Are our laws producing “identity politics” and the divisions it fosters?
A scientist, or perhaps it was an engineer, once asked the political philosopher Harry Jaffa for a general scientific rule about politics. After reflecting upon the bizarre request, Jaffa came up with the following:
S = 2P, where “S” = solution and “P” = problem. Politics is tragic; there are no final solutions.
In “If Slavery Is Not Wrong, Nothing Is Wrong,” I proposed that the Civil War was fought to restore the original unity of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in 1865, was the culmination of that colorblind restoration. In the antebellum period, opponents of slavery could not specify what would result once slavery was ended. Would free blacks have equal rights? Vote? Intermarry with whites? Thus did Stephen Douglas mock Abraham Lincoln. The post-bellum answer of universal freedom nonetheless preserved much of the antebellum distinction between being anti-slavery and being anti-black. While Black Codes prevailed…
As Richard Reinsch notes, Justice Scalia's dissent in Windsor is a powerful response to Justice Kennedy's majority opinion, which "put the stigma of implicit bigotry around anyone who disagrees with his emancipated individualism." It occurred to me that the Supreme Court has rarely expressed such comprehensive and prominent disdain for whole classes of citizens. True, Justice Kennedy had leveled a similar accusation in Roemer and Lawrence. But the law at issue in Roemer resulted from a discrete act of the people of Colorado, and Lawrence involved a largely unenforced statute. In those cases, the target of his disdain was selective, involving citizens…
The Supreme Court has labored mightily since the fall term, likely revised and re-revised the court opinion in the Fisher v Texas University of Texas racial preferences admissions case, and let loose what at first appears to be a ridiculous mouse. The 7-1 opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, Justices Scalia and Thomas concurring, and Justice Ginsberg dissenting, remands the case to the Fifth Circuit, with the admonition to apply the “strict scrutiny” standard to University practices. This command could be construed, in Texas terms, as a Nolan Ryan brushback. But the batters are wily veterans and are not easily intimidated; after all, they are university professors and masters of their universe. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher didn’t ask for a reversal of the Grutter case, and the Court didn’t make this reversal.
The 59th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education should recall what that great decision did not do—overturn the racial segregation precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Only by revisiting Justice Harlan’s classic dissent would segregation and Jim Crow in the law be finally overcome. Moreover such a Court opinion in Brown would have given civil rights laws a principled dignity and as well promoted an originalist jurisprudence that both protected individual rights and restrained government. This jurisprudence would be based on the Declaration of Independence.
Indeed, the brief for Homer Plessy argued that “The Declaration of Independence … is not a fable as some of our modern theorists would us believe, but the all-embracing formula of personal rights on which our government is based.” It is the “controlling genius of the American people.” And prior to the Plessy setback, as Charles Lofgren shows in his meticulous The Plessy Case (1987), this argument helped win anti-segregation suits at the state level.
Progressive intellectual leaders warred with the U.S. Constitution at the turn of the 19th Century. While conceding that the Constitution was an advance on its alternatives in 1789, Progressives criticized the constitutional system for having too many checks and balances relative to the needs of the modern times of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Bicameralism, judicial review, the powerful congressional committee system, Progressives argued that all of these had the effect of checking good laws as well as bad. Progressive Sen. George Norris of Nebraska frankly argued that the constitutional system resulted in the enactment of too-little legislation relative to public need.
While effective, amending the Constitution proved too difficult in practice to achieve many of the Progressives’ goals. One means to accomplish Progressive legislative goals without the difficulty of constitutional amendment was the Progressive legal argument that judges should reflexively defer to legislation enacted at both the state and the national level.