Charlie Buttrey

May 29, 2019

Chief Justice John Roberts describes Alaska’s Arctic Man as “an event known for both extreme sports and extreme alcohol consumption.” Or, as the Guardian puts it, “If Burning Man and a monster truck rally had a love child in the snowy mountains of Alaska, that would be Arctic Man.”

It was at Arctic Man that two Alaska state troopers arrested Russell Bartlett for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Bartlett alleged that the arrest was in retaliation for his efforts to challenge officers’ attempts to question a teen and for an earlier encounter in which Bartlett refused to speak with Nieves, and sued the troopers for violating his First Amendment rights.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed the suit, holding that you can’t sue for illegal arrest if there is probable cause to arrest you in the first place, unless you can show that other, similarly situated people, were not also arrested. The decision is complicated, and I’m not going to delve into it.

What is particularly note-worthy about the decision is the composition of the justices on the various sides of the issue.  Many legal observers tend to think of the Court as having five conservative justices and four liberal ones (and, generally speaking, that holds true). But here, the split was along unpredictable lines, without seeming regard to a justice’s perceived political bent. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan (both considered generally liberal) and Alito (very conservative) and Kavanaugh (new to the Court, but assumed to be conservative). Justices Thomas (very conservative), Gorsuch (conservative) and Ginsburg (liberal) concurred in part and dissented in part. Justice Sotomayor (liberal) dissented entirely.

There will certainly be a lot of 5-4 decisions in the coming term, but the Bartlett decision suggests that the Court may not be as ossified into those camps as one might believe.


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