Lower Courts Matter
Because it can only rule on individual cases, not hypothetical ones, the High Court relies on lower courts to apply its logic and rules to new situations–and that gives circuit court judges the power to determine whether the logic behind any given Supreme Court ruling provokes a legal revolution or simply sputters out. Last month, in Blakely v. Washington, the Court held unconstitutional Washington state’s sentencing scheme because it put too much power in the hands of judges, as opposed to juries. At the time, the opinion was somewhat overshadowed by coverage of the Court’s terrorism decisions. But in recent weeks, Blakely has sparked immense activity in lower courts with far-reaching implications. The way lower courts have handled Blakely suggests just how much circuit court appointments matter.
One reason Blakely has sparked so much activity in lower courts is that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines–a set of rules adopted by Congress in 1984 to try to reduce sentencing inequality–raise a similar constitutional issue to Washington’s now-outlawed practices. While the justices acknowledged in a footnote to Blakely the possible contradiction between their ruling and the continued existence of the federal guidelines, they avoided deciding the issue. Since Blakely came down on June 24, more than 30 lower court opinions have wrestled with the constitutionality of the guidelines, making this what Professor Douglas Berman called last week on Slate “the biggest criminal justice decision … perhaps in the history of the Supreme Court.” The four dissenters in Blakely warned of this kind of upheaval, and now they have been proved right. Blakely has resonated throughout the system.
But it didn’t have to be this way. The lower courts could have read the decision more narrowly; pointed out that it didn’t necessarily apply to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines; and then, in the absence of a direct invitation from the Court, ignored the ruling’s broad implications. Indeed, sometimes they do precisely that. When the Court decided a pair of cases that curtailed the power of Congress over states, no legal revolution followed, despite similar warnings by dissenters and academics: The logic that struck down a gun-control law (Lopez in 1995) and a statute focusing on violence against women (Morrison in 2000) could have been extended to federal laws dealing with arson, pornography, and marijuana–but lower courts have largely failed to take the bait. (The Ninth Circuit has been a bit of an exception, striking down a handful of these laws, but nine years after Lopez, no legal revolution has come of it.)
He also cites some historical examples, notably the implementation of the 1954 Brown desegregation decision.
One thing Will doesn’t touch upon in his piece is that the lower courts are very influenced by state politics. District court judges are virtually all from the state in which they serve and are, for all intents and purposes, appointed by the U.S. Senators from their state rather than the president. Courts of Appeals judges almost all come up from one of the districts in the circuit and, again, the Senators from those states have substantial influence. School desegregation dragged on for over a decade precisely because the lower court judges refused to be aggressive in implementing Brown. Civil rights groups had to sue in school district after school district before the decision really took effect.