Category Archives: The Constitution

Governors Are Doing All Kinds Of Things Out There

James L. Rosica at Miami Herald:

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons once their sentences are up.

Sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, they voted 4-0 on Wednesday to change the panel’s rules and require at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

“If you’re convicted … you lost those rights,” Scott said at a news conference later in the day. “There ought to be a process to get those rights back.”

Law enforcement officials and state prosecutors favored the change, saying people who have broken the law need a waiting period to prove themselves.

Civil rights advocates called the new rule a step backward, tantamount to double punishment.

The change is effective immediately and potentially affects anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 felons, experts said.

Now felons will have to wait five years after completing a sentence to apply for rights restoration. This will return Florida to the Jim Crow era, when such hurdles were created to prevent blacks from voting.

Make no mistake: This proposal has racial and partisan implications.

A disproportionate number of Florida’s felons are African American, and in this state, blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic. The Cabinet has further alienated black voters by adopting these more-stringent restoration rules. What purpose does that serve the state or the Republican Party?

In the last decade, more than 20 states have eased the restoration process for people convicted of crimes. Florida should remain in this group of enlightened states. Instead it has gone back a century. It now has joined only two other states — Kentucky and Virginia — in requiring waiting periods and hearings before felons can get their rights restored.

If anything, the Cabinet should have considered more streamlining measures for clemency. The Florida Parole Commission investigates clemency applications, and it has always struggled with huge backlogs. For a time the Corrections Department even loaned some staffers to tackle the backlog.

Clemency application reviews still move at a snail’s pace, delaying justice for felons who have paid their debt to society. The Commission recently told the Legislature that it has a growing backlog of more than 100,000 cases.

Making felons who have served their time wait years to regain their rights has nothing to do with being tough on crime. By embracing this regressive proposal, the governor and Cabinet have sent Florida back to a shameful time of blatant racial prejudice.

Mansfield Frazier at The Daily Beast:

Cleveland State University Urban Studies Associate Professor Ronnie Dunn has written extensively on how, since the advent of the Jim Crow era, unfair laws have been enacted— particularly in Southern states—to deny blacks the right to vote. Writing in a soon-to-be-released handbook on prisoner reentry, he describes how poll taxes, literacy tests, and property ownership were devices routinely used to suppress the black vote and unfairly affect election outcomes.

Florida now joins two other states, Kentucky and Virginia, in having the most severe restrictions on former felons voting and other rights, such as serving on juries and holding certain professional licenses. Five black Florida lawmakers joined a chorus of civil-rights advocates in objecting to the rule changes, saying no evidence existed that the abandoned process, which was approved by former Gov. Charlie Crist and the former cabinet in 2007, was not working.

“It’s really not about what’s right or fair,” said Ken Lumpkin, an attorney and political activist in Cleveland. “This is about stealing elections and hurting an individual’s chances of starting over after prison. If felons had had the franchise in Florida back in 2000, over a million more people would have been eligible to vote, and the election would not have been close enough for the Supreme Court to give it to Bush. What this new governor is doing is rolling back the clock on minority rights. And with Republican governors and legislative majorities in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, no one should be surprised if they try to change the rules in those states also. If that happens, a Democratic candidate for president won’t stand a chance.”

Indeed, incoming Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, among other changes, wants to stop county boards of elections from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters and limit the window of time they have to cast them. Democrats, however, charge that Husted’s proposals are designed to discourage voting, especially in big urban counties.

Ohio State Rep. Michael Stinziano (D-Columbus), the former director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said it would be “bad public policy” to prevent county boards from soliciting and paying postage for absentee ballots. The service, he said, alleviated long lines at polling places (such as those that marred the county’s 2004 presidential election) that caused some elderly voters to walk away without voting.

Back in Florida, state NAACP Vice Chairman Dale Landry said that individuals who have completed their sentences have paid their debt to society in full and should be allowed to vote. “Why do we come back and impose a further penalty?” he asked. “What we’re saying is that… the state wants to impose further sentencing, an additional penalty. That’s exactly what was done here.”

Greta Van Susteren at Fox News on the Daily Beast story above:

This posting is about the HEADLINE (not whether you agree or disagree with the underlying law.  People can differ on whether the law is a good one or not, appropriate or not.)

Headlines are to grab attention — but there is a point when they are simply irresponsible and trying to stir up hate and problems.   I think the headline below “FLORIDA’S RACIST NEW LAW” is exactly that – irresponsible and trying to stir up problems and hate.  The headline DID catch my attention since for many, many, many years prior to TV, I represented a lot of poor African Americans and often in issues involving civil rights.

Upon reading the explosive (I think it explosive) headline, I wanted to know more about “FLORIDA’S RACIST NEW LAW”  — and so I read the article.  I bet many just read the article and stop there — thus left with the impression that Florida is racist (or those who support the law are.)   In actually reading the article, I see that the author writes “[b]ut whether the move was simply tough-on-crime posturing or something more nefarious remains an open question.

You have to dig deep into the article for the “open question” while the RACISM was in bigger, bolder letters in the headline. So what was a PRONOUNCEMENT of FACT in the headline of RACISM (and sure to cause many people to be deeply disturbed) now remains “AN OPEN QUESTION” as to whether the law was a “tough on crime posturing or something more nefarious” (eg racism.)  There is a big difference between being “tough on crime” and being a racist.

Roger Clegg at The Corner:

Florida governor Rick Scott and his cabinet have ended the policy of his predecessor, Charlie Crist, of automatically reenfranchising felons upon their release from prison. The ACLU et al. are outraged, but it’s the right decision: Those who have demonstrated that they won’t follow the law shouldn’t be allowed automatically to make the law for everyone else; rather, they should have that right reinstated only after they’ve shown that they have indeed turned over a new leaf, as I’ve discussed on NRO many times — for example, here. Kudos to Governor Scott.

Alex Massie:

Given the scale of the injustices and barbarism that characterise large parts of the criminal justice system in many, perhaps even most, American states denying former felons the right to vote once they have been returned to society may seem a minor concern. Nevertheless it is a telling one and something that should shame those states that still bar ex-cons from voting.I’d have thought it an obvious principle of natural justice that we take the view that once released a prisoner should be considered a free man or woman. True, there are certain limited caveats to this (sex offender registries being the most glaring) and some jobs may reasonably (or reasonably in many cases) be considered unsuitable for former felons but none of that has any bearing on the question of whether released prisoners should be permitted to vote.

Clegg links to a piece he wrote elaborating upon this view that ex-cons shouldn’t be permitted one of the most fundamental rights we have to grant. But this is all he has to say:

It is frequently asserted that felons released from prison should be able to vote because they have “paid their debt to society.” But the felon-vote movement will, if pressed, admit that they think felons in prison should be allowed to vote, too. And society is not obliged to ignore someone’s criminal record just because he has been released from prison. Felons are barred by federal law from possessing firearms, for example.

Is that it? Apparently so. Ex-cons can’t be permitted to vote because that’s the slippery slope to letting serving inmates vote too. Colour me unpersuaded. This argument, however, leads one to wonder whether it is in fact possible for felons to “pay their debt to society”? And if they have not done so – as the denial of voting rights suggests they must not have done – then why are they being released in the first place? That, at any rate, would seem to be the logic of this matter. It’s a grim and pitiless worldview.Of course there’s the possibility that other motives are at play, namely that for a number of reasons ex-cons may be more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. But let us put that unworthy thought to one side and simply note that denying ex-felons the franchise is a further punishment that’s above and beyond and entirely unrelated to the crimes which led to their incarceration. I’m amazed, actually, that it’s Constitutional to do so.

No, it’s just one more example of a criminal justice system that, alas, should shame the United States. This is not a question of liberalism or conservatism but of decency. There are many things the Americans do better than us but thank god we don’t have their criminal justice or prison systems.

Incidentally, anyone with any interest in these matters should follow Radley Balko’s work. (And actually the New York Times should have given him an op-ed column years ago.)

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By The Way, This May Be The First Time The Phrase “Getting Up In The Grill” Was Used At The Supreme Court

Robert Barnes at WaPo:

A nearly unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech about public issues and upheld the right of a fringe church to protest near military funerals.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing “is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible.” But he said government “cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

“As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Roberts said.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter.

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” Alito wrote.

Ilya Shapiro at Cato:

Stepping aside from the emotions and bizarre facts, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues aside from the First Amendment.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing — but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests — but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like — but the Phelpses’ protests did not involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer put it during oral argument.

As the brevity of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion confirms, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas — or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries — but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended.

Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSBlog:

The Court clearly felt considerable sympathy for the slain soldier’s family, but concluded that the First Amendment interests at stake were overriding.  “The record makes clear that the applicable legal term—‘emotional distress’—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already incalculable grief.  But Westboro conducted its picketing peacefully on matters of public concern at a public space adjacent to a public street.”  The Court continued:  “Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro.  Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. …    Speech is powerful.  It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain.  On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.  As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

The Court left undecided two important issues that it concluded were not squarely presented.  First, recognized that the government may regulate the “time, place, and manner” of speech and that the State of Maryland (where this protest was held) subsequently enacted a statute governing the circumstances in which funeral protests may be held.  The Court did not decide the constitutionality of that statute or other similar federal and state laws.  The Court may have been motivated to grant review in the case and still affirm in order to issue an opinion that, unlike the arguable implications of the court of appeals’ decision, did not call such statutes into question.

Second, the Court acknowledged that the plaintiffs had also brought suit on the basis of statements made by the defendants on a website.  But it concluded that the issue had been waived by not preserving it in the petition for certiorari and only briefly mentioning it in the merits briefing.  The Court was therefore able to limit its decision strictly to the context of funeral protests.

Dan Miller at PJ Tatler:

Justice Roberts, for the majority, noted that “Our holding today is narrow. We are required in First Amendment cases to carefully review the record, and the reach of our opinion here is limited by the particular facts before us.” That is nearly always the case, so much so that the Court does not generally bother to mention it in its decisions unless it intends the comment to have significant effect beyond a yawnIn his concurrence, Justice Breyer expanded on this cautionary note:

I agree with the Court and join its opinion. That opinion restricts its analysis here to the matter raised in the petition for certiorari, namely, Westboro’s picketing activity.  The opinion does not examine in depth the effect of television broadcasting. Nor does it say anything about Internet postings. The Court holds that the First Amendment protects the picketing that occurred here, primarily because the picketing addressed matters of “public concern.”

While I agree with the Court’s conclusion that the picketing addressed matters of public concern, I do not believe that our First Amendment analysis can stop at that point. . . . [S]uppose that A were physically to assault B, knowing that the assault (being newsworthy) would provide A with an opportunity to transmit to the public his views on a matter of public concern. The constitutionally protected nature of the end would not shield A’s use of unlawful, unprotected means.  And in some circumstances the use of certain words as means would be similarly unprotected (emphasis added).

Justice Alito expanded on the points raised in Justice Breyer’s concurrence at some length in his dissent at pages 23 – 36, particularly the analogy to a physical assault by A on B in order to gain an otherwise unlikely media audience for his views.  Both Justices Breyer and Alito seem to think that A’s  statement of views in the media presence would not shield him from liability for the assault, physical or verbal.

In raising the matter, Justice Alito seems  to rely on matters noted by Justice Breyer not to have been before the Supreme Court.  The majority opinion observes, in a footnote:

A few weeks after the funeral, one of the picketers posted a message on Westboro’s Web site discussing the picketing and containing religiously oriented denunciations of the Snyders, interspersed among lengthy Bible quotations. Snyder discovered the posting, referred to by the parties as the “epic,” during an Internet search for his son’s name. The epic is not properly before us and does not factor in our analysis. Although the epic was submitted to the jury and discussed in the courts below, Snyder never mentioned it in his petition for certiorari. See Pet. for Cert. i (“Snyder’s claim arose out of Phelps’ intentional acts at Snyder’s son’s funeral.” (emphasis added)). . . .

It is up to the petitioner for certiorari to do what Mr. Snyder evidently did not do. Unfair, perhaps, but here it serves to emphasize and give some flesh to the statements in the majority opinion as well as in the concurrence that the majority opinion is narrowly limited to the facts before the Supreme Court.

Blackfive:

This is a tough decision (and one which I grudgingly concede until I can read the actual decision) which is only tempered if you believe that there is a special place in hell for the Phelps family.

Also, please remember that these protests are stunts in order to evoke a visceral reaction from normal Americans in order to sue them in court and receive funds which keeps bread on the Phelps family table. Do not engage these horrible disgusting animals as that is exactly what they want.

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

It’s hard to celebrate any victory for Phelps and his band of bigots, but that’s the point — you don’t need the First Amendment to defend popular speakers.

Appropriately enough — given her recent hypotheticals resting on the assumption that atheists expressing views in ways that aren’t sufficiently “solemn” for a public place is such an self-evidently intolerable outcome that preemptive attacks on other speech she finds ideologically objectionable are required — Althouse’s beloved statist reactionary Sam Alito was the only dissenter.   You’d think that this case would kill of his wholly unearned reputation for moderation, but it seems as durable as Newt Gingrich’s wholly unearned reputation as an intellectual.

Andy Barr at Politico:

Sarah Palin voiced disappointment with a Supreme Court decision Wednesday protecting the First Amendment rights of anti-gay protesters at military funerals.

“Common sense & decency absent as wacko ‘church’ allowed hate msgs spewed@ soldiers’ funerals but we can’t invoke God’s name in public square,” Palin tweeted .

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Filed under Supreme Court, The Constitution

The Asteroid Can Hit If It Means We No Longer Have To Listen To Bad Aerosmith Songs

Mark Kleiman:

When I saw that Rand Paul (R-Comedy Central) had voted against a bill outlawing the use of lasers to blind airline pilots on the grounds that “the states ought to take care of it,” I was reminded of this week’s best Onion story imagining an effort by Republicans to repeal a law providing for the destruction of an asteroid coming at the Earth.

The Onion story didn’t mention lawsuits seeking to have asteroid-destruction declared unconstitutional as a violation of the limited, delegated powers of the Federal government. But I’d be grateful if one of our libertarian-leaning readers could point me to the specific provision of the Constitution under which the Federal government could spend money on asteroid destruction. It’s not, properly speaking, defense, unless the asteroid was deliberately launched at us by the Klingons. The asteroid isn’t “in commerce” at all, so it can’t be covered by the Commerce Clause.

No doubt some socialists would assert that the reference to “the General Welfare” in the first sentence of Art. 1, Sec. 8, plus the Necessary and Proper clause at the end of that section, would cover asteroid destruction. And I might agree with them. But of course from the libertarian perspective that proves way, way too much.

So I offer this as a challenge: If you think that the doctrine of limited powers forbids much of what the federal government currently does, please explain why that same argument wouldn’t forbid spending money to shoot down an asteroid.

Footnote If your objections to “big government” are based on economics rather than constitutional law, please explain why the public-goods argument that justifies shooting down the asteroid doesn’t apply to the programs you don’t like.

Pejman Yousefzadeh:

As a libertarian-conservative, I am glad to help resolve this question. Of course, it should be noted from the outset that the framing of these kinds of questions is a common Kleimanian tactic; he tosses out an appealing public policy approach, and then dares readers to conclude that the approach may not be constitutional. I certainly agree with Kleiman that asteroid defense cannot be covered by the Commerce Clause (thank goodness that there are some limits recognized by the Left on the reach and scope of the Clause), but I don’t see why he is so quick to dismiss asteroid destruction as a defense measure merely because the asteroid was not “deliberately launched at us by the Klingons.”Original public meaning jurisprudence assists us in showing how asteroid destruction can be justified by Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution as being “for the common Defence.” I am indebted to Professor Larry Solum for his excellent and comprehensive definition of original public meaning jurisprudence, which is excerpted below:

The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.

This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism”  and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.”   Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role.  As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.”   The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson  with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.”   The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.

Randy Barnett  and Keith Whittington  have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.”  Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways.  For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason).  This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.”   With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text.

Once originalists had acknowledged that vague constitutional provisions required construction, the door was opened for a reconciliation between originalism and living constitutionalism.  The key figure in that reconciliation has been Jack Balkin, whose influential 2006 and 2007 essays Abortion and Original Meaning and Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption have argued for a reconciliation of original meaning originalism with living constitutionalism in the form of a theory that might be called “the method of text and principle.”  Balkin has called his position on the relationship between originalism and living constitutionalism “comptibilism,” but it is important to understand that this means that an originalist approach to interpretation is consistent with a living constitutionalist approach to construction.

Per Professor Solum’s definition, we have to ask how “the common Defence” would “have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted.” Specifically, we have to demonstrate that the notion of “Defence” against a threat does not depend upon that threat being initiated by a sentient being, or group of beings. This entails showing Kleiman that the non-presence of Klingons or any other sentient beings in a scenario which features an asteroid threatening life on Earth does not prevent the necessary countermeasures from being considered constitutional as acts of “Defence.”

In order to proceed along this line of inquiry, a definition of “defence” or “defense” (however one wishes to spell it) is needed. I can think of no better lexicographical authority than Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Consider especially the following bit of information: In his book Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, the writer Henry Hitchings quoted Joseph Emerson Worcester as saying that “[Johnson’s] Dictionary has also played its part in the law, especially in the United States. Legislators are much occuped with ascertaining ‘first meanings,’ with trying to secure the literal sense of their predecessors’ legislation . . . Often it is a matter of historicizing language: to understand a law, you need to understand what its terminology meant to its original architects . . . as long as the American Constitution remains intact, Johnson’s Dictionary will have a role to play in American law.”

So, Johnson’s Dictionary was/is quite useful when it comes to analyzing bodies of American law. Now, we have to ask what Johnson wrote about the definition of the word “defence.” Well, it just so happens that we can look. Feel free to examine the definitions of “defence,” “defenceless,” “to defend,” and “defendable.” One will find that none of the definitions in question make it necessary for a threat to have been launched by some form of sentient being, or group of beings, before one can be said to organize and implement some kind of “defense/defence” against that threat via preventive measures. Absent any competing definitions of similar or greater influence, one may reasonably conclude that “an ordinary adult citizen” would not have understood “defence” to mean a countermeasure against a threat set into motion by a sentient being, or group of beings–like Klingons, for example. A “defence” can therefore be mounted against a threat that appeared or emerged sua sponte, without any sentient beings or higher intelligence having brought that threat into being, and/or having directed that threat against us.

Indeed, if Kleiman wanted to get a libertarian legal analysis regarding this issue, he might have done well to ask Glenn Reynolds, whose blog is full of posts regarding the need for asteroid defense. I recognize that Kleiman loathes Reynolds, and has nothing but contempt for him, but it perhaps would not have been a bad idea for Kleiman to put his loathing aside and consider that Reynolds’s example might indicate that there are plenty of libertarians who (a) are concerned about defending the Earth against extinction-causing asteroids, and (b) might be able to justify it (as I have) constitutionally. As a general matter, it might be best for Kleiman to consult actual lawyers regarding constitutional or statutory interpretation, before trying to navigate legal thickets on his own. I mean, it’s his blog, and he can do what he wants, but it is worth noting that past Kleimanian efforts to play lawyer have ended quite poorly.

Jonathan Adler:

This post by Mark Kleiman is a good example, in that it puts forward a laughable caricature of libertarian and originalist constitutional thought that would have been discredited with but a moment’s investigation into the question (as I noted here, and Pejman Yousefzadeh discussed here).  To Prof. Kleiman’s credit, he backed off (a little) when other took the time to respond, but that a prominent, thoughtful academic would post something like this as an ostensibly thoughtful critique of right-leaning ideas says quite a bit about the state of much academic discourse.

Sasha Volokh:

I agree with Jonathan below that the Constitution (through the spending power) allows Congress to spend tax money to protect the Earth from an asteroid.

On the other hand — and at the risk of confirming Mark Kleiman in his belief that libertarians are loopy — I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

On the other hand, if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.

This does make me uncomfortable, much like my view that patents are highly useful but morally unjustifiable, so I’m open to persuasion

Matthew Yglesias:

I think this is a mistake about how a reductio works. The mere fact that Volokh is willing to bite this bullet has no real bearing on the fact that the conclusion is clearly false, and so the argument is either logically invalid or else proceeds from false premises. I’d say “false premises.” The best liberal thinking—classical, modern, whatever—proceeds from broadly consequentialist ideas about making human beings better off.

Brad DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.

Wow.

Ilya Somin:

That said, I don’t think that Sasha’s view is necessarily ridiculous or “insane.” Any theory based on absolute respect for certain rights necessarily carries the risk that it will lead to catastrophe in some instances. Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.

Many such scenarios are improbable. But over the long sweep of human history, improbable events can and do happen. Had Kerensky suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 (as he easily could have that summer) or had the Weimar Republic done the same with the Nazis, the world would be a vastly better place, even though most political censorship (even of evil ideologies) causes far more harm than good. A civilization-destroying asteroid attack during the next few hundred years is also a low-probability event.

Thus, the potential flaw in Sasha’s view is one that it shares with all absolutist rights theories. Scenarios like the above are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself. But I don’t believe that all the great moral theorists who endorse such views from Kant to the present are either ridiculous or “insane.”

It’s also worth noting that Sasha’s approach would in fact justify asteroid defense in virtually any plausible real world scenario. As he puts it, “if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.” It’s highly unlikely that news of an impending asteroid impact whose onset was known to the government could be prevented from leaking to the general public. Even if it could, “all hell” would surely break loose after the asteroid impact, resulting in numerous violations of libertarian rights by looters, bandits, people stealing food out of desperation, and so on. Either way, Sasha’s analysis ends up justifying asteroid defense.

If I understand Sasha correctly, he’s only partially a rights absolutist. He doesn’t believe that you can ever sacrifice rights for utilitarian benefits, even truly enormous ones. But he does think that you can justify small rights violations as a way of forestalling bigger ones. Sasha is an absolutist when it comes to trading off libertarian rights for other considerations, but a maximizer when it comes to trading off rights for greater protection of those same rights in the future. Effective defense against a massive asteroid impact easily passes Sasha’s rights-maximizing test.

Obviously, I welcome correction from Sasha if I have misinterpreted his views.

Mark Kleiman:

I’m glad that Adler agrees with me – and disagrees with many Tea Party lunatics, including some recently elected to the Senate and the House – that there’s no actual Constitutional question about funding the Department of Education or National Public Radio. That, of course, was my point.

I’m also glad that Sasha is standing by his guns, thus demonstrating that my argument was not directed at a mere straw man, though his objection to spending is philosophical rather than Constitutional.

Sasha worries that his honest and forthright response might confirm me in my belief that “libertarians are loopy.” That’s certainly a reasonable concern. But I would have thought that a bigger concern would be that the conclusion is, in fact, obviously loopy, and – like any good reductio ad absurdum argument, ought to lead to a re-examination of the premises that would lead to such a loopy conclusion.

Ilya Somin is right to point out that any theory that puts an absolute constraint on action runs into problems when inaction has catastrophic consequences. But if he really can’t see the difference between torture and income taxation – can’t understand why absolute opposition to torture is not analogous to absolute opposition to public spending on public goods – then “loopy” is entirely too weak a word.

Eugene Volokh:

I leave it to others to debate the constitutional and moral merits of government spending on asteroid defense (my view is that such spending is both constitutionally permissible and morally proper, but I have nothing original to add on the subject). I just wanted to add that one side of the debate is an unusually near-literal application of the saying, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

An impending catastrophe – asteroid strike – threatens to kill everyone in the society. That doesn’t violate anyone’s “rights” because you don’t have a “right to life” but rather a right not to have your life taken away by somebody else against your will. Therefore, the government has no right to tax you to protect you – and everybody else – from the asteroid.

So how is the asteroid to be stopped?

Presumably, everyone in society would agree voluntarily to cooperate to stop the asteroid. That is to say: we could still have collective action, but it would have to be voluntary, not coerced.

But would everyone participate?

The government goes around, passing the hat for contributions to stop the asteroid. A certain percentage of people, though, don’t believe in asteroids. Another percentage believe that the asteroid will bring the Rapture and so must not be stopped. These people are crazy, though, and crazy people are not interesting to talk about. Let’s hope there aren’t too many and ignore them.

Some people, though, notice that there are wealthier people than them in the society, and figure those other people should shoulder the burden of saving society. These are the “free-riders.”

Now, so long as this group is relatively small, no problem. Enough people will still put up enough money to stop the collective catastrophe. But so long as that is the case, free-riding is the economically rational thing to do. Indeed, in any large enough society, free-riding is always the rational thing to do: in a society with enough people putting up enough money voluntarily to stop the asteroid, free-riding is costless; in a society without enough such people, contributing is pointless.

The salvation of this ultra-libertarian society, then, depends upon the existence of a sufficient number of irrationally self-sacrificing people, people who ignore their rational self-interest in order to procure a social good for the group, without regard for the amount of “free riding” going on around them.

On the assumption – which I don’t think is pushing it at all – that there are a whole lot of communal problems that require collective action to address, libertarianism is only practical in highly communitarian societies.

I don’t know that that’s a knock-down argument against libertarianism. Wikipedia is a highly communitarian activity that grew up in a highly libertarian environment (the Internet), and most of the world is free-riding.

But it’s worth stressing nonetheless, because libertarians tend to talk as if rationality will lead to the necessary level of cooperation. But it won’t. In any case of communal threat where attempted free-riders cannot independently exposed to the threat, while contributors are protected, the rational thing to do is free-ride.

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Filed under Conservative Movement, Go Meta, The Constitution

“There’s Nothing In The Constitution About That.”

Calvin Massey interviewing Justice Scalia for California Lawyer:

In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don’t think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we’ve gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. … But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that’s fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don’t like the death penalty anymore, that’s fine. You want a right to abortion? There’s nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn’t mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up

Amanda Terkel at Huffington Post:

For the record, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, called the justice’s comments “shocking” and said he was essentially saying that if the government sanctions discrimination against women, the judiciary offers no recourse.

“In these comments, Justice Scalia says if Congress wants to protect laws that prohibit sex discrimination, that’s up to them,” she said. “But what if they want to pass laws that discriminate? Then he says that there’s nothing the court will do to protect women from government-sanctioned discrimination against them. And that’s a pretty shocking position to take in 2011. It’s especially shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection.”

Greenberger added that under Scalia’s doctrine, women could be legally barred from juries, paid less by the government, receive fewer benefits in the armed forces, and be excluded from state-run schools — all things that have happened in the past, before their rights to equal protection were enforced.

Ann Althouse:

HuffPo headlines: “Women Don’t Have Constitutional Protection Against Discrimination.” The writer, Amanda Terkel, quotes the 14th Amendment, and concludes, with unironic textualism: “That would seem to include protection against exactly the kind of discrimination to which Scalia referred.” Thanks for the analysis, Amanda.

Terkel also called up Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, who professed to find Scalia’s opinion “shocking” — even though he’s been saying it for at least 15 years.

Scott Lemieux at Tapped:

Scalia has never been consistent about applying the principles expressed above. Nobody who voted for the 5th or 14th Amendments thought that they were prohibiting affirmative action, and yet Scalia has found that both amendments prohibit affirmative action in virtually all circumstances. Scalia also believes that Brown v. Board was correct, although very few of the persons who voted in favor of the proposal or ratification of the 14th Amendment believed that it prohibited racial segregation. When the originalist principles outlined above clash with (rather than reinforce) his political preferences, Scalia has no problem ignoring them.

Scalia’s answer when it comes to gender? That while the framers and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment did not think they were outlawing affirmative action or school segregation, they did think they were outlawing racial discrimination; they didn’t specifically discuss gender discrimination. The problem with this response is that Scalia’s choice to stop at this particular point on the ladder of abstraction is completely arbitrary. Scalia has already made clear in other cases that he doesn’t think that the concrete expectations of framers or ratifiers are binding. And the 15th Amendment demonstrates that the framers of the 14th could have limited the equal protection clause to racial discrimination, but they did not. So what basis does Scalia have for being certain that the 14th Amendment permits gender discrimination?

He doesn’t. Scalia’s belief that the 14th Amendment does not prohibit gender discrimination is a political choice in no way compelled by the text of the Constitution.

Jack Balkin:

Scalia argues that the fourteenth amendment was not intended to prevent sex discrimination. That’s not entirely true. The supporters of the fourteenth amendment did not think it would disturb the common law rules of coverture: under these rules women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands. But these rules did not apply to single women. So in fact, the fourteenth amendment was intended to prohibit some forms of sex discrimination– discrimination in basic civil rights against single women.

Moreover, the Constitution was subsequently amended. After the nineteenth amendment, the common law coverture rules made little sense. If married women had the right to vote, why did they not have the right to contract or own property in their own names? If we read the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of civil equality in light of the Nineteenth Amendment, the guarantee of sex equality should apply to both single and married women. The conservative court during the Lochner era thought as much in a case called Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, decided immediately after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Scalia argues that if contemporary generations want to protect women, they can pass antidiscrimination laws and nothing in the original understanding of the Constitution forbids this. But this is not quite correct. The federal government would not be able to pass civil rights laws protecting women from discrimination; only states and local governments could. That is because if judges followed what the Constitution’s framers expected, federal regulatory power would be greatly constricted and, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on sex discrimination would be unconstitutional because it would beyond federal power to enact. Justice Scalia would surely vote to uphold much federal legislation today (see his concurrence in the medical marijuana case, Gonzales v. Raich), but that is because he accepts the New Deal revolution, which he well knows is not consistent with original understandings about the scope of federal power. So Scalia’s arguments about what modern majorities can do today rest on his view that a very significant proportion of constitutional understandings of the framers can simply be jettisoned because they make little sense in today’s world. That is to say, he doesn’t really believe in originalism either when it comes to a very wide array of cases concerning federal governmental power.

Second, if Scalia had really wanted to be faithful to the expectations and assumptions of the the adopters of the Fourteenth Amendment, he had no business joining the opinion in Bush v. Gore, because the Amendment was not intended to change state rules concerning the right to vote.

During the interview Justice Scalia says that he doesn’t even need to read the briefs to know what originalism permits, requires or forbids; but I would respectfully suggest he needs to read a bit more history.

Legal Insurrection:

Gee, Scalia must hate women.

Except that the headline is a good example of a half-truth.  Scalia’s point is the fairly standard originalist view that the 14th Amendment does not broadly apply to prohibit all forms of discrimination on the basis of sex.  Either sex.  It does not protect men against discrimination on the basis of sex, either.  The Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971) is read by some as offering broad protection on the basis of sex, but that is an overreading of a fairly limited opinion in which the Court found no rational basis for a state law giving preference to males in the appointment of estate administrators.  Other cases after Reed have applied a more strict scrutiny approach.  I assume Scalia disagrees with the Reed decision, not because he doesn’t like the result, but because of the approach;  this difference in approach does not make Scalia wrong, or hostile to women as the HuffPo headline suggested.

Scalia’s view is neither novel nor new.  That the Constitution does not address discrimination on the basis of sex as such was evidenced by the ultimately failed attempt to amend the Constitution to add an Equal Rights Amendment which would have added this provision:  “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Blog Of Legal Times

Cat White at Scholars and Rogues:

So how important is the Constitution for protecting people’s rights? Apparently not very. Scalia goes on to say, “You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box.”

Unless you happen to be a corporation. Scalia et al continued the practice of defining corporations as persons with equal protection under the 14th Amendment (there is an article here on the history and meaning of the practice here–in short, define which “persons” are “citizens” and then grant protection to “citizens.”) Corporations are, of course, “legal persons” endowed by their creators with perpetual life and by the courts with inalienable rights by the 14th Amendment (as opposed to us “natural persons” who have limited life and apparently limited protection against discrimination by the 14th Amendment).

Apparently, “natural persons,” or at least female “natural persons” only need the protection of the laws, as Scalia said about the limits of the Constitution, “Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.”

So who else does not need the additional protections of equality? Perhaps workers over 40, African-Americans, gays and lesbians?

Did corporations really need to be given the rights to control our elections through donations? What’s next, the corporate right to vote? Oh, right–they’d only get one vote that way, much better to control the whole process through funding.

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Filed under Feminism, The Constitution

Talking About The Clause… No, Not That Claus

Andrew Sullivan rounds up some of this.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to “economic activity” seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia — that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional — is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

Julian Sanchez on Marshall:

And the weird thing is, he’s right… sort of! It does seem like a surprising result, given the last century of Commerce Clause precedent, that anything plausibly describable as economic activity might be found beyond the power of Congress to micromanage. “Preposterous on its face,” even.

But isn’t it preposterous that it’s preposterous? Step back from that steady accretion of precedents and instead just ask how far a federal power to “regulate commerce…among the several states”—especially in the context of separate and parallel powers to regulate commerce with foreign nations and Indian tribes—can plausibly be stretched. Isn’t it the idea that “regulate commerce” could entail a power to require a private individual in a single state to buy health insurance that ought to seem kind of crazy? Shouldn’t we find it more intuitively preposterous that a provision designed for tariffs and shipping rules should be the thin end of the wedge for a national health care policy?

And yet it isn’t! It’s the denial of that infinitely flexible reading that now seems strange. And that’s really strange.

Megan McArdle on Sanchez:

Obviously, I agree with Julian.  I have been reading a lot of well-meaning liberals who are befuddled by the notion that conservatives are going after the mandate, when that runs the risk of bringing on single payer.  Personally, I kind of doubt that, but this is completely beside the point.  On a reading of the commerce clause that allows the government to force you to buy insurance from a private company, what can’t the government force you to do?

This doesn’t seem to be a question that interests progressives; they just aren’t very excited about economic liberty beyond maybe the freedom to operate a food truck.  And so they seem genuinely bewildered by a reading of the commerce clause that narrows its scope, or an attempt to overturn the mandate even though this might lead us into a single payer system.  If you view this solely as tactical maneuvering, perhaps it really is preposterous.

And of course, for some conservatives, these operations are tactical, but for a lot, it’s an actual horror at the ever-expanding assertion of government powers.  I’d like it if they’d get equally horrified about, say, the TSA and the drug laws, but there you are: neither side is as consistently supportive of liberty as I’d like.

Radley Balko:

Next, I posed this question to Chris Hayes on Twitter, so I’ll pose to those of you who read this site who are outraged by the Hudson ruling: Putting aside what’s codified Bill of Rights, which was ratified after the main body of the Constitution, do you believe the Constitution puts any restrictions on the powers of the federal government?

If your answer is yes, what restrictions would those be? And what test would you use to determine what the federal government can and can’t do? I’ve written this before, but after Wickard, Raich, and now, if you support it, the health insurance mandate, it’s hard to see what’s left that would be off-limits. I mean, during her confirmation hearings, Elena Kagan couldn’t even bring herself to say that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to force us to eat vegetables every day. (She did say it would be bad policy — but that’s a hell of a lot different.)

If your answer is no, that is, that the Constitution puts no real restraints on the federal government at all, why do you suppose they bothered writing and passing one in the first place? I suppose an alternate answer might be that the Constitution does place restrictions on the federal government, but those restrictions have become anachronistic given the size of the country, the complexity of modern society, and so on. To which my follow-up question would be, do you believe there should be any restrictions on the powers of the federal government? Let’s say, again, beyond those laid out in the Bill of Rights.

I guess to get at the meat of the disagreement, I should ask one more: Do you buy into the idea that the people delegate certain, limited powers to the government through the Constitution, or do you believe that the government can do whatever it wants, save for a few restrictions outlined in the Constitution? It’s not an unimportant distinction. I’m not sure it’s consistent to believe that the government gets its power from the people, but the people have gone ahead and given the government the power to do whatever it wants.

I’m not trying to be cute. I’m genuinely interested in how people on the left answer these questions. Rep. Pete Stark, a liberal Democrat, said a few months ago that he believes there are no constitutional restrictions on what the Congress can do. To hear from a sitting Congressman was refreshingly honest. And terrifying.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

The conservative argument, reflected in Republican judge Henry Hudson’s ruling against the individual mandate, is that purchasing health insurance is the ultimate individual decision, and that abridging this liberty would, in Hudson’s words, “invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers.” If the individual mandate is permissible, writes George Will, then “Congress can doanything – eat your broccoli, or else – and America no longer has a limited government.” Megan McArdle echoes, “On a reading of the commerce clause that allows the government to force you to buy insurance from a private company, what can’t the government force you to do?”

This is the intellectual rationale for the hysterical conservative response to the pasaage of health care reform. By this line of reasoning, the individual mandate springs from a paternalistic desire to compel individuals to engage in behavior that affects nobody but themselves.

But of course, the decision not to purchase health insurance is the very opposite. Those who forego health insurance are forcing the rest of us to cover their costs if they exercise their right to be treated in an emergency room. They are also forcing the rest of us to pay higher insurance rates, now that insurance companies can no longer exclude those with preexisting conditions. That, of course, is exactly why conservatives supported it for so long.

Conservatism’s sudden lurch from supporting (or tolerating) the individual mandate to opposing it as a dagger in the heart of freedom is a phenomenon that merits not intellectual analysis but psychoanalysis. This is simply how conservatives respond in the face of every liberal advance. At such moments the nation is always teetering on the precipice between freedom and socialism. The danger never comes to pass, yet no lesson is ever learned. We simply progress intermittently from hysterical episode to hysterical episode.

Conor Freidersdorf at The American Scene on Chait:

It’s handy to argue against the generalized hypocrisy of incoherent ideological adversaries, though I don’t think that describes Megan McArdle, Julian Sanchez, Radley Balko, or many others who see constitutional problems here, myself included. I’ll see if I can make a case without lapsing into hysteria: If the Obama Administration’s health care reform bill stands, I do not imagine that America is going to cease to be free, or that a decisive blow in the battle between capitalism and socialism will have been struck. Although I would’ve preferred different variations on health care reform, I am not even expert enough to know for sure whether they’d have been more successful.

What does worry me is the notion that the federal government is no longer an entity of enumerated powers – that a limit on its scope purposefully established by the Founders no longer exists. It used to be a check and balance. Is it now completely gone?

If Judge Hudson’s ruling is upheld, I’ll celebrate not because I fear Obamacare – I’m cynical enough to suspect that whatever came next might well make me even worse off – but because a limit on federal power that I care about generally has been re-asserted.

Should his ruling be overturned, I’ll be disappointed because the precedent troubles me: if the commerce clause can prevent me from growing marijuana in my backyard and mandate that I buy a particular kind of health insurance that covers far more than emergency room care, what Congressional action can’t it cover? You’d think from Chait’s post that liberals never approach matters of constitutional law in this way, looking past the utility in a given policy area to ask what the long term implications are for state power.

What I’ve yet to see answered to my satisfaction is Radley Balko’s question

Chait responds to Friedersdorf:

Let me try to reiterate my point.

The legal merits of Hudson’s ruling, which seem to be totally daft, are themselves piggybacked upon a policy argument which is itself highly unpersuasive at best. The political argument, endorsed by Friedersdorf, maintains that the individual mandate represents some dramatic new imposition of Congressional power. Congress’s power may have grown over the years, the argument holds, but the individual mandate represents some new frontier of intrusiveness. It is forbidding an activity (or inactivity) that is more personal and less intertwined with the economy as a whole than almost any previous regulation. It is not dramatically different than a law requiring people to eat broccoli.

But this is totally incorrect. In reality, the individual mandate is much less intrusive and paternalistic than many regulations accepted as Constitutional. The rationale isn’t to make people buy insurance because it’s good for them. If people want to accept the risk of illness on their own, that’s fine. The issue is precisely that they can’t do this without forcing the rest of us to pick up the tab when they 1) show up at the emergency room, or 2) decide to buy private insurance in a now-regulated market.

Regulations to prevent people from offloading their risks onto others are extremely common and extremely necessary. So, again, the right’s portrayal of this as a dramatic expansion of the scope of Congressional action is wildly misleading, and it owes itself not to any sober analysis of federal power but to the psychology of reaction.

Now, Friedersdorf is correct to point out that some libertarians who are not partisan Republicans have endorsed this argument as well. In my view this is a group of people who are deeply inclined to support limited government, and have latched onto an argument in favor of limited government that has gained a political foothold without subjecting the merits of the case to serious scrutiny. They think the case is about drawing a new line against the expansion of Congressional economic power, when in fact the line is far behind the old one.

Freidersdorf responds to American Scene:

Actually, I am endorsing a somewhat different argument, and I apologize if I misstated my position or was less than clear about it. It isn’t that I think the individual mandate is an imposition of Congressional power more dramatic than anything seen before. It is merely one example of the longstanding Congressional tendency to justify all manner of things – gun free school zones, legislation to prevent violence against women, the ability to grow marijuana in my backyard, etc. – under the banner of the commerce clause. Where I come down on these cases has nothing to do with policy arguments: on the merits, some seem like good ideas to me, and others seem like bad ideas, but none strike me as attempts to regulate interstate commerce unless that task is so broad that it imposes no meaningful limit on the scope of federal power. (Speaking of which, I’d still like to see Chait and Kevin Drum answer Radley Balko’s question.)

Chait writes:

Friedersdorf is correct to point out that some libertarians who are not partisan Republicans have endorsed this argument as well. In my view this is a group of people who are deeply inclined to support limited government, and have latched onto an argument in favor of limited government that has gained a political foothold without subjecting the merits of the case to serious scrutiny. They think the case is about drawing a new line against the expansion of Congressional economic power, when in fact the line is far behind the old one.

I actually agree that the individual mandate doesn’t constitute an obvious high water mark when it comes to legislation passed under the umbrella of the commerce clause. But surely Chait understands how constitutional challenges work. Most people who care about the principle at stake don’t get to choose the partisan blowhards on the same side of the issue, let alone the case that someone with standing files, that winds its way through the courts, that results in a favorable ruling, and that has a chance of making it to the Supreme Court. The individual mandate may not constitute a high water mark as legislation, but if it ends up being a SCOTUS test case, the majority opinion that results might well entrench a precedent that goes farther than any before it, and determines the future of the commerce clause for generations. To me, Linda Greenhouse is right: the issue at stake is whether the Rehnquist Court’s jurisprudence is going to be killed in infancy or mature into a more expansive body of law.

Noah Millman also responded to my earlier post.

He writes:

…it is unquestionably within the power of Congress to tax, and the mandate could have been structured as a tax-plus-voucher scheme that would have had exactly identical effects. Does that mean that the law is constitutional? If not, then the reason is entirely some notion of precedent – that if this form of the law is Constitutional then other mandates that could not obviously be structured as a tax (“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!”) would also be acceptable. If that’s the argument that’s being made, then why are we arguing about the health insurance mandate as such being a threat to freedom?

First of all, the judicial precedent in this case won’t necessarily apply only to future commerce clause cases that involve mandates. Second, people are talking about the mandate as a threat to freedom for all sorts of reasons, many of them nonsensical. There are two arguments that I regard as plausible. One is that the mandate is particularly troubling because it requires payments to powerful corporations that spent millions of dollars lobbying the very people who wrote and passed health care reform. Call it the wonko-industrial complex. What if it gets out of control?! But that isn’t my position. It’s the second argument that I am making: it’s the jurisprudential precedent and the implications for the commerce clause and federalism generally that matter.

Tim Lee:

I get what Julian, Radley, and Megan are saying, and in principle I agree with them. A fair-minded reading of the constitution and the debates that surrounded its enactment makes it pretty clear that the founders’ goal was to create a federal government of far more limited powers than the one we’ve got. But I’m finding it awfully hard to get excited about the federalist boomlet sparked by Judge Hudson’s ruling that the ObamaCare insurance mandate is unconstitutional. I’m not a big fan of ObamaCare, and I wouldn’t be too sad to see portions of it struck down by the courts. But the rank opportunism of the Republican position here is so obvious that I have trouble working up much enthusiasm.

There’s nothing particularly outrageous about the health care mandate. The federal government penalizes people for doing, and not doing, any number of things. I’m currently being punished by the tax code for failing to buy a mortgage, for example. I’d love it if the courts embraced a jurisprudence that placed limits on the federal government’s ability to engage in this kind of social engineering via the tax code. But no one seriously expects that to happen. The same Republican members of Congress who are applauding Hudson’s decision have shown no qualms about using the tax code for coercive purposes.

The test case for conservative seriousness about federalism was Raich v. Gonzales, the medical marijuana case. Justices Scalia and Kennedy flubbed that opportunity, ruling that a woman growing a plant in her backyard was engaging in interstate commerce and that this activity could therefore be regulated by the federal government. If Scalia and Kennedy now vote with the majority to strike down portions of ObamaCare, it will be pretty obvious that they regard federalism as little more than a flimsy pretext for invalidating statutes they don’t like. Or, worse, for giving a president they don’t like a black eye.

Joshua Holland on Balko:

The question’s a straw-man — as evidence that “the left” flatly rejects all limits on the federal government, Balko offers up a statement by Rep. Pete Stark, a liberal from California, which was taken at least somewhat out of context during a town haul meeting with constituents and turned into a minor brouhaha by Andrew Breitbart’s crew a few months back.

More importantly, premising the question on us “setting aside the Bill of Rights” and amendments 11-27 just because they were ratified after the fact is disingenuous. As soon as an amendment is ratified, it becomes part of the United States Constitution, and those amendments happen to codify most of the constraints on the federal government that liberals hold to be the most important. (Balko’s a good civil libertarian who thinks they’re pretty important too.)

Essentially, he’s saying, ‘aside from preventing the government from limiting your right to speak, worship, assemble, petition government for redress, searching or seizing your stuff without due process, forcing you to incriminate yourself, enacting policies that discriminate on the basis of race and gender and guaranteeing a dozen other cherished freedoms, are there any constraints at all that you lefties find legit?’

That aside, the longer answer is that the Framers obviously didn’t create a detailed, step-by-step handbook for governing the U.S., and they didn’t try to anticipate every conflict that might come up in this new federal system they were cooking up. But they knew that conflicts would in fact arise, and they created a court to adjudicate those conflicts. It’s an enumerated power!

Now, the issue before us is what economic activities (or non-activities) the Commerce Clause empowers the feds to regulate, and the Supreme Court has used an expansive – and, yes, expanding – interpretation of that clause for close to 75 years.

Balko, like his fellow libertarians, and, less consistently, conservatives, doesn’t like that interpretation, which is his right. But it is nevertheless what’s known as a “super-precedent” – jurisprudence that’s been tested and affirmed in a not one or two, but a series of cases decided by the courts over the years.

Until maybe 20 or 30 years ago, the idea that judges should, accept in very rare cases, defer to precedent was a key tenet of judicial conservatism. That’s changed somewhat with the right’s focus on “originalism” – the idea that justices should try to glean the original intent of the Framers and put a little less emphasis on upholding precedent. (That shift is why, ironically, when one defines “judicial activism” as a willingness to overturn past rulings, conservative justices have been shown to be far more activist than liberals in recent times.)

So, a shorter answer, speaking as just one lefty, is that I accept any constraints on the government that the Supreme Court, guided, as it should be, not only by the text of the Constitution but also by past precedent– and checked by the states and the executive and legislative branches via the amendment process — holds to be legitimate.

Scott Lemieux on Balko:

Well, I don’t really see the Bill of Rights as a mere aside; these limitations are very important. But that said, to play the mild contrarian I don’t actually have any objection to U.S. v. Lopez. When a statute is not a regulation of economic activity, has no jurisdictional hook, has no necessary connection to a broader regulatory regime, and Congress can’t be bother to explain what the connection to interstate commerce is or why federal action is necessary…I don’t really have a problem with the Supreme Court ruling the statue as beyond Congress’s authority. And while I disagree with United States v. Morrison, this is primarily because I strongly reject the narrow conception of Congress’s enforcement power under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. I have no problem saying that the commerce clause limits federal ability to intervene in purely local crime enforcement.

Now, I assume the libertarian response will be that this isn’t much, and…this is right. I don’t think in a modern industrial economy there’s any point in the Supreme Court trying to make distinctions between “local” and “national” economic regulations.

One thing I would add, though, is that saying that the Court should not strike down economic regulations under a narrow interpretation of the Commerce Clause is not to say that the power of Congress is unlimited. As many of you know, Madison did not feel that “parchment barriers” were the most important protection against excessive government. Rather, he felt that an institutional design featuring multiple veto points was the central protection. And, in fact, Madisonian institutions have been effective — from my non-libertarian perspective, often much too effective — in limiting the authority of the federal government to regulate the economy. I think these limits are (more than) sufficient, and having the courts try to apply a conception of economic powers more meaningful in an 18th-century agrarian economy doesn’t make any sense.

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Virginia Is Not For Lovers Of A Mandate

Kevin Sack at NYT:

A federal district judge in Virginia ruled on Monday that the keystone provision in the Obama health care law is unconstitutional, becoming the first court in the country to invalidate any part of the sprawling act and ensuring that appellate courts will receive contradictory opinions from below.

Judge Henry E. Hudson, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, declined the plaintiff’s request to freeze implementation of the law pending appeal, meaning that there should be no immediate effect on the ongoing rollout of the law. But the ruling is likely to create confusion among the public and further destabilize political support for legislation that is under fierce attack from Republicans in Congress and in many statehouses.

In a 42-page opinion issued in Richmond, Va., Judge Hudson wrote that the law’s central requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeds the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The insurance mandate is central to the law’s mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured because insurers argue that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to treat those with expensive chronic conditions.

The judge wrote that his survey of case law “yielded no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts extending the Commerce Clause or General Welfare Clause to encompass regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, not withstanding its effect on interstate commerce or role in a global regulatory scheme.

Daniel Foster at The Corner:

Suit was brought by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli.

“I am gratified we prevailed. This won’t be the final round, as this will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, but today is a critical milestone in the protection of the Constitution,” said Cuccinelli in a statement.

Cuccinelli has made the extraordinary request that the case bypass the regular appellate order and proceed directly to the highest court, arguing that the Obama administration, too, would benefit from a speedy resolution.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

A year ago, no one took seriously the idea that a federal health care mandate was unconstitutional. And the idea that buying health care coverage does not amount to “economic activity” seems preposterous on its face. But the decision that just came down from the federal judgment in Virginia — that the federal health care mandate is unconstitutional — is an example that decades of Republicans packing the federal judiciary with activist judges has finally paid off.

Tom Maguire

Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

Hudson’s ruling is not unexpected. He is a Republican appointee with a history of conservative rulings. Nor is it definitive. Two other federal district judges, Democratic appointees both, have already ruled that the entire law passes constitutional muster. A fourth decision, by a judge in Florida, is expected by year’s end.

Most legal experts expect that, eventually, the case will come before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hudson himself acknowledged as much, writing “The final word will undoubtedly reside with a higher court.”

And how might the five Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees on the Surpeme Court rule? Most court observers I know believe that at least one of the Republican appointees, most likely Anthony Kennedy, would agree with the government that the Affordable Care Act falls well within traditional boundaries of the taxing and interstate commerce powers. (For an example of such logic, see the Michigan ruling from a few weeks ago.)

I tend to think those experts are right, for reasons I’ll get around to explaining one of these days. Then again, I recall hearing similar confidence about another highly anticipated court ruling–one about, oh, ten years ago.

For more on the mandate and some varied opinions on how an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court might affect the Affordable Care Act overall, see Aaron Caroll, Jonathan GruberEzra Klein, and Igor Volsky.

Meantime, if you’re looking for a more generic primer on the individual mandate, I highly recommend this video from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Orin Kerr:

I’ve had a chance to read Judge Hudson’s opinion, and it seems to me it has a fairly obvious and quite significant error. Judge Hudson assumes that the power granted to Congress by the Necessary and Proper Clause — “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers” — does not expand Congress’s power beyond the Commerce Clause itself. The key line is on page 18:

If a person’s decision not to purchase health insurance at a particular point in time does not constitute the type of economic activity subject to regulation under the Commerce Clause, then logically an attempt to enforce such provision under the Necessary and Proper Clause is equally offensive to the Constitution.

Judge Hudson does not cite any authority for this conclusion: He seems to believe it is required by logic. But it is incorrect. The point of the Necessary and Proper clause is that it grants Congress the power to use means outside the enumerated list of of Article I powers to achieve the ends listed in Article I. If you say, as a matter of “logic” or otherwise, that the Necessary and Proper Clause only permits Congress to regulate using means that are themselves covered by the Commerce Clause, then the Necessary and Proper Clause is rendered a nullity. But that’s not how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Clause, from Chief Justice Marshall onwards. Indeed, as far as I know, not even the most vociferous critics of the mandate have suggested that the Necessary and Proper Clause can be read this way.

Ezra Klein:

he real danger to health-care reform is not that the individual mandate will be struck down by the courts. That’d be a problem, but there are a variety of ways to restructure the individual mandate such that it doesn’t penalize anyone for deciding not to do something (which is the core of the conservative’s legal argument against the provision). Here’s one suggestion from Paul Starr, for instance. The danger is that, in striking down the individual mandate, the court would also strike down the rest of the bill. In fact, that’s exactly what the plaintiff has asked Hudson to do.

Hudson pointedly refused. “The Court will sever only Section 1501 [the individual mandate] and directly-dependent provisions which make specific reference to 1501.” That last clause has made a lot of pro-reform legal analysts very happy. Go to the text of the health-care law and run a search for “1501.” It appears exactly twice in the bill: In the table of contents, and in the title of the section. There do not appear to be other sections that make “specific reference” to the provision, even if you could argue that they are “directly dependent” on the provision. The attachment of the “specific reference” language appears to sharply limit the scope of the court’s action.

Doug Mataconis:

In this particular case, the next step on the appellate ladder would be the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has generally had a reputation of being among the more conservative Courts of Appeal.  However, Virginia’s Attorney General has reportedly been mulling the idea of  applying to the Supreme Court to leave to bypass the  Court of Appeals and proceed directly to the final state of the appellate process. Even if such an application were made, there’s no guarantee it would be granted so the the case may end up in the 4th Circuit anyway, but this strikes me as mistake. It seems to me that a final hearing before the Supreme Court might have a better shot, for Virginia, if it had other rulings against the law from other Courts behind it.

In any event, it’s clear that the Federal Government was unable to overcome much of the initial skepticism that Judge Hudson expressed about the arguments in favor of the mandate in his ruling on the government’s Motion to Dismiss. On the Commerce Clause, Hudson ruled that the requirement that American citizens purchase health insurance or face a penalty to exceed even the relatively liberal bounds of Congressional authority as set forth in case likes Wickard v. Filburn and Gonzalez v. Raich and that failure to act cannot itself be considered an act occurring within interstate commerce. On the government’s backup argument that the mandate and it’s penalty are justified under Congress’s far broader authority to tax for the “general welfare,” Hudson essentially ruled that the taxing power cannot be used to accomplish a purpose not authorized under the specific grants of power given to Congress under Article I, Section 8, and that the Attorney General’s argument is undercut by the fact that both Congress and the President specifically denied during the build up to passage of the Affordable Care Act that the mandate was a tax (a relevant fact because it goes to the question of Congressional intent).

Finally, rather than declaring the entire ACA unconstitutional, Hudson’s decision merely enjoins enforcement of the individual mandate. However, given the fact that mandate is the centerpiece of the entire regulatory scheme, it is hard to see how the rest of the law could survive without it.

This case is obviously going to be appealed, but it’s nonetheless a victory for Virginia, and it’s noteworthy as one of the few times in recent memory that a Court has said to Congress — no, you can’t do that. For that reason alone, it’s a good thing.

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There Is No Dana, Only Repeal

Dana Milbank in WaPo:

Republicans gained control of the House last month on a promise to “restore the Constitution.” So it is no small irony that one of their first orders of business is an attempt to rewrite the Constitution.

On Tuesday, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a member of the House GOP’s majority transition committee, introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow a group of states to nullify federal laws with which they disagree.

“This repeal amendment gives states a weapon, a tool, an arrow in their quiver,” he told a group of state legislators assembled at the Hyatt in downtown Washington. Of course, states have fired similar arrows before, and it led to a Civil War and Jim Crow – but Bishop wasn’t going to get into that.

“I actually hope to have a series of statutes and amendments — several amendments and several statutes — that we can introduce this year,” Bishop continued, “with the sole goal of not just cutting down the power of Washington to do things to people, but more importantly, is to empower states.”

Several amendments? Would it be easier if they just got some red pens and walked over to the National Archives to do the job?

Instapundit:

DANA MILBANK THINKS AMENDING THE CONSTITUTION IS A STRANGE WAY TO HONOR THE FOUNDING FATHERS. In doing so, he displays his ignorance. The amendment process, after all, is part of the Constitution. The Framers had no illusions that they were creating perfection, and believed in the sovereignty of the people and in the power of the people to revise the Constitution as needed, through the process they created. The idea that the text of the Constitution should be revised only through judicial reinterpretation is a modern conceit, and one that does no honor to the Framers at all.

Damon W. Root at Reason:

Milbank is nervous because Barnett’s plan has found support among Republican politicians including Virginia House Speaker William Howell and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). So in response he claims that amending the Constitution is a “strange” way to show “reverence for the Founding Fathers,” though of course those same Founders drafted and ratified Article 5 of the Constitution, which says, “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution,” and then goes on to spell out precisely how those amendments may become the law of the land. Nothing strange there.

Ann Althouse:

Since the Repeal Amendment, proposed by Randy Barnett, can easily be portrayed as an effort to return to something closer to the balance of power provided for in the original Constitution, it is pretty silly to portray yourself as brimming with respect for the Founders when what you really support is the shift of power to the national government that occurred over the long stretch of time, a shift that the courts have allowed to take place.

Tom Maguire:

Mr. Milbank makes this point:

The mechanics of the amendment are also a bit odd. It would allow the repeal of any federal law – from civil rights to health care – if two-thirds of the states say so. But that could mean that the 33 smallest states, which have 33 percent of the population, have the power to overrule the 17 largest states, which have 67 percent of the population.

Which is why we have both a House and a Senate, and it does seem odd to tinker with that very fundamental compromise.

But let me add another concern, generated on one of those rare days when I fear our corporate oligrach overlords.  Smll states are probably more easily bought.  Citibank is a big employer in South Dakota, for example, and the insurance industry is very powerful in Hartford, CT.

Giving these small states this new collective power would give our national and multinational corporations just another lever to boost their power.  And anything that makes Nevada more powerful worries me.

Doug Mataconis:

Professor Reynolds makes a valid point, and Professor Althouse is right that the relationship between the Federal Government and the states has changed drastically from the way it was envisioned by the Founders.

Part of that change, of course, occurred because of the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave the Federal Government significant authority over the the states when it came to due process, equal protection of the laws, and voting rights, and the 17th Amendment, which altered the manner in which Senators were selected. All of these significantly altered the relationship between the Federal Government and the states, and those alterations were done in what is, as Instapundit himself points out, a perfectly Constitutional manner.

It’s also true, of course, that a whole series of Supreme Court decisions has also contributed to the changed relationship between the Washington and the states. Some of those are based on wildly incorrect interpretations of the Commerce Clause, others, however, are simply a natural outgrowth of the Incorporation Doctrine, which applied the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Because of that doctrine, the Supreme Court has ruled that states are bound by the provisions of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments in criminal matters, that they cannot engage in unreasonable searches or searches without a warrant, that they must comply with the provisions of the First Amendment, and that they cannot impose a blanket ban on the ownership of handguns. All of these restrict the power of the states, but they do so in a manner which actually increases and helps to protect individual liberty.

Finally, the Civil War itself was the beginning in a change in the way Americans thought of their country. Where it used to be the case that people thought of themselves primarily as residents of their state, Americans today tend to think of themselves as Americans first. On top of all that, a long history of movement from place to place that people don’t necessarily think of the state where they live as “home” any more. For better or worse, going back to the Founders “original intent” on this issue is  impossible simply because so much has changed over the past 223 years.

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