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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Most Dangerous Precedent (or, A Silly Extravagance)

In today’s concurrence to Glossip v. Gross, Justice Scalia identifies a precedent that “has caused more mischief to our jurisprudence, to our federal system, and to our society than any other that comes to mind.” 

The villain is Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958), which held that it was unconstitutional to strip a native-born American of his 14th-Amendment-provided citizenship as punishment for briefly deserting his military post while serving in Morocco in 1944.  (“He had been gone less than a day and had willingly surrendered to an officer on an Army vehicle while he was walking back towards his base.”)  The mischief arises from a passage frequently quoted from Chief Justice Warren’s plurality to the effect that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Let’s leave aside that the Trop language is a tolerable paraphrase of Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349 (1910), which rejected an originalist approach to the Eighth Amendment to hold that fifteen years of hard labor for falsifying a public document was unconstitutional.  Has Trop caused more mischief “to our society” than any other case that Justice Scalia can think of?  Even if you disagree with the Trop language, at worst it means that a handful of persons can successfully challenge an extraordinary criminal sentence, and that a larger handful can make colorable but unsuccessful challenges to theirs.  This is worse for society than any other case that the justice has decried?  Than the decisions mandating a right to abortion, to sodomy, to same-sex marriage, or to coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute?  No, society is most harmed by jurisprudence that prevents the government from getting as close as it possibly can to the very edge of cruel and unusual punishment.

In a post from last week, I argued that some fire-breathing dissents can be worth teaching in an introductory Con Law class.  But now that Justice Scalia has declared, in his Obergefell dissent, that one should expect “separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression,” I need to add a note of caution.  A silly extravagance like the overblown attack on Trop v. Dulles can teach students lessons that I would prefer not to impart: that it’s more important to sound good than to be correct (long live truthiness); that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds; that picking your battles is for suckers; and that once you’ve risen to a prominent place in your profession, nobody can stop you from phoning it in.  These lessons may have bits of truth to them, but I’d rather focus on others.

(Apologies for shooting fish in a barrel, but since we're talking about the quality of legal prose...)

Posted by Aaron Caplan on June 29, 2015 at 06:37 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Teaching Law | Permalink

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