We should realize that this is an emperor that truly has no clothes. For too long, we have treated the Court is if they are the high priests of the law, or at least as if they are the smartest and best lawyers in society. – Erwin Chemerinsky (2014)
I am very pleased to interview Dean Erwin Chemerinsky in connection with his eighth book, The Case Against the Supreme Court (Viking, 2014) – this in addition to the 200-plus scholarly articles he has published. One of those articles was the foreword to the Harvard Law Review’s 1988 Supreme Court Term issue. His first scholarly article was published 36 years ago, this when he was associated with the D.C. firm of Dobrovir, Oakes, & Gebhardt. Today, Chemerinsky’s casebook, Constitutional Law, is one of the most widely read law textbooks in the country.
Unlike most academics, he also has a practitioner’s flare for the law, having argued five cases in the Supreme Court, among other courts. Last year, National Jurist magazine named Dean Chemerinsky as the most influential persons in legal education while the Anti Defamation League honored him for his commitment and contributions to freedom and education. And in 2007, Douglas Kmiec labeled him as “one of the finest constitutional scholars in the country.”
True to his reputation, Dean Chemerinsky’s new book invites us to think – and think hard – about some of our gospel “givens” about the Court, its members, its procedures, and its future.
Thank you Dean Chemerinsky for taking the time to answer my questions, and congratulations on the publication of your latest book.
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Question: For someone who argues cases before the Supreme Court and who writes on and teaches about the Court, yours is a rather provocative title. Why did you choose it?
Chemerinsky: The title captures the thesis of the book. As I reflect on it, I realize that the Supreme Court has often failed, often at the most important times and at its most important tasks. I think that this is a conclusion that both conservatives and liberals can agree to and need to realize. The Supreme Court’s decisions on race, its rulings in times of crisis, its decisions during the Lochner era are powerful examples where I think liberals and conservatives would agree that the Court did great harm to society. That is the foundation of the case against the Supreme Court. I want to see the Court made better and the impetus for thus must be recognizing that there is a need for reform.
Question: You write: “I discovered in my own mind I have been making excuses for the Court. The Supreme Court is not the institution that I once revered.” What brought about this change of heart for you?
Chemerinsky: One semester I was teaching Buck v. Bell (1927), the Supreme Court decision that upheld Virginia’s eugenics law and where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously declared “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” After class, I realized that I had been making excuses for the Court in class. I did some research and realized that 60,000 people were involuntarily surgically sterilized as a result of the Court’s decision and the eugenics movement. As I thought about it, I realized that I often was making excuses for the Court in my teaching and writing.
Question: Like many others (both conservative and liberal), you fault Justice Holmes for his “offensive and insensitive” opinion in Buck v. Bell. Fair enough. What is often overlooked, however, is that Justice Louis Brandeis (one of the most humane defenders of civil rights and liberties) joined that opinion. Why? Does that give you any reflective pause? How do you explain that?
Chemerinsky: As always, the explanation must be complex rather than simple. It was at a time when progressives were defining themselves, in part, by urging deference to government as a way of criticizing the Lochner era decisions. It was at a time when the eugenics movement had great support in society. It was at a time when the Court had begun to protect non-textual rights concerning autonomy (e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)), but had not gone far in this direction.
Does this give me reflective pause? Buck v. Bell was tragically wrong when it was decided and it is inexcusable that the Court allowed states to surgically sterilize people who had done nothing wrong.
[Re Brandeis: For a critical take on his civil rights/civil liberties record, consider David Bernstein, “From Progressivism to Modern Liberalism: Louis D. Brandeis as a Transitional Figure in Constitutional Law,” Notre Dame Law Review (2014)]
Question: You maintain “the Supreme Court’s legitimacy is not fragile.” That cuts against the conventional wisdom, certainly the prudential wisdom. Please explain to us why you think this so.
Chemerinsky: The Court’s legitimacy is the product of all that it has done over 200 years. Over this time, it has firmly established its role. I agree with what John Hart Ely wrote in Democracy and Distrust (1980) that the Court’s legitimacy is robust. Some such as Felix Frankfurter and Alexander Bickel argued that the Court must be restrained to preserve its fragile legitimacy. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) shows the fallacy of that position. Nothing the Court has done has been more controversial or done more to enhance its institutional legitimacy. There are virtually no instances in American history of people disobeying the Court and those that occurred, such as in defiance of desegregation orders, only enhanced the Court’s legitimacy.
No single decision (or group of decisions) will seriously affect the Court’s legitimacy. I remember after Bush v. Gore hearing people say that the decision would damage the Court’s legitimacy. I was skeptical of such claims and I was right. The Court’s approval rating was the same in June 2001, six months after the decision, as it had been in September 2000, three months before the ruling. It had gone down among Democrats and up among Republicans. It is why I strongly disagree with those who believe that Chief Justice John Roberts changed his vote to uphold the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act case so as to preserve the Court’s credibility. He knew that whatever the Court did would please about half the country and disappoint about half the country.
→ Go here for a 2014 video interview with Dean Chemerinsky discussing his new book.
Question: You are critical of the Court’s unanimous ruling in Hui v. Castaneda (2010). There the Court, per Justice Sonia Sotomayor, held that public health service officers and employees could not be sued for Bivens actions for violating citizens’ constitutional rights if the violation was committed in the course of their government duties. The plaintiff can only sue the federal government, not the employees. There were no separate opinions in the case. Given the vote, how do you explain your claim that the Court got it wrong? Bias? Poorly argued? The law clerks’ fault? Or what?
Chemerinsky: In Hui v. Castañeda, a prisoner had a lesion on his penis. Francisco Castañeda was suffering enormously and the symptoms got worse and worse. But still the public health service workers refused to let him see a doctor. By the time they let him see a doctor the cancer had spread all over his body. His penis was amputated, but he died a short time later. It was egregious deliberate indifference. But the Court unanimously ruled that the existence of a statute protecting public health workers from suit barred a constitutional claim. This seems wrong: a statute should not bar a constitutional claim.
Why did the Court come to this conclusion? I think this case reflects a much larger trend of the Supreme Court favoring the immunity of government and government officers over remedies for injured individuals. It is reflected in the expansion of sovereign immunity, the growth of absolute and qualified immunity, and the evisceration of Bivens suits.
Question: You write of the need for scholars to look “cumulatively at the Court’s decisions” re race, civil liberties, economic regulations, school desegregation, effective counsel, labor law, consumer protection, and governmental immunity. Is it really possible to look at the Court through such a broad lens? And if so, what might it tell us that we already do not know?
Chemerinsky: My concern is that the narrower the focus, the easier it is to make excuses for the Court. Any institution will make decisions that we later regard as mistakes. Virtually everyone today believes that Dred Scott (1856) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Korematsu v. United States (1944) were tragically wrong. But focusing on each creates the view that they are isolated errors. If they are seen as part of a larger pattern, it becomes clearer that there is a strong case against the Supreme Court. It then becomes clear that there is a need for reforms.
Absent extraordinary circumstances, the docket for October Term 2014 is now complete, and it has the potential to be one of the most momentous in history. – Erwin Chemerinsky (Jan. 27, 2015)
Question: You find merit in Texas Governor Rick Perry’s idea for a proposed constitutional amendment limiting each Justice to an 18-year term. Think of it, had such a rule been in place, Holmes could not have written his is dissent in Gitlow v. New York (1925), Brennan would not have authored his majority opinion in Texas v. Johnson (1989), and we would never have read Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014). Two questions: (1) Does that concern you? And (2) Isn’t it always an iffy matter to push for constitutional amendments concerning the Court? Read More