everyone knows this, including the members of the Supreme Court. Waite offers some worthless words about the responsibility of the states, but he doesn’t care whether they do or not.

This case sets the Court on the road to allowing both both federal and state governments to ignore mob violence against Black citizens, and outright denial of their rights, the result the Reconstruction Amendments were intended to prevent.

Copyright © 2024 emptywheel. All rights reserved.
Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/scotus/