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Christopher E. Smith, MSU School of Criminal Justice

Christopher E. Smith joined the faculty of the MSU School of Criminal Justice in 1994 after previously teaching political science at the University of Akron and the University of Connecticut-Hartford. His primary research interests are judicial policy-making, the U.S. Supreme Court, court processes, and constitutional rights in criminal justice, especially prisoners’ rights. He is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, including The American System of Criminal Justice (13th ed. 2013), Constitutional Rights: Myths and Realities (2004), Law and Contemporary Corrections (2000), and Courts and the Poor (1991). He is also the author of more than 100 scholarly articles that have been published in such journals as Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Criminal Justice Studies, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Justice System Journal, and Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.

MSU Debate: Some argue that prohibition enforcement for marijuana is too much of a burden and legalization would benefit law enforcement (by freeing up resources) but others argue that legalization would have adverse effects on law enforcement. What is the impact on law enforcement if the federal government legalizes marijuana?

CES: Unanswerable question–the burden of marijuana enforcement already varies dramatically by police department depending on how much of a priority the department places on enforcement of these laws–some don’t enforce much since budget cuts have made them focus on more serious offenses, emergency medical response, etc. As colorado has discovered, legalization opens up other problems–people more freely driving under the influence of marijuana, young children more easily gaining access via their parents, esp. Young kids going to the hospital after eating weed-laced brownies and other marijuana foods that they find at home. Will there be increased robberies in some locations from marijuana stores? (as some have seen with medical marijuana stores). Increased issues with other drugs if, as some claim, marijuana serves as a gateway to trying other drugs? Really cannot predict accurately.

MSU Debate: Much of your research centers around the Supreme Court and constitutional rights. If the Supreme Court were to strike down federal law that makes marijuana illegal (the Controlled Substances Act) what would the implications of such a decision be? Would it be challenged by the Congress? Would it have spillover effects on other federal statutes that might also be called into questions as a result?

CES: It is difficult to envision the basis for such action by the court–unless you got a majority to agree that this is an issue reserved to the states and congress has exceeded its authority. If the supreme court suddenly decides to drastically reduce the power of congress by taking a more literalist approach to interpreting article i of the constitution, then this could affect a lot of laws. However, in an age of post-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts, it is difficult to see a court effort to significantly limit congressional power, except with respect to specific partisan issues such as health care reform (which still survived in the court by one vote). I cannot see the supreme court striking down the CSA.

MSU Debate: More generally, we sometimes argue about the implications of a more conservative Supreme Court. Do you think that the make-up of the Court and decisions that it makes would meaningfully change if it were to move in a more conservative direction? How so?

CES: Sure–if a republican is elected president in 2016 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (now age 81) leaves during that presidency, we would see more conservative decisions on a variety of issues for which liberals have recently held the line by a single vote. Just look at any 5-4 decision with Ginsburg in the majority in the past decade and you’re looking at the laws that could change. On the other hand, if any of the conservative justices leave the court for health reasons before 2016, the liberal vote count could be strengthened by president Obama. Our rights and other judicially-defined laws are determined by the quirks of fate that lead particular justices to leave the court at moment when a particular individual happens to occupy the white house.

MSU Debate: Some argue that justices are “political” and make decisions based on their political ideology and to balance past decisions. Is this something you agree with- why or why not?

CES: Don’t know what you mean by “balance past decisions”–but clearly political values influence all justices–not necessarily determining their votes in all cases, but a strong influence nonetheless–plenty of social science research to demonstrate that justices do not consistently follow specific theories of constitutional interpretation and that they are affected by other factors, such as political values.

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