In December, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an important case out of Mount Holly, New Jersey, that involves Fair Housing Act (FHA) claims in the context of an effort by Mount Holly Township to use eminent domain to redevelop its only predominately minority community – and in the process, displace and raze the homes of its residents. As such, the case raises an important test of whether conservatives hate eminent domain more than they detest civil rights statutes like the FHA that protect minority homeowners from unjustified disparate impact. The answer apparently is the latter.
As everyone knows, the property rights movement has led a crusade against eminent domain in the courts over the past decade, highlighted by the case of Kelo v. New London. While they lost Kelo, property rights groups such as the Institute for Justice and the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) have used public sentiment against the Kelo ruling to fuel ballot initiatives and legislation that have passed in whole or in part in 42 states. A critical talking point for leading groups in this crusade has been the impact that eminent domain can have on low-income and minority communities. This concern has activated some important groups on the Left. For example, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other big names of the civil rights community filed briefs for the plaintiff in Kelo alongside the property rights groups.
It would seem, then, that something we could all agree on is that eminent domain should not be used as a tool for racial discrimination. That is precisely what is being alleged by the homeowners in the Mount Holly case, whose homes are slated to be demolished to make way for a planned community of significantly more expensive housing units with a tony-sounding name, “The Villages at Parker’s Mill.” They are seeking a court hearing on their claims under the FHA that the township is employing eminent domain in a way that unjustly disadvantages minority homeowners and residents.
One of the glaring things revealed by a review of the briefs in Shelby County v. Holder is the dearth of serious constitutional scholars in the fray supporting the conservative attack on the Voting Rights Act. On Shelby County’s side are the predictable array of political scientists like Abigail Thernstrom, election policy hacks like Hans von Spakovsky, and Reagan-era war horses like John Eastman. But where are the leading conservative constitutional thinkers on this – Mike McConnell, Eugene Volokh, Randy Barnett, Gary Lawson, and Steve Calabresi? None of these bright-light conservative names grace the briefs on behalf of Shelby County and, so far, their silence has been deafening in the public debate. As University of Kentucky law professor Josh Douglas has pointed out over at PrawfsBlawg, it’s really hard to find a credible academic to provide “balance” to a panel discussion on Shelby (though Cato’s Ilya Shapiro has gamely offered to fill this void).
Lyle Denniston recently described “the tendency of the ‘Roberts Court’ to take on the broadest kind of controversy in cases brought to it.” From Citizens United v. FEC, in which the Court expanded the case on its own motion, scheduled a second argument, and then issued a sweeping ruling discarding prior case law, to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) cases about to be argued, in which the Court decided to hear just about every claim presented to it -- including claims unanimously rejected by the lower courts -- and scheduled six hours of argument time over three days, the Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has put itself at the center of some of the most important political controversies of our day.
Decisions like the Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United illustrate that the Roberts Court is not only taking big cases and issuing sweeping rulings, it is also splitting sharply along ideological lines on important questions about the meaning of our founding document. That is the focus of The Constitution at a Crossroads: The Ideological Battle over the Meaning of the Constitution, an attempt by Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) to map and describe the ideological battlegrounds on the Roberts Court. We began to rollout the Crossroads project today with a media teleconference featuring Tom Perriello (former Member of Congress and current head of Center for American Progress Action Fund) and myself (you can listen to our remarks here).
CAC will be releasing Crossroads chapter-by-chapter over the next several months, beginning today with the release of three chapters on the powers of the federal government, which helps set the stage for the ACA argument later this month. Our plan is to release a dozen or so more chapters over the course of the spring, as the Court races toward the end of its October 2011 Term. After the Court completes its work, we will spend the summer editing, revising and compiling Crossroads into a single document for release in the early fall, timed to coincide with the celebration of the 225th Anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution and the opening of the Court’s October 2012 Term. Because Crossroads will be released over time and then revised and edited after the Court ends its Term in June, we very much welcome comments and criticisms from ACS members as we shape the final product.
Crossroads is not the first attempt to map the ideological divisions on the Supreme Court. In 1988, in the wake of the decisive defeat of the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and in the run-up to an election that seemed destined to determine the direction of the Court for a generation to come, the Reagan Justice Department released a series of reports that highlighted “substantial differences of opinion over the judicial role in contemporary society.” The most famous of these reports, entitled The Constitution in the Year 2000, highlighted fifteen areas of constitutional law likely to be decided by the Supreme Court over the intervening years, and the “alternative roads down which the Court might travel over this time.”
In their opening Democracy article, “The Framers’ Constitution,” Stone (pictured) and William Marshall, a former ACS Board member and a distinguished law professor at the University of North Carolina, contend that the Constitution’s framers “understood that they were entrusting to the future generations the responsibility to draw upon their intelligence, judgment, and experience to give concrete meaning to these broad principles over time. As Chief Justice John Marshall observed almost two centuries ago, ‘we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding … intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.’” (During the 2011 ACS National Convention, Stone provided a speech exploring some of his thoughts on framing the debate over constitutional interpretation. Video of his speech is available here.)
Kendall and Jim Ryan, a distinguished law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, explain in their opening article, “The Case for New Textualism,” that progressives “are losing the fight over the courts and the Constitution because conservatives have maneuvered us into running from, rather than embracing, the text of and history of the Constitution.” The two say, “New textualists look carefully at history – both the enactment history of particular provisions and the broader historical events that produced the need for the text – to understand the meaning of the Constitution’s text.” Kendall and Ryan offer a response to the Stone and Marshall here.
In their response to the new textulism argument, Stone and Marshall write that in contrast they believe “the better way for progressives to articulate a genuinely principled theory of constitutionalism and win an informed public debate is to embrace the jurisprudence of John Marshall rather than the methodology of Antonin Scalia. We believe that our understanding of the Framers’ Constitution presents a more honest account of how constitutional interpretation operates in the real world, and is truer to the Framers’ understanding than a mechanical invocation of either originalism or textualism.”
More than at any time in recent memory a public debate on the meaning of the Constitution and how to interpret it has been engaged by many, attracting some significant attention from news media that are more readily drawn to far less weighty matters.
Tea Party activists have played a fairly large, if not misguided, role in heightening this discussion, but progressives have heartily joined the debate with a largely unified voice. There is, however, a vigorous discussion among progressives on how best to explain their understanding of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation.
These competing visions over messaging of progressives’ vision of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation can be found in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. The Democracy editors describe the parameters of the discussion here.
Distinguished law school professors Geoffrey Stone, chair of the ACS Board, and William Marshall, a former ACS Board member, write in their article “The Framers’ Constitution,” that it is a time for an era of “principled constitutionalism,” in which constitutional interpretation is not seen as a “mechanical enterprise,” instead calling for judges to “exercise judgment.” To enter this era, the professors note that the right-wing method of interpreting the constitution, known as “originalism,” must be exposed as a flawed method, one that advances right-wing political concerns and has effectively convinced lots of people that interpreting the Constitution is as simple as staring for long periods of time at the text of the document.
Stone (pictured), a law professor at the University of Chicago, and Marshall, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, write that the Framers of the Constitution created a founding charter “to endure,” by establishing “foundational principles that would sustain and guide the new nation into an uncertain future.”
Stone and Marshall write:
The text of the Constitution reflects this vision. It defines our most fundamental freedoms in general terms: “freedom of speech,” “due process of law,” “free exercise” of religion, “equal protection of the laws,” “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Constitution sets forth governmental powers in similarly general terms: Congress may regulate “commerce…among the several states,” the president will “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the courts are authorized to decide “cases” and “controversies.”
Stone and Marshall continue that the Framers “understood that they were entrusting to the future generations the responsibility to draw upon their intelligence, judgment, and experience to give concrete meaning to these broad principles over time. As Chief Justice John Marshall observed almost two centuries ago, ‘we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding … intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”
The professors then elaborate on how a right-wing legal movement has tirelessly worked to undermine the Framers’ vision of enduring foundational values by successfully pushing the theory of “originalism,” which “presumes that courts should exercise judicial restraint unless the ‘original meaning’ of the text clearly mandates a more activist approach. Under this theory, for example, it is appropriate for courts to invoke the Equal Protection Clause to invalidate laws that deny African Americans the right to serve on juries, but not to invalidate laws that deny women the same right, because that not he ‘original meaning’ of the clause.”
And Stone and Marshall detail how originalism is “fundamentally flawed.”
Kendall and Ryan argue in their article, “The Case for New Textualism,” that a theory akin to originalism should be promoted as the progressives’ answer. They also assert that right-wing activists have dominated the discourse on the Constitution and constitutional interpretation for far too long, causing progressives to run from the Constitution.
But Stone and Marshall say it is not a matter of being pinned in, maneuvered or chased away from the debate over the Constitution.
Instead, they say, progressives must bring reason to the debate, including providing a sharp rebuke of the right wing’s flawed understandings of the Constitution and how its foundational values should be applied. Interpreting the Constitution and applying its enduring values in today’s society is not as mechanical as the Right has declared. Judging, the professors write, is in no way similar to the work of baseball umpires.
Stone and Marshall in this response write, “Kendall and Ryan argue that the best way for liberals to win the public debate about the judiciary is to claim that liberals adhere to a ‘textualist’ understanding of constitutional interpretation that is akin to the conservatives’ ‘originalist’ theory. Such an approach, they suggest, will appeal to the public because of its seeming clarity and neutrality. They add that the ‘new textualism,’ properly applied, will lead to liberal results.”
They conclude that “the better way for progressives to articulate a genuinely principled theory of constitutionalism and win an informed public debate is to embrace the jurisprudence of John Marshall rather than the methodology of Antonin Scalia. We believe that our understanding of the Framers’ Constitution presents a more honest account of how constitutional interpretation operates in the real world, and is truer to the Framers’ understanding than a mechanical invocation of either originalism or textualism.”