Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Delicious Thoughts about Federalism

A recent post by publius at Legal Fiction (a regressive blog) includes these tidbits (with my comments in brackets):

...From the New Deal on, the courts allowed the legislature to have the final say-so on whether a given law was related to interstate commerce. Maybe the legislature was right, maybe it was wrong – but it was the final arbiter. In the 1990s, the Rehnquist Court (for the first time in over half a century) [unthinkable!] found that a congressionally enacted law did not relate to interstate commerce and was therefore unconstitutional. [Imagine that!] The Court ruled that the law was outside the Article I enumerated powers in a case called Lopez and later in a case called Morrison....

But here’s what was really going on. Lopez and Morrison were less about enumerated powers and more about increasing the power of the judiciary.... [Actually it was about exercising the judiciary's constitutional power. See below.]

So here’s what’s coming – and this will be the “first front” against the New Deal’s legislatively-enacted regulatory state. [That's an almost-accurate description, but don't forget the judiciary's acquiescence.] If Republicans keep appointing judges, the number of laws found to be outside of the commerce power and Article I will grow. [One hopes.] In the beginning, they will be politically appealing decisions such as striking down federal laws banning medicinal marijuana. [You wish!] But with the principle firmly established, the courts will move on to bigger game. Though I doubt any of them will have the guts [a Republicans-are-racist slur] to declare the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional (it was enacted under the commerce power), they could very well strike down the entire environmental regulatory regime. Jeffrey Rosen (via Kevin Drum) recently wrote an excellent article that outlined just how much the administrative state could be threatened.

In short, the greatest danger from a Bush Court is not the overruling of Roe v. Wade but the overruling of the post-New Deal regulatory state.

That’s 100% correct. Rosen also makes the astute observation that, just like in the political sphere, conservatives scream about social issues like abortion to distract Americans from the economic consequences of approving Republican judges. But Rosen misses an essential point. Things like the EPA and the Endangered Species Act and anti-discrimination laws and workplace protections were all legislatively approved by democratic majorities. [So what, if they aren't constitutional.] Conservatives cannot get a political majority to overturn the Clean Air Act, so they’re systematically stocking the judiciary with judges who will. It’s exactly what Bork was talking about, except that the judges are thwarting the political process in the economic and regulatory arena as opposed to the social arena. You can see how it works – Lopez and Morrison shift the power to the judiciary to be the final arbiters. [No, the Constitution does that.] Once that principle is established, GOP judges will start using that power to strike down the regulatory state. [Right on!]

So that’s the first front of the battle-to-come. The second front is a revival of Lochner. This is less likely, but as I explained earlier this week, Lochner revivals are stirring. For non-lawyers, just remember what I said yesterday. The Constitution is an obstacle course of sorts. If a law gets through the Article I obstacles, it must then not violate any other part of the Constitution. What a new Lochner would do would be to establish a new obstacle in the form of a “right to economic freedom” that could not be unreasonably infringed upon.

Here’s how this would work. Currently, if you argue that a given law violates your economic freedom (or economic due process rights or equal protection rights), it is reviewed under a “rational basis” test. That’s legalese for “anything goes.” The big point here is that, since the New Deal, courts have decided that the legislature (and not judges) should have the final say-so on the wisdom of an economic law or regulation. [As if the New Deal supplanted the Constitution.]

A new Lochner (or even a new watered-down version of Lochner) would increase the “scrutiny” applied to economic regulations. [Actually, Lochner is bad law; the same result can and should be achieved through the contracts clause, as explained here.] More regulations would be struck down on the grounds that they infringe upon people’s economic freedoms. [True.] But the big point, once again, is that such a move would shift power from the legislature to the judiciary. Judges, and not legislatures, would be the final arbiter of what economic laws are acceptable.... [True, and proper, according to the Constitution.]

If this happened, judges would be thwarting the [unconstitutional] will of the democratic majorities in order to enact their own minority political preferences [actually, their preference for constitutional laws].

If this is all too confusing, here’s the big point. Much of the conservative judiciary has adopted a judicial philosophy that is strikingly anti-democratic [read, anti-socialist and pro-constitutional] in the economic sphere. This philosophy – if enacted – would shift the power to judge economic regulations from the legislature to the judiciary....[What a novel concept: The power to judge would reside in the judiciary. And it would be the power to judge the legislation that authorizes regulations, as well as the conformity of regulations to legislation.]
Now, publius is clearly antagonistic to the idea of judicial supremacy -- even though, within the confines of the three branches of the federal government, the judiciary is necessarily supreme. (See here, here, here, and here.) Moreover, publius is clearly antagonistic to the idea that the power of Congress should be confined to the powers enumerated in the Constitution -- even though that is plainly what the Framers intended. (See here, here, here, here, and here, for example.)

Given publius's leanings I am especially heartened by his or her forebodings as to the demise of the regulatory state. If a conservative or libertarian were predicting that demise, I would say that he or she was smoking a controlled substance (though it wouldn't bother me). But publius's prediction fills me with hope because it comes from the keyboard of someone who clearly begrudges it.