By Lino Graglia
Published Tuesday, May 24, 2005, in The Wall Street Journal.
Reprinted with the author's permission and permission of The Wall Street Journal. Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
The battles in Congress over the appointment of even lower court federal judges reveal a recognition that federal judges are now, to a large extent, our real lawmakers. Proposals to amend the Constitution to remove lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, or to require that rulings of unconstitutionality be by more than a majority (5-4) vote, do not address the source of the problem. The Constitution is very difficult to amend -- probably the most difficult of any supposedly democratic government. If opponents of rule by judges secure the political power to obtain an amendment, it should be one that addresses the problem at its source, which is that contemporary constitutional law has very little to do with the Constitution.
Judge-made constitutional law is the product of judicial review -- the power of judges to disallow policy choices made by other officials of government, supposedly on the ground that they are prohibited by the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson warned that judges, always eager to expand their own jurisdiction, would "twist and shape" the Constitution "as an artist shapes a ball of wax." This is exactly what has happened.
The Constitution is a very short document, easily printed on a dozen pages. The Framers wisely meant to preclude very few policy choices that legislators, at least as committed to American principles of government as judges, would have occasion to make.
The essential irrelevance of the Constitution to contemporary constitutional law should be clear enough from the fact that the great majority of Supreme Court rulings of unconstitutionality involve state, not federal, law; and nearly all of them purport to be based on a single constitutional provision, the 14th Amendment -- in fact, on only four words in one sentence of the Amendment, "due process" and "equal protection." The 14th Amendment has to a large extent become a second constitution, replacing the original.
It does not require jurisprudential sophistication to realize that the justices do not decide controversial issues of social policy by studying those four words. No question of interpretation is involved in any of the Court's controversial constitutional rulings, because there is nothing to interpret. The states did not lose the power to regulate abortion in 1973 in Roe v. Wade because Justice Harry Blackmun discovered in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, the purported basis of the decision, something no one noticed before.
The problem is that the Supreme Court justices have made the due process and equal protection clauses empty vessels into which they can pour any meaning. This converts the clauses into simple transferences of policy-making power from elected legislators to the justices, authorizing a Court majority to remove any policy issue from the ordinary political process and assign it to themselves for decision. This fundamentally changes the system of government created by the Constitution.
The basic principles of the Constitution are representative democracy, federalism and the separation of powers, which places all lawmaking power in an elected legislature with the judiciary merely applying the law to individual cases. Undemocratic and centralized lawmaking by the judiciary is the antithesis of the constitutional system.
The only justification for permitting judges to invalidate a policy choice made in the ordinary political process is that the choice is clearly prohibited by the Constitution -- "clearly," because in a democracy the judgment of elected legislators should prevail in cases of doubt. Judicially enforced constitutionalism raises the issue, as Jefferson also pointed out, of rule of the living by the dead. But our problem is not constitutionalism but judicial activism -- the invalidation by judges of policy choices not clearly (and rarely even arguably) prohibited by the Constitution. We are being ruled not by the dead but by judges all too much alive.
Because most of the Supreme Court's activist rulings of unconstitutionality purport to be based on a 14th Amendment that it has deprived of specific meaning, the problem can be very largely solved by simply restoring the 14th Amendment to its original meaning, or by giving it any specific meaning. The 14th Amendment was written after the Civil War to provide a national guarantee of basic civil rights to blacks. If a constitutional amendment could be adopted reconfining the 14th Amendment to that purpose or, better still, expanding it to a general prohibition of all official racial discrimination, the Court's free-hand remaking of domestic social policy for the nation would largely come to an end. If the justices lost the ability to invalidate state law on the basis of their political preferences, their ability and willingness to invalidate federal law on this basis would likely also diminish.
Plato argued for government by philosopher-kings, but who could argue for a system of government by lawyer-kings? No one can argue openly that leaving the final decision on issues of basic social policy to majority vote of nine lawyers -- unelected and life-tenured, making policy decisions for the nation as a whole from Washington, D.C. -- is an improvement on the democratic federalist system created by the Constitution. Yet that is the form of government we now have.
The claim that the Court's rulings of unconstitutionality are mandates of the Constitution, or anything more than policy preferences of a majority of the justices, is false. Rule by judges is in violation, not enforcement, of the Constitution. Ending it requires nothing more complex than insistence that the Court's rulings of unconstitutionality should be based on the Constitution -- which assigns "All legislative Power" to Congress -- in fact as well as name.
Mr. Graglia is the A. Dalton Cross Professor of Law, University of Texas. This is adapted from "'A Country I Do Not Recognize': The Legal Assault on American Values" (Robert Bork, editor), to be published this fall by the Hoover Institution.
Professor Lino Graglia's Web Page: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/graglia/