Thursday, April 16, 2015

Judges Making the Law (With a Little Blasphemy Discussion)

We hear the term "judicial activism" often bandied about. The term has a number of different meanings, one of which is judges "making up the law." Whether such is good, I won't address. Rather, I note I agree with Erwin Chemerinsky and Catherine Fisk that such is nothing new.

The common law was built on judges making the law under the auspices of "discovering" it by looking up at the “brooding omnipresence in the sky” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once derisively put it.

Justice Scalia, however, argues in this article that post-Holmes' debunking of the metaphysics behind the common law and post-Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (where the Supreme Court announced there was no general federal common law), little justifies judges making law:
But democracy has overtaken all that. Modern governments, or modern governments in the West at least, are thought to derive their authority from the consent of the governed, and the laws they prescribe are enacted by the people’s representatives. Such a system is quite incompatible with the making (or the “finding”) of law by judges and most especially by unelected judges. Even in state courts, it is a rare case that does not involve interpretation of an enacted text. And federal courts have, since the decision of Erie R.R. v. Tomkins [sic] in 1939, completely abjured common-law powers except in a few limited fields such as admiralty; they do not pretend to have the power either to “find” or to “make” a law unevidenced by enacted text or (in cases coming within their diversity jurisdiction) by the text of state judicial decisions.
Scalia may be right. He's certainly right that state judges making law under the auspices of the uncodified "common law" that traces back in an unbroken line to England before America was founded is rare. Though it was much less rare during the time of the American Founding.

Though, when judges do use their common law powers to "make the law," as opposed to interpret a text, such uncodified state law is lower in hierarchy (as in higher law trumps lower law) than a simple state statute. As Walter Berns put it in his classic "Making Patriots":
But there was no disagreement about the place of the common law. Indeed one of the first things done by the states after independence was to declare (here in the words of the New Jersey constitution of 1776) that “the common law of England, as well as so much of the statute law, as have been heretofore practiced in this Colony, shall remain in force, until they shall be altered by a future law of the Legislature; such parts only excepted, as are repugnant to the rights and privileges contained in this Charter [or constitution].”
That section of Berns' book also discusses the notion that "Christianity" is part of the "common law." Jefferson didn't agree; but some other Founders did. Jefferson essentially blamed the "judicial activists" of his day for that one. But according to the theory of "modern government" to which both Scalia and Berns allude, the common law is a very weak place to rest a "fundamental" principle. It can be trumped by a simple statute or future court decision.

[We debate whether such even exists; but if it does, we can't amend the "laws of Nature and of Nature's God." We can amend the Constitution, but it's very difficult to do. Statutes are much easier to amend. And common law is the weakest of these sources.]

The notion that "Christianity is part of the common law" thus slowly died, mainly in the 19th Century. For instance, in 1837, in one of the few blasphemy cases ever tried in the United States after the Constitution was ratified (I think there were four of them), the Delaware court in The State v. Chandler claimed:
If in Delaware the people should adopt the Jewish or Mahometan religion, as they have an unquestionable right to do if they prefer it, this court is bound to notice it as their religion, and to respect it accordingly. 

It will be seen then that in our judgment by the constitution and laws of Delaware, the christian religion is a part of those laws, so far that blasphemy against it is punishable, while the people prefer it as their religion, and no longer. The moment they change it and adopt any other, as they may do, the new religion becomes in the same sense, a part of the law, for their courts are bound to yield it faith and credit, and respect it as their religion. Thus, while we punish the offence against society alone, we leave christianity to fight her own battles, ...
In essence, it claimed a secular rationale for blasphemy prosecutions.

[In one of the other few blasphemy cases, Ruggles v. People of New York, decided in 1811, Chancellor Kent claimed the leaders of non-Christian religions were "imposters."]

Today, most common law bodies of law still relevant have been codified into statutes. But judges are expected to interpret those statutes and sometimes "fill in gaps." Legislatures, in turn, can rewrite the statutes if they don't like how judges have been interpreting them.

One question I ask: According to Scalia's theory, was there ever a "golden age" in America where judges weren't improperly making the law? Scalia seems to concede that prior to Erie, when judges more often "made law" under the auspices of the "common law," judges engaged in something whose justificatory foundation was as solid as that of "Divine Right of Kings." And of course, we know that the 20th Century is the hallmark of "judicial activism."

The record of the judiciary in the 19th Century wasn't spotless either. That period gave us, among other things, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Slaughterhouse cases and the Holy Trinity case.

But I don't think the few rotten apples spoil the bunch. Most of the present Supreme Court cases are non-politicized; they are boring and uneventful. The newsworthy cases that are politicized with presently Justice Kennedy breaking the tie are the exception. But the exceptions are significant.

My assessment of the judiciary is that it is not unlike the two other branches of government: Don't look for perfection because you won't find it.


Tom Van Dyke said...

One question I ask: According to Scalia's theory, was there ever a "golden age" in America where judges weren't improperly making the law? Scalia seems to concede that prior to Erie, when judges more often "made law" under the auspices of the "common law," judges engaged in something whose justificatory foundation was as solid as that of "Divine Right of Kings."

The golden age of judicial non-aggression should be now. The idea is that the new American republic kept English common law in place until such time as it had built up a canon of positive law of its own.

That time came--let's call it 1939 with Erie if we must. Regardless, in 2015, that time certainly has come.

Legislatures are empowered to make law; judiciaries are not.

As Scalia says in another forum:

The American people can make their will well enough known by creating new rights legislatively, or in the last analysis by amending the Constitution per Article V.

One who believes that it falls to the courts to update the list of rights guaranteed by the constitution tends to be one who believes in a platonic right and wrong, which wise judges are able to discern when the people at large cannot.

In fact, it has occurred to me that this notion of an overarching moral law that is binding upon all of the nations of the world -- and with which all the judges of all of the nations of the world are charged with interpreting -- has replaced the common law. Those of you who are lawyers will remember that, in the bad old days, that is to say, before Erie RR v. Tompkins [304 US 64, 78 (1938)], the courts believed that there was a single common law, it was up there in the stratosphere.

Now, the state courts of California said it meant one thing, the state courts of New York said it meant something else, and the Federal Courts might say it meant a third thing.

But one of them was wrong!

Because there really is a common law, and it's our job to figure out what it is. So in those days, any common-law decision of one state would readily cite common-law decisions of other states, because all the judges were engaged in the enterprise of figuring out the meaning of what Holmes called "the brooding omnipresence in the sky" of the common law. Well, I think we've replaced that with the law of human rights. Which is a moral law, and surely there must be a right and a wrong answer to these moral questions -- whether there's a right to an abortion, whether there's a right to homosexual conduct, what constitututes cruel and unusual punishment, and so on -- surely there is a right and wrong moral answer.

And I believe there is, but the only thing is, I'm not sure what that right answer is. Or at least, I am for myself, but I'm not sure it's the same as what you think. And the notion that all the judges in the world can contemplate this brooding omnipresence of moral law, cite one another's opinions, and that somehow, they are qualified by their appointment to decide these very difficult moral questions... It's quite surprising to me, but I am sure that this is where we are. There really is a brotherhood of the judiciary who indeed believe that it is our function as judges to determine the proper meaning of human rights, and what the brothers and sisters in one country say is quite relevant to what the brothers and sisters in another country say. And that's why I think, if you are a living constitutionalist, you are almost certainly and internationalist living constitutionalist.

And so on. He elsewhere notes that when jurists look to international law, it's always a law they agree with, not, say, Saudi Arabia's. The international brotherhood of common law gets cherry-picked in a hurry.

Art Deco said...

Quit playing coy. Contemporary controversies concern appellate judges annulling statues due to fancied conflict with constitutional provisions, not common law jurisprudence. (IIRC, this was done by federal appellate courts a couple-dozen times during the long 19th century). The whole project of interpreting and applying the 14th amendment involves oodles of intellectual fraud and pretension and pretty much discredits the appellate judiciary and the legal academy. Ditto the appellate courts' definitions of 'interstate commerce'. We'd be better off with a body of constitutional law and no constitution per se. Britain and Israel have functioned without one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The whole project of interpreting and applying the 14th amendment involves oodles of intellectual fraud and pretension and pretty much discredits the appellate judiciary and the legal academy.

Quite frankly, I studiously avoided studying modern 14th Amendment case law for precisely that concern.

Now that I've wasted a boodle of time investigating it, I believe my initial concern was well-founded. The left side of the equation barely bothers to scramble for a fig leaf to justify transforming their druthers into positive law--they can do whatever the hell they want under an amorphous power to discern and promulgate "evolving standards," just as Scalia limned it.

"[O]nce you assume the power to revise the constitution to keep it up to are engaged in the process of writing a constitution."