Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is Justice Kennedy part of the problem for high sentences?

The NY Times has this interesting editorial about Justice Kennedy and his comments criticizing too high sentences being doled out by our justice system:

Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke out against excessive prison sentences this month in California, criticizing the state’s deeply misguided three-strikes law. It was a welcome message, delivered with unusual force. Much of the blame for the law, however, lies with the Supreme Court, which upheld it in a decision on which Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote.
The overall tone of Justice Kennedy’s address to the Pepperdine University School of Law was “courtly and humorous,” according to The Los Angeles Times. He turned more serious, however, on the subject of incarceration. Sentences in the United States are eight times longer than those handed out in Europe, Justice Kennedy said. California has 185,000 people in prison at a cost of $32,500 each per year, he said. He urged voters and elected officials to compare taxpayer spending on prisons with spending on elementary education.

Justice Kennedy took special aim at the three-strikes law, which puts people behind bars for 25 years to life if they commit a third felony, even a nonviolent one. The law’s sponsor, he said, is the correctional officers’ union, “and that is sick.”

The criticism was on the mark. The state’s prison population has soared as a result of harsh sentencing laws and parole rules. California has been ordered by the courts to bring down the population of its prison system, which is badly overcrowded and unable to provide inmates with adequate medical care.


It’s not that the court is insensitive to excessive punishments. It has repeatedly thrown them out — when they are against corporations. In 2003, the year the court rejected Mr. Ewing’s case, it overturned a $145 million punitive damage award against the State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company as so excessive that it violated the 14th Amendment due process clause.

Justice Kennedy is right that elected officials and voters should pay more attention to overincarceration. But courts also need to do their part by enforcing constitutional prohibitions on excessive punishment in cases involving people, as well as corporations.

The Times is of course correct -- sentences are way too long in this country. More needs to be done to limit them... The pendulum has finally started to swing in this direction with Booker and district judges being given discretion in most cases to fashion appropriate sentences. Now we need to abolish min/mans.

On to other Supreme Court news -- Justice Scalia says there is no right to secede. He said so in a letter to a screenwriter (who happens to be the brother of a law blogger). How cool:

Dan is a screenwriter (whose screenplay Tranquility Base was just named a finalist at the Vail Film Festival, and previously took top honors elsewhere). Back in 2006 he started working on a political farce that had Maine seceding from the United States and joining Canada.

Bro was well ahead of the tea partiers in contemplating impending problems as we racked up massive debt. This doesn't get him an agent or a foot in the door of Hollywood to get his screenplays made into films -- it isn't what you write, but who you know -- but it does make him a prophet of sorts.

So, on a lark, he wrote to each of the 10 Supreme Court justices (including O'Connor) with this request:

I'm a screenwriter in New York City, and am writing to see if you might be willing to assist me in a project that involves a unique constitutional issue.

My latest screenplay is a comedy about Maine seceding from the United States and joining Canada. There are parts of the story that deal with the legality of such an event and, of course, a big showdown in the Supreme Court is part of the story.

At the moment my story is a 12 page treatment. As an architect turned screenwriter, it is fair to say that I come up a bit short in the art of Supreme Court advocacy. If you could spare a few moments on a serious subject that is treated in a comedic way, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. I'm sure you'll find the story very entertaining.

I told Dan he was nuts. I told him his letter would be placed in the circular file. And then Scalia wrote back. Personally. Explicitly rejecting the right to secede:

I am afraid I cannot be of much help with your problem, principally because I cannot imagine that such a question could ever reach the Supreme Court. To begin with, the answer is clear. If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. (Hence, in the Pledge of Allegiance, "one Nation, indivisible.") Secondly, I find it difficult to envision who the parties to this lawsuit might be. Is the State suing the United States for a declaratory judgment? But the United States cannot be sued without its consent, and it has not consented to this sort of suit.

I am sure that poetic license can overcome all that -- but you do not need legal advice for that. Good luck with your screenplay.

So there you have it. At least one vote solidly on record as saying that there is no right to secede. And it likely comes from a place the right wing secessionists most wanted to have a vote.

And yes, Dan still needs an agent. Because writing great scripts isn't enough if you don't know The Powers That Be on the other coast. And, for what it's worth, his now-completed script of Maine joining Canada is better than his award-winning one about a mis-adventure in space.

Here's the actual letter. Neat.

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