Category: Constitutional Law

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The Problem with Superprecedent

constitution5.jpgJack Balkin (law, Yale) has an excellent post over at Balkinization about my colleague Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times essay about superprecedents. The notion of superprecedent is that there are cases that are so firmly entrenched that they ought not to be overturned despite being in error. Roe v. Wade is the superprecedent that most have in mind.

In his post, Jack Balkin explains that a strategy of many conservatives is to “accept Roe as settled (as modified by Casey) but begin to chip away at it over the long haul.”

He explores three justifications for superprecedents. The first justification is that a precedent has held on for a long time and weathered some attacks. But this justification does little to justify why the precedent deserves to stand.

A second justification is that a lot of law has built up upon a precedent. The precedent serves as “a support beam in a house that, even if not installed correctly or in the right place, cannot now be removed without seriously endangering the safety of the occupants.”

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What Should Democrats Do Regarding Harriet Miers?

miers1a.jpgPaul Horwitz at PrawfsBlawg raises the difficult strategic dilemma for Democrats on the Harriet Miers nomination:

Therein lies the Democrats’ dilemma — actually, a double dilemma. 1) They do not want to oppose Miers loudly if they think her replacement might be a Luttig or a Brown, both because those judges are a more potent threat to their desired outcomes and because such nominations would be a political and fundraising prize for conservatives. 2) They also may not want to be on record as viewing mediocrity as a disqualification for the Court, since it constrains their own future choices.

Put slightly differently, the argument for Democrats in favor of Miers is this: Although Miers is relatively unknown, there are some indications that she might be moderate, even liberal, on key issues. An alternative replacement for Miers might well be much more firmly committed to conservative positions and be a more reliable conservative vote. If Miers turns out to be a consistent conservative vote, there are many indications that she won’t be a great superstar on the Supreme Court, and hence, she won’t be as effective as a replacement who might very well be a superstar. Furthermore, if Miers gets appointed, it will perpetuate great tensions amongst the Republicans.

Should this argument incline Democrats toward supporting Miers?

The liberal and political strategist in me is enticed by this argument. On the other hand, the intellectual and academic in me bristles at putting somebody on the Supreme Court who, by all indications thus far, does not seem to have the qualifications to be a great Supreme Court jurist. Ideally, I want a Supreme Court filled with brilliant distinguished jurists.

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Is There One Best Method of Constitutional Interpretation?

constitution4.jpgAlthough the Supreme Court feels some pressure for consistency via precedent, it doesn’t seem to strive at all for consistency in interpretive approach. Thus, the Court’s opinions are all over the map when it comes to the method of constitutional interpretation. Sometimes the Court reads the Constitution broadly and dynamically; sometimes it interprets the Constitution narrowly; sometimes it becomes a textualist; sometimes it becomes obsessed with original intent. And all this can happen in the same year!

When it comes to interpreting the Constitution, the Court will pay attention to precedent as to the substantive meaning of a constitutional provision, but it will often repeatedly shift around in its interpretive method. There seems to be little attempt to develop a precedent for the appropriate method of constitutional interpretation. Institutionally, why does the Court strive for consistency with regard to substance but not consistency with regard to method?

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What Exactly Does “Legislating from the Bench” Mean?

judge2a.jpgIn the discussions surrounding the recent Supreme Court appointments, it seems that the big judicial no-no is to “legislate from the bench.” Orin Kerr has an interesting post about the ambiguity of this phrase as used by the White House. What exactly does “legislating from the bench” mean?

Currently, the phrase “legislating from the bench” means little more than “I know it when I see it.” Despite being thrown about rather vaguely and carelessly, the notion of not legislating from the bench appears to be based on a particular approach toward constitutional interpretation, one that I will call the “principled conservative process-based approach.” By “process-based,” I am referring to conservatives who seek to articulate an approach toward judging–a method–not just a set of results they desire for particular cases.

So what is the method? As I understand it, the method involves a combination of at least three elements: (1) a reluctance to stray beyond the constitutional text or a commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to original intent or a combination of both; (2) a posture of judicial deference toward the Legislative and Executive Branches, as well as other government institutions; (3) a respect for precedent and a Burkean view toward making radical changes in the law.

Far too often, the conservative process-based approach is thought and spoken about with Roe v. Wade in mind. But I wonder what applying the conservative process-based approach would have meant for some of the other famous Supreme Court cases of the past century. Consider the following cases:

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Will the Blogosphere Affect the Miers Appointment?

miers2.jpg

VCstats3.jpgThe blogosphere is erupting with reactions to Harriet Miers nomination. Will the blogosphere affect the confirmation? What kind of effect will it have?

My guess is that the blogosphere will play an important role. Many blogs have experienced an influx of traffic this week after the nomination was announced, such as The Volokh Conspiracy, which jumped from about 25,000 visits per day to over 40,000. [The image on the right is of The Volokh Conspiracy’s visitor traffic over the past month.] These blogs are being read by those in all corners of government. They are thus influential in shaping the debate, especially among those in powerful positions. Blogs are also helpful in getting a read on what people very engaged in politics are thinking.

The confirmation hearings have largely become a meaningless ritual, where little about a nominee is revealed, where nominees merely dodge the tough questions and provide assurances that they won’t “legislate from the bench.” The more meaningful discussions are occuring in the blogosphere. Perhaps this is where Miers will be most thoroughly vetted and discussed.

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The Pathology of Picking Supreme Court Justices

sct1.jpgThe Supreme Court appointment process has become almost pathological . . . ironically, for rational reasons. The incentive is for presidents to select people who are: (1) young, so they have a reign on the Court that rivals Fidel Castro’s in length; and (2) obscure, so they have rarely taken any positions on any major issues. [Sadly, the future prospects for Supreme Court appointments for bloggers are not looking good.]

The nomination of Harriet Miers has left many people guessing. We know very little about her. Mark Graber writes on Balkinization: “What both John Roberts and Harriet Miers have in common is that the administration knows a lot more about them than the rest of us.” Jack Balkin calls her a “stealth candidate.” Orin Kerr is “quite puzzled.”

We should be selecting Supreme Court justices from the most accomplished and distinguished of legal figures. Instead, being a judge for a long time almost disqualifies a person for the Supreme Court.

The Senate confirmation hearings have turned into vapid ritual, where Senators posture and bluster, and the appointee does a well-rehearsed dance to reveal as little as possible. No appointee is going to go before the Senate and say: “Well, yes, Senators, I intend to legislate from the bench. I’ll be activist. I won’t follow the Constitution. Instead, I’ll decide cases based on what I’ve had for breakfast that day. I’ll be biased and I’ll try to twist the law to conform to my personal whims.”

I hope that in the debates that follow about Harriet Miers, the focus will also include the systematic problems with the appointments process more generally.

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