« Incorporation and Government Structure | Main | Backing off universality, at least for sanctuary cities »

Monday, December 03, 2018

Guest Post: Come On, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh! Doctrinal (and Intemperate) Error in the Timbs v. Indiana Oral Argument

The following post is from Rory Little (UC-Hastings and SCOTUSBlog).

It’s bad enough when a Supreme Court Justice expresses sarcastic impatience with an advocate; even experienced advocates are on edge when they appear in the nation’s highest court. Perhaps even worse when the advocate is a sovereign state’s Solicitor General.  But it really is inexcusable when the sarcasm is based on doctrinal error and thus wrong.  Here’s why that happened in last week’s oral argument in Timbs v. Indiana.

Background on the Timbs case and the Doctrine of Incorporation

The State of Indiana sought to forfeit Tyson Timbs’ $42,000 Land Rover after Timbs use it to transport small amounts of heroin to drug deals.  The Indiana Supreme Court declined to consider whether this violated the Eighth Amendment’s “no Excessive Fines” clause, because the U.S. Supreme Court has never definitively said that that clause is “incorporated” against the states (via the Fourteenth Amendment’s “no state shall” deny Due Process clause).  Whether or not Timbs should lose his vehicle, the Question presented in Timbs may seem easy: the doctrine of incorporation, developed only in the 20th Century, is well-accepted. Most recently the Court ruled in 2010 in McDonald that the Second Amendment’s “right … to keep and bear arms” is incorporated and thereby governs state as well is federal actions.  Although it is surprising to many, the Bill of Rights was originally intended to apply only against the federal government, and for our first 100 years or more it was said to have no application to state actions.  However, after a century of litigation, all rights that are found to be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” “so as to be ranked as fundamental,” are now said (McDonald) to be “incorporated” against state action as part of due process.  This includes most – but see below, not all – of the Bill of Rights provisions.

The “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and traditions” test might be well-satisfied by the Eighth Amendment’s command that “excessive fines” shall not be “imposed” -- although the common practice in the early days of our Union of forfeiting entire ships used to run contraband might give an Originalist pause regarding whether a rule against the forfeiture of vessels of crime is in fact so “deeply rooted.”  (As Chief Justice Roberts noted at the Timbs argument “I certainly understand the argument that … with respect to forfeiting instrumentalities of the crime, … [i]t’s always proportionate since it’s the way the crime is accomplished.”)

But one thing is doctrinally clear: not all the rights specified in the Bill of Rights have been incorporated against the States.  For some rights, like the “no Excessive Fines” clause, this might merely be an accident of history.  (One can find a good discussion of “why hasn’t the excessive fines clause already been incorporated?” in the November 26 episode of “First Mondays” with Professors Beth Colgan and Dan Epps”)

The Fifth Amendment’s Grand Jury right has, and for good reason, not been incorporated

But for one Bill of Rights provision in particular – the Fifth Amendment’s right to be charged by a Grand Jury for any “capital or otherwise infamous crime” – the decision to not incorporate is long-standing and quite considered.  Every student and professor of Constitutional Criminal Procedure understands this intentional anomaly.  Yet, as recounted below, it appears to be a “blank spot” in the doctrinal understanding of the Court’s two newest Justices, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

By way of quick summary, in 1884 in Hurtado v. California, the Supreme Court ruled in no uncertain terms that the Fifth Amendment’s grand jury provision need not bind the states.  The progressive 1879 Constitution of the young state of California had provided a new system, one viewed as more protective than the old grand jury system, permitting the charging of criminal defendants by a prosecutorial “information.”  California’s then-new Penal Code -- unlike secret, non-judicial, one-sided grand jury proceedings -- permitted the prosecution’s information to be immediately tested by a preliminary hearing, presided over by a judge, providing counsel for the defendant and allowing for cross-examination.  When Joseph Hurtado was charged with murder (and ultimately sentenced to death) based upon an information rather than grand jury indictment, the U.S. Supreme Court viewed it as a “question … of grave and serious import” whether the Fifth Amendment’s grand jury rule should be required, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to apply against the state.  In a thorough opinion (while certainly sounding different in some ways from today), the Court ruled that “progress [and] improvement” is not forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that California’s information system, with all its additional protections for a defendant, was at least as protective of “principles of liberty and justice” as the grand jury system.

Hurtado has well stood the test of time.  Critics of the federal grand jury system are many.  Meanwhile, over half the states allow criminal charging by information rather than grand jury; and two states (Pennsylvania and Connecticut) have abolished the use of criminal charging grand juries entirely.)  Thus the respected NACDL (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers), which has filed amicus on Timbs’ behalf regarding Excessive Fines, would surely oppose (as would others on all sides of the criminal justice aisle) incorporation of the Grand Jury clause.

Intemperate Doctrinal Error at the Timbs oral argument

This brings us, finally, to Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh at the Timbs oral argument (transcript is here).  Justice Gorsuch lit into Indian’s Solicitor General Thomas Fisher (who I do not know) from the start.  He demanded agreement that “the Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated against the states.”  When Fisher resisted (unsurprisingly, since that is the Question Presented), Justice Gorsuch persisted:

 I mean, most of the incorporation cases took place in like the 1940s.” [– this is an erroneous account in itself as virtually all the criminal procedure incorporation case were products of the 1960s Warren Court –]  And here we are in 2018 still litigating incorporation of the Bill of Rights.  Really?  Come on, General.

The audio on this last statement (audio of the argument is here) is undeniably harsh: Justice Gorsuch’s tone is, frankly, unbecoming.

Fisher politely stood his ground, and Justice Kavanaugh took up Gorsuch’s point -- although he at least had the courtesy to pose his view as questions, a fortunate method since in fact he and Justice Gorsuch were wrong:        

Isn’t it too late in the day to argue that any of the Bill of Rights is not incorporated? … [A]ren’t all the Bill of Rights at this point in our conception of what they stand for, the history of each of them, incorporated?

As you now know, these rhetorical questions and accusations – “Come on, General” -- are flatly, doctrinally, incorrect.  Hurtado stands in their way, fully and after 134 years of careful consideration. 

Conclusion

Why does any other this matter, you may wonder?  Errors must happen all the time even in Supreme Court arguments, right?  Why single these four pages of transcript out?

Two reasons.  First, my perhaps old-fashioned view is that a little bit of humility is a good thing for at least new Supreme Court Justices, especially regarding areas of the law in which they may not have deep experience.  Neither Justice Gorsuch or Kavanaugh has any substantial background in criminal law, and at the D.C. Circuit at least Justice Kavanaugh’s criminal law exposure was not extensive.

Second, and far more important, one must point out doctrinal errors if one can before they leak into published Supreme Court opinions, not after.  It would be a grave error to say, sarcastically or otherwise, that all the rights in the Bill of Rights have been incorporated.  And it would be a far more serious error to suggest that a carefully considered procedure such as criminal information-followed-by-preliminary-hearing charging is somehow in danger of being wiped out by slapdash dicta in a Supreme Court case not even presenting the question.  It is for that reason, and with all respect for the understandably challenging task of being elevated to the Nation’s highest court, that the foregoing is published.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 3, 2018 at 11:12 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Criminal Law, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment