George Will’s Embrace of Natural Law

Recently concepts of natural law have re-emerged as relevant to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. George Will, the prominent political and legal commentator, has done so in at least three Washington Post columns and in a speech at the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics. This post will discuss his views on this subject. A subsequent post will explore those of Judge Neil Gorsuch, the current nominee for Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose confirmation hearing starts tomorrow.

Background

Two important instruments of U.S. history are the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution. The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Ninth Amendment, which is part of our Bill of Rights, states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[1]

Although I am a retired attorney, I have not attempted to make my own analysis of how the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Ninth Amendment. Instead I rely on my recollection that the Declaration and this Amendment have not been major authorities in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions and Wikipedia’s conclusion that the Court has not used them to further limit government power.

Wikipedia also cites this statement by Justice Scalia in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000): “The Declaration of Independence is not a legal prescription conferring powers upon the courts, and [the Ninth Amendment’s] . . . refusal to ‘deny or disparage’ other rights is far removed from affirming any of them, and even farther removed from authorizing judges to identify what they might be, and to enforce the judges’ list against laws duly enacted by the people.”

George Will’s Discussion of Natural Law

In a Washington Post column{2} Will argued that the Ninth Amendment’s protection of other rights “retained by the people” encompasses “natural law” rights, which are affirmed by these words of the Declaration of Independence:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powered front he consent of the governed.”

Therefore, Will argues, “the Founders’ philosophy is infused into . . . [the Constitution] by construing . . . [the Constitution] as a charter of government that is, in Lincoln’s formulation, dedicated to [the above proposition in that Declaration].” As a result, says Will, “The drama of American democracy derives from the tension between the natural rights of the individual and the constructed right of the majority to make such laws as the majority desires. Natural rights are affirmed by the Declaration and a properly engaged judiciary is duty-bound to declare majority acts invalid when they abridge natural rights.”

“With the Declaration, Americans . . . began asserting rights that are universal because they are natural, meaning necessary for the flourishing of human nature.”

Will in this article does not go on to identify specific natural rights that are so encompassed by the Declaration. Presumably Will would not limit the protections of these words of the Declaration to those who were covered at the time of its proclamation in 1766: white men of property. In any event, his suggestion provides another “originalist” approach to interpreting the Constitution, an approach that is more open-ended than that promulgated by Justice Scalia.

George Will’s Speech at John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics

Additional light on George Will’s thoughts about natural law is shed by an adaption of his December 2012 speech at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, University of Washington at St. Louis.[3]

He asserts that although he himself is non-religious, he believes that “religion has been, and can still be, supremely important and helpful to the flourishing of our democracy” and that “the idea of natural rights [does not] require a religious foundation, or even that the founders uniformly thought it did. It is, however, indubitably the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.” Moreover, Will believes that the founders, who were not particularly religious themselves, “understood that Christianity, particularly in its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God and the primacy of individual conscience and choice subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few.”

According to Will, the founders “understood that natural rights could not be asserted, celebrated, and defended unless nature, including human nature, was regarded as a normative rather than a merely contingent fact. This was a view buttressed by the teaching of Biblical religion that nature is not chaos but rather is the replacement of chaos by an order reflecting the mind and will of the Creator. This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable, and universal — and hence the foundation of democratic equality. And these rights are the foundation of limited government — government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.”

The U.S. Declaration of Independence asserts that “important political truths are not merely knowable, they are self-evident, meaning they can be known by any mind not clouded by ignorance or superstition. [As it states, “it is self-evidently true that ‘all men are created equal.’ Equal not only in their access to the important political truths, but also in being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [The Declaration goes on to state], ‘[T]o secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.’ Government’s primary purpose is to secure pre-existing rights. Government does not create rights; it does not dispense them.”

“Biblical religion is concerned with asserting and defending the dignity of the individual. Biblical religion teaches that individual dignity is linked to individual responsibility and moral agency. Therefore, Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limited (and limiting) purpose of securing natural rights.”

Will’s Obituary for Antonin Scalia

In the obituary Will praised the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia for his championing the principles of judicial modesty: “textualism and originalism: A justice’s job is to construe the text of the Constitution or of statutes by discerning and accepting the original meaning the words had to those who ratified or wrote them.” Moreover, said Will, Scalia “was a Roman candle of sparkling jurisprudential theories leavened by acerbic witticisms.”[4]

In Will’s opinion, “Democracy’s drama derives from the tension between the natural rights of individuals and the constructed right of the majority to have its way. Natural rights are affirmed by the Declaration of Independence; majority rule, circumscribed and modulated, is constructed by the Constitution.” Moreover, “as the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur argues, the Declaration is logically as well as chronologically prior to the Constitution. The latter enables majority rule. It is, however, the judiciary’s duty to prevent majorities from abridging natural rights. After all, it is for the securing of such rights, the Declaration declares, that ‘governments are instituted among men.’”[5]

Will, however, does not attempt to reconcile his praise for Scalia with the Justice’s rejection of the Declaration as important for constitutional analysis.

Will’s Questions for Judge Gorsuch

In another Washington Post column, Will suggested questions to be asked Judge Gorsuch at his confirmation hearings.[6] Here are some of those questions:

  • Is popular sovereignty (majorities rights) or liberty the essence of the American project?
  • Was the purpose of the 14th Amendment’s “privilege and immunities” clause to place certain subjects beyond the reach of majorities?
  • Was the 14th Amendment’s “privilege and immunities” clause’s purpose to ensure that the natural rights of all citizens would be protected from abridgment by their states?
  • Was the Supreme Court wrong in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases that essentially erased the privileges and immunities clause, holding that it did not secure natural rights (e.g., the right to enter contracts and earn a living)? If so, should it be overruled?
  • Do you agree with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who has said the doctrine ofstare decisis — previous court decisions are owed respect — is not an “inexorable command”?
  • Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s division of liberties between those deemed to be fundamental and thus subjecting any restrictions on them to strict scrutiny and all others whose restrictions are subjected only to “rational basis” scrutiny?
  • What, in your opinion, is the role of the Ninth Amendment in constitutional law?
  • Are there limits to Congress’ power over interstate commerce other than those enumerated in the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution)?
  • Was the Supreme Court correct in the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London case upholding a city’s seizure of private property not to facilitate construction of a public structure or to cure blight, but for the “public use” of transferring it to a wealthier private interest that would pay more taxes?
  • What limits, if any, are imposed upon Congress’ delegation of powers to administrative agencies by Article I of the Constitution’s provision: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress”?
  • Was the Supreme Court correct in Citizens United that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in incorporated entities to speak collectively?
  • Is it constitutional for Congress, by regulating political spending, to control the quantity and timing of political speech?
  • Would you feel bound to follow a previous Supreme Court decision that did not evaluate evidence of the original meaning of the Constitution and was, in your view, in conflict with it?

Conclusion

Although I do not generally agree with many of George Will’s political opinions, I think that the linkage of the Ninth Amendment and the Declaration of Independence makes sense and should be explored more fully in future constitutional litigation. However, it is not so easy to make the next step of identifying additional principles of natural law that could impose limits on the federal and state governments.

The Declaration’s statement that human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights is part of that difficulty. First the First Amendment to the Constitution bans the federal government’s establishment of a religion. Second, there are now so many different religions in the world and in the U.S. Although as a Christian I believe that at least all of the major world religions honor peace and hospitality and that they all agree on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, I find it difficult see how that leads to principles of natural law that are useful. For example, I find it difficult to see how this linkage leads to the conclusion that the Citizens United case was correctly decided, as Will suggests.

In addition, although I have not studied the underlying sources, I am intrigued by the notion that the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to encompass all natural law rights of U.S. citizens and that the Slaughter-House Cases were wrongly decided.

In any event, we all should thank George Will for proposing interesting questions for Judge Gorsuch in his confirmation hearing. I am reasonably confident that most, if not all, of them will be asked and answered.

========================================

[1] United States Declaration of Independence, Wikipedia;  Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Wikipedia. A prior post discussed the First Congress’ adoption of the Bill of Rights after ratification by the requisite number of states.

[2] Will, Maybe Gorsuch will fill in blanks left by Scalia, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017).

[3] Will, Religion and the American Republic, Nat’l Affairs (Summer 2013). John C. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, was Attorney General of Missouri, 1969-1976, and U.S. Senator for that state, 1976-1995.

[4] Will, In Memoriam: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia 1936-2016, Wash. Post (Feb. 14, 2016).

[5]  Timothy Sandefur  is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and Adjunct Scholar with the Cato Institute. He also is the author of The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty (2013),  which is a more extensive exposition of Will’s argument that the Declaration and the Ninth Amendment need to be important markers in constitutional analysis and litigation. Moreover, Sandefur argues that the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 recommitted the U.S. to the primacy of liberty and defined the terms of U.S. citizenship that unfortunately was demolished by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1873 decision in the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873).

[6] Will, Questions for Judge Gorsuch, Wash. Post (Mar. 17, 2017).

Is This Blog’s Proposed New Federal Voting Rights Act Constitutional?

A prior post proposed a new federal voting rights act that would (a) make every U.S. citizen (including children and felons) eligible to vote; (b) require every citizen to vote; (c) forbid any racial discrimination in voting; and (d) simplify voting laws and procedure. Left unadressed was the constitutionality of such a statute.

Relevant Constitutional Law

Such a constitutional analysis is suggested in a recent article by Jesse Wegman, an experienced lawyer and journalist and a member of the New York Times’ Editorial Board, and this post draws from his article.

We start with the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause (Article I, Section 4). It provides: ” The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.”

According to the U.S. Supreme Court in various cases, the words “Times, Places and Manner” in this Clause are “comprehensive words,” which “embrace authority to provide a comprehensive code for congressional elections.” The Clause functions as “a default provision; it invests the States with responsibility for the mechanics of congressional elections, but only as far as Congress declines to pre-empt state legislative choices.” Indeed, the congressional power under the Clause “is paramount and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which it deems expedient; and so far as it is exercised, and no further, the regulations effected supersede those of the State which are inconsistent therewith.”

On the other hand, the Supreme Court has held in various cases, the Clause does not empower Congress to regulate who may vote in congressional elections. Instead, Article I, section 2(1) of the Constitution states, “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” (Emphasis added.) The same criteria for senatorial elections are set forth in the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution.

These constitutional provisions were the bases for the Supreme Court’s decision, 7 to 2, on June 17, 2013, in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona to invalidate an Arizona statute that required voter-registration officials to reject any application for registration that did not include documentary evidence of U.S. citizenship even though a Federal Form for such registration under the National Voter Registration Act that states are required to “accept and use” does not require such documentary evidence.

The opinion for the Court was written by Justice Antonin Scalia and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the opinion in part and filed his own concurring opinion. [1]  It was from Justice Scalia’s opinion that the foregoing summary of prior Supreme Court precedents was drawn.[2]

Application of the Constitutional Law to the Proposed Federal Voting Rights Act

Clearly the proposed statute’s making every U.S. citizen, including children and felons, eligible to vote would be unconstitutional. It could be rescued on the federal level only by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Individual states, however, could enact such laws.

The same conclusion would probably also apply to the proposal that every U.S. citizen be required to vote.

However, the various suggestions in the prior post for simplifying voting laws and procedure should be constitutional as would the ban on racial discrimination in voting.

Furthermore, I join Mr. Wegman in concluding that the Elections Clause could be the constitutional basis for “[s]trong federal laws . . . [to] help ensure voting fairness to all voters, especially when a state law appears neutral but has serious partisan or racially discriminatory effects. For instance, a state’s voter ID law might put up hurdles for poor or young voters, who may be disproportionately minority and Democratic, or for elderly voters, who lean Republican.” In addition, even though the Elections Clause “allows Congress to set rules only for federal elections, . . . those laws almost always guide state election practices.”


[1] Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed dissenting opinions in Arizona v. Holder.

[2] Only eight days later, Justice Scalia was in the majority in Shelby County v. Holder that, 5 to 4, invalidated an important provision of the federal Voting Rights Act. This case has been discussed in a prior post while another post summarized the criticism of that decision by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

U.S. Supreme Court Invalidates Key Provision of Voting Rights Act of 2006

U.S. Supreme Court Building
U.S. Supreme Court Building

 

As widely reported, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder recently held unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.[1]

That provision, section 4, which was part of the original statute enacted in 1965, established a formula to determine which states were subject to pre-clearance by the U.S. Department of Justice or a three-judge federal district court of any changes to the state’s voting procedures. Such pre-clearance approval could be obtained only if the proposed change was shown to have neither “the purpose [nor] the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.”

Section 4’s formula, as amended in 1975, established as “covered jurisdictions” those States or political subdivisions that had maintained a test or device (literacy or knowledge tests, good moral character requirements, vouchers from registered voters, providing English-only voting material s in places where over 5% of voting-age citizens spoke a language other than English) as a prerequisite to voting as of November 1, 1972, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1972 presidential election.

Majority Opinion

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts

The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito) held that this formula imposed current burdens on the covered jurisdictions that were not justified by current needs. Section 4, therefore, violated basic principles of equal state sovereignty or autonomy over voting and was unconstitutional. This conclusion was reached even though the Chief Justice acknowledged that “voting discrimination still exists.”

The fundamental factual premise of the opinion was the assertion that the U.S. had significantly changed in racial discrimination in voting since 1965. As the Chief Justice said, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”[2]

Dissenting Opinion

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg, who was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, issued a stinging dissenting opinion.

She emphasized that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted to Congress, not the courts, the power to enact legislation to enforce the Amendment’s  ban on racial discrimination in voting. Moreover, the Supreme Court itself repeatedly has held that Congress’ judgment on such matters warrants “substantial deference” and that congressional power is “at its height” when it so acts.

As a result, the proper question for the courts is whether Congress had employed “rational means” in re-enacting section 4 as part of the 2006 Act. According to the dissenting opinion, section 4 meets that test. There was abundant evidence of continued racial discrimination in voting before Congress when it adopted the 2006 Act, and Congress acted with “great care and seriousness” in so doing.

Indeed, Justice Ginsburg stressed, the formula in section 4 is subject to statutory provisions “allowing jurisdictions to ‘bail out’ of preclearance, and for court-ordered “bail ins.” These mechanisms were seen by Congress as “effective means of adjusting the [Act’s] coverage over time.” Therefore, the dissent asserted it is erroneous for the Court’s majority to see the Act as “static, unchanged since 1965. Congress designed the [statute] to be a dynamic statute, capable of adjusting to changing circumstances.”

In short, the dissent says, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the [statute].” The majority of the Court “errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.”

Conclusion

The key failure of the majority opinion for me is its narrow focus on the coverage formula in section 4 instead of looking at how the formula works in the statute as a whole. As Justice Ginsburg and previously the D.C. Circuit emphasized, the coverage formula has to be seen with the statutory mechanisms for adjusting coverage to new circumstances through the bail-in or bailout provisions. It is dynamic and capable of adjusting to new circumstances.

Indeed, the Supreme Court did just that in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder. The Court’s opinion by Chief Justice Roberts provided a broad reading of the bail out provision to allow the political subdivision in the case to bailout from coverage under sections 4 and 5.


[1] The Supreme Court opinions in Shelby County are available online. Prior posts have discussed the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 2006, a prior Supreme Court decision on the latter statute (Northwest Austin), the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Shelby County and the recent Supreme Court oral argument in that case.

[2] Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion that section 5 of the Act was unconstitutional as well.

 

U.S. Supreme Court Severely Limits Application of the Alien Tort Statute

On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. that severely limited the application of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS),[1] which provides that the U.S. district courts “shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the [U.S.].”[2]

The Court unanimously decided that the ATS did not cover a lawsuit by Nigerian plaintiffs for money damages against corporations incorporated in the Netherlands, the U.K. and Nigeria for their alleged aiding and abetting the Nigerian military and police’s beating, raping, killing and arresting of Nigerians and destroying and looting their property, all in Nigeria.[3]

The Court, however, differed, 5 to 4, on the rationale for this conclusion.

The Majority’s Rationale

The opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the majority’s rationale, held that the Court’s presumption against extraterritorial application of federal statutes applies to claims under the ATS and that nothing in the ATS rebutted that presumption. Therefore, said the Chief Justice, this “case seeking relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the [U.S.] . . . is barred.”[4]

This presumption, according to Roberts, was recognized in these precedents from the Court in 1957, 1991, 2007 and 2010, which were referenced by him as follows:

  • The 1957 case, Benz v. Compania Naviera Hidalgo, S.A., 353 U.S. 138, 147 (1957), was merely quoted in the 1991 case to say, “For us to run interference in . . . a delicate field of international relations there must be present the affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed. It alone has the facilities necessary to make fairly such an important policy decision where the possibilities of international discord are so evident and retaliative action so certain.”
  • The 1991 case, EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U.S. 244, 248 (1991), said this presumption “serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord.” After the above quotation from the Benz case, the Court in the 1991 case continued, ” The presumption against extraterritorial application helps ensure that the Judiciary does not erroneously adopt an interpretation of U.S. law that carries foreign policy consequences not clearly intended by the political branches.”
  • The 2007 case, Microsoft Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 454 (2007), said the “presumption [assumes] that [U.S.] . . . law governs domestically but does not rule the world.”
  • The 2010 case, Morrison v. National Australian Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. ___, ___ (2010), said this canon of statutory construction provides that “[w]hen a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none.” This case, noted the Chief Justice, said “the question of extraterritorial application was a ‘merits question,’ not a question of jurisdiction.”

In discussing whether and how this presumption applied to the ATS, the Chief Justice first disposed of the Morrison case’s limitation of the presumption to the merits whereas the ATS was only jurisdictional as established by the Supreme Court in Sosa v. Alverez-Machain, 542 U.S.692, 713 (2004). Said Roberts, “the principles underlying the canon of interpretation similarly constrain courts considering causes of action that may be brought under the ATS.”

Roberts then found nothing in the ATS itself that suggested a congressional intent that it have extraterritorial application. It refers to “violations of the law of nations,” but such violations can occur in the U.S. It says it covers “any” civil action, but the Court in decisions in 1949 and 2005 had established that generic terms like “any” or “every” do not rebut the presumption. It covers actions for “torts,” but that word does not evidence such an intent.

Nor, according to Roberts, did the historical context of the 1789 adoption of the ATS overcome the presumption. At the time, as Sosa noted, two of the three recognized violations of the law of nations at the time–violation of safe conducts and infringement of the rights of ambassadors–had no extraterritorial application.

The other recognized violation in 1789–piracy–was not as easy for the Chief Justice to get around. He said, “Piracy typically occurs on the high seas, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the [U.S.] . . . or any other country.” Although the Court “has generally treated the high seas the same as foreign soil for purposes of the presumption,” Roberts refused to regard that as evidence of congressional intent for extraterritorial application. Said Roberts, “Applying U.S. law to pirates . . . does not typically impose the sovereign will of the [U.S.] . . .  onto conduct occurring within the territorial jurisdiction of another sovereign, and therefore carries less direct foreign policy consequences. Pirates were fair game wherever found, by any nation, because they generally did not operate within any jurisdiction.”

Finally, according to Roberts, “there is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the [U.S.] . . . a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms . . . It is implausible to suppose that the First Congress wanted their fledgling Republic–struggling to receive international recognition–to be the first [custos morum or guardian of manners or morals of the  whole world]. Indeed, the parties offer no evidence that any nation, meek or mighty, presumed to do such a thing.”

Applying these principles to the Kiobel case itself, Roberts said “all the relevant conduct took place outside the . . .  [U.S.]. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the . . . [U.S.], they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” A “mere corporate presence” in the U.S. such as an office of a corporate affiliate of the corporate defendants in this case had would not suffice.

The Minority’s Rationale

The minority’s rationale was set forth in the concurring opinion of Justice Breyer, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan.

Breyer first rejected use of the presumption against extraterritoriality because the ATS’ use of “alien,” “treaties” and “the law of nations” clearly demonstrate that Congress had foreign matters in mind.

Moreover, piracy was clearly contemplated as covered by the statute in 1789 and takes place abroad. The Chief Justice’s treatment of piracy, however, Breyer implied, is erroneous. Says Breyer, “the robbery and murder that make up piracy do not normally take place on the water; they take place on a ship. And a ship is like land, in that it falls within the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag it flies.” Thus, ‘applying U.S. law to pirates’ does typically involve applying our law to acts taking place within the jurisdiction of another sovereign.”

On the other hand, Breyer agreed with Roberts that pirates “were fair game wherever found, by any nation,” but not, as Roberts said, because they did not operate within any jurisdiction, but because pirates were “common enemies of all mankind and all nations have an equal interest in their apprehension and punishment.”  Today, according to Breyer, torturers and perpetrators of genocide are today’s pirates.

Breyer then said that international jurisdictional principles justified the conclusion that ATS jurisdiction exists where “(1) the alleged tort occurs on American soil, [or] (2) the defendant is an American national, or (3) the defendant’s conduct substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest.” One such national interest, according to Breyer,  is “preventing the [U.S.] from become a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”

With respect to Kiobel itself, Breyer noted that the corporate defendants were foreign corporations who were present in the U.S. only through a small office of a corporate affiliate, that the plaintiffs are not U.S. nationals, that the conduct at issue took place abroad and that the alleged illegal corporate conduct was not direct, but accessory. It, therefore, “would be farfetched to believe . . . that this legal action helps to vindicate a distinct American interest.”

Conclusion

The majority’s rationale essentially obliterates the 34 years of ATS jurisprudence carefully developed by the lower federal courts. It should lead to the immediate dismissal of many pending ATS cases.[5]

I disagree with the result in this case and with the majority’s rationale because I believe that the ATS has been an important way of expanding the reach of international human rights norms and because the Congress in these 34 years has not chosen to amend the ATS to negate this jurisprudential development. Indeed, when Congress in 1991 adopted the Torture Victims Protection Act, it recognized and approved this ATS jurisprudence.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s creation and elaboration of the presumption against extraterritorial application, I believe, is a development of the last 60 years and was not clearly known to the Congress when it initially adopted the ATS in 1789. It, therefore, seems unfair and inappropriate to employ this interpretative presumption to construe the ATS. In more recent years, on the other hand, the Congress should be aware of this presumption in drafting statutes.

I also continue to be baffled by everyone’s failure to include in the analysis of the congressional intent behind the ATS the fact that Congress in 1948 re-enacted the ATS as part of the Judicial Code (title 28 of the U.S. Code). That year–1948– was a very important year in the development of the law of nations regarding human rights.  The U.N. Charter–a treaty ratified by the U.S.–was three years old, and one of its purposes was “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights” (Article 1(3)) while its Economic and Social Council was directed to set up a commission “for the promotion of human rights” (Article 68). Such a commission was established, and in 1948 its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were approved by the U.N. General Assembly. Such an appreciation should broaden the types of “torts in violation of the law of nations” beyond the three discussed by the Chief Justice.

Justice Breyer’s legitimate concern for the U.S. interest in not being a safe haven for the common enemies of mankind, as discussed in a prior post, has been recognized by the Congress in several statutes–the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention act of 2004 and the Magnitsky Act of 2012–and by the legal proceedings to remove or deport such common enemies of mankind from the U.S. by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and by the criminal prosecution of other such individuals for immigration fraud and perjury.

Finally, we must remember that this is a case of statutory interpretation, and Congress could always amend the ATS or adopt a new statute to overrule this decision. In a future post, I will set forth a draft outline of such a new statute even though I am not hopeful that this dysfunctional U.S. Congress will be prepared to take such action in the near future.


[1] The New York Times and the Washington Post obviously covered this decision. The Times editorial board criticized the decision while the Wall Street Journal reached the opposite conclusion.

[2] Many prior posts have discussed the ATS. Some of these focused on the Kiobel case itself.

[3] The Court did not address another issue presented by this case–whether corporations could be held liable under the ATS.

[4] The Chief Justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito. Justice Kennedy also authored a short concurring opinion, which stated, “Other cases may arise with allegations of serious violations of international law principles protecting persons, cases covered neither by the [Torture Victims Protection Act] . . . nor by the reasoning and holding of today’s case; and in these disputes the proper implementation of the presumption against extraterritorial application may require some further elaboration and explanation.” Another concurring opinion was submitted by Justice Alito joined by Justice Thomas; it said, “a putative ATS cause of action will fall within the scope of the presumption against extraterritoriality–and will therefore be barred–unless the domestic conduct is sufficient to violate an international law norm that satisfies Sosa‘s requirements of definiteness and acceptance among civilized nations.”

[5] For example, the Supreme Court’s decision should lead to the dismissal of the ATS claims against Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, but the claims against him under the Torture Victims Protection Act should survive for the court’s ruling on the immunity issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Supreme Court Shows Unjustified Hostility to the Voting Rights Act of 2006

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, No. 12-96, which raises the following issue:

  •  “Whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize [for 25 years] Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of [that] Act [requiring certain states to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or a special federal court for any changes in their election laws] exceeded           its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution.”[1]

As has been frequently reported, during the argument Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy asked questions and made comments strongly suggesting that they were prepared to invalidate this statutory provision,[2] a conclusion that already had been reached by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in a prior case. If this is a correct reading of the recent argument, then there would be at least a 5-4 majority on the Court to declare the provision unconstitutional.

According to Linda Greenhouse, a leading Supreme Court follower, the “goal of [the petitioner] Shelby County and [apparently a majority] . . . on the Supreme Court is to depict Section 5 as an anachronism, a needless cudgel held by the big bad federal government over the head of a transformed South.“

Here are just a couple of examples of that attitude from the argument.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice         John Roberts

Chief Justice Roberts asked or, as Greenhouse put it, “taunted” the U.S. Government’s lawyer (Solicitor General Donald Verrilli) with the following questions (and Roberts’ own answers) apparently to express Roberts’ belief that Mississippi has a better record than Massachusetts on black voter registration and turnout and that the Voting Rights Act provision at issue is no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional:

  • “Do you know how many submissions there were for preclearance to the Attorney          General in 2005?” (Roberts: “3700.”)
  • “Do you know how many objections the Attorney General lodged?” (Verrilli: “There          was one in that year.”)
  •  “[D]o you know which State has the worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts.”)
  •  “[W]hat [state] has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white       turnout?” (Roberts: “Mississippi.”)
  •  “Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?” (Roberts: “Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.”)
  •  “[I]s it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist             than citizens in the North?”  (Verrilli: “It is not.”)

Roberts did not identify the source of his statistics, but afterwards the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William F. Galvin, and political scientists speculated that Roberts drew his conclusions from the U.S. Census Bureau’s “The Current Population Survey,” which collects information on voting and registration every other year. This data, however, should not be used in the way that Roberts did because of their large margins of error, as reported by Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio.

Indeed, Secretary Galvin said that Roberts’ assertion about Massachusetts and Mississippi is just plain wrong and that the only way that the Census Bureau source supports Roberts’ assertion is by including Massachusetts’ non-citizen blacks who are not entitled to vote. To do what Roberts did, according to Galvin, is “deceptive” and “a slur on black voters in Massachusetts.”

Nate Silver, the statistician, also criticizes Roberts’ trumpeting these figures about Mississippi and Massachusetts apparently to justify a conclusion that the Voting Rights Act provisions in question are no longer needed and, therefore, unconstitutional.

According to Silver, “If [Roberts] . . . meant to suggest that states covered by Section 5 consistently have better black turnout rates than those that aren’t covered by the statute, then his claim is especially dubious.” Moreover, says Silver, it is outright fallacious to conclude from this simple comparison of two states, however flawed the data, that the provisions of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the formula in section 4(b) are no longer needed. For example, such data say nothing about whether whatever gains have been made in racial minority voting “might be lost if the Section 5 requirements were dropped now.”

I also fault the Chief Justice for focusing on only one small piece of evidence, however flawed or subject to qualification. Instead, he should be focusing on fundamental principles of judicial restraint as repeatedly proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court itself and as cited by the D.C. Circuit in its opinion in this case.

These precedents emphasize that “Congress’s laws are entitled to a ‘presumption of validity’” and that “when Congress acts pursuant to its enforcement authority under the Reconstruction Amendments [including the Fifteenth Amendment], its judgments about ‘what legislation is needed . . . are entitled to much deference.‘“  Such deference is paid “‘out of respect for [Congress’] . . .  authority to exercise the legislative power,’” and in recognition that Congress “is far better equipped than the judiciary to amass and evaluate the vast amounts of data bearing upon legislative questions.” (Citations omitted.)[3]

Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Antonin Scalia

Associate Justice Scalia also interrupted Solicitor General Verrilli to make this long statement:

  •  “This Court doesn’t like to get involved . . . in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be . . . left to Congress.
  • “The problem here, however, is . . . that the initial enactment of this legislation in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear . . . in the Senate, . . . it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term. Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it.
  • “And this last enactment [in 2006], not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same.
  •  “Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is . . . very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity . . .  unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution.
  •  “You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it. That’s . . . the concern that those of us . . . who have some questions about this statute have. It’s . . .  a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.
  •  “There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose . . . votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.
  •  “Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

These remarks are shocking and totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-established principles of judicial restraint mentioned above and with Justice Scalia’s persistently stated views about judicial interpretation of statutes.

Indeed, Scalia’s remarks provoked the Washington Post’s Editorial Board to proclaim that Scalia was in “contempt of Congress.” The editorial concluded with these words, “Congress, after careful review, came to an overwhelming conclusion that protection of the franchise in America is much improved but not guaranteed, especially in certain areas. We heard in . . . [the Supreme Court] argument no grounds for the court to claim superior wisdom on that question.”

 Conclusion

What is your opinion on how the Voting Rights Act issue should be resolved? Some argue for holding that provision unconstitutional.[4] Others agree with me that the provision should be upheld.[5]

I went to the University of Chicago Law School before Mr. Scalia was on the faculty, and I have never met him. By all reports, he is a brilliant man who is gracious and funny in social settings. But his comments in this and other Court arguments along with some of his opinions lead me to believe that life tenure for Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges causes at least some of them to believe that they are omniscient.

A possible solution to such arrogance, as I suggested in a comment to a prior post, is to amend  the U.S. Constitution to impose a term limit on U.S. Supreme Court Justices and perhaps other federal judges. All 50 states in the U.S. and all major nations have age or term limits for high-court judges. The International Criminal Court limits its judges to one term of nine years. Such limits are not seen as restrictions on the necessary independence of the judiciary.

The U.S. Constitution does not specifically grant life tenure to the justices or other federal judges. The Constitution merely says, “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour . . . .” Paul Carrington, a Duke University law professor, has suggested that the “good Behaviour” provision was not intended to provide life-time appointments and that term limits could be imposed by statute.


[1]  This issue was phrased by the Supreme Court itself in granting review of the case. Previous posts have reviewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Voting Rights Act of 2006; the prior Supreme Court case regarding the latter statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder); and the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Shelby County case. The transcript of the recent Supreme Court arguments in Shelby County is available online as are the petitioner’s brief, the respondent’s brief for the U.S. Government and the reply brief for the petitioner in the case. Other briefs in the case for three intervenors, 19 amici curiae (friends of the court) supporting the petitioner and 28 amici curiae supporting the U.S. Government can also be found on the web. Excellent commentaries about the case are available on the respected scotusblog.

[2]  E.g., Liptak, Voting Rights Law Draws Skepticism from Justices, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013); Gerstein, 5 Takeaways from the Voting Rights Act arguments, Politico (Feb. 27, 2013).

[3] Roberts’ hostility to the Voting Rights Act apparently goes back to 1981 when as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice he was working on Reagan Administration efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

[4]  E.g., Blum, The Supreme Court Can Update the Obsolete Voting Rights Act, W.S.J. (Feb. 24, 2013); Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Shapiro; Pilder); Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013); Will, The Voting Rights Act stuck in the past, Wash. Post (Mar. 1, 2013).

[5] E.g., Room for Debate: Is the Voting Rights Act Still Needed?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013) (Wydra; Charles & Fuentes-Rohwer; Garza; Smith), supra;  Savage, Decision on Voting Law Could Limit Oversight, N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2013), supra.

 

Other Approaches to Interpreting the U.S. Constitution Regarding Economic Regulation

A prior post examined the large body of existing U.S. Supreme Court cases interpreting the Constitution regarding economic regulation and sustaining the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. That post also examined the  strong views of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia on interpreting the U.S. Constitution (and other legal texts) and the vituperative pleadings of George Will and two appellate court judges for changing the interpretation of the Constitution regarding economic regulation.

Those views, however, are not universally accepted. Now we look at the equally strong views regarding such interpretation from Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and a  group of legal scholars known as “the New Textualists.” Those scholars also confirm the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act now pending in the Supreme Court.

Justice Stephen Breyer

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

In his 2005 book, Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, Breyer urges judges to interpret legal provisions (of the Constitution or of statutes) in light of the purpose of the text and how well the consequences of specific rulings will fit those purposes. He argues that the constitutional authors sought to establish a democratic government involving the maximum liberty for its citizens. “Modern liberty” for Breyer is freedom from government coercion. In addition, Breyer asserts, there is “active liberty” or the freedom to participate in government.

Both kinds of liberty should be protected by the courts, according to Breyer, who believes the guiding theme in constitutional interpretation, whether in upholding statutes or enforcing rights, should be enabling democracy — “a form of government in which all citizens share the government’s authority, participating in the creation of public policy.”

Therefore, in his opinion, courts should behave modestly—if not deferentially—when striking down legislation. Courts should acknowledge that the greater number of people involved in legislatures makes them more likely to be circumspect than the considerably fewer people sitting as judges on any court. Unless the legislature has perpetrated an egregious violation of rights, such deference in and of itself promotes the Constitution’s democratic objective by allowing the process of representative government to play out.  Finally, he believes, promoting active liberty simply produces better law.

Moreover, Breyer believes courts should use legislative history to determine the intent of constitution-makers and legislatures when the texts are ambiguous.  In a book on that very subject and in other writings he has identified five primary situations in which judges should use legislative history: (1) to avoid an absurd result; (2) to correct drafting errors; (3) to identify specialized meanings; (4) to identify the purposes of the statute; and (5) to choose among reasonable interpretations of a politically controversial provision.

Justice Breyer also claims that using legislative history is preferable to relying more heavily on canons of interpretation or construction as advocated by Justice Scalia. First, for every canon there exists an equal and opposite canon of construction. The sources of many interpretive canons are old and obscure. Breyer questions what validity a canon created in the nineteenth century has on statutes  in the twenty-first century. Breyer also questions the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s adopting new canons of interpretation or construction. Finally, Justice Breyer doubts that using canons actually helps those who either write or are affected by legislation.

The “New Textualists”

A different perspective on interpreting the U.S. Constitution is provided by Jeffrey Rosen, Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and Legal Director of The New Republic magazine. In an article in that magazine entitled “Constitution Avenue–Liberals discover a theory to crush conservative jurisprudence,” Rosen summarizes some of the work of three of the so-called New Textualists: Professor Akhil Reed Amar of the Yale Law School; Professor Einer Elhauge of the Harvard Law School; and Professor Jack Belkin of the Yale Law School.

Akhil Amar

Amar in his book, America’s Constitution: A Biography,  emphasizes the original public meaning of the constitutional text. But the text is more than the original Constitution; it includes all of the amendments too. He points out that the Constitution has been far more democratic than is conventionally understood. Even though the document was drafted by white landholders, a remarkably large number of citizens (by the standards of 1787) were allowed to vote up or down on it, and the document’s later amendments eventually extended the vote to virtually all Americans.

According to Amar, the Affordable Care Act is constitutional under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce clause as that has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. He said:

  • “What Congress does has to be in the enumerated powers [granted by the Constitution].. One of those powers is the Interstate Commerce Clause. What are the limits on that power? It only applies to regulations that are interstate and commercial. So Congress has to be actually trying to address a commercial problem that spills over state lines. And that’s clearly true here.”
  • “At any given nanosecond, millions of Americans are out of state. Most of my students at Yale are out of state. Three days a week, I am out of my home state. And if I or my students or any of these Americans fall sick, we go to a local ER. That’s an interstate issue. Similarly, if we don’t cover preexisting conditions, we have a lock-in for labor mobility — many workers will be unable to take better jobs out-of-state and thereby contribute more to their families and to the economy. And that’s what the Interstate Commerce Clause was all about: Getting rid of the impediments to genuine interstate commerce, to the free movement of goods and labor.”
Einer Elhauge
Einer Elhauge has addressed the constitutionality issue of the Affordable Care Act by pointing out that in the early years of our Republic, Congress  passed several laws mandating that individuals and companies buy certain things and that most of the constitutional framers supported these measures and none objected on constitutional grounds. These measures were the following:
  • “In 1790, the very first Congress—which incidentally included 20 framers—passed a law that included a mandate: namely, a requirement that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. This law was then signed by another framer: President George Washington.”
  • “In 1792, a Congress with 17 framers passed another statute that required all able-bodied men to buy firearms. . . . Four framers voted against this bill, but the others did not, and it was also signed by [President] Washington.”
  • In “1798, Congress addressed the problem that the employer mandate to buy medical insurance for seamen covered drugs and physician services but not hospital stays. . . . [T]his Congress, with five framers serving in it, . . . enacted a federal law requiring the seamen to buy hospital insurance for themselves.”

Moreover, Elhauge has responded to a criticism of the relevance of these statutes to the constitutional argument.

Jack Balkin

Professor Belkin in his book, Living Originalism, concludes that the best versions of originalism and living constitutionalism are not in conflict, but are compatible. It shows why modern conceptions of civil rights and civil liberties, and the modern state’s protection of national security, health, safety, and the environment, are fully consistent with the Constitution’s original meaning. And it explains how both liberals and conservatives, working through political parties and social movements, play important roles in the ongoing project of constitutional construction.

Belkin concludes that the Affordable Health Care Act is constitutional under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution permitting Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The Act, he says, does not actually require all (or certain classes of) individuals to purchase health insurance. Instead, it is a tax that people would not have to pay if they purchased health insurance.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court now has only five days next week in which to announce its momentous decisions in the cases involving the Affordable Care Act and the Arizona immigration law.

I again invite comments supplementing, correcting or challenging the assertions in this post.

 

 

Interpreting the U.S. Constitution Regarding Limitations on Economic Regulation

By the end of June the U.S. Supreme Court should issue its decisions on the constitutionality of the federal Affordable Health Care Act and the Arizona immigration law. These cases involve important issues requiring the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

These cases and recent commentaries by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, columnist George Will, two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and a law professor reveal another important issue of legitimate federal power that is bubbling below the surface: what should be the constitutional standard for review of federal and state regulation of economic activities under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Scalia

A new bookReading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts –by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner discusses the general approach to such interpretation used by the Justice. It comes with this disclaimer: “The views expressed in this book are those of the authors as legal commentators. Nothing in this book prejudges any case that might come before the [U.S.] Supreme Court.”

The book is a series of short essays on principles or canons of statutory and constitutional construction that supposedly guide judges and lawyers. The book, however, does make telling comments on issues in the pending health care and immigration cases.

One of the central precedents advanced by the Obama Administration for the constitutional validity of the Affordable Care Act is a 1942 Supreme Court case, Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), which held that a farmer’s cultivation of wheat for his own consumption affected interstate commerce and, therefore, could be regulated by the federal government under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution that grants (in Article 1, Section 8) Congress the power “To regulate Commerce . . . among the several States. . . .”  The new Scalia-Garner book, however, says the Court in the Wickard case “expanded the Commerce Clause beyond all reason.”

Another canon says that “a federal statute is presumed to supplement rather than displace state law.” In other words, Congress must make express any intent to displace or preempt state law. This relates to the pending case about the Arizona immigration law. The main argument for its unconstitutionality is preemption of state law regarding immigration by federal law.

The book also says, “A statute presumptively has no extraterritorial application.” Again this is a presumption and thus requires Congress to make explicit any intention for a statute to have extraterritorial application. This relates to a case to be reargued next term on whether the federal Alien Tort Statute of 1789 applies to alleged foreign human rights violations. A related issue is whether corporations may be held liable under that statute.

Another canon is “Words must be given the meaning they had when the text was adopted.” Moreover, for Justice Scalia, as he writes in the book and in many judicial opinions, it is the words of the text under consideration that must be at the center of legal inquiry. Other sources and values — the intentions of those who wrote the words or the consequences of a given interpretation — are, in his opinion, illegitimate.

Columnist George Will

George Will

 George Will in his recent column, “Unleash the high court” lambasts a recurrent theme in many Supreme Court cases that express deference to the choices of the democratically-elected legislative and executive branches. Similarly Mr. Will criticizes George Romney’s presidential campaign website for saying that federal judges should “leave the governance of the nation to elected representatives.” Will argues that “judicial deference to elected representatives can be dereliction of judicial duty.”

Will specifically targets the Supreme Court’s decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases, 16 Wallace 36 (1873), regarding the “privileges or immunities” clause of Section 1 of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that was ratified in 1868. That provision is as follows:

  • 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.)

At issue in the Slaughterhouse Cases was whether a Louisiana statute that granted one firm a monopoly of the slaughterhouse business in New Orleans and banned already established competitors was valid under the “privileges or immunities” clause, and the Court held, 5 to 4, that it was constitutional.

The Court in the Slaughterhouse Cases reached this conclusion after it had determined that there was a distinction between U.S. citizenship and state citizenship and that this clause of the 14th Amendment only protected the former. Such U.S. citizenship privileges or immunities, according to the Court in this case, included the right of a citizen “to come to the seat of the government to assert any claim he may have upon that government;” the “right of free access to its seaports;” and the right “to demand the care and protection of the Federal government over his life, liberty, and property on the high seas, or within the jurisdiction of a foreign government.” But they did not include the right to engage in a business.

The Slaughterhouse Cases also rejected the claims that the Louisiana statute violated the “due process” clause and the “equal protection” clauses of the 14th amendment.

According to George Will, the decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases was a “still-reverberating mistake . . . [by taking] a cramped view of the 14th Amendment’s protection of Americans’ “privileges or immunities,” saying these did not include private property rights, freedom of contract and freedom from arbitrary government interference with the right to engage in enterprise.” This led, he says, in the 1930s to the Court’s formally declaring economic rights to be inferior to ‘fundamental’ rights. As a result, according to Will, the Slaughterhouse Cases “begot pernicious judicial restraint — tolerance of capricious government abridgements of economic liberty.”

Circuit Judges Brown and Santelle

Chief Judge Sentelle & Judge Brown

George Will’s call for “unleashing” the Supreme Court was made more explicit in an astonishing concurring opinion in April of this year by two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit–Judge Janice Rogers Brown and Chief Judge David Bryan Sentelle— in Hettinga v. United States.

In that case the appellate court, 3-0, affirmed the dismissal of a complaint alleging that a federal statute subjecting large milk producers-handlers to financial contributions to a fund for payments to producers violated the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution’s due process and implied equal protection provisions. Following Supreme Court precedents, as the circuit court was required to do, the latter’s per curiam opinion stated the governing legal principle as follows:

  • “We grant statutes involving economic policy a “strong presumption of validity.” FCC v. Beach Commc’ns, Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 314 (1993). A statutory classification that “neither proceeds along suspect lines nor infringes fundamental constitutional rights must be upheld against equal protection challenge if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification.” Id. at 313. “Where there are plausible reasons for Congress’ action, our inquiry is at an end.” Id. at 313–14. The challenger bears the burden of showing that the statute is not a rational means of advancing a legitimate government purpose. See Bd. of Trs. of the Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 367 (2001).”

The appellate court then found that the challenged federal statute did have the requisite rational basis and, therefore, was constitutional.

The concurring opinion that was authored by Judge Brown and joined by Chief Judge Sentelle said that no other result was possible in light of the Supreme Court precedents. They then went on to suggest that the Supreme Court should overturn its large body of cases holding that economic regulations were subject to a rational basis test and return to the Lochner-era when there was strict judicial scrutiny of such regulations. The concurring opinion said:

  • “America’s cowboy capitalism was long ago disarmed by a democratic process increasingly dominated by powerful groups with economic interests antithetical to competitors and consumers. And the courts, from which the victims of burdensome regulation sought protection, have been negotiating the terms of surrender since the 1930s.”
  • “First the Supreme Court allowed state and local jurisdictions to regulate property, pursuant to their police powers, in the public interest, and to “adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare.” Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502, 516 (1934). Then the Court relegated economic liberty to a lower echelon of constitutional protection than personal or political liberty, according restrictions on property rights only minimal review. United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152–53 (1938). Finally, the Court abdicated its constitutional duty to protect economic rights completely, acknowledging that the only recourse for aggrieved property owners lies in the “democratic process.” Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97 (1979). “The Constitution,” the Court said, “presumes that, absent some reason to infer antipathy, even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process and that judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwisely we may think a political branch has acted.” Id.
  • “As the dissent predicted in Nebbia, the judiciary’s refusal to consider the wisdom of legislative acts—at least to inquire whether its purpose and the means proposed are “within legislative power”—would lead to only one result: “[R]ights guaranteed by the Constitution [would] exist only so long as supposed public interest does not require their extinction.” 291 U.S. at 523. In short order that baleful prophecy received the court’s imprimatur. In Carolene Products (yet another case involving protectionist legislation), the court ratified minimalist review of economic regulations, holding that a rational basis for economic legislation would be presumed and more searching inquiry would be reserved for intrusions on political rights. 304 U.S. at 153 n.4. . . .”
  • “The practical effect of rational basis review of economic regulation is the absence of any check on the group interests that all too often control the democratic process. It allows the legislature free rein to subjugate the common good and individual liberty to the electoral calculus of politicians, the whim of majorities, or the self-interest of factions. See Randy E. Barnett, Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty 260 (2004).
  • “The hope of correction at the ballot box is purely illusory. . . . Rational basis review means property is at the mercy of the pillagers. The constitutional guarantee of liberty deserves more respect—a lot more.”

The third circuit judge on the panel in Hettinga, Judge Thomas B. Griffith, filed his own concurring opinion to announce that he did not join the concurring opinion of Judge Brown and Chief Judge Sentelle “with its spirited criticism of the Supreme Court’s long-standing approach to claims of economic liberty. Although by no means unsympathetic to their criticism nor critical of their choice to express their perspective, I am reluctant to set forth my own views on the wisdom of such a broad area of the Supreme Court’s settled jurisprudence that was not challenged by the petitioner.” (Emphasis added.)

As of the close of business on June 19th, the Supreme Court website did not report the filing of a petition for certiorari in the Hettinga case. But keep watching for such a petition and for the Court’s ruling thereon. If it grants the petition, be on guard. 

Supreme Court Interpretation of Constitutional Restraints of Federal and State Economic Regulations

Will’s article and, to a lesser extent, the Brown and Sentelle concurring opinion jump over an important period of our constitutional history.

Starting in 1905 in the U.S. Supreme Court used the “due process” clause of the 14th amendment to invalidate numerous state statutes regulating various aspects of economic activity. An early leading example of this jurisprudence was Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), that held a New York statute limiting the hours of labor in bakeshops to be unconstitutional. This approach continued into the early 1930s when the Court held various New Deal statutes unconstitutional until the conflict between the Court and President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation reached a head in early 1937 with a presidential proposal for reorganizing the federal judiciary by appointing additional judges when an incumbent reached his 70th birthday (the so-called “Court-packing” proposal).

This proposal never went anywhere, but the Court suddenly changed course by upholding various federal and state economic regulations. This was the so-called “switch in time that saved nine.” Important cases in this reversal of course by the Supreme Court were West Coast Hotel  Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) and United States v. Caroline Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938). In West Coast Hotel, the Court, 5 to 4, upheld a state minimum wage law and overruled a contrary decision from 1923 (Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C., 261 U.S. 525 (1923)). In Caroline Products, it upheld the constitutionality of a federal statute prohibiting certain milk from being shipped in interstate commerce because it was supported by substantial public-health evidence and was not arbitrary or irrational. The latter case also explained that regulations of economic activity would be subject to a “rational basis” review while restrictions on more fundamental rights would be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Presumably George Will was referring to Caroline Products as the 1930s decision that, in his opinion, dastardly relegated economic rights to an inferior position to fundamental rights.

Another case in this new Supreme Court direction was Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 329 (1937), although it did not involve economic rights. Instead this case held that a state statute permitting the prosecution to take appeals from lower courts in criminal cases did not violate the 14th Amendment. This conclusion followed from the Court’s decision that this Amendment did not protect all of the rights set forth in the first eight amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but only to those “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” and those principles of justice “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people to be ranked as fundamental.”

Also important in the Court’s new direction was the previously discussed Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), which upheld a federal statute establishing a wheat-marketing quota system that included wheat consumed on the same farm. It thereby repudiated an old distinction in the law between direct and indirect effects on interstate commerce. This case–the one criticized by Justice Scalia–made it clear that the Court would uphold the federal regulation of any economic activity, no matter how local, if it could have a demonstrable effect on interstate commerce.

This interpretation of the 14th Amendment as applied to economic regulations has now been followed for roughly 75 years in a huge body of cases in the Supreme Court and other U.S. courts.

As discussed in a prior post, in the mid-1970s I relied upon this well established body of law in a successful defense of an acquisition of an Iowa bank by an out-of-state bank holding company at about the same time that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a New Orleans ordinance that only allowed two push-cart vendors in the French Quarter of that city.

Given this long-established and firmly embedded interpretation of the Constitution, I was astounded to discover the George Will column and the concurring opinion in Hettinga calling for obliteration of this large body of law.  I also was startled to read a commentary by David Bernstein, the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law:”There is virtual unanimity among modern conservative and libertarian scholars that the broadening of federal power during the New Deal era resulted from mistaken Supreme Court decisions.”

Prof. Geoffrey Stone

Such a position seems to me to be contrary to the principle of starie decisis. As stated by Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago (my alma mater), “Stare decisis is, after all, the bedrock principle of the rule of law. Not only does it promote stability and encourage judges to decide cases based on principle rather than on a preference for one or another of the parties before them, but it also serves importantly to reduce the politicization of the Court. It moderates ideological swings and preserves both the appearance and the reality that the Supreme Court is truly a legal rather than a political institution.”

Chief Justice          John Roberts
Justice Samuel Alito

Indeed, in the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case from 2010 that overruled a prior Supreme Court case regarding election financing, Chief Justice Roberts submitted a concurring opinion that was joined by Justice Samuel Alito solely “to address the important principles of judicial restraint and stare decisis implicated in this case.” After this concurring opinion reviewed the reasons for starie decisis, it quoted earlier Supreme Court decisions that said the principle was not an “inexorable command” or a “mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.” Otherwise, Chief Justice Roberts (and Justice Alito) said, “minimum wage laws would be unconstitutional.” Here, Chief Justice Roberts cited with approval West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish’s overruling of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C.

Presumably that would at least make it more difficult for Roberts and Alito now to overrule 75 years of Supreme Court case law on the constitutionality of economic regulations and to hold, explicitly or implicitly, that West Coast Hotel was an erroneous decision.

I, therefore, was somewhat relieved to read Professor Bernstein’s further observation that “there is less unanimity on what to do about it [the belief by some legal scholars that the rational basis standard for review of economic regulations was erroneous]. One school of thought, represented by former Judge Robert Bork and Judge Ralph Winter of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Court, says it is too late to rely on the judiciary to reverse the centralizing trend of modern government. Winter claims that the unraveling of the modern Leviathan must be done through the political process, because it would be too disruptive to society and to the economy for judges to strike down federal programs wholesale. And, because judges must act on principle, they cannot pick and choose which laws to declare unconstitutional. Richard Epstein argues that, at least on the margins, the Supreme Court can still restrain national economic regulation. He thinks “that it is possible to make incremental changes by principled adjudication.”

Conclusion

In a subsequent post I will review other theories of interpreting the Constitution.In the meantime, I invite comments correcting, amplifying or contesting the assertions in this post.