Tag Archives: Gorsuch

The Gorsuch Nomination

As I have previously written, the most damning argument against Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation has nothing to do with his bona fides, which are impressive. It is the inescapable fact that his elevation to the Supreme Court will be illegitimate–the result of a very dangerous and cynical misuse of political power.

The Republicans’ refusal to afford Merrick Garland a hearing has been widely criticised as blatantly partisan, so I nearly fell off the treadmill yesterday morning during my workout, as I watched an interview with Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham praised Judge Gorsuch and rattled off his qualifications; then he opined–with no hint of irony–that failure to confirm him would be “political” and thus unprincipled.

Unfortunately, those conducting the interview failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: if failure to approve Gorsuch would be “playing politics,” what the hell was failure to even consider Garland?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But what about Judge Gorsuch himself? His willingness–even eagerness–to fill a seat that will inevitably be seen as stolen is understandable; it’s the Supreme Court, after all. He is clearly highly intelligent; his academic background and professional experience are exemplary. His opinions–whether we agree with them or not–are clearly within the broad mainstream of the judiciary.

The two areas that trouble me are his professed version of originalism and his ambiguous  approach to substantive due process.

True “originalism” comes in a number of respectable versions, but over the past couple of decades, the term has become code for “conservative in the mold of Scalia.”  As Judge Posner (himself a conservative jurist) has persuasively noted, Antonin Scalia’s self-described originalism was incoherent and conveniently invoked. I don’t know any legal scholars who do not begin their analyses by looking to the Constitutional text and its historical meaning–and I don’t know any credible legal authority who would agree with a nice man I once debated, who insisted that “free speech” applied only to oral communications, not newspapers, books or other non-spoken transmittals of ideas. (“It says speech.”)

I often introduce the subject of original intent to my classes by asking “So, what did James Madison think about porn on the internet?” Usually, they laugh–and after we acknowledge that James Madison could never have envisioned the Internet, we consider how the Founders’ clear intent to protect the expression and exchange of ideas from government censorship should be applied to “facts on the ground” that those Founders could never have foreseen. In these situations, people of good will–all of whom believe they are honoring the principles the Founders intended to protect–can come to different conclusions about what fidelity to original intent requires.

I’d be very interested to know how Judge Gorsuch defines his originalism.

The Judge’s approach to substantive due process (sometimes called the Constitutional right to privacy) is unclear. Unlike our conversational use of the term, the constitutional right to privacy is shorthand for the individual’s right to self-determination, the doctrine that identifies fundamental individual rights that government cannot infringe without a compelling reason.

As the Court put it in one case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Substantive due process requires government to respect the right of individuals to hold their own political and religious beliefs, define their own life’s meaning, choose their own life partners and control their own procreation. It defines certain areas of citizens’ lives as “off limits” to government. Our current privacy jurisprudence began when the Court struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from using contraception; the Court held that such intimate personal decisions were none of the government’s business.

Scalia was a ferocious critic of substantive due process; he had a crabbed, authoritarian view of individual liberty. (In Lawrence v. Texas, his acerbic dissent made clear his belief that government has the authority to outlaw fornication and masturbation.)

Would Judge Gorsuch agree? Will he follow Scalia, or respect existing legal precedents that protect our “intimate” behaviors and relationships from legislative assault?

Assuming Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the “stolen seat” on the Court, his approach to originalism and substantive due process will be critically important. It would be nice to know his positions on those fundamental issues before the Senate votes.

 

Dirty Harry, Mitch McConnell and the Rule of Law

A former student recently asked for my opinion on Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the current Supreme Court vacancy. As I told him, my concerns about Gorsuch pale in comparison to my deep disquiet over the Senate’s refusal to “advise and consent” with respect to President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

Let me be very clear: Had Mitch McConnell and the GOP conducted hearings on Garland’s nomination, and then voted against confirmation, I would have disagreed with the result. But I wouldn’t have been appalled. I wouldn’t have seen a rejection that emerged from the proper process as a dangerous affront to democratic norms and the rule of law.

McConnell’s refusal to follow the standard procedure contemplated by the Constitution and traditionally adhered to by the Senate was a worrisome and unprecedented assault on governmental legitimacy.

If there is one clear distinction between western constitutional systems and the various dictatorships and theocracies around the globe, it is the formers’ emphasis on the importance of fair procedures that everyone, even government, must follow. As I’ve previously argued, the Bill of Rights might justifiably be characterized as a restatement of your mother’s admonition that how you do something can often be more important than what you choose to do.

“The ends do not justify the means” is a fundamental principle of American law.

Adherence to objective and uniform procedures–the institutional means through which governments achieve their ends—is at the core of the rule of law. For ideologues and theocrats, however, achieving the “right” outcome, managing to win one’s preferred outcomes even if that requires ignoring or circumventing accepted rules, is what is important. It’s the age-old conflict between the rule of law and the “rule of men” (aka the exercise of raw power).

I’ve always hated those “Dirty Harry” type movies, where the purported “good guy” foils the villain by breaking the rules. Those movies elevate the ends over the means–just as Mitch McConnell did when he exercised arbitrary power, in defiance of accepted democratic norms, simply because he could.

In an article about Gorsuch, Dahlia Lithwick recently argued that

the nomination is wholly illegitimate. Gorsuch may or may not be a good judge, but there is no principled reason for him to have a hearing when Merrick Garland did not. This is a problem of power, not legal qualifications.

The Democrats have an unpleasant choice to make. They can refuse to participate in Gorsuch’s hearings, implicitly normalizing this sort of thuggish behavior and doing further damage to American law and institutions, or they can participate in the hearings and demonstrate fidelity to the Constitutional process, recognizing that they are thereby tacitly condoning McConnell’s unconscionable breach and arguably encouraging more and further departures from government legitimacy and the rule of law.

Thanks to Mitch McConnell and his desire to flex his legislative muscle, to display to his base and his political opponents alike his power to “steal” a Supreme Court seat, either option will further erode American democracy and diminish respect for American political institutions.

While We Were Sleeping…

Tuesday night, Donald Trump announced his nominee for the Supreme Court seat that has been vacant since the death of Antonin Scalia. When I went to my computer yesterday morning, I found the predictable emails claiming that Judge Gorsuch is an unacceptable, far-right threat to the Republic and must be stopped (and oh, send money).

I agree that this nomination should be rejected (although I doubt it will be), but not because the Judge himself is outside the legal mainstream. He isn’t. He is certainly more conservative than I would like, and I disagree strongly with his particular approach to originalism. But accusations that he is an unacceptable ideologue are intellectually dishonest.

The real reason his nomination should be rejected is that placing him on the Supreme Court would reward an unprecedented assault on the rule of law–the refusal of the Senate to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland.

They blocked that nomination for entirely specious reasons, simply because they could.

I don’t think most Americans understand the implications of that action–implications that  go well beyond the makeup of the Supreme Court. In fact, the sheer effrontery of that power play requires us to consider the possibility–really, the likelihood– that we are no longer either a democracy or a republic; that during the past several years, while most Americans were comfortably detached from political activism and participation, a far-right faction of the Republican party managed to pull off a bloodless coup.

In plain sight.

Thanks to strategic gerrymandering, voters no longer choose their representatives–the representatives choose their voters. Together with successful vote suppression tactics (aided and abetted by voter apathy and citizen disengagement), the result is that this country is now run by people chosen by barely a quarter of those entitled to vote.

Thanks to manipulation of the filibuster, majority rule is no longer sufficient to pass legislation in the Senate. A minority of that body can block anything.

We are now governed by people who sneer at the rules of a constitutional system intended to constrain precisely the sort of power they now wield.

In the past, America has prided itself on adherence to the rule of law. A fundamental tenet of the rule of law is that no one is above the law–that the rules apply to everyone, governors and governed alike. Senator McConnell’s willingness to place raw power above that principle–and to gloat about it– was evidence that these radical usurpers no longer feel it necessary to give even lip service to that foundational principle.

It was the ultimate “fuck you, America. We have seized power and can do what we want.”

If Gorsuch is confirmed, so is the coup. It has nothing at all to do with his  judicial philosophy or bona fides.

I’m very much afraid that while Americans were sleeping through the warning signs, we lost our country.