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“The Supreme Court Fight Is About Democracy”: Conservatives Want To Bring Back Pre-New Deal Jurisprudence

There’s a reason beyond garden-variety partisanship that Senate Republicans resist even holding hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Their gambit evades a full and open debate over the conservative judicial agenda, which is to use the high court in an aggressive and political way to reverse decades of progressive legislation.

The central irony here: The very conservatives who use “judicial activism” as a battering ram against liberals are now the aggressive judicial activists. It’s precisely because Garland’s record reveals him to be a devout practitioner of judicial restraint that an intellectually frank dialogue over his nomination would be so dangerous to the right. It would expose the radicalism of their jurisprudence.

Some conservatives are quite open about this, and few have been more candid than George F. Will, my Post colleague. To begin with, he deserves credit for making clear in his most recent column that Garland really is a stout advocate of judicial “deference” and for pointing out the absurdity of the Republicans’ refusal to take up his nomination. And in the past, Will has been unusually direct in defining the stakes in our battles over the role of the courts.

In a 2014 column aptly headlined “Judicial activism isn’t a bad thing,” he wrote: “Conservatives clamoring for judicial restraint, meaning deference to legislatures, are waving a banner unfurled a century ago by progressives eager to emancipate government, freeing it to pursue whatever collective endeavors it fancies, sacrificing individual rights to a spurious majoritarian ethic.”

Will’s attack on “a spurious majoritarian ethic,” of course, is another way of criticizing the workings of democracy. Where does this lead?

It leads to the Citizens United decision (which Will supports as emphatically as I oppose it) that overthrew decades of precedent and a century of practice involving limits on the power of big money in politics; to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act; and to the scrapping of all manner of legislation aimed at protecting workers’ rights, the environment and consumers. Historically, it’s an approach that, more often than not, leans toward employers over employees, creditors over debtors, property owners over less affluent citizens, and corporations over individuals.

We know what this approach looks like because it’s the one the court pursued for decades before the New Deal. It is this pre-New Deal jurisprudence that conservatives want to bring back. Some conservatives have talked openly about the “Constitution in Exile,” referring to the way our founding document was once read to overturn many New Deal and Progressive Era laws. Starting in the late 1930s, the court moved to a different approach that gave Congress broad latitude to legislate on matters related to social justice and economics and saw its task as intervening primarily on behalf of individual rights.

Will’s outright embrace of “judicial activism” has brought him some critics on the right. One of them is Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a leading defender of the Senate Republicans’ current strategy. “Most contemporary conservative proponents of judicial restraint,” Whelan has written, “are also proponents of originalism and see judicial restraint merely as supplementing originalist methodology when that methodology fails to yield a sufficiently clear answer to a constitutional question.”

Whelan added that his approach would, like Will’s, allow judges to “enforce the rights, and limits on power, that the Constitution, fairly construed, sets forth.” But it would also “prevent judges from inventing rights and powers that are not in the Constitution.”

Here’s my translation of Whelan: He’s instructing Will to notice how originalism — the conservative theory that insists we can apply the original meaning of the Constitution’s words and the Founders’ intentions with some ease — leaves judges with plenty of power to toss out progressive laws. At the same time, it gives conservatives grounds to oppose liberals on such issues as abortion and gay marriage.

I’ll stipulate that there are some legitimate conservative arguments against liberals on their own forms of social-issue activism. But I’d insist that we will understand this court battle better if we pay attention to Will’s straightforward language: Through originalism and other doctrines, conservatives have embraced an astonishingly aggressive approach to judging. It allows them to reach outcomes through the courts that they cannot achieve through the democratic process.

At heart, this is a debate over how we define democracy. It’s also a struggle over whether government will be able to serve as a countervailing force to concentrated economic power.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 20, 2016

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Senate Republicans | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Unprecedented ‘Precedent'”: What Kind Of Dictator Must Obama Be To Oppose 80 Years Of “Standard Practice”?

How can you tell the seemingly unanimous position of the Republican Party that President Barack Obama should not be permitted to select the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s successor is motivated by something other than apolitical concern for the republic? You can start by looking at the ways that their main talking point – that such an election-year nomination hasn’t been confirmed in 80 years – is both factually incorrect and more broadly intellectually dishonest and a novel reinterpretation of “precedent.”

Eighty years has become a truly magical number in the day since Scalia shuffled off this mortal coil. “The fact of the matter is that it’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year,” Republican Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley said. Standard practice! What kind of dictator must Obama be to oppose 80 years of standard practice? “It has been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in the Republican presidential debate Saturday night; “We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz echoed.

Flim-flam and jiggery-pokery.

Just as a factual matter, as has been widely noted, Reagan nominee Anthony Kennedy was (unanimously) confirmed to the court in February 1988 – not only an election year but a year in which Reagan was term-limited and could not run again. So just right off, the talking point is wrong. (Grassley, by the way, broke with his own self-professed “standard practice” and voted to confirm Kennedy.)

But! But! But Kennedy was nominated in 1987, so he doesn’t count, right? When was the last time in history that a president nominated someone for the court in an election year and the Senate confirmed them? That would be Franklin Roosevelt nominating Frank Murphy, then the attorney general, on Jan. 4, 1940, and the Senate confirming him 12 days later. So that was 76 years ago, which is still less than the enchanted “80” benchmark.

So where does the 80-year figure come from? So far as I can tell – through a cursory bit of Googling – it originated with a National Review post from Ed Whelan at 5:32 p.m. yesterday, some minutes after the news of Scalia’s untimely demise started to spread around the country. Points to Whelan for quick research but note how he phrased his item: “It’s been more than 80 years since a Supreme Court justice was confirmed in an election year to a vacancy that arose that year, and there has never been an election-year confirmation that would so dramatically alter the ideological composition of the Court.” He was referring to Benjamin Cardozo, “confirmed in March 1932 to a vacancy that arose in January 1932,” 84 years ago.

Note the rhetorical evolution from Whelan’s careful phrasing (“… in an election year to a vacancy that arose that year”) to the more widely promulgated talking point as expressed by, say, Grassley (“standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during an election year,” period) or Cruz (“80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year”).

Details, details, right? Do they matter? Well, yes, they do. Cruz, Grassley and anyone who repeats the assertion that there’s 80 years of precedent against confirming nominees in an election year is, in fact, wrong.

And the difference is important for a couple of reasons: First, imprecision reflects the questionable logic of the alleged precedent: that Obama’s “lame duck” status – lame duck traditionally means that his successor has been chosen, not that at some point in the future he’ll definitely be out of office – should deprive him and relieve senators of their constitutional duty. How better to justify this notion than by invoking tradition. But this is not a tradition of nonconfirmation in an election year (Kennedy was confirmed) or of presidents not nominating in an election year (Lyndon Johnson nominated Abe Fortas and Homer Thornberry in 1968) or of only confirming in an election year if the nomination came in the previous year (Murphy), but of not confirming in an election year when the vacancy occurred in that year.

That’s a much narrower standard than is being broadly bandied about. But it has to be or else the 80-year “standard practice” becomes less impressive: 76 years, or 48 years or 26 years.

The beauty of 80 years is that it sounds like an awfully big number – saying that the GOP is merely abiding by the “standard practice” of 80 years makes it sound routine, as if this is something that’s come up time and again over eight decades and is a settled matter. But since Cardozo was confirmed this narrowly drawn set of circumstances has arisen … once. Once! One instance in eight decades does not “standard practice” make.

Neither does it make 80 years of precedent. In fact it’s the opposite of precedent: The fact that 84 years ago Cardozo was nominated and confirmed to an opening that arose in an election year is actually precedent for – wait for it – considering an Obama nominee.

So if not respect for venerated precedent, what is going on here? Simple: The GOP neither wants to put another Obama nominee on the court nor allow its ideological balance to tip – especially when there’s a nontrivial chance that a year from now they’ll be able to replace Scalia with someone of like philosophy.

Does anyone think that if Scalia had died in December – before the election year – that the GOP reaction would be at all different? Or that in an alternate reality Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is telling President Mitt Romney that a Supreme Court nomination won’t be considered because he’s in the last year of his term?

The party is putting governing on hold in the name of political calculation. Republicans should own up to it and drop both the “80-year” talking point and the larger pretense of principle.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion, U.S. News & World Report, February 14, 2016

February 17, 2016 Posted by | GOP, Mitch Mc Connell, Republicans, U. S. Supreme Court Nominees | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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