The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that a group of left-wing demonstrators may face federal charges for disrupting proceedings at the Supreme Court in an opinion that cited the hit American comedy “My Cousin Vinny.”
A group of activists styled “99Rise,” who advocate against corporate political expenditures, heckled the justices during oral arguments April 1, 2015, one day before the first anniversary of the Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision, which struck down individual limits on aggregate campaign contributions. One-by-one, the activists shouted anti-corporate slogans and criticized the justices for previous campaign finance decisions. The group managed to film their demonstration inside the courtroom, an astonishing feat given that all observers must pass through a security checkpoint, beyond which electronics of any kind are not permitted.
“Give them stiff, stiff sentences,” the late Justice Antonin Scalia said, as marshals removed the protestors from the Court.
Five individuals from 99Rise were charged under a federal law which prohibits observers from making a “harangue” or an “oration” during proceedings at the high court. They in turn challenged the constitutionality of the law, arguing it was unconstitutionally vague.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Janice Rogers Brown concluded that the terms are well-defined and generally understood to refer to speech-making.
“That ‘harangue’ and ‘oration’ may not roll off the average person’s tongue today does not alter their possession of a settled meaning around public speeches,” she wrote.
Judge Brown concluded by noting the group’s outburst was comparable to a famous scene from “My Cousin Vinny” wherein Judge Chamberlain Haller admonishes Vinny Gambini for his poor decorum. She writes:
Their coordinated standing, facing the bench, and messaging indicate the Appellees were addressing the Court and gallery. Cf. MY COUSIN VINNY (20th Century Fox 1992) (Judge Chamberlain Haller: “Don’t talk to me sitting in that chair! . . . When you’re addressing this court, you’ll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice.”). Viewed objectively, these alleged acts could easily be considered speeches to a public assembly that tended to disrupt the Court’s operations—conduct covered by § 6134’s prohibition of “make a harangue or oration.
The case will now return to a lower court for further proceedings.
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