Monday, November 14, 2016

What's It Mean? The Federal Judiciary

Amongst real conservatives, and by that I mean real ones, not libertarians (who aren't conservatives) and not amongst country club Republicans, but the real deal, one of the few saving graces of the Trump election is that it would appear to mean that appointments to the Federal bench will be made up of individuals who take a conventional approach to statutory interprestation, rather than excessively straining the text to reach what a very ancient body of judges think is an emerging social context, something they should not be doing.

You know, the kind who read the law, and actually apply it.

That sounds, I know, extremely harsh, but right now on the Supreme Court we have at least a few judges who are tending to sort of make stuff up.

Judicial interpretation of statutes can be difficult, if they are poorly written, but that usually isn't the case. Usually, you can read the text, and its plain meaning is obvious.  That is is, in fact, the first principal of judicial interpretation.  Read it.  Does it make sense?  Do that.

If it doesn't quite make sense, then the second thing you are supposed to do it to see if the intent of the drafters can be discerned. That's  more difficult, but often can be.  If the left notes, discussions, text of their debates, you can research them, and find out what they meant, quite often.  Then you do that.

If you can't do that, you have a problem.  Indeed, a maxim of interpretation is "void for vagueness".  That means, "I can't tell what this is supposed to do, so it does nothing".

What you don't do is interpret by "evolving social norms" or pretend that a bunch of text on a paper is a "living document".

You do not want, for example, a judge to say "the text of the statute says that the speed limit, where not posted, is 30 mph, but the evolving social norm says 45 mph is super nifty, so 30 means 45!"

No you do not.

But that's exactly what the Supreme Court has done within the last year.

This is particularly problematic as its highly undemocratic, and when the Court renders decisions of any kind based on what it thinks the law ought to be, rather than what it is, and contrary to the opinions of a sizable percentage of the electorate, it creates havoc and dissension.   As a general rule, the only times taht this doesn't occur when the Supreme Court gets out on a limb is when an overwhelming percentage of teh population has already reached the opinion the court has.

Otherwise, people prefer to have a voice of their own, and that's the way that the system is generally designed. There are, surely, liberties and rights that are protected in the Constitution, but only where that is clear are people generally willing to accept rulings that are otherwise contrary to their personal views.  For example, a lot of people would squelch some speech, and some people would interject religion into law, and lots of people would be happy with broader police powers to search, but they accept that the  Constitution restricts all of these things.  Where such acceptance is wide it will occasionally express itself in an effort to amend the Constitution accordingly, such as efforts to restrict Congress' ability to pass deficit budgets, or for the President to serve more than two terms, or for states to allow the sale of alcohol, etc.

When the Court just makes stuff up, however, it tends to spark real bitterness and disrespect for the Court.  And it puts the nation into what are sometimes decades long efforts to overcome what a nine judge body has determined ought to be the law.  Ironically, this often tends to assist the very body that the Court was seeking to oppose.  The Dred Scott decision did receive acceptance from abolitionist, Roe v. Wade was not accepted by opponents to abortion.  Obegefell will not be accepted by people who wish to retain the traditional, natural, definition of marriage.

Indeed, Supreme Court decisions that do violence to the actual text of the Constitution not only do not receive acceptance, they actually tend to focus and sharpen the arguments that are contrary to the Court's opinion.  In those instances in which the Court, made up of nine older folks, attempts to get out in front of state legislatures and foist a minority view on the nation, those who were campaigning for that minority view tend to go home, but the losers go to work.  Of note, for example, support for abortion has massively declined since the generation that saw Roe v. Wade become law aged out.  The support for the opinion is largely gone.  Support for abolition became so high the country fought a massive Civil War after Dred Scott.  During the period during which the right to keep and bear arms was sort of regarded as mushy by the Federal Courts support for gun control, which was extremely high in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, evaporated.  Those rejoicing over Obegefell, if they really support the holding, ought to hope that the Supreme Court reverses itself immediately so they can try to get back into the legislatures while they still have time.

Because, while people will support clearly spelled out rights, they won't support an anti democratic body telling them what they ought to think.

No matter what else the results of Trump's election may be, based upon his campaign, the one thing actual conservatives can probably safely take some relief on is that the next couple of Supreme Court justices are unlikely to be judicial liberals.  That may actually be the one thing that can safely be predicted about the upcoming next four years.

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