Editor’s note: This is a modified version of Michael Greve’s comments he delivered on a panel called “Public Interest Litigation in the Modern Era” at the Federalist Society’s 2017 Annual Lawyers Convention in Washington, D.C.
I used to be in the public interest litigation business, back in the premodern era. My comments here briefly summarize an outsider’s observations on what I think has changed in public interest law and what its role should be in the future of conservative-libertarian politics.
On Thursday I spoke at a panel at the Federalist Society’s National Convention entitled: Is Everyone for Federalism Now? The title is a backhanded tribute to the President. Finally, he is bringing us together, because he has caused the liberal resistance to Trump to appreciate federalism—a cornerstone of conservative thinking about constitution! But that is actually the shallower reason for the renewed interest in possible cross- ideological agreement on America’s most famous practical contribution to governance. The deeper reason is that a whole new school of law professors has embraced federalism under the new name of “national federalism.” Two of its most distinguished adherents, Heather Gerken and Abbe Gluck, were on this panel.
Count me a skeptic, however, about the prospect of any enduring alliance. To be sure, there may be tactical and opportunistic use of federalism by those who oppose the administration: that is the nature of politics particularly in Washington where for many politicians the meaning of the Constitution changes depending on whether they are in power. And there may be a few actual areas of rapprochement: it is conceivable, for instance, that some liberals may join conservatives in opposing commandeering of state officials.
But in general there will be no intellectual convergence because the right and left’s understanding of federalism—its content, origins and purposes—is very different. The right believes that federalism derives from a text of the Constitution that limits the power of the federal government, giving different responsibilities to federal and state officials. The purpose of this distribution of power is ultimately to protect individual liberty from government.
In contrast, progressives who promote federalism support a federalism that promotes activist government and exists largely at its sufferance—almost the opposite of constitutional federalism.
Donald Trump has the best opportunity of any President to create a judiciary that follows the Constitution as written.
Ilya Somin has disagreed with me that Trump is likely to be better for constitutional jurisprudence than Clinton. But his arguments rely on the implausible premise that Trump is likely to change the jurisprudential commitments of the Republican party. Even more importantly, he does not address the elephant in the room: Clinton’s appointments would likely return us to a Court unconstrained by our fundamental law.
Ilya is right that if Trump could change the Republican’s basic philosophy of judges from originalism to something else, that would itself impose long-term harm to nation. But Trump’s election is unlikely to have this effect. Trump is not coming into power with a parliamentary majority and or even at the head of a well entrenched ideological movement. The way to think of Trump is that has rented the party for his own ambitions and that he will be forming a coalition with orthodox Republicans who will make up the vast majority of Republicans in the legislature. He is thus going to have to deal with the Republicans who have an independent power base and who hope to be there long after he leaves. That not only includes legislators but the Republican establishment. And as in coalitions generally, he will focus on the issues most important to him where there is least resistance from his partners.
This is the last in a series of posts excerpting my speech at the Federalist National Convention, arguing that only religious freedom, not pervasive religious sentiment, is necessary to civic virtue under our constitutional order. Here I show that periods of greater religiosity do not coincide with greater constitutional fidelity:
One test of whether religion is necessary to preserve the constitutional order is whether periods of greater religiosity coincide with greater fidelity to the Constitution itself. And if we look at the course of American history, we do not find a high degree of correlation, let alone a causal connection, between periods of greater religiosity and fidelity to the Constitution. History also fails to show a positive correlation between secularism and constitutionality. Rather, it underscores the great dangers to our constitutional order can come from either religious enthusiasm or secular utopianism. Both share an ecstatic approach to politics that finds the Constitution inconvenient, as its constraints protect a society generated by the spontaneous order of freedom. It is not that only that the Constitution can be preserved by the liberal order it encourages, but it can be destabilized by demands for government-enforced morality that is too encompassing.
In a very interesting recent book, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution, John Compton makes the persuasive case that living constitutionalism—the theory that upends our written Constitution—has its beginning in the evangelism that originated in the second great awakening. These evangelicals and their religious descendants became unhappy that the Constitution as written facilitated such vices as alcohol and gambling by protecting interstate commerce and vested rights in property. They therefore promoted legislation that empowered the federal government, as opposed to the states, to regulate morals despite the limitations of the enumerated powers. They also wanted to destroy property used for immoral purposes despite the protection of vested rights.
The precedents set by this movement became key for progressive arguments. Just as the Constitution could be transformed to permit moral reform on a grand scale, so it could justify federal control of the economy.
At the Federalist Society Convention I had a debate with my friend, Professor Robert George, on a famous quote by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the next three posts, I will excerpt my speech. And then I will add a postscript on Washington’s Farewell Address. Here is the beginning:
John Adams famously said “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His claim assumes that we can afford to have the limited government created by the Constitution because the people are already possessed of an abundance of virtue—indeed crucially virtues fortified by religion. But the Constitution itself reflects a very different faith: that a people blessed with a constitution like our own are likely to develop the virtues of self-restraint and social trust needed in order to thrive.
Religion can certainly help actualize virtues but so can other kinds of culture and practices. And the Constitution is premised on the enlightenment view that its very design can create the necessary virtues for civic life from elements of human nature, including raw self-interest. The constitutional structure thus maintains itself and does not necessarily depend on any religious system.
This past weekend (October 23-24), George Mason Law School’s Law and Economics Center, in cooperation with the Council on Public Policy (a German think tank) and the Federalist Society, concucted a Transatlantic Law Forum on “The Administrative State and its Law.” Excerpts: Scholars, pundits, politicians, and even Supreme Court Justices have come to lament that the administrative state—ill suited to the country’s constitutional culture in any event—appears increasingly beyond effective political and judicial control. Among the proposed remedies, perplexingly, is a quintessentially “European” product: bureaucratic legalism, either through more specific legislation or more aggressive judicial controls (or both). All the while,…