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The Kavanaugh Hearings Were a Missed Opportunity—For Both Sides

In Humanities, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Politics, The Supreme Court on September 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

By now you’ve heard about the combative spectacle that was last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. This momentous event was characterized not by political acumen, wit, cunning, or prudence, but by partisan obstruction, lawlessness, tantrums, hysteria, ignorance, frenzy, and anger.

Protestors screamed vulgarities and trite slogans, proving they were not interested in Kavanaugh’s responses or in substantive intellectual debate. Seventy of them were arrested on Tuesday alone. If anything, their recurring interruptions and crude histrionics gave Kavanaugh time to pause and think about his responses rather than tire out and let down his guard.

Online left-wing rabble-rousers peddled an absurd conspiracy theory about Zina Bash, a former clerk for Kavanaugh—only shortly before right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was banned from Twitter. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, publicly released documents that were allegedly confidential, claiming full knowledge of the possible repercussions of his act—namely, expulsion from the Senate. “Bring it,” Booker taunted Senator John Cornyn, who warned about the consequences of the supposed confidentiality breach. With unintended levity, Booker announced his “I am Spartacus” moment. Only the documents weren’t confidential after all; they’d already been approved for public release. Thus, Booker’s Spartacus Moment was merely a political stunt of faux bravery.

Why this hostility? Why these shenanigans?

A Deep Philosophical Clash

For starters, the midterm election cycle is upon us and the Mueller investigation appears to be nearing an end. Politicians like Booker are grandstanding for political gain as they consider running for president. Kavanaugh has been tapped to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, moreover, who was the court’s so-called swing vote, whereas Justice Gorsuch filled Justice Scalia’s seat. Gorsuch’s appointment did not tip the balance of the court the way Kavanaugh’s might. Democrats also remain angry that Republicans did not act on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

But something more is going on. We’re witnessing a philosophical clash regarding the proper role of the judiciary.

Kavanaugh identifies as an originalist and a textualist. Originalism comes in different permutations, having evolved since the days when it sought principally to recover the original intent of an author or authors. Its most prominent adherents today see it as an interpretive approach to the original public meaning of a text. It maintains that the words of the law should be construed according to their ordinary meaning as understood by a reasonable person at the time they were enacted.

Textualism, similarly, interprets words without resort to extratextual factors such as authorial intent or legislative history, focusing instead on the ordinary meaning of words as written. For the purposes of this piece, I use the term originalism without drawing distinctions between it and its close cousin textualism.

Getting Kavanaugh’s Originalism Wrong

Originalism so described seems uncontroversial on its face, but you wouldn’t get that impression from activists who have opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination. “Originalism conflicts sharply with American reality and American ideals,” writes Alan Brownstein, a retired law professor. He labels originalism “unamerican,” saying it accounts for the views of “only the people who were here in the 1780’s and 90’s or when specific constitutional amendments were adopted,” not for the views of the “vast new diversity of the American people today.”

This, I think, is wrong. Originalism properly understood is depolarizing, isolating judges from the political process rather than injecting them into it. The Constitution contemplates internal modifications, chiefly through the amendment process, which is, by design, difficult to facilitate. If originalism limits changes in law to those processes contemplated in the Constitution, as Brownstein alleges, then Brownstein has inadvertently labeled the Constitution “unamerican.” How can this founding document, which sets forth the basic framework of government for the United States, be “unamerican”?

Brownstein seems to imply that the amendment process, being slow and onerous, should not be the sole avenue for reform—that the courts ought to be a driver of progress when legislative solutions stall. The implication here is that the Constitution ought to be a “living” document that can be updated or improved through judicial correction and adaptation in cases. Judges should, accordingly, exercise quasi-legislative powers, promulgating binding rules and opinions to achieve justice or equality or to align with evolving standards of decency.

5 Reasons Everyone Wins with Originalism

Here’s why Brownstein is mistaken and why now more than ever a commitment to originalism would benefit both the left and the right.

First, originalism does not guarantee a particular political result. As Scalia, one of the original originalists, remarked, “If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong.” Scalia sometimes reasoned to conclusions that favored Democratic or liberal policies because the operative text so required.

Second, originalism fosters trust in democratic systems. Legislatures and the public need to know that newly enacted laws stand a chance to last as long as they comport with the Constitution. People lose confidence in their governing institutions if they believe the laws they passed can be easily tinkered with or discarded by unelected and hence unaccountable judges.

Third, although originalism may lead to harsh results in certain cases, it leaves it to the collective wisdom of the people, acting through their representatives, to alter the law to achieve fairness or justice. Concentrating revisionary lawmaking power in one judge or group of judges increases the probability that an uncommon or idiosyncratic conception of justice that does not represent the conception of the people will become binding over them.

Fourth, originalism makes the law clearer and more predictable, not subject to the unpredictable or arbitrary considerations of a judge or group of judges. When the law as written is applied, parties to a case and the general public can with reasonable sureness predict a range of possible outcomes. But if judges do not apply the law as written, the range of possible outcomes multiplies to the extent that the law itself becomes uncertain, and parties cannot rely on the law when they make everyday decisions. Vagueness in the law causes arbitrary exercises of governmental power. Clarity in the law restrains government actors from exercising powers in a manner that has not been formally approved by the legislature.

Finally, originalism ensures the independence of the judiciary. Kavanaugh has insisted that he is an independent judge. Democrats may dispute that claim, but they can’t dispute that originalism itself operates to secure judicial independence. Originalism is nonpartisan and does not consistently yield results that can be easily classified as conservative or liberal. Even jurists on the left have embraced originalism. Justice Kagan famously declared, “We are all originalists now.”

A week after politicos and activists celebrated the bipartisan spirit of Senator John McCain, the Kavanaugh hearings broke down into partisan pandemonium. Originalism should have been a unifying feature of the Kavanaugh hearings. It wasn’t. So here we are today, approaching the midterm elections in a country that’s as divided as ever. God help us.

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An Issue of Supreme Importance for 2016

In America, Conservatism, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, News and Current Events, Politics, The Supreme Court on April 22, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

The time has come for politicians to announce their candidacy for president. In the following weeks we can expect more names to be tossed into the hat of presidential hopefuls. Already Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul have proclaimed their desire to lead our country. Hillary Clinton made her candidacy official Sunday, and Senator Marco Rubio announced on Monday night.

The 2016 election is shaping up to be the most pivotal in decades, including for reasons not everyone is talking about.

It’s true that Republicans will challenge Obama’s legacy and that everything from Obamacare to payday loans will receive renewed and energetic scrutiny on the campaign trail.

Yet these won’t be the most pressing domestic issues facing the next president. Even more important will be the president’s judicial philosophy. That’s because the probability is high that the nation’s next chief executive administration will nominate at least three candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although confidence in the Court is at an all-time low, voters do not seem particularly concerned about the Court’s future composition. Perhaps the typical voter does not understand the role the president plays in nominating justices. Perhaps the goings-on of the judicial branch seem distant and aloof and out of the purview of our everyday worries. Perhaps most people are too short-sighted to consider the long-term and far-reaching effects that a president can have on the legal system. Whatever the reason, voters should re-prioritize. Conservatives should move this issue to the forefront of the debates.

When the president is inaugurated in January 2017, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, widely thought to be in poor health, will be two months shy of her 84th birthday; Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy will be 80; and Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78. Is it reasonable to expect these justices to serve out four more years under another administration?

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer are considered members of the left wing of the Court whereas Justice Scalia is considered to be on the right. Justice Kennedy is famously known as the Court’s “swing vote.”

If a Republican wins in 2016 election, he could replace two liberal members of the Court, leaving just two other remaining: Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. If Justice Kennedy were also to step down during the next administration, a Republican president could further expand the conservative wing of the Court to seven, making room for a vast majority in contentious cases. If the right wing of the Court enjoyed a 7-2 majority today, for instance, there would be less media speculation about how the Court would decide cases on same-sex marriage, religious freedom, immigration, or campaign finance.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which conducts hearings on presidential nominees to the High Court, currently consists of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Republicans hold a 54-member majority in the Senate, the governing body that confirms presidential nominees to the Court. If these numbers remain unchanged or only slightly changed under a Republican president, that president would have wide latitude to nominate candidates who have tested and principled commitments to conservatism.

Let’s say the presidential election favored a Democrat. A Democratic president could simply replace the departing Justice Ginsburg or Justice Breyer with a jurist in their mold, in effect filling a liberal seat with another liberal. If a Democratic president were up against a Republican Senate, however, his or her nominees would have to appear less liberal than Justice Ginsburg to ensure their confirmation.

Replacing Justice Scalia, arguably the most conservative justice on the Court, with a liberal would be transformative. Although depicted as an unpredictable moderate, Justice Kennedy was nominated by a Republican and more often than not votes with the right wing of the Court. Replacing him with a liberal justice would be a victory for the left. It is possible for the left wing of the Court to gain a 6-3 majority if a Democrat succeeds President Obama.

It’s not inconceivable that in the time he last left, President Obama could name at least one successor to the Court. Barring some unforeseen illness or act of God, however, that is unlikely to happen this late in his presidency. Justice Ginsburg insists on remaining on the Court, and Justice Breyer still has some healthy, productive years ahead of him.

Judges’ and justices’ judicial philosophies are not easily pressed into two sides—conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat—because law itself usually is not reducible to raw politics or naked partisanship, and a judge’s job entails more than interpreting the language of legislative enactments. Law deals with the complex interactions of people and institutions under disputed circumstances that are portrayed and recounted from different perspectives; therefore, law rarely fits cleanly within simplistic political frameworks.

For this reason, among others, it can be difficult to predict how potential justices will rule from the bench if they are installed on the Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren ushered in the progressive “Warren Court Era” even though he had served as the Republican Governor of California and, in 1948, as the vice-presidential running mate of presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. More recently President George H.W. Bush nominated Justice David Souter to the Court. Justice Souter tended to vote consistently with the liberal members of the Court.

The Senate confirmation process has grown more contentious in recent years, and that has made it more difficult for another Souter to slip by the president. But it has also watered down our nominees, whose lack of a paper trail is considered a benefit rather than evidence of a lack of conviction or philosophical knowledge (lawyers are trained, not educated). It has come to a point where if you’re confirmable, you’re not reliable, and if you’re reliable, you’re not confirmable. Chief Justice John Roberts’ acrobatic attempt to uphold the individual mandate in Obamacare on the ground that it was a “tax” reveals just how squishy and unpredictable our justices have become.

There is, of course, the trouble with categorizing: What does it mean to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” judge or justice? Our presidential candidates may have different answers. In January Senator Paul declared himself a “judicial activist,” a label that is gaining favor among libertarians. He appears to have backed away from that position, recently bemoaning “out-of-control, unelected federal judges.” Activist judges, at any rate, can be on the right or the left.

Ted Cruz has not advertised his judicial philosophy yet, but by doing so he could set himself apart because of his vast legal experience, including his service as the Solicitor General of Texas. Two potential presidential nominees, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, are also attorneys, but Rubio’s legal experience, or non-experience, is subject to question, and Graham has been out of the legal field for some time—although he serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has intimate knowledge of the Senate confirmation prospects for potential nominees.

It matters a great deal what our presidential candidates believe about the hermeneutics and jurisprudence embraced by potential Supreme Court justices. In the coming months voters will have the power to force candidates to address their judicial philosophy. The candidates must articulate clearly, thoroughly, and honestly what qualities they admire in judges because those qualities might just shape the nation’s political landscape for decades to come.

Conservatives have much to lose or gain this election in terms of the judiciary. Supreme Court nominations should be a top priority for Republicans when debate season arrives.
Read more at http://spectator.org/articles/62383/issue-supreme-importance-2016

Review of Damon Root’s “Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court”

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Libertarianism on January 28, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Spectator.

The sounds coming from the echo chamber suggest that Damon Root’s new book Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court has been an uncheckered success. On the book’s cover Randy Barnett declares it

a riveting account of the raging debate over the future of our Constitution between those who contend that judges must ‘defer’ to legislatures and those who view the judiciary as an equal branch of government whose mandate is to secure the rights and liberties of the people by holding government to its just powers.

Writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at the Washington Post, Ilya Somin praises the book as the “most thorough account of the libertarian-conservative debate over judicial review so far.”

In the Wall Street Journal Michael Greve critiques the obvious weaknesses in Root’s narrative — its oversimplification — with which, Greve says, “legal historians may quarrel.” But Greve accepts Root’s negative portrayal of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louis Brandeis, and Felix Frankfurter, notable expositors of the doctrine of judicial restraint. The trio, Greve claims, “had not the foggiest notion of the Constitution,” which they “loathed… as inimical to their vision of government by experts.”

Here’s a contrary opinion from a libertarian student of the law: Root’s book suffers from caricature. His approach pits essentialized binaries (what he calls “two competing visions”) against one another in a fight for the good that one binary allegedly represents. History is rich and complex and not simply or without consequence pressed into two-sided struggles. Root would have benefited from a more concerted effort to understand the range of perspectives and heuristics embraced by jurists across a spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs.

Root purports to tell a story “which stretches from the Civil War period to the present,” but the key players are just three people: Holmes, Robert Bork, and Justice Stephen Field. The first two represent the doctrine of judicial restraint that might send “the whole country straight to the devil”; the third man represents an “aggressive legal approach” that Root attributes to libertarianism. Root seeks to show how conservatives over the course of the twentieth century adopted a jurisprudence of restraint that was once the darling of progressives. The subtext is twofold: that today’s conservatives need to be told their legal theory derives from the left, and that current libertarian jurisprudents are part of a more dependable school of thought.

The problem is that the divide between libertarians and conservatives is not so clear in the legal context. In fact, many of both adhere to the basic tenets of originalism and textualism, although within those operative paradigms they may disagree. It’s also difficult to discern whether a judge is conservative or libertarian, since his job is to analyze constitutional provisions and statutes and prior decisions to determine what the law is, not what he wants it to be. A judge may be forced to rule against his political interests if the statutory authority is both unambiguous and constitutional; in such moments the judge has no power to overturn the will of the voters as manifest in legislation or to alter the Constitution.

The most devastating shortcoming of Overruled is its tendency to reduce complicated cases and figures to artless political categories. Root’s Holmes is a fictional type, a stock character, not the actual jurist of history. Look no further than Thomas Sowell for a libertarian — or someone often categorized as a libertarian — who champions Holmes’s jurisprudence rather than considering him an enemy. The real Holmes had much in common with F.A. Hayek, as Richard Posner has revealed in law review articles and in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.

Before Hayek, Holmes formulated his own version of “the knowledge problem,” maintaining that no one judge or group of judges should presume to understand the facts on the ground well enough to direct the goings on in local communities with disparate values and conflicting objectives. We learn the diverse preferences of citizens through the feedback mechanisms of the market and should not have them prescribed for us through the commands of judges and justices. That’s why Holmes deferred to state legislatures to, in his words, “prevent the making of social experiments that an important part of the community desires, in the insulated chambers afforded by the several states.”

Root advocates an inversion of Holmes’s jurisprudence, for something loosely akin to rule by Platonic Guardians: put wise activist philosophers on the bench, he seems to say, and they can waive their magic wands to perform libertarian miracles. With such power and leeway, couldn’t they also do the opposite? Couldn’t they impose on us a scheme of “rights” — to subsistence or a basic income — that’s antithetical to the free market? Scholars on the left such as Erwin Chemerinsky, Charles Black, Peter Edelman, and Frank Michelman champion the same expansive approach that Root celebrates. Their goal, however, is to empower the judiciary to impose a statist agenda by regulating business and eradicating economic liberties.

If Root’s claim is true that libertarian jurisprudents are “the sworn enemies” of Holmes, then why has Posner — who’s no dummy — declared Holmes to be “liberal only in the nineteenth-century libertarian sense, the sense of John Stuart Mill and, even more, because more laissez-faire, of Herbert Spencer”? Posner goes further, suggesting that Holmes “made laissez-faire his economic philosophy.”

Holmes was influenced by Spencer and versed in Mill. It isn’t accurate to assert, as Root does:

Spencer was regarded as the late nineteenth century’s leading proponent of full-throated laissez-faire. That’s why Holmes cast him as a villain in his Lochner dissent.

For starters, Holmes did not cast Spencer as a villain; he simply stated that Spencer’s views on economics were irrelevant to the Fourteenth Amendment, which secured federal citizenship for former slaves and prohibited the states from abridging the privileges or immunities of that citizenship. In reality, Holmes’s assessments of Spencer were mixed, and the justice’s letters are sprinkled with references to him. He cited Spencer while developing a theory of torts. He read Spencer’s autobiography. He criticized Spencer less for his philosophy than for his style and idealism, saying, for instance, “He is dull. He writes an ugly uncharming style, his ideals are those of a lower middle class British Philistine.”

Louis Menand has written that Holmes’s “personal sympathies were entirely with the capitalists.” That seems right: he once jested that “if they could make a case for putting Rockefeller in prison I should do my part; but if they left it to me I should put up a bronze statue of him.” Nevertheless, Holmes was no libertarian. What libertarian would proclaim, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society”? Just because he wasn’t a libertarian, however, doesn’t mean he offered no good insights.

Holmes read Adam Smith shortly before writing his dissent in Abrams v. U.S., in which he trumpeted that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This dissent has been dubbed “libertarian” by so many commentators that listing them all would take up the space of this entire review. Surprisingly, Root mentions Holmes’s affirmance of the conviction of Eugene Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917 but fails to address this more famous dissent, which doesn’t square with Debs’s case.

It’s possible to attack Holmes shrewdly, without raw polemics that skip over inconvenient facts. David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner does that, condemning the ideas and not the man who held them. Only the cartoonish cover of Bernstein’s book, which depicts Holmes being punched out by Justice Wheeler Peckham in a boxing ring, is unfair to Holmes.

Whether Bork can be easily lumped together with Holmes is another matter. Bork called Holmes’s dissent in Lochner “flawed,” even though he agreed with most of it. He decried Holmes’s marketplace metaphor in Abrams as “foolish and dangerous.”

Root’s book may appeal to already-within-the-pale libertarian readers but won’t interest many beyond that audience. That’s probably a good thing. The truth is that judicial restraint and judicial activism are not palpably partisan creeds that can be readily summarized or easily illustrated. Labeling them “conservative” or “libertarian” is not conclusive as to their substance. Judges with wildly divergent worldviews have pushed the limits of their authority to reach their desired result in certain cases.

In the book’s opening pages, Root asserts that Elena Kagan, who claimed in her confirmation hearings that the political branch, not the judiciary, was the proper mechanism for dispensing with bad laws, “had placed herself squarely within a long and venerable legal tradition that seeks to give the government wide control over regulatory affairs while simultaneously preventing most interference from the courts.” This is missing the point. The courts, which Root wishes to vest with wider control over regulatory affairs, are not necessarily an outside check on our problematically powerful government; they are part of our problematically powerful government.

The federal judiciary is an arm of the state, plain and simple, peopled by unelected judges and justices who aren’t accountable to the people. It’s thus strange to see Root cast the judiciary as the people’s branch. If a member of Congress isn’t representing the people’s interest, the people can, excuse me, throw the rat out. Federal judges, on the other hand, must be impeached.

Root’s recommendation for a more robust judiciary makes sense only if most judges are libertarians. Most aren’t. Therein lies the case for judicial restraint.

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