Commentary Magazine


Another Liberal Libel of the Court

John wrote yesterday in the New York Post about the “unerring liberal inability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments,” a phenomenon that has produced preemptive attacks on the integrity of the Supreme Court after the ObamaCare oral argument.

The distinguished law professor, Ronald Dworkin, is the latest liberal to libel the Court. At the New York Review of Books blog, he asserts the legal issues in ObamaCare “are not really controversial;” that “basic constitutional principle” and Court precedents “obviously” support it; that conservative justices are ignoring “text, precedent and principle;” and that the distinction between regulating commerce and making everyone buy a product is “pointless.” Perhaps he missed the point in the colloquy between Justice Breyer and Michael Carvin; or skipped the Eleventh Circuit’s 207-page opinion (jointly written by Democratic and Republican appointees); or perhaps he lacks the ability to accept the substance and merit of opposing arguments.

His post is not even internally consistent. He asserts conservative justices are relying on “the strict and arbitrary language of an antique Constitution,” which seems to cut against his argument that they are preparing to rule “in spite of text.” His real problem is the text itself, not justices who think they must stay within it. Stripped of his tendentious adjectives (“strict,” “arbitrary,” “antique”), Prof. Dworkin is criticizing judicial reliance on the “language of [the] Constitution.”

That reliance was inherent in Justice Kennedy’s first question to the Solicitor General: “Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?” The answer is not obvious, nor non-controversial, nor addressed by any prior Court precedent.

Which suggests that the place to start the analysis is the text of the constitutional provision. In A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: Federal Courts and the Law (Princeton University Press: 1998), Justice Scalia writes:

If you … read a brief filed in a constitutional law case, you will rarely find the discussion addressed to the text of the constitutional provision that is at issue, or to the question of what was the originally understood or even the originally intended meaning of that text. The starting point of the analysis will be Supreme Court cases, and the new issue will presumptively be decided according to the logic that those cases expressed, with no regard for how far that logic, thus extended, has distanced us from the original text and understanding.

In the case of Obamacare, the prior precedents do not “obviously” support the law, which accounts for the fact that the plaintiffs are not asking the Court to overrule any prior case. The argument instead is that the Commerce Clause, by its terms, gives Congress the power to regulate commerce, but not to force every individual into it — to regulate those engaged in commerce, not to require every person to buy whatever Congress wants them to buy. Prior case law allows Congress to regulate farmers engaged in producing wheat, not to require every person in the country to buy Wheaties.

The Court can decide this case either way precisely because the issue has not previously been addressed. But the text and original understanding of the Commerce Clause suggest the answer to Justice Kennedy’s question is “no,” and Dworkin’s citation of “basic constitutional principle” (he neither cites nor discusses any actual Court precedents) suggest he is appealing to some uber-concept outside the text of the law.

Perhaps he shares the view that Senator Barack Obama expressed at the time of Justice Roberts’ confirmation hearing: that in important cases justices should rely not on the language of the law, but on what is in their wise hearts. We can see the problem with this approach in Prof. Dworkin’s post, which impugns the integrity of the justices who might disagree with his heartfelt position. Rather than demonstrate that the problem is the Court (it is not), he has provided an extraordinary example of the trait John noted.