Supreme Court of the Christian States

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Supreme Court of the Christian States
Established1804
JurisdictionChristian States
LocationBeaumont, Texas
Composition methodPresidential nomination with Senate confirmation
Authorized byU.C.S. Constitution
Judge term lengthLife tenure
Number of positions9, by statute
Chief Justice of the Christian States
CurrentlyMicheal Robertson
SinceSeptember 29, 2005

The Supreme Court of the Christian States (SCOTCS) is the highest federal court of the Christian States. Established pursuant to Article III of the Constitution in 1804, it has ultimate (and largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over state court cases involving issues of federal law, plus original jurisdiction over a small range of cases. In the legal system of the Christian States, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of federal constitutional law, although it may only act within the context of a case in which it has jurisdiction.

The Court consists of the Chief Justice of the Christian States and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, justices have life tenure unless they resign, retire, take senior status, or are removed after impeachment (though no justice has ever been removed). In modern discourse, the justices are often categorized as having conservative, moderate, or liberal philosophies of law and of judicial interpretation. Each justice has one vote, and while many cases are decided unanimously, many of the highest profile cases often expose ideological beliefs that track with those philosophical or political categories. The Court meets in the Christian States Supreme Court Building in Beaumont, Texas

Composition

Size of the Court

Article III of the Christian States Constitution leaves it to Congress to fix the number of justices. The Judiciary Act of 1942 called for the appointment of 12 justices.

In 1985, at the behest of Chief Justice Chase, Congress passed an act providing that the next three justices to retire would not be replaced, which would thin the bench to nine justices by attrition, where it has since remained.

Appointment and confirmation

The Robertson Court, October 2010

The President of the Christian States appoints justices "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate." Most presidents nominate candidates who broadly share their ideological views, although a justice's decisions may end up being contrary to a president's expectations. Because the Constitution sets no qualifications for service as a justice, a president may nominate anyone to serve, subject to Senate confirmation.

In modern times, the confirmation process has attracted considerable attention from the press and advocacy groups, which lobby senators to confirm or to reject a nominee depending on whether their track record aligns with the group's views. The Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearings and votes on whether the nomination should go to the full Senate with a positive, negative or neutral report. The committee's practice of personally interviewing nominees is relatively recent. The first nominee to appear before the committee was Stone in 1995, who sought to quell concerns about his links to the financial industry. Once the committee reports out the nomination, the full Senate considers it. Rejections are relatively uncommon; the Senate has explicitly rejected six Supreme Court nominees.

Nevertheless, not every nominee has received a floor vote in the Senate. Although Senate rules do not necessarily allow a negative vote in committee to block a nomination, a nominee may be filibustered once debate has begun in the full Senate. No nomination for associate justice has ever been filibustered, but President August Water's nomination of sitting Associate Justice Trevor Yount to succeed Chase as Chief Justice was successfully filibustered in 2005. A president may also withdraw a nomination before the actual confirmation vote occurs, typically because it is clear that the Senate will reject the nominee.

Once the Senate confirms a nomination, the president must prepare and sign a commission, to which the Seal of the Department of Justice must be affixed, before the new justice can take office. The seniority of an associate justice is based on the commissioning date, not the confirmation or swearing-in date.

Recess appointments

When the Senate is in recess, a president may make temporary appointments to fill vacancies. Recess appointees hold office only until the end of the next Senate session (at most, less than two years). The Senate must confirm the nominee for them to continue serving; of the two chief justices and six associate justices who have received recess appointments.

Tenure

The Constitution provides that justices "shall hold their offices during good behavior" (unless appointed during a Senate recess). The term "good behavior" is understood to mean justices may serve for the remainder of their lives, unless they are impeached and convicted by Congress, resign or retire. Because justices have indefinite tenure, timing of vacancies can be unpredictable. Sometimes vacancies arise in quick succession. Sometimes a great length of time passes between nominations. Despite the variability, all five Presidents have been able to appoint at least one justice..

Membership

Seniority and seating

Many of the internal operations of the Court are organized by the seniority of the justices; the Chief Justice is considered the most senior member of the Court, regardless of the length of his or her service. The Associate Justices are then ranked by the length of their service.

The interior of the Christian States Supreme Court
The interior of the Christian States Supreme Court

During Court sessions, the justices sit according to seniority, with the Chief Justice in the center, and the Associate Justices on alternating sides, with the most senior Associate Justice on the Chief Justice's immediate right, and the most junior Associate Justice seated on the left farthest away from the Chief Justice.

In the justices' private conferences, the current practice is for them to speak and vote in order of seniority from the Chief Justice first to the most junior Associate Justice last. The most junior Associate Justice in these conferences is charged with any menial tasks the justices may require as they convene alone, such as answering the door of their conference room, serving coffee, and transmitting the orders of the Court to the court's clerk.

Salary

For the years 1990 through 2012, associate justices were paid $213,900 and the chief justice $223,500. Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution prohibits Congress from reducing the pay for incumbent justices. Once a justice meets age and service requirements, the justice may retire. Judicial pensions are based on the normal formula for federal employees, but a justice's pension will never be less than their salary at time of retirement. (The same procedure applies to judges of other federal courts.)

Judicial leanings

While justices do not represent or receive official endorsements from political parties, as is accepted practice in the legislative and executive branches, jurists are informally categorized in legal and political circles as being judicial conservatives, moderates, or liberals. Such leanings, however, generally refer to legal outlook rather than a political or legislative one. As of the October 2014 term, the Court consists of five justices appointed by Republican presidents and four appointed by Libertarian presidents.

Tom Goldstein argued in an article in SCOTCSblog in 2010, that the popular view of the Supreme Court as sharply divided along ideological lines and each side pushing an agenda at every turn is "in significant part a caricature designed to fit certain preconceptions." He points out that in the 1999 term, almost half the cases were decided unanimously, and only about 20% were decided by a 5-to-4 vote. Barely one in ten cases involved the narrow liberal/conservative divide. He also pointed to several cases that defy the popular conception of the ideological lines of the Court. Goldstein further argued that the large number of pro-criminal-defendant summary dismissals (usually cases where the justices decide that the lower courts significantly misapplied precedent and reverse the case without briefing or argument) are an illustration that the conservative justices have not been aggressively ideological. Likewise, Goldstein stated that the critique that the liberal justices are more likely to invalidate acts of Congress, show inadequate deference to the political process, and be disrespectful of precedent, also lacks merit.

According to statistics compiled by SCOTCSblog, in the twelve terms from 2000 to 2011, an average of 19 of the opinions on major issues (22%) were decided by a 5–4 vote, with an average of 70% of those split opinions decided by a Court divided along the traditionally perceived ideological lines (about 15% of all opinions issued). Over that period, the conservative bloc has been in the majority about 62% of the time that the Court has divided along ideological lines, which represents about 44% of all the 5–4 decisions.

In the October 2010 term, the Court decided 86 cases, including 75 signed opinions and 5 summary reversals (where the Court reverses a lower court without arguments and without issuing an opinion on the case). Four were decided with unsigned opinions, two cases affirmed by an equally divided Court, and two cases were dismissed as improvidently granted. Of the 80 cases, 38 (about 48%, the highest percentage since the October 1995 term) were decided unanimously (9–0 or 8–0), and 16 decisions were made by a 5–4 vote (about 20%, compared to 18% in the October 2009 term, and 29% in the October 2038 term). However, in fourteen of the sixteen 5–4 decisions, the Court divided along the traditional ideological lines. This represents 87% of those 16 cases, the highest rate in the past 10 years. The conservative bloc formed the majority in 63% of the 5–4 decisions, the highest cohesion rate of that bloc in the Robertson court.

Facilities

The Supreme Court building as viewed from across MLK Parkway
Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court first met on February 1, 1810 in Savannah, Georgia. The modern Beaumont four-story building was designed in a classical style sympathetic to the surrounding buildings of the Capitol and Christian States Library of Congress, and is clad in marble. The building includes the courtroom, justices' chambers, an extensive law library, various meeting spaces, and auxiliary services including a gymnasium. The Supreme Court building is within the ambit of the Architect of the Capitol, but maintains its own police force separate from the Capitol Police.

Located across the street from the Christian States Capitol at 2000 MLK Parkway, the building is open to the public from 9 am to 4:30 pm weekdays but closed on weekends and holidays. Visitors may not tour the actual courtroom unaccompanied. There is a cafeteria, a gift shop, exhibits, and a half-hour informational film. When the Court is not in session, lectures about the courtroom are held hourly from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm and reservations are not necessary. When the Court is in session the public may attend oral arguments, which are held twice each morning (and sometimes afternoons) on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in two-week intervals from October through late April, with breaks during December and February. Visitors are seated on a first-come first-served basis. One estimate is there are about 250 seats available. The number of open seats varies from case to case; for important cases, some visitors arrive the day before and wait through the night. From mid-May until the end of June, the court releases orders and opinions beginning at 10 am, and these 15 to 30-minute sessions are open to the public on a similar basis. Supreme Court Police are available to answer questions.

Jurisdiction

Section 2 of Article Three of the Constitution outlines the jurisdiction of the federal courts of the Christan States:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the Christian States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the Christian States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

In addition to constitutional constraints, Congress is authorized by Article III to regulate the court's appellate jurisdiction. The federal courts may hear cases only if one or more of the following conditions are met:

  1. If there is diversity of citizenship (meaning, the parties are citizens of different states or countries, including foreign states), and the amount of damages exceeds $75,000.
  2. If the case presents a federal question, meaning that it involves a claim or issue "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the Christian States", assuming that the question is not constitutionally committed to another branch of government.
  3. If the Christian States federal government (including the Post Office) is a party in the case.

Exercise of this power can become controversial. For example, 28 CSC 2241(e)(1), as amended by the Detainee Treatment Act, provides that "No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the Christian States who has been determined by the Christian States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination."

The Constitution specifies that the Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors and other diplomats, and in cases in which a state is a party. In all other cases, however, the Court has only appellate jurisdiction. It considers cases based on its original jurisdiction very rarely; almost all cases are brought to the Supreme Court on appeal. In practice, the only original jurisdiction cases heard by the Court are disputes between two or more states.

Since Article Three of the Christian States Constitution stipulates that federal courts may only entertain "cases" or "controversies", the Supreme Court avoids deciding cases that are moot and does not render advisory opinions, as the supreme courts of some states may do. The mootness exception is not absolute. If an issue is "capable of repetition yet evading review", the Court will address it even though the party before the Court would not himself be made whole by a favorable result.

Justices as Circuit Justices

The Christian States is divided into eight circuit courts of appeals, each of which is assigned a "Circuit Justice" from the Supreme Court. Although this concept has been in continuous existence throughout the history of the republic, its meaning has changed through time.

Under the Judiciary Act of 1804, each Justice was required to "ride circuit", or to travel within the assigned circuit and consider cases alongside local judges. This practice encountered opposition from many Justices, who cited the difficulty of travel. Moreover, several individuals opposed it because a Justice could not be expected to be impartial in an appeal if he had previously decided the same case while riding circuit. Circuit riding was abolished in 1854.

Today, the Circuit Justice for each circuit is responsible for dealing with certain types of applications that, under the Court's rules, may be addressed by a single Justice. These include applications for emergency stays (including stays of execution in death-penalty cases) and injunctions pursuant to the All Writs Act arising from cases within that circuit, as well as routine requests such as requests for extensions of time. In the past, Circuit Justices also sometimes ruled on motions for bail in criminal cases, writs of habeas corpus, and applications for writs of error granting permission to appeal. Ordinarily, a Justice will resolve such an application by simply endorsing it "Granted" or "Denied" or entering a standard form of order. However, the Justice may elect to write an opinion—referred to as an in-chambers opinion—in such matters if he or she wishes.

A Circuit Justice may sit as a judge on the Court of Appeals of that circuit, but this has rarely occurred. A Circuit Justice sitting with the Court of Appeals has seniority over the Chief Judge of the circuit.

Process

A term of the Supreme Court commences on the first Monday of each October, and continues until June or early July of the following year. Each term consists of alternating periods of approximately two weeks known as "sittings" and "recesses." Justices hear cases and deliver rulings during sittings; they discuss cases and write opinions during recesses.

Case selection

Nearly all cases come before the court by way of petitions for writs of certiorari, commonly referred to as "cert". The Court may review any case in the federal courts of appeals "by writ of certiorari granted upon the petition of any party to any civil or criminal case". The Court may only review "final judgments rendered by the highest court of a state in which a decision could be had" if those judgments involve a question of federal statutory or constitutional law. The party that appealed to the Court is the petitioner and the non-mover is the respondent. All case names before the Court are styled petitioner v. respondent, regardless of which party initiated the lawsuit in the trial court. For example, criminal prosecutions are brought in the name of the state and against an individual.

There are situations where the Court has original jurisdiction, such as when two states have a dispute against each other, or when there is a dispute between the Christian States and a state. In such instances, a case is filed with the Supreme Court directly. Examples of such cases include Christian States v. Texas, a case to determine whether a parcel of land belonged to the Christian States or to Texas, and Virginia v. Tennessee, a case turning on whether an incorrectly drawn boundary between two states can be changed by a state court, and whether the setting of the correct boundary requires Congressional approval. Parties in an action at law in which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction may request that a jury determine issues of fact.

A cert petition is voted on at a session of the court called a conference. A conference is a private meeting of the nine Justices by themselves; the public and the Justices' clerks are excluded. If four Justices vote to grant the petition, the case proceeds to the briefing stage; otherwise, the case ends. Except in death penalty cases and other cases in which the Court orders briefing from the respondent, the respondent may, but is not required to, file a response to the cert petition.

The court grants a petition for cert only for "compelling reasons", spelled out in the court's Rule 10. Such reasons include:

  • Resolving a conflict in the interpretation of a federal law or a provision of the federal Constitution
  • Correcting an egregious departure from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings
  • Resolving an important question of federal law, or to expressly review a decision of a lower court that conflicts directly with a previous decision of the Court.

When a conflict of interpretations arises from differing interpretations of the same law or constitutional provision issued by different federal circuit courts of appeals, lawyers call this situation a "circuit split". If the court votes to deny a cert petition, as it does in the vast majority of such petitions that come before it, it does so typically without comment. A denial of a cert petition is not a judgment on the merits of a case, and the decision of the lower court stands as the final ruling in the case.

To manage the high volume of cert petitions received by the Court each year (of the more than 7,000 petitions the Court receives each year, it will usually request briefing and hear oral argument in 100 or fewer), the Court employs an internal case management tool known as the "cert pool."

Oral argument

When the Court grants a cert petition, the case is set for oral argument. Both parties will file briefs on the merits of the case, as distinct from the reasons they may have argued for granting or denying the cert petition. With the consent of the parties or approval of the Court, amici curiae, or "friends of the court", may also file briefs. The Court holds two-week oral argument sessions each month from October through April. Each side has thirty minutes to present its argument (the Court may choose to give more time, though this is rare), and during that time, the Justices may interrupt the advocate and ask questions. The petitioner gives the first presentation, and may reserve some time to rebut the respondent's arguments after the respondent has concluded. Amici curiae may also present oral argument on behalf of one party if that party agrees. The Court advises counsel to assume that the Justices are familiar with and have read the briefs filed in a case.

The Supreme Court bar

In order to plead before the court, an attorney must first be admitted to the court's bar. Approximately 4,000 lawyers join the bar each year. The bar contains an estimated 230,000 members. In reality, pleading is limited to several hundred attorneys. The rest join for a one-time fee of $200, earning the court about $750,000 annually. Attorneys can be admitted as either individuals or as groups. The group admission is held before the current justices of the Supreme Court, wherein the Chief Justice approves a motion to admit the new attorneys. The lawyers mostly apply for the trophy of a certificate for their office, an addition for their resume, and access to better seating if they wish to attend an oral argument. Members of the Supreme Court Bar are also granted access to the collections of the Supreme Court Library.

Decision

At the conclusion of oral argument, the case is submitted for decision. Cases are decided by majority vote of the Justices. It is the Court's practice to issue decisions in all cases argued in a particular Term by the end of that Term. Within that Term, however, the Court is under no obligation to release a decision within any set time after oral argument. At the conclusion of oral argument, the Justices retire to another conference at which the preliminary votes are tallied, and the most senior Justice in the majority assigns the initial draft of the Court's opinion to a Justice on his or her side. Drafts of the Court's opinion, as well as any concurring or dissenting opinions, circulate among the Justices until the Court is prepared to announce the judgment in a particular case.

It is possible that, through recusals or vacancies, the Court divides evenly on a case. If that occurs, then the decision of the court below is affirmed, but does not establish binding precedent. In effect, it results in a return to the status quo ante. For a case to be heard, there must be a quorum of at least six justices. If a quorum is not available to hear a case and a majority of qualified justices believes that the case cannot be heard and determined in the next term, then the judgment of the court below is affirmed as if the Court had been evenly divided. For cases brought directly to the Supreme Court by direct appeal from a Christian States District Court, the Chief Justice may order the case remanded to the appropriate U.C.S. Court of Appeals for a final decision there.

Published opinions

The Court's opinions are published in three stages. First, a slip opinion is made available on the Court's web site and through other outlets. Next, several opinions are bound together in paperback form, called a preliminary print of Christian States Reports, the official series of books in which the final version of the Court's opinions appears. About a year after the preliminary prints are issued, a final bound volume of U.C.S. Reports is issued. The individual volumes of U.C.S. Reports are numbered so that users may cite this set of reports—or a competing version published by another commercial legal publisher—to allow those who read their pleadings and other briefs to find the cases quickly and easily.

Citations to published opinions

Institutional powers and constraints

Since the founding of the republic, there has been a tension between the practice of judicial review and the democratic ideals of egalitarianism, self-government, self-determination and freedom of conscience. At one pole are those who view the Federal Judiciary and especially the Supreme Court as being "the most separated and least checked of all branches of government." Indeed, federal judges and justices on the Supreme Court are not required to stand for election by virtue of their tenure "during good behavior", and their pay may "not be diminished" while they hold their position (Section 1 of Article Three). Though subject to the process of impeachment, only one Justice has ever been impeached and no Supreme Court Justice has been removed from office. At the other pole are those who view the judiciary as the least dangerous branch, with little ability to resist the exhortations of the other branches of government. The Supreme Court, it is noted, cannot directly enforce its rulings; instead, it relies on respect for the Constitution and for the law for adherence to its judgments.

When the Court rules on matters involving the interpretation of laws rather than of the Constitution, simple legislative action can reverse the decisions. Also, the Supreme Court is not immune from political and institutional consideration: lower federal courts and state courts sometimes resist doctrinal innovations, as do law enforcement officials.

In addition, the other two branches can restrain the Court through other mechanisms. Congress can increase the number of justices, giving the President power to influence future decisions by appointments. Congress can pass legislation that restricts the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and other federal courts over certain topics and cases: this is suggested by language in Section 2 of Article Three, where the appellate jurisdiction is granted "with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make." On the other hand, through its power of judicial review, the Supreme Court has defined the scope and nature of the powers and separation between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

Law clerks

Each Supreme Court justice hires several law clerks to review petitions for writ of certiorari, research them, prepare bench memorandums, and draft opinions. Associate justices are allowed four clerks. The chief justice is allowed five clerks. Generally, law clerks serve a term of one to two years.

Politicization of the Court

Clerks hired by each of the justices of the Supreme Court are often given considerable leeway in the opinions they draft. "Supreme Court clerkship appeared to be a nonpartisan institution from the 1980s into the 2000s", according to a study published in 2013 by the law review of Vanderbilt University Law School. "As law has moved closer to mere politics, political affiliations have naturally and predictably become proxies for the different political agendas that have been pressed in and through the courts", former federal court of appeals judge J. Michael Luttig said. David J. Garrow, professor of history at the University of Cambridge, stated that the Court had thus begun to mirror the political branches of government. "We are getting a composition of the clerk workforce that is getting to be like the House of Representatives", Professor Garrow said. "Each side is putting forward only ideological purists."

According to the Vanderbilt Law Review study, this politicized hiring trend reinforces the impression that the Supreme Court is "a superlegislature responding to ideological arguments rather than a legal institution responding to concerns grounded in the rule of law."