Trump, Clinton, and the Supreme Court

There are many reasons for classical liberals to oppose Donald Trump in the general election, but Supreme Court appointments are not now one of them. We can hardly be confident that his appointments will make America great, but we can be pretty confident that Hillary Clinton’s will end the current project of making the Supreme Court a court of law rather than a dynamo of Progressive politics.

After Donald Trump’s announcement of eleven judges whom he would consider appointing to the Scalia vacancy, many libertarian and conservatives commentators still doubted that Supreme Court appointments were a good reason to support Trump in the general election. They conceded that that those on his list were generally excellent candidates, but suggested that Trump could not be trusted to appoint people like them.

And they certainly have a point: on many issues Trump points in no direction more consistently than a weathervane. Moreover, he has supported a variety of legal causes, like property condemnation on behalf of private development, that would not likely fare well with the kind of justices he has promised to appoint.

Nevertheless, I believe there is a substantial probability, even a likelihood that Trump would follow through on his judicial promises.

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Michael McConnell on the Ninth Amendment

One of the puzzles in constitutional law has been the original meaning of the Ninth Amendment. Some years ago, during his unsuccessful confirmation hearings, Judge Robert Bork analogized our lack of understanding of the Amendment to the situation where the language of a constitutional provision was obscured by an inkblot. He argued that since we don’t understand the provision, we are in no better position to enforce it than if an ink blot covered it.

Over the years, various explanations have been offered for the amendment. Some have argued that it protects enumerated natural rights to the same extent as the enumerated constitutional rights.  Others have interpreted it to have a much less significant role.

In my view, the best interpretation of the Amendment is supplied by Michael McConnell in a relatively recent law review article. At the beginning of my scholarly career, I had come upon the same idea, but was persuaded not to write it up. My mistake, although I don’t think I would have done as good a job as McConnell does.

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Corpus Linguistics and the Misuse of Dictionaries

Recently, I attended an interesting conference on Corpus Linguistics and the Law.  Corpus Linguistics “is the study of language based on large collections of ‘real life’ language use stored in corpora (or corpuses) – computerized databases created for linguistic research.”  Much of the conference focused on how this method could be used to engage in originalist research. At present, originalism often uses dictionaries to determine the meaning of words at the time of the Constitution’s enactment.  But there are significant limits to dictionaries.  The promise of corpus linguistics is to use very powerful software to examine actual usage of words from…

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The Framers/Justices Conflation

Recently, Justice Stevens gave a speech about Justice Scalia. At the end, Stevens relies upon an argument from historian Joseph Ellis that both Stevens and Ellis believe suggests that Thomas Jefferson was not an originalist. But as Ed Whelan points out, this is a misinterpretation. Jefferson writes: Let us [not] weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Let us, as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and…

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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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Strategy and Originalism

Over at the Liberty Law  Forum, Stephen Smith has an essay entitled Saving Originalism from Originalists.  Smith’s article raises an extremely important issue: How do originalists cause the Supreme Court Justices to follow the original meaning of the Constitution?  This is a difficult question.  Smith powerfully argues that a strategic perspective is a useful way of thinking about the problem.  Relying on this perspective, Smith argues for what he calls a strategic originalism.  I respond to Smith’s argument here. I have also thought about strategic considerations.  I discuss one strategy for promoting originalism in my response to Smith: Perhaps the biggest obstacle…

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Justice Thomas: Mr. Republican

(Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Once again Justice Clarence Thomas has given originalist jurisprudence its most robust defense through his revival of an obscure part of the U.S. Constitution.

In 2010, in McDonald v. Chicago, he had protected the right to individual gun ownership by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause. Now he has concurred in the decision in Evenwel v. Abbott (2016), which unanimously affirms the state of Texas’ use of population (rather than being required to use eligible voters) as the basis for devising electoral districts.

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Is Libertarianism the Law? Part II: Using the Modalities to Support Libertarian Results

In this and my previous post, I argue that the constraints imposed by several liberal positivist theories do not operate to place significant limits on Supreme Court decisions.  Thus, the suggestion of these theorists that the law requires judges to take actions turns out to be largely illusory.  While the law under these theories does place some limits on the justices, those limits are relevatively weak.  To make this argument, I attempt to show how these theories (or at least one of them in this post) would allow a libertarian Supreme Court justice to reach significantly libertarian results.  Since these theorists argue that these theories allow liberal results, it seems clear that the constraints they impose are not substantial.

In my previous post, I briefly described Dick Fallon’s Constructivists Coherence Theory of constitutional law, which requires the justices to decide cases based on five types of constitutional arguments: text, intent, theory, precedent, and values.  Here I will show how a libertarian could use these arguments to reach libertarian results.

Let me start with the text.  While the text might seem like a significant constraint, Fallon’s theory renders it much less substantial because he allows the interpreter to rely on either the original or the contemporary meaning.  Based on either the original or contemporary meaning, the text of the Takings Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Contracts Clause, the Ninth Amendment, and the Due Process Clause could strongly support libertarian results.  (Other clauses might also be important, such as a First Amendment protection of commercial speech.)        

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Garland’s “Centrism” Is No Reason for Confirmation

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, has been touted as a centrist on the court of appeals. Whatever reasons there are to confirm him, that should not be one of them.

First, the centrism of a lower court judge is likely an illusion. He is bound by Supreme Court precedent and thus has limited ability to change the status quo. Thus, he tends to be centrist simply by virtue of his position. To be sure, there are some lawless circuit judges, who do not make a good faith effort to follow Supreme Court precedent, but they are relatively few. And none of these could be serious candidates for the Supreme Court, where a record of reversal and obvious disobedience would be seized on by the opposition.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was pretty faithful in applying precedents when she, like Garland, was on the D.C. circuit. And she too was praised as centrist. But on the Supreme Court she has led the left on the Court. Some of her rulings and views are in fact outlandish, if not Orwellian.

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Scalia with Reagan: An Iconic, but Fading, Photo

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Many obituaries of Antonin Scalia were accompanied by a picture of the justice and Ronald Reagan standing together on the day of his nomination. And that photograph perfectly captures Scalia’s importance to the American polity. Scalia changed our jurisprudence as much as Reagan changed our politics.

In an essay at City Journal I explore some of the deep connections between these two iconic figures of the conservative movement:

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