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On Judicial Empathy, Or, Random Roadblocks Aren’t Annoying. Really. May 7, 2009

So a Supreme Court justice that hardly anyone noticed has announced his retirement and all of a sudden the lips of The Experts are all a-flutter with the word “Empathy”.

President Obama reports he wants his nominee to have it; and Republicans are convinced that the word is a secret code for something that eventually ends in the death of free speech, massive roundups of guns by the Secret United Nations World Police, and the Internment Of All The White People In Reeducation Camps Run By Americorps And ACORN And Gay People Who Want To Marry And Are Funded By George Soros.

It is suggested that Evil Activist Judges will trample the Constitution as they create Law out of whole cloth; and that only those who interpret the Constitution just as it was written can bring the proper attitude to the Court.

It sounds like somebody needs to come along and provide a couple of cogent thoughts about this whole empathy thing…and lucky for you, Gentle Reader, we have before us today specific examples of how the quality of empathy can express itself in Court Doctrine.

So right off the bat, a few words about how cases are interpreted by the Supreme Court are in order:

A lot of the talking heads on the tee-vee frame the Court’s job as one of basically hearing the arguments in a case, reviewing the record, and deciding whether some action of Government violates someone’s constitutional rights.

That framing ignores two huge elements of the Court’s job: resolving the conflicts between the protected rights of two groups of private citizens (for example, does the right of all citizens to have access to the “public square” for purposes of political campaigning override the right of shopping center owners to control who has access to their private property?)…and creating rulings that attempt to discern what the mood or motivation of the public might be regarding aspects of potential Court Doctrine (for example, does a particular item of pornography violate “prevailing community standards”?).

The obvious example of how all this can play out might be found in the way the Court saw things when they ruled in Plessy v Ferguson, followed later by Brown v Board of Education; in which the Supremes first ruled that “separate but equal” was just fine and then ruled it wasn’t fine after all. Lots of others will examine these cases in detail, so, instead, we shall take a different tack.

The Fourth Amendment, in requiring that searches not be “unreasonable” and that warrants be justified by probable cause, guaranteed that Justices would forever be required to interpret without clear definitions to guide them.

Let’s now examine how “empathy’ has affected those interpretations.

If you are driving north from San Diego to Los Angeles…and you’re not a Marine…you’ll be inspected by Customs and Border Protection officers manning an immigration checkpoint on I-5. It’s possible that you might be directed to a “secondary inspection” area for a search of the contents of your vehicle, based on nothing more than the hunch of the Inspector on duty.

In 1975, the Court, showing one kind of empathy, unanimously ruled that:

“The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents…”

United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891

However, Chief Justice Burger, who generally joined in the concurrences of the other Justices, had his own “empathetic” point of view:

“Like MR. JUSTICE WHITE, I can, at most, do no more than concur in the judgment. As the Fourth Amendment now has been interpreted by the Court, it seems that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is powerless to stop the tide of illegal aliens — and dangerous drugs — that daily and freely crosses our 2,000-mile southern boundary….Perhaps these decisions will be seen in perspective as but another example of a society seemingly impotent to deal with massive lawlessness.”

Amado Martinez-Fuerte, who had been arrested at the same checkpoint, probably thought that the Court would continue to see things as they had in 1975…but by 1976, the Court no longer felt as empathetic towards the concept that consent or probable cause…or even reasonable suspicion…was required for vehicle searches as they had the year before:

“To require that such stops always be based on reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic tends to be too heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car necessary to identify it as a possible carrier of illegal aliens.”

United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543

This ruling is particularly significant in that it allowed the checkpoint to operate under a general “warrant of inspection” (a device usually used only to allow building inspections and the like), and for the evidence obtained there to be admissible against individuals in criminal trials.

However, the plain text of the Fourth Amendment seems to take a different view, stating that:

“…no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

By this time, Thurgood Marshall had left the Court (his empathy demonstrated perhaps best by the fact that in 1954 he had argued—and wonBrown v Board of Education before the Supreme Court); and the new Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Government’s position in Martinez-Fuerte.

You’ll recall that we discussed the fact that the Court often has to determine the public mood. Here’s a very specific example:

The Court, in deciding that the immigration checkpoint was not an “unreasonable” search, felt no empathy toward the idea that being stopped every day would bother any commuter who was legally using I-5 several days a week, nor to the concept that the delay of legal commercial traffic would be bothersome. Their sole concern was that the motorist would view the checkpoint as “legitimate”:

“Routine checkpoint stops do not intrude similarly on the motoring public. First, the potential interference with legitimate traffic is minimal. Motorists using these highways are not taken by surprise as they know, or may obtain knowledge of, the location of the checkpoints and will not be stopped elsewhere….The regularized manner in which established checkpoints are operated is visible evidence, reassuring to law-abiding motorists, that the stops are duly authorized and believed to serve the public interest. The location of a fixed checkpoint is not chosen by officers in the field, but by officials responsible for making overall decisions as to the most effective allocation of limited enforcement resources. We may assume that such officials will be unlikely to locate a checkpoint where it bears arbitrarily or oppressively on motorists as a class. And since field officers may stop only those cars passing the checkpoint, there is less room for abusive or harassing stops of individuals than there was in the case of roving-patrol stops…”

(A quick Fun Fact: the location of the checkpoint near San Clemente appears to have been chosen specifically because it allows the stopping of virtually all traffic between San Diego and Los Angeles. You might think setting up a checkpoint to stop all traffic is a bit arbitrary…and I would agree with you. The Court, obviously, did not.)

The ruling in Martinez-Fuerte also does not display empathy with the Defendants’ assertions that being ordered to “Secondary Inspection” is intrusive…even if there for no reason at all to suspect the vehicle–or even if the reason for the stop is entirely race-based:

“The defendants arrested at the San Clemente checkpoint suggest that its operation involves a significant extra element of intrusiveness in that only a small percentage of cars are referred to the secondary inspection area, thereby “stigmatizing” those diverted and reducing the assurances provided by equal treatment of all motorists. We think defendants overstate the consequences. Referrals are made for the sole purpose of conducting a routine and limited inquiry into residence status that cannot feasibly be made of every motorist where the traffic is heavy. The objective intrusion of the stop and inquiry thus remains minimal. Selective referral may involve some annoyance, but it remains true that the stops should not be frightening or offensive because of their public and relatively routine nature. Moreover, selective referrals – rather than questioning the occupants of every car – tend to advance some Fourth Amendment interests by minimizing the intrusion on the general motoring public…

… Thus, even if it be assumed that such referrals are made largely on the basis of apparent Mexican ancestry…we perceive no constitutional violation…As the intrusion here is sufficiently minimal that no particularized reason need exist to justify it, we think it follows that the Border Patrol…officers must have wide discretion in selecting the motorists to be diverted for the brief questioning involved.”

And with that (and a few cases to supplement the concept), the idea that the police require an actual reason to stop people and then conduct searches and seizures has gradually faded into a quaint anachronism of history.

So where does all this leave us?

Well, how about this: it leaves us more aware of the fact that there are rarely “simple” interpretations of the Constitution. Rather than just relying on the plain text of the document, the Justices, using the sense of empathy they’ve developed throughout their lives, interpret and create new law in each and every case.

It should leave us more aware that the arguments made by those who support “strict constructionists” for the Court reflect less of a desire to remain pure to the principles of the Constitution, and more a desire to advance very specific, and often radical, policies that favor Government over the People who are supposed to be its master—policies that are often based more on a sense of fear than an appreciation of the strength of the system their new policies seek to “save”.

Mr. Obama is absolutely correct in seeking a Justice with “empathy”.

Let’s just hope the one he picks has the kind of empathy that, for a change, advances civil liberties, instead of sending them to the sort of “Guantanamo Chainsaw Massacre” that Justice Scalia finds so in keeping with his sense of empathy.

Warning—commercial message ahead: I’m competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I could use your support. Just head on over to the Democracy for America website, click on the “Add your support” link under “Grassroots Supporters”, and offer a word or two…and with that, thanks very much, and we return you to your regular programming.

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