Sunday, August 15, 2004

Against "Interpretation" 

From the New York Times, Slate legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick on the commonplace that "liberal judges 'make' law, while conservative judges 'interpret' it":
A modest proposal, then: Let's invent a new term right here, today, for judges or judicial nominees on the right, who claim to be merely "interpreting" the Constitution, even when they are refusing to impose settled law; law they deem unsettled because it was invented by "liberal activist judges." And while I am open to better suggestions, here's a tentative offering: "Re-activist judges."

Re-activist judges are the ones trying to roll back time to the 19th century. Re-activists are the judges who have reactivated federalism by rediscovering the "dignity" of states. Re-activists view Lawrence v. Texas - last year's gay sodomy case - as having all the jurisprudential force of a Post-it note. When the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld an Alabama ban on the sale of sex toys last month, it did so by sidestepping the logic animating Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence. Ignoring Kennedy's lofty promises of sexual privacy - his assurance that "there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter" - the 11th Circuit framed the case as a dust-up over the constitutional right to a vibrator.

Re-activists like Priscilla Owen, President Bush's nominee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, rewrite the Texas parental notification statute in abortion cases, to make it vastly harder for young women to bypass parental consent. Re-activists like another Bush nominee, Janice Rogers Brown, have called the Supreme Court's shift toward defending New Deal legislation in 1937 the start of "the triumph of our socialist revolution."

Re-activist judges have increasingly adopted the view that their personal religious convictions somehow obviate the constitutional divide between church and state. President Bush's recess appointment to the 11th Circuit, Bill Pryor, expended energy as attorney general of Alabama to support Judge Roy Moore in his quest to chisel the Ten Commandments directly into the wall between church and state. Pryor is entitled to be offended by case law barring government from establishing sectarian religion. But what re-activist judges may not do is use their government office to chip away at that doctrine.

Re-activist judges are able to present themselves as "strict constructionists" or "originalists" by arguing, as does Justice Clarence Thomas, that any case decided wrongly (i.e., not in accordance with the framers of the Constitution) should simply be erased, as though erasure is somehow a passive act. And while there is an urgent normative debate underlying this issue - over whether the Constitution should evolve or stay static - no one ought to be allowed to claim that the act of clubbing a live Constitution to death isn't activism.

So, judicial re-activism. It doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, I know . . . .
Prometheus 6, who has the ear Dahlia lacks, suggests the more euphonious (and more precise) "reversionary judges." He also has a tip for "strict constructionist" Clarence Thomas, who has never quite felt at home with the Reconstruction Amendments (numbers 13-15):
Come on Clarence. Such a position would have you picking cotton. Such a position would have gotten your neck stretched when you got married. The framers of the Constitution did not have anything remotely resembling the Voting Rights Act in mind when they wrote that thing. Yeah, noble stuff in the Declaration of Independence…but you better keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence is not and never has been the law of the land.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us