Erwin Chemerinsky

  • January 22, 2016

    by Christopher Durocher

    Presidents Obama’s executive actions on guns, announced this month, have drawn unfair and unwarranted criticism, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and one of the nation’s leading legal scholars. In testimony submitted to the Senate in advance of a hearing held this past Wednesday, Chemerinsky, who is also a member of ACS’s board of directors, explains that the president’s actions “are clearly constitutional. The new policies announced by President Obama are relatively modest and are entirely focused on enforcing existing statutes. Thus all are within the permissible scope of executive power without infringing the Second Amendment.”

    Among the president’s executive actions, Chemerinsky notes, is guidance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that “clarifies which gun sellers are ‘engaged in the business’ of dealing firearms, and therefore must obtain federal licenses and conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers” and directives to the ATF and FBI to “prosecute individuals who illegally attempt to obtain firearms and also to inform state law enforcement whenever a prohibited person in their state fails a background check.” Chemerinsky describes both measures as “common sense” efforts to better enforce existing federal law. He further notes that, “Not one federal court ever has questioned the constitutionality of the federal laws being enforced by President Obama’s executive order.”

  • January 7, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    Those who are occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon are making a legal argument that has no basis. The protestors, led by Ammon Bundy and who call themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom,” have made two demands.  

    One is a reduction in the sentences for Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands in Oregon. Their crime has a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, but the federal district court imposed a three-month sentence on Dwight Hammond and two 12 month sentences (to be served concurrently) on Steven Hammond. In October 2015, the Ninth Circuit reversed these sentences as being inconsistent with mandatory minimums required by federal law. Although the protestors are objecting to this, the Hammonds, through an attorney, have stated that they do not support the occupation.

    The other demand involves a claim about the law. The protestors are demanding that the federal government relinquish control over the wildlife refuge and much of the land that the federal government owns in western states. Their argument is that this is land that is legally owned by the state governments.

    But this is a claim without basis in the law. In terms of the Constitution, there is no doubt that the United States government can own land. In fact, Article IV, section 3 of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to control all property of the United States.  The United States government has owned and managed property since the first days of the nation.

  • September 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

    In some of the most famous words ever written by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall declared in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819, we must “never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding. . . .  [A] constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” This is a clear expression of the need for a living Constitution, one whose meaning evolves by interpretation as well as by the very difficult process of amendment.

    This should not be controversial. The only way that the nation can be governed by a document written in 1787 for an agrarian slave society is for its intentionally broad, open-textured language to be given contemporary meanings. There is no clear “original understanding” of any constitutional provision and even if it could be identified, it should not be controlling today. The same Congress that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment also voted to segregate the District of Columbia public schools. But that does not mean that Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided.

    This would be unremarkable except that Justice Scalia and other conservatives have argued for decades that the meaning of the Constitution is limited to its original understanding. This philosophy, “originalism,” says that a constitutional provision means the same thing today as when it was adopted and that this meaning can be changed only by constitutional amendment.

    Never has a majority of the Court embraced this restrictive approach. One of the most important aspects of the Court’s decision in June recognizing a constitutional right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians was it again explicitly rejected originalism.

    In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court declared unconstitutional laws in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that prohibited same-sex marriage. Obviously, no one contends that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment meant to include a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians within its protections of due process and equal protection. The majority of the Court was clear that this does not matter because the understanding of constitutional provisions evolves over time.

    Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, observed that “[t]he identification and protection of fundamental rights . . . has not been reduced to any formula.” He explained why constitutional interpretation cannot be limited to understandings of the past: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution's central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.  If rights were defined by who exercised them in the past, then received practices could serve as their own continued justification and new groups could not invoke rights once denied. This Court has rejected that approach, both with respect to the right to marry and the rights of gays and lesbians.”

  • June 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    The Supreme Court’s decision upholding a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians surprised no one, but that makes the victory for liberty and equality no less important. Two years ago, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared unconstitutional a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. The Court held that there was no legitimate purpose served by the federal government refusing to recognize same sex marriages.

    Virtually every lower court, except for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, interpreted Windsor as providing a basis for invalidating laws prohibiting same sex marriage. As a result, as the Supreme Court considered the issue, marriage equality existed in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The issue before the Court was less about whether to extend marriage equality and more about whether the Court would take it away from all of the states where it existed by virtue of Court decisions.

    Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision reflects that there is no legitimate government purpose served by denying gays and lesbians of the right to marry. A history of discrimination never is enough to justify current discrimination. The argument based on procreation was silly.  Gay and lesbian couples will procreate – by adoption, surrogacy, and artificial insemination – whether they can marry or not. Their children should be able to benefit from marriage, the same as children of heterosexual couples.

    The Court’s decision will be regarded as a historic landmark for advancing equality and liberty. It is the Court playing exactly the role that it should in society:  protecting those who have been traditionally discriminated against and extending to them a right long regarded as fundamental.

  • June 25, 2015

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Following today’s Supreme Court opinion in King v. Burwell, ACS President Caroline Fredrickson moderated a briefing about the outcome in the healthcare case featuring Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and Elizabeth G. Taylor, executive director of the National Health Law Program.

    Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the 6-3 majority concluded in part that the intent of Congress mattered a lot and that the Affordable Care Act did not include a provision to destroy the law’s aim to expand health care coverage. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not destroy them,” Roberts wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

    In the call Chemerinsky noted that while the chief justice’s opinion relied on some of the plain language of the ACA, the majority also relied on context and the intent of Congress.  Beyond noting Justice Antonin Scalia’s “sarcastic” dissent in King v. Burwell, Chemerinsky said Scalia failed to advance his long-held view that only the plain language of the law should rule the day.

    “It is Justice Scalia who has been so outspoken in saying, ‘We only look at plain language, we don’t look at things like legislative history.’ But a majority of the Court has never taken that position,” Chemerinsky said. “Just because Justice Scalia says it loudly and often still does not make it a majority approach from the Supreme Court.”

    Overall the high court interprets statutes in context. Rarely has the court interpreted statutes on text alone, Chemerinsky said.

    Taylor agreed, saying that the scheme of the health care reform law was to provide health insurance across the board.

    “I think this is a great day, it’s a relief to have this challenge over with,” Taylor said.

    Taylor, however, added that more work lies ahead to expand healthcare coverage, noting that many states have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA, leaving millions without the ability to receive quality healthcare coverage. 

    Chemerinsky also lauded Roberts and Kennedy for rising above the partisanship that has surrounded the Affordable Care Act since its consideration in Congress and after its enactment in 2010. Chemerinsky, author of The Case Against The Supreme Court, was pleased the chief justice and Kennedy were able today to transcend the partisanship and uphold a law intended to better the lives of millions of Americans.

    Though Chemerinsky cautioned against reading too much into Roberts’ votes to uphold the Affordable Care Act against two major challenges.

    Instead, Chemerinsky said there is something else underlying the chief justice’s work, which could help explain his votes in the cases challenging major provisions of the ACA.

    “I think Chief Justice John Roberts’ inclinations are much more pro-business than pro-states’ rights,” Chemerinsky said. “Both decisions benefit business, the insurance business. I just think he’s less inclined to accept the states’ rights arguments than other conservatives.”

    Audio of the call is available here.