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.
Judge Merrick Garland may be the best for which constitutionalists can reasonably hope with a President Clinton or President Trump in the offing, but there is no basis on the record presented thus far for the popular press’ breathless conclusion—see, for example, here and here—that he believes in judicial restraint rightly, which is to say politically, understood.
For those whose knowledge of Justice Scalia was limited to a casual acquaintance with the exquisite certitude of his judicial writings, the tone of his son’s moving homily—suffused, to what surely would have been the late jurist’s liking, with talk of grace and sin—must have been jarring. But Scalia’s judicial philosophy was always modest, not just with respect to the judge’s role in the constitutional orbit—that much is well known, or should be—but also when it came to the inherent limits of human knowing. Scalia’s was a jurisprudence not merely of original meaning, but of original sin.