Friday, August 2, 2013

Standards of Review

The flurry of Supreme Court decisions at the end of the term tackled some of the most contentious social topics in our national dialogue, with much weight given to how the "conservative" or "liberal" justices voted.  Predicting the outcome of a case is nearly impossible, even when taking into account the assumed ideology of the nine Justices.  Recent polls show the high court approval rating at new lows, with only 28% affirming the Supreme Court as doing a "good" or "excellent" job.  Many news pundits are quick to point to a partisan court divided between the conservatives and liberals as the main reason the court's approval rating has tumbled.  The hyper-partisan 5-4 votes are the cases which make headlines, but the reality is over 50% of all cases in the last term were unanimous 9-0 decisions.  These cases are all incredibly important, but the large consensus does not make for high ratings.  While political ideology inevitably affects the Supreme Court decisions in some capacity, there are set legal theories which the nine Justices follow to help them analyze the case based on the law, constitution, and facts. 

One critical legal theory used by the Supreme Court is known as the Standards of Review, and is applied typically in civil litigation linked to the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  As one of the most litigated portions of the U.S. Constitution, it was adopted in 1868 as a response to the Civil War during the efforts of Reconstruction.  Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment is what has become referred to as the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause and states:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The three tiered test known as the Standards of Review has been adopted by the Supreme Court as a legal method to look at cases which come before them and deal with the Equal Protection Clause.  Congress often has to pass legislation which deals with the classification the placement of restrictions on certain persons, either purposeful advantage or disadvantage.  An example of this would be citizens who are 20 and not legally allowed to drink alcohol in the U.S., while those who are 21 are permitted to drink.  This is a law which classifies and singles out certain individuals because the government claims there is a compelling government interest which validates the age limit for alcohol consumption.  The drinking age law prohibits anyone under the age of 21 from drinking and places a limit on their freedom.  This is where the Standards of Review comes into play and helps the Justices examine laws to determine if they are legitimate and serve a compelling government interest.  The three standards of review are: 1) Rational Basis - minimum scrutiny, 2) Intermediate Scrutiny - middle-tier scrutiny, and 3) Strict Scrutiny - most narrow level of scrutiny.  Here is a chart that helps break down the levels of scrutiny, and explain the steps the Supreme Court would take in deciding if a law is valid or unconstitutional.

STEP 1. The Supreme Court Justices decide - WHAT IS THE CLASSIFICATION APPLIED?
a) The classification is on the face of the law or
b) If the law is facially neutral; there is both a discriminatory intent and a discriminatory impact
STEP 2. The Supreme Court Justices decide - WHAT IS THE LEVEL OF SCRUTINY?
Strict Scrutiny
Law must be necessary to achieve a compelling government purpose.
·         Race
·         National Origin
·         Alienage –generally
·         Travel
·         Parenting
·         Marriage
·         Procreation
·         Abortion = undue burden test
·         Voting
·         Gun Ownership
·         Privacy
·         Religion
Intermediate Scrutiny
Law must be substantially related to an important government purpose. (Gender) Government must show exceedingly persuasive justification for the discrimination
·         Gender
·         Illegitimacy
·         Undocumented Alien Children
·         Right to Refuse Medical Treatment (possibly if related to religion)
·         Homosexual Activity
Rational Basis
Law must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest
·         Alienage classifications related to self-government and democratic process  
·         Congressional regulation of aliens
·         Age
·         Handicap
·         Wealth/Poverty
·         All other classifications
STEP 3. The Supreme Court Justices decide - DOES THE LAW MEET THE LEVEL OF SCRUTINY?

I hope this chart helps break down the three levels of scruitny that are part of the Standards of Review test.  The Supreme Court is able to apply this legal theory when relevant cases come before them, and allows the Justices to approach a case using the same legal reasoning.  While you will likely hear the 5-4 decisions on the news, legal theories like the level of scrutiny is what helps the court actually have a majority of their opinions unanimous 9-0 decisions!

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