Book Review: A Brief History of Judging – From the Big Bang to Cosmic Constitutional Theory

J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, Cosmic Constitutional Theory (2012)

Opining on Justice Stephen Breyer’s book, Active Liberty, Judge Richard Posner wrote that “a Supreme Court Justice writing about constitutional theory is like a dog walking on his hind legs; the wonder is not that it is done well but that it is done at all.” Much the same could be said about Cosmic Constitutional Theory by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, the latest jurist to write about his own constitutional theory—or in Judge Wilkinson’s case, a self-professed lack of a constitutional theory.

Judge Wilkinson views all theories of constitutional laws as “cosmic” in the metaphyhsical sense. “[T]he search for cosmic theory has caused us to forget some mundane and humdrum truths, and that future generations will not look kindly on the usurpations that pursuits of unattainable ends have brought about.” Living constitutionalism, the hallmark of the Warren Court, is “activism unleashed.” Originalism—in many respects a moderating-jurisprudence born in reaction to living constitutionalism—to Judge Wilkinson is merely “activism masquerading as restraint.” Pragmatism—the approach endorsed most prominently by Judge Posner—is “activism through antitheory.” Constitutional theories are activist all the way down, to borrow another cosmic image. So, if living constitutionalism, originalism, and pragmatism are out, what is the best judicial philosophy? To Judge Wilkinson, that is the wrong question. In his view, the ideal jurisprudence is none at all. “So what is my theory?” he asks, rhetorically. “The answer is I have no theory.”

But it is not quite that simple. The sine qua non of Judge Wilkinson’s view of the judicial power is to permit the people, through self-determination and the democratic process, to rule for themselves. This very rejection of a constitutional theory is, in essence, a theory in and of itself. His anti-theory, one could call it, fails to address a number of curious constitutional counterfactuals the book raises, but does not resolve. What if other judges, applying Judge Wilkinson’s non-philosophy, had to decide divisive cases, where the will of the people was at odds with individual liberty? Think of cases involving segregation, eugenics, disenfranchisement, or criminal rights.

Elsewhere, Judge Wilkinson has written that “[w]hen a constitutional question is so close, when conventional interpretive methods do not begin to decisively resolve the issue, the tie for many reasons should go to the side of deference to democratic processes.” Judge Wilkinson punts on these important questions quite unconvincingly: outlier “[d]ecisions like BrownGideon, and Miranda represent success stories because they vindicated foundational principles essential to the functioning of our nation. But I doubt there are now Browns and Gideons waiting to be born.”

To simply shoo away any future constitutional conflicts by saying the Supreme Court has already decided the important cases is short-sighted, and as Gerard Magliocca put it, somewhat reminiscent of the 19th Century Patent Commissioner who purportedly boasted that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” This is not the case with respect to inventions, and it is certainly not the case with respect to future unexpected constitutional crises. Further, this position does nothing to address whether a Judge Wilkinson sitting on the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court decades earlier would have decided cases any differently. Unexpected changes in our society—disputed presidential elections, a war on terror, broccoli mandates, and other constitutional black swans—will happen, and the Supreme Court will confront them.

More pressing, is from what, or more precisely, from where Judge Wilkinson would derive these “foundational principles essential to the functioning of our nation.” Indeed, it is quite debatable what the foundational principles of our nation are, and what makes them essential to the functioning of our nation. Originalists would say that the foundation of our nation is the Constitution as understood by the founding generation. Living Constitutionalists would say that the foundation of our nation is evolving principles that reflect present circumstances.

And what are these principles to Judge Wilkinson? Addressed almost in passing, he notes that “[o]ne foundational premise of the American experiment is that self-determination is a valuable good.” Judge Wilkinson assumes—almost as if it is incontrovertible—that the foundational principle that separates a bad (read activist) opinion from a good (read restrained) opinion is one that promotes self-governance. But he does not show why this is so, nor does he prove why this is Article III’s ideal explication of “the judicial power.”

Cosmic Constitutional Theory serves as a worthy embodiment of Judge Wilkinson’s quarter-century of minimalist jurisprudence on the Fourth Circuit, and offers salient and vigorous critiques of today’s most popular schools of constitutional thought. However, where the book falters is by failing to come to grips with the foundation of Judge Wilkinson’s own anti-jurisprudence.

Josh Blackman, Assistant Professor, South Texas College of Law

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