The puzzle is why judges review the constitutionality of (some) laws deferentially. Last week I considered one of the most often provided reasons for deference, that the judges are “unelected,” and so, in a republican political system, should be careful when striking down the enactments of popularly elected legislators. Yet in the American constitutional system, national-level courts are fully republican institutions. They are immunized from direct electoral supervision to make them and the system more republican, not less republican. They are selected by the people’s representatives, and serve only during “good behavior.” This makes courts republican institutions according to the “rigid definition” that James Madison provides in Federalist No. 39. So, too, at the state level, many judges are elected directly, or at least undergo retention elections. It’s hard to maintain at either the state or national level that the judiciary is a non-republican branch of government.
The latest nominations of ten fine lower court judges makes clear that President Trump is the best President for judicial selection since at least Ronald Reagan, particularly in his willingness to nominate conservative legal academics likely to have extraordinary influence. He has certainly been aided by having a Republican Senate, and by relying on the network of the Federalist Society, but the nominations are his own.
And they will receive almost universal approbation among conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians. That includes those who supported Trump and those who were Never-Trumpers, although it is somewhat embarrassing for those Never Trumpers who said the candidate could not be trusted to select good judges or even to choose justices from the list he announced. As I said before the election, precisely because of his other heterodox stances, Trump would follow through on his unifying judicial commitments.
Appointing judges whose ideal is to enforce the Constitution as written unites almost all strands of the political right. For traditional conservatives, the Constitution represents an anchor against too rapid change. For libertarians, the Constitution contains valuable limitations on government power and protections of rights. For both, originalism protects the rule of law against the latest social engineering fads of the left.
But one might wonder whether this union will survive the increasingly fierce debate between judicial engagement and judicial restraint among constitutional theorists on the right..
As the confirmation battle over 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch—Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat—takes shape on cable news shows and across newspaper opinion pages, phrases like “judicial restraint” and “judicial activism” dominate much of the discussion.
While anyone you ask will agree that restraint is good and activism bad, and that judges should be careful not to usurp lawmaking authority from the people’s duly elected representatives, it’s often difficult to figure out exactly what people mean when they give their opinion on this subject. All too often, calls for judicial restraint or deference are not about dispassionately applying the law and leaving the policy decisions to Congress; they are calls for blind rubber-stamping of governmental action.
Quite a few conservatives, beginning maybe with George Will, are saying that the victory of Trump would be the end of conservatism. Others, maybe beginning with Damon Linker, are saying that the nomination of Trump signaled the end of conservatism. There are many ways of evaluating such claims. Here’s one.
Americans are united in professing respect for the Constitution, but they are deeply divided over what it actually means and how it ought to be interpreted. These disagreements have roiled our public life for decades. Everybody who follows politics knows about the clashes between the liberal proponents of judicial activism and the conservative defenders of judicial deference. These arguments go on and on, with neither side succeeding in persuading the other of the superior merits of its theory. Faced with this ongoing deadlock, we wonder if there is any way to achieve unity on the meaning of the Constitution.
In a recent post on Law and Liberty, Mark Pulliam lambasted the idea of a more “rigorous standard of judicial review, across the board, when laws are challenged” called “judicial engagement.” He claims that those of us who advocate judicial engagement presume that judges are untainted by bias or personal predilections whereas they “are just government officials who wear robes, no different (and certainly no more noble or wise) than any other functionary of the state.”
Judicial engagement does not make any such presumption. Judges are no different from any other people. But the office of a judge is different. A judge has different incentives than a legislator because of the nature of his or her office, which renders him or her less vulnerable to manipulation by interest groups or political pressure.
We have seen many examples of an “engaged judiciary” at the state court level, and it isn’t always pretty.
Greg Weiner and Evan Bernick have been conducting an interesting debate in this blog about the virtues of judicial restraint and judicial engagement. Rather than directly confront either position, I would like to raise a methodological point. Doesn’t judicial restraint or judicial engagement need to be rooted in the meaning of the Constitution? In other words, judges’ approach to constitutional interpretation should not be based on policy arguments about how judges should behave but on the original meaning of Constitution itself, just as our interpretation of specific provisions should be fixed by original meaning.
Let me be a little more specific:
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?