How is it possible that, after all the tumult over the Supreme Court, the only two justices to grasp the plain language of the Constitution in respect of double jeopardy are — wait for it — Neil Gorsuch and Ruth Bader Ginsburg? It’s amazing enough that there are but two sages for the bedrock prohibition on double jeopardy. More amazing still that the question unites the right- and left-most justices.
The case, known as Gamble v. U.S., involves an ex-con named Terance Martez Gamble. He was pulled over in a traffic stop in 2015 at Alabama. A gun was found in his possession in violation of both Alabama and American law. Gamble pled to the state charges and drew a year. Then the federales turned around and charged him again for the same offense, drawing additional time for the same deed.
The justices rejected his appeal in an opinion — by Justice Alito — that reminds us of President Clinton’s hemming about how it depends on what the meaning of “is” is. In this case, it depends on the meaning of the word “offense.” The justices reckon there were two offenses, one carrying the blasted gun in Alabama and the other the same gun at the same time in the United States. Could the United Nations also charge him?
Actually, the justices try to palm off on their long-suffering subjects the idea that Gamble was suggesting that a foreign prosecution could prevent a trial here. That strikes us as a stretch. Alabama may not be to Justice Alito’s liking, but Alabama is not a foreign country, no matter how slowly they speak English. And Gamble wasn’t caught twice carrying his pistol while being an ex-con. He was only nabbed once.
The majority in Gamble wrings its hands in respect of stare decisis. That’s the business about respecting precedent. They entangle themselves in several precedents, some going back to before the Civil War. The idea seems to be that the court accrues authority by sticking with even such earlier decisions as were sloppy, biased, or wrong. The idea strikes us as externally logical.
Justice Thomas, sage of what Myron Magnet, in his new book, calls the “lost Constitution,” manages to concur with the majority’s ruling against Gamble while attacking stare decisis. The ink wasn’t even dry on his concurrence when the press started warning that Justice Thomas was — yet again — prepping the ground for overturning Roe v. Wade. Others were more focused on the implications of Gamble for Paul Manafort.
New York, after all, is preparing to bring charges against President Trump’s former campaign manager even while Manafort sits in the Big House hoping for a pardon on federal charges. It’s not so clear, though, that New York will throw at Manafort the same charges Mr. Mueller levied. To discern differences between the federal and state cases against Gamble, though, one would need an electron microscope.
Our own interest in this case is neither stare decisis nor Paul Manafort nor Ms. Roe nor Mr. Wade. It is the plain language of the Fifth Amendment, where the prohibition against double jeopardy is laid down. Our national parchment was supposed to be a bar against such injustices as the state appealing acquittals or the law chasing someone from one court to another.
This is beautifully marked by both Justices Ginsburg and Gorsuch in two dissents. Justice Ginsburg, citing precedent about the separateness of federal and state laws, warned of “frittering away” Gamble’s liberty “upon a metaphysical subtlety, two sovereignties.” Thundered Justice Gorsuch: “A free society does not allow its government to try the same individual for the same crime until it’s happy with the result.”
It is not our intention to suggest that there can never be, say, a federal prosecution after a state acquittal. During the Jim Crow era, southern juries often ignored the facts. In those cases, though, the argument would be, and was, that the accused racists were never in genuine jeopardy in the first place. That is not what happened in the case of Terance Gamble.
All the more inspiring that the two dissenting judges from opposite ideological ends of the bench came together on this bedrock. It doesn’t suggest the confirmation battles are about nothing. It does remind all of us not to panic. The thinness of the vapors at the altitude where these justices breathe makes it hard to predict how they will behave. History teaches that great dissents have a way of getting vindicated over time.
This editorial was expanded from an earlier edition to include the paragraph about jury nullification in the Jim Crow era.
Image: Drawing by Elliott Banfield, courtesy of the artist.