Monday, May 26, 2003

When lower federal courts disobey the U.S. Supreme Court

Howard Bashman of How Appealing has been looking at "what could be regarded as judicial insubordination -- when a lower federal court judge asserts that his or her conscience prevents him or her from applying directly on point authority from a higher court," as in
this post.

One example, perhaps, I just read about this morning. In 1940, the Supreme Court held in Minersvile v. Gobitis that the First Amendment rights of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses were not violated when the children in school were compelled to salute and plede allegiance to the U.S. flag. In the subsequent case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, three years later, the district court ruled against the school board - of which ruling Judge Starr in his book writes: "This was extraordinary. Federal district courts are duty-bound to obey the Supreme Court, whether they agree or not. Otherwise the system would break down. But this proved to be harmless error. For on appeal, the Supreme Court, by a vote 6-3, agreed with the contrarian district court . . . and overruled it own decision." Maybe that's what the liberal judges are hoping for in the Ninth Circuit.

Tennessee at least to be a state of which it could be said here in 1997 that "death penalty cases have largely bogged down in federal district courts for sometimes nearly a decade." The federal courts, for whatever reason, contributed to the fact that there were no executions in Tennessee for more than 20 years after the Tennessee legislature revised its laws to allow for reinstatement of the death penalty consistent with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Protesters claimed, as stated here, that the "personal bias against the death penalty" of one federal judge in Tennessee "makes him unfit to hear cases in which it is a factor." At one time, as stated here, the Tennessee Senate "passed a resolution supporting the impeachment" of the same judge because of his perceived obstructionism in death penalty cases. In 2002, Tennessee's Attorney General offered this explanation of the delay in executions in the state, explaining that apart from the role of individual judges and lawyers, "Tennessee has one of the most lengthy criminal appeals processes for death penalty cases in the United States."

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