Separation of Powers and Federalism

  • May 31, 2012
    BookTalk
    The U.S. Supreme Court
    A Very Short Introduction
    By: 
    Linda Greenhouse

    By Linda Greenhouse, the Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, a Senior Research Scholar in Law and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. Greenhouse, a member of the American Constitution Society's Board of Directors, will be signing copies of her new book at the 2012 ACS National Convention.


    Has there been a time recently when public understanding of the Supreme Court was so important – and so lacking?

    In a Pew poll two summers ago, only 28 percent of the respondents could identify John Roberts as chief justice (a position he had then held for nearly five years) from among a list of four names. The other options, all of which some people selected, were Thurgood Marshall, who had died 17 years earlier; John Paul Stevens, who was in the news for retiring; and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. Just imagine what people don’t know about how the court sets its agenda or construes statutes, or about the powers of the chief justice or the debate over constitutional interpretation.

    With a court of conservative activists substituting their policy judgments for those of Congress; using the First Amendment as a deregulatory tool; and proposing to unsettle long-settled understandings of affirmative action and voting rights, it’s essential that we become a nation of knowledgeable, or at least better-informed, court-watchers. That’s the big ambition of my new little book – and I use the word “little” as an accurate physical description (7 by 4.5 inches in dimension, 117 pages of text), not as false modesty.

  • May 29, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Perpetual campaigning for national offices, ongoing and intensifying gridlock in Congress and a Supreme Court that easily invalidates federal laws might be sensibly addressed if only it were easier to amend to the nation’s Constitution. As Sanford Levinson, a leading constitutional scholar writes in a column for The New York Times critical discussion of the Constitution’s imperfections and their impact on governance is needed, but often impossible to entertain because of the reticence to do so by prominent politicians.

    First Levinson notes the problem, writing:

    Our vaunted system of ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ – a legacy of the founders’ mistrust of ‘factions’ – means that we rarely have anything that can truly be described as ‘government.’ Save for those rare instances when one party has hefty control over four branches – the House of Representatives, the Senate, the White House and the Supreme Court – gridlock threatens. Elections are increasingly meaningless, at least in terms of producing results commensurate with the challenges facing the country.

    The nation’s founders, however, were not so wedded to an unchanging governing document. Indeed Levinson points to the Articles of Confederation, which many of the nation’s founders disparaged, and which was eventually dumped because it set up a weak central government.

    But Article V of the Constitution, Levinson writes, makes it one of the world’s most difficult to amend.

    On top of that few national leaders seriously question the Constitution’s adequacy. (He notes Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the last to publicly discuss drawbacks of the Constitution.)

  • May 10, 2012
    BookTalk
    Building the Judiciary
    Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development
    By: 
    Justin Crowe

    By Justin Crowe, an assistant professor of political science at Williams College


    Gee, for a one-time constitutional law professor, Barack Obama sure does seem to harbor a lot of hostility for judges. (And, judging [a legal pun — ha!] by Samuel Alito and Jerry Smith, they for him.) Doesn’t he? First there was the broadside at his 2011 State of the Union criticizing the Court's decision in Citizens United, prompting Alito's now-infamous “not true” moment. Next there was his claim that the Court wouldn't dare strike down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, prompting Smith’s surely soon-to-be-infamous order to a DOJ lawyer for a memo outlining the Justice Department’s views on judicial review. For all his claims about “due deference to the separation of powers” and supposed belief in the importance of an independent judiciary to protect the rights of citizens and the rule of law, it appears Obama only likes the Court — only likes the judiciary more broadly — when it agrees with him. And surely that sort of “anti-judgeite” perspective is a terrible one for American constitutionalism and American democracy. Right?

    Well, yes — sort of ... and no, not at all. In a sense, Obama only really values judicial power to the extent that its exercise comports with his policy preferences. But, at base, who doesn’t? Presidents always want — have always wanted — courts to bend to their will. And politicians generally always try — have always tried — to shape courts to serve their interests. So what? Does this really “politicize” the judiciary in some needless, inappropriate, and harmful way? Does it really demonstrate that judicial power — that judicial independence, that law itself — is somehow perpetually under political siege? Not even remotely.

    As I attempt to show in my recent book, Building the Judiciary: Law, Courts, and the Politics of Institutional Development, any claims that judicial power — that judicial autonomy or judicial independence — has ever been, in any meaningful sense, beyond the sphere of politics are fundamentally incorrect.

  • April 26, 2012
    BookTalk
    The Immigration Crucible
    Transforming Race, Nation, and the Limits of the Law
    By: 
    Philip A. Kretsedemas

    By Philip A. Kretsedemas, an associate professor of sociology at The University of Massachusetts Boston


    For the past two years, the national debate over police involvement in immigration enforcement has focused on Arizona Senate Bill 1070. When it was first enacted, SB 1070 was widely criticized for the broad discretion it allowed Arizona police to question people about their legal status. Much of this criticism focused on the problem of immigrant racial profiling. Opponents of the bill argued that it opened the door for the indiscriminate interrogation of anyone who looks like an unauthorized migrant.

    Even though these complaints figured prominently in the public debate over SB 1070, it is rather telling that they have dropped out of the legal arguments that have been marshaled against the bill. One reason for this curious situation is that complaints about racial profiling and selective enforcement have historically been framed as violations of Fourth Amendment rights. But it also so happens that the legal challenge against SB 1070 is being led by the Department of Justice which, for obvious reasons, is not interested in setting legal precedents that would limit the search and seizure power of the police. The Supreme Court, which is currently deliberating over the DOJ's lawsuit against SB 1070, also has a history of favoring the discretionary powers of law enforcement over Fourth Amendment considerations.

    It is important to keep this context in mind when evaluating the legal arguments that are being levied against SB 1070. The DOJ is advancing a finely pitched argument which takes issue with the law making powers of local governments but not the search and seizure practices of law enforcement. It is also bears noting that the DOJ is not opposing local immigration laws on principle. The DOJ supported Arizona's employer sanctions law (penalizing businesses that hire unauthorized migrants) which was subsequently upheld by the 9th Circuit and Supreme Court. The federal government also doesn't seem to be opposed, on principle, to the involvement of police in enforcing federal immigration laws. The Obama administration has actually given state and local police new opportunities to enforce immigration laws. It has only taken issue with local enforcement practices that operate outside of the federal-local enforcement arrangements that have already been authorized by federal law.

  • March 29, 2012
    BookTalk
    Framed
    America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance
    By: 
    Sanford Levinson

    By Sanford Levinson, W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School, and Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.


    I am immensely grateful to be invited to discuss my new book, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, to the readers of ACSblog. I have crafted these comments in a way that highlights what may be an important difference between my take on the Constitution and that of many of my friends in the ACS. Although many, perhaps most of us, share the perception that the contemporary United States is increasingly caught in a “crisis of governance,” attention tends to be addressed at the defects of particular leaders, including, of course, the present majority of the United States Supreme Court. There is much with which I agree in the vision of The Constitution in 2020  set out in the book co-edited by my friends and casebook co-editors Jack Balkin and Reva Siegel.

    However, I believe that we cannot begin to diagnose the causes of our crisis by focusing only on what I call the Constitution of Conversation. It can also be described as the litigated Constitution, and it is litigated precisely because clever lawyers are highly skilled in demonstrating that the indeterminate language of, say, the Commerce or Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, can be used to support a constitutional vision congruent with the collective goals of the lawyers’ clients or perhaps the lawyers themselves (if they are “cause lawyers”).  In any event, these conversations are known to all of us, and we see them being spelled out particularly passionately with regard to the Affordable Care Act.

    But the most important political realities of the Affordable Care Act are first that it took literally more than a half century to pass after initial proposals by Harry Truman and, secondly, that it is a defective bill in many respects with regard genuinely to getting a handle on the costs of a modern medical system. To explain these realities requires no conversation about the “meaning” of the Constitution. Rather, it requires addressing too-often-ignored “civics class” features of the United States Constitution. How does a bill become a law (or, more practically, why do most legislative proposals have only a snowballs chance in hell of being passed)? The answer lies in the almost insurmountable hurdles set up by the particular American system of bicameralism and the opportunity of presidents to veto any legislation they do not like on policy grounds, with the near impossibility of overrides. I will rejoice when the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act, as I still think is likely. But it should also be recognized that what the Court will be doing, at best, is saying that a mediocre, albeit necessary, piece of legislation is constitutional if it can run the minefield against progressive legislation established in 1787 and left remarkably unchanged since then. That is the importance of looking at the basic “framing” of the Constitution and the assumptions underlying it. It was designed by people who were basically mistrustful of popular democracy and, more particularly, redistributive legislation. They succeeded quite well in creating a political system that stifles both.