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Weaponizing En Banc

Neal Devins, Allison Orr Larsen

The federal courts of appeals embrace the ideal that judges are committed to rule-of-law norms, collegiality, and judicial independence. Whatever else divides them, these judges generally agree that partisan identity has no place on the bench. Consequently, when a court of appeals sits “en banc,” (i.e., collectively) the party affiliations of the three-judge panel under review should not matter. Starting in the 1980s, however, partisan ideology has grown increasingly important in the selection of federal appellate judges. It thus stands to reason—and several high-profile modern examples illustrate—that today’s en banc review could be used as a weapon by whatever party has appointed the most judges on any particular circuit. A weaponized en banc reflects more than just ideological differences between judges. We define the phrase to capture a “team mentality” on the courts of appeals—an us versus them—where the judges vote in blocs aligned with the party of the President who appointed them and use en banc review to reverse panels composed of members from the other team.

In this Article, we test whether en banc review is now or has ever been weaponized. We make use of an original data set—the most comprehensive one of which we are aware—that tracks en banc decisions over six decades. Our findings are surprising in two very different ways. The bulk of our data indicates that rule-of-law norms are deeply embedded. From the 1960s through 2017, en banc review seems to have developed some sort of immunity from partisan behavior over time, and we unpack potential reasons why. But that important and long-lasting immunity could now be in danger. Our data from 2018–2020 show a dramatic and statistically significant surge in behavior consistent with the weaponizing of en banc review. It is too soon to tell whether this is a temporary change or an inflection point indicating a more permanent shift. We consider both possibilities and, in so doing, highlight the critical role that en banc review plays in ascertaining judicial commitment to rule-of-law norms. The time may soon be upon us to confront the cost of en banc review in a regime where party identity frequently trumps other judicial impulses.

Prudence Lost? Separation of Powers and Standing After Lexmark

J. Colin Bradley

In its 2014 decision in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., the Supreme Court began the process of “bringing discipline” to the various elements of prudential standing and suggested that the doctrine as a whole is inconsistent with the Court’s place in the federal separation of powers. Last year, the litany of opinions delivered by a divided Court in June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Russo manifested ongoing confusion about the fate of prohibitions on third-party standing and generalized grievances—two of the traditional prongs of prudential standing. This Note documents the heterogeneous approaches to prudential standing taken in the lower federal courts since Lexmark, and argues that this confusion is partly attributable to the Court’s misleading analysis of the role of judge-made gatekeeping doctrines in our federal system. Judge-made gatekeeping rules are ubiquitous in the federal judiciary, and courts have adopted a wide-range of approaches in the wake of Lexmark’s failure to identify a principle that could cabin its disfavor to only prudential standing rules. This Note argues that courts should instead acknowledge that judge-made gatekeeping rules like prudential standing’s third-party standing rule do a better job than alternatives in upholding the separation of powers values that are at the heart of the Supreme Court’s jurisdictional jurisprudence.

What’s Standing After TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez

Erwin Chemerinsky

The Supreme Court for decades has said that Congress, by statute, may create rights and that the infringement of those rights is a sufficient injury to allow standing to sue in federal court. But in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, in June 2021, the Court said that federal laws creating rights may be a basis for standing only if the right protected is one for which there is “a close historical or common-law analogue.” This principle, if followed, would mean that countless federal laws—ranging from the Freedom of Information Act to civil rights statutes to environmental laws to the prohibition of child labor—could not be enforced in federal court because they create statutory rights that did not exist historically or at common law. Such an approach would be a radical, undesirable change in the law, particularly as a matter of separation of powers. Congress always has had the authority, and should have the power, to create enforceable rights by statute.

Tortious Constructions: Holding Federal Law Enforcement Accountable by Applying the FTCA’s Law Enforcement Proviso over the Discretionary Function Exception

Eric Wang

Courts are reluctant to decide cases alleging abuses by federal law enforcement. This judicial reluctance is largely attributed to the principle of sovereign immunity, which holds that the United States—and therefore the federal government—cannot be sued. However, the sovereign can of its own accord consent to be sued: The federal government provided that consent in 1946 by enacting the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which allows tort suits against the United States. Specifically, a provision of the FTCA—the law enforcement proviso—explicitly states that law enforcement officers are amenable to suit for certain intentional torts. Nevertheless, courts have restricted the proviso’s efficacy through narrow interpretations and undue deference to competing FTCA provisions such as the discretionary function exception.

This Note argues that the law enforcement proviso must be interpreted more broadly to properly hold government officers accountable. It takes on the project of sifting through the FTCA’s complexity and history to articulate why the correct doctrinal approach is to apply the proviso exclusively, superseding any competing provision within the FTCA. It delineates the current spectrum of approaches among the circuit courts, finding that only the Eleventh Circuit has adopted the advocated approach. The Note then justifies this approach under statutory interpretation principles and tort law theory while also considering the practical consequences of a disappearing Bivens remedy. Properly understood, the complexity of the FTCA and the barrier of sovereign immunity fade away: For government activity as intrusive and forceful as law enforcement, a court of law simply must have the ability to hold officers accountable.

Dangerous Citations

Maggie Gardner

This Article considers when optional case citations may do more harm than good. There are valid reasons for citing to non-binding precedent—to promote consistency in the law, for example, or to avoid wasteful redundancy. But unconsidered invocations of non-binding authority may also introduce error into individual opinions and distort the path of the law over time. This Article catalogues such dangerous citations as used in particular by federal district courts citing to other federal district courts with three goals in mind: to help judges use non-binding authority constructively, to help law clerks think critically about their citation practices, and to help readers of judicial opinions question the rhetoric of constraint.

In mapping these problematic uses of non-binding authority, the Article distinguishes between poorly conceived citations and poorly implemented citations. Poorly conceived citations are those for which non-binding precedent is simply not a useful authority. Examples of poorly conceived citations include reliance on prior opinions to establish facts or the content of another sovereign’s laws. Poorly implemented citations are those for which non-binding precedent may be relevant but should be selected and applied with care. Examples of poorly implemented citations include over-extended analogies and reliance on judge-made tests that are misaligned with the question being evaluated. This catalogue of poorly conceived and poorly implemented citations surfaces some common themes, including the need for better-designed tests and the challenges posed by modern research methods. But dangerous citations are not simply a matter of inadvertence, carelessness, or mistake; they may also be deployed for rhetorical purposes, in particular to signal legitimacy and restraint. The Article thus ends with a warning against “performative judging,” or the use of excessive citations to suggest greater constraint than the law in fact provides. Such citations are dangerous not just for the error they may introduce, but also because they obscure judicial choice and the inherently discretionary nature of judging.

Congress’s Article III Power and the Process of Constitutional Change

Christopher Jon Sprigman

Text in Article III of the U.S. Constitution appears to give to Congress authority to make incursions into judicial supremacy, by restricting (or, less neutrally, “stripping”) the jurisdiction of federal courts. Article III gives Congress authority to make “exceptions” to the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Article III also gives Congress discretion whether to “ordain and establish” lower federal courts. Congress’s power to create or abolish these courts would seem to include the power to create them but to limit their jurisdiction, and that is how the power has historically been understood.

Is Congress’s power to remove the jurisdiction of federal courts in effect a legislative power to choose the occasions on which federal courts may, and may not, have the final word on the meaning of the Constitution? That is a question on which the Supreme Court has never spoken definitively.

In this Article I argue that Congress, working through the ordinary legislative process, may remove the jurisdiction of federal and even state courts to hear cases involving particular questions of federal law, including cases that raise questions under the Federal Constitution. Understood this way, the implications of Congress’s Article III power are profound. Congress may prescribe, by ordinary legislation, constitutional rules in areas where the meaning of the Constitution is unsettled. Or it may displace otherwise settled constitutional rules by ordinary legislation.

To be clear, Article III does not permit Congress to escape accountability. Rather, Article III gives to Congress the power to choose whether it must answer, in a particular instance, to judges or to voters. Compared with judicial review, the political constraint is, of course, less formal and predictable. But that does not mean that the political constraint is weak. A successful exercise of its Article III power will require a majority in Congress, and, in most instances, a President, who agree both on the substantive policy at issue and on the political viability of overriding the public expectation that Congress should face a judicial check. In such instances, we should welcome the exercise of Congress’s Article III power. In the push-and-pull between judicially-enforced constitutional rules and the desires of current democratic majorities, the potential for Congress’s exercise of its Article III power helps legitimate both constitutionalism and judicial review.