The first part of the title of this post is the headline of this intriguing New York Times editorial discussing some of the Supreme Court's rulings yesterday. Here is how the piece starts and ends:
Equity is an elusive legal concept that occasionally allows some leeway in applying the rules of the law and is often unappreciated by judges who insist the law means only what it says. That was clear in 2008 when the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit refused to allow federal courts to consider a death-penalty conviction of Albert Holland because his lawyer had inexcusably let the filing deadline pass. Fortunately, seven members of the Supreme Court proved less rigid in their thinking on Monday and reversed that blinkered decision....
Justice Scalia wrote that while it is tempting to tinker with technical rules to achieve a just result, the Constitution does not give judges the discretion to rewrite Congress’s rules. The law is the law, in other words, and tough luck if your incompetent lawyer leaves you hanging.
It was heartening to see that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. refused to subscribe to that philosophy, just as they have broken with Justice Scalia in other criminal justice cases.
The full court demonstrated that same spirit of understanding in another opinion issued Monday, when it ruled that a minor drug offense did not justify deporting a legal immigrant. The case was brought by Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, an immigrant from Mexico found in possession of a single tablet of Xanax, the anti-anxiety drug, without a prescription. Overruling the lower courts and disagreeing with the Obama administration, the court said that the possession did not qualify as a serious felony, even though Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo had a previous misdemeanor conviction.
The decision gives hope to other immigrants fighting deportation on minor charges that are taken far too seriously by the government. Taken together, the outcome of Monday’s cases suggests that even on a conservative court, the letter of the law has its limits.
I think the headline of this editorial is a bit misleading given that, as the text of the editorial notes, the Holland case is pricipally about the development of equitable principles, not really "judicial discretion." Moreover, as explained in this post, the fascinating 5-4 ruling in the Dolan restitution case actually fits this equitable narrative better than the ruling in Carachuri-Rosendo. Nevertheless, I think it notable to see the New York Times praise the Supreme Court for acknowledging the limits of law.