481 U. S. 787
May 26, 1987
Young was convicted of selling counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags. Sometime later, Louis Vuitton lawyers suspected Young of continued counterfeiting. Company lawyers got permission from the court to investigate. In a sting operation, they collected plenty of evidence, and prosecuted a successful contempt of court charge. Young argued that this conviction should be overturned, because the contempt charge was investigated and prosecuted by Vuitton lawyers rather than neutral lawyers.
The Court ruled 8-1 that the conviction had to be overturned. Brennan wrote the majority opinion, which first said that a District Court could appoint private lawyers to investigate and prosecute a contempt charge. Even though courts could not generally instigate legal proceedings, Brennan said the need for courts to be able to enforce their legal judgments and decrees called for an exception, and that the Federal Rules and some precedents did lend some support to this idea. Nonetheless, because the lawyers who prosecuted the case represented Vuitton, the prosecution violated Young’s rights. It was a blatant conflict of interest that clearly violated the ethics of the legal profession. In a section joined only by Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, Brennan concluded that the violation was so severe that the case was not amenable to harmless error analysis on remand.
Blackmun concurred, and said that the appointment of Vuitton lawyers was a flat out due process clause violation. Powell, joined by Rehnquist and O’Connor, thought that harmless error inquiry should be possible on remand because the evidence of continued counterfeiting was so overwhelming, and because a neutral jury had convicted Young on the contempt charge. White dissented – he found no problem with the appointment of Vuitton lawyers, but gave no explanation why.
Then there was Scalia, who filed a truly remarkable concurrence in judgment. He put forth a cogent and persuasive argument that the judge’s instigation of the contempt proceedings violated the plain separation of powers scheme set out in the text of the Constitution. Judicial power just didn’t extend to instigating contempt investigations, end of story. He showed that this was the understanding that prevailed for a century after the Constitution’s ratification. With this reasoning, he provided the liberal Justices with the fifth vote to vacate Young’s conviction.
While I think Scalia was totally correct, there’s another reason why I’m glad that Louis Vuitton lost. I am unable to bring myself to any kind of moral indignation about handbag trademark violations. A handbag is a handbag, and it’s absolutely revolting when hundreds of dollars are spent on one just to show the rest of the world your sophistication and wealth. This disgusting and prideful fashion fetishism ought not be protected by law at all, but Louis Vuitton has proven only too happy to outright abuse the law that exists. About a decade ago, the company filed a patently frivolous suit against a small dog toy manufacturer. Although Louis Vuitton lost, they nearly destroyed the victorious smaller company in the process.