OK, OK. . . Elena Kagan's been on my ass for the last three hours, desperate to hear the Solipsist's take on the latest round of Supreme Court rulings. OK, Associate Justice Kagan, here we go.
First, the case the Court got unambiguously right: Riley v. California. In this and an associated case, United States v. Wurie, the Court held that law enforcement authorities needed to obtain a warrant before searching through someone's cell phone. Police often looked through cell phones after arresting someone, searching for evidence of criminal activity--which, given today's smartphone technology, could include not only call histories but also photographs, internet searches, journal entries--even, dare we say it, blog posts. Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the pervasiveness of cell phones (and, by extension, in all likelihood, tablets, personal computers, etc.) made them subject to the same protections against "general warrants" enshrined in the Constitution. In other words, police may no more freely rummage through one's personal data contained on an iPhone than they could barge into one's bedroom and rifle through the underwear drawer, unless they first obtain a warrant.
More interesting than the verdict, however, was the acknowledgment by the Court that changing technological standards merited changing interpretations of constitutional actions. Law enforcement officials, for example, equated searching a cellphone with other, more permissible searches of things like wallets or purses. "That," wrote Chief Justice Roberts, "is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon." In other words, as technology changes we must revisit the actions of the Founding Fathers, who codified civic norms in a time vastly different from our own. Just as a cell phone is vastly different from a wallet or an appointment book--and so calls for a different understanding of constitutional protections against unreasonable searches--so, too, is an AK-47 vastly different from a flintlock--and calls for a similar reassessment of the right to keep and bear arms.
Two other unanimous decisions were also decided correctly. I say this begrudgingly, as I am totally sympathetic to the "losing" side in both cases. First, in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, the Court basically said that President Obama had no right to make recess appointments to Executive Branch positions while the US Senate was "in session"--even though these "sessions" were merely pro forma meetings where no business was conducted--and, indeed, whose only purpose was to ensure that President Obama could not make recess appointments. While I abhor the obstructionist tactics of Congressional Republicans, I recognize that a certain amount of political gamesmanship is a fact of American life. And while I generally support President Obama--at least as far as his political appointments go--I am not keen to see any congressional tactic hurriedly eliminated, lest it be useful in the future when, say, someone like Ted Cruz occupies the Oval Office.
I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.
(And lest you accuse me of hypocrisy, I had similar qualms when the Democratic Senate leadership effectively eliminated the use of filibusters last year.)
The other correct if unsatisfying decision concerned the ability of legislatures to establish "buffer zones" around abortion clinics. The aim is laudable: to protect women who seek abortions (or, indeed, any services from clinics such as those run by Planned Parenthood) from harassment by pro-life protesters, legislators have declared that protesters must maintain certain minimum distances from entrances to such facilities. In its decision in McCullen v. Coakley, the Court declared unconstitutional a Massachusetts law, which created a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The law, the justices found, infringed on First Amendment rights to free speech. And while I sympathize with the desire of women not to be accosted by right-wing zealots as they seek to exercise their right to control their own bodies, I think that placing arbitrary (35 feet? Why not 30? Why not 40? Why not 6.5?) restrictions on speech is not the solution. As the Court pointed out, existing laws that prevent harassment and other antisocial behavior can effectively serve the same purpose as the disputed law.
Finally, the case that I just don't understand: ABC v. Aereo. The Court declared that what Aereo was doing was bad and wrong and must be stopped. Now, I had never heard of Aereo before yesterday. Apparently, it's a service that allows people to "pick up" the broadcast signals of the major television networks through a series of antennas. The networks were upset that Aereo was allowing people to do this. But unless I'm mistaken, this is how television always used to work! You turned on the TV, you fiddled with your antennas as needed, and you were able to watch "The Incredible Hulk" at grandma's house. When did this become illegal?
Anyway, Justice Kagan, there you have it. On the whole, you guys did a good--if somewhat unsatisfying--job. Now, if you'll excuse me, "Judge Judy" is on, and I need to fiddle with the ol' rabbit ears. . . .