Between the breathless whispers that Judge Neil Gorsuch intends to impose either medieval Catholicism or, worse, Oxford sensibilities from the bench through the mechanism of natural law and the fear that he might otherwise glide into the legal positivism of which Justice Scalia was unreasonably accused lies another possibility: The Constitution can neither be interpreted through natural law nor reduced to positive law. It is more profitably understood as fundamental law.
The Electoral College has long been the strange uncle of the American Constitutional order—little understood and even less appreciated. But there is a reason that hundreds of amendments have been submitted to change the system and none of them have come even close to passage in more than forty years: it works!
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.
The ongoing debate between libertarian and more traditional constitutionalists is about something more fundamental than what standards of review to apply to which cases. What’s at stake in this disagreement is politics—its very survival, and in what form. Is this institution that is, or at least was, enlivened by argument among citizens to be replaced by a desiccated vision of rational claims adjudicated by courts?
Virtually everything that James MacGregor Burns—who died on Tuesday at the age of 95 and who is rightly being honored as one of the greatest political scientists of his time—wrote about the Constitution was wonderfully provocative, incisively argued and totally wrong. He was perhaps the leading Constitutional critic of his era, a vital service, even if Burns sometimes performed it, as in his critiques of separation of powers, in demonstrable error. He was a Progressive, both a student and an advocate of what he called “transforming leadership” and a critic of institutional mechanisms that inhibited it.
Perhaps best known among students of American political thought for his critique of separation of powers in 1963’s The Deadlock of Democracy, Burns—then frustrated by the Senate’s obstruction of civil rights legislation he thought to have been publicly endorsed in the 1960 presidential election—believed he had caught James Madison in a mistake. That is hard to do, and Burns’ effort, while innovative, stumbled.
The attempt was this: If Madison, as he claimed, solved the problem of the abusive majority in Federalist 10—and this without relying on institutional blocking mechanisms—why did he need the added security of the separation of powers, which, to the extent it was unnecessary, was also gratuitously undemocratic? Fifteen years later, George W. Carey decisively answered that Madison was not trying to solve the problem of an abusive majority through the separation of powers, he was trying to solve the problem of a tyrannical government—something the Founder explicitly stated in Federalist 51 that he regarded to be a different problem.
The Senate occupies a unique place as the fulcrum of the constitutional order. The filibuster does not occupy a unique place as the fulcrum of the Senate. The course the body took Thursday—which limited the use of the device in presidential nominations—will be added to the growing list of precedents to be avenged in due course, but the filibuster should not be inflated to quasi-constitutional status it does not, and probably ought not, enjoy.
I write from the Washington, DC suburbs, now quivering in fear from the violence of the last few weeks, from madmen, our police, and our Redskin-baiting politicians. But a Canadian immigrant (and I don’t mean Mark Steyn) relieves some discontent while producing even more.
In furious rage against the Cruz-sade, this weekend’s New York Times regular op-ed page columnists sputter about President Obama resorting to sinking aircraft carriers; Washington DC Hunger Games workouts led by Paul Ryan; and our sick politics that has produced gerrymandered red-lite districts. But there is an adult in the room, Times writer-at-large and sadly, former Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus, who gets to the heart of the crisis in his op-ed, “The Benefits of Intransigence.”
Recent events in Turkey ought remind us, if we needed reminding, that freedom and parliamentary democracy are not identical, though many people mistake the one for the other. But if by parliamentary democracy we mean merely government legitimated by a majority of the votes every few years, there is no reason why such democracy should not lead to tyranny. Indeed, a democratic tyranny may be among the most insidious, if not necessarily the worst, of tyrannies, for it possesses the simulacrum of a justification for its oppression, namely the will of the majority.
Mike Rappaport raises some tough questions about the conservative case for majority rule and, with it, judicial restraint. But they strike me as fundamentally consequentialist questions converging from two directions: first, the contingent fact that the Supreme Court happens now to lean conservative and thus might be inclined to confine left-leaning majorities, and second, the fact that majority rule does not necessarily produce conservative results. Both propositions are true. But neither refutes my claim that majority rule itself is a conservative principle even if it sometimes produces unconservative results.
I enjoyed Greg Weiner’s post on the Judicial Dilemma of Originalism, which has received some attention. Greg does a strong job of describing the conservative case for judicial restraint (as the competitor to conservative originalism). My problem, however, is that I don’t really understand the conservative case for judicial restraint.
It arises from man’s status as a political animal. It elevates to the status of constitutional principle the conservative’s dispositional distaste for whining, which is not to stigmatize all objections to losing positions as whining. Some objections are legitimate. It is, rather, to say that not all losses before legislatures are to be retried before courts, that part of the price of living in a political community is that one must accommodate oneself to the needs, preferences and tastes of others. One wins some battles but also loses others and one is not entitled simply to stomp off the playground—still less to shutter the playground for others—in the latter case.
Here is the problem. Majority rule – especially majority rule at the national level – is not really a conservative principle, unless it is significantly cabined by other principles. But judicial restraint toward Congress by federal courts will allow Congress largely to do as it pleases.
I understand why conservatives reacting to the Warren and Burger Courts would have favored judicial restraint. At a time before originalism had become popular, judicial restraint was a powerful way of criticizing an activist court based on a theory that made sense in a democracy. But the fact that judicial restraint made sense at a particular time for conservatives does not mean it is a principled or long term approach when it comes to constitutional interpretation.