A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 3
Plank 3. End judicial usurpation.
3.1. Appoint to the bench only principled originalists with an ample paper trail. No stealth candidates.
3.2. Alter, by legislation or attrition, the number of seats on each federal court, including the Supreme Court, to give principled originalists a majority.
3.3. Diminish the reach of rogue appellate courts by increasing the number of federal circuits.
3.4. Alter the jurisdiction and powers of the federal judiciary to rein in rogue judges, for example, by stripping lower courts of jurisdiction in sensitive areas and eliminating “national” injunctions.
3.5. Limit the damage caused by erroneous judicial rulings, and give courts more opportunities to reverse them, by aggressively employing narrow interpretation and “distinguishing.”
3.6. If the foregoing reforms prove insufficient to end judicial usurpation, restructure the Supreme Court to permanently alter the justices’ incentives. Specifically, amend the U.S. Constitution to provide that henceforth justices of the Supreme Court will be appointed by the states, with each state filling one seat and no justice serving more than, say, twelve years. Have the governor nominate and the state senate confirm or reject, as happens at the federal level now.
Jefferson once warned that the Supreme Court could, if not carefully watched and controlled, impose on the republic “the despotism of an oligarchy.” Today we live under that despotism.
Judicial usurpation—the assumption by judges of powers beyond their authority—is now a deeply entrenched and, alas, widely accepted feature of our system. The judiciary, our servant, has become our master.
Our only peaceful recourse at this point, I believe, is to address the problem at the root. To save the country, we must restructure the judiciary.
This plank—in some ways the most important—is intended to help us carry out this essential reform in a peaceful and prudent way.
The job of a judge is to enforce constitutional limits on government power and to protect the life, liberty, and property of every citizen from unjust invasions by government officers. To be able to do this job, judges must be independent. They must have the freedom to check the other power centers in our system, namely, Congress, the President, and the States, without fear of reprisal. That is why the Founders decided that federal judges should serve “during good behavior,” meaning for life. Because federal judges must be both independent and free to wield truly awesome power, extra care must be taken in their selection. And because in our time the federal judiciary has exceeded its powers, to the detriment of our natural rights and civil liberties, the time has come for fundamental reforms.
My proposed reform strategy has a number of facets that all boil down to just one goal: stack every court withy principled originalists.
What’s a Principled Originalist?
What do I mean by a “principled originalist”? I mean a jurist who steadfastly honors, explains, defends, and vindicates the original meaning of the constitutional text as it was understood by those who ratified it, without regard to his own personal preferences. A principled originalist interprets the Constitution in light of its actual text, according to what a reasonable, competent speaker of English living at the time of its adoption would have declared its ordinary public meaning to be. A principled originalist strives to find the original meaning of every word in the text the light of every other word, and, while always grounding his interpretation solidly in the text, will take care to consult the relevant legislative history and contemporaneous dictionaries and other evidence to get an understanding of the intentions and understanding of the drafters and ratifiers. In short, he rejects the very idea of a “living” constitution whose meaning changes over time. The whole point of having a written constitution is that its meaning does not change over time. We should always want our constitutions good and dead.
But a principled originalist’s job isn’t merely to enforce a text. He must also employ right reason to enforce the principles enshrined in the constitutional text and which form the rock upon which its protections are erected. I mean the natural justice principles of the Declaration of Independence. While a judge of the principled originalist variety will never usurp legislative powers, he will not hesitate to nullify the enactments of democratic majorities when they attempt to violate the first principles of the republic or invade the natural rights of citizens. He will protect the natural and civil rights of individuals against oppression by local majorities, and he will also protect the natural and constitutional rights of local majorities to govern themselves against oppression by the federal government. And when these two things come into conflict, or appear to do so, he will do his best to err on the side of natural justice.
The principled originalist will engage in a dispassionate, impartial, and logical assessment of the legal question at hand, based on a searching inquiry into the justification and effects of the law or policy in dispute. Correct legal reasoning in our system weights not just whether a law was passed in the proper form by the competent authority—whether all the procedural boxes were checked—but also considers whether that law is justified in light of the founding principles of the republic. A legislative majority might, for example, pass a latter-day Nuremberg law persecuting Jews, and pass it according to all the proper forms, but it would still violate the Constitution because such a law by its very nature violates the principles that the Constitution was established to protect. The Constitution is silent on Nuremberg laws. It is most assuredly not neutral on them. The good judge cannot be a “good German.”
The best living example of a principled originalist, in my view, is Justice Clarence Thomas. Let us have more like him.
The Tempting of the American Judiciary
Why has the American judiciary become despotic? I would say the temptation has been there from the beginning. The U.S. Constitution is unusual in making the federal judiciary a coequal branch of government alongside the executive and legislative and in giving federal judges the awesome power to strike down any law in the land on constitutional grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court is also the most powerful branch, potentially, because its power is more extensive than is the power of Congress or of the president, in this sense: while the president cannot issue an order to a governor, and Congress cannot issue an order to a state legislature, the Supreme Court can, in effect, issue an order to a state judiciary. And because as a chronological matter the Supreme Court has the last word in “saying what the law is,” it is, to all intents and purposes, “infallible because it is final.”
This arrangement can be a good one, so long as judges, in addition to being principled originalists, are upright persons of impeccable moral character and do their job conscientiously and well. Judicial independence is a necessary tool for protecting our natural rights and civil liberties. Federal judges serve for life, and are hard to fire, precisely so they can serve, not transient popular majorities, but the permanent majority as expressed in the constitutional text. They must enforce not only the written law but also the natural rights the written law is designed to protect. Judicial independence, properly wielded, is a bulwark of freedom.
But “with great power comes great responsibility”—and great temptation. The more independent the judiciary, the greater its ability to usurp the non-judicial powers of government and to engage in judicial despotism.
In a more traditional, Old World system, judges pose less of a danger, because the powers of government are intermingled. The judiciary is subordinate to the king and parliament. The judges are servants and cannot effectively check the combined legislative-executive power, which is supreme. If the courts go wrong, it is because their masters, the king and parliament, have gone wrong. A judge in an Old World system cannot usurp despotic power. In our system, by contrast, since the judiciary is on the same plane with the legislative and executive branches, it cannot be easily pressured. When the Supreme Court errs on an important constitutional question, it is well positioned to defend itself against pushback from any of the three other principal power centers (Congress, the President, and the States). A constitutional error made by one of these can usually be corrected by the exercise of some ordinary power, legislative, executive, or judicial. But a constitutional error made by the U.S. Supreme Court can, as a general matter, only be corrected by formally amending the U.S. Constitution—a far more difficult task.
Thankfully, there are remedies short of having to pass a formal amendment every time the Court misreads the Constitution.
Our first line of defense against a judicial error is to simply ignore it—pass a law in defiance of the Court. Sometimes the Court will voluntarily back down in the face of resistance. Defiance has been successful a number of times, most famously in 1862, when Congress passed a law outlawing slavery in the territories in defiance of Dred Scott.
But when the Court is stubborn, we must also try roundabout strategies. For starters, we can change who sits on the Supreme Court as they retire or die, or alter their number by statute. Those remedies will, I hope, be sufficient. Congress has changed the number of justices five times since 1789. Some may call that “court packing,” but there is nothing impermissible about changing the number of justices, and there is nothing unconstitutional about trying to set the Court straight. The Constitution is not a suicide pact. Congress has the power to create and destroy courts inferior to the Supreme Court, and to alter their jurisdiction by ordinary legislation, subject only to the restrictions set forth in Article III. If Congress can wield these powers, which obviously affect the judiciary, why should it not also wield its well-established power to change the number of justices? Those who claim that ours is a “living” constitution can have no principled objection to “court packing.”
If the foregoing strategies fail, then, yes, we must formally amend the Constitution. But how? Should we prefer narrowly targeted amendments focused on policy issues or structural amendments that reform the judiciary itself? The superiority of the latter becomes apparent when one reflects on several facts. First, amending the Constitution is hard, and rightly so. It cannot be resorted to, too often. Second, even when successful, an amendment can be thwarted by a really stubborn and crafty Court majority. Third, an amendment, unless thoughtfully framed and carefully worded, can produce unintended consequences. And finally, we cannot possibly fix every judicial error with a separate amendment. There are too many.
A structural approach is more likely to work. Only a prudent, thoughtful structural reform can induce the Supreme Court to voluntarily reverse itself on a host of fronts and prevent it from relapsing in the future without unduly diminishing its independence. Permanent reform means permanently improving the justices’ behavior, which in the long run will only happen if we change their incentives. And the best way to do that, I believe, is to change who appoints the justices and how long they serve.
To be clear, I concede that this last option is a radical one, in the good sense of “radical,” and a last resort. If we can right the ship without formally amending the Constitution, great, that’s preferable. But if nothing else works, we should not hesitate to be a bit “radical” in our remedy, lest we remain subject to “the despotism of an oligarchy.”
What Is the Problem?
What is the problem we’re trying to solve, exactly? There are basically five problems, in my view.
- Enumeration of Powers and Federalism. The Court has ceased to enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal power, thanks to a latitudinarian reading of numerous provisions, especially the Taxing and Spending Powers Clause, the General Welfare Clause, the Commerce Clause, the Coinage Clause, and the Necessary and Proper Clause, to the benefit of the central government at the expense of the states and private individuals, and a misreading of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which were added to the Constitution precisely to prevent latitudinarian readings of federal powers.
- Separation of Powers. The Court has ceased to enforce the separation of powers, a key safeguard for liberty, through an excessive deference to federal administrative agencies, which wield legislative powers unconstitutionally delegated to them by Congress, or usurped by them.
- Judicial Legislation. The Court has itself usurped legislative powers, by creating new “fundamental” rights out of whole cloth, rights no one may prohibit or even reasonably regulate, without the Court’s permission. It has done this primarily by way of an unhistorical reading of the term “due process of law” in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The effect has been to radically transform American law in ways that deeply divide citizens, with no hope of reasonable compromise, and has thus instigated a kind of “war of all against all” and thus destroyed the possibility of social peace, tranquillity, and concord. Nothing has embittered our politics, nothing threatens the principles of self-government, like the Court’s usurpations under the guise of protecting “fundamental” rights. If any problem in our national life cries out to heaven for reform, it is this one.
- Enumerated Rights. The Court has made an ungainly patchwork of the rights of national citizenship through an overly narrow reading of the term “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” in the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, and through an awkward approach to protecting some but not all of those rights through a strained construction of the due process clause of the same section.
- Unenumerated Rights. The Court has often neglected to protect the retained, unenumerated rights of individuals from government infringement, in cases where positive law is ambiguous enough to allow for equitable interpretation. That is, the Court has failed to follow the old rule which holds that natural rights should control in the absence of sufficiently explicit positive law to the contrary.
The cumulative result of these various errors has been centralization of power in the wrong hands—from the states to Washington, and from Congress to the President and the Supreme Court. In other words, a consolidation of power at the national level and a concentration of power in ever fewer hands. This process of centralization has gone on for so long, and reached such an intense level, that the ordinary processes of election, representation, and legislation can no longer be counted on to check it. On the contrary, they sometimes help ensconce it. Take, for example, the Senate’s filibuster rule. Once it helped to block federal power-grabs. Now it facilitates them, by making it nearly impossible for the people’s representatives to overturn the errors of federal judges and the excesses of federal bureaucrats. The centralization of government power has become a one-way ratchet.
Meanwhile, the states have become so dependent on federal grace and largess that they no longer act as if they were truly independent sources of authority, with their own duties and powers. More and more, they function like mere provinces or administrative districts of a single consolidated state.
In weakening the principles of federalism, separation of powers, and enumeration of powers, the Court has undermined the republican character of our institutions, moving us dangerously in the direction of oligarchy and monarchy. As these errors have rooted themselves in the law and have grown and spread unchecked, the Supreme Court has quietly morphed from the least to the most dangerous branch, from a modest enforcer of constitutional limits to a part-time super-legislature whose radical enactments are well-nigh unrevisable. The U.S. Supreme Court has become the American equivalent of Iran’s Council of Guardians, wielding effective veto power over everyone else in the system. Judicial independence has become judicial domination. We live under the “despotism of an oligarchy.”
Back to First Principles
To correct the aforementioned problems, we have to remind ourselves of, and re-commit ourselves to, the first principles of our constitutional order. Here, in my opinion, are the most important of those principles.
Purpose of Government
—The only legitimate purpose of government is to ensure the safety and happiness of the people by protecting each and every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Declaration of Independence.)
Rule of Law
—The only good government is a government of laws and not of men. In America, no one should be above the law.
—Living under the rule of law means freely binding ourselves to the law as it is and not as we might like it to be.
—But the law, to be binding, must be legitimate. A law that isn’t legitimate isn’t a law. A legitimate law is one that is both just and constitutional.*
—Legitimate government is a compact among and between sovereign individuals, acting as individuals.
—Being equal by nature, in our rights, we are all sovereign by nature, as individuals. We cede some of our natural sovereignty to government in order to secure our safety and happiness.
—Sovereignty is inalienable. Individuals can retrieve it at any time by withdrawing their consent from the compact of government, as by renouncing their citizenship or, when their inalienable rights are violated, by invoking their natural right of revolution. (Declaration.)
We are a republic, not a monarchy or an oligarchy.
—The republican is the best form of government, although to be stable, it must include elements of the monarchical and democratic principles—a so-called “mixed” regime—and to be just, it must abide by constitutional limits that recognize and protect the natural rights of individuals. Without such limits, it is despotic.
—The two marks of a republic are the rule of law and rule by the people. Certain kinds of laws are anti-republican by their nature. These include: ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, extreme debtor-relief measures, and most kinds of retroactive legislation.
—In the United States, the people are to rule the rulers, not the other way around. All government officers are to be the servants or agents of the people, not their masters. The United States of America was the first nation in history to embrace this principle, popular sovereignty. It is this commitment to popular sovereignty, and this commitment alone, that entitles Americans to call themselves an “exceptional” people.
—The highest man-made law for Americans is the Constitution of the United States. (Article IV.) The Constitution is the act of our political sovereign, the people of the United States. (Preamble.)
—Sovereignty resides in individuals only. It does not reside in the people as a group, nor in the states, nor in the federal government, nor in any of branch or department of government. Our American governments are not sovereign in the traditional sense. Only individuals are truly sovereign. (Randy E. Barnett.)
—No government officer may lawfully alter, defy, or disregard the Constitution.
—The people may alter their forms of government when they become destructive of their safety and happiness. (Declaration of Independence.)
—The Constitution can only be changed by the people, using the process specified in the instrument. (Article V.)
Enumeration of Powers
—The Constitution grants only a limited set of powers to the federal government, which are enumerated in the instrument. These powers are to be wielded only for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, never for the benefit of favored regions, interests, persons, or groups. (Article I, Section 8.)
—All powers not granted to the federal government, nor prohibited by the Constitution to the states, are reserved to the people in their separate states. (Amendment X.)
—The enumerated powers of the federal government are to be construed narrowly, in favor of the retained rights of the people in their separate states. (Amendment IX.)
—The federal government has no general police power.
—The police powers of each state are limited by federal and state constitutions.
—Powers delegated to the federal government are in all cases to receive the most strict construction that the instrument will bear, where the rights of a state or of the people, either collectively or individually, may be drawn in question. (St. George Tucker.)
—Powers granted to the federal government are never exclusive of similar powers existing in the states, unless the Constitution has expressly given an exclusive power to Congress or prohibited a concurrent power in the states or when the granted power is in its very nature incompatible with the existence of a like power in the states. (Justice Joseph Story, Houston v. Moore (1820).)
Separation of Powers
—The Constitution separates the three great powers of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, into three departments or branches, which are coequal. (Articles I, II, and III.)
—The legislative powers delegated to the federal government are granted to Congress alone. (Article I.)
—Government officers take an oath to the Constitution, not to what the Supreme Court has said about the Constitution. Every officer, including every judge, has a solemn duty to nullify a law that violates the Constitution. When the Supreme Court reasons wrongly about the Constitution, its reasoning is not binding on other government officers. While inferior courts are rightly expected to follow the binding precedents of the Supreme Court, their duty to the Constitution requires them to counter and narrow the effect of erroneous Supreme Court precedents.
—The constitutional text must be construed according to its original meaning, as it was understood by those who ratified it. The views of its drafters are also important, but it is the understanding of the ratifiers that counts. The original meaning of a provision is what a reasonable, competent speaker of English living at the time of the provision’s adoption would have declared its ordinary public meaning to be.
—We have many kinds of rights, natural, civil, and political. Some rights are the creation of government. Most come from nature. The rights created by government we call “positive-law” or “stipulated” or in some cases “civil” rights. The rights that come from nature we call “natural,” and they inhere in us as individuals. Some but not all of our natural rights are inalienable, that is, they cannot be relinquished permanently, and only with our consent. Some of our rights are individual. Some are collective. Some are enumerated in the Constitution. Most are unenumerated.
—Rights not relinquished are retained. Rights and powers are reciprocal or mutually exclusive. Where one exists, the other does not. The boundary between relinquished and retained rights may be established by defining the powers of the government or alternatively by defining the rights of the people. There are thus two ways in which the people may protect their natural liberty: by careful enumeration and limitation of the powers of government, or by reservation of the rights of the people through a bill of rights. These techniques come down to the same thing. Our Constitution employs both. (Michael W. McConnell.)
Rights of National Citizenship
—Governments are bound to respect all of our natural rights, enumerated as well as unenumerated, stipulated as well as retained, consistent with the common good, but not all of our natural rights are “fundamental” rights protected by the federal constitution. That constitution recognizes and protects a specific set of natural and civil rights, which are enumerated primarily, though not exclusively, in the first eight amendments. Some are enumerated elsewhere, primarily in Article I, Sections 8, 9, and 10.
—The original Constitution, as ratified in 1788 and amended by the Bill of Rights in 1791, made this handful of natural and civil rights, which may be called rights of national citizenship, enforceable against the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) made them enforceable against the states.**
—The “incorporation” of the rights of national citizenship against the states is effected by way of the Privileges or Immunities Clause, not the Due Process Clause or the Equal Protection Clause.***
—The Fourteenth Amendment does not obviate the Ninth. While federal judges have a duty to nullify legislative enactments that violate the rights of national citizenship, federal judges should err on the side of deciding the genuinely close calls in favor of local self-government. Otherwise, judges could go too far in diminishing the reserved powers of the states and be tempted to unlawfully impose their own policy preferences on the people in their separate states. This kind of usurpation has occurred many times, alas.
—The Constitution does not give federal judges an unlimited power to enforce all of our unenumerated natural rights. That duty is left primarily to the people in their separate states.****
—Unenumerated retained natural rights are not “constitutional rights” under the Ninth Amendment, but do continue to enjoy some degree of legal protection in their pre-constitutional status as retained natural rights. Unenumerated natural rights are protected through a combination of self-control on the part of political actors (reinforced by the separation of powers) and equitable interpretation by the courts, which entails the narrow construction of statutes so as to avoid violations of natural rights. In other words, natural rights control in the absence of sufficiently explicit positive law to the contrary. This equitable interpretation is predicated on the charitable assumption that the legislature likely did not intend, by the use of broad language not explicitly addressed to the point at issue, to violate the law of nature. Equitable interpretation seeks to effect the animating purpose or spirit of a law, rather than its letter. (Michael W. McConnell.)
—Equitable interpretation will decline to enforce laws that are illegitimate by their nature, namely, laws that violate rights which the people could never be presumed to have authorized their agents to violate, for example, “a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B.” (Justice Samuel Chase, Calder v. Bull (1798).) For a judge, when interpreting the federal Constitution, equitable interpretation is an exception to state authority. The default rule is for the judge to leave most individual rights to be protected by the people in their separate states. A federal judge may, indeed should, strike down a state or local law that is arbitrary or irrational, such as special-interest legislation masquerading as public health regulation, if it violates a right of national citizenship. But under the federal constitution, the close cases must be decided in favor of the positive law of the state or local authority.
The Fourteenth Amendment
—In judicial reasoning, the correctness of the reasoning is more important, ultimately, than the correctness of the outcome of the particular case.*
Comment: The point I made earlier, about the specific clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, may seem trivial, but it’s quite important. Relying on the wrong clause can lead to disaster. In fact, reliance on the Due Process Clause to enforce the rights of national citizenship is the leading cause of rise of the “living Constitution.” Progressives want to believe that the Due Process Clause, sometimes read in conjunction with the Equal Protection Clause, transforms the Constitution into a flexible document that can “evolve with the times.” In this radical view, Supreme Court justices are authorized to function as high priests, divining for the masses the “ever-changing meaning of liberty.” What does “due process” require? It requires whatever the judges says it requires. The original meaning is not binding. It evolves. Even principles themselves evolve. All is change! Obviously, this is not the rule of law. Rightly reacting against the radical notion of the “living constitution,” some thinkers go all the way to the opposite extreme and argue that the Fourteenth Amendment does not make any federal constitutional rights enforceable against the states. That too is wrong. The Fourteenth Amendment does make the rights of national citizenship enforceable against the states, but it does not “incorporate” all of our retained, unenumerated individual natural rights. And it certainly doesn’t incorporate every individual right that some judge happens to fancy.
—The Privileges or Immunities Clause is the clause by which certain federal rights become enforceable against the states. The clause, unlike the Due Process Clause, is naturally limited.
Comment: In the Cruikshank case (1875), the Supreme Court effectively rendered the Privileges or Immunities Clause nugatory by claiming to find that there are, in fact, few if any privileges or immunities inherent in national citizenship. That interpretation is overly narrow. The Court later turned to the Due Process Clause to “incorporate” some enumerated rights against the states, which opened the door to incorporating an essentially unlimited series of unenumerated rights. Eventually, the Court also declared some of these rights “fundamental,” meaning that other rights could be disparaged, receiving less protection. Whence arises the modern construct of “levels of scrutiny,” i.e., “strict” versus “rational basis.” The imposition of “levels” of scrutiny elevates some rights and disparages others, in violation of the Ninth Amendment.
—The Due Process Clause has no natural limits. This unfortunate move has led the Court to do both too little and too much: to leave some of the enumerated rights unincorporated, while incorporating a potentially endless list of unenumerated rights against the states, in violation of both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
Comment: Professor Kurt T. Lash summarizes the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause well in his 2014 monograph, The Fourteenth Amendment and the Privileges and Immunities of American Citizenship:
The term “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” refers to all constitutionally enumerated personal rights.
A jurisprudence of the Privileges or Immunities Clause based on its original meaning would include [i.e., incorporate] the entire Bill of Rights, as well as the other textually enumerated rights such as the great writ of habeas corpus and the equal protection coverage of the Comity Clause [Article IV, section 2, which prohibits states from discriminating against the citizens of other states]. An original meaning jurisprudence would not include unenumerated rights, whether progressive [Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade], libertarian [Lochner v. New York], or conservative [Meyer v. Nebraska, Pierce v. Society of Sisters]. Unless covered under a separate clause in the Constitution, matters involving the rights of privacy, economic rights, and parental rights would remain subject to political debate in the several states. Some aspects of the right to privacy, sexual autonomy, and gay rights may be covered under the Equal Protection Clause [see, for example, Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey] or preserved under the doctrine of stare decisis [see, for example, the majority opinion in Casey]. However, there is no originalist understanding of the Privileges or Immunities Clause that would include such rights. [Emphasis added.] [The parenthetical citations in this excerpt are from Prof. Lash’s original, where they appear as footnotes. I’ve edited them slightly here for readability.]
Note: I do not think courts should always defer to the decisions of legislatures, nor the opposite. The right approach lies in the middle. (I try to flesh it out in the section titled “Rights of National Citizenship,” above.) Sometimes legislatures pass laws under the guise of promoting public health, safety, welfare, or morals, but which laws are really gifts to some special interest, often designed to shut out competition or discriminate against a disfavored minority. Courts have an unavoidable duty to sniff out these ruses by looking beyond the plain words of a statute or regulation to weigh its real-world effects and to detect the probable motivations of its authors, and, where these are illicit and the judge has a power to do so, to nullify the law. But where there is serious doubt, the safer rule is for judges to defer. Otherwise, as we have seen, they can and will run wild.
The Court isn’t going to reverse its errors without pressure. Like any human institution, it is loath to admit mistakes and reluctant to relinquish power. Here are some possible options for ending judicial usurpation, with a brief thought or two on each.
a. Choosing better judges. By “better judges” I mean principled originalists with an ample paper trail, i.e., the opposite of stealth candidates. This idea should go without saying. But there is a challenge. We cannot always detect erroneous thinking at the time of confirmation, even in an ample record. Nor can we always predict how a judge will actually behave once confirmed. Sometimes a good judge turns out not to be so good, or goes bad. And of course even a good judge makes an occasional mistake. So while appointing better judges is necessary—nay, essential—it is not sufficient. *****
b. Impeachment. Long historical experience shows this particular tool works pretty well for policing ordinary crimes and malfeasance by judges but is ineffective as a tool for punishing erroneous judicial reasoning. Jefferson dismissed it as a “scarecrow,” meaning the kind that the birds like to land on.
c. Nullification by state governments. State nullification or principled resistance of unconstitutional federal laws—the cherished “rightful remedy” of John C. Calhoun and the Confederates—is politically and legally problematic. Tainted by a long association with racism, which makes it difficult to defend, it only seems to work well where the feds already seem willing to reconsider an erroneous policy (for example, in recent years, on marijuana regulation). It does not work so well when it comes with a threat of violence (as in the Tariff Crisis of 1828-1832). This option should be used judiciously, with a preference for trying all other remedies first. Note: I’m speaking here only about nullification by state governments. I have no problem with nullification by individuals or juries.
d. Subject-specific constitutional amendments. This one is worth attempting, but hard to pull off. There are too many errors to correct easily by individual amendments. And of course there’s always a risk that the Court will simply ignore or misconstrue the amendment. This is why I think we have no choice but to reform the judiciary itself.
e. Structural and procedural reforms of the judicial branch, by way of legislation. The following are some of the legislative reform ideas I’ve heard mentioned: a) change the number of justices or circuits; b) redraw circuit boundaries; c) redefine lower courts’ jurisdiction in order to take certain issues out of their hands (“court stripping”); d) alter Senate rules to make judicial nominations harder or easier to confirm, depending on what kinds of nominations are expected (for example, by eliminating senators’ ability to filibuster nominations or curbing the custom of permitting senators to block a vote on a nominee from their own home state (“blue-slipping”). While any or all of these structural and procedural reforms might be tried, the first (changing the number of justices) is the only one that strikes me as likely to have the desired effect. I would just change the number of justices to give principled originalists a majority, and leave it at that. If that reform doesn’t have the desired effect, then I would go ahead and reform the judiciary via constitutional amendment, as specified in the next point. By the way, one may reasonably ask whether the number of justices should go up or down? I could go either way. My own preference is that it go up, in order to make it harder for fixed partisan blocs to congeal. But expanding the Court requires legislation signed by the president. It is easier to let it go down through attrition. The Senate can simply announce that it will not confirm any Supreme Court nominee until the Court has dipped below, say, six or seven justices. (Six was the original number, in 1789.) But the number should be dictated by the goal, which is to give principled originalists a majority—and thereby save the republic. (P.S. Here’s a pretty good summary of the case for shrinking the Court through attrition.)******
f. Structural reforms of the judicial branch, by way of constitutional amendment. Examples of possible constitutional amendments include ones providing for: a) judicial term limits, b) judicial elections, c) judicial retention elections, d) appointment of U.S. Supreme Court justices by the states, and e) allowing the states or Congress to overturn U.S. Supreme Court rulings by a supermajority vote. A constitutional amendment, as I’ve suggested, should be regarded as a last resort. But at the moment it also seems also unavoidable, if we want to effect permanent, positive changes in judicial behavior. If we pursue an amendment, the best approach, I would argue, is to provide that henceforth justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are appointed by the states rather than by the President and Congress, with each state filling one seat and no justice serving more than twelve years. (This idea is was first proposed, I believe, by Professor Michael Farris.) To avoid the downsides of having the people of the states elect the justices, the amendment should require that the governor nominate and the state senate confirm or reject justices, just as occurs at the federal level now. How would state appointment of justices benefit us? First, because the justices would be appointed by the states, they would tend to look out for the rights and powers of the states, breathing new life into federalism. Second, the reformed Court’s large size and built-in diversity would make razor-thin majorities less common and consensus-based rulings more common. It would be much harder for any one justice to become the all-powerful swing vote on every important issue. That would make radical legal impositions less frequent. Third, the quality of judging would improve because justices would know their hold on power is brief, thanks to the twelve-year term limit. The average age of justices could rise, but a smaller percentage of justices would serve past the point of senility, so, one hopes, the average level of wisdom and sharpness of mind would also rise. Importantly, a greater rotation of justices would shorten the lifespan of erroneous rulings. If we had imposed a twelve-year term limit for justices beginning in 1981 and let the states fill the vacancies, I am pretty sure the worst Supreme Court decisions of the past generation would either not have happened or else would have already been overturned by now. Some skeptics may object that this kind of restructuring would make the law too changeable and uncertain. I strongly disagree. I think the stability of the law depends principally upon, not whether rulings are overturned, but rather on whether, and to what extent, rulings are perceived to be true and just. The stronger that perception, the more stable the law will be.
Afterthought: What About Civil Rights?
Some who oppose the remedies I’m recommending here may try to smear them as a threat to civil rights. To which I reply: Baloney! Restoring the lost Constitution means restoring the color-blind Constitution. The Constitution, to quote Justice Harlan in his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), “is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” The original meaning of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments tells us the Court’s reasoning in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy was wrong, while its reasoning in Brown v. Board (1954) and in upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was right. (I might quibble with the exact logic of Brown, which tried to work around Plessy rather than oveturn it, but I strongly agree with Brown’s result. A constitution that “neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens” cannot tolerate official government segregation of the races.) Originalism supports civil rights. “Living constitutionism” renders civil rights insecure, because “living constitutionism” is essentially unprincipled and arbitrary.
* Each of us must accept as valid law those judicial outcomes we don’t like, when rightly reached, and reject outcomes we do like, when wrongly reached. Among my least favorite Supreme Court decisions are a whole host of bad Commerce Clause decisions (including Wickard v. Fillburn (1942) and U.S. v. South-Eastern Underwriters Association (1944)), some that undermine our natural property rights (for example, Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1969), Knox v. Lee (1871), Julliard v. Greenman (1884), the Gold Clause Cases (1935), and Kelo v. City of New London (2005)), and a number of so-called substantive due process cases that infringe our Ninth and Tenth Amendment-protected rights to local self-government (e.g., Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Roe v. Wade (1973), Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), United States v. Windsor (2013), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)). By contrast, I like the outcomes in such famous substantive due process cases as Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), and Troxel v. Granville (2000). But I oppose using any of the aforementioned cases (likable or not) as precedents, because of their incorrect reasoning. The property rights cases I mentioned impute to Congress a “plenary power” to regulate the economy that it does not have. The substantive due process cases (likable and not) create new “fundamental” rights out of whole cloth, in violation of both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Now, I will readily concede that some cases are close calls, about which reasonable minds can differ, and some cases that have been decided wrongly on the basis of the Due Process Clause might perhaps have been decided in the same way more defensibly on the basis of some other constitutional provision. But it is the reasoning that matters. And as a rule of prudence, I think the Constitution requires that the close calls be decided in favor of local self-government. That rule ensures that we do not simply disregard the Ninth and Tenth Amendments or weaken federalism and limits on federal power. Otherwise, unelected federal judges with life tenure will impose too tight a straightjacket on all the states, such as by imposing unchallengeable “fundamental” rights that not everyone agrees are fundamental. Centralization of power is the great enemy. Now, if someone can ever show me a defensible rule by which the due process cases whose outcomes I dislike (Roe, Casey, etc.) must fall and the ones whose outcomes I like (Meyer, Pierce, etc.) must stand, then I will cheerfully adopt that rule in lieu of my current view, which is a blanket skepticism of “substantive due process” as a source of “fundamental” rights.
** The lawyers call this “incorporation.” Barron v. Baltimore (1833) held, correctly, that the first eight amendments of the Constitution imposed limitations on the federal government but not on the states. The Fourteenth Amendment, overturning Barron, incorporated the first eight amendments, along with other rights of national citizenship, against the states. In effect, the power to protect those rights became obligatory on the state governments, subject to the control of the federal government. Note: The Fourteenth did not incorporate the Ninth or the Tenth, which are not sources of rights but rather limitations on the scope of federal power. But the Fourteenth did alter the scope of the Ninth, by shifting certain powers from the states to Congress.
*** For reference, the relevant sections of the Fourteenth Amendment declare as follows:
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. [Emphasis added.] …
Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
**** For an excellent treatment of this issue, see this article by professor Michael McConnell. His conclusion is worth quoting in full:
We are left with the following construction of the Ninth Amendment: Courts should give presumptive protection to natural rights (but should not make up new positive rights), subject to congressional override through explicit and specific legislation. In other words: the rights retained by the people are indeed individual natural rights, but they enjoy precisely the same status, and are protected in the same way, that they were before the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. They were not relinquished, denied, or disparaged. Nor did they become “constitutional rights.” They are simply what all retained rights were before the enactment of the Bill of Rights: a guide to equitable interpretation and a rationale for narrow construction, but not superior to explicit positive law.
***** Professors Randy Barnett and Josh Blackman have helpfully suggested six rules that should guide the selection, investigation, and confirmation of future judicial nominees. They are: 1) Bruising confirmation battles are worth the political capital for a lifetime appointment. 2) Paper trails are an asset, not a disqualification. 3) Reject clichéd calls for “judicial restraint.” 4) Focus on the Constitution, not issues du jour. 5) Focus on clauses, not cases. 6) Beware of candidates who take refuge in stare decisis (reflexive deference to past judicial precedents, no matter how erroneous).
****** Update, April 6, 2017: The Senate has changed its rules to eliminate senators’ ability to filibuster judicial nominations. It did this in two stages. In November 2013, with the Democrats in control of the Senate and White House, it eliminated the filibuster for all judicial (and executive branch) nominations except for the Supreme Court. In April 2017, with the Republicans in control of the Senate and White House, it eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. So for nominations of any kind, a simple majority can end debate. But the filibuster rule remains in place with respect to legislation. To end debate on a bill or resolution currently requires the consent of three-fifths of the entire Senate.
This plank (contingently) includes a constitutional amendment providing that justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are appointed by the states rather than by the president and Congress, with each state filling one seat and no justice serving more than twelve years. To avoid the downsides of popularly electing judges, the amendment would require that the governor nominate and the state senate confirm or reject, just as occurs at the federal level now. The proposed amendment would only be necessary if altering the quality or number of justices proved insufficient to end judicial usurpation.
Will do much to revive the “American way” of decentralization, local self-government, impartial justice, and equal civil rights for all.
Will encourage greater civil peace, social concord, and healthy, flourishing communities.
Revised: June 12, 2017.
Published: June 21, 2013.
Author: Dean Clancy.