Controlling the Courts, American-style

Tomorrow (Sunday Nov 11) begins a two-day conference on the Presidency and the Supreme Court to be hosted by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. The program features historians, law professors, journalists and a keynote address by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. I'll be on a panel on Monday with Judge Michael McConnell and Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken, moderated by NPR's Nina Totenberg. We'll be talking about what the organizers of the conference have called The Presidency, the Supreme Court and the "Culture Wars", and part of our discussion will focus on what exactly makes something a "culture war" issue.

For my part, I intend to say (among other things) that whether an issue is part of the culture wars is (rather obviously) subject to change over time. Today's issues include abortion, church-state relations and gay rights, but national politics has picked up and dropped various issues over the course of American history. (Race has been a central issue from the very beginning but there's a separate panel on that topic, so we have been asked to bracket it, to the extent possible.)

It's not entirely clear to me whether we should count economic issues as culture war issues. In some sense, the whole notion of cultural issues arose out of a sense that real national politics focuses, or ought to focus, on the regulation of the economy, but that idea, I think, was itself a product of the victory of the Progressives and New Dealers in the culture wars of the first half of the 20th century. In a real sense, the divisive domestic policy issue in that period was the proper role of the federal government (and government at any level) in regulating the economy. Although the country ultimately rejected a substantial role
(of the sort promoted in the early New Deal by the NIRA) for the federal government in actually planning the economy, the idea that the federal government should, through fiscal and monetary policy, promote economic growth is part of the conventional wisdom of the last 65 years or so. (Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform nicely shows how, by the end of the New Deal, promotion of economic growth had become just about the only uncontroversial task of the federal government.)

Here I want to note how little the rhetoric used by Presidents to criticize the courts has changed. In his Fireside Chat of March 9, 1937, President Roosevelt offered the following as a justification for his Court-packing plan:
The Court in addition to the proper use of its judicial functions has improperly set itself up as a third house of the Congress - a super-legislature, as one of the justices has called it - reading into the Constitution words and implications which are not there, and which were never intended to be there. . . . I want - as all Americans want - an independent judiciary as proposed by the framers of the Constitution. That means a Supreme Court that will enforce the Constitution as written, that will refuse to amend the Constitution by the arbitrary exercise of judicial power - in other words by judicial say-so. It does not mean a judiciary so independent that it can deny the existence of facts which are universally recognized.
Although FDR's Court-packing plan failed, as a rationale for appointing like-minded Justices when an opening became available, he essentially followed the script that has, since the political valence of the charge of "judicial activism" flipped during the Warren Court, been followed by Republican Presidents beginning with Nixon.

Posted by Mike Dorf