Daniel J. Hemel & Eric A. Posner, Presidential Obstruction of Justice
, 106 Cal. L. Rev.
__ (forthcoming 2018), available at SSRN
Full-length articles on current newsworthy issues are a difficult genre. Special praise, therefore, goes to legal scholars who thoroughly explore a constitutional question on a hot-button issue not only in depth and in a timely fashion, but with insights that exceed the present moment. Dan Hemel and Eric Posner have made just such a contribution with Presidential Obstruction of Justice.
“Can a president be held criminally liable for obstruction of justice?” they ask. (P. 1.) This question has taken on greater urgency in the wake of President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and the continuing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Hemel and Posner’s article gives this question, and the range of constitutional and policy issues that it raises, a thorough analysis in succinct and punchy prose. They harmonize constitutional text and history—most importantly the arguably conflicting principles that the president is vested with the “executive power” and that no one, not even the president, is above the law—with federal obstruction statutes that bar anyone from interfering with law enforcement based on a “corrupt” motive. At the same time, Hemel and Posner make a broader point: “[W]ithout anyone noticing it, the law of obstruction of justice,” they observe, “has evolved into a major check on presidential power.” (P. 1.) Obstruction allegations have been levied against six of the last nine presidents or their close aides—raising the stakes on whether, and in what circumstances, a president can obstruct.
Hemel and Posner begin their argument with the arguable tension between the principle that the president controls the quintessentially executive functions of criminal investigation and prosecution and the bedrock notion that no one is above the law. Generally, as the nation’s top law enforcement official, the president possesses the power to end investigations and to fire executive branch officers who fail to maintain his confidence. If the president can fire an FBI director who displeases him, why can’t he fire one who pursues an investigation he wants shut down, regardless of motive? Surely, no one thinks that the president should be able to murder his valet and call off the investigation of it, Hemel and Posner respond. More seriously, neither should the president be able to control law enforcement to hamper political opposition. If he could, they observe, he or his aides could engage with impunity in criminal activity to harass their opponents—precisely what the Watergate burglary illustrates.
Article II suggests an answer to this puzzle, they argue. It not only vests the executive power in the president, but it obligates him to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The exercise of the executive power, while vast, is not unlimited. It does not encompass the power to “corruptly” interfere with law enforcement to benefit oneself, family, or political allies. The trick is how one defines “corrupt,” meaning “with an improper purpose.”
The authors take a historical and originalist approach to this question, beginning with the Declaration of Independence’s charge that George III interfered with the administration of justice in the colonies. Parsing obstruction of justice statutes and cases, they survey the law of obstruction to the present day, including Watergate, Iran-Contra, the impeachment of President Clinton, and the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys under President George W. Bush. This historical survey helps elaborate the meaning of “corruptly.” Hemel and Posner then harmonize this history with the special role of the president in law enforcement, the constitutional provisions elaborating on that role, and recent precedents, both in the impeachment and prosecution contexts, to frame the parameters of obstruction.
Significantly, Hemel and Posner reject the unitary executive argument that the Constitution vests “complete” presidential control over federal law enforcement so that, as President Trump’s lawyers have argued, he cannot exercise the power unconstitutionally. There may be substantial gray area in what constitutes obstruction, but it is not the case that the president, by dent of his role, cannot commit it.
The article’s historical and analytical survey provides a foundation for the authors’ proposed definition of presidential obstruction: “A president commits obstruction of justice when he significantly interferes with an investigation, prosecution, or other law enforcement action to advance narrowly personal, pecuniary, or partisan interests. He does not, however, commit obstruction when he acts on the basis of a legitimate and good-faith conception of his constitutional responsibilities, even if he receives a personal or pecuniary benefit or incidentally advances his party’s interests.” (P. 37.)
Hemel and Posner do not spell out all the scenarios that might meet that standard, but they explore a wealth of variations, providing a rich basis for analyzing cases that might arise. In particular, they explore presidential discretion to intervene in an investigation because the president thinks national security depends on it, or to stop prosecuting cases involving possession of marijuana because he considers such efforts a poor use of scarce enforcement resources. But the Constitution does not authorize the president to employ his office for personal or partisan advantage—say, to advance the financial interests of a family member or call off the prosecution of a senator from his own party who is up for reelection.
The authors canvass various counter-arguments and complications, including cases of mixed motives, the pardon power, whether a sitting president can be indicted, and the canon of constitutional avoidance. The authors’ approach is nuanced and rich with examples, so we will only hit a few highlights.
Recognizing the deep challenge that mixed motive cases present, they reject a “partially corrupt motive” test as too broad, given presidents’ involvement with politics. They argue instead for a “but-for” motive: If the president would not act “but for” the corrupt motive, the charge is actionable.
Next, they ask whether the president’s exercise of the pardon power could ever itself constitute obstruction. And what of the argument (prominently made by Alan Dershowitz) that because the president possesses the power to pardon, he must possess the lesser-included power to end criminal investigations, regardless of motive?
On the first point, the authors contend that while a “corruptly” given pardon would still be effective, excusing the grantee of criminal process, it is a separate question whether the president, as grantor, could obstruct justice by granting the pardon. And because nobody thinks a presidential sale of pardons for money could not be prosecuted, in principle the pardon power can be used to obstruct.
On the second, the authors convincingly argue that Dershowitz is wrong: from text, structure, and function, the president cannot self-pardon, so he has no “lesser power” to drop an investigation of himself. Further, Dershowitz’s argument rests on a conceptual error: the power to drop an investigation is different in kind and effect than the power to pardon. The pardon power is public, with different political costs and implications, than the ability to drop an investigation in secret.
Concerning the implication for their argument of whether a sitting president can be criminally indicted, Hemel and Posner offer this synopsis: “First, the claim that a sitting president cannot be convicted of a crime while in office does not represent settled law. Second, even if a president cannot be convicted of a crime while in office, it may be possible to convict him after he leaves office of a crime he convicted while in office. Third, even if a president cannot be convicted of a crime committed while in office, he may be impeached for such a crime.” (P. 52.)
Finally, the authors consider whether the constitutional avoidance canon should be used to excise the president from the reach of ambiguous obstruction statutes. No, they conclude: the statutes contain no arguably ambiguous language. Interpreting “whoever” to mean “whoever, except the president” would do violence to the statutory language, not avoid ambiguity.
The authors make two major points in closing. First, they ask, what to make of the historical anomaly that obstruction charges have been raised against so many recent presidents or their aides, while no such charges were brought against the first 36 presidents? This development is perhaps explained, they posit, by the growth in presidential power, the difficulty of impeachment, and the weakness of electoral mechanisms to control that power. The law of obstruction, in other words, has developed as a matter of necessity, as a valuable check in the face of growing executive abilities and incentives to use law enforcement for personal or political ends.
Second, should the rise of the law of obstruction as a check on presidential power be “celebrated or bemoaned”? On the one hand, the law of obstruction may provide a needed check on abuse. On the other, its growth may mean that “all presidents will permanently be under investigation even when they do nothing wrong.” (P. 59.) The authors remain normatively uncommitted—suggesting, perhaps appropriately, that only time will tell.
In short, this is a fabulous article concerning both immediate constitutional issues and lasting constitutional structural developments.
Cortney Lollar, Criminalizing (Poor) Fatherhood
, 70 Ala. L. Rev.
__ (forthcoming 2018), available at SSRN
In the 1980s and 1990s, many scholars and advocates debated the best way to reform our country’s welfare system. During those debates, feminists called for increased enforcement of child support orders against “deadbeat dads.” Congress enacted the 1996 welfare reform act known as the “Personal Responsibility Act” at the same time as it promulgated “war on crime” measures that increased federal penalties for drug-related crimes. Twenty years later, our country is experiencing both a rising gap between the rich and poor and mass incarceration of men of color. Many scholars have discussed the problem of mass incarceration, but there is far too little scholarship on the experience of poor people affected by welfare reforms.
Cortney Lollar’s Criminalizing (Poor) Fatherhood shines a welcome spotlight on the role that law plays in increasing the misery of the poor. In this well-written and well-reasoned article inspired by Lollar’s experience as a public defender, she shows how the confluence of welfare reform and criminal-enforcement measures result in state child support systems that jail non-custodial fathers who cannot afford to pay their child support. Lollar uses feminist analysis to demonstrate how an approach once advocated by feminists actually perpetuates stereotypes about fathers as providers and undermines their relationship with their children, without aiding the mothers who the reforms were supposed to help. Criminalizing (Poor) Fatherhood is a must read for anyone interested in how our criminal justice system perpetuates racial, class, and gender inequality in our society.
Imprisoning a person who is unable to pay his debts conjures up images of Dickensian poor farms and Oliver Twist. In the 1983 case of Bearden v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court held that imprisoning a person for his failure to pay a debt violates due process unless that person could pay the debt yet willfully refused to do so. Although that decision was grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment, forcing people to work to pay off their debts also arguably constitutes involuntary servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Nonetheless, debt peonage is alive and well in this country, as people are imprisoned for their failure to pay court-imposed fees and fines. Fathers jailed for failure to pay child support make up a sizable percentage of those caught up in this system. Child support judgments are based on “potential” income, not actual ability to pay. Moreover, Bearden notwithstanding, fathers are rarely given a hearing to show that they simply cannot pay the debt that they owe. As a result, according to Lollar, “a father convicted and incarcerated for failing to pay child support will likely cycle in and out of the criminal justice system over his lifetime.”
Since the 1700s, states have enacted criminal laws requiring fathers to pay support for their children, but the only people who are affected by these laws are the poor who are unable to pay. The state has more effective means of collecting from wealthier fathers, including garnishing pay checks and tax returns. Current federal law requires custodial parents who file for welfare benefits to assist the state in identifying the father and establishing paternity, and then to assign their rights to collect child support to the state. The state is most aggressive at prosecuting fathers whose children receive welfare benefits.
Supporters of the existing system argue that it furthers the well-being of children and helps to fund the child support-enforcement system. Lollar effectively contests both arguments. First, she points out that the child support payments do not go to children, but to the state. Instead of helping children, jailing their fathers hurts them because it destabilizes the relationship between the child’s parents and makes it less likely that fathers will be involved in their children’s lives. Says Lollar, “If the welfare of children were truly the concern, the child support system would be designed to encourage parental involvement, not just paternal income.” Second, the cost of incarcerating fathers is far greater than the amount of the payments collected. It should also be obvious to lawmakers that jailing fathers decreases their ability to pay their debts, by disabling them entirely while they are in jail and saddling them with criminal records that make it hard for them to find good jobs after they are released.
Given the paucity of evidence supporting the policy of criminalizing the non-payment of child support, what could possibly justify this unjust system? Here, Lollar uses feminist analysis to show how a system that is supposed to help support and empower poor mothers actually perpetuates stereotypical gender roles. Says Lollar, “[We] punish fathers because they fail to fit the traditional stereotypical image of a white, heterosexual, able-bodied upper-middle-class father. Very few families conform to this image, yet our laws remain wedded to this deeply entrenched role.” Other aspects of fatherhood, including caretaking and non-cash contributions, simply don’t count. To address this problem, Lollar argues convincingly that child support systems should define child support more broadly and provide incentives for fathers to become more involved in the care of their children.
Criminalizing the failure to pay child support also has racial overtones. African-American men are disproportionately affected by the criminalization approach. At times, our system has tragic effects. Lollar begins her article with the story of Walter Scott, a black man shot in the back by a police officer in South Carolina. Scott fled police because he owed $18,000 in child support, a debt that he could never afford to pay. National outrage over Scott’s death largely overlooked the role that criminalizing child support played in this tragic incident of racial injustice. Criminalizing (Poor) Fatherhood illustrates how criminal sanctions for failure to pay child support have contributed to the mass incarceration of African-American men.
Race also influences the larger context addressed by this article: the increase in the debts of poor people, the role the state plays in that indebtedness, and the rise of modern forms of debt peonage. After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, anger at the treatment of blacks by local police led to mass protests and riots. Investigators discovered that the budget of the Ferguson police force depended on fines levied for minor traffic infractions—fines that were disproportionately imposed on people of color.
For a brief moment, national attention focused on the plight of poor people of color forced to fund a system biased against them. Since then, the nation’s attention has turned to other matters, but a new wave of scholars and activists are now addressing the role that court-imposed fines and fees pay in the carceral state. With Criminalizing (Poor) Fatherhood, Cortney Lollar makes an outstanding contribution to this important project.
- Glenn Reynolds, Splitsylvania: State Secession and What to do About it?, available at SSRN.
- Richard Schragger, The Attack on American Cities, 96 Tex. L. Rev. 1163 (2018).
Recent years have seen extensive focus on legal and political conflicts between states and the federal government. Dissenting states seek greater autonomy from federal dictates. Ongoing legal battles over Obamacare and sanctuary cities are just the latest examples of this phenomenon. But we have also seen a lesser well-known trend of conflict between states and local governments. Two new articles, by prominent legal scholars on opposite sides of the political spectrum contend that local governments should have greater autonomy from states. They make a solid case that could be even stronger if each side were more able to acknowledge the concerns of the other.
There is a long history of academic analysis of state-local relations, and scholars such as Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken have previously made a case for increasing local autonomy. But these new articles related this longstanding topic to recent political controversies—and to our world of severe political polarization, where the conflicts between opposing parties and ideologies are more virulent than they have been for some time.
Blue Localities Dominated by Red States—And Vice Versa
In Splitsylvania, libertarian-leaning conservative law professor Glenn Reynolds (most famous as the founder of the Instapundit blog) focuses on the plight of conservative rural areas subject to the dictates of urban-dominated state legislatures in blue states. These red jurisdictions chafe at state-enacted labor restrictions, gun control laws, and environmental regulations, among other things. Reynolds points out that their complaints have led to the rise of secession movements in states like California, Oregon, and Washington. Such movements, he argues, “indicate a widespread sense of dissatisfaction among (mostly rural) populations who feel that they are governed by people in distant urban centers who know little, and care less, about their way of life.” While Reynolds is sympathetic to intrastate secession movements, he is pessimistic about their chances for success. He instead argues that the federal government should step in to protect conservative local governments against their state legislatures.
From the opposite side of the political spectrum, University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, a leading academic expert on local government, has published an important new article on what he calls “the attack on American cities: growing red-state legislative efforts to restrict the autonomy of blue urban enclaves within their jurisdiction.” Schragger describes a wide range of issues on which Republican-controlled state legislatures have sought to override the autonomy of Democratic cities, including immigration, environmental policy, labor regulation, and others. He sees both right-left ideological antagonisms and urban-rural hostility as sources of efforts at state preemption. Ironically, among the key driving forces behind the overbearing state governments of Schragger’s story are some of the very same rural interests that Reynolds views as beleaguered victims of urban-dominated state legislatures.
Schragger’s article provides an excellent summary of state preemptive legislation, and assesses the cities’ potential legal and political defenses. He considers “home rule” provisions in state Constitutions and goes through various federal constitutional arguments cities can raise. But Schragger ultimately concludes that the options currently available to cities are severely limited. Federalism arguments that can protect cities against federal intervention—such as the Trump administration’s efforts to punish sanctuary cities—are often of little use when the city is targeted by its own state government. State “home rule” guarantees are also often weak reeds, as most can be overridden by explicit preemptive laws enacted by state legislatures. Without a significant rethinking of state-based federalism, Schragger argues, the American city is likely to remain vulnerable to state preemption.
Schragger’s analysis occasionally overlooks or downplays some key facts. For example, he criticizes state laws that allow suburbs to engage in exclusionary “zoning” to protect property values, at the expense of city efforts to promote “equality.” But studies show that some of the most severe exclusionary zoning in the nation—in the form of restrictions on construction that massively increase housing prices and lock out numerous poor and lower-middle class people from job opportunities—actually exists in “blue” cities, such as New York and San Francisco. There is also a notable tension between Schragger’s complaint that cities suffer from excessive centralization of power in the hands of state governments, and his criticism of “anti-government anti-urbanism” for its attacks on the centralization of power created by big cities themselves. Nonetheless, Schragger presents a detailed and compelling picture of how blue cities face increasing constraints at the hands of state governments on a wide range of fronts.
Perhaps the most notable gap in the two articles is that neither acknowledges the significance of the problem that concerns the other. Champions of beleaguered blue cities in red states show little concern for (or even awareness of) the plight of red jurisdictions in blue states—and vice versa.
Options for Reform
Both Reynolds’ rural red enclaves in blue states and Schragger’s urban blue enclaves in red states could potentially benefit from increased local autonomy from state governments. Greater local control might have important systemic advantages, as well. The most obvious is that more people in both blue and red states could live under the types of policies they prefer. In addition, greater devolution of power to the local level can increase opportunities for people to “vote with their feet.” It is usually cheaper and easier to move from one city to another in the same region than to decamp to a different state altogether. And foot voting is often a better mechanism of political freedom than ballot box voting, because foot voters have a far higher chance of making a meaningful decision, and much stronger incentives to be well-informed.
It is neither possible nor desirable to devolve every issue to the local level. Some problems are so large-scale that they can only be handled at the state, national, or even international level. Global warming is an obvious example of the latter. The importance of foot voting suggests the need to restrict local control over immobile assets, such as property in land, which cannot be moved in response to exploitative local policies. Such policies also often have the effect of eliminating valuable opportunities for foot voting, most notably in the case of restrictive zoning rules that lock out the poor and lower-middle class, cutting them off from valuable job opportunities. Still, over a wide range of issues in which there is little risk of losing economies of scale or destroying foot-voting opportunities, there are large potential gains from devolving power to the local level.
Increasing local autonomy from states will not be an easy task, however. Secession movements aimed at forming new states are one possible route. But, as Reynolds explains, the odds are stacked against them, because breaking up an existing state requires the consent of both Congress and that state’s own legislature.
Reynolds advocates federal legislation to protect local autonomy against the states. But it is not clear what incentive Congress would have to pass it. After all, most members of Congress (especially Senators, who are elected in state-wide elections) represent the dominant political majority within their states—the very group whose power dissenting localities seek to escape. In addition, increased congressional intervention in state-local relations might well result in greater imposition of homogeneity rather than less.
Both Reynolds and Schragger consider the possibility of state-level reform that grants greater autonomy to localities. Where feasible, this may well be the best option. But this approach, too, usually requires the support of the very same state legislatures that are undermining local autonomy to begin with.
Schragger also considers a number of innovative legal arguments that would enable federal courts to carve out greater autonomy for localities, such as expanding Tenth Amendment “anti-commandeering” rules to protect local governments against the states, in much the same way that they currently shield both states and localities from the federal government. I have doubts about the validity of these theories. In any event, as Schragger recognizes, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will endorse them in the near future.
Schragger does note some political successes that blue cities have had in resisting state preemption. For example, cities opposed to transgender bathroom restrictions enacted by conservative state legislatures have sometimes managed to resist them by mobilizing support from “cosmopolitan” corporate interests, such as major professional sports leagues that threaten to boycott the offending states. Such pressure played a role in forcing the repeal of North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law. He also suggests that in the future, cities might have more success in winning over suburban voters to their cause than has been true over the last few decades.
In my view, Reynolds and other commentators may underestimate the potential viability of creating new states through secession. Such efforts are clearly an uphill battle. But state legislatures might agree to them if, as a result, they end up with a more ideologically homogeneous state where currently dominant forces have greater control. Financial incentives might also help lead to agreement—if the newly formed state is willing to give some sort of separation payment or “divorce bill” to its former state government, as the United Kingdom will have to do in order to leave the European Union. Congress, in turn, might consent if secession could be managed in such a way as to avoid altering the partisan balance of power in the Senate. For example, large states such as California and Texas could be partitioned in ways that create equal numbers of new Democratic and Republican states. The creation of new states through secession has occurred a few times in American history, as with the establishment of Maine and West Virginia in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the practice can be revived. Still, doing so is unlikely to be either quick or easy.
In the months since Reynolds and Schragger first posted their articles on SSRN, an initiative that would split California into three states has gathered sufficient support to secure a place on the state’s November ballot. Just recently, the California Supreme Court ordered the question removed from the ballot in order to leave time to consider a legal challenge to it; the court did, however, rule that the question might be included on the 2020 ballot. Even if the question is reinstated for 2020, it is far from clear whether the initiative will prevail, and whether Congress will consent to it if it does. But its success in gathering the nearly 400,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot in the first place suggests that the idea of breaking up large states may be more viable than most experts have come to believe.
I am not optimistic that we can achieve a major increase in local autonomy from state governments in the near future. But the debate over this question is just starting to heat up again. It is possible that new strategies for devolution can be developed. From that standpoint, increased interest in the issue on different sides of the political spectrum is a hopeful sign. It would be even more helpful if advocates of increased local autonomy on different sides of the political spectrum would take more account of each other’s concerns. Reynolds’ and Schragger’s insightful articles are, we can hope, part of a dialogue that will grow over time.
Editors’ Note: Parts of this post have been adapted from a blog post at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, hosted by Reason.
Cite as: Ilya Somin, Should Local Governments Have Greater Autonomy from State Governments?, JOTWELL (August 8, 2018) (reviewing Glenn Reynolds, Splitsylvania: State Secession and What to do About it?, U. of Tenn. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 343 (2018); Richard Schragger, The Attack on American Cities, 96 Tex. L. Rev. 1163 (2018)), https://conlaw.jotwell.com/should-local-gov…tate-governments/ .
Are we all still “Legal Realists now?” So it is often assumed. But there are reasons to wonder. Today, it seems, many legal scholars are private Legal Realists only. Their public writing—whether scholarship, public commentary, or legal advocacy—shows few traces of Realism. They are writing to persuade judges or the general public. That counsels against admitting their arguments are malleable and have as much to do with external factors as the “internal” practice of law. To persuade this audience without causing resistance or cynicism, they cannot put all their cards on the table. Is that concealment Legal Realism, or something else—perhaps bad faith?
This question is especially relevant in the Age of Trump. Many legal scholars today are engaged in what Twitter calls #Resistance to the Trump presidency. They see an urgent need to convince judges to counter Trump’s actions. That includes a willingness to urge judges to stretch or reshape existing law. Any Legal Realist understands that this kind of stretching is possible, if not inevitable. They know that judges work with plastic materials and that the springs of their decisions are both “external” and “internal” to the law. Given the perceived urgency of “resistance” to the administration, will scholar-advocates openly acknowledge all this, at the risk of scaring off judges or alienating the public? Or will they keep such thoughts to themselves, insisting publicly that they only seek loyal interpretation and enforcement of “the law?”
One can illustrate these questions by contrasting the excellent article I discuss here—Sanford Levinson and Mark Graber’s The Constitutional Powers of Anti-Publian Presidents: Constitutional Interpretation in a Broken Constitutional Order—with a recent New York Times op-ed about legal and judicial resistance to Trump. There, Dahlia Lithwick and Stephen I. Vladeck criticize those who have suggested that judges are “shirking their institutional roles as neutral magistrates and ‘joining the resistance’” in some rulings against the administration. Such arguments, they charge, are questionable because, among other things, these opinions are “often rooted in sound doctrinal principles.” By charging that these rulings are “biased or unprincipled,” these critics are entering “dangerous new ground” and engaging in “a direct attack on the independence and integrity of the entire judicial branch.”
What would a Legal Realist make of such arguments? A historically informed Legal Realist would recall that Realism reached its height in the early years of FDR’s administration, when judicial rulings against New Deal legislation were publicly accused of being “biased or unprincipled,” and members of the administration itself, including then-Attorney General Robert Jackson, described the federal bench as “claim[ing] for [itself] the right to nullify” the law, warning that legalistic efforts to hamper the people’s will risked the rise of “dictatorship.” She might reflect that calling judges “partisan hacks in robes” sounds less like “dangerous new ground” and more like a familiar echo of very recent writings. The Realist would reason that if lawyers describe themselves as an active “#resistance,” they must surely want judges to agree with their arguments and act accordingly. She would chuckle at the confident assertion that decisions blocking the administration are “rooted in sound doctrinal principles,” or the remarkably non-Realist description of judges as “neutral magistrates.” She would note with amusement such hedges as “often rooted in sound doctrinal principles.”
My point is not to disagree entirely with that op-ed. Whether they fairly describe those they criticize or not, they’re right that simplistic wholesale attacks on judicial rulings risk overstatement. (Of course, simplistic wholesale defenses of the federal judiciary also risk overstatement.) But confident references to judges as “neutral magistrates,” and invocations of shibboleths like “impartiality” and “the rule of law,” makes it easy to wonder whether we are “all” genuine Legal Realists any more—or whether an increasing number of legal scholars either reject Realism or conceal it behind a façade of non-Realist rhetoric. Ironically, one reason for doing so is itself Realist: Legalist rhetoric aids judges who deliberately use malleable legal materials in a “creative” fashion to counter Trump, and helps convince the public that those judges are merely applying “sound doctrinal principles.” It seems strange to argue for a legal “#Resistance” to the Trump administration, one that includes judicial review, without thinking that anyone wants judges to move the law in the direction of the resistance, even if that involves quiet “extensions” or rejections of current “doctrinal principles.” Reading pieces like this, one may long for straightforward, openly Realist advocacy of forceful judicial resistance.
With commendable candor, Levinson and Graber make just such an argument. Interestingly, their argument is Realist in its description of how law operates and its rejection of the idea of law as autonomous and generally applicable. But the article’s vision of the Constitution contains ideas we do not generally associate with the Realists. Rather, it is virtue-centered. It argues that our Constitution demands not just a “government of laws and not of men,” but one administered by virtuous men and women. For this reason, judges and other legal actors should apply more skeptical legal standards to the present administration. Their argument is valuable not only for whatever short-term strategic purposes it may serve, but for its broader vision and the many difficult questions this vision raises.
At least in their willingness to put their cards on the table—to argue that this administration requires a different (but not, they argue, unprecedented) approach by judges, that political reality is relevant to this approach, and that this is not simply a matter of “neutral magistrates” applying existing law—Levinson and Graber’s article is both openly Realist and praiseworthy for its honesty and forthrightness. It is what scholarship of quality and integrity should always do—even in the time of #Resistance. Such scholarship not only suggests an immediate fix to a current problem, but is unafraid to raise interesting, productive, and sometimes troubling questions about the implications of that proposal. The very fact that Levinson and Gruber’s article raises these questions, or enables them to be raised by others, is reason enough for praise.
Their argument can be summarized easily enough: Trump is very, very bad. This summation is not mockery but fair description. President Trump “lacks every constitutional qualification for office save that he was elected.” His “gross unfitness for office” is widely acknowledged. Everything in his presidency to date proves this. I take this premise as true for purposes of the jot. (Given that plenty of solid evidence supports it, however, it’s unfortunate that they sometimes rely on questionable sources or speculation.)
Trump’s awfulness matters for more than consequentialist reasons, they argue. Although our legal culture speaks in terms of “laws, not men,” the Constitution is not “indifferent to the character of the office-holder.” Rather, “The Constitution presupposes at least some version of what we call ‘Publian presidents,’ presidents with the character and capacity necessary to exercise the vast powers conferred by Article II.” As The Federalist Papers and other sources suggest, the founding generation was deeply concerned with the character of office-holders in republican government. They sought “to guarantee, as far as is humanly possible, the selection of persons with exceptional capacities and virtuous character.” They envisioned an “intimate…connection between the character of an official and official powers.”
General arguments of this sort have been popular at least since Douglass Adair’s famous essay on fame and the founding fathers. The result of such a worldview, then as now, is not neat, but it is important, especially for its focus on ideas—such as duty, honor, virtue, and character—that have faded in public usage and even been described as obsolete. Renewed interest in these ideas in recent (and pre-Trump) years has birthed a number of approaches taken to constitutional thought, such as arguments for an aretaic turn in constitutional law, a fiduciary vision of office-holding, renewed attention to constitutional oaths, and a focus on judicial duty. These authors have varied politics and draw varied conclusions. But they share the belief that in our constitutional ethos, character matters. It is interesting, if unsurprising, that such arguments have recently drawn new advocates.
Virtue-centered arguments rarely produce clear judicially enforceable standards. But Levinson and Graber argue that they should, for officials (including judges) responding to the Trump administration. Constitutional interpretation must “respond[ ] to breakdowns in underlying assumptions” about the proper functioning of our system of government. That includes responses to an “anti-Publian president” such as Donald Trump. “Texts are routinely interpreted differently when crucial background conditions fail.” Such departures from standard practice may demand clear reasons and evidence, given the strong presumption “in most interpretive practices that background conditions are functioning smoothly.” But departures are possible, and legitimate.
Drawing creatively on various cases, Levinson and Graber argue that this is true in constitutional law as well. One example they deploy is Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny, which they describe not as a simple, if celebrated, application of ordinary law but as an extraordinary response to a breakdown: a “judicial commitment to eradicate frauds on the Constitution.” Similarly, the First Amendment decision in New York Times v. Sullivan was “motivated by commitments to racial equality as much as commitments to the First Amendment,” and as having involved the use of creative improvisation to “alter[ ] rules of normal practice to account for constitutional breakdowns in the Jim Crow South.”
These examples vary greatly from separation of powers law. But Levinson and Graber use them to draw a broad lesson: “Constitutional decision-makers faced with constitutional failures, American history teaches, jettison rules of constitutional practice and constitutional interpretation rooted in assumptions that constitutional institutions are functioning normally.” With respect to the Trump regime, “judges and other governing officials” should be “wary” when interpreting the actions of the administration and the justifications offered for them. They should eschew rational basis review and view all such actions skeptically, with something like a presumption of unconstitutionality. Under an anti-Publian president, “courts should adopt the presumption that the efforts to implement that [president’s] platform violate the Constitution until the program is redesigned in ways that eliminate unconstitutional features ‘root and branch.’” Courts and other officials, “explicitly or implicitly, [should] engage in motive analysis, up the standard of scrutiny, and interpret statutes as not delegating power when adjudicating Trump Administration efforts to exercise Article II powers.”
Levinson and Graber believe the benefits of this approach outweigh any costs. And they suggest, far more candidly than some others have, that some lower court rulings against the Trump administration are evidence that this is already happening. They thus argue, both, that these courts are doing and not shirking their duty, and that their decisions are not simply the actions of “neutral magistrates” applying “sound doctrinal principles.” In tension with their argument that departures from ordinary legal presumptions have a long historical pedigree, they conclude that “the lack of deference to presidential authority that persons outside of Congress [including judges] have demonstrated in Trump’s first year seems unprecedented.”
Their willingness to describe these departures as departures is refreshing. It’s not the kind of thing that someone who wants to persuade courts to resist this “anti-Publian president” will want to say openly. Although some judges might be pleased to be seen as part of the vanguard of the #Resistance, for the most part they either want to believe that they are applying existing law routinely, or would prefer that no one publicly suggest (or reveal) that they are not. To borrow Philip Bobbitt’s terms, “We are ruling differently in this case because the President is awful” is not an accepted mode of constitutional argument. To say so publicly would make judges look less judicial, risk the courts’ political capital, and draw the critical scrutiny of both the Supreme Court and (some of) the general public.
In being so candid, Levinson and Graber offer ammunition to critics and hostages to fortune. That, of course, is precisely what scholarship of and integrity should do. It is not the job of legal scholars—even in times of emergency—to abandon candor, flatter judges, collude with them in disguising “anti-Publian” departures as routine applications of existing law, or say and write what they do not actually think. It should not require unusual courage for a legal scholar—tenured, secure, and privileged and affluent by any sane standard—to write as Levinson and Graber do here. That their frankness is at all unusual is a credit to them and a question mark about legal and constitutional scholarship more generally.
A candid, forthright, and sweeping argument of this sort, as I noted, inevitably offers hostage to fortune, in the form of the critical questions that it raises, both explicitly and by implication. Levinson and Graber’s analysis and prescription would have dramatic implications for constitutional interpretation. It thus raises substantial questions.
Some of them are self-evident. How do we know when a president is “anti-Publian?” In a polarized era in which each new president or presidential candidate is described as the worst threat to the Republic yet, and in which people come to believe such propaganda—that people came to view the milquetoast technocrat Mitt Romney in this way proves this—do citizens or office-holders, judges included, have sufficient character to distinguish “anti-Publian” leaders from those with whom they simply disagree? Some If they are right, why should we think that judges or other officers will have the wisdom and character to know and respect the difference between a Publian and an anti-Publian president? Levinson and Graber acknowledge these questions, as they should. It is in the nature of good scholarship to acknowledge difficult questions and hope they will lead to better conversations.
Another important question, one I have noted here before, is what the precise goal of extraordinary skepticism toward anti-Publian presidents in general, and Trump in particular, should be. Should it be one of total resistance? Or should it be to nudge such a president into a more “Publian” mode—to “normalize” that president—and then return to the standard, deferential approach to routine executive action? Levinson and Graber write that “courts should adopt the presumption that the efforts to implement that [president’s] platform violate the Constitution until the program is redesigned in ways that eliminate unconstitutional features ‘root and branch.’” That suggests they favor the latter goal, although that is unclear.
The authors may think that Trump, being Trump, can never be made into a truly Publian president. They may be right. But as their history of bad presidents suggests, there are degrees of Publian and anti-Publian conduct. That is especially true given that the executive branch requires the cooperation of principal Article II officers, ordinary federal bureaucrats, and perhaps Congress to affect people outside the government. I think Trump’s “travel ban” executive orders are terrible policy. One or more of their iterations may be unconstitutional, although an ordinary application of precedent leans against that conclusion. But should judges reject all iterations of such an order, applying the same anti-Publian presumption of unconstitutionality to each succeeding version? Or, if the courts force the administration to narrow the scope of the order, to offer more plausible justifications for it (by ordinary legal standards), and to engage in inter-agency consultation and other sound practices, does there come a point at which the order should be treated as ordinary (if awful) policy, and subjected to usual standard of review that would apply in the case of ordinary (if awful) actions by a more “Publian” president?
This question deserves more attention than it has received. It matters greatly—both to law and judges, and to politics—whether the goal of resistance to Trump is total resistance, or simply ensuring that his administration is not tyrannical, arbitrary, or chaotic. Levinson and Graber argue that there is an important distinction between “bad” presidents and anti-Publian ones. If our general assumption is that constitutional law and politics make “merely” bad policies a matter for political debate, then our choice of goal matters for both healthy politics and the legitimacy of the legal and judicial #Resistance.
Unfortunately, we have already traveled far down the road of viewing all political adversaries as political enemies. Certainly neither Trump himself nor some of the understandable reactions to him have helped us retreat from this path. If this question has received too little attention, it may be because legal academics are subject to the same tendencies. Whatever the reason, a resistance needs a clear goal and stopping point. It should be able to distinguish between fighting ordinary bad policies by ordinary means, and using extraordinary measures to counter extraordinary “breakdowns” in political and constitutional norms. Similarly, an argument for extraordinary legal responses to anti-Publian presidents demands a clear goal for courts. Rendering an anti-Publian president more Publian seems like an appropriate goal, and suggests that when judges succeed in doing so, they should revert to more ordinary forms of judicial review. There is room for disagreement about this. But discussion is essential.
An interesting side note concerns Levinson and Graber’s account of Brown, New York Times v. Sullivan, and other cases. They are hardly the first to argue that race, racism, and the intertwined public-private nature of white supremacy exerted a “gravitational pull” on the Warren Court’s constitutional rulings. If anything, that observation is commonplace for all but the most case-fixated legal doctrinalists. But it does complicate recent descriptions of that era as having instituted a “deep and abiding constitutional settlement[ ],” of a general and generally applicable nature, “favoring inclusion, equal opportunity, and equal respect for all,” and recent efforts to apply that “settlement” confidently to a broad set of cases not involving race. On this view, anything that might interfere with this “settlement” must be rejected, and can be rejected confidently and easily. From this perspective, cases like the wedding cake case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, are “easy.”
Perhaps this case is easy. Or perhaps, even if “race is different,” we can see LGBTQ and other rights as involving the same interdependent public-private collaboration in a set of legal and social evils. At a minimum, however, Levinson and Graber’s depiction of the Warren Court as having departed from conventional legal doctrine in order to cure an extraordinary failure of ordinary political norms and institutions raises a number of questions. What was the precise nature and scope of any constitutional “settlement” reached by the Warren Court? Having addressed the extraordinary public-private nature of racism, did the Court mean to create a new generally applicable approach, or did it see itself as addressing a unique historical problem? Is the alleged departure from the presumption that “background conditions are functioning smoothly” strong and clear enough in current cases to justify the same departure from ordinary principles protecting, say, free speech and association? How broadly should we apply “anti-Publian” precedents—some of which, as Levinson and Graber note, were clearly improvised and far from fully reasoned—in cases that are less clearly anti-Publian?
I do not mean to make too much of this side note. Nor am I arguing for a particular result in Masterpiece Cakeshop, other than it be taken seriously and not dismissed as the easy application of a clear “settlement.” Nevertheless, in treating the Warren Court’s race decisions as an example of the Court “altering rules of normal practice to account for constitutional breakdowns” and not as an easy application of “sound doctrinal principles” by “neutral magistrates,” Levinson and Graber raise more important questions. If they’re right that reactions to anti-Publian measures constitute an extraordinary departure from background legal norms and assumptions, one that is justified by extraordinary and unusually dangerous circumstances, then that argument has power precisely because it does not threaten to overwhelm or replace the ordinary legal system. And if they’re right that the Warren Court’s race jurisprudence was extraordinary, because the system it addressed was deeply entrenched, unconventional, and impossible to dislodge, then we should hesitate to apply it too broadly. If, on the other hand, those cases were just a matter of the Warren Court applying ordinary law ordinarily, then the argument in support of the legitimacy of an anti-Publian judicial approach is weakened considerably. These questions demand serious consideration.
These questions are not intended as fatal criticisms of Levinson and Graber’s fine article. They offer a bold approach to a bad situation. And they are candid as well as bold. They model a willingness to speak in terms that decidedly will not be attractive to judges who want to fly under the radar, or to advocates who simultaneously want to engage in #Resistance and make it look like ordinary law. In arguing for extraordinary legal and judicial responses to the “anti-Publian” Trump regime, they show that a willingness to acknowledge the serious questions such an approach raises. Good for them.
Cite as: Paul Horwitz, #Resistance, with Candor
(May 16, 2018) (reviewing Sanford Levinson & Mark A. Graber, The Constitutional Powers of Anti-Publian Presidents: Constitutional Interpretation in a Broken Constitutional Order
, 21 Chapman L. Rev.
133 (2018)), https://conlaw.jotwell.com/resistance-with-candor/
David Landau, Legal Pragmatism and Comparative Constitutional Law
, in Elgar Handbook on Comparative Constitutional Theory
(forthcoming 2018), available at SSRN
Law is a practical field. It resolves concrete disputes. Constitutional law, however, is often thought of as more theoretical than practical. For example, a common current debate in constitutional interpretation is between originalism and living constitutionalism. Both have been advocated and criticized to death. Thus, Thomas Colby and Peter Smith have argued that originalism does not consist of one overarching theory, and that it leaves many questions unanswered. Self-proclaimed originalists disagree on some major issues and acknowledge that courts must often “construct” the right answers. But William van Alstyne has emphasized that living constitutionalists also have “clashing visions.”
It is therefore a breath of fresh air to read David Landau’s forthcoming book chapter, “Legal Pragmatism and Comparative Constitutional Law.” Eschewing these sorts of rehearsed debates between theories that each contain their own brand of formalism, Landau argues that legal pragmatism is an especially useful approach to interpreting the United States Constitution. It requires judges to acknowledge the indeterminacy of constitutional interpretation, to appreciate the importance of focusing on the detailed factual, empirical, and other contextual elements of the constitutional issues presented, and to achieve the best result possible using the toolkit provided by the law, and other “eclectic” criteria. Landau also shows that pragmatism is useful in comparative constitutional law, rather than seeing it as a uniquely American approach.
Landau takes on the unenviable task of defining legal pragmatism. He acknowledges that no formalistic legal theories can provide a single right answer to constitutional questions. Originalism simply leaves open too many questions. It is also arguably wrong in many cases. For example, and despite arguments to the contrary, backwards-looking originalism cannot really support the result in Brown v. Board of Legal Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), or the idea that the Equal Protection Clause provides special legal protection to women. But Landau also says that the liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s judge, Hercules, has an impossible task. He could have added that Dworkin’s solution is inevitably and conveniently politically liberal. And with entrants to the field like Jack Balkin and his living originalism, we now have even more varied results to contend with under the general umbrella of “originalism.”
Landau asserts that both originalists and Dworkinian believers in liberal reasoning to “right answers” pretend to be value-neutral when they are not. Moreover, a Justice’s perspective inevitably influences his or her rulings. Instead of abstract neutrality, Landau contends that constitutional interpretation is about the narrower task of “problem solving,” which is why the specific facts and context of cases, including empirical data and “other forms of knowledge,” are so important.
Landau admits that “formalist consistency” is useful but argues that the law has other ends. Legal pragmatism employs a “more inductive” analysis than the deductive syllogisms of formalism. Thus, pragmatism often involves “balancing” the competing interests at stake, such as liberty and security, which also means fully acknowledging and weighing their relative importance. Relying on the pragmatic analysis of Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry, Landau shows how they praise Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), as drawing this balance by noting the individual’s rights as well as competing national security interests. This pragmatic approach, Landau contends, helps us see the instrumental value of law to the present, rather than honoring “the dead hand” of the past as a goal in itself.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Landau’s short chapter is its brief yet sophisticated response to likely criticisms. Critics of Judge Richard Posner’s pragmatism, with its emphasis on “common sense,” compare it to a Rorschach test. Landau retorts that judicial subjectivity is present in any application of an overarching theory as well, given the inevitable biases of those applying such a theory. At least pragmatism addresses all of the possible facts and arguments from both sides, and pragmatist judges explain why they have chosen one side over the other. It’s a choice, not a foregone conclusion. Similarly, he addresses the concern that judges are not trained to use empirical data or other non-formalist legal criteria, and so are ill-suited to be skillful pragmatists. Landau admits that judges are imperfect, but contends that they must consider all of the factors relevant to the best result. And perhaps judges—and the lawyers who argue their cases before the courts—can be trained in the supposedly eclectic fields of knowledge and analysis that are most common and relevant in resolving legal disputes.
It has been argued that pragmatism is inevitably conservative, since it would balance individual rights against state interests rather than enshrine them or treat them as trumps. Landau responds that this is not at all inevitable, as shown by liberal pragmatists like Farber and Sherry (or, for that matter, the later decisions of Judge Posner himself). Nor is it sufficient to contend that pragmatism is an “unmoored” approach that fails to provide certainty; as Landau argues, that hardly distinguishes it from formalistic approaches, with their false certainty in the abstract and messy results in reality. Law, he writes, “can be highly open-textured and eclectic without abandoning constitutional principle, even in paradigm shifting cases.”
Finally and intriguingly, Landau argues that pragmatism should be—and is—used abroad, not just in the United States. He questions Judge Posner’s suggestion that there is a uniquely American essence to pragmatism. The old and vague language of the United States Constitution, after all, may make it more reasonable to turn to formalism to bring some greater degree of certainty to its meaning and application. By contrast, many nations, including a number in the global South, have “transformative” constitutions that with thicker and more detailed content than that of the United States Constitution. This thick, transformative quality makes a flexible and pragmatic approach to interpreting such constitutions even more necessary, given both the numerous competing values found in such documents and the political vulnerabilities of the judicial branch in those countries.
A common method of constitutional analysis in many countries other than the United States is that of “proportionality,” a specific form of constitutional balancing. Landau argues that the proportionality approach has a pragmatic quality that is not radically different from the balancing tests that the United States Supreme Court used to apply quite frequently and still employs from time to time. Proportionality requires that judges be transparent in identifying and weighing the legal and factual issues at the heart of their decisions. The tradeoffs at stake in such cases must be confronted. He discusses several different theories of proportionality that courts abroad have advocated, especially those of Robert Alexy. He suggests out that even Alexy could benefit from looking at more data in his analysis of certain problems.
From Landau’s useful perspective, proportionality has a pragmatic core that “forces judges to think through the systematic consequences of judicial decision making” and thus avoid “blind spots.” A court, for instance, that is tasked by its country’s constitution with the implementation of socio-economic rights must necessarily acknowledge and address the tradeoffs that are inevitably involved in doing so. In the end, he correctly points out that “pragmatic arguments have tended to become significant in different constitutional cultures.” Far from being an example of American exceptionalism, constitutional pragmatism is not only suitable for foreign export, but may be a constitutional method that has achieved greater success beyond our shores.
Professor Whitman – without doubt a leader in the field of comparative law – manifestly wishes he hadn’t learned what he’s learned:
Awful as it may be to contemplate, but the reality is that the Nazis took a sustained, significant, and sometimes even eager interest in the American example in race law. … In fact, … it was the most radical Nazis who pushed most energetically for the exploitation of American models. Nazi references to American law were neither few nor fleeting…. Nor, importantly, was it only, or even primarily, the Jim Crow South that attracted Nazi lawyers. … Their America was not just the South, it was a racist America writ much larger. (Pp. 4-5.)
American immigration and naturalization laws, … culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, conditioned entry into the United States on race-based tables of “national origins.” It was America’s race-based immigration law that Hitler praised in Mein Kampf … and leading Nazi legal thinkers did the same after him, repeatedly and volubly. The United States also stood at the forefront in the creation of forms of de jour and de facto second-class citizenships for blacks, Filipinos, Chinese, and others; this too was was of great interest to the Nazis, engaged as they were in creating their own forms of second-class citizenship for Germany’s Jews. … America was a beacon of anti-miscegenation law, with thirty different state regimes – many of them outside the South, and all of them … carefully studied, catalogued, and debated by Nazi lawyers. There were no other models for miscegenation legislation that the Nazis could find in the world…. (P. 12.)
“None of this is entirely easy to talk about.” (P. 14.)
Whitman carefully details German use of American “models.” He finds “direct American influence” in connection with “the criminalization of racially mixed marriage.” (P. 79.) With regard to immigration and citizenship laws “the American example served not so much as a direct template but as welcome evidence.” (P. 71.)
American law offered the Nazis something that matters a great deal to modern lawyers: it offered them confirmation that the winds of history were blowing in their direction. Their America was what Hitler described it to be: a dynamic country whose race consciousness had stirred the first substantial moves toward the sort of race order that it was Germany’s mission to bring to full fruition. (Pp. 71-2.)
“[H]ow did it come to pass that America produced law that seemed intriguing and attractive to Nazis?” (P. 136.) Professor Whitman looks very closely at a June 5, 1934 meeting of the German commission on criminal law reform considering whether “mixed marriages” (here Jew and non-Jew) “should be criminalized.” (P. 95.) Conservative jurists observed that it “was a fundamental principle of traditional German law that criminal law required clear and unambiguous concepts: if judges were permitted to convict on the basis of vague concepts, the core requirements of the rule of law would not be met.” (P. 105.) But there was, it seemed, no “clearly delineated and scientifically acceptable definition of who counted as a racial Jew.” (P. 105.) Committed Nazis contended, however, that “American law … demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to have racist legislation even if it was technically infeasible to come up with a scientifically satisfactory definition of race.” The problem at hand might be met by a “purely ‘primitive’ and ‘political’ response,” as in the United States. (P. 106.) “[I]t was possible to manage a functioning legal system without the sorts of clear concepts German lawyers cherished.” (P. 107.) “American judges had no trouble applying racist law despite its fuzzy concepts.” (P. 108.)
Whitman concludes – not just on the basis of this one debate – that “Nazi law was marked by a strong commitment to what Americans call ‘Legal Realism,’ the style of legal scholarship that also dominated in New Deal America.” (P. 115.)
Nazi law … was not a crass form of legal positivism, reducing the law to a duty of obedience to the command of the superiors. Nazi law was law that was liberated from the juristic past – it was law that would free the judges, legislators, and party bosses of Nazi Germany from the shackles of inherited concepts of justice, allowing them to “work toward” the realization of the racist goals of the regime…. (P. 152.)
So too American Legal Realism, he proposes: “long … described as one of the great products of an American pragmatic style, ready to tackle social problems in a can-do spirit and displaying a healthy resistance to dogmatism.” (P. 153.) Whitman notes that in 1934 Karl Llewellyn was told Germans regarded him “’as a true Nazi, fit to be amalgamated in the lifeblood of the new Reich.’” (P. 155.) (Llewellyn was enraged.) “What attracted Nazi lawyers was not just American racism but American legal culture….” (P. 146.) American law, we need to remember, is not without risk. If “the traditions of the law do indeed have little power to ride herd on the demands of the politicians, … when the politics is bad, the law can be very bad indeed.” (P. 159.) A predilection to renvoi, a felt need to learn how our approaches work out when put to use elsewhere – “[t]his too has to be part of our national narrative.” (P. 161.)* * *The Nazi legal thinkers, interestingly, appear within Whitman’s study to have learned another lesson from their American studies that Professor Whitman notes but does not give much direct attention. He stresses that the American racial order was not simply an artifact of the Civil War, white supremacy not peculiarly a southern phenomenon, rather nationally manifest. But German analysts, he shows us even so, were acutely aware in particular of recurring attention-getting, often publicly staged lynchings of mainly African Americans. This was a practice (we know) flowering in parallel with emerging white supremacy following on often-enough successful anti-reconstruction insurgency. It was nationally evident, but also manifestly regionally-marked too. Nazi jurists saw structural parallels with anti-Semitic street violence accompanying their own rise to power, violence persisting(at least early on) after Hitler’s ascendancy. “’What is lynch justice, if not the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the other hand?’” (P. 65.) In Germany, though, popular violence (even if anti-Semitic) could not be squared with the premises of the larger Nazi order.
[T]he individual actions” reflected a breakdown in the central party control of affairs that was always integral to the Nazi ambitions. The Nazis favored official, orderly, and properly supervised state-sponsored persecution, not street-level lynchings or “actions” incited by low-level party members. … [¶] It was such concerns about the dangers of German street violence that led to the promulgation of the Citizenship Law and Blood Law at Nuremberg. Concerned that the “National Revolution” might slip out of control, the party set out to calm matters by creating “unambiguous laws” that would put the business of persecution securely in the hands of the state. (Pp. 82-83.)
This “efficient state apparatus” (P. 145.), alongside its “open system of racist citizenship,” (P. 70.) the Nazis thought, was quite different from the American institutional set up. “Americans had to work around the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, and more broadly around their announced traditions of equality; and in consequence their law was a law of covert devices and legal subterfuges.” (P. 70.) “[T]here was always a tension between two racial orders in America.” (P. 143.)
The Nazi jurists, it is not hard to recognize right away, picked out primary pieces of a structural difficulty in American constitutional law, a source of distinctive shape – if never exclusively. This difficulty emerges out of a series of originating juxtapositions – of slavery and its acknowledgement and protection in 1787, the eventual civil war, and subsequent efforts at reconstruction. But more pressingly, it traces to the fierce insurgency catching up the Fourteenth Amendment especially (and constitutional reconstruction generally), within a surprisingly short time pushing far out to the side federal constitutional understandings keyed to reconstruction, putting in place a competing regime of white supremacy, chiefly culturally installed, distinctly invigorated and re-affirmed (again, mainly independently of governments and courts) by recurring, prominent, if randomly scattered public exercises in open torture and showily brutal killings of African Americans. Much of the time overt American legal institutions treated this confounding constitution as irresistible fact, occasion for sometimes resigned, sometimes eager accommodation, attending instead, inter alia, to Fourteenth Amendment ideas not immediately pulled into the maelstrom.
Is racism in the United States — in the form of white supremacy — an ideology pointing to totalitarianism akin to Hitler’s anti-semitism? For Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the key to ideology as engine of totalitarian elaboration was ruthless logic and not institutional layout: the logic of a first concern drives politics, becomes the context informing and informed by terror. The concern of white supremacy was white protection and its governing logic was segregation, as a means to protect whites from blacks (sometimes also blacks from whites). This form was infinitely elaborate, in principle addressed all interactions. It was therefore both totalizing and always at risk, inviting therefore a terror of fear and rage ever trigger-able, ubiquitous. The idea of overflowing or infilling terror, we may think, is counterpart to ever-refining, ever-elaborating logic. Within American white supremacy only (or almost only) African Americans had to treat lynching as an ever-present possibility. But grotesque public killings, tortures, dramatic confinements or other sharp hardships perhaps functioned to discipline the larger population too (even as it entertained them), to implicate all emotionally, to create the potential for crowd-raising, to make non-participation look like dissent. Lynchings and their deeply disturbing, manifestly excessive violence plainly worked to inform and propel a distinctive constitutional and political order. Grotesque deadly display declared victims to be living beings with no claims to sympathy (anything might be done to them), but at the same time the claim to sympathy is not entirely erased since the victims otherwise are often persons who live and work among and with their assailants. This tension was the work product of the killing exercise. The terror-constitution deployed terror aiming to minimize need for terrorist display, in this way giving force to white supremacy. Terrorist displays – for their audiences — prompted constitutional thinking: constitutional terror. …* * *What way out of hell?
Professor Whitman is right. White supremacy – its concatenations and interplays – reverberated nationally. He abstracts, however: the particulars of American constitutional sequences, formations, and dynamics are not, plainly, his principal subject. Whitman wants to introduce us to the Nazi jurists and their efforts – in this context, to underscore their American enthusiasms. He sees no need to stress where the Nazis were headed (whatever they thought circa 1934) – to Wannsee, to camp-building, to Hell (most of them anyway: we’re quite sure). He puts to the side American constitutional movements too. These developments were occasional, to be sure: invitations also, we know, to significant opposing moves and more legal rethinking. Even so…. Circa 1934, piece by piece reimaginings of courts as jurisdictional redoubts, as sites for legal resistance, were already emerging as adjudicative counters to white supremacist popular constitutionalism and its implementing atrocities. Subsequent constitutional generalizings of these efforts – re-imagining the Fourteenth Amendment as incorporating the Bill of Rights, for example – would work to marginalize prominent defeatist realisms, to introduce new institutional counters. Plessy’s sense of popular mores as intransigent no long occupied the field. Hirabayashi’s conclusion that hitherto-victimized “discrete and insular minorities” might consequently prove sufficiently dangerous to society at large to justify further repression disappeared from view – so too maybe, some especially pessimistic readings of Llewellyn’s idea of “The Constitution as an Institution.”
A little later on, there would also be genuinely unanticipated emergences of African American cultural and political theaters of provocative nonviolence, movements and moments radically delegitimating and demoralizing white supremacy, occasions prompts to dramatic, important legal change. Walter Benjamin – dead in 1940, one among the millions of individuals Nazi jurists grouped as “problematic” – might well have noted, had he lived, the aptness of his startling term messianic: abrupt, unanticipated, important changes in direction, quickly accomplished and quickly concluded, surely affirmative. The map of these changes, he might have suggested, had come (freighted phrase) to refigure American constitutional culture.
Editor’s note: For another review of Hitler’s American Model, please see Anders Walker, Heil Jim Crow?, JOTWELL (March 8, 2018).
Most likely, Tisa Wenger’s new book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal is not on many law professors’ reading lists. But for anyone who is interested in issues of church and state, race, and American empire, it should be. Wenger has uncovered a powerful collection of movements, legal claims, and government interference in religious life in the early twentieth century. Many of us have either never heard of them, or have not understood how crucial they were to religion’s role in public policy and (occasionally) resistance to government power. This is not a book written by a legal expert: the terms “disestablishment” and “free exercise” don’t appear here. But it is full of constitutional claims and legal conflict, as well as a careful examination of the incentives for invoking religious freedom.
Religious Freedom is in some ways a continuation of Wenger’s first book. In We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, Wenger argued that Pueblo Indians successfully deployed the language of religious freedom in the 1920s to protect their dances from white interference. In the process, Wenger maintained, they subtly changed how they understood their own practice, buying into a division between what counts as religious and what is secular.
Her new book extends that argument far more broadly, beginning with the effects of the Spanish American War of 1898 and continuing up to the outbreak of World War II. In this period, Wenger argues, “religious freedom talk” was deployed by “a dizzying array of people, on behalf of every imaginable practice and tradition.” (P. 12.) This talk was motivated by the importance that Americans themselves attached to the concept of religious freedom. And it reinforced the concept’s central assumption—that religion is a category, distinct from other aspects of individual and social life. To invoke religion, it must be separated from the secular, compartmentalizing human experience in ways that conform to dominant modes of American political culture.
Wenger uses these insights to examine how religious freedom talk was received, and who it helped. Key to her study are the ways that both race and empire affected how religious freedom was understood and who could use it to their advantage. Through beautifully written chapters that range from religious movements and their connection to struggles for independence in the Philippines, to Native American claims to self-governance and ritual practice on reservations, to Jewish rebranding from racial to religious identity (and becoming white in the process) and African-American attempts to escape oppressive racism through new religious identities, Wenger shows the power and limits of religious freedom talk. In each episode, race was central to the story.
Wenger concludes that a claim to religious identity achieved success in only two of the five major studies she undertakes in the book. First, U.S. Catholics “became fully American, fully modern, and racially white,” in contrast to Filipinos at the turn of the twentieth century. (P. 44.) Second, Jews effectively helped create and joined a tri-faith (Catholic, Protestant, Jew) coalition of white religious groups that “pushed race and class into the background”—a process that unfolded, in Wenger’s persuasive telling, in the 1930s, earlier than we had previously understood. (Pp. 172, 186.) For Native Americans, African-Americans, and Filipinos, however, racist assumptions and barriers set sharp boundaries around what religious freedom talk could achieve. As Wenger explains, the “expansion of whiteness” achieved by Catholics and Jews only exacerbated the problem for racial others. For Filipinos, their “weird shriekings” and “uncivilized tribes” justified attacks on indigenous customs that were framed in terms of progress toward greater moral development and “progress” toward civilized status. (Pp. 45, 93.) Among Native Americans, appeals to religious freedom channeled customary practices into forms that were legible to Christians, or into secular discourse. In either case, religious freedom talk “transformed” Native culture and belief, rather than protecting it. (Pp. 135, 142.) And for African-Americans, the “black-white racial binary” remained the primary identifier for the larger American society. Religious freedom talk “simply did not have the power to transcend the racialized terms of their oppression.” (P. 231.)
Wenger’s conclusion—that “the dominant strains of American religious freedom talk functioned to bolster racial discrimination and the civilizational hierarchies that sustained it”—is a sobering one. (P. 235.) Much of this history has flown underneath the radar, or has been obscured by the drumbeat of celebration of religious freedom as both a fact of American life and an unqualified good. Yet Wenger stresses that she does not believe that the ideal of religious freedom is unsalvageable. She acknowledges that defining religion limits its scope and places it in opposition to anything outside the lines drawn around what counts as religious. But she argues that “the potential shape of such definitions and oppositions are infinite in their possibilities.” (P. 239.) Despite the clear limits of resistance among racial minorities, that is, religious freedom talk did prove valuable in defending tradition and crafting identity. In Wenger’s view, this is grounds for hope. To this reader, it seems a slender reed. But it offers a useful contrast to the view of other major writers on the subject. In contrast to the noted law and religion scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, for example, Wenger is not wholly pessimistic about the emancipatory potential of religious freedom talk.
Clearly, there is much to admire and learn from in Wenger’s book. Religious Freedom is a breakthrough study that productively “brings the state back in” to a monograph that is as grounded in religious studies as history. Wenger offers a reinterpretation that disturbs comfortable myths, even as she carefully parses the drawbacks (and a few benefits) of religious freedom talk for those groups that engage in it.
For legal academics, Wenger’s work opens up valuable new avenues of inquiry. To name just one, consider her argument that religious freedom talk obscured racial discord and discrimination. Even the inclusion of those formerly excluded from its reach—especially Catholics and Jews—did not prevent the privileging of religious over racial diversity. Consider the way that Bob Jones University v. United States (1983) sent shock waves around evangelical communities, when the Court held that in a conflict between religious freedom and racial equality, race won. After reading Wenger, the venerable history of precisely the opposite presumption is thrown into sharp relief, helping explain the shock, among those whose claims of religious freedom had sidelined race and class. These insights are highly relevant to an age in which religious freedom is once again claimed to support exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, as in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently pending in the Supreme Court.
Wenger shows clearly the costs of such strategies in the past. Equally important, she demonstrates in accessible ways how theories of the religious nature of “the secular” make a difference in how we understand the more subtle dimensions of a vaunted freedom, which traditionally has often served as an excuse or vehicle for government interference in the religious life of people of color.
Constitutional debates about gerrymandering often start from the premise that redistricting bodies may pursue overtly partisan goals. The Court’s fractured decision in Vieth v. Jubelirer offers support for this idea: Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion characterized “partisan districting” as a “lawful and common practice,” conceding only that an “excessive injection of politics is unlawful.” Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in the judgment similarly noted that “[a] determination that a gerrymander violates the law must rest on something more than the conclusion that political classifications were applied” and that any workable test for evaluating a partisan gerrymander must be capable of “measuring the particular burden a given partisan classification imposes on representational rights.” ((Admittedly, Justice Kennedy sent mixed messages on this point. In contrast to the above passages, which suggest some toleration for intentionally partisan gerrymanders, Kennedy also indicated that a gerrymander might qualify as unconstitutional where political classifications “were applied in an invidious manner or in a manner unrelated to any legitimate legislative objective.” Some two years after Vieth, however, Justice Kennedy would voice opposition to a “sole-intent standard,” contending in LULAC v. Perry that “a successful claim attempting to identify unconstitutional acts of partisan gerrymandering must . . . show a burden, as measured by a reliable standard, on the complainants’ representational rights.”)) Even Justices Souter and Ginsburg, though rejecting the outcome in Vieth, were willing to concede that “some intent to gain political advantage is inescapable whenever political bodies devise a district plan” and that “the issue is one of how much is too much.” It is therefore not surprising that much of the post-Vieth commentary and case law has taken this point for granted: to the extent there might be a “judicially manageable standard” for adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims, that standard must be capable of distinguishing between the merely partisan gerrymander (which the Constitution permits) and the excessively partisan gerrymander (which the Constitution condemns). Such a standard, in other words, must answer the question of “how much is too much.”
In their recent, respective articles, Professors Michael Kang and Justin Levitt resist this framing of the inquiry. Rather than attempt to ask “how much” partisanship is “too much” partisanship, each author would instead ask whether a particular type of partisanship has infected the redistricting process (K. 354; L. 2). Thus, as Levitt puts it, the law of partisan gerrymandering should make it clear that “public action undertaken in order to disfavor citizens because of their party affiliation is not merely a species of normal politics, but impermissible in any degree” (L. 37). And Kang similarly maintains that courts ought expressly to “identify partisan purpose as constitutionally illegitimate” (K. 373). Both authors thus propose inquiries that would treat the presence of forbidden partisan intent as an independently sufficient basis for invalidating a legislative redistricting scheme.
Kang and Levitt each make a persuasive case on behalf of an intent-centered approach. For one thing, as Levitt points out, a renewed focus on partisan intent would help to ease concerns about judicial manageability, by bringing the law of partisan redistricting within the courts’ institutional comfort zone. Judges probe for “suspect” and “invidious” purposes across a range of different doctrines, and, that task, though often difficult, is not typically regarded as inherently unmanageable. What is more, an intent-based focus may help courts sidestep some of the analytical challenges that presented cause for concern in Vieth—challenges such as developing “comprehensive and neutral principles for drawing electoral boundaries,” formulating “independent judicial standards for measuring a burden on representational rights,” and/or “demonstrat[ing] how an apportionment’s de facto incorporation of partisan classifications burdens rights of fair and effective representation.” Vieth, 541 U.S. at 306-12 (Kennedy, J., concurring in the judgment). Rather than place those questions at the forefront of the inquiry, an intent-based framework would “identify only a narrow range of considerations as out of bounds,” while at the same time remaining “appropriately agnostic about a wide range of representational preferences left to the political process” (L. 17).
In addition, an intent-based approach would help to align redistricting case law with other areas of doctrine in which overtly partisan motives are already disfavored. Kang offers an especially thorough formulation of this argument, highlighting several other domains in which courts have refused to validate intentionally partisan government actions. Kang discusses in detail: (1) a variety of First Amendment decisions in which the Court and individual Justices have condemned government action that discriminates on the basis of a speaker’s partisan affiliation (K. 376-83); (2) “second-order” redistricting cases (including one summarily affirmed by the Court), in which lower courts have prohibited legislatures from assigning even slightly overpopulated districts, otherwise permissible under the principle of Reynolds v. Sims, with partisan motives in mind (K. 384-90); (3) case law concerning the Article I Elections Clause’s delegation of power to prescribe the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, a power—that though generally broad—does not permit states to “dictate electoral outcomes,” or “favor or disfavor a class of candidates” (K. 390-92 (quoting U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton)); and (4) a recent spate of lower-court decisions on voter-ID and other ballot-access restrictions, in which, Kang suggests, concerns about partisan motivation may be playing an unstated but significant role (K. 392-402). From this point of view, the Justices’ acquiescence to partisanship in redistricting decisions looks less like a reflection of and more like a “glaring exception” to a foundational constitutional norm (K. 376).
But more is at stake here than just doctrinal coherence. As both authors make clear, an intent-based approach would also effectuate a valuable ideal. Government action aimed at “punish[ing] or subordinat[ing] disfavored partisan affiliation” is a distinctly harmful phenomenon, different in kind from (and in fact directly threatening to) normal political competition for voters’ hearts and minds (L. 21). As Levitt puts the point:
That a Democratic or Republican legislator may vote on legislation with an eye toward improving her appeal in the next election is a very different matter than voting on legislation designed to improve her prospects by means other than appeal. Legislating with the intent to improve one’s political prospects by injuring Democrats or Republicans, because they are Democrats or Republicans, is a distinctly toxic form of partisanship, readily distinguishable from the rough-and-tumble of other political choices.
(L. 33). And Kang strikes a similar note: “The notion that the majority party in government can actively discriminate against the interests of the opposition violates a basic sensibility about democratic competition and fairness”; it is, in fact, “the definition of a process failure begging [for] judicial intervention” (K. 353). An intent-based test—in contrast to a “how much is too much” test—would refuse to countenance this sort of behavior as normal and to-be-expected.
Finally, Kang and Levitt both point out that a rule against partisan motives would have positive spillover effects within the law governing race-based gerrymandering claims (L. 55-56; K. 415-18). Where a redistricting body is accused of drawing maps in a racially discriminatory fashion, that body will sometimes respond with the odd defense that the map in fact serves partisan rather than race-based purposes. But if the Court were to make clear that partisanship does not generally qualify as a legitimate state interest, then the “party not race” defense would go away, and courts would no longer need to confront the difficult task of determining whether the true motivation behind a gerrymander was party-based or race-based. Instead, as Levitt notes, “redistricting bodies would be forced to justify lines based on publicly-permissible criteria—and, perhaps, even draw lines based on those criteria in the first instance” (L. 57).
Neither author promises a panacea. There is, for one thing, the problem of implementation. Simple as an intent-based prohibition may be to state in the abstract, judges still must figure out how to effectuate that prohibition on the ground. Kang and Levitt both sketch out potential doctrinal frameworks, ((Levitt would place the burden on challengers to show “that particular lines were drawn ‘at least in part because of, not merely in spite of, [their] adverse effects’ on a partisan group” (L. 43 (quoting Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney), while at the same time allowing the government to rebut circumstantial evidence of invidious intent by demonstrating “that an alternative, legitimate, rationale actually drove the districting choice” or “that the same decisions would have been made even in the absence of the invidious motive” (L50). (Notably, and in contrast to the Court’s approach to race-based gerrymandering claims, Levitt would not require challengers to show that the forbidden intent was the “predominant” motive for a gerrymander (L. 36).) Kang, by contrast, would have courts consider whether it was “more probable than not that partisan purpose significantly explains a redistricting’s partisan characteristics to the exclusion of legitimate state interests under rational basis” (K. 405), with such a finding derivable from the government’s failure to “explain an alternative, legitimate basis for its resulting partisan discrimination” or the government’s willingness to “admit its partisan purpose” (K. 410). Levitt thus appears to envision a sort of burden-shifting framework operating along the lines of existing, equal protection-based approaches to establishing discriminatory intent, whereas Kang has in mind an inquiry “aimed at the imputation of an objective legislative aim necessary to make intelligible the legislative adoption of a particular redistricting” (K. 410).)) but both authors acknowledge that additional questions remain. If, for instance, judges were permitted to infer illicit intent from the presence of egregiously partisan effects (K. 358; L. 57), then those same judges would have to make some attempt at quantifying and drawing conclusions about the extent of a map’s partisan bias, thus confronting the same sorts of measurement and line-drawing problems about which some of the Justices fretted in Vieth. Similarly, if judges were permitted to infer partisan intent from an absence of legitimate government interests underlying a redistricting plan, then those same judges would need to say something about what sorts of interests do qualify as legitimate within the redistricting context (and thus, in turn, engage with thorny, big-picture questions about representative government and democratic fairness). These problems don’t strike me as insuperable, and they do not necessarily undermine the suggestion that an intent-based test would prove relatively more administrable than the approach envisioned in Vieth. But the devil is in the details, and working through those details will not always be smooth sailing.
In addition, an intent-based approach may be susceptible to evasion and manipulation. Forbidden intent will often be difficult to prove, and that difficulty, as both authors acknowledge, would likely shield some badly-motivated gerrymanders from judicial invalidation. This outcome, moreover, would likely become increasingly frequent if an intent-based prohibition were openly adopted, as ill-intentioned redistricting bodies would grow more careful about and adept at covering their tracks. Again, the point should not be overstated: even if direct evidence of illicit partisanship proves difficult to uncover, circumstantial and indirect evidence might still sometimes suffice to show that the forbidden intent was there all along. Still, as Levitt himself concedes, if illicit intent is the relevant doctrinal lodestar, then “there will be circumstances in which invidious partisan intent exists in the world but cannot adequately be proven” (L. 52).
But even if the authors’ proposed re-framing of the inquiry does not produce a perfectly effective method of policing partisan gerrymandering, the re-framing itself would still yield positive consequences. Yes, redistricting bodies might respond to an intent-based test by suppressing their expressions of partisanship. But that itself would be a good thing, as a reduction in the broadcasting of partisan motivations might help to mitigate voter disillusionment with public institutions (L. 54). In addition, as Kang points out, a prohibition on overtly partisan gerrymanders might over time help legislators to “internalize the nonpartisanship norm to a degree and launder their internal thinking in the face of judicial stigmatization” (K. 412). This isn’t a totally pie-in-the-sky dream: Levitt highlights other areas of election regulation in which it is “strikingly rare to find public officials justifying their choices based on the raw desire to punish members of an opposing political party,” and he attributes that fact to a “deep—and hearteningly abiding—norm in most public spheres against tribal partisanship as a motivating force for action” (L. 45-46.). If that norm can prevail in other contexts, perhaps it might come to prevail within the redistricting context as well.
With the Court poised to revisit the issue of partisan gerrymandering in Gill v. Whitford (and perhaps a case coming out of Maryland as well), we soon will see whether the Justices show any interest in an intent-centered approach. (A major question mark is Justice Kennedy, who in LULAC v. Perry criticized a proposed intent-based test, but who in oral argument during Gill hinted that he might be willing to strike down a gerrymander for intent-related reasons.) But regardless of what happens this Term, these articles remain worth a read, as they offer up two especially informed, thoughtful, and analytically satisfying takes on a difficult constitutional problem. What is more, both articles provide a useful reminder that even justified cynicism about the way the political process works need not always translate into defeatism about what constitutional law forbids. Invidiously partisan motivations might always influence the redistricting process; but it does not follow that such motivations must therefore be regarded as constitutionally appropriate. Sometimes it is possible to be both realistic about what government officials are likely to do and idealistic about what the Constitution requires them to do. Kang and Levitt have convinced me that the law of partisan gerrymandering represents one area in which that disconnect can and should be maintained.
Cite as: Michael B. Coenen, Partisan Intent
, JOTWELL (December 21, 2017) (reviewing Michael S. Kang, Gerrymandering and the Constitutional Norm Against Government Partisanship
, 116 Mich. L. Rev.
351 (2017), and Justin Levitt, Intent Is Enough: Invidious Partisanship in Redistricting
, 59 Wm. & Mary L. Rev.
(forthcoming 2017), https://conlaw.jotwell.com/partisan-intent/
The article that made me think hardest about American constitutional law this year was not a work of legal scholarship. It was historian Rick Perlstein’s meditation on the making of modern American conservatism.
Perlstein begins his article by describing the “rough consensus” among historians about how the right became the dominant political force in American politics in the second half of the twentieth century. The story starts in 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. founded the National Review to combat the decades-long marginalization of political conservatism. Buckley banished John Birchers, anti-Semites, and fanatical Ayn Randians and “fused the diverse schools of conservative thinking—traditionalist philosophers, militant anti-Communists, libertarian economists—into a coherent ideology.” Fueled by support from white suburban voters, the new political conservatives thrived. Crucial to their success—or so the story goes—was their denouncement of the “political surrealism of the paranoid fringe.” Particularly in the South, new movement conservatives sublimated the “frenetic, violent anxieties” aroused by race, and spoke instead of “stable housing values,” “quality local education,” and “colorblind constitutionalism.” Simply put, modern conservatism became a dominant force by eschewing what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
Politicians like John McCain, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney exemplify this account of modern conservatism (when Romney ventured into “fringe” territory by noting that no-one had ever asked to see his birth certificate, he almost immediately walked the comment back). The current President utterly confounds it. He routinely says precisely the kinds of things upon whose eschewal the success of the modern Republican Party is thought to depend. He dredges up all that modern conservatism is understood to have rejected, sublimated, or left behind—but instead of losing (like McCain, Bush, and Romney), he wins.
From the perspective of the conventional account of the modern right—to which Perlstein’s own scholarship contributed—Trump’s victory looks like an anomaly, a rupture, and a mistake. But, Perlstein argues, it is none of these things: It is the conventional narrative that is mistaken. On his revised account, the “paranoid fringe” was never merely a fringe. He points out, for instance, that the Black Legion, which was active in the industrial Midwest and considered itself an enforcement arm of the Klan, retained its power long after historians generally view Klan power as deteriorating. In 1936, by which point the Black Legion was suspected of dozens of assassinations, the FBI estimated its membership at 135,000, a figure that included a large number of government officials. A few years later, thousands of East Coasters packed into Madison Square Garden for a pro-Hitler rally; throughout World War II, the Christian Front carried out “small pogroms” in Northeastern cities, regularly assaulting Jews as officials looked the other way. In 1962, thousands of people in Southern California wrote fearful letters to their one of their representatives about an imminent invasion of San Diego by Chinese commandos who had been training in Mexico. The common thread in these examples, and in more recent ones Perlstein discusses, is that what we think of as the far-right fringe is not as small and fringy as we generally assume.
There is no room here to discuss these examples or the others Perlstein cites; nor is there room to discuss the Trump family’s own involvement in this history. All I can do here is summarize Perlstein’s thesis, which is that the far right has not been as thinly populated or distant from the American mainstream over the last three-quarters of a century as we commonly suppose. Perlstein argues that historians (including himself) have overlooked or downplayed evidence of the mainstream nature of far-right ideology. They have assumed that the “polite” conservative tradition—the one associated with William F. Buckley, Jr.—was the dominant force in the rise of the political right and that, since the 1950s, racist and anti-immigrant ideologies have languished on the outer fringes of the right. But, Perlstein argues, that polite tradition may not have been the only or even the primary driving force in the rise of the right; the real oomph, at least in terms of numbers, may have come from a less reconstructed force.
If Perlstein is even partly correct, his article raises interesting questions about constitutional change. In the past decade or so, many scholars have embraced what is known as popular or democratic constitutionalism—various models of constitutional change that focus on how social movements influence and transform constitutional meaning. These models differ, but they all rest on a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between law and politics: between the constitutional visions that political activists and political leaders put forward and the constitutional change that judges, appointed by those leaders and attuned in various ways to social movement activism, then effectuate with their decisions.
Perlstein’s article raises a number of important questions about how we should understand this law-and-politics relationship in the context of modern conservatism. If the conservative political movement that has dominated national politics since the late 1970s gained a significant part of its electoral power from the far right, what are the implications of this for how we ought to understand the constitutional politics this movement constructed? What does it mean for how we ought to understand the law-and-politics relationship itself? Academics are accustomed to the mode of conservatism on display in decisions like Milliken v. Bradley, Washington v. Davis, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, and Shelby County v. Holder: the language is impassive, it embraces values like fairness, neutrality, and colorblindness; it is all about ending discrimination. Judges appointed by modern Republican leaders talk this way, and with some exceptions, those leaders talk this way as well. But what if those leaders—and by extension, those judges—got where they are in no small part through the support of the far right? Would that affect the meaning of what those leaders and judges do? Would that in any way influence our understanding of the nature of their decisions? Would it (or should it) alter the way we think about the constitutional change this movement has wrought? Regardless of whether historians ultimately embrace Perlstein’s thesis, his provocative article raises profound and unresolved questions about how we think about the nature of constitutional change.
Nelson Tebbe’s aspiration is nothing less than teaching us all to think more clearly and coherently about issues of marriage equality and religious freedom. For anyone paying attention, this bandwidth of legal disputes is white hot. And it is rare to find such a thoughtful voice on these questions, which keep coming at us but are rarely dealt with as skillfully and thoughtfully as in Tebbe’s work. Just last June, for example, the United States Supreme Court took cert on a case from Colorado, involving a wedding cake baker who says his expressive voice is implicated in his work. His religious beliefs mean that he cannot participate in making the cake for a same-sex couple. The baker is represented by the conservative Alliance Defense Fund and the ACLU represents the couple.
Tebbe’s book, although published before the case made it up to the Supreme Court, tells us how he would like us to think about the outcome. In public accommodations, such as businesses that are open to the public, the law does not force speech when it orders such a business to comply with non-discrimination mandates. Instead, we should recognize that by opening their doors to the public, the owners of Masterpiece Cakeshop have taken a voluntary step into society. Particularly with questions of religious freedom and racial discrimination, we have a strong background of past engagement with analogous issues. We also have deep legal and social commitments to treating customers equally, without reference to race, religion, national origin, marital status, and now, sexual orientation.
Since Obergefell v. Hodges was decided in 2015, such issues have become a lightning rod. Photographers, florists, and other wedding vendors are part of an enormous American wedding industry, but they want us to focus on their artisanship—most are small, local, and very personal. Their claims are sincere, and they feel threatened. On the other side, couples are sent unwelcome messages of condemnation, and may be imposed upon in other ways as well, when all they wanted was a happy wedding.
This is where Tebbe finds the space to be moderate, reasoned, and respectful—of both sides. One of the most admirable aspects of his work is his deployment of a carefully calibrated method for discussing what otherwise look like intractable disputes. This is where the interdisciplinary quality of the work is most evident, and most welcome. Tebbe deploys “social coherence” theory (ok, perhaps not the best label for a society that is anything but coherent right now, but work with us here), a political model that Tebbe has explored in past work. But the advantage of a book-length treatment is obvious: Tebbe’s focus both on consistency of relevant outcomes in the past, and the underlying principles that inform and give moral purchase to past results, yields a nuanced and useful set of ideas for navigating troubled waters. This is not one of those books that reproduces past work with little attention to the arc of a monograph. Instead, Tebbe has dug in and worked hard to make his own work fit the model he argues for: he is reasoned, careful, gracious, and consistent.
One of the most admirable aspects of Tebbe’s book is the way that he integrates his work in political theory with the nitty gritty of recent cases and legal doctrine. He has a strong perspective grounded in theory, that is, but he also brings a lawyer’s eye to doctrine crunching. Add to this his accessible prose, welcoming posture, and detailed explanations—Tebbe reminds this reader in some ways of Chris Eisgruber and Larry Sager’s 2007 book Religious Freedom and the Constitution, also published by Harvard University Press. He brings the same collegial and wide-ranging ethic to the task, although his approach is distinct.
It is relatively easy to outline Tebbe’s formula, but doing justice to the multiple ways he applies his method to actual cases and hypothetical situations is more difficult. The challenge even of summarizing the work demonstrates how careful, even subtle, the uses of social coherence theory are in this book. He begins by talking about what counts as coherence and then connecting those attributes to larger principles. The attributes include mutual reinforcement of patterns of behavior, in ways that support conclusions as warranted by past practice (without necessarily claiming that a particular conclusion is either true or moral in a philosophical sense), and dynamism, which means that all conclusions are subject to revision in light of new information. Also important are qualities that connect this approach to abstraction, meaning that reasons justifying a conclusion may be concrete or derived from principle. Tebbe also acknowledges that his goals are aspirational, which means that we may and should strive to achieve coherence, but that it will likely remain elusive, imperfectly achieved, and/or impermanent.
This approach is particularly useful to law and legal analysis, Tebbe argues, and dovetails neatly with fundamental legal principles, including avoiding harm to others, basic fairness, freedom of association, and government nonendorsement. Roughly half the book is taken up with getting us this far. This reader both had a strong grasp of the method and its underlying limits and virtues—but the payoff truly is in the third section of the book, called “applications.” Here he tackles four major problems for the law of church and state today.
The first is the topic we began with—public accommodations. I won’t belabor the fundamental points about speech and past practice, but do want to note that he also addresses the “wait and see” argument. To those who argue that we should give the market time to adjust to increasingly positive views of marriage equality, Tebbe (expanding on the work of Andrew Koppelman and Joseph Singer) responds that “strong and commonly accepted” reasons for allowing equal access to public accommodations are already in place, and should be respected in cases (such as those involving wedding vendors) that involve commercial enterprises. This would include adoption agencies, facilities routinely rented to the public, and would apply despite Religious Freedom Restoration Acts at the federal or state level. Tebbe readily concedes that after Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) this is a live question, an intuition that is borne out by the Supreme Court’s current docket.
The second topic is equally difficult and hard fought. Teachers, coaches, voluntary Boy Scout troop leaders, even janitors, have all been subject to firing for violating purely religious standards in the workplace. As Tebbe points out, state and federal employment laws provide special exemptions for religious organizations. Freedom of association protects religious (and secular) groups, especially in the hiring of leaders, such as clergy or those formulating policy for the group. The Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC (2012) underscored the concern for freedom to select clergy. Tebbe cautions that ordinary employees, especially laypersons in relatively low-level jobs that do not materially affect policy or central values of an organization, can be harmed unduly when religious organizations are allowed to discriminate in favor of co-religionists under Title VII. And in an interesting twist, the central case in this area, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos (1987) comes from Salt Lake City, where in 2015 the “Utah Compromise” both enacted employment protection for LGBT workers, and entirely exempted religious organizations and the Boy Scouts, for which the Mormon Church is the single largest sponsor in the country. This widely heralded advance, Tebbe argues, came at a high price. And other similar proposals, he says, have been rightly criticized for extending unprecedented power to religious organizations to discriminate in hiring.
Third is public officials, and here Tebbe argues that—although religious exemptions for government actors are rare—they should be expanded in some situations. For example, consider Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses after Obergefell on religious grounds. Tebbe maintains that she should be allowed to benefit from a solution to her quandary designed by the Kentucky legislature. The state established a uniform marriage license for Kentucky, which associated the broader government, rather than the county clerk by name, with the endorsement of marriage equality. Tebbe argues that this solves the problem, although he concedes that his is a minority position. This reader began thinking he must be dead wrong, and that an oath to uphold the law means just that. But Tebbe’s careful distinction between the office and the office-holder was thought provoking in all the best ways.
Finally, Tebbe concludes with government funding. Here, too, he brings to bear a distinctive and steady voice, arguing that governments should be allowed to de-fund religious activity, even if it funds comparable secular endeavors. As he notes, concerns about tax exemption are everywhere among religious groups that object to marriage equality. Older caselaw, such as Bob Jones University v. United States (1983) and Locke v. Davey (2004) support Tebbe’s argument that even constitutionally protected activity can be defunded or discouraged (see abortion). But the more recent Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Cromer (2017), released this summer after Tebbe’s book was published, cuts in the other direction. There the Court held that Missouri’s decision not to help a nursery school improve its playground because it was located on church property violated the free exercise rights of the church. In a telephone conversation, Tebbe called the case “regrettable,” maintaining that Missouri’s interest in pursuing the values of the establishment clause should be allowed, stressing that Justice Sonia Sotomayor (in dissent) had a better understanding of the law.
Thus one portion of Religious Freedom in an Egalitarian Age has already endured some buffeting. But the central point of the book is the key: Tebbe argues—repeatedly, convincingly, and with great respect for the many interests at stake in this highly-contested area of constitutional law—that reason, debate, moderation, and coherence are central to productive outcomes. He is right, and the field is better for his intervention.