Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Reviewing Judicial Review For Senator Specter

I have been involved in an extended conversation regarding judicial review over at NRO’s Bench Memos Blog. Because I thought it would be of interest to NLT readers, I reprint it below. Some of the references are to previous posts and the writers who posted them, but all-in-all it should make sense from context.

I have resisted rejoining the discussion of judicial activism (which morphed into a discussion of judicial review) because I thought that we had wandered from practical topics to academic ones less relevant to Roberts’s nomination. However, Specter’s recent misguided letter to Judge Roberts emphasized that some elements of judicial review will be relevant to the nomination process, and so I offer a few thoughts about the recent discussion between Matt, Gerry, Robby, and Mark.

Gerry and Robby ably point out the difference between judicial review and judicial supremacy. The prior does not require the latter. Or, to put it in wonky terms, Marbury does not require Cooper v. Aaron’s delusions of grandeur about every page of the U.S. Reports constituting the supreme law of the land. There is ample room for coordinate branch construction. Each branch has a duty to interpret the Constitution. At a elementary level, this is accomplished by Congress passing laws which it believes to be constitutional, the Executive by signing and enforcing laws it believes to be constitutional laws, and the judiciary interpreting the laws. The branches need not agree. Thus, Jefferson instructed his U.S. Attorneys not to enforce the Alien and Sedition Acts because he believed the law to be unconstitutional, even though some courts, and implicitly Congress in passing the law, had expressed opinions differing from his. To provide another example, in 1862, Lincoln’s Attorney General was asked by Treasury Secretary Chase whether a Black men are "citizens of the United States, and therefore competent to command American vessels?" Finding that the binding precedent of Dred Scott was limited to the facts, law, and ultimately parties of the case, the Attorney General found that Black men born in the U.S. were citizens, and therefore could command U.S. vessels.

However, the fact that the other branches could exercise their powers of constitutional interpretation regarding these issues (as they could on any constitutional issue) does not remove these issues from the proper jurisdiction of the Court. Coordinate branch construction does not equal the political question doctrine: just because another branch is capable of interpreting a question doesn’t mean that the issue is withheld from the other branches (or, more specifically, from the jurisdiction of the Court), unless the Constitution clearly reserves determination to a particular branch. In the cases of the Commerce Clause, for example, there is no such plain reservation of the issue, and so I must respectfully disagree with Matt concerning the appropriateness of courts exercising judicial review by striking down laws which have nothing to do with interstate commerce.

Matt argues that the Courts have no business deciding a Commerce Clause case "unless as an ancillary matter the legislation or duly-authorized executive action happens to violate a constitutional right quite apart from the commerce-power or implied-power issue." He argues that "[t]he business of courts is to vindicate the rights of individuals. But it has never been demonstrated that any individual has a constitutional right, which can be vindicated in a court of law, to be free from the strictures of any and all unconstitutional actions of legislatures or other government agencies." First, I would submit that his view of the business of the courts does not comport with the text of the Constitution or the view of the Founders. Unless one sips particularly deeply from the Caroline Products footnote 4 Kool-Aid, Art. III’s grant of the judicial power of the United States to the Supreme Court and inferior tribunals is not simply limited to cases of individual rights, but on its plain terms extends to all cases or controversies arising under the Constitution. Marshall rightly understood this general grant of "judicial power" to include the power of judicial review (which is not inherently limited to individual rights cases), and the founders generally saw the courts as exercising a check on the other branches. Second, Matt’s repeated questioning of the basis for Gerry and Robby’s assertion that an individual is entitled to only have constitutionally valid rules applied can be answered by the text of the Constitution: specifically the Due Process Clause. Even a narrow understanding of Due Process would encompass the right not to be prosecuted under laws improperly passed—laws which are not law at all—in this case, because the legislature exceeded its authority.

There have also been various rumblings about the anti-Democratic nature of striking down a popularly enacted law. This line of argument seems to neglect that the Constitution itself was Democratically enacted, and is superior to simple legislative enactments. (Yes, the process wasn’t perfectly Democratic, but neither is our system of passing laws, which includes the non-proportional Senate as well as the anti-Democratic check of Presidential veto.) Consider the following hypo: Angered by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kelo, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states convene a convention, during which they recommend an amendment clarifying that taking private property for the purpose of transferring said property to private entities in order to enhance tax revenue does not constitute public use. Three fourths of the states ratify the amendment. Congress, in clear violation of the amendment, subsequently proceeds to take Matt’s house to build an outlet mall. Would the Court be acting anti-Democratically by striking down the taking as violative of the constitutional amendment? Does it act anti-Democratically when it enforces other provisions enacted by Constitutional conventions in the several states, such as the Commerce Clause? And even if it were, in some sense, anti-Democratic, does that mean that it is not part of our constitutional system, like the veto, which likewise is intended to serve as a check to unconstitutional legislation (but again does NOT serve as a basis for precluding judicial review)?

The writers on this page have done well to illustrate that the legislative and executive branches have a duty to interpret the Constitution. Unfortunately, if one reads the floor statements on McCain-Feingold, or the signing statement of President Bush for the same bill (in which both branches declared their respective belief that sections of the bill were unconstitutional, but suggested that it was not their job to make such a determination), it becomes clear that these branches have bought into the theory that it is exclusively the Court’s job to make constitutional determinations. This is wrong. However, we should not make the opposite error and presume that the courts have no proper authority to review the constitutionality of these enactments.

What, then does all of this have to do with Specter’s letters to Judge Roberts, which complain about the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down congressional enactments in Lopez, Morrison, and Garrett? Specter suggests these decisions are activist, and argues for greater deference for legislative fact finding. While there is a general presumption in favor of the constitutionality of congressionally-passed legislation, that presumption is predicated upon the understanding that Congress fulfills its collateral duty of passing only legislation within its constitutional competence. As the McCain-Feingold example illustrates, however, many in Congress now view those determinations to be outside their scope, so that they can pass legislation they believe to be unconstitutional, while leaving it to the courts to figure out the details. Admittedly, this is in large measure a result of the Cooper-judicial-supremacy understanding of judicial review, but there is more to it than that. For years, the Supreme Court had a co-dependent relationship with Congress—each facilitating the other’s aggrandizement of power. Thus, Congress yielded to the Courts as the sole arbiter of all things constitutional, and the Supreme Court signed off on Congress’s increasingly bloated theory of its own power. Regrettably, it has gotten to the point that even reliable Congressmen no longer understand the first branch to be one of limited powers—at least, they give no hint of this based on the legislation they offer and support. Findings are larded into the record without serious consideration, and these same findings are in turn used to support boilerplate language concerning Congress’s authority to pass particular legislation under provisions of the Constitution intended to be limited, but now relied upon to be plenary grants of power. So in response to Specter, the enforcement of these constitutional limitations by the Court is not judicial activism, even where Congress disagrees. It is not the assertion of will over judgment. Rather, it is simply the Court carrying out its constitutional duty to use judicial review as a check against the flagrant abuses of the legislative branch.

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Specter should not be the judiciary chair, and he is merely providing further proof of that now.

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