Thursday, January 17, 2008

"The Constitution Does Not Prohibit Legislatures From Enacting Stupid Laws"

Thus spake Justice Stevens, concurring in yesterday's decision in New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres, attributing the sentiment to Thurgood Marshall. The occasion for this remark was the upholding of New York's system of selecting nominees for judicial election by party convention (pejoratively, "smoke-filled rooms," although not in NYC, where the smoke would be prohibited) rather than by primary. In rejecting the 2nd Circuit's approach, which found a right to a "fair shot" of a candidate for judicial office to get on the ballot, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court (which Justice Stevens joined) invoked the usual sorts of arguments one sees when a court says that the Constitution does not forbid all practices that could be questioned on policy grounds.

Here I'll limit myself to two observations: (1) It's striking that just about nothing in Justice Scalia's opinion turns on the fact that this is an election for a judgeship. One might think that the stakes are different, and that the public has a greater claim to participation, in an election for a legislative or executive office, but as I read the majority opinion, it would apply equally to the elimination of party primaries in candidate selection for other sorts of offices as well. In a concurrence in the judgment, Justice Kennedy (joined on this point by Justice Breyer) does suggest that the special nature of judicial elections should factor into the analysis, but he reaches the same conclusion as the Court (mostly because he thinks that the alternative means for a candidate getting on the ballot are adequate).

(2) Justice Stevens is on something of a "stupid laws" kick. He said more or less the same thing in his majority opinion in Kelo v. New London, practically inviting state legislatures to disavow the use of eminent domain for private development. And in the concluding paragraph of his opinion for the Court in Gonzales v. Raich (rejecting a Commerce Clause challenge to the failure of federal drug laws to exempt medical marijuana), Justice Stevens practically urged "the democratic process" to change the law. These observations are certainly fair enough, but it's not clear what audience they're intended to reach. Anybody who follows the Court's work at all understands that a judicial decision to uphold a law is not necessarily an endorsement of the law's policy; and people who don't follow the Court's work are unlikely to learn of these nuances. As evidence for the latter proposition, we need look no further than to the furor that Kelo caused, notwithstanding the disclaimer. (If you're someone who thinks Kelo was wrongly decided AND who understood the nuance, that's fine; this is a point about public opinion in general.)

Posted by Mike Dorf

13 comments:

egarber said...

I've always wondered why the Raich argument was a commerce clause challenge rather than one based on medical privacy. If there's a constitutional right to destroy a fetus on reproductive and self preservation grounds, why couldn't one argue that the same zone of privacy includes this kind of victimless medical treatment?

One guess is that the state of CA wouldn't have bought into it (I'm guessing the state was a partner in the suit in some way -- the provisions were part of state law after a referendum), since victory on those grounds would have severely hindered its regulatory power (strict scrutiny tests, etc.).

Maybe we'll see another challenge at some point.

Also, It seems to me that this is a good line of questioning for the presidential candidates. Just because average voters don't care a lick about the commerce clause in the Courts, it's still important for the media to find out what candidates believe as to its reach -- as a barometer for both policy and judicial appointment considerations.And if they blow it like Richardson did when he chose Byron White as his favorite justice, that could be an indication that the candidate doesn't really know or care much about constitutional matters, important information in itself as voters weigh their decisions. .

Opps -- I'm straying off the prof's topic. Sorry.

Sobek said...

"Anybody who follows the Court's work at all understands that a judicial decision to uphold a law is not necessarily an endorsement of the law's policy..."

True, but there is a world of difference between "the Court doesn't necessarily endorse this" and "the Court really thinks this is a bad law."

Incidentally, I agree with Stevens completely that a dumb law is not necessarily an unconstitutional law. And yet that tends to be the basis for a lot of the Court's reasoning. For example, in last year's FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, challenging an application of McCain-Feingold, the dissent focused primarily on the argument of how evil corporate advertising is, with the unstated assumption that if it's bad, it must be unconstitutional. Yet that unstated and unsupported assumption is a necessary step in the argument.

Heem's World said...

This is a very interesting post Prof. Dorf. Please visit our blog, Gavel Grab from the Justice at Stake campaign, to check on the post we made regarding this topic.

Here is the post:
http://www.gavelgrab.org/?p=116

also visit our site, www.justiceatstake.org

Sobek said...

To expand on my previous comment, if you accept Stevens' dictum at face value, then I think you have to accept originalism. A "living, breathing" approach is inherently grounded in whatever a lawyer and five out of nine justices think is a good idea.

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