United States v. Stevens: Popular Wisdom May Be Wrong

i October 8, 2009

Two days ago the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in United States v. Stevens, the notorious case involving the constitutionality of a federal statute criminalizing the creation, possession or sale of depictions of certain forms of cruelty to animals. Stevens was convicted of the “sale” prong of the statute.

Commentary in the print, broadcast and electronic media has it that the statute is in deep trouble and may be ruled an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.


But then again, maybe not.

The Popular Wisdom is apparently based on three things that happened at oral argument.

One was the less than sterling performance of the Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, but that does not matter because few appellate cases are won or lost on oral argument. The justices know the law, read the briefs and are assisted by four law clerks.

I have left oral argument believing I’ve won, but lost. And believed I’ve lost, but won.

Second, Justice Scalia adamantly conveyed his displeasure with the statute, as an infringement of free speech. He is, however, but one of nine justices.

Finally, as usual, Justice Thomas asked no question. He rarely does, but nonetheless well understands the core issue in the case and in the past has written opinions which could augur well for the statute’s constitutionality.

However, questions and comments by Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Alito could suggest a decision which would save the statute’s constitutionality.

Almost simultaneously with the publication of this blog on Thursday morning I will be giving a Skype presentation elaborating on these observations and, going out on a long limb, making a prediction of what the Court will decide in this most important case.