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How Much Legislative Power Do Judges Really Have?

In America, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

During his confirmation hearing last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch told Senator Dick Durbin that Roe v. Wade was “the law of the land.” A recent Washington Post headline declared, in light of Obergefell v. Hodges, “Same-sex marriage is the law of the land.”

What does it mean that opinions of the United States Supreme Court are the law of the land? Is an opinion of the Supreme Court a law? If so, do judges make law? If judges make law, thereby exercising legislative powers, wouldn’t they be legislators, not judges?

If Supreme Court opinions are laws, how can they be overturned by later justices? Were the overruled decisions never actually law to begin with? Were they temporary laws? Were the American people simply bound for years by erroneous rules or judgments?

Ask these vexing questions of ten experts in constitutional law and you’ll hear ten different responses.

Why so complicated? Perhaps because the framework of American government is at stake. Centuries of political theory, moreover, cannot be condensed or expressed in concise opinions involving particular issues about fact-specific conflicts. Judges and justices are not positioned to delineate philosophical principles with nuance and sophistication. Yet they are tasked with administering the legal system and are guided by deeply held convictions or inchoate feelings about the nature and sources of law.

When we debate the role of judges vis-à-vis the legislative or executive branch, we’re invoking the separation-of-powers doctrine enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. That doctrine derives principally from the theories of Locke (1632–1704) and Montesquieu (1689–1755).

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke claimed that the preservation of society was “the first and fundamental natural law.” Today we worry about the corruption and incompetence of members of Congress, but in Locke’s era, when the monarch exercised extraordinary powers, the legislature was a bulwark against tyranny. It represented the will of “the people.” The preservation of society thus required robust legislative authority.

“This legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth,” Locke intoned, “but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of anybody else, in what form soever conceived or by what power soever backed, have the force and obligation of a law which has not its sanction from that legislative which the public has chosen and appointed.”

Why must the law emanate from the legislature? Because the legislature, in his view, embodied “the consent of the society over whom nobody can have a power to make laws.” Locke’s paradigm holds, accordingly, that the legislature speaks for the people, from whom legitimate government obtains its limited authority; legislation reflects a general consensus among the people about controlling norms, beliefs, and values. The judiciary is curiously absent from this paradigm.

Montesquieu articulated a tripartite model of governance, adding the judiciary to Locke’s calculus. He argued that a state of political liberty would not exist if any of the three branches of government—executive, legislative, or judicial—arrogated to itself powers belonging to another branch. The branches competed, effectively offsetting their respective powers through checks and balances.

Montesquieu and Locke were among the most cited thinkers during the American Founding. They were indispensable sources for the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The first three articles of the Constitution establish our three branches of government.

Concerns about the scope and function of judicial power have begun to divide legal scholars on the right. On one side are proponents of judicial restraint as practiced by Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia; on the other side are advocates of judicial engagement, which calls for a more active judiciary that strictly enforces restrictions on government action.

The judicial-restraint camp contends that the judicial-engagement camp would have the judiciary infringe on legislative authority in violation of the separation-of-powers mandate. The judicial-engagement camp contends that judges deferring to political branches often abdicate their duties to enforce not only the constitutional text but also unenumerated rights allegedly inherent in that text.

The view that judges cannot make law is increasingly unpopular. “The dubious aspect of separation-of-powers thinking,” Richard Posner says, “is the idea that judges are not to make law (that being the legislator’s prerogative) but merely to apply it.” Posner submits that “judges make up much of the law that they are purporting to be merely applying,” adding that “while the judiciary is institutionally and procedurally distinct from the other branches of government, it shares lawmaking power with the legislative branch.”

If Posner is right, then Montesquieu’s trifurcated paradigm collapses. That, or our current system is not maximally amenable to liberty as conceived by Montesquieu.

Parties to a case generally recognize judges’ rulings as binding. Courts and institutions generally accept Supreme Court decisions as compulsory. Even individuals who defy judicial rulings or opinions understand the risk they’re taking, i.e., the probable consequences that will visit them. Judicial rulings and opinions would seem, then, to be law: they announce governing rules that most people respect as binding and enforceable by penalty. If rulings and opinions are law, then judges enjoy legislative functions.

Yet the natural law tradition holds that law is antecedent to government promulgation—that indissoluble principles exist independently of, and prior to, pronouncements of a sovereign or official. On this view, the positive law may contradict the natural law. Which, then, controls? Which is the law, the one you’ll follow when push comes to shove?

Your answer might just reveal how much legislative power you believe judges really have.


Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

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