FLIP-FLOP IN A PHRASE

Appearing on Hardball, What’s the Matter With Kansas star Sam Bronwback (R-Kansas) just told us that Americans are angry at the courts because they keep “inserting themselves” in issues where we don’t believe they belong, like Roe, and “changing our understanding” of issues like property in cases like Kelo. What he avoided saying, lest he stray off the message discipline reservation, is that the decision in Kelo he decries as a change was a decision not to overturn the law. Senator Brownback’s problem with the court’s economic jurisprudence, in other words, is that it’s not activist enough.

The conservative establishment vision for the court is not that it leave controversial decisions to be settled directly by the people, but rather that it step back when majorities choose to legislate against civil liberties (especially those of others) , and then aggressively intercede to overturn even those economic regulations which are overwhelmingly popular. Conservatives like Sam Brownback are outraged when the court stops a heterosexual majority from writing homosexuals out of the city’s non-discrimination laws in Romer, but elated when it turns back Congress’ attempt to keep firearms out of our schools. Whereas my reactions, unsurprisingly, are the opposite. A couple days ago I set forth a couple of the reasons I think the Court is justified in blocking the imposition of majoritarian sexual morality in Griswold and unjustified in blocking the majority’s attempt to set common labor standards in Lochner (if you want to have sex without condoms and make at least $5 an hour at work – not at the same time that is – my using condoms doesn’t make a difference to you but my working for $1 does). And Brownback has his reasons for his position as well. But unlike, say, Nathan Newman, he can’t hope to credibly claim that he’s an opponent of “judicial activism” across the board (and unlike – maybe – Finnegan, he can’t claim to be a consistent fan of judicial intervention to limit government either).

As a couple Yalies just showed in a Times piece identifying Clarence Thomas to be the Court’s Activist-in-Chief, the question for most of us is when and to what extent such activism is just and appropriate, and the country would would be better served by a national debate on that question (personally, if the question were all the activism or none of it – which I’m glad it isn’t – I’d go with none so that the left would at least have recourse to the legislature, and a spur to organize).

THE LOCHNER LITMUS TEST

Finally made it into the Philadelphia Airport late last night, after several hours delayed in George Herbert Walker Bush Airport in Texas, a real monument to small government if ever there was one. It was long enough to read a good chunk of Ed Klein’s anti-Clinton screed, and yes, it’s as bad as they say, and certainly libelous – though I’m not convinced that should be illegal. And it was a chance to watch the same couple minute CNN piece on O’Connor’s resignation several times.

Not being a Democratic Senator, I have the freedom to go off message and say that O’Connor’s resignation is unfortunate not because she was the linchpin in some sort of divine cosmic balance on the court that’s best for the country, but simply because her replacement will almost certainly be even more conservative than her, and conservative jurisprudence is bad for our country. Of course, if she herself didn’t want that to happen, she shouldn’t have presided over the theft of the 2000 election.

As for who comes next, my sense is that the Alberto Gonzales trial balloon is a red herring. It wins Bush credit from some moderates and Latinos for having an ostensibly moderate Latino on the “short list,” and when he goes with a Janice Rogers Brown instead, he’ll win that much more credit from right-wing extremists for having “listened” to their concerns about Gonzales.

The good news is that there are still five votes on the Court for upholding Roe (Casey was 5-4, but since then Justice Ginsberg replaced Justice White, who was one of the four), though not Steinberg v. Carnhart, which the federal late-term abortion ban seems to have navigated around anyway. That said, support for the right to autonomy in intimate spaces and decisions long recognized by the court is absolutely a standard for just jurisprudence.

At least as important as support for Roe in the coming controversy, though, should be opposition to Lochner, the court’s atrocious 1905 decision overturning New York’s minimum wage statute on the grounds that the absolute right of contract including a “right to work” for poverty wages. Lochner was overturned in West Coast Hotel, which rightly upheld the power of the people, through the legislature, to foster justice in the face of collective action problems and asymetrical bargaining relationships by enforcing universal labor standards.

Since Justice Black’s dissent in Griswold, opponents of privacy rights have made the perversely labelled the cases protecting them as “Lochner”-like, ignoring the differences between legislation regulating the relationship between employers, employees, and consumers, one which is by definition public, and legislation which regulates the private choices of individuals. Much as Footnote IV in Carolene Products suggests that judicial review is more justified when exercised to protect the rights of “discrete and insular minorities” who face more obstacles in protecting themselves in the legislative process, legislation itself is that much more justified when it achieves collective ends a majority of individuals might prefer but be unable to enact individually due to collective action problems. The law wrongfully overturned in Lochner achieved majority support despite employer opposition because most workers preferred to work less than 60 hours a week but could not unilaterally refuse to work more without threatening their livelihood. It is far less credible to argue that the legislation barring contraceptive use rightfully overturned in Griswold solved a collective action problem shared by a majority of couples who did not want to use contraception themselves but were somehow unable to decide for themselves not to use them. This illustrates the distinction between private and public interaction, and why privacy rights, which protect the former from the kind of regulation appropriate for the latter, preserve personal freedom, while the absolute “right to work” suggested in Lochner diminishes it.

While Justice Black makes equivalence between Lochner’s invocation of substantive due process and that in Justice White’s concurrence, the relationship between the fourteenth amendment and absolute laissez-faire contract rights is far more tenuous than the relationship between the Bill of Rights and privacy. The laissez-faire hostility to so-called “class legislation” was also explicitly rejected as constitutional law by the people through the sixteenth amendment, which in imposing an income tax recognizes the right and responsibility of government to pursue economic justice and equal opportunity through law. The American people, whose prosperity has been fostered and protected by many of those laws, deserve a new Supreme Court Justice who recognizes that right and that responsibility as well.