“Between 1901 and 1904, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a series of cases, collectively known as the Insular Cases, which asked whether the Constitution should fully apply to the residents of Puerto Rico and other territories recently acquired by the U.S. after its victory in the Spanish-American War. The Court held that the Constitution did not fully apply in those U.S.-held territories.
The Insular Cases have been severely criticized—then and now—for being the product of racist and imperialist thinking. The legal scholar Walter F. Pratt Jr., author of The Insular Cases: The Role of the Judiciary in American Expansionism, described the legal arguments involved as “largely racially motivated,” since the Court effectively held that “the people of the new territories were unfit to become citizens.”
A similar criticism of the Insular Cases was recently voiced by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who argued that “the Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.””
“Gorsuch also added his voice to those calling for the Insular Cases to be wiped off the books. “The time has come to recognize that the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation,” Gorsuch wrote. “And I hope the day comes soon when the Court squarely overrules them.”
Alas, the Department of Justice under President Joe Biden apparently sees things differently. As The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes recently reported, “the Biden administration told the Supreme Court Monday that it should not take up a case [Fitisemanu v. United States] about citizenship rights for American Samoa even though advocates say it would give justices a chance to upend a series of century-old precedents that have been roundly denounced as racist.””
“the Wisconsin Supreme Court..rendered most ballot drop boxes illegal in the state. The Court found that state law, which requires that mail-in ballots be delivered to a “mailbox,” does not allow “delivery to an unattended ballot drop box.””
“In April, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5–4 to reinstate an Environmental Protection Agency rule promulgated during the Trump administration that had been vacated by a lower court. Why did the Supreme Court reinstate the rule? The majority offered no explanation. Nor did it technically need to do so. The case, Louisiana v. American Rivers, was decided on an emergency basis. Without receiving merits briefing from the parties and without holding oral arguments, the majority simply granted a motion to stay the lower court’s decision. And that was that.
Critics have dubbed this sort of emergency action the “shadow docket.” It is, in the words of University of Chicago law professor William Baude, “a range of orders and summary decisions that defy [the Court’s] normal procedural regularity.” Foremost among the shadow docket’s foes is Justice Elena Kagan, who dissented in American Rivers, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. “The Court goes astray,” Kagan declared. The emergency docket has become “only another place for merits designations—except made without full briefing and argument.”
Kagan had a point. As George Washington University law professor Richard J. Pierce Jr. put it, “no one can read the opinion unless the court writes it. That is the problem with the shadow docket.” The outcome in American Rivers may have been beautifully reasoned and correctly reached. But we have no way of actually knowing that—let alone of fully judging the outcome for ourselves— because the majority offered zero rationale.”
“Fallout from the Supreme Court’s attack on federal climate regulations is spreading throughout the executive branch, creating legal uncertainty for rules on topics as far afield as abortion, immigration and even amateur auto racing.
Opponents of federal actions on pipelines, asbestos, nuclear waste, corporate disclosures and highway planning are also seizing on the logic of the court’s June 30 decision, which imposed sharp limits on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.”
“In their decision, the high court’s six conservative justices invoked what they called the “major questions” doctrine to declare that agencies such as EPA need explicit congressional approval before “asserting highly consequential power” over almost any policy area. But they did not offer a precise definition of what would cause a regulation to qualify as major — a question that agencies and lower courts may now need to spend years wrestling with.”
““If anything’s ambiguous at all, you get people challenging on major questions grounds, and you have to go find out if Congress gave you an extra clear statement,” said Nathan Richardson, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. He called it a reversal of the long-standing tradition of courts deferring to agencies’ policy expertise. “It’s not deference, it’s anti-deference.””
“There is one idea, though, that has longstanding bipartisan support, a proven record of success, and practical wisdom behind it: term limits. Imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices would be good for the country and the court. It would help ease the bitterness of the confirmation process and make the court more representative of the public’s views. And while conservatives might currently balk in light of their 6-3 majority, it’s a change that would not necessarily advantage either side over the long run.
The most common version of this reform contemplates justices serving nonrenewable 18-year terms, staggered so that one term ends every two years. This would mean that presidents would get to nominate new justices in the first and third years of their own administrations. Retirements and nominations would occur like clockwork. The result would be a court whose membership, at any given time, would reflect the selections of the past 4 1/2 presidential administrations.
Because Article 3 of the Constitution confers life tenure upon all federal judges, term limits would likely require a constitutional amendment.”
“History has always played a role in constitutional interpretation, for some jurists more than others. But if history is going to be a key driver for the Supreme Court’s decisions — on the assumption that it is more legitimate than other forms of judicial discretion — then it is imperative to ask where the justices are getting their historical sources, whether those sources are fact-checked, and (most importantly) who is narrating the history.
Increasingly, the justices are relying on amicus briefs for historical information. Amicus briefs — also called “friend of the court” briefs — are submitted by third parties and have gone through a tremendous growth spurt at the Supreme Court in recent years.”
“These amicus briefs — sometimes signed by historians, sometimes not — are virtually all written by lawyers and often filed by motivated groups that are pressing for a particular outcome. The history they present, in other words, is mounted to make a point and served through an advocacy sieve. That distinguishes this type of history from the work product of professional historians who (even when they have a point of view) are trained to gather evidence dispassionately. As historian Alfred H. Kelly once put it, “The truth of history does not flow from its usefulness.” But usefulness is exactly the point when litigating a case at the Supreme Court — and historical sources are being used by the advocates to win.”
“The modern reality is the justices look to their friends and allies for historical sources, and rather than fact-check them — which they don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to do — they accept these historical narratives at face value. In the end, this creates an echo chamber where the history the justices cite is the history pressed to them by the groups and lawyers they trust, which conveniently comports with their preexisting worldviews and normative priors.”
“Professional historians are already complaining that the court got the history wrong in its recent cases, either by cherry-picking authorities or leaving out important nuance or both. When it came to the history of gun regulation, the court was awash in competing historical amicus briefs. The court chose one side, and in so doing caused historians to cry foul that the other history was ignored or distorted. In the abortion case, historians of the Middle Ages say some of the texts the court cites as proof that abortion was a crime in the 13th century are not about what we would think of as crime at all, but instead about “penance” imposed by the Church — an ambiguity easily lost on people who are unfamiliar with medieval Latin. Indeed, it is worth noting that much of the 13th-century history the court recounts seems to have come from a brief filed not by historians, but by professors of jurisprudence who publish on the moral implications of abortion — well-respected professors in their fields, perhaps, but certainly not medievalists.
This reveals a systemic problem about relying on amicus briefs for historical narratives: The amicus market is dominated by motivated scholars. Because many neutral experts do not pay attention to the courts or participate in advocacy, the historical accounts presented to the justices are necessarily incomplete and motivated to build a particular argument.”
“the Supreme Court should require anyone who files an amicus brief to disclose who paid for it. Current rules require disclosure only of whether the party contributed financially or otherwise to the brief, but they do little to shed light on briefs filed by neutral-sounding organizations that are in reality funded by those with an interest in the case (even if not the party).”
“the justices should borrow a practice from the laws of evidence and forbid any amicus brief presenting historical or other factual claims from adding accompanying legal argument. At trial in lower courts, there are strict limits on expert witnesses offering opinions on the law or generally opining on the case’s outcome. The idea is that this legal commentary detracts from the status of the expert as a neutral adviser, and that it oversteps the value and point of an expert witness in the first place.”
“justices should build in a process to request the specific history they are interested in earlier in the case’s timeline — in an attempt to recruit historians who may not be following the court’s every move but who are actual experts in the matter. If historians of medieval law knew their knowledge on abortion in the 13th century was so valuable when the court took the case (as opposed to after the leak in Dobbs) there might be incentive for more of them to participate in the briefing process.”
“If we are going to empower judges to referee history we must start paying more attention to the process through which they acquire that history. Many Americans see the court’s recent decisions as a threat to judicial legitimacy; perhaps one under-recognized threat to that legitimacy lies in the process used to make them.”