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July 21, 2010

State Power and Same-Sex Marriage

Advocates of state power praised the recent decision by Judge Joseph Tauro, of the United States District Court for the District of Boston, in Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tauro found Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional for several reasons, including that the law violates the Tenth Amendment. That Amendment provides that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

Tauro reasoned (among other things) that states have the authority to regulate and define marriage, because marital status determinations traditionally have been viewed as falling within a state’s sovereign power. He noted that the federal government in its argument “offered little to disprove the persuasive precedential and historical arguments set forth by the Commonwealth to establish that marital status determinations are an attribute of state sovereignty.”

Of course, the fact that, as a historical matter, marital status determinations have been seen as within the power of the states does not mean that Congress has no authority at all in respect to such determinations. Indeed, as Jeff Jacoby recently noted in the Boston Globe, Tauro neglects at least one important historical example of federal control of marriage: the longstanding federal ban on polygamous marriage in the states of Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico—states whose admission into the union Congress conditioned upon their prohibition of such marriages.

More fundamentally, it is not clear from the Constitution itself that marital status determinations are off-limits to Congress. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated there exist traditional areas in which state authority to regulate should be presumed, that is not the same as immunizing whole areas of policy from federal regulation.

Consider an example provided by Judge Tauro in the companion case to Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management. In Gill, he found that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Tauro reasoned that Congress has recognized all state definitions of marriage save this one, which undermines the federal government’s argument that the law operates even-handedly. But surely Congress could, under its spending power, create incentives for the states to deter all kinds of marital unions, including those that some states currently allow—like the one Tauro pointed to as permitted under DOMA, namely, the marriage of a thirteen year-old female and a fourteen year-old male, with their parents’ consent. Congress might even be able to regulate certain marital status determinations under the Commerce power if there were a sufficiently demonstrable interstate connection—say, prohibiting marriages in which one party was fraudulently induced to cross state lines to get married.

The decision in Commonwealth v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services demonstrates the dilemma that advocates of states’ rights face. The Constitution enumerates limited categories of federal authority, but those categories may, depending upon the circumstances, encompass areas traditionally regulated by the states. In other words, while states have a great deal of power in our federalist system, some of that power may be exercised in the shadows cast by valid federal regulation. The best arguments for states’ rights advocates accordingly may lie in the realm of political action, rather than that of constitutional litigation.

Lawrence Friedman

July 12, 2010

The Modern Council of Revision

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a few delegates proposed the adoption of a Council of Revision. The Council was to consist of a small group of high officials (mostly judges) whose job it would be to determine the constitutionality of any law under consideration by Congress. The purpose of the Council of Revision was to keep in check the dangerous excesses of popular majorities. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and the Framers wisely rejected this proposal.

However, what we have today is an unstoppable U.S. Supreme Court fully determined to pass judgment on just about any significant Congressional enactment. Nearly every statute of consequence now has to meet the approval of a handful of these unelected, lifetime officials. The recently completed term of the Court is replete with examples of this -- most egregiously, the Citizens United case back in January which gutted the McCain/Feingold Campaign Finance Law, a law based upon extensive hearings and findings by Congressional committees. And a most important new piece of legislation, the Health Care Law, is being challenged by teams of conservative lawyers and state attorneys general who have every expectation that the Supremes will have lots to say about whether that Law is permissible or not.

Thus, for all practical purposes, we have allowed the old Council of Revision to become part of our system of government even though it was specifically rejected by the much venerated Founding Fathers. So much for the original intent of the framers of our Constitution.

George Dargo

July 7, 2010

Ironically, the Constitution is Lost in Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings

A recent Boston Globe article analyzed the impact of Senator Scott Brown’s vote on the candidacy of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court of the United States. Quotes abound from each side of the political spectrum, stating that Brown’s vote will be a unique key in determining whether he is a “true” Republican or just a Massachusetts liberal in GOP clothing. Similarly, the media has bandied about its usual speculation whether certain GOP Senators will “follow party lines” and vote against the nomination or will “cross the isle to support Elena Kagan,” possibly to their own political detriment.

As far as I can tell, few Senators or media outlets mention the fact that these proceedings, as a matter of constitutional law, do not constitute an opportunity for Senators to get a pure “vote” on whether Solicitor General Kagan is the right person for the job. To the contrary, the Senate has a substantially subordinated role in this process, and equating a Senator’s vote with a pure statement of his or her political ideology inflates both the Senate’s constitutional authority in confirming justices and the importance of the vote in assessing a Senator’s conservative or liberal bona fides. Ironically, by aggrandizing the role of the Senate in this process, by overstating its “say” in this matter by implicitly equating the Senate with the White House, we blatantly lose sight of the Constitution. Let me explain….

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . Judges of the supreme Court.” (Emphasis added). There are several crucial aspects of this language. First, this provision is located in the part of the Constitution detailing the powers of the President. Thus, the appointment of Supreme Court justices is a power committed to the President, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. Second, the appointment occurs with the advice and consent of the Senate, not with its “approval” (a term used in Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, giving the President power to sign or veto legislation if he “approve[s]” of it). Thus, the Senate’s power here is not the same type of full review accorded by the term “approval,” but instead is limited to mere “advice and consent.” Third, this provision is a notable exception to bicameralism in that only the Senate, and not the full Congress, gives advice and consent. Thus, the Senate’s power here is far more limited than the Congress’s general power to legislate. Finally, a bare majority vote fulfills the Senate’s advice and consent duty. This contrasts with the treaty-making power, also enumerated in Section 2 of Article II, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Thus, the Senate’s limited role in confirmation is even more limited than its role in ratifying treaties.

From all of this, we can glean that the Senate’s role in the confirmation process is extremely limited. Yet, if one listens to the media, one gets the impression that Scott Brown and his colleagues are just as much the “deciders” (to use a term popular with the last administration) here as the White House. That’s just not so, and by inflating the Senate’s role, we add fuel to the fire of the increasingly partisan and far less substantive tenor of the confirmation process. Rather than focusing on whether the candidate is qualified for the position, the opposing party in the Senate simply cross-examines the nominee in search of a “gotcha” moment. Rather than discussing qualifications, the opposing party now demands empty statements of fealty towards judicial deference to Congress and pro forma vows of abhorrence for judicial activism.

Rather than recognizing the important balance of constitutional authority inherent in this process, opportunistic politicians have transformed confirmation into mere political muckraking evidenced by the increasingly close votes for candidates who were eminently qualified for the High Court. (Since the 1988 confirmation of Justice Kennedy, not a single nominee has won unanimous confirmation. Scalia, J.: 98-0; Kennedy, J.: 97-0; Souter, J.: 90-9; Thomas, J.: 52-48; Ginsburg, J.: 96-3; Breyer, J.: 87-9; Roberts, CJ.: 78-22; Alito, J.: 58-42; Sotomayor, J.: 68-31).

The media and the Senate should stop treating the confirmation process as a measure of a Senator’s ideological philosophy. Instead, we should recognize that a vote for an opposing party’s nominee is the same type of constitutional deference currently demanded of nominees during their grilling in the Senate. As Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), has stated: there “are myriad reasons why political ideology has not been — and is not — an appropriate measure of judicial qualifications. Fundamentally, the Senate’s responsibility to provide advice and consent does not include an ideological litmus test.”

That’s good advice on how to give good advice and consent.

Louis Schulze