Recently, Ann Althouse had a great post criticizing Jeffrey Toobin’s account of oral argument in the Supreme Court’s political gerrymandering case. Toobin had criticized Neal Gorsuch, portraying him as violating norms and as ineffective. But Althouse makes a strong case that this is largely in Toobin’s imagination. Sadly, this is not the first time Toobin has unfairly criticized an originalist justice. In this past post, I criticized Toobin’s unfair attack on Justice Thomas’s criticism of nonoriginalism. Apparently, Toobin sees his role as in part attempting to persuade the New Yorker’s audience that originalists are just so wrong.
President Obama weighed in recently on the controversy created by a football player refusing to standing during the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of a game. Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49er’s quarterback, wants to call attention to his view that people of color are oppressed. The President supported him, saying Kaepernick was exercising his constitutional right under the First Amendment. A few days ago Jeffrey Toobin more specifically analogized this issue to a case in which the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring school children to salute the flag, because it violated their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The President’s and Toobin’s comments represent a characteristic bit of Progressive misdirection, failing to distinguish between legal and social norms. It is absolutely correct that the government has no right to penalize Kaepernick for his action. Expressive conduct up to burning the American flag should indeed be immune to criminal penalties. But no government official is threatening Kaepernick with official sanctions, although some politicians are exercising their own First Amendment rights to criticize his behavior.
The real question is whether Kaepernick is right to use the time for the national anthem for protest. A directly related question is whether his team or the NFL should tell him to desist and penalize him if he does not. That is an issue to be decided in light of his contract with his team and his team’s contractual relation to the NFL. It is one of private ordering about which the Constitution has nothing to say.
The optimal content of social norms cannot be decided by First Amendment case law.
In a prior post, I noted Jeffrey Toobin’s criticism of Justice Clarence Thomas for Thomas’s claim that since the New Deal, the Supreme Court’s constitutional doctrine has become an ‘unworkable morass of special exceptions and arbitrary applications.’” Interestingly, Toobin never argues that Thomas’s claim is mistaken. Toobin seems to feel that voicing the criticism of the Court is itself worthy of censure, whether or not it is true. But in my view, Thomas’s claim is both true and damning.
In his dissent in the Court’s most recent abortion case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Thomas offers two basic criticisms of the Court’s tiers of scrutiny jurisprudence: the tiers are not in the Constitution and that they are followed only inconsistently by the Court.
1. The Supreme Court generally employs three tiers of scrutiny: rational basis, intermediate, and strict scrutiny. Thomas first argues that these tiers are not in the Constitution. He claims that the Court has made them up, which Thomas focusing his criticism on the famous case of Carolene Products. Thomas argues that the Court, in a footnote that was “pure dicta,” attempted to justify its special treatment of certain personal liberties like the First Amendment and the right against discrimination on the basis of race.
While I was on vacation, Jeffrey Toobin published a hit piece on Clarence Thomas in the New Yorker entitled “Clarence Thomas Has His Own Constitution.” Sadly, the piece is filled with problematic criticisms of the justice.
Happily, the piece starts with a bit of a defense of Thomas against criticisms. While many people criticize Thomas as either a Scalia clone or not hard working, Toobin acknowledges that these charges are not true. In fact, Toobin notes that Thomas is by far the most active writer on the Court, with twice as many opinions as his nearest competitor on the Court. Moreover, many of Thomas’ opinions are solo opinions that were not joined by Scalia.
But that leads Toobin to his criticism of Thomas. Toobin in essence claims that Thomas is an arrogant conservative, placing his own views over those of his fellow justices and the Court generally (although Toobin does not use the term arrogant). As Toobin puts it:
It’s an act of startling self-confidence, but a deeply isolating one as well. Even his ideological allies, who mostly come out the same way on cases, recognize that they must dwell within the world that their colleagues and predecessors created. Thomas, in contrast, has his own constitutional law, which he alone honors and applies.
While I agree with Toobin that Thomas is the justice pursuing originalism most consistently on the Court, I don’t agree with the implicit criticisms that Toobin asserts.
Once again Justice Clarence Thomas has given originalist jurisprudence its most robust defense through his revival of an obscure part of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2010, in McDonald v. Chicago, he had protected the right to individual gun ownership by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause. Now he has concurred in the decision in Evenwel v. Abbott (2016), which unanimously affirms the state of Texas’ use of population (rather than being required to use eligible voters) as the basis for devising electoral districts.
Jeffrey Toobin’s recent article in The New Yorker, “Clarence Thomas’s Disgraceful Silence,” is itself disgraceful. Toobin noted that, as of February 22, eight years have passed since Justice Thomas last asked a question during a Supreme Court oral argument. Toobin finds Thomas’s silence “bizarre” and “downright embarrassing, for himself and for the institution he represents.”