The ongoing debate between libertarian and more traditional constitutionalists is about something more fundamental than what standards of review to apply to which cases. What’s at stake in this disagreement is politics—its very survival, and in what form. Is this institution that is, or at least was, enlivened by argument among citizens to be replaced by a desiccated vision of rational claims adjudicated by courts?
The forgotten etymology of “conservatism” lies in its hardly hidden first two syllables—to “conserve”—so when the Republican Party underwent its lurching metamorphosis from its commitments to constitutionalism, free trade and chivalry to royalism, protectionism and vulgarity, the news was not that George F. Will, conservative, stood still. It was that, in the terms of conservatism’s father Edmund Burke, the Republican Party may no longer constitute, properly speaking, a party at all. It is at risk of reverting to the primordial state of “faction” from which Burke rescued what he called the practice of political “connection.”
Among its myriad other mysteries, the 2016 election presents this Madisonian puzzle: Why are so many members of Congress genuflecting before presidential nominees whose platforms include emasculating them?
Situated at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic Johnie’s Coffee Shop was where Mr. Pink plotted a diamond heist in Reservoir Dogs and where Walter offered to obtain The Dude a toe in The Big Lebowski. But it has never witnessed malfeasance like the villainy that has unfolded there over the last few weeks. Johnie’s has been converted into a hub of unregulated advocacy for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Michael Ramsey and Evan Bernick have both posted excellent and challenging ripostes to my argument that conservative judicial engagement is theoretically defenseless against liberal judicial activism. The dispute seems to distill to this question: Can an interpretive theory constrain the courts?
The particular danger of conservatives’ turning to the courts to pursue preferred outcomes, even constitutional ones, is that doing so legitimizes the same strategy by constitutional liberals, who will—it bears repetition—sooner or later reassume control of the levers of judicial power. The time for warnings may soon give way to a season of regret: The liberal judicial ascendance is begun.
“The cause is in my will.”—Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene II
We ought to have known it would come to this. Still, the latest assertion of presidential authority assumes a new and ominous form: the power not merely to assert authority outside the law—which can at least masquerade under the banner of Lockean prerogative—but rather to redefine words and, with them, the institution of law itself.
An essential difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilized people conduct politics with words, a precondition of which is that words have objective meanings—they indicate this and not that—and that we are willing to articulate them.
At The Huffington Post, Evan Bernick has offered a thoughtful reply to my suggestion that judicial deference to Congress differs categorically from judicial deference to the administrative state, arguing instead that the real problem is deference simply: “Judicial deference of any kind sees judges elevating will over the reasoned judgment that judges who draw their power from Article III must exercise.”
This usefully identifies the core of the issue. If federal judges actually possessed all the power Bernick says Article III assigns them, there would be less constitutional basis for constraining their authority. If they do not, the issue is whether they can commandeer it.