Raich, Pregerson & Prediction

Yesterday I presented a couple of papers at the Georgetown Constitutional Theory colloquium (or whatever they call it exactly). One of the papers I distributed as background included substantial discussion of the Raich case in the Supreme Court. As it happened, one of my hosts was Randy Barnett, who argued the case in the Supreme Court and in the Ninth Circuit, and so naturally our discussion turned at some point to Wednesday’s Ninth Circuit ruling, about which I posted yesterday. We were puzzling over why Judge Pregerson insisted on reading Glucksberg’s requirement that courts begin substantive due process cases with a “careful” description of the right as meaning that the right should be described “narrowly.”

My first cut was straightforward: That’s more or less what Rehnquist meant by “careful” as he used the term in Glucksberg. I worked with the plaintiffs in that case and we took great pains to make clear that we were not asking the Court to recognize a right to suicide, but instead a right of a terminally ill patient to control the timing and circumstances of his or her death. Nonetheless, Rehnquist framed the case as seeking a right to suicide that includes a right to physician assistance. Once framed that way, the case was effectively over, and so Judge Pregerson could have plausibly read Glucksberg as requiring rights to be framed in a way that defeats them. (Note that I say “in a way that defeats them” rather than “narrowly” because the Glucksberg Court actually framed the right more broadly than we wanted or asked it to.)

But then, to repeat the question I asked yesterday, why did Judge Pregerson not also consider that in Lawrence the Supreme Court did not re-frame the issue in a way that undermined the plaintiffs’ claims? Instead of characterizing that case as involving, for example, a general right to sexual liberty (likely too broad to win approval) or a right to have same-sex anal sex (likely too narrow to win approval), Justice Kennedy accepted the plaintiffs’ framing of a right of intimate association that includes control over adult consensual sexual acts. The Lawrence opinion doesn’t exactly say that there is such a right, because it’s unclear what level of scrutiny the Court applies, but it also doesn’t adopt the Glucksberg framing. So what gives with Pregerson?

Professor Barnett suggested that Pregerson accepted the Glucksberg approach because he, Pregerson, was predicting that if the case made it up to the Supreme Court, there would be five votes for using that approach---at least in a case involving medical marijuana. And, Barnett said, that’s probably a good prediction in light of the questions Justice Kennedy asked during the oral argument in Raich, which were quite hostile to the plaintiffs’ arguments.

For me, this raises the question of whether a lower court judge should base his ruling in an area of uncertainty on his prediction of how individual Justices currently on the Court would vote, rather than his own best judgment about what the law is or should be. The Supreme Court decision in Raich 1 was not, after all, a holding on the substantive due process issue, and so nothing in that case bound the 9th Circuit in in Raich 2. My own view, which I argued at some length in a 1995 article in the UCLA Law Review, is that except in a few unusual circumstances, the job of lower court judges is to make their best legal judgment, not to predict the legal judgment of those who may end up reversing them. Here, I’ll just reproduce the barest core of the argument: "The prediction [approach] undermines the ideal of the impartial judge. It conceptualizes a high court as the sum total of the views of the individual judges. By contrast, the ideal of impartiality requires that judges attempt to separate their individual views from the requirements of the law. Thus, even if the high court judges are persons of impeccable character, the prediction model undermines the ideal of impartiality by equating particular high court judges' views with the law."