Sunday, July 1, 2012

John Roberts and The Case of Dred Scott v. Madison

Last March, I wrote a post about the Court's consideration of the health care law. My point then was that it was possible for a judicial victory to turn into a political defeat. That could still be the case, if the Court's ruling upholding it motivates the conservative base that is so viscerally opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Already, in an echo of the reaction to the Brown v. Board decision, some in the blogosphere are calling for the impeachment of Chief Justice John Roberts.

My major concern in the original post was that the Court's conservative wing would overreach, much like Roger Taney did in the Dred Scott decision in 1857. The temptation had to be great. The conservative movement is nearly unanimous in its rejection of the act, and even the so-called "moderate" swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy, was prepared to throw out the entire law.

It seems, however, that John Roberts was sensitive to that danger. Certainly he could have sided with the four conservative justices in this case. But he didn't. Why?

My good friend Bill Carleton wrote the following in a comment to my original post:
What you say reminds me of a CSPAN documentary I just saw about the workings of the Supreme Court. The current Chief Justice, John Roberts, is heard in a voice over, as the camera pans the portraits of prior Chief Justices, remember the lesson of Taney - don't be THAT man.
It would seem that Roberts thought exactly that. Taney's overtly political decision tarnished the reputation of the Court for years. By avoiding a 5-4 decision in which all 5 votes to overturn the greatest achievement of a Democratic president came from justices appointed by Republican presidents, Roberts may have avoided becoming THAT man.

But as observers on the right and left have noted, he did so in a rather odd way--by effectively agreeing with the dissenters on many of the substantive points, particularly on the matter of the Commerce clause. Some people see this as a stealth attempt by Roberts to set the stage for more significant limitations on the power of Congress in the future.

George Will, for example, argues: "Conservatives won a substantial victory" in the case. Since reformers have used the Commerce clause to expand government power since the New Deal, the argument goes, Roberts has served the larger cause by putting limits on the use of the Commerce clause, which Will, of course, thinks is all to the good.

Pamela S. Karlan, writing in the New York Times, sees the same thing but from the opposite political perspective. Karlan fears that Roberts "laid down a cache of weapons that future courts can use to attack many of the legislative achievements of the New Deal and Great Society."

In short, the argument is that in exchange for allowing this law to stand (barring a political decision by a future president and Congress to repeal it), Roberts has established the ground work for a revolution in constitutional law that might limit significantly the power of Congress under the Commerce clause.

If this is indeed Roberts' game, then instead of pulling a Dred Scott, he decided to pull a Marbury v. Madison. In the latter, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled against the short-term interests of his political party, the Federalists. As Gordon Wood puts it in Empire of Liberty, Marshall's early tenure as Chief Justice showed "his strategy of retrenchment and conciliation and his genius for compromise while at the same time asserting the authority of the Court."

Federalists lost the bitter presidential election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, but in the lame-duck session of Congress between the election and Jefferson's inauguration, the now-repudiated Federalist majority passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which outgoing President John Adams signed into law only weeks before he was to leave office. The law was a rather overt power grab--it created new circuit courts, and Adams immediately appointed Federalist judges to them. It was meant to preserve Federalist power in the judicial branch after the party had lost the Congress and the Presidency. In 1802, Jefferson's Republicans repealed the 1801 act.

In the meantime, one of the last-minute judges appointed by Adams, William Marbury, sued to receive his commission, which the new Republican administration had refused to deliver. Marshall was under a great deal of pressure. Federalists wanted him to rule that the Republican repeal of the 1801 act had been unconstitutional. Republicans warned that a blatantly political ruling by a Federalist judge would reveal the partisan nature of the Supreme Court and require Congressional action to rein it in.

Chief Justice John Marshall
Marshall's decision brilliantly solved his problem. He ruled that Marbury had a right to the commission, and that the Jefferson administration had no right to deny it to him.

So, Jefferson lost, right? Not really. Marshall also ruled that Marbury had based his petition for relief to the Court on a provision of the 1789 Judiciary Act, and that provision, Marshall said, was unconstitutional. Thus the Court had no power to order that Jefferson's Secretary of State, James Madison, deliver the commission.

So, Jefferson won, right? Not really. He thought the idea of judicial review was undemocratic, and said that if the Courts alone had the power to rule on constitutionality of laws, it "would make the judiciary a despotic branch." But since he had "won" the case on those grounds, Jefferson was put in the position of accepting--at least indirectly-- the validity of judicial review.

In the short run, Marshall gave the administration a political victory. In the long run, he established the precedent of judicial review, which is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but is the greatest power the Court has. But not challenging the Jefferson administration directly, Marshall maintained the reputation of the Court and enhanced its power.

The parallels to what Roberts did last week are obvious. He too resisted the pressure of the political party that nominated him to the Court. He too handed that party a short-run defeat. He too (at least somewhat) rehabilitated the Court's reputation.

Whether or not he has also set the stage for a conservative judicial revolution, such as Will hopes for and Karlan fears, depends entirely on future Courts and future decisions.

But Roberts does seem to have decided--at least for now--that he'd rather be Marshall than Taney. We should all be grateful for that. But for George Will's hopes and Pamela Karlan's fears to be borne out, Roberts would have to some day pick up those judicial "weapons" and use them against the New Deal and Great Society.

For the record, though John Marshall effectively created the Court's power of judicial review, he served on the Court for more than 30 years after Marbury v. Madison and never used it to invalidate another law passed by the United States Congress. In fact, no Court used it for that purpose until 1857, when Roger Taney used it in the Dred Scott decision. Hopefully, John Roberts will remember that, too.

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