Intelligence Law School - Course 1: Lesson 6.1.4 Supreme Court Precedent [HTML-Only]


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LESSON 6: HIERARCHY OF LEGAL SOURCES


6.1 Hierarchy of Judicial Opinions


6.1.4 Supreme Court Precedent


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6.1.4 Supreme Court Precedent

6.1.4.1 Constitutional Interpretation

Let’s go back to the Supreme Court for a second.

There’s a difference in the effect of Supreme Court holdings on matters of constitutional interpretation and matters of statutory interpretation that might not be obvious to you.

 

As I’ve said a million times before, the holdings of the Supreme Court represent the supreme law of the land binding on all lower courts as well as the other branches of government.

The effect of a Supreme Court holding on a matter of constitutional law can only be overturned or superseded by an amendment to the Constitution or a subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court itself.

Both are incredibly rare, so when the Supreme Court issues a constitutional law holding it will likely remain the law of the land for quite some time.

 

 6.1.4.2 Statutory Interpretation

The holdings of the Supreme Court in cases interpreting the application of federal statutes likewise represent the supreme law of the land in the United States and will prevail over conflicting interpretations by lower courts or the other two branches of government as a technical matter.

Unlike constitutional decisions, however, the Supreme Court’s holdings on matters of statutory interpretation can be, in effect, overturned by Congress if Congress decides to amend the statutory language that was at issue in the Supreme Court’s statutory law decision.

Ø  United States v. Mink (1973): For example, in a 1973 case, Environmental Protection Agency v. Mink,[1] the Supreme Court interpreted the Freedom of Information Act to allow the Executive Branch to unilaterally exempt all documents from disclosure simply by stamping them secret.

o   Moreover, the Court interpreted this prerogative to forbid courts from examining supposedly “classified” documents in camera to determine if the classification decision was made in good faith.

o   This decision allowed Executive Branch officials to classify documents having nothing to do with national security simply to avoid public scrutiny.

Ø  Congress disagreed with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of its FOIA statute, so it amended FOIA in 1974 to require the classification of documents to take place pursuant to lawful procedures and substantive criteria set out in an Executive Order.[2]

o   It also requires that such classifications be properly made, which explicitly allows courts to examine whether the classification decision was legitimate or not.[3]

 

6.1.4.3 Summary of Congress’s Power to Supersede a Supreme Court Holding Interpreting a Federal Statute

The bottom line is that a Supreme Court holding on a matter of constitutional interpretation will always trump all contrary interpretations by lower courts or even the other two branches of government unless they can garner enough support to amend the Constitution itself—which is very unlikely.

Supreme Court holdings on matters of statutory interpretation are just as binding as a technical matter, but since Congress controls the text of federal statutes it can always supersede a statutory holding by the Supreme Court simply by changing the text of the statute the Supreme Court interpreted.

 

Footnotes

[1] Environmental Protection Agency v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73 (1973) (Official Case Syllabus: "Respondent Members of Congress brought suit under the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 to compel disclosure of nine documents that various officials had prepared for the President concerning a scheduled underground nuclear test.  All but three were classified as Top Secret or Secret under E. O. 10501, and petitioners represented that all were inter-agency or intra-agency documents used in the Executive Branch's decisionmaking processes.  The District Court granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that each of the documents was exempt from compelled disclosure by 5 U. S. C. § 552 (b)(1) (hereafter Exemption 1), excluding matters "specifically required by Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of the national defense or foreign policy," and § 552 (b)(5) (hereafter Exemption 5), excluding "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party . . . in litigation with the agency." The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding (a) that Exemption 1 permits nondisclosure of only the secret portions of classified documents but requires disclosure of the nonsecret components if separable, and (b) that Exemption 5 shields only governmental "decisional processes" and not factual information unless "inextricably intertwined with policy-making processes." The District Court was ordered to examine the documents in camera to determine both aspects of separability.  Held: 1. Exemption 1 does not permit compelled disclosure of the six classified documents or in camera inspection to sift out "non-secret components," and petitioners met their burden of demonstrating that the documents were entitled to protection under that exemption. Pp. 79-84. 2. Exemption 5 does not require that otherwise confidential documents be made available for a district court's in camera inspection regardless of how little, if any, purely factual material they contain.  In implying that such inspection be automatic, the Court of Appeals order was overly rigid; and petitioners should be afforded the opportunity of demonstrating by means short of in camera inspection that the documents sought are clearly beyond the range of material that would be available to a private party in litigation with a Government agency.  Pp. 85-94.").

[2] Pub. L. No. 93-502, § 4, 88 Stat. 1564 (Nov. 21, 1974). The new provision is codified at 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1) (“This section does not apply to matters that are--(A) specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and (B) are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive order”).

[3] 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)(B) (“This section does not apply to matters that are--(A) specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy and (B) are in fact properly classified pursuant to such Executive order”) (emphasis added).

 


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