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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.


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.

2011 in Review

In America, Arts & Letters, Communication, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, News and Current Events, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Rhetoric, Television, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 1, 2012 at 9:54 am
By Slade Mendenhall and Brian Underwood
Slade Mendenhall is a founding editor of He is a student at the University of Georgia majoring in Economics and Mass Communications. His writing interests include screenwriting, fiction and essays on the subjects of philosophy, capitalism, political thought, and aesthetics. His New Years resolution is to progress in the completion of an as-yet-untitled novel (his second).
Brian Underwood is a second-year student at the University of Georgia where he studies history and political science as majors and philosophy as a minor. Originally a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Brian moved away from allying himself with the Republicans in politics towards a more “policy over party” position following the 2008 election. As a result, he became an avid reader of historical, philosophical, and other academic works. Moving ever further towards the “libertarian” end of the Nolan Chart, he eventually joined the Objectivist Club and the Young Americans for Liberty after arriving at UGA. Now, he simply defines himself as a “Capitalist.” His main writing interests include philosophy, politics, history, and economics.
The following post originally appeared over at themendenhall.
An endeavor to measure the shifts and turns of a nation’s ideology can only be compared to an attempt at sensing the turning of the Earth beneath one’s feet. It is at once ubiquitous and elusive, all-encompassing and indistinguishable. Yet, there are, on occasion, times at which one is struck by sudden jolts of rapid motion and change so disruptive that it forbids all attempts at understanding what course or direction it is taking. Swept up, we must at once answer the questions of where we are, to where we are going, and how we are to get there. We must either repair our faulted ideologies or face the consequences of our own contradictions. It may well be that 2011 is to be remembered as such a year. True, it lacked the singular purposefulness of 2010’s drive to repudiate the health care legislation, rid Congress of its unrestrained desire for ever greater government controls, and nullify the Obama administration’s oppressive regulatory policies wherever possible. Different times, however, call for different spirits. 2011 was the time for the promises of the 2010 congressional elections to be put into act, the time to put that ideology to work. The result was often well-intended but imperfect, hindered by the lingering Democratic control of the Senate and complicated by a perpetual series of compromises that left no one satisfied and sent congressional approval ratings to all-time lows of 12.7% at year’s end. As the unemployment rate stagnated, Americans were given a grim look into the engine room of partisan politics where principle is so often held subordinate to considerations of loyalty and appearance.Though it has yet to reflect in our economic condition, things are, politically, better than they were twelve months ago. For the first time in generations, there is a growing sector of average Americans who believe, both practically and ethically, in the merits of political and economic freedom. The challenge now will be carrying the enthusiasm they have cultivated since 2010 forward, through the brutish struggles in Washington’s backrooms and the uncertainty of Iowa’s ballot boxes, toward the elections of 2012 and, with hope, an era of ever-greater victories for the principles upon which our nation was founded. As always, winning our future means understanding our past. It is with that consideration that we look back on the events of the last year as we say goodbye to 2011.
A year of trouble and turmoil, 2011 has been as much affected by conflicts abroad as it has by the struggle between the changing tides of American ideologies and the onerous traditions of politics past. Scarcely had the year begun when it was upended by a sudden explosion of conflicts in the Middle East, beginning with the public suicide of a young man in protest of the Tunisian government which transpired to an international wave of political uprisings now known as the Arab Spring. That movement would incite conflicts in nations from North Africa to Syria and bring about the fall of such corrupt dictators as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi. Though the movement wages on in the bloodied streets of Syria, where rebels come to blows daily with a brutal and oppressive regime, its ultimate results and effects on American interests are as yet undecided. Much will depend on the current and future political struggles within those now shaken nations, and history could as easily come to see these events as a vacuum from which emerged a newly energized and vindicated rise of Islamic Totalitarianism as it could the pure and heroic struggle for freedom that the Western media so actively portrayed it to be.
  One consideration in particular must be made in regard to that circumstance, however: the nature of those revolutions, the violence in Egypt against Coptic Christians, the presence of Al Qaeda factions among the ranks of Libyan rebels, and the recent political victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt portend a dark future for those nations. If popular revolutions can be divided among those most akin to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, that which has transpired in the Middle East this year is definitively the latter. They are not movements based primarily on principles of individual rights. Were they, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would have been ousted along with Mubarak. Instead, they are less a push for freedom than they are a push against an oppressor, complicated by the fact that this is a part of the world which has never been exposed to true political freedom or come to accept the philosophical principles which are prerequisite to its realization. Tragically, the American media proved in its coverage of these events its dire inability to make that distinction.
In this publication’s view, the Leftist elements of the media were motivated by a desire to vindicate their long-expressed views on America’s Middle East policy since the beginning of the Iraq war. Doubtless, there are a myriad of arguments against our having gone to war in Iraq — most reputably that which states that Iraq was not the greatest or most immediate threat to American security, that the very costly armed welfare mission into which that conflict devolved was in no way carried out in the best interests of American soldiers or citizens, that our efforts would have been better served elsewhere. However, this is not the logic or sentiment which is most fervently held by these advocates. Since the beginning of that war, there has been a considerable segment of the Left which has argued against it on the grounds that the principle of self-determination grants nations the right to practice any form of oppression and denial of individual rights they please, so long as they hold majority support; that political freedom is a Western product that we happen to have chosen, but that any other nation’s choice of tyranny is equally valid because they chose it. Fast-forwarding to this year’s Arab Spring, these same advocates are some of the movement’s most ardent supporters, on the grounds that it shows that, left to their own devices, the peoples of such nations will eventually throw off their own shackles and choose freedom without Western support or guidance. Were this the case, the nations of the Middle East which have undergone revolutions this year deserve our commendations. However, we remain dubious that this is the case. Those who believe that freedom and prosperity are the predestined results of these revolutions will, we fear, be demonstrably proven wrong by whatever variant of oppressive control emerges in these very fragile regions in the coming years. What future instability or, worse, stability under dangerous conditions will mean for America’s interests in the region remain to be seen, but it is a problem that should be carefully observed to maintain our security and best interests.Ironically, in their advocacy of these revolutions, the Left has inherited a trademark intellectual error from the Bush administration: the belief that popular elections and a system of democracy are the source and cause of freedom. This is a grievous inversion that leads man to the conclusion that institutions and their organization can effectively supplant the role of ideas in the guidance of his actions. Though popular elections are an integral part of a free political system, they are its product, not its cause. Only a rational political philosophy of individual rights can ever be the cause of true and lasting freedom. Returning to our previous comparison, in the case of America, its revolutionaries had inherited roughly a century of Enlightenment thought in which they were well-versed and whose principles they explicitly understood. That knowledge of the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism led those men to the design of a government meant to acknowledge and secure them. France’s exposure to Enlightenment thought was quite equal to England’s, but its revolution was driven less by intellectuals and more by a mob, inspired less by a circumspect outlook upon what could be than by the violent, angry rejection of what was. In short: less talk of ideas, more guillotines. To which do the current uprisings in the Middle East better compare and what does that suggest about the political future to be expected there? It is significant that those here in America, the nation of the Enlightenment, are today so unaware of the role of philosophy in its beginnings… and its future.Despite the rather grim prospects of revolutionaries in the Middle East to establish any long-term system of freedom and prosperity, the ideological struggles waged in America this year have proven that its intellectual foundations are alive and well here in the States. What’s more, there are signs that they could be experiencing a popular– and lasting– resurgence. The Tea Party candidates around the country were inaugurated to their congressional seats in January after having run their campaigns on the principles of a free market, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government. Joining them were welcomed conservative state officials throughout the nation in such volumes as had not been seen since before the Great Depression.  Their rallying cry: to oppose the unyielding growth of government and its power over the lives of private citizens. Their victories were numerous and significant (if as much for what they prevented as what they created), though it seemed, at times, that every victory had its casualties and every two steps forward saw one step back. Democratic power in the Senate made for unproductive compromises and grand-scale debates that evinced more in theatrics than tangible results.This was never more clearly displayed than in the summer debt and budgetary crises, with the tantalizing threat of government shut-down looming over our heads. Americans bore witness to the paltry efforts of Congressto wean itself from excessive outlays, where merely promising to increase spending at a decreasing rate was portrayed as “budget cuts” and an unwillingness to abolish or defund a single government bureaucracy left the fundamental problems of America’s  leviathan state firmly intact. Unsurprisingly, though shut-downs were averted and compromises reached, the political instability over so crucial an issue led to the first downgrade of America’s debt to below AAA. In ensuing months, as compensation, we were offered  another grand spectacle in the form of a “Super-Committee” convened to tackle the problem of America’s mounting foreign debt. Tragically, it was stacked with the most diametrically opposite representatives from Left and Right and, predictably, politics yet again trumped the interests of American citizens’ well-being. Read the rest of this entry »

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

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