The power to impeach officers of the United State government is one of the gravest powers entrusted to Congress in the U.S. Constitution. The power is far-ranging and flexible, laying at the feet of Congress the ultimate responsibility to insure that the officers of the federal government are acting in the national interest and not abusing their authority. Congress has not had many occasions to use the power over the course of the nation’s history, and the most frequent targets have been low-level judges who had engaged in undoubtedly bad behavior. Impeachments of more high-profile targets like presidents raise more difficult political and constitutional issues about how the power should be used and what the role of the impeachment power might be within the American constitutional system.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
I have just returned from the annual confab of the Midwest Political Science Association. The MPSA is not my favorite haunt (the folks there tend to like putting the science into political science), but I was delighted to be part of a panel discussion of the important new book by Emily Zackin, Looking for Rights in All the Wrong Places.