Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Trafficking in Formalism Redux: The Scalian Version

Last week I pointed out the utter formalism of requiring--as apparently, the traffic courts in New York and elsewhere do--that the prosecution introduce proof of such self-evident propositions as that a stop sign is a red octagon with the word "STOP" on it. (Post here). Yesterday's Supreme Court decision in United States v. Resendiz-Ponce is a nice counter-example. There, the Supreme Court acknowledged the general rule that an indictment must set forth the overt acts that the defendant allegedly committed, but held that the word "attempt," standing alone, was sufficient to connote both that the defendant intended to commit the offense (here, entering the country illegally) and took a concrete step toward doing so.

But to vindicate my use of the term "formalism" to describe the contrary approach, the Supreme Court's formalist in chief, Justice Scalia, filed a solo dissent. Scalia's dissent cites substantial prior precedent regarding the requisites of a valid indictment for attempt offenses and other offenses, and unlike the magic words approach of the "you didn't say octagon" traffic court cases, the underlying rule in Resendiz-Ponce has some functional value: It puts the defendant on notice of the specific charge against which he must defend. But even that functional purpose is more theoretical than real, since it appears that even Scalia would allow that an indictment would satisfy him if it stated that the attempt consisted of something as vague as "physical crossing of the border." That would give the defendant slightly more notice than the general allegation of "attempted entry," but it is hard to see how the inclusion of these only slightly more specific words in the indictment would ever make a real difference in the conduct of a case.

Interestingly, Justice Thomas, who typically agrees with Justice Scalia's formalism, did not join him in this one, and indeed, Justice Thomas was the lone dissenter in another case decided yesterday, Medimmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc. There, the issue was whether a patent licensee can bring a declaratory judgment action for invalidity where the licensee has paid royalties. The Court said yes in an opinion by Justice Scalia. Justice Thomas, invoking the highly formal doctrine of Article III standing, dissented. A parting of the ways for the Court's 2 leading formalists?

7 comments:

Sobek said...

You give Scalia too much credit. He didn't require the vague statement "physical crossing of the border," he was okay with the even more vague "took a substantial step" toward attempted crossing.

andy grewal said...

"But even that functional purpose is more theoretical than real...

"it is hard to see how the inclusion of these only slightly more specific words in the indictment would ever make a real difference in the conduct of a case."

You seem to suggest that the other Justices don't pay heed to formalisms, i.e. things that "make a real difference in the conduct of a case." Scalia may be even more formalistic than others, but are not there many, many, many cases in which courts makes much ado about nothing?

I won't bore you with arcane details about tax law, but sometimes-- if not most of the time-- it makes all the difference in the world in how you go about structuring things, even if, at the end of the day, there is no difference in the substance result. Two paths that lead to the same end give rise to distinct tax treatments, and both the Scalias and the Stevenses of the world will respect them according to "form."

Along the same lines, if the legislature (or whoever) has decided that pleading all elements is important, I don't think that it's for judges to say "Well, actually, pleading in detail doesn't make a difference anyway so we are just going to ignore it." I think it's irrelevant that it won't "make a real difference in the conduct of a case." What matters is that the law requires it; *that* is a formalist's approach.


My impression is that the Court did not take a realist view-- i.e. "pleading doesn't matter so who cares"-- but rather took a formalist view, and found that "attempt," due to its broad connotations, actually satified the formal requirements. Again, I only skimmed the case, but the majority opinion strikes me as just as "formalist" as the dissent. Seems like all agreed that formal "notice" was required, but there was a split on whether that formal requirement had been met. If the Court had said the notice requirements were irrelevant because criminals don't read indictments anyway, then I would agree that this case shows the differnece between realism and formalism.

All that being said, I have no idea who was "right" in the case and really did not read it very closely...but the attack on formalism here seems misplaced, and the Resendiz case doesn't strike me as a particularly good example of the difference between formalist views and other views.

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