Sauce for the Goose Department: Samuel Alito

From Justice Alito’s angry dissent in the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating general and mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile murderers:

Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.

That’s right, Sam.  We certainly don’t want to usurp legislative authority.  Oh, no.  So of course we would never dream of invalidating the Affordable Care Act, right?  Right?

A couple of more serious comments:

1)  Alito would no doubt answer that in the health care cases, the issue is whether the federal government has the authority in the first place.  You can’t usurp authority from a government that doesn’t have it.  But that was also the case with the issue of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles: if the Eighth Amendment applies, then the state government does not have the authority to impose those sentences.  All of which is to say that “judicial activism,” the hobbyhorse that conservatives have used to complain about judicial decisions since Brown v. Board of Education (and yes — they vehemently complained about that one), is essentially a meaningless trope.  For Alito to use it so casually shows that he’s almost as bad a judge as Scalia, which is going some.

2)  Consider just how narrow the Court’s ruling was in this case.  The Court very pointedly did not say that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional: it said that imposing such sentences as a matter of course, legislatively determined, without any sort of individualized process, is unconstitutional.  All of the murderers that Alito discusses in his opinion can be locked up for the rest of their lives.  They just need to have someone actually determine that they individually merit such a sentence.  This prospect is so offensive to Alito that he decided to read his dissent from the bench.  Cutting 30 million people off of health insurance, however, is just a day at the office.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

8 thoughts on “Sauce for the Goose Department: Samuel Alito”

  1. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,
    Adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    So, Jonathon, let me explain to you why it’s perfectly okay for Slingin’ Sammy Alito to vote to overturn PPACA in its entirety, while simultaneously voting to allow mandatory LWP sentences for juvenile offenders. The cases are entirely different: and we know they are entirely different because Sammy says so.

  2. In fairness to Justice Alito, if he writes the ACA opinion, he’ll probably want to read that one from the bench, too.

  3. When I was a kid I rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which meant I hated the Gints. When Preacher Roe pitched inside to Willie Mays he was just “moving Willie off the plate.” On the other hand, when Sal Maglie pitched inside to Duke Snider, he was a “viscious headhunter.”

    So yes, your legal points numbered 1 and 2 are well made. But people, even The Supremes, are human, and it’s hard, sometimes impossible, for them to separate themselves objectively from their deeply held sentiments.

    1. I will repeat the crucial part of your comment: “When I was a kid…”
      and wonder if Alito has matured as much as you.

  4. “But that was also the case with the issue of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles: if the Eighth Amendment applies, then the state government does not have the authority to impose those sentences.”

    I just want to point out that your sentence above is slightly confusing in that it could be read as saying that states cannot impose life sentences on juveniles. I don’t think that is what you meant to say. If so, the Supreme Court struck down MANDATORY life sentences. Juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole under the decision.

  5. I’ll just add that much of the sentiment involved in punishment assumes that the offender had free choice in their actions, and thus can be held morally responsible. I would argue this is actually *never* the case, but regardless, at some point the age of the offender clearly limits their capacity for choice. Is this age ten? Maybe five? Surely three. Which is to say that there is no clear line between our own desire to sate our appetite for vengeance and a rational (at least, arguably) determination of conscious agency.

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