Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Why Judicial Deference Matters

Public confidence in the United States Supreme Court is declining because many citizens believe that politics, not law, motivate the Court’s decisions.[1] That belief is not likely to improve, particularly as the Court prepares to issue decisions on abortion, the right to bear arms, and religious liberty, which may be decided by a single vote.

Part of the problem, aside from the fact that, on divisive social issues, the justices’ decisions so conveniently align with their policy predilections, is that the Court often gets involved when it should defer to the legislative and executive branches. Indeed, judicial deference can – and should – play a key role in preserving the Court’s legitimacy and in demonstrating that the Court is not a political institution.

A.    Cases where judicial deference was appropriate

Below are several examples of where the Court should have deferred to federal and state legislatures.

        1.    Clinton v. New York

In Clinton v. New York, Congress passed, and President George H. W. Bush signed, the Line Item Veto Act, which authorized the president to veto specific spending provisions in duly-enacted legislation to reduce unnecessary government spending.[2] The Act also gave Congress the authority to override by a majority vote the president’s line-item vetoes.

The question before the Court was whether the Act violated the Constitution’s Presentment Clause, which states in part as follows:

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law.[3]

Based on this broad language, was the Line Item Veto Act unconstitutional? Well, it depends. Reasonable jurists can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of the Presentment Clause and arrive at different conclusions. Given this fact, why did the Court get involved and, by a 6-3 vote, invalidate a law that both the legislative and executive branches agreed would reduce wasteful government spending and promote fiscal responsibility?[4]

            2.    Kennedy v. Louisiana

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court considered whether a Louisiana law authorizing the death penalty for raping a child under the age of twelve violated the Eighth Amendment, which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”[5]  Is it “cruel and unusual” to execute a person for raping a child under the age of twelve? Again, it depends – not on the Constitution’s text, but on a jurist’s subjective values. As with the Presentment Clause, you can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of “cruel and unusual” and arrive at different conclusions. As such, why are nine unelected and life-tenured judges in a better position to make this determination than legislators in Louisiana? They aren’t – and that is the point.

But that didn’t stop the Court from intervening and, in a 5-4 decision, invalidating the law. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the determination of whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual” depended on “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and on the Court’s “reasoned judgment.”[6] In other words, the Court can reach whatever decisions it wants, based on whatever its members feel at the time.

            3.    Citizens United v. FEC

In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court invalidated legislation that restricted corporations, labor unions, and other associations – within sixty days of a general election and thirty days of a primary – from making an “electioneering communication.”[7] The legislation’s purpose was to prohibit corporations and other entities from using money to influence federal elections (and primaries) and thereby gain unfair access to elected officials.[8]

The question before the Court was whether this legislation violated the First Amendment, which provides in relevant part that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”[9] Based on this broad language, was the legislation unconstitutional? The answer certainly doesn’t depend on the Constitution’s text.

Indeed, equally persuasive arguments can be made for and against the legislation’s constitutionality. As such, why did the Court get involved and, in a divisive, 5-4 decision, invalidate legislation that had the salutary objective of reducing undue influence in the electoral process? Put differently, why should the Court intervene to invalidate duly enacted legislation when the Constitution does not compel such a result, and where, as in Citizens United, doing so undermines equal participation in the democratic process?

To make matters worse, in reaching this decision, the Court overturned its decision only twenty-three years earlier in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, where the Court held that Congress may restrict corporate expenditures to reduce the distorting effects of corporate wealth on the marketplace of ideas.[10] The Court’s decision to overrule Austin suggested that the Constitution’s meaning depends on the ideological and policy predilections of its current members and that constitutional meaning reflects those predilections.

The Court should have minded its own business and never intervened.

            4.    Shelby County v. Holder

In Shelby County v. Holder – another 5-4 decision – the Court invalidated two provisions of the Voting Rights Act even though: (1) the Senate had voted unanimously to re-authorize these provisions; (2) neither the Constitution’s text (in Shelby, the Tenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) nor the Court’s “congruence and proportionality” test arguably compelled this result.[11] Once again, why did the Court get involved?

            5.    National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius – Chief Justice John Roberts Gets It Right (albeit in a disingenuous                            way)

In National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts embraced judicial deference when voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality.[12] Let’s be honest: Chief Justice Roberts’ reliance on Congress’s taxing power probably wasn’t due to his sincere belief that the individual mandate penalty was a proper use of that power. Rather, Chief Justice Roberts likely believed that invalidating the Act would tarnish the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

As a result, Justice Roberts deferred to the coordinate branches, stating that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.”[13] Chief Justice Roberts’ decision is somewhat ironic because his desire to preserve the Court’s institutional legitimacy – and avoid the perception that politics motivate the Court’s decisions – has arguably led Roberts to reach decisions based on his subjective view of how the public will react to a decision rather than on a principled interpretation of the law. Put simply, it appears that Chief Justice Roberts is no longer an umpire.[14]

            6.    Roe v. Wade – and the ugliness of substantive due process

Nowhere is deference more appropriate than where the Constitution is only subject to one interpretation. This was precisely the case in Roe v. Wade, a decision so untethered to the Constitution’s text that even Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg could not bring herself to support the Court’s reasoning.[15]

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in relevant part that “No state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[16] Thus, the Due Process Clause is a procedural guarantee; it ensures that the state cannot arbitrarily and unfairly deprive citizens of life, liberty, or property.

Where in this language can a right to abortion be found? Nowhere – no matter how hard you look. As such, the Court should have left the decision of whether to permit abortion to the states – and the democratic process.

But that didn’t happen. And the path that the Court took to create a right to abortion made no sense whatsoever.

Specifically, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court held that the Constitution contained invisible “penumbras” that enabled the Court to unilaterally identify unenumerated rights – regardless of whether the Constitution’s text could support creating these rights.[17] This approach, known as “substantive due process,” states that the word “liberty” in the Due Process Clause encompasses certain unenumerated rights that are so essential to liberty that no process could justify their deprivation. In other words, the Court held that it could create whatever rights it wanted, even if the Constitution’s text provided no support for the creation of these rights.

Based on that flawed reasoning, the Court in Griswold held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s text miraculously contained an unenumerated right to privacy. And the Court in Roe – in a “raw exercise of judicial power,” – held that the so-called right to privacy was “broad enough” to encompass a right to abortion.

This isn’t a joke.

It actually happened.

It’s not surprising that conservative and liberal scholars have almost uniformly condemned the reasoning on which Roe was based. As Professor John Hart Ely stated:

What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. . . . And that, I believe . . . is a charge that can responsibly be leveled at no other decision of the past twenty years. At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.[18]

Indeed, even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that Roe was far too sweeping, such that “it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.”[19] Likewise,  Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated that “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.”[20]

If there was ever an issue where the Court should have deferred to democratic choice, it was on abortion. The fact that it didn’t should trouble citizens of all political persuasions. When you look to the Court, rather than the democratic process, to create new unenumerated rights, you give the Court the power to impose its will on an entire nation regardless of constitutional constraints. The risk in doing so is that, when the Court’s members change, so too may the rights that the Court previously deemed fundamental. A perfect example is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where a conservative majority may limit, if not eliminate, the right to abortion. As they say, the chickens have come home to roost.

That’s what happens when you ask the Court to decide unilaterally what should be decided democratically.

B.    Basing decisions on underlying purposes is an invitation to subjectivity and arbitrariness

It makes no sense to argue that, in the face of constitutional ambiguity, the Court should examine the underlying purposes of a particular provision to discern constitutional meaning. A purpose-driven analysis is an invitation to subjectivity, bias, and arbitrariness. To be sure, most constitutional provisions have multiple – and broad – purposes that judges can construe differently. As Justice Scalia stated, basing a decision on the broad (and often multiple and conflicting) purposes of a constitutional provision leaves judges “out to sea” where nothing but subjectivity reins – as it does in those “penumbras” that the Court in Griswold invented to create an unenumerated right out of thin air.[21]

Of course, the Court does have the power to say “what the law is,” and in some instances, the Court should not defer when faced with constitutional ambiguity, particularly where rights are inferable from the Constitution’s text.[22] For example, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that the right to counsel implies the right to effective assistance of counsel, and that the right to free speech implies the right to association.[23] However, there are also instances where unenumerated rights are not readily inferable from the text, or where different but equally plausible interpretations of the text are possible.  That was the case in Clinton, Citizens United, and Kennedy (and a host of other cases). And in Griswold and Roe, no honest jurist could claim that the right to privacy and abortion, respectively, were inferable from the Due Process Clause. What’s more, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause did not encompass a right to assisted suicide.[24] So the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to terminate a pregnancy but not the right to terminate your own life when, for example, you have Stage Four pancreatic cancer. This is what happens when judges base their decisions on little more than subjective values and gift wrap their policy preferences in dishonest legal analysis.

The Court should remember, as Chief Justice Roberts emphasized, that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.”[25] The Court should adopt the same approach when interpreting the Constitution’s text. To be sure, human beings do have natural rights that exist independently of and should not be limited by governments or constitutions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Court should have the power to identify those rights. If it did, there would be no limits on the Court’s power.

We live in a democracy. That gives the people, not philosopher kings, the right to participate in the democratic process and create laws from the bottom up. When the Court interferes with these processes and makes decisions that lack any reasonable basis in the Constitution’s text, it undermines democracy and liberty, and erodes the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

Simply put, the Constitution does not give nine unelected and life-tenured judges the right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” or to define “liberty in its spatial and in its more transcendent dimensions.”[26] That right belongs to the people.

 

[1] See Hannah Fingerhut, Low Public Confidence in the Supreme Court as Breyer Retires (January 27, 2022), available at: Low public confidence in Supreme Court as Breyer retires - ABC News (go.com)

[2] 524 U.S. 417 (1996).

[3] U.S. Const., Art. I, Sec. 7, Cl. 2 and 3.

[4] 524 U.S. 417.

[5] U.S. Const., Amend. VIII.

[6] 554 U.S. 407 (2008); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).

[7] An “electioneering communication” was defined as a “broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.”

[8] 524 U.S. 417.

[9] U.S. Const., Amend. I.

[10] 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

[11] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[12] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[13] Id. (emphasis added).

[14] See Katarina Mantell, The Umpire of the Court – Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, available at: The Umpire of the Court - Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. (shu.edu)

[15] Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[16] U.S. Const., Amend. XIV.

[17] 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Steven H. Aden, Roe v. Wade Was An Abuse of Discretion, Exercise in Raw Judicial Power (October 30, 2013), available at: Roe v. Wade Was an "Abuse of Discretion," Exercise in Raw Judicial Power - LifeNews.com

[18] John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 YALE L.J. 920 (1973).

[19]  Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[20] Laurence Tribe, The Supreme Court, 1972 Term–Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law, 87 Harvard Law Review 1, 7 (1973).

[21] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[22] Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).

[23] See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

[24] 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[25] 567 U.S. 519 (2012) (emphasis added).

[26] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Lawrence v. Texas,  539 U.S. 558 (2003).

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Comments

You may wish to consider that through the most awkward language possible, the Roe court acknowledged the basic freedom of people to control their bodily autonomy, and not defer to a legislative pronouncement or a court with this limited legitimacy. Maybe they'll surprise us all and give Roe the solid legal footing in basic freedom the Constitution is supposed to provide, rather than a narrow recognition that freedom must be explicitly defined in order for us to be free.

Posted by: john morris | Apr 25, 2022 6:31:16 AM

You may wish to consider that through the most awkward language possible, the Roe court acknowledged the basic freedom of people to control their bodily autonomy, and not defer to a legislative pronouncement or a court with this limited legitimacy. Maybe they'll surprise us all and give Roe the solid legal footing in basic freedom the Constitution is supposed to provide, rather than a narrow recognition that freedom must be explicitly defined in order for us to be free.

Posted by: john morris | Apr 25, 2022 6:31:17 AM

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