Keith Whittington

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and is the author of Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review (Kansas, 1999) and Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History (Princeton, 2007). He is the co-author (with Howard Gillman and Mark Graber) of American Constitutionalism (Oxford, 2013).

Is the Supreme Court a Court?

Columns at the U.S. Supreme Court

Is the U.S. Supreme Court a court? On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. It says so right in there in the name. Plus, the justices wear those funny robes. Strong evidence, I admit. On the other hand, see every Supreme Court decision involving constitutional law over the past century and a half. I could rest my case there, but I haven’t gotten to the point yet. If the Supreme Court is a court, it is a weird one, and that often creates a great deal of confusion about how the Court does or should operate.

Generally speaking, we might think that a key characteristic of a court is that it resolves disputes in accord with some pre-established set of legal rules. It is not clear that the Supreme Court actually does that. The justices have relatively little interest in resolving disputes, and they have little concern for pre-established legal rules.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

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Constitutional Norms Matter

Washington DC Capitol dome close up with American flag flying

American constitutionalism is famously about written rules. Our constitutions are filled with “thou shalt nots.” So much so that many unfortunately jump to the conclusion that the entire point of a constitution is to impose limiting rules. And certainly for several decades, the American experiment with written constitutions stood out for the ways in which it bound government officials with legally enforceable rules.

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Making the Bricks of the Modern Presidency from Constitutional Straw


By now it is hard to deny that the president – or more broadly, the executive branch – plays a crucial role in interpreting the Constitution. The constitutional assertions of the second Bush administration became infamous. The American Bar Association convened committees to ponder whether it was appropriate for the president to offer constitutional interpretations when signing bills into law. Investigative reporters revealed the advice that Justice Department lawyers offered members of the executive branch on how force could be deployed overseas, prisoners could be interrogated, and international electronic communication could be monitored. The Office of Legal Counsel – the…

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Paradise Lost

Mike Lee knows a thing or two about the Constitution. Utah’s junior senator is the son of Rex E. Lee, the founding dean of the law school at Brigham Young University and Ronald Reagan’s first solicitor general. Lee recounts attending his father’s oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, which he characterizes as a somewhat more decorous version of dinner table conversations in the Lee household. The younger Lee went on to graduate from the law school his father helped found, to clerk for Justice Samuel Alito when the latter was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (later joining Alito again as a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court), and to specialize in federal appellate court litigation at an elite law firm.

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Are Signing Statements a Bad Thing?

I’ve always thought that the brouhaha over signing statements was much ado about nothing. During the presidency of George W. Bush, liberals discovered signing statements and decided they were bad and connected to a “lawless” executive enthralled by an idiosyncratic and dangerous theory of a unitary presidency. Except that signing statements as such had nothing to do with theories of the unitary executive, signing statements had long been issued by presidents across the ideological spectrum, and it was less that evident why signing statements in and of themselves were supposed to be dangerous. Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has gone back to business as usual on many facets of executive power that were denounced by liberals just a few years ago, signing statements included.

But my esteemed colleague Mike Rappaport raises a more interesting question about signing statements.

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Remembering Why Hayek Mattered

tugwellThere’s nothing like reading Rex Tugwell to remind you why Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

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What’s Wrong with Judicial Activism Anyway?

Everybody knows that judicial activism is a bad thing. There was a time when liberals flirted with the idea of reappropriating the term and celebrating their newfound commitment to aggressive judicial action, but that time has passed. The Kennedy brothers thought it was a positive good that a potential nominee (Byron White) was “basically an activist.” Justice Arthur Goldberg thought of himself as a judicial activist. Legal theorist Ronald Dworkin began his career calling for “an activist court.”

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One of the “Most Activist Judges We Have Right Now”

When Justice John Paul Stevens retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy complained that “We have right now a very, very activist, conservative activist, Supreme Court. . . . I would hope that the president’s nominee can get us back away from that.” Leahy was, presumably, quite happy with the nomination of Elena Kagan to succeed Stevens.

In her short time on the bench, Justice Kagan has closely followed the voting pattern of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the other hand, Justice Clarence Thomas has been singled out by Senator Leahy as one of the “most activist judges we have right now,” and by activist he meant judges who “would strike down a law passed by the people and substitute something of their own,” and Justice Samuel Alito has been denounced as a pivotal figure in the “divisive” and “activist conservative bloc” on the Roberts Court.

So which of these justices most often votes to strike down laws “passed by the people”? The answer is

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Is the Roberts Court the Least Activist Court in History?

A few months ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained why she needed to stay on the Court in part by claiming “if it’s measured in terms of readiness to overturn legislation, this is one of the most activist courts in history.” Justice Ginsburg was needed to help lead the dissenters and push back against judicial activism. It is a nice story, but has little relation to the truth. In fact, the Roberts Court has a credible claim to being the least activist Court in the history of the United States.

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Sowing the Seeds of an Originalist Future

Not too long ago, I found myself discussing the U.S. Supreme Court with an acquaintance who does not particularly follow politics. During the conversation, I mentioned the name of Justice Clarence Thomas, which provoked the question, “He’s the one who doesn’t do anything, right?” I suppose there are worse ways that Justice Thomas could be remembered, but the meme that he is a passive presence on the bench is now widespread. This perception is, no doubt, a generalization from the oft-noted fact that Thomas rarely asks questions during oral arguments. Like Calvin Coolidge, whose historical reputation as “Silent Cal” has been…

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The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Restoration Is Originalism, but Not All Conceptions of Originalism

Dr. Ralph Rossum’s most recent book, Understanding Clarence Thomas: The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Restoration, performs the valuable service of cataloguing and synthesizing the jurisprudential work of one of America’s great living jurists. Rossum’s book joins other sympathetic—though not hagiographic—accounts of Justice Thomas’ work, most importantly Professor Scott Douglas Gerber’s First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence…

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“Just, Wise, and Constitutional”: Justice Thomas’s Legacy in Law and Politics

Ralph Rossum has followed his indispensible volume on Justice Scalia with an equally indispensible analysis of Justice Clarence Thomas’s life and work. The two seem destined to be paired forever. Because they share so much in common, each is the other’s best foil. Professor Rossum draws such contrasts expertly, as have Randy Barnett and Lee Strang,…

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Thomas’s Full Throated Originalism: Ralph Rossum Responds

I am grateful for the thoughtful commentaries and kind words that Keith Whittington, Lee J. Strang, and Adam White have provided on my essay on Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence of constitutional restoration. Since all three commentaries address the low value that Thomas, as an originalist, places on stare decisis, I will begin there. Antonin Scalia, the Court’s…

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