The Erratic Present, and Unpredictable Future, of the Legal System under Trump

Nick Beard
Nick Beard

It would be foolish not to begin this blog with a note that President-elect Donald Trump has often been proved to be erratic and difficult to predict.  Accordingly, any forecasts of his decisions while in government should be judged with a healthy scepticism and a caveat that during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has changed his position on several issues likely to be adjudicated during his presidency – abortion rights, funding by wealthy corporations, marriage equality and free access of the press.

Throughout the campaign, the prerogative of the next president to elect at least one member of the Supreme Court was widely discussed.  While President Obama appointed Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, the Senate has successfully prevented the hearing to confirm Garland to this position and seems unlikely to continue to block this appointment until the end of Obama’s term.  It was often touted as a major reason that Americans affiliated with a political party and uncomfortable with their party’s nominee should still vote for them.  President Clinton or Trump would provide the nominee to fill Scalia’s seat and with only one justice currently under the age of 60, any slots made available by retirement of a justice over the next four to eight years.

Donald Trump has released a list of potential justices he would consider elevating to the Supreme Court: all 11 were appointed by Republican politicians, all 11 are white and 8 of the 11 are men.  Interestingly, he had previously cited his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry (considered to be a broad defender of abortion rights) as a possible Supreme Court nominee.  This is particularly significant, as Trump has identified abortion as one of the most pressing current topics facing the Supreme Court.  The leading case, Roe v. Wade, which allows women the right to privacy in order to access a termination in the first trimester of their pregnancy, has been restricted by Planned Parenthood v. Casey, to allow restrictions to be placed on abortion access, as long as these restrictions do not place an undue burden on the woman.  This was reinforced in the recent Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case (in a 5-3 decision determined after Scalia’s death), where the majority of the Court argued that the onerous restrictions on abortion clinics were not intended to safeguard women’s health, but to make abortion access more difficult.  Proponents of abortion rights are concerned that a change in the make up of the Court would allow abortion access to be steadily chiselled away through increasing unrealistic requirements for women’s health centres.

Another Supreme Court case which was discussed widely during the 2016 election was Citizens United v. FEC.  The 2010 case, decided 5 to 4, has prevented the Federal Elections Commission from limiting the amount of money which could be raised and spent as part of presidential campaigns, leading to the accusation that candidates were indebted to wealthy donors and their agendas .  Donald Trump, throughout his campaign, bemoaned the role of financial lobbying in presidential election.  As part of his populace platform, he often cited the corrupting influence of large campaign donations and claimed that due to his large personal fortune, he would be able to self-fund the majority of his campaign.  Trump did, however, receive large individual and corporate donations and despite promises to “drain the swamp” of money in Washington,  has already hired former lobbyists to aid his transition team, as well as hiring a recent president of Citizens United (the lobby group which brought the relevant court case) to serve within his campaign.  This would indicate that while Trump has been publicly critical of the decision, he has made no tangible policy proposals for campaign finance reform.

Donald Trump will definitely have the task of appointing one judge to the Supreme Court and depending on future retirement of justices, up to four vacancies.  His position on constitutional law seems to be uneven and erratic, without thoughtful contributions as to the role of the judiciary.  Perhaps as he assumes the role of the President, his exposure to the original American concept of judicial review and the importance of judicial oversight of congressional and executive action will increase – but as always with Donald Trump, who can guess?

Nick Beard is a PhD Student and Scholar at the School of Law, University of Sussex

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Access to information should not be an after-thought in plans for ‘transforming our justice system’

Judith Townend
Judith Townend

Cross posted with permission from The Transparency Project

On 15th September 2016 the Ministry of Justice opened its consultation into “Transforming Our Justice System”. The 36 page document, accompanied by a statement by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, sets out a “vision” for a radical overhaul and major financial investment in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The plans for reform include more use of case officers for routine tasks, more decisions made “on the papers” (where a judge can consider representations without a physical hearing), more virtual hearings, and more cases resolved out of court.

The consultation document concentrated on some specific areas of reform including its “assisted digital” strategy (to help users access services), and online conviction and statutory fixed fine plans. The latter would allow for certain routine, low-level summary, non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim to be resolved entirely online, whereby a defendant would enter their plea to an online system. If that’s a guilty plea they would be able to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.

Responses were sought on online convictions and the “assisted digital” strategy by 10th November (extended after an administrative error). It is likely that many of the responses will focus on the access to justice issues and the risks of an online plea system; research by the charity Transform Justice, for example, indicates that “many unrepresented defendants do not understand whether they are guilty or innocent in legal terms – whether they have a valid defence – and certainly don’t understand the full implications of each option”.

However, there’s another major issue which is overlooked in the consultation, that of access to courts and tribunals by members of the public who are not necessarily directly involved with proceedings — this includes members of the media, NGOs and universities, but also ordinary people who wish to observe proceedings and access the information to which they are legitimately entitled.

Although the consultation document contains a pledge that the judiciary and government will “continue to ensure open justice”, access to proceedings and materials is not explored in any detail in relation to the specific reforms outlines on online convictions and “assisted digital”. It states the “principle of open justice will be upheld and the public will still be able to see and hear real-time hearings, whilst we continue to protect the privacy of the vulnerable” (p.5). This sentence points to a very important tension in complex digital environments, and one that needs overt recognition and detailed consideration when designing new access systems for online court procedures in both civil and criminal contexts.

There is mention of “transparency” in the joint statement (p.10) but only in relation to general data about proceedings (i.e. statistics) rather than with regard to access to proceedings. The Impact Assessment on Online Convictions mentions that “Listings and results would be published” (p.5, para 23) with no indication of whether this means to the open web (indefinitely?), or in a physical courtroom. If they intend to publish the full listings for all these summary only non-imprisonable offences to the open web, it is very important that the judiciary and MoJ consider the legal and societal implication of this — it is not something that has previously been done so systematically by the court.

Given that many major criminal convictions are unreported by the media owing to a lack of resource or interest, we could end up in a strange situation where there is greater access via online search for far less serious offences and this must be considered in the context of issues such as equal opportunities and potential barriers to work, as well as open justice and transparency. The MoJ, HMCTS and Judiciary should investigate a range of technological options for sharing data from courts and tribunals and should open these proposals to scrutiny through stakeholder research and official consultation.

In the annual University of Sussex Draper Lecture 2016 in London this week (8 November), Lord Justice Fulford (a summary of which may be found here) said that one option being considered was to provide viewing centres in public buildings, but these were early days and they were still looking for imaginative solutions. It would seem perverse, given the overall agenda of the reforms, for the courts not to consider digital access options that do not require physical travel to court.  

On behalf of the Transparency Project I have written a submission to the consultation, raising our overall concern about the lack of attention given to open justice and access to information in these initial documents. Our submission urges the Ministry of Justice and Judiciary to provide more detail on their specific plans for physical and digital access to virtual proceedings and to open these plans to further consultation. Too often, public access to courts information is an afterthought, which leads to mistakes such as the inadvertent release of sensitive and confidential data, or insufficient information and access being made available.

Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project Core Group.

Hurrah for the judges and the rule of law

Sue Millns
Sue Millns

The judgment of the High Court of 3 November 2016 about the process that should be followed to enable the UK to leave the EU raises profound questions of constitutional significance for the United Kingdom.

At the centre of the case is the legal question of whether or not the government is entitled to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (the exit provision under EU law) solely by the exercise of the Crown’s prerogative powers (meaning that this is purely an executive decision which can be made by the Prime Minister) or whether reference must be had to Parliament (the democratically elected, legislative body).

High Court judges wearing traditional red and white robes - photo courtesy of FruitMonkey (CC BY-SA 3.0)High Court judges wearing their traditional red and white robes. Photo © FruitMonkey (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The government, in suggesting that it could use the prerogative to put in motion the procedure contained in Article 50, relied on the suggestion that the conduct of international relations, including the making and unmaking of treaties (as is the case here), is a matter that falls within the Crown’s prerogative powers.

The judges have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to ensure that the system of constitutional checks and balances is respected.

The Unwritten Constitution

Putting politics to one side for a moment, which is exactly what independent judicial authority is required to do, the legal question is tricky to resolve because the United Kingdom, unlike most states, does not have a written Constitution.

We have an unwritten system of constitutional arrangements, conventions, doctrines, some parliamentary legislation (like the European Communities Act of 1972) and case law (decisions of the judges). We do not therefore have an easily accessible text which sets out the rules of the constitutional game. Instead we are left to follow principles derived from an array of sources which have amassed over time with varying degrees of force and authority.

Resolving the thorny legal question at the heart of this dispute is exactly what the three judges of the High Court had to do in their landmark decision of 3 November.

At the heart of the legal problem lies the question of the extent of the Crown’s powers under the royal prerogative. The prerogative, which is a key aspect of the UK’s unwritten constitutional arrangements, refers to those residuary (arbitrary) powers which continue to remain with the Crown (or executive) despite the sovereignty of Parliament (which was confirmed in statute by the 1689 Bill of Rights following the Glorious Revolution).

The Crown (i.e government or executive power) cannot override legislation enacted by Parliament simply through its use of the prerogative.

The government argued that it could legitimately use the prerogative to give notice under Article 50 of its intention to begin the process of leaving the EU. This process would have the effect of taking away, or putting an end to, rights derived from EU law and incorporated into domestic UK law by the 1972 European Communities Act once the process was completed.

A photo of the High Court building in LondonThe Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the High Court judges made their ruling. Photo © sjiong (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What the judges of the High Court found, however, was that the government’s argument was not supported by the constitutional law of the UK.  The most fundamental rule of the UK’s constitution is the principle of parliamentary sovereignty or legislative supremacy. This means that Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the country and that it can make or unmake any law it chooses.

The Crown (ie government or executive power) cannot override legislation enacted by Parliament simply through its use of the prerogative. That would be precisely the effect were the Crown to trigger Article 50 without reference to Parliament.

The completion of the Article 50 withdrawal process would result in the loss of rights for individuals. However, what Parliament has given (through the 1972 Act) can only be taken away by Parliament. It should escape no one that the desire of those supporting Brexit – that the UK parliament should have its sovereignty better respected – is precisely the outcome of the High Court’s decision.

Respect for the Rule of Law

Much of the media commentary surrounding the decision of the High Court has been about the lack of accountability of the judges in the face of the majority victory in the referendum for leaving the EU (51.9% against 48.1%).

Who are the judges to fly in the face of the wishes of the majority who voted for Brexit? The answer to this question is that the judges, far from being the ‘enemies of the people’ as the popular press would have us believe, are the independent authority whose task it is to uphold the rule of law in the midst of a political storm.

For centuries governments and executive authorities have attempted to usurp individual rights and freedoms through the use of regulatory powers.

The judges have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to ensure that the system of constitutional checks and balances is respected. The judges are there to provide independent judicial review of executive action to ensure precisely that the executive/Crown/Prime Minister act within their powers and do not act unlawfully or against the wishes of a sovereign Parliament. The judges are the guarantors of individual rights and liberties and it is absolutely their role to defend the Constitution, to defend the rule of law, against the arbitrary and unaccountable use of executive power.

For centuries governments and executive authorities have attempted to usurp individual rights and freedoms through the use of regulatory powers and judicial review of executive action is exactly the legal tool required in order to ensure that the use of executive power is not arbitrary, unlawful or ultra vires. This is precisely the role of the judges and the purpose of a Constitution (written or otherwise) and for that we should all be thankful.

How curious then that the Lord Chancellor and justice secretary, Liz Truss, should be so underwhelming in her endorsement of the principle of judicial independence and so lacklustre in her defence of the judiciary in the face of hostile media attacks. The Bar Council of England and Wales has lost no time in pointing out the absence of leadership shown by the Lord Chancellor and has rightly expressed concern about the rule of law being undermined in the name of press freedom.

A photo of Liz Truss, current Home Secretary, standing at a podiumLord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Liz Truss was criticised for her lukewarm response to criticism of the judiciary following the ruling of 3 November. Photo © Policy Exchange (CC BY 2.0)

Not surprisingly, the government is appealing against the judgment of the High Court with a decision expected in December. This will enable the Justices of the Supreme Court (exceptionally all of them) to consider the strength of legal argument on both sides and a further, ironic, twist in the story could then be a preliminary reference to the EU’s Court of Justice in Luxembourg for its interpretation on the matter.

What is clear is that this profoundly important judgment of the High Court will resonate for years to come and that resonance comes not so much from the political consequences of the decision, but from its statement about the boundaries and the limits of executive power.

 

Professor Susan Millns is Head of the Department of Law in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex.