Two untenable arguments, and one constitutional solution, surround the debate roiling over Justice Antonin Scalia’s successor. One argument, from the Right, is that President Obama is duty-bound, with nearly a year left in his term, not to appoint a successor at all—a claim with no constitutional basis and whose supposed authority in custom is a phantasm. The second, from the Left, is that the Senate’s duty is reflexively to confirm whomever he selects. Yet the Senate is not the executive’s Human Resources Department, confined to checking references and résumés.
At the beginning of this term of the Supreme Court, Cass Sunstein has praised judicial minimalism. Professor Sunstein argues that the justices should decide cases as narrowly as possible: “Minimalists . . . insist on small steps and narrow, unambitious rulings. They want to resolve the specific problem at hand, but without pronouncing broadly on liberty or equality, or on the system of checks and balances.”
So described, minimalism is the antithesis of a principled jurisprudence. First, minimalism does not offer a method for discerning the Constitution’s meaning. One does not need to be an originalist who believes that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed at the time it was enacted to recognize that an interpretive theory has to give account of how it is following the meaning of the Constitution. It is that meaning which should govern the case, and the relevant principles may be either broad or narrow depending on the meaning. For instance, if one follows the original meaning that the term “session” in the Recess Appointments Clause is limited to the intersession of Congress, the holding will necessarily rule out recess appointments in all cases but appointments made at the intersession.
Second, minimalism is incompatible with the rule of law. Deciding cases based on their peculiar facts gives little guidance to citizens as to what their rights and obligations are. Indeed, the reductio ad absurdum of minimalism is to decide the case of A v. B for A or B without giving any reasons at all: that approach surely resolves the case by making as little law as possible!
The United States Supreme Court decides only about 80 cases per term. (Why 80? There are 39 days for oral argument and they really can’t be bothered to sit still for more than two cases a day, or to add argument days.) That’s what any decent county judge handles in a week. Now, granted: normal judges just handle stupid stuff, like who goes to jail for how long or who owes money to someone else. In contrast, the Supreme Court’s business is really heavy, brother—so heavy that the Court has again left a ton of hugely important decisions for the end of…
It has been reported that this term is shaping up to be one of the most liberal at the Supreme Court since 1969. Another report by Eric Posner shows that the justices appointed by Republican Presidents are agreeing less among themselves, while the justices appointed by Democratic Presidents remain a united bloc.
We should be cautious about reading this information as a trend. The case mix changes from year to year and thus there can be expected to be overall ideological variation from year to year depending on that mix and the justices’ idiosyncratic views. But there is no doubt that the country is moving left at least on social issues and the oldest adage about the Court’s decision-making is that it follows the election returns. Certainly, the expected creation of a right to same-sex marriage would be unimaginable without the rapid and dramatic shift in public opinion on the issue.
The more interesting question is why Republican justices tend to fracture while the Democrats stay united. The first reason is that Supreme Court opinions implicate not only ideology, but jurisprudential methodology and Republicans are more divided on jurisprudence.
I am grateful for Michael Greve’s post on my analysis of Our Two Supreme Courts. I wholly agree with his positive point. The political or aristocratic Court comes to the fore not only in constitutional cases, but in statutory interpretation cases that implicate constitutional values or important political issues. Preemption is a fine example because the broader is the scope of preemption, the more limited is the authority of the states.
I am in less agreement with his normative point. I had argued that the way to dissolve the difference between the legal and the political court was for the Court always to take the same formalist approach that it does in ordinary statutory cases, like interpreting the bankruptcy code. Michael doubts that such formalism is regularly possible in constitutional law because of the open ended nature of constitutional provisions. But Mike Rappaport and I have argued previously that the common claims that constitutional provisions are abstract and need to be filled in by judges may well be false. Once we know more about their history, we can often determine a clearer meaning of the constitutional provision at issue.
Last week, John McGinnis had a characteristically insightful post on Our Two Supreme Courts. One is the political court—an aristocratic institution that restrains public passions. On that court, the justices vote their preferences on God, guns, and gays. The other is the legal court, which takes care of boring jurisdictional and CivPro-ey stuff and where the justices, acting as the good lawyers they are, often reach unanimous decisions. The only way to reunite the courts, John writes, is for the justices to bring the legal rigor that’s on display in ERISA or bankruptcy cases to bear on the high-falutin’ ConLaw issues.
Speaking at Northwestern University Law School this semester, Justice Elena Kagan may have revealed more than she intended. Amidst her entertaining and witty remarks, she described two very different kinds of discussions that take place at the conferences where the justices decide cases. In shorter conferences, the justices, in order of seniority, with the Chief going first, state their votes with brief statements of reasons. Justice Kagan observed that shorter conferences tend to be the high profile cases that appear on the front page of the newspaper. She surmised that further debate in these cases would likely make her colleagues irritated with those of opposing views.
She then described longer conferences, where the justices after stating their positions—sometimes tentative ones– entertain more general deliberations, trying to figure out exactly what the right answer should be. They then focus on and often resolve thorny legal questions. Justice Kagan said that during her time on the Court one of the longest conferences revolved around an obscure jurisdictional issue of the kind that would draw no public attention.
Justice Kagan’s remarks are consistent with my view that we have not one but two Supreme Courts. One is a political court, in which the justices play the aristocratic element in a mixed political regime. Today our aristocratic element consists not of landed nobles but the cognitive elite well represented in judiciary by those who graduated from the nation’s best law schools.
I had the good fortune to be asked to review Saving Congress from Itself by James L. Buckley, a statesman I have long admired. As I say in the opening of the review that appears in this week’s print edition of National Review: My first vote remains my best. It was for James L. Buckley’s reelection as a United States senator from New York. In six years in office, he had shown himself fearlessly principled, whether in calling for Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal before any other conservative in Congress or in opposing a taxpayer bailout for New York City,…
There is a new meme circulating among journalists about the Supreme Court’s decision not to take certiorari in the same sex-marriage cases. According to the left-liberal Jeffrey Toobin, the Court’s decisions allow the “political process to go forward, one state at a time.” Or as David Brooks, a moderate conservative, said at greater length: “Sometimes, you just let the country have its way, and you don’t try to determine the shape of the country. You sort of modestly step back and let the country figure out what it believes. And I think they’re doing absolutely the right thing in just withdrawing and not getting too involved.”
Whatever one thinks of same-sex marriage (and I favor it as a policy matter), these claims completely distort the truth. The Supreme Court is letting go forward a judicial process that permits courts to invalidate traditional marriage laws if they think such a decision would best reflect the signals the Court itself has previously sent on the subject. In contrast, a political process would allow states—principally their legislatures and people—to make decisions about same-sex marriage, one state at a time.
The journalists’ claims are even more disingenuous because of the way the Supreme Court has set the stage for the lower courts.
Print up a bunch of money, and the value of money is almost sure to decline. Make up a host of new rights and the value of rights is likely to plummet as well. As our modern experience demonstrates.
Simplifying, we might imagine three stages in the devaluation of rights. In stage one (which, like the “state of nature,” probably never quite existed), a right would be categorical. If you have a right to freedom of speech, say, this would mean that you can say whatever you want (at least within the scope of the right’s coverage) and the government cannot sanction or restrict you. Period. Justice Black sometimes talked as if freedom of speech were or should be an absolute right. The average lay person may sometimes think this is what a right means.