Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

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The Founding

Federalism (and Limited Government) Reaffirmed

Many contemporary friends of limited government adopt erroneous theories ("states' rights," secession) that actually increase the possibility of tyrannical government, as American history bears out.

Often the case for secession as a device of limited government resorts to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. But Villanova University professor (and MAHG instructor) Colleen Sheehan argues that James Madison, author of the Virginia Resolutions, had a much profounder view of not only federalism but the nature of popular government than his friend Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Kentucky Resolutions.

Whereas Jefferson sought to implement modes outside of the ordinary processes of law, in the form of constitutional conventions or negations of contractual/compact agreements, Madison sought to establish a political practice in which, whenever possible, the settled decisions of the people would control and direct government. Madison's cure was not to pit the extraordinary authority of the people against the ordinary deliberative processes of majority decision-making, but to hold the government dependent on and answerable to the deliberate, sovereign public.

Her essay appears in a series on the provocative Library of Law and Liberty website of the Liberty Fund.

Categories > The Founding

The Founding

Your Constitutional Authority

The Heritage Foundation has put on-line its Guide to the Constitution, co-edited by David Forte and Matthew Spalding. This is a line-by-line commentary with major essays by significant legal scholars. Heritage does terrific work with its instant digests on contemporary policy issues, but this is something different, yet relevant to policy debates.

Take this analysis of the first line of Article II of the Constitution, on the nature and scope of executive power, "the vesting clause." There's even a teacher's companion guide, besides the essay by UVA law professor Sai Prakash and a brief (and diverse) bibliography of legal scholarship.

Or consider co-editor Forte's thoughts on the commerce clause, now at the heart of the Obamacare case, to be decided by the Court this term. Are you clear on the meaning of "to ... regulate commerce ... among the several states"? And so it goes, line by line, through the whole Constitution.

The achievement deserves favorable comparison with the best encyclopaedias of legal thought, such as the grand project of the late Leonard Levy. And besides Heritage's is on-line, will be constantly updated (not a living Constitution, but a lively commentary) and free.

Categories > The Founding


Cosmic Constitutional Theory

In today's WaPo, George Will reviews Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III's "Cosmic Constitutional Theory: Why Americans Are Losing Their Inalienable Right to Self-Governance." Will interprets Wilkinson's self-governance as a prerogative of majorities, preferring instead self-governance based on the liberties of individuals.

Ripe for thoughtful comment, I'd say.
Categories > Courts


Torturing "Individuals"

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that foreign entities, including terrorist organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, are not included in the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. The act allows victims of foreign torture to sue the "individuals" responsible for such conduct. A case was brought by the family of Azzam Rahim, an American who was murdered at the hands of the PLO. Plaintiffs argued that since corporations, for example, are generally considered "persons" under the law, organizations could be cast as "individuals." But the Court ruled that Congress' intent was to limit the law's reach to "flesh and blood" individuals, excluding the organizations to which they might belong.

Regardless of your opinion on the substantive matter of suing organizations which routinely torture, the Court was right to defer to Congress rather than sua sponte expanding the act to include entities beyond the act's intended scope. Nevertheless, a ruling is still pending on the Court's interpretation of the 18th century Alien Tort Claims Act, which would effectively grant universal jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts for international law violations affecting anyone, anywhere in the world (regardless of their ties to the U.S.). I previously mentioned the ATCA case here. So the Torture Victim Protection Act may soon become a moot point.
Categories > Courts

Quote of the Day

Quotation du Jour

In light of the Left's conniption fit about the possibility that Obamacare might be ruled unconstitutional by the court, I thought it might be worth reposting this pearl of wisdom form Professor Tribe:

Whenever I suggest in these essays, for want of space or of humility, that one or another decision seems to me "plainly right" or "plainly wrong," or that some proposal or position is "clearly" consistent (or inconsistent) with the constitution, I hope my words will be understood as shorthand not for a conclusion I offer as indisputably "correct" but solely for a conviction I put forward as powerfully held.

Categories > Quote of the Day


Loose Construction, Strict Construction, and Deconstruction

Richard Epstein's latest post gives strength to my post the other day, which argued that Progressives view the constitution the way a passenger on a plane sees the country from 30,000 feet--everything is homogenized into one, unified landscape.  Moreover, he notes that that is the only way to justify the modern view of the commerce clause.

Epstein points to Charles Fried as a case in point. (Fried may have served in the Reagan administration, but, as Epstein notes, he has bought the Progressive re-writing of the constitution. Fried also supported Obama for President.)  Fried insists that there is no practical limit to the federal government's power under the commerce clause.  As Epstein points out, Fried claims  "that the scope of the commerce power was settled as early as 1824 in Gibbons v. Ogden, which he does not refer to by name. Of Gibbons, Fried explains, "If something is within the power of Congress, Congress may exercise that power to its fullest extent." 

On the contrary, Epstein notes, notes that Progressives like to cite Chief Marshall's opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden to justify a very expansive reading of the commerce clause, "in Gibbons, Chief Justice Marshall wrote without embarrassment that "the completely interior traffic of a State" was beyond the power of commerce to regulate. A fortiori, the regulation of manufacture, agriculture, mining, or health care was far outside the scope of Congressional regulation." 

Epstein goes on to note that Chief Justice Marshall very clearly indicated that the federal government has no authority, at least under the commerce clause, to regulate intra-state commerce--of which there was a good deal: "in Gibbons, Chief Justice Marshall wrote without embarrassment that "the completely interior traffic of a State" was beyond the power of commerce to regulate. A fortiori, the regulation of manufacture, agriculture, mining, or health care was far outside the scope of Congressional regulation."

In the founding era, the argument was between loose construction (which the Federalist Party supported) and strict construction (which the Republican Party supported). Both sides agreed that there were real limits to the federal government's power.  They disagreed about whether there were implied powers at all.  Nowadays, the argument not about whether there are implied powers, but, rather, about whether there is anything that cannot be turned into an implied power.  If one may discover some implied powers, may one be justified in discovering any conceivable implied power?  Progressives seem to think that the answer is yes--so long as History or Progress demands it.

In other words, the argument today is between loose construction and deconstruction, not between strict and loose construction of the Constitution.

Categories > Courts


The Constitution Liveth (And it Keeps on Living)

President Obama is probably just trying to work the refs in his comments suggesting he is  "confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."

Since Progressives have long praised the Court for taking away from the people the right to make law on may subjects, the comment might seem striking.  But I actually think it is entirely consistent with the Progressive understanding of the "living constitution." Whatever furthers the Progressive agenda is good, and whatever blocks it is bad.  Living is only supposed to be in the direction of "progress."  If the Court strikes down laws Progressives like, they will decide that judicial review is passe.

But what if the country is divided about what is "forward" in history? And what if some (many, I suspect) Americans are not living in an Hegelian world in which History has direction?

More evidence that a living constitution is impossible absent a consensus about what's next.

P.S. Obama's criticism of Paul Ryan for "thinly veiled Social Darwinism" draws out a related point. Uncle Barry's moral ideas are from fifty years ago. His Progressivism is trapped in the past. His living constitution is the prisoner of 20th century Progressivism.

Categories > Courts


The Constitution from 30,000 Feet

Jeffrey Rosen has a nice bit of sophistry in The New Republic.  He suggests, perhaps correctly, that Justices Kennedy and Roberts, were asking the government to point to a limiting principle--something which would allow Obamacare, but would nonetheless not allow the federal government legal authority to do whatever it wanted.  Unfortunately, he says:

[Soliciter Genera] Verrilli's error was substantive: He failed squarely to answer Roberts and Kennedy's repeated questions about what limits he envisioned to Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. Verrilli's evasions weren't only unhelpful--they were also unnecessary.

Rosen suggests that there is an obvious limiting principle, one that can be discovered in the founding.  "In previous cases denying Congress the power to regulate local activities such as guns in schools or violence against women," he notes, "the Court has drawn a distinction between activity that is truly local and activity that is truly national."

More generally, he quotes a new book by Neil S. Siegel suggesting that the federal government was designed to address any problem that was not local in nature:

"The Commerce Clause is best understood in light of the collective action problems that the nation faced under the Articles of Confederation, when Congress lacked the power to regulate interstate commerce." Siegel argues that "to over-come failures to participate in collective action whose effects spill across state borders, the clauses of Article I, Section 8 authorize Congress to require various kinds of private action."

Balderdash!  If that was the meaning of the commerce clause, it would not say: "The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."

Rosen's argumen views the Constitution from 30,000 feet. Its particular details fade into nothingness and it becomes a plenary grant to address any issue that Rosen thinks is a national one. 

Consider some constitutional arguments of the founding era. In that era, we should note, it was an open question whether the federal government had the authority to build roads, canals, and other such projects. President Madison thought it might be, but in the end, he decided that such projects required an amendment, which he supported.  Whigs disagreed with that. But if internal improvements were constitutionally controversial, it is hard to claim that there would have been any discussion of whether the federal goverment may regulate my visit to my doctor. 

In his Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank, Hamilton said that Congress may create a corporation to fulfil the powers listed in Article 1, section 8.  Among those he listed was the commerce clause.  After all, creating and managing a national circulating medium is a national act, by definition.  The key question between Hamilton and Jefferson turned on whether Hamilton was correct to infer a power to create a corporation in the service of the enumerated powers.  It was self-evident that the object was national in scope.

But Hamilton noted that there were very real limits:

The only question must be in this, as in every other case, whether the mean to be employed or in this instance, the corporation to be erected, has a natural relation to any of the acknowledged objects or lawful ends of the government. Thus a corporation may not be erected by Congress for superintending the police of the city of Philadelphia, because they are not authorized to regulate the police of that city

The federal government, even Hamilton, the man with the most expansive understanding of federal power at the time, argued, did not have a general police power.  And what is the police power, classically speaking, the power to regulate health, safety, and morals and other such things.  But Rosen wants to say that, under modern conditions, my visit to my doctor is a national concern. Ha!  To be sure, my doctor may buy products that are shipped interstate. And if the federal government allowed it, it might be possible to buy heath insurance across state lines (that would be nice).  In those cases there would be interstate commerce.   By my visit to my doctor is hardly interstate commerce--unless we allow, as Rosen implies, that there is no such thing as intra-state commerce.

And that brings us to another celebrated case--Gibbons v. Ogden.  That case involved the grant, by the State of New York, of a monopoly of shipping on the Hudson river.  The Court ruled, not unreasonably, that the Hudson is not an intra-state waterway. ItJus has borders on New York and New Jersey, and it ends at the Atlantic Ocean.  Hence such a monopoly grant was illegal.

This case matters because people on the Left often cite Justice Marshall's opinion to justfy an expansive reading of federal power.  Justice Sotomayor quoted it from the bench this week. But we need to keep in mind that the case involved shipping on a waterway that borders on more than one state, and that ends at the ocean. We should also read more closely what Marshall actually said:

Comprehensive as the word "among" is, it may very properly be restricted to that commerce which concerns more States than one. The phrase is not one which would probably have been selected to indicate the completely interior traffic of a State, because it is not an apt phrase for that purpose, and the enumeration of the particular classes of commerce to which the power was to be extended would not have been made had the intention been to extend the power to every description.

A clause that grants the federal government power regarding commerce among the states necessarily implies that there is such a thing as commerce that is local--the very thing that Rosen says does not exist. To be sure, he points to "previous cases denying Congress the power to regulate local activities such as guns in schools or violence against women."  But close observers will note that those are not commercial activities at all.  If my visit to my doctor is interstate commerce, then there is no commerce that is not interstate. 

If that is what the people want, there is a simple remedy, one consistent with the constitution. Amendment. But somehow the amendment clause falls by the wayside in pursuit of the public good.

Rosen's argument is that under current circumstances the health care market is national.  H quotes a Representative from Massachusetts:

A national mandate would free Massachusettes[sic] from being "forced to subsidize through higher premiums and higher Medicare and Medicaid costs the uncompensated care of people in other states who do not have health insurance."

But others might reply that Rosen is attacking the notion that the states in our federal system are laboratories of democracy.  They will have diverse laws, and many different approaches to health care policy. He suggests that a state that passes a policy may not suffer from competition with other states. In other words, he presumes what he is concluding--that health care is naturally a national market.

And that brings us to a point that Walter Russell Mead makes eloquently.  America's health care system is simply too large and complex to be regulated by a bureaucracy in Washington that creates a uniform set of rules for a country as large and diverse as the United States.  Even by his own living constitution model, therefore, Rosen's argument fails.

Categories > Courts


Obamacare, RIP?

Should the individual mandate have bought burial insurance? See p. 7 (Justice Alito's question) of the transcript of day two of the Obamacare oral arguments before SCOTUS.
Categories > Courts

Health Care

Healthcare in the Court

Three days of oral argument over the constitutionality of Obamacare begin Monday. C-SPAN will replay the oral argument later in the afternoons. It should be kept in mind that the reason we are even talking about the possibility of the Court overturning the law is one justice: Clarence Thomas (no relation to me, incidentally). The New Yorker gave this explanation of Thomas's key role in changing the Court last year.

Toobin writes several silly sentences but note the core of his argument, a warning to the left of his dangerous powers:

In several of the most important areas of constitutional law, Thomas has emerged as an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court. Since the arrival of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in 2005, and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in 2006, the Court has moved to the right when it comes to the free-speech rights of corporations, the rights of gun owners, and, potentially, the powers of the federal government; in each of these areas, the majority has followed where Thomas has been leading for a decade or more. Rarely has a Supreme Court Justice enjoyed such broad or significant vindication.

Conservatives should keep in mind that Thomas was nominated by a president not particularly beloved among conservatives--yet a man who stood by him when he came under vicious attack.

Categories > Health Care