Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Supreme Court: Not Always the Last Word

I love words. "They're my work, they're my play, they're my passion. Words are all we have, really."
George Carlin

This may be interesting to some, to others, sorry to bore you.

I used to be under the impression that once the Supreme Court decides a case, it was the end of the road. That was that. There was no other Court, or place to go: those 9 justices had the last word.

But it took me 75k in tuition to learn that what I thought about the Supreme Court was partially wrong.

The Supreme Court hears two types of cases: (1) constitutional law and (2) statutory interpretation.

The constitutional law cases the Supreme Court decides have to due with our constitutional rights: free speech, equal protection of law, the right against unlawful search and seizure are examples of con law cases that the Supreme Court must decide. And when it makes a decision in constitutional law cases- it does have the last word. The Congress the President, the 50 States are all bound by the decision.

But the large percentage of the Court's Docket consists of cases of statutory interpretation. And in these cases, whatever the Supreme Court decides, the President & the Congress can overrule the Supreme Court by simply passing a law.

What are cases of statutory interpretation? It's simple: they are cases that do not involve constitutional law in which the lower federal courts have come to at least two conclusions on what the words in the the actual law mean.

There is a case that the Supreme Court decided recently that was in the New York Slimes that is an excellent example of statutory interpretation.

In Flores-Figueroa v. United States the statute in question was an identity theft law. The question in the case was whether workers who use fake identification numbers to commit some other crimes must know they belong to a real person to be subject to a two-year sentence extension for “aggravated identity theft.”

It all came down to what the word "knowingly" meant in this particular law.

If you knew the Social Security number was false when you used it, was that enough for the two additional years in your jail sentence? Or did you have to know that the card belonged to someone else to get the two additional years added to your sentence?

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in this one: the defendant had to know that the card belonged to someone else in order to receive the additional two years.

Did the Supreme Court Justices have to hit the heavy law books to decide this case? Hardly.

Here is the New York Slimes quoting Justice Breyer, who wrote the Opinion:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in his opinion for the court, said the case should be decided by applying “ordinary English grammar” to the text of the law, which applies when an offender “knowingly transfers, possesses or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person.”

He gave examples from everyday life to support this view. “If we say that someone knowingly ate a sandwich with cheese,” Justice Breyer wrote, “we normally assume that the person knew both that he was eating a sandwich and that it contained cheese.”

Now this decision came down a month or so ago. There is nothing to stop the President & the Congress to pass a bill today that says " We amend the Identify Theft Law to clearly state that the defendant shall receive two additional years in prison just by knowing that the I.D is false,he does not need to know that it belongs to someone else.

At that point, the Supreme Court's decision today would be like Muhammad Ali- rendered mute. It would be effectively overruled by the new law.

You see, I just saved you 75k.

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