The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)
Select Page
Nikolas Bowie, The Government-Could-Not-Work Doctrine, 105 Va. L. Rev. 1 (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

Without much fuss, writing with easy, accomplished clarity, Nikolas Bowie puts forward two striking ideas interacting dramatically in his article The Government-Could-Not-Work-Doctrine.

The first is advertised in the title of his article: The proposition that government is supposed to work is constitutional, Bowie stresses. It is itself a notion properly treated as of primary relevance in processes of bringing to bear other constitutional considerations. In particular, he asserts, government efforts ought ordinarily to win our respect if they declare their general applicability to be integral to their aims. Vaccination programs, we may especially appreciate these days, count as paradigm illustrations. Claims to exceptions, however deeply felt and honorably motivated, should not prevail absent directly pertinent, emphatically couched constitutional directives. “We cannot always be in every political majority.” (P. 62.) Individuals who resist general dictates should consider tactics founded in philosophies of civil disobedience. Bowie mobilizes, inter alia, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (P. 3).

The second idea pretty much takes over the essay quite quickly (Pp. 11-35).

We are made witnesses to a distinctly striated chronology. Until 1943, Professor Bowie reports, the Supreme Court respected government efforts to treat regulatory agendas as generally applicable. After Justice Jackson wrote his majority opinion in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, however, the idea of exceptions to duties writ large quite often figured as high-church constitutional law too. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Many Court rulings followed Barnette’s lead, if variously, complicated sequences of decisions emerging. Sometime around 1982, Bowie sees a second shift, a largely returned resolution, a now bridged gap. Exceptions are once more exceptional, expansive laws are much more often accorded constitutional respect. Lawyers sometimes lag – and the Supreme Court is not always consistent in its course. Professor Bowie has collected and read closely a very large lot of cases, however. His main point is the larger movement. Convinced his chronology holds, he readily reaches conclusions about the content of constitutional law as we ought to understand it as of now. Cases that we might suppose are complicated are not, he argues. For example, the baker’s claim to exemption from nondiscrimination law in Masterpiece Cakeshop (sidestepped in Justice Kennedy’s opinion there) “would go to the heart of the government-could-not-work doctrine.” Bowie is confident: “The Court would have an easy time rejecting it.” (P. 59.) Notably, he writes at considerable length setting up a context marking as wrong the Court’s ruling in Janus last summer. Re-embracing a free speech right to refuse to pay agency fees to public sector unions was plainly error. “[A]gency-fee agreements and other compelled subsidies should be presumptively constitutional, no matter what the recipient spends the fees on.” (P. 53.)

There’s more discussion of examples. It’s all very well done. What precisely do we learn?

“Working government” ought to be viewed as a constitutional concern. This is an old thought. It is everywhere in John Marshall’s opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland, for example, pretty much the premise of its discussion of how to understand the Necessary and Proper Clause, and also the prompt giving urgency to the worry that Maryland’s “power to tax” is or would be or might be “the power to destroy.” Marshall had latitude there, though. He was working with the article I, section 8 list of congressional powers, along the way assuming that no other constitutional terms were pertinently constraining his readings. Bowie, it appears, treats the broad readings given constitutional rights in the gap years as originating against a backdrop something like Marshall’s. No constitutional endorsements of legislative authority, either federal or state, were thought to be immediately implicated. There was not much need therefore, it may have seemed, to judge separately immediate infringements of rights and oblique obstructions. Bowie depicts the Supreme Court, over the last three decades or so, as now putting up fences, hedging rights-readings in service of working government, more or less independently of whether specific constitutional constraints are pertinent. “Good fences make good neighbours” – Robert Frost’s North of Boston jurisprudence? (More precisely maybe, Frost’s neighbor’s father’s jurisprudence?)

Professor Bowie adroitly juxtaposes the “much older” and “pretty much right now” lines of Supreme Court thinking. He is more inclined to note the fact of the gap he’s discovered, jumping effortlessly across it, than to look closely at the clangorous opinions accumulated there. Why? Gaps open up in constitutional law, not news we know. After 1937, for example, a great host of Supreme Court Commerce Clause decisions were quite quickly deemed to be irrelevant, Justices openly marking the phenomenon. Around 1937 also, an entire herd of substantive due process opinions looked to have wandered off too, recognized suddenly as extinct, kin to mastodons or wooly mammoths. Near to 1982 (Bowie’s time change), we know, Brown v. Board of Education began to recede from view, maybe not so quickly or completely, obscured by a crowd of new Supreme Court remedial concerns and hesitations.

The question is not whether we forget Barnette itself. Bowie suggests that he would not. It’s rather the resonance – the thought we take away after reading Jackson’s opinion that we have encountered something right in our constitutional law, something it would be wrong not to put to work, to mark where we stand. (Many of us – Justice Kavanaugh, for example – say we feel this way about Brown.) Too: the four decades 1943-82 show off an exuberantly critical mass of talented, ambitious, creative, independent-minded, only sometimes coalescing Justices: Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Jackson, Warren, Harlan, Brennan, Marshall, Rehnquist, Powell – just for starters. A golden age? Barnette one of its especially bright pillars? Or too often too brilliant, we might think (perhaps remembering Daniel Farber). “Constellations” might appear to encompass not only Barnette and its immediate family resemblances, for example, but also other bright stars and their larger groupings. These gatherings may not be stable, instead networks open to further rhizome-like elaborations. Forty years of cases, often enough over time sprawling well beyond initial points of departure, in fact spurred more than a few aggressively re-thought organizings, we know. Unlike Laurence Tribe and John Ely (many others also), Nikolas Bowie resists this call. He perhaps appreciates Oedipus at Colonus. Heroic figures and their great works belong underground, now-chthonic forces: turbulences, a warning perimeter of sorts, maybe only safely within which ordinary work might be done.

“We can be heroes.” Did David Bowie sing wrongly?

It is not at all surprising, we realize, that Nikolas Bowie avoids looking too closely into the gap he’s discovered. Why try to take inventory down in the dark, plot the reach of all the reverberations, the full extent of the forty-year pile-up, would-be “golden age” or not? Bowie wants what’s in the gap out of the way.

Less disciplined, I peer just for a moment. Justices Brennan and Rehnquist, active in overlapping stretches in second half gap years, continued in their often-competing efforts for a while in the first part of Bowie’s “right now.” They’re near the top of the heap therefore (in a way both inside and outside the gap).

Brennan – The famous term “actual malice” inserted into constitutional law in 1964 in New York Times v. Sullivan is exemplary. It looks to have originated in one of the alternative sets of common law defamation checkpoints (notably, Thomas Cooley’s) still in use in Sullivan’s time. Justice Brennan, however, turned it first into a photographic negative of sorts of “robust and inhibited” public debate – the “central meaning” he declared. But then in Garrison in 1965 he also characterized it affirmatively as the core notion for purposes of modeling remedies as against anti-free speech (Brennan evoking Nazi manipulations of defamation law), underscoring and responding to Justice Black’s concern in Sullivan itself for how widespread white supremacist sentiment might readily infiltrate and weaponize defamation suits (civil or criminal) to suppress civil rights protest. “Actual malice” thus both pledged allegiance to and protectively organized regulation of free speech. The first amendment and the fourteenth amendment effectively incorporated – looked to – each other.

Rehnquist – Near to invisible, his masterpiece for present purposes may be Jean v. Nelson, decided in 1985. The United States government had detained hundreds of Haitian arrivals, undocumented and excludable, for an extended, indefinite period of time at its Miami Krome Avenue detention facility – which had become effectively an internment camp. See Irwin P. Stotzky, Send Them Back (2018). All sorts of constitutional, statutory and administrative law arguments and counter-arguments swirled around the case. Rehnquist seized upon a single colloquy at oral argument (Justice Stevens asks the question):

“Question: You are arguing that constitutionally you would not be inhibited from discriminating against these people on whatever ground seems appropriate. But as I understand your regulations, you are also maintaining that the regulations do not constitute any kind of discrimination against these people, and … your agents in the field are inhibited by your own regulations from doing what you say the Constitution would permit you to do.”

“Solicitor General: That’s correct.”

(Pp. 855-56.)

Dissonance becomes crystallization, an affirmatively rejected constitutional proposition acquires authority, two words work as rule of recognition, in several senses authorize the force of law:

We have no quarrel with the dissent’s view that the proper reading of important statutes and regulations may not be always left to the stipulation of the parties. But when all parties, including the agency which wrote and enforces the regulations, and the en banc court below, agree that regulations neutral on their face must be applied in a neutral manner, we think that interpretation arrives with some authority in this Court.

(P. 856 n.3.)

Detention was illegal, the internees free, anti- Korematsu! – without any Brennan-ish “central meaning” acknowledged whatsoever. Within Rehnquist’s analyses, we remember, the scope of constitutional rights often emerged seemingly haphazardly, non-constitutional elements or actors unexpectedly figuring as decisive. Jean takes this approach to its limit. Legal questions appear as implicating several distinct constitutional or statutory or judicial domains, unfolding without conveying any sense of canonical emphases, regimes in principle equally significant.

Neither Brennan nor Rehnquist seems to have perceived any real difficulty in depicting ideas of individual rights and agendas of working government as sometimes concurrent, as frequently interacting, as each at points expressions or interpretations or acknowledgements of the other. Nikolas Bowie might readily conclude that neither of their approaches work for his purposes. If the point of the constitutional project is both to secure well-defined individual rights and to facilitate working government more often than not, well-maintained hedges or fences must become part of the enterprise too.

Bowie’s Gap may be an important discovery. Justices Brennan and Rehnquist, along with many also illustrious comrades, were regularly caught up in puzzles posed by “constitutional” “law.” Law should generally acknowledge and therefore somehow express constitutional commitments; constitutional commitments should similarly bear witness to legal notions and institutions that are as law constitutionally constitutive. This back and forth, we all know, is hard to conclude once taken up. “Just say no!” Professor Bowie calls attention to otherwise extant constitutional presuppositions pretty much free of “constitution” and “law” – enough initially, anyway. Working government is part of the project, so too is some sense of what counts as well-defined in our collection of individual rights. If we fence carefully, attentive to problems of interference posed for either side, we may most of the time proceed free of systemic drama (there will always be constitutionally-local controversies). We might therefore leave our forty years of famous cases and famous Justices down in the gap.

Just so much trash? Encompassing constitutional crises are not inconceivable – within which we would not want to stop short, would feel the need to take up all of our constitutional thinking, all against all. These are the occasions, presumably, when we should want to revisit our most fully wrought – most dramatic, most intricate, most self-conscious – explorations: our resources at the limit, as it were. Speluncean explorers then, we would revisit the gap: Our emergency constitution in cases of constitutional emergency?

Download PDF
Cite as: Pat Gudridge, Bowie’s Gap, JOTWELL (May 29, 2019) (reviewing Nikolas Bowie, The Government-Could-Not-Work Doctrine, 105 Va. L. Rev. 1 (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN), https://conlaw.jotwell.com/bowies-gap/.