Does a 9-0 loss mean the losing argument was “extreme”?

June 26

In his post below, co-blogger Ilya Somin suggests that “President Obama” brought unanimity to the Supreme Court by making such an “extreme” argument in the cell phone case that it caused a 9-0 loss. I think Ilya’s argument rests on an erroneous premise, that the result and vote count in litigation tells us whether the losing argument was extreme.

Consider the government’s argument in the cell phone cases. (For now, group federal and state governments together as “the government.”) The government’s lead argument relied straightforwardly on a Supreme Court precedent. In 1973, the Supreme Court had held in Robinson that a complete search of property on a person was always allowed incident to arrest. The government’s lead argument in the cell phone cases largely on that precedent. A cell phone is property on a person, the government argued; if Robinson allows a complete search of property on a person, it logically includes a cell phone. The government then had backup arguments for why the searches should be allowed even if the Court rejects Robinson.

The Supreme Court rejected the Robinson syllogism by changing the law and creating a brand-new rule: At the time of arrest, officers can search all physical evidence but can’t search computers. I’m glad they did that. But I don’t think it was “extreme” for the government to argue that the Supreme Court’s precedents should continue to apply. The Supreme Court usually follows precedents, as had the lower courts on the government’s side of the split. It would be a bit strange if a litigant with precedent in its favor didn’t at least try to rely on it. At the very least it’s not obvious why it’s outrageous to make such arguments in an adversarial legal system.

Further, it seems misleading to say that this argument was from “President Obama.” Ilya has some fun suggesting that Obama was the uniter, in that he personally brought the Justices together with his positions. But at least in the cell phone cases, the arguments likely were crafted mostly by career lawyers who have been in the government for a long time. The Bush Administration DOJ took the same position back when it existed, at least to the extent that the arguments of DOJ lawyers can be imputed to “the Administration.” And state prosecutors took the same position in their respective state courts and in Riley. It’s the standard position you would expect any prosecutor to take, not something BHO cooked up one afternoon after reading his daily chapter of Saul Alinsky.

More broadly, I think the internal dynamics of the Justices are too contingent to draw easy conclusions from vote counts. Maybe my experience is quirky. But when I was a law clerk, I was struck by how a case that seemed very easy ex ante could somehow emerge 5-4 ex post. And the opposite was true, too: a very hard and close case ex ante could somehow emerge 9-0. The public would assume that the 5-4 cases were close and the 9-0 cases were simple and easy. But at least in my experience, the reality was sometimes far different.

I realize that Ilya’s argument fits into a political narrative. But analytically, I don’t think vote counts are a reliable indicator of whether an argument was extreme.

UPDATE: I have fiddled a bit with this post to clean up some lazy writing.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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