Posts Tagged ‘1st Amendment’


Judicial Absurdity in Oklahoma

   Posted by: Robert    in Law, News

Reporting on the matter so far is sparse, but it appears that there may be an activist federal district judge in Oklahoma who has decided to begin the work of frustrating the will of the people.  The case involves an Oklahoma ballot measure to amend the state’s constitution to clarify what lines of authority the state’s courts are allowed to use in performing their judicial function.  The amendment language, among other things, calls out Sharia law as being one line of authority that Oklahoma’s courts are to specifically avoid using.  A Muslim activist sued, prompting Chief Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange, appointed by Clinton in 1994 to the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, to issue an injunction against the measure pending a hearing on its constitutionality under the Federal Constitution.  Far from enjoining the law pending a hearing, this lawsuit should have been dismissed as frivolous without so much as a second thought.

The Oklahoma International Law Amendment of 2010 amends the state constitution with the following language (emphasis added):

The Courts provided for in subsection A of this section, when exercising their judicial authority, shall uphold and adhere to the law as provided in the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Constitution, the United States Code, federal regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, established common law, the Oklahoma Statutes and rules promulgated pursuant thereto, and if necessary the law of another state of the United States provided the law of the other state does not include Sharia Law, in making judicial decisions. The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international or Sharia Law. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to mistake the clear purpose of this language.  The people of Oklahoma want their courts deciding cases based on US law.  Though much more specific, this is no different than the thrust of the Federal Constitution which limits courts to cases “arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority.” (US Const. Article III)

The argument apparently being made against the Oklahoma amendment is twofold. The complaint apparently alleges that the amendment stigmatizes the Muslim religion and would invalidate the complainant’s will, which is based on Sharia law.  In reality, the Oklahoma amendment does no such thing.

The fact that the amendment calls out Sharia law has nothing to do in any way with religion, and certainly does not stigmatize Muslim.  The amendment cites certain authorities of non-domestic character which judges are meant to specifically avoid, including “international or Sharia Law.”  Both international (sometimes called foreign) law and Sharia law are notable in two important ways.  First, international law and Sharia law differ from traditional US law in a variety of important ways, which could easily lead a judge to rule in a way contrary to the legal traditions of America.  Second, and probably more importantly, actual judges deciding actual cases have used international and Sharia law to reach results which are (at least arguably) contrary to the letter and spirit of US domestic law.  Were Sharia law not being used to (arguably) circumvent US law, there would have been no reason to name it in the amendment.

As far as the complainant’s will is concerned, his belief that the amendment would cause it to become invalid seriously misunderstands the plain meaning of the amendment.  A will, in basic terms, is a legal document that establishes instructions for how to dispose of an estate following a person’s death.  Courts enforce wills though a body of US domestic law known as Probate.  Probate law, though not perfectly so, is largely indifferent to the specific instructions provided in an individual’s will and focuses, instead, on providing a general framework for executing the instructions, whatever they may be.  When courts interpret wills, probate law generally requires that wills be evaluated on their own terms.  Thus, when presented with a Sharia will, a court “adher[ing] to the law as provided in … Oklahoma [s]tatutes” must consider the will as a valid instruction set, irrespective of its religious backing, as long as it doesn’t conflict with with probate law.  Of course, if there is a conflict, probate law must win; but that’s true of all wills, not just those inspired by Sharia principles.

The American people are well within their right to insist that judges follow, first and foremost, US domestic law as defined by constitution, statute, and American legal tradition.  The people of Oklahoma have identified two bodies of non-domestic law which are of special significance to today’s legal landscape because real judges in actual cases have begun using them in ways contrary to domestic law.

Because the Oklahoma amendment is perfectly justifiable on non-religious grounds and does not interfere with religious practice, there is no reason to think it may be unconstitutional.  The lawsuit against it should be dismissed.

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Corporate Personhood and Citizens United

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

Much has been made in the press and the blogosphere about the Supreme Court’s supposed embrace of some concept of corporate “personhood” falling out of the decision in Citizens United v. FEC.  Most of this discussion seems to key from the dissent filed by Justice Stevens, which spends a fair amount of time diving into that very issue.  Exactly where this concept is to be found in the majority opinion eludes me.  Justice Kennedy’s writing may take a long and winding road to get to the same place that The Chief Justice and Justice Scalia would reach in far fewer pages, but even he avoids wandering off into the wilderness of anthropomorphisis.  Nor does the Constitution offer any reason to think that corporate personhood is somehow necessary to support the Court’s holding.

The language of the First Amendment is simple and absolute: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”  Based on that language, the operation of the amendment is not difficult to understand: It points out a thing which Congress may not do.  The amendment is written without reference to persons or corporations and without reference to the type, content, or character of speech.  If a law is an abridgment of the freedom of speech, Congress shall make no law causing it.

Nobody has argued that the law in question is anything other than an abridgment of (corporate) speech.

The lack of reference to personhood in the First Amendment is noteworthy in light of some of the other “rights” to which a person-corporation would presumably be entitled.  The most frequent straw man that I have seen is to the right of a person-corporation to vote.  But this comparison is untenable when the text of the First Amendment is compared to the text of the Fifteenth, which speaks of “[t]he right of the citizens of the United States.” (emphasis added)  Neither the majority in Citizens United nor the First Amendment rest the right secured on citizenship, whereas the Fifteenth Amendment does so explicitly.

The notion that Citizens United is somehow dependent on a concept of corporate personhood is further discredited by considering the original understanding of what the Bill of Rights sought to accomplish.  One of the founding era arguments against the Bill of Rights was the understanding that none of the things which it explicitly forbade Congress from doing were within Congress’s power in the first place.  Nowhere do the Articles of the Constitution suggest that Congress has the authority to limit the freedom of speech.  Nowhere does the Constitution suggest that Congress gets additional power when legislating against a corporation.  The Articles, thus, reinforce the understanding that corporate personhood is entirely irrelevant to the conclusions reached by the Court in Citizens United.

Although the attempted reducto ad absurdum argument of corporate personhood sounds interesting, in reality it is little more than a meaningless straw man.  Corporate personhood is not required for the Court to have decided Citizens United as it did, and the Court gave no particular indication that it was doing so.  While there may be other precedents that point in the direction of regarding corporations as human beings, I am sure that Citizens United, if read honestly, does not belong listed among them.

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