City of Los Angeles v. Lyons: How Supreme Court Jurisprudence of the Past Puts a Chokehold on Constitutional Rights in the Present

Douglas, Peter C. | October 1, 2021

The United States today has refocused its attention on its continuing struggles with civil rights and police violence—struggles that have always been present but which come to the forefront of the collective consciousness at inflection points like the current one. George Floyd—and uncounted others—die at the hands of the police, and there is, justifiably, outrage and a search for answers. Although the reasons why Black and Brown people are disproportionally subject to unconstitutional police violence are manifold, one reason lies in the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in City of Los Angeles v. Lyons. While many scholars have criticized the Burger Court’s Lyons decision from a variety of valuable vantage points, this Note takes a different approach, considering the extent to which Lyons was the product not of a single Court, but of generations of jurists. Through an extensive historical case study, this Note hopes to provide a new perspective on why the Lyons decision was wrong and why the majority opinion failed to support its holding. With the Lyons ancestry laid bare, this Note then uses that historical understanding to advocate for greater transparency in federal jurisprudence. Specifically, this Note argues that decisions like Lyons are, in part, made possible by obfuscatory jurisprudential approaches to “saying what the law is.” Regardless of the precise nature of the federal judiciary’s systemic problems, certain jurisprudential methodologies tend to reinforce and preserve those problems. To begin addressing systemic issues in the federal judiciary, we must embrace some modest, but powerful, adjustments to how jurists “say what the law is.”