What prompts a man to change his mind on a serious matter after 35 years, and should the reversal be met with pride (for eventually getting it right), or chagrin (for taking so long)? For reasons of vanity, I’m going to take a positive tack and choose the former.
“Wisdom,” Felix Frankfurter once remarked, “too often never comes, so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Allow me to explain.
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.
George Will has enjoyed a long career as a public intellectual, an especially illustrious one for a Right-of-center figure. For over four decades, Will’s commentary has appeared in intellectual magazines and newspapers including National Review, the Washington Post, and Newsweek. He has many books to his name as well as a widely syndicated newspaper column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. A Ph.D. from Princeton, he’s also a familiar talking head on television, often sporting a bow tie and playing the role of the sober, erudite Washington insider.
Those four decades have been a tumultuous period in our political culture; it would not be surprising if Will’s political views had evolved over that time, and indeed they have. His 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, was a full-throated paean to strong-government Tory conservatism, in the Burkean tradition. He has lately been tacking in the libertarian direction.
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:
Professor Mark Tushnet is nothing if not candid. In a series of posts written for the Balkinization legal site, Tushnet exhorts his fellow Progressives to look around, recognize that a majority of appellate judges are now Democratic appointees, and abandon “defensive crouch liberalism.” Instead of “looking over their shoulders for retaliation by conservatives,” Tushnet proposes (among other things) that Progressives compile lists of Supreme Court cases “to be overruled at the first opportunity” on the grounds that they were “wrong the day they were decided,” and take a “hard-line approach” with conservatives in the culture wars.
Over at Balkinization, Mark Graber recently had a post entitled “Justice Scalia’s Orwellian Jurisprudence,” which claimed that Scalia paraded as an advocate of judicial restraint, but was actually an activist. Graber also claims that Scalia said he was an originalist, but ignored originalist history.
While Graber’s post has some legitimate criticisms of Scalia, which I will discuss in a moment, it is sadly marred by his claim about Scalia advocating judicial restraint. I am not aware of Scalia claiming to favor judicial restraint. Despite saying that Scalia advocated such restraint, Graber does not provide any specific evidence that Scalia actually defended this position. (If anyone has such evidence, I would be genuinely interested in seeing it.) In his Matter of Interpretation, Scalia says:
Textualism should not be confused with so called strict constructionism, a degraded form of textualism that brings the whole philosophy into disrespute. I am not a strict constructionist, and no ought to be – though better that than a nontextualist. A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means.
Thus, I do not think Scalia advocates judicial restraint. And unless he has some other evidence, I believe Graber should retract his charge.
Randy Barnett and Ed Whelan have revived the supremacy debate in the wake of the Chief Justice’s opinions in King and Obergefell, with Barnett arguing most recently that judges should be guided by the “constraint” of the text rather than “deference,” both of which he classifies as forms of restraint. Much commends that notion, and the distinction is analytically useful. But in the course of embracing a particular strain of originalism, it finds itself in tension with the original understanding of the judges’ role. Barnett’s standard for judicial nominees is a “proven record of willingness to be constrained by the original…
James Bradley Thayer’s article on judicial review is one of the most renowned pieces of scholarship in American constitutional law. It is famous for the “clear mistake doctrine”—his notion that legislation should be struck down only if it violated what any rational person would believe the Constitution to mean. “Clear mistake” thus embodies very strong judicial restraint. My article, The Duty of Clarity, shows why “clear mistake” is itself clearly mistaken.
Thayer’s strongest originalist support for the doctrine comes from the many cases around the time of the Framing that state that judges should invalidate legislation only when it is in clear or “manifest contradiction” with the Constitution. But Thayer misunderstands these cases because his own premises about law are so different from those of the Framers. He quotes the words of law without understanding the accompanying jurisprudential music.
First, unlike those in the Framing generation, Thayer believes that constitutional law serves a political function that differs fundamentally from other applications of law.