The Hidden Threat of a Conservative Supreme Court (and what Biden should say about it)

Three weeks ago, in “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“, I focused on the Court as both the product and the enabler of minority rule: Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, and yet the rural small-state bias built into the Electoral College has given us eight additional years of Republican presidencies. Combined with Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers and the luck of who dies when, Republican presidents have replaced four of the eight justices who left the Court during that time, with Amy Coney Barrett nominated to be the fifth, joining Clarence Thomas (appointed by the first President Bush, who did win the popular vote) to make a 6-3 conservative majority.

The Senate has an even larger rural small-state bias, which allowed McConnell’s minority-supported Senate majority to refuse to consider President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, stealing the seat for Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by popular-vote-loser Donald Trump.

In short, the 6-3 majority Barrett’s confirmation would produce flies in the face of the will of the American people, who are considerably more liberal than a 6-3 Court would be. Worse, the 5-4 conservative majority has already shown a partisan Republican bias that makes rule by the Republican minority even more likely: unleashing a torrent of corporate money in Citizens United, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and refusing to recognize partisan gerrymandering as a violation of the right to vote. (The last two opinions were written by Chief Justice Roberts. In Rucho v Common Cause, he wrote that even the most extreme gerrymandering is “beyond the reach of the federal courts” and should be corrected “through legislation” that would need to pass precisely the legislatures where a minority party has been gerrymandered into power.) In its next term, the Court will hear a case that could undo the rest of the Voting Rights Act.

Why should you care? “But so what?” a voter might ask, particularly an independent voter who holds no particular sympathy for Democratic politicians kept out of power by Republicans who represent fewer people. The public associates certain high-profile issues with the Court — abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and affirmative action pop to mind — but what if those aren’t your issues? If you’re white, straight, unlikely to get pregnant, and not worried about mass shootings, why should a Court with an outside-the-mainstream conservative bias matter to you?

Even if you belong to some vulnerable group, you can fix most of the problems in your personal situation just by moving to a blue state. If you’re sick of being dominated by the Republican minority in Wisconsin, move to Minnesota or Illinois, where the majority still rules. And if you worry that federal courts will no longer protect you from the authentic conservative majority in Mississippi, go to Vermont or Oregon. Your abortion rights will be safe, no one will threaten your marriage, and white supremacy will be much less onerous.

So what do you need the Supreme Court for?

A recent state-court decision in Michigan, highlighted in an article in The Atlantic, points to a different kind of danger: Conservative courts can reinterpret the fundamental rules of our system of government in such a way that many important issues are placed beyond the reach of government entirely.

That’s worth caring about.

The Lochner Era. We’ve seen this before in American history, though it is passing out of living memory. Beginning in the late 1800s, the original Progressive movement tried to rein in the robber barons of the Gilded Age. People who felt crushed by a system that favored employers over employees elected representatives who passed laws to make that dominance less oppressive: child-labor laws, limits on the work-week, worker safety laws, minimum wage laws, and so on.

And the courts threw those laws out.

The case that gave the era its name in the legal history books is 1905’s Lochner v. New York. Joseph Lochner owned a bakery in Utica and liked to overwork people. But New York had passed the Bakeshop Act, a workplace-safety measure that limited bakers to working 60 hours a week or 10 hours a day. (Not only is it a bad idea for exhausted people to tend fires, but constant exposure to flour dust can cause respiratory problems.) Lochner appealed his fine to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Bakeshop Act as an “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract”.

In practice, the “right to contract” meant this: If the only job available to you requires you to work yourself to death, and if your alternative is to watch your children starve, you have the “freedom” to accept that arrangement. The state can’t interfere.

In essence, Lochner put workplace issues beyond the reach of government. No matter what the voters thought, employers could use the scarcity of jobs and the surplus of workers to enforce their will. If workers lacked the market power to say no, government couldn’t say no for them.

The swan song of the Lochner Court came when it declared FDR’s National Recovery Administration unconstitutional in 1935. The threat to block the entirety of the New Deal motivated Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. And while that bill did not pass, the Court seemed to take it as a shot across the bow. It started to back off, the New Deal was allowed to proceed, and FDR eventually stayed in office long enough to replace eight of the nine justices he inherited.

Non-delegation. The Michigan case examined in The Atlantic’s article concerns a law the Michigan legislature passed in 1945 titled “Emergency Powers of Governor“. It’s a short but sweeping bill whose stated intent is

to invest the governor with sufficiently broad power of action in the exercise of the police power of the state to provide adequate control over persons and conditions during such periods of impending or actual public crisis or disaster. The provisions of this act shall be broadly construed to effectuate this purpose.

In March, Governor Gretchen Whitmer invoked these emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic. On October 2, on a party-line 4-3 vote, the Michigan Supreme Court not only invalidated Whitmer’s orders, but closed the door on future emergency orders by ruling that

the [EPG] Act unlawfully delegates legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.

The portion of the Michigan Constitution in question is rather general and open to interpretation:

The powers of government are divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. No person exercising powers of one branch shall exercise powers properly belonging to another branch except as expressly provided in this constitution.

The whole point of a state-of-emergency laws is that legislation is a slow process that events can outrun. So the 1945 legislature, recognizing its limited speed, pre-loaded some powers into the governorship.

But that is now unconstitutional in Michigan.

Minority rule in Michigan. It’s worth noting that Michigan is currently a minority-rule state. A majority of the voters have repeatedly tried to elect Democrats to the legislature, but have failed to take control away from Republicans, who have gerrymandered themselves into power. In 2018, Michigan voters tried to deal with this by passing a ballot proposition to create an independent commission to draw legislative-district boundaries. Republicans sued in federal court to invalidate that law, but so far have failed. Even if the independent commission succeeds, though, the new districts won’t be in force until the 2022 election.

Governor Whitmer, meanwhile, won election in 2018 by a wide majority, 53%-44%. Despite armed protests against her emergency orders, culminating in a plot to kidnap (and possibly kill) her that was foiled this week, Whitmer remains popular, with 51/41 favorable/unfavorable rating.

She is popular for good reason: After being hit hard by coronavirus early on, Michigan has fared better than neighboring states. Currently the daily average new Covid cases per hundred thousand residents is 12 in Michigan, 21 in Indiana, and 45 in Wisconsin. (Wisconsin is another state where a minority-rule Republican majority in the legislature has blocked the efforts of a Democratic governor to fight the virus, with assistance from the state supreme court.)

In short, Governor Whitmer represents the voters of Michigan; the Republican leadership of the gerrymandered legislature does not. Moreover, even though critics of majority rule sometimes smear it as “mob rule”, in this case it is the minority-rule Republicans who are supported by a violent mob.

Neil Gorsuch. The Michigan Court’s invocation of “non-delegation” explicitly references a dissenting opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in which he calls for reviving the non-delegation doctrine of the Lochner Court.

Before the 1930s, federal statutes granting authority to the executive were comparatively modest and usually easily upheld. But then the federal government began to grow explosively. And with the proliferation of new executive programs came new questions about the scope of congressional delegations. Twice the Court responded by striking down statutes for violating the separation of powers.

The two cases Gorsuch cites so approvingly are the Court’s 1935 Schecter Poultry and Panama Refining decisions — precisely the ones that threatened the New Deal.

Gorsuch’s target is what conservatives pejoratively call “the administrative state”, which is embodied in agencies like the SEC, FDA, EPA, FCC, IRS, and many others that keep powerful economic interests in line.

In the same way that emergencies can develop too quickly for a legislative response, corporate interests can repackage and reinvent themselves much faster than Congress or a state legislature can counter. Congress has responded by laying out broad principles and delegating their enforcement to administrative agencies.

For example, the Clean Air Act did not list every pollutant, or lay out precise standards for controlling each one. Instead, it empowered the EPA (according to Wikipedia)

to construct a list of Hazardous Air Pollutants as well as health-based standards for each one. There were 187 air pollutants listed and the source from which they came. The EPA was given ten years to generate technology-based emission standards.

This kind of thing happens across the government. The FDA might ban some food additive, and then respond immediately with a new ban if food companies just tweak the formula in some trivial way.

Under non-delegation, though, every such decision could be challenged in court, and ultimately be decided by the corporate-favoring regulation-hating 6-3 majority. The Atlantic’s Nicholas Bagley (a University of Michigan law professor) draws the conclusion:

The nondelegation doctrine isn’t about democracy. It’s about the power to restrain government. And it will be wielded as opportunistically against a President Biden as it has been wielded against Whitmer.

What Biden should say about expanding the Court. When FDR threatened to “pack the Court” by increasing its size so that he could appoint new justices, there was good reason to do so. The Court was enforcing a theory of economics and of the government’s relationship to the economy that the American people no longer believed in. The country wanted to change, and the Supreme Court would not let it. Only by relenting did the Court make Roosevelt’s power move unnecessary.

We are not quite in that situation yet, but we could be soon. Accordingly, new court-expansion proposals are being kicked around in Democratic circles. So far, Joe Biden has been dodging the question of whether or not he supports them.

And if all you are allowed is a short answer, that’s the right response, because “yes” and “no” are both premature. I’d like to hear Biden answer the question like this:

Pack the Court? I hope it doesn’t come to that. I can promise you this: I will not come into office on Day 1 saying, “We need to change the Supreme Court.”

But as everyone can see, there are several conservative biases in our system, and those biases are combining to produce a Supreme Court that radically diverges from the American people.

Twice in the last seven elections, a Republican has become president even though another candidate got more votes. Similarly, Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate, even though their senators represent fewer voters. That situation has not been uncommon in recent years. And since the President and the Senate choose the Supreme Court, over time the Court has become far more conservative than the American people.

Now, that doesn’t have to be a problem. When John Roberts was being confirmed as chief justice, he said his political opinions didn’t matter, because a justice is just an umpire, calling balls and strikes according to a strike zone defined by the laws and the Constitution. If he, and the rest of the Court, can hold to that discipline, then they won’t get any trouble from me.

But I can’t help noticing that several times in the last two decades, the Court hasn’t called balls and strikes, but has put its thumb on the scale of politics, nearly always on the Republican side. The Court wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it opened the spigots of corporate money in Citizens United. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it undid the Voting Rights Act, which had been renewed by Congress in a near-unanimous vote. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it shrugged off partisan gerrymandering. In those cases, it was taking a political position and favoring a political party.

If it continues down that road, then we will have a problem.

Right now, the Court is considering whether to undo the biggest achievement of progressive politics in the last few decades, the Affordable Care Act — ObamaCare. If they do, they will take health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, and remove protections from the additional tens of millions who have preexisting conditions — including everyone who has survived Covid-19. The argument for striking down that law is based on a novel legal theory that no one who voted either for or against the ACA ever considered at the time. It’s bogus, and they know it.

The ACA passed because the American people were worried about their healthcare and wanted change. They still want change; they want more change than we were able to give them then. And healthcare is just one area where the American people are crying out for change.

Early in the 20th century, the American people were also crying out for change. And so they elected state and federal representatives who legislated for a minimum wage, a limited work week, a safe workplace, and the right to organize a union. But the Supreme Court of that era said no, and invalidated law after law — hundreds of them. What that Court said to the American people was: “I don’t care what you want, you can’t have change.”

And so the change that the American people had wanted since the turn of the century was delayed until the New Deal in the 1930s.

Now if that’s what this Court has in mind, to thwart the will of the voters for decades, for as long it can, in service to an ideology that the American people don’t share, then I think the elected branches of our government will have to respond.

What will that response look like? I don’t know yet, because I haven’t seen what the Court will do. If it behaves itself, if it lets the elected branches of government do the things that the American people elect us to do, then there will be no response, because there will be no problem.

But if I’m not going to begin my administration with a plan to change the Court, I’m also not going to begin my administration by writing this Court a blank check, by saying, “Abuse your power any way you like, and I’ll just sit on my hands.”

If I’m elected, then I will have a responsibility to the voters who elected me. And if I find that the will of those voters is consistently being blocked and subverted by judges who not only are unelected, but who were appointed by people who lost the popular vote themselves, then I will have to consider the options that our constitutional system provides.

People, not politicians. That position represents a subtle shift in framing from what many other Democrats are saying. Yes, the problem has been caused by shenanigans in the Senate, capped off by the plan to rush Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through before the voters can do anything about it. But framing this as tit-for-tat shenanigans — we’ll pack the Court if you jam Barret through — is bad politics. That’s a threat to make behind closed doors, not to broadcast to the public.

Biden should hinge his position not on how the Senate behaves, but on how the Court behaves. Striking back because Mitch McConnell stole Merrick Garland’s seat is a he-hit-me-first argument that just increases a lot of Americans’ disgust with politics, because it’s about politicians, not about them. But framing the argument as “The Supreme Court is taking away your health insurance” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us protect your drinking water” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us stop mass shootings” is a different story.

You want change, but the Supreme Court won’t let it happen. Help us fix the Supreme Court. That’s the right argument to have.

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  • Karen Hughes  On October 12, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Really excellent today. Thank you for the education. I’ve shared it.

  • TRPChicago  On October 12, 2020 at 10:23 am

    The speech proposed for Joe Biden is masterful, even though it’s 11-12 paragraphs too long for a campaign. And for the evolution of Constitutional law on this critical bundle of issues, I don’t know anything better written in a comparable number of paragraphs than the text surrounding those remarks.

    But we should recognize that the progression of the law we have been celebrating for decades is not God- or Founder-given. It has been the exercise, as a noted poly sci/law prof wrote, of Law As a Political Instrument. Conservatives have been as upset about this evolution as we are today about McConnell’s reprehensible misuse of the Senate’s process for Garland and his execrable pirouette for Judge Barrett. Viewing it this way isn’t to excuse anything, but it does acknowledge this in the context of an arc in legal history.

    • Dale Moses  On October 12, 2020 at 7:31 pm

      Conservatives should not be upset about the evolution that they founded. The Lochner Era was law as politics. Scalia was not famous for his well thought out legal reasoning he was famous for writing insults in his decisions. It was not liberals who pioneered the “this decision is only to be used for this decision and is not to be taken as precedent” tactic in order to limit the downstream effects of the political decisions. As always, conservatives want to have it both ways. Rules are for thee, not for me. The court is “non political” when it does political things I want but political if it does anything that you want regardless of whether or not the legal reasoning is sound.

  • wcroth55  On October 12, 2020 at 10:28 am

    Just FYI, the Michigan independent redistricting commission has been selected (4 democrats, 4 republicans, 5 independents) and has already started meeting.

    The ballot proposal (that created the commission) passed with 61% of the vote… compared to Gov. Whitmer’s 53%.

    And, either ironically or presciently, the proposal to allow no-reason absentee voting passed by 67%.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On October 12, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Yesterday, on, a reader proposed that Biden should give the following response to the court-packing question:

    The president can’t “pack the court.” According to the Constitution, the president can only nominate justices when openings occur. The current number of nine is not in the Constitution, it’s a result of a law passed by Congress. If Congress passes another law that increases that number, then President Biden would fulfill his Constitutional duty and nominate justices to fill any openings. But I promise you, a Democratic-held congress will only pass such a bill if the American people support it, which may well happen if the court starts legislating from the bench. If the Court restricts the inalienable Constitutional rights of our citizens on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and voting, the American people will demand action. In that regard, the answer to your question will ultimately be answered by the current justices of the Supreme Court.

  • SUSAN HEMPHILL  On October 12, 2020 at 10:59 am

    I hope you sent this to Vice President Biden. Thank you for this.


    • Anonymous  On October 17, 2020 at 9:24 pm

      Susan, there is no reason that you can’t send it. No need to wait for Doug…

  • Neal Schaeffer  On October 12, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    I hope this crisis of “judicial activism” spurs the legislative branch to get off its ass. If the law were crystal clear, we wouldn’t even need the Supremes. It’s clearly law-making time, including any necessary Constitutional amendments.

    I’m not gainsaying the minority-rule obstructions. I’m also not gainsaying limp, indefensible laws (“cause no nuisance”). I’m just saying that that we need to fix it right, starting with a productive legislative branch (no sarcasm intended)! It takes a bit of work to craft durable laws, and Congress is supposed to do that work.

    Your article mentions a minimum wage law that “the Supreme Court of that era said no, and invalidated”. This story is more nuanced than that. Yes, in 1935 the Supremes declared the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 to be unconstitutional (just days before it was set to expire anyway). But that same year the Supremes upheld the National Labor Relations Act, which I believe even broadened the scope of the 1933 act. These Supremes also ended the earlier “Lochner era” you mentioned with the West Coast Hotel Co. decision of 1937, which upheld the constitutionality of … wait for it … a state’s minimum wage law.

    The Civil Rights era marked a significant shift in the Supreme Court from protecting property (i.e., the monied interests) to serving We The People. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Warren Court stepped in when Congress refused to act. The Supremes of that era got away with this activism because their decisions better reflected the general population than anything coming out of Congress — the reverse of the thrust of your argument. (Call me an glass-half-full kind of guy.)

    Soon (god willing) the opposite will be true, potentially limiting Court activism. But Congress must act! Congress has NEVER been very good at that — too much work, I suppose. If the Supremes shoot down good-meaning laws, then let Congress rewrite them right. It’s time to feed the Court some new “original” words, as the Constitution was intended to be amended. And then, if the Supremes contort themselves into misbehaving, fire away.

    So, I agree with you, especially the argument framing you advocate. I wish to supplement that by emphasizing that the historic examples you cite also tell a story of lame legislative output. Congress is supposed to be “activist” (not the courts) — Congress should get its “act” together in the first place. I hope this crisis of “judicial activism” helps the 117th Congress, to which We The People have a more direct voice, does that.


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