Delegation, Unilateral Executive Authority and the Decline of Democracy

In a recent post, I discussed how Cass Sunstein argued, with the aid of the Star Wars saga, that delegation to the executive could be dangerous to democracy.  While Posner and Vermeule contend that democracy favors delegation, because the democratic legislature has chosen to delegate, Sunstein notes that delegation can lead to the end of democracy, as it allows the executive to permanently displace the legislature.  This was the case with Emperor Palpatine and with Adolph Hitler, both of whom received delegations of authority that they used to rule and never allowed the legislature to take back the authority.

Sunstein notes that George Lucas, the principal author of Star Wars, had analyzed the declines of democracies.  According to Lucas, “You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kind of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control.  A democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling, there’s corruption.”

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Cass Sunstein on Star Wars

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Cass Sunstein has been blogging on his new book on the Star Wars movies.  He loves them and finds a variety of things to say about them that are more serious than Star Wars.  One post is about why success is so hard to predict, another is about the hypothetical writers behind texts, and a third is about the separation of powers.  It is hard to tell without reading the book if Sunstein saw all of this in Start Wars or just loved the movies so much, that he tried hard to find interesting things to say about them.

Will Baude, another law professor, reviews  Sunstein’s new book in the New Rambler.  Baude’s main concern is that the producers of the new movie, the Force Awakens, announced that they would ignoring the large canon of books that have been written about Star Wars and that George Lucas always followed.  This might seem like a minor thing to most movie viewers, but Baude is on strong ground in noting the importance of “world building” in the sci fi/fantasy world and how a large number of books can powerfully develop such a world.

My own objection to the Force Awakens is that it was essentially a remake of the first movie.  It shows the artistic bankruptcy of modern movie making.  To watch the best art on film these days, one should turn to shows on HBO and Cable TV.  That is where the creativity.  Baude and I agree that the new movie should have told a different story about a different part of the Star Wars universe.  Of course, the producers would have probably made less money that way, which helps to explain why so many movies suck these days.

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Sunstein’s False Claim that Scalia Was a Living Constitutionalist

In an essay forthcoming for the Harvard Law Review, Cass Sunstein argues that Justice Antonin Scalia was in many important opinions a practitioner of living constitutionalism, that is someone who believes “the meaning of the Constitution evolves over time.”  This claim is contrary to the received wisdom about Scalia.  But it is consistent with a long-term project of the left—to deny that originalism is distinct either conceptually or in practice from living constitutionalism and thus to remove a barrier to  the progressive transformation of the United States.

But Sunstein’s arguments are weak.  First, he contends that some of Scalia’s opinions do not rely on the original meaning of provisions. But he has to acknowledge Scalia’s own response to these complaints: that as a judge he also has some duty to follow precedent. And applying precedent under neutral rules is emphatically not inconsistent with originalism. Analytically, precedent generally concerns the adjudication of the Constitution, not its meaning. Moreover, as Michael Rappaport and I have argued, the original Constitution contemplates the application of precedent.

Sunstein then downplays the full-throated originalism of District of Columbia v. Heller’s holding in favor of an individual right to hold arms at home.  First, he quibbles that an originalist should have to show that the Second Amendment reference to “arms” was not limited to the firearms at the Founding.   Scalia dismissed this argument as almost frivolous, as indeed it is even as matter of originalism.

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The Judicial Necessity of Constitutional Choice

Close-up of the U.S. Constitution

Cass Sunstein is among the country’s foremost legal scholars, distinguished by both his prodigious output and an interdisciplinary approach that draws on the insights of behavioral psychology, economics, and social science research. In his latest book, Constitutional Personae: Heroes, Soldiers, Minimalists, and Mutes, he gives us an engaging study of jurisprudential comportment that classifies judges into the four groups of the subtitle.

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Against Judicial Minimalism

At the beginning of this term of the Supreme Court, Cass Sunstein has praised judicial minimalism. Professor Sunstein argues that the justices should decide cases as narrowly as possible: “Minimalists . . .  insist on small steps and narrow, unambitious rulings. They want to resolve the specific problem at hand, but without pronouncing broadly on liberty or equality, or on the system of checks and balances.”

So described, minimalism is the antithesis of a principled jurisprudence. First, minimalism does not offer a method for discerning the Constitution’s meaning. One does not need to be an originalist who believes that the meaning of the Constitution is fixed at the time it was enacted to recognize that an interpretive theory has to give account of how it is following the meaning of the Constitution. It is that meaning which should govern the case, and the relevant principles may be either broad or narrow depending on the meaning. For instance, if one follows the original meaning that the term “session” in the Recess Appointments Clause is limited to the intersession of Congress, the holding will necessarily rule out recess appointments in all cases but appointments made at the intersession.

Second, minimalism is incompatible with the rule of law. Deciding cases based on their peculiar facts gives little guidance to citizens as to what their rights and obligations are. Indeed, the reductio ad absurdum of minimalism is to decide the case of A v. B for A or B without giving any reasons at all: that approach surely resolves the case by making as little law as possible!

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A Partyist Solution to Partyism

Cass Sunstein has offered a new solution to advance good governance in a time of partisanship—what he terms an age of “partyism.”  Because a partisan world leads to gridlock in Congress, he suggests that executive agencies should continue to be empowered with substantial latitude to interpret their own statutes.  Indeed, Professor Sunstein argues that agencies should gain a “bit more” discretion to construe existing statutes since Congress will not be doing much updating.

Michael Greve offered his own excellent demurral to Professor Sunstein’s solution. Here are two additional points of critique.   First, empowering agencies is not neutral with respect to partisanship because bureaucrats lean to the left.  Second, empowering agencies is not neutral as an ideological matter.  The progressive agenda itself needs substantial discretion to continue the effectiveness and political endurance of much centralized regulation.  In contrast, conservatives and libertarians are more sympathetic to market and other forms of decentralized order that will take hold even if federal regulation cannot be updated.

There is substantial evidence to support the first point that most federal employees lean to the left of Republicans.

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It’s My Party. Cry If You Want To.

elections 2016 conceptual post

Professor Cass R. Sunstein has unearthed a new –ism: partyism, meaning an animus or aversive reaction to someone based solely on party membership. As in: “I don’t care if people think I’m a racist or a child molester. But I’d die if they thought I’m a Democrat.” (I think Ann Coulter said that long ago. If she didn’t, she certainly could have.) Partyism, Professor Sunstein writes, is on the rise, and it contributes to political gridlock. 

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Cass Sunstein Reviews Richard Epstein’s The Classical Liberal Constitution

At the New Republic, Cass Sunstein reviews Richard Epstein’s new book on the Constitution. I have a mixed reaction to Sunstein’s review, agreeing with parts but disagreeing with more of it.

1. Originalism. Sunstein argues that Epstein’s book is not really originalism, because Epstein uses classical liberalism to interpret constitutional provisions and that is not the right way of determining the original meaning. Here I agree with Sunstein, and have said so in various settings.

But what Sunstein omits here is that Epstein’s vision of the Constitution is quite a bit closer to the original meaning than either the New Deal or the Warren Court visions, which Sunstein seems to recommend. Thus, if we should follow the original meaning, Epstein’s view is to be preferred to our constitutional law today which is influenced largely by the New Deal and Warrent Court visions.

2. The Tea Party Constitutionalist. Sunstein portrays Epstein’s book as the theory of the Tea Party. While there is an element of truth to this, there is also much that is misleading. First, Sunstein does not really know what Tea Partiers believe in detail about the Constitution. For all he knows, they may be originalists who believe a more orthodox version of the Constitution’s original meaning. Moreover, as Sunstein recognizes, Epstein is an independent thinker, who does not play to the crowd.

3. Epstein’s Moral Reading. Sunstein argues that Epstein, rather than providing an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, is instead offering a moral reading in the tradition of Ronald Dworkin. I have raised this possibility myself, so I have some sympathy with it. But I think Epstein’s moral reading is far more attractive than Sunstein does. I agree with classical liberalism and I believe that the original meaning of Constitution was “relatively” classical liberal. If I were not an originalist, I would probably defend something like Epstein’s view of the Constitution. Sunstein can attempt to dismiss it, but I believe that it is very persuasive.

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Was Justice Black the Most Overrated Justice? No way!

Cass Sunstein has a column arguing that Justice Hugo Black “who served from 1937 to 1971, is the court’s most overrated justice.” I strongly disagree with Sunstein (hardly the first time); I think Black is one of the best justices who served during the middle of the 20th century.

Sunstein likes Black’s generally liberal decisions, but he is critical of Black’s methodology of textualism and originalism. Sunstein begins with Black’s textualism, writing:

Too much of the time, Black claimed that the text of the Constitution required a particular result, when it did nothing of the kind. He famously defended his free speech absolutism by noting that the First Amendment “provides, in simple words, that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ I read ‘no law … abridging’ to mean no law abridging.”

But Sunstein rightly points out that the key question is what “freedom of speech” means and many laws that interfere with speech may not interfere with freedom of speech.

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Fat, Stupid and in Debt

In the New York Review of Books, Cass Sunstein reviews Sarah Conly’s Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, just out from Cambridge University Press. I haven’t read the book, and I do not intend to do so. I already own two other books, and this one is $95—the equivalent of two cartons Camel Filters.(Not even close, in terms of marginal utility.) In contrast, Professor Sunstein’s laudatory review arrived for free, via internet, and I have read it with great profit.

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