Monday, December 22, 2008

Carver v. Lehman (9th Cir. - Dec. 22, 2008)

Yes, I know that it's the holiday season. So, yes, you're busy. We all are. Nonetheless, you've got to read this one. It's an instant classic.

The opinions aren't fascinating for their doctrinal significance -- though feel free to read about the underlying case is you'd like. Rather, what's a must-read is the dispute between Judge Milan Smith and Judge Reinhardt about what should happen when a member of the panel dies. As well as the language that each of them uses, in a fairly personal manner, when addressing this issue.

Cases about the internal workings of the court, especially in which the judges consciously talk directly to one another in the opinions, don't happen every day. And this one's a gem. Don't miss it.

I can shorthand what transpired here -- and you can guess the parties' respective positions -- fairly succinctly. Back in June, Judge Reinhardt (joined by Judge Ferguson) issued a majority opinion that held that a particular Washington statute (about sex offenders) created a liberty interest, but that because this fact wasn't heretofore sufficiently clear the defendant was entitled to qualified immunity. Judge Milan Smith concurred, arguing that there wasn't even a liberty interest. Fair enough on all sides. (I especially liked, in retrospect, the way Judge Smith opened his concurrence, with a non-saracastic first sentence that reads: "I respectfully part ways with the majority." As you'll see, some of that attitude was retained in the subsequent opinion, but some of it went a bit away.)

Predictably, thereafter, the parties filed petitions for rehearing (plaintiff arguing for a panel rehearing and the defendant arguing for rehearing en banc). Two days thereafter, Judge Ferguson died. At which point Judge Tallman was drawn to replace him, and Judge Tallman agreed with Judge Smith rather than Judge Reinhardt. So Judges Smith and Tallman voted to grant the petition for rehearing and essentially made Judge Smith's previously-filed concurrence the new majority opinion.

Which, as you can imagine, pleased Judge Reinhardt to no end. And resulted in the battle you see played out at the end of Judge Smith's opinion and at the outset of Judge Reinhardt's concurrence.

I wish I could cut-and-paste all of the classic lines from both opinions, but that'd take up way too much room. Let me instead just give you a taste, and encourage you to savor in the original in its entirety. Representative lines from Judge Smith include things like: "We respectfully disagree, however, with much of the balance of our concurring friend’s preambular observations about this case." "Our colleague . . . . implies that the previous panel majority unearthed an unalloyed constitutional nugget waiting to be discovered within the primordial crust of the Fourteenth Amendment."

From Judge Reinhardt's opinion: "To those who question whether the results in constitutional and other cases depend on the membership of the panel, or whether the replacement of even a single Supreme Court justice can change the fundamental nature of the rights of all Americans with respect to matters as basic as affirmative action, a woman’s right of choice, and the nature of religious liberty, the result in the case currently before our panel is merely a minor illustration of how the judicial system currently operates." And "To say as the majority now does, that despite the absence of a single circuit opinion on an issue that has been presented to the court a number of times, there was “existing law” that Judge Ferguson and I “changed,” and that Judge Smith and Judge Tallman, by now reaching the diametrically opposite result are merely restoring our circuit law to the “status quo ante” is more than mindboggling. If we were to accept this view, the law in this circuit would no longer be declared in opinions; “existing” circuit law could be found in whatever sources suited anyone’s whim or fancy, including the Sewanee Law Review." (Did you really mean this reference?!)

Great stuff. Simply wonderful. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

My sense, for what it's worth, is that both sides have good points. But the central issue that I don't think Judge Smith adequately addresses is the prudential argument that I read Judge Reinhardt making. Can a new panel grant a rehearing when someone dies? Yes. Definitely. And Judge Reinhardt doesn't disagree. But should it? Personally, if I were drawn for the panel, I'd vote "No," regardless of what I felt about the underlying case. If only as an issue of form, I'd hate -- and it seems facially unfair -- to have someone's death so starkly result in a changed outcome. So even for a majority opinion that I disagreed with, I'd probably concur and say "Look, I don't agree with the former majority, but I'm unwilling to grant a rehearing solely on the basis of the death of my colleague. It just doesn't seem right. So I'll concur in what he previously wrote." Would I then vote for a rehearing en banc if I thought it appropriate? Sure. That seems entirely fine. But that's qualitatively different to me than withdrawing an opinion purely because someone dies.

I'm not saying I'm never willing to change the result in a case due to death or retirement. I am. Had Judge Ferguson died before the majority opinion had issued, for example, I'd have no problem changing the result by voting (after being assigned) with the would-have-been concurrence or dissent. But the formal issuance of an opinion to me changes things. Not because the opinion is doctrinally "final" in any way. It's not. But rather because a change in such settings seems untoward.

Say, for example, we're the Supreme Court, and we issue a 5-4 decision in favor of X against Y. Then one of the 5 dies two days later, and I'm immediately nominated and confirmed by the Senate, and as a result I'm on the Court when Y files a petition for rehearing. Even if I agreed with the 4, I wouldn't vote to grant rehearing. It just seems wrong to me, even if (as is of course the case) the matter isn't "final" yet. Might I potentially vote to grant certiorari in a later case and, with appropriate regard for stare decisis, overrule the earlier case. Yes. I would think about it. But I still wouldn't grant a rehearing. That seems different -- starker, and perceptually more unfair -- to me.

I understand that reasonable minds might differ on this one. Plus, it's tough to restrain yourself when you have the votes. Or to vote for a result that you don't believe in merely on prudential procedural grounds.

But I think here, especially when it involves the death of one of your colleagues, that's probably the right answer. At least in cases (as here) that don't fundamentally rock the world. Might I wimp out and vote my own way if it was a critical constitutional issue involving the lives and/or fundamental liberties of millions? Maybe. Maybe I'd be weak (or whatever) and feel compelled to vote my deeply-felt conscience there. But when it's an otherwise routine case, I'm persuaded, upon reflection, that the right thing to do is to defer. If only in the memory of and with respect for my departed colleague. That means something to me. And if it means I concur instead of change the outcome, so be it. That seems not only totally fine as a doctrinal matter, but likely preferable as a policy matter as well. The opinion may well not be final, but it's entirely within my discretion to treat it as something significant. So that's what I'd do.

Anyway, a great -- and interesting -- debate. Check it out.