Sunday, July 06, 2008

A WaPo editorial: journalism at its best

This post concerns a Washington Post editorial (“Supreme Slip-Up,” July 5, 2008) regarding a recent Supreme Court ruling that is factually flawed.

The WaPo editorial documents the error. It explains how it occurred. Then it argues persuasively why it’s in the court’s and the country’s interests that the justices act to correct the error. Here’s the editorial, after which I offer a few comments:

When a newspaper gets its facts wrong, it's supposed to publish a correction, and, if someone's reputation has been harmed, a retraction and apology. It can be embarrassing, but the occasional taste of crow probably does more good than harm to the media's credibility.

But what if the Supreme Court not only blows a key fact but also bases its ruling, in part, on that error?

There was quite a goof in the court's 5 to 4 decision on June 25 banning the death penalty for those who rape children. The majority determined that capital punishment for child rape was unconstitutional, in part because a national consensus had formed against it.

As evidence, the court noted that "37 jurisdictions -- 36 States plus the Federal Government -- have the death penalty. [But] only six of those jurisdictions authorize the death penalty for rape of a child."

Actually, only two years ago, Congress enacted a death penalty for soldiers who commit child rape, as part of an update to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Irony of ironies: The court has cast doubt on the constitutionality of an act of Congress based on the erroneous claim that the statute did not exist.

This is not the court majority's fault alone. In his dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not spot the error. Neither party in the case -- the state of Louisiana and convicted rapist Patrick Kennedy -- raised it. Nor was it mentioned in 10 friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides.

The Justice Department, which normally weighs in on cases affecting federal statutes, has admitted that it should have noted the 2006 law. (Blame the media, too; only after a legal blogger, Col. Dwight H. Sullivan, had pointed out the mistake did a newspaper, the New York Times, take note.)

The UCMJ change was quietly tucked into a huge defense authorization bill. Still, it passed both houses and President Bush signed it, so it enjoyed the same presumptions of validity and constitutionality as any other law.

The Supreme Court's legitimacy depends not only on the substance of its rulings but also on the quality of its deliberations. That's why we think the court needs to reopen this case -- even though we supported its decision.

The losing party, Louisiana, still has time to seek a rehearing, which the court could grant with the approval of five justices, including at least one from the majority. The court could limit reargument to briefs on the significance of the UCMJ provision.

We doubt the case will come out much differently; we certainly hope not. But this is an opportunity for the court to show a little judicial humility. Before the court declares its final view on national opinion about the death penalty, it should accurately assess the view of the national legislature.



Almost all of you who visit here will recognize WaPo’s editorial as journalism at its best.

I’ll just say two things:

1) The WaPo editors provide a fair and balanced assessment of who bears responsibility for the error. They avoid the partisan bashing we’ve seen from news organizations who’ve blamed only the Justice Department. In truth, as WaPo makes clear, all parties to the case and the justices bore a responsibility to know about the UCMJ provision.

2) I was very impressed – really moved – when the editors said:

The Supreme Court's legitimacy depends not only on the substance of its rulings but also on the quality of its deliberations. That's why we think the court needs to reopen this case -- even though we supported its decision.
When the editors said that they were putting the integrity of the judicial process ahead of any immediate gain they might wish for.

That’s just how the Founders wanted us all to act. In this instance they would surely have been pleased to see editors using so well their First Amendment rights to inform the citizenry and tell the highest court in the land that it should correct an error.

When I finished "Supreme Slip-Up," I wanted to cheer.


Ex-prosecutor said...

Such a mistake is surprising, especially considering the fact that so many were involved in the drafting of briefs for this important issue. A Google search for "ucmj child rape" yields articles speculating as to what effect the supreme court decision may have on the UCMJ death penalty for rape. I expect that an even less pointed search also would have led to the same articles, which predated substantially the decision.

Anonymous said...

I read this comment on a couple of blogs. It seemed to add another thought, but it is beyond me.
Scotus' own rules state that factual errors are not a major consideration for cert.:

"A petition for a writ of certiorari is rarely granted when the asserted error consists of erroneous factual findings or the
misapplication of a properly stated rule of law."