10/1/19

Imprimis


Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution
September 2019 • Volume 48, Number 9 • Myron Magnet
Myron Magnet
Author, Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on September 17, 2019, at Hillsdale College’s Constitution Day Celebration in Washington, D.C.

Clarence Thomas is our era’s most consequential jurist, as radical as he is brave. During his almost three decades on the bench, he has been laying out a blueprint for remaking Supreme Court jurisprudence. His template is the Constitution as the Framers wrote it during that hot summer in Philadelphia 232 years ago, when they aimed to design “good government from reflection and choice,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in the first Federalist, rather than settle for a regime formed, as are most in history, by “accident and force.” In Thomas’s view, what the Framers achieved remains as modern and up-to-date—as avant-garde, even—as it was in 1787.

What the Framers envisioned was a self-governing republic. Citizens would no longer be ruled. Under laws made by their elected representatives, they would be free to work out their own happiness in their own way, in their families and local communities. But since those elected representatives are born with the same selfish impulses as everyone else—the same all-too-human nature that makes government necessary in the first place—the Framers took care to limit their powers and to hedge them with checks and balances, to prevent the servants of the sovereign people from becoming their masters. The Framers strove to avoid at all costs what they called an “elective despotism,” understanding that elections alone don’t ensure liberty.

Did they achieve their goal perfectly, even with the first ten amendments that form the Bill of Rights? No—and they recognized that. It took the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—following a fearsome war—to end the evil of slavery that marred the Framers’ creation, but that they couldn’t abolish summarily if they wanted to get the document adopted. Thereafter, it took the Nineteenth Amendment to give women the vote, a measure that followed inexorably from the principles of the American Revolution.

During the ratification debates, one gloomy critic prophesied that if citizens ratified the Constitution, “the forms of republican government” would soon exist “in appearance only” in America, as had occurred in ancient Rome. American republicanism would indeed eventually decline, but the decline took a century to begin and unfolded with much less malice than it did at the end of the Roman Republic. Nor was it due to some defect in the Constitution, but rather to repeated undermining by the Supreme Court, the president, and the Congress.

The result today is a crisis of legitimacy, fueling the anger with which Americans now glare at one another. Half of us believe we live under the old Constitution, with its guarantee of liberty and its expectation of self-reliance. The other half believe in a “living constitution”—a regime that empowers the Supreme Court to sit as a permanent constitutional convention, issuing decrees that keep our government evolving with modernity’s changing conditions. The living constitution also permits countless supposedly expert administrative agencies, like the SEC and the EPA, to make rules like a legislature, administer them like an executive, and adjudicate and punish infractions of them like a judiciary.

To the Old Constitutionalists, this government of decrees issued by bureaucrats and judges is not democratic self-government but something more like tyranny—hard or soft, depending on whether or not you are caught in the unelected rulers’ clutches. To the Living Constitutionalists, on the other hand, government by agency experts and Ivy League-trained judges—making rules for a progressive society (to use their language) and guided by enlightened principles of social justice that favor the “disadvantaged” and other victim groups—constitutes real democracy. So today we have the Freedom Party versus the Fairness Party, with unelected bureaucrats and judges saying what fairness is.

This is the constitutional deformation that Justice Thomas, an Old Constitutionalist in capital letters, has striven to repair. If the Framers had wanted a constitution that evolved by judicial ruling, Thomas says, they could have stuck with the unwritten British constitution that governed the American colonists in just that way for 150 years before the Revolution. But Americans chose a written constitution, whose meaning, as the Framers and the state ratifying conventions understood it, does not change—and whose purpose remains, as the Preamble states, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

In Thomas’s view, there is no nobler or more just purpose for any government. If the Framers failed to realize that ideal fully because of slavery, the Civil War amendments proved that their design was, in Thomas’s word, “perfectible.” Similarly, if later developments fell away from that ideal, it is still perfectible, and Thomas takes it as his job—his calling, he says—to perfect it. And that can mean that where earlier Supreme Court decisions have deviated from what the document and its amendments say, it is the duty of today’s justices to overrule them. Consequently, while the hallowed doctrine of stare decisis—the rule that judges are bound to respect precedent—certainly applies to the lower courts, Supreme Court justices owe fidelity to the Constitution alone, and if their predecessors have construed it erroneously, today’s justices must say so and overturn their decisions. Continue reading

09/30/19

Misjudging Clarence Thomas

Misjudging Clarence Thomas
Corey Robin’s assessment of the Supreme Court justice is lost in left field.
Myron Magnet
September 29, 2019 Arts and CulturePolitics and law
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $27)

What deliciously ironic wit the New Yorker’s first art editor, Rea Irvin, deployed in his iconic drawing of Eustace Tilley, the Regency dandy quizzically inspecting a butterfly through a monocle on the magazine’s inaugural cover nearly a century ago. Ah yes, we Gotham cosmopolites view the rest of America as exotic insects worth a moment’s gaze as they hatch from the basket of deplorables and flit by for their 24 hours in the sun. But, Irvin hinted, what an affected fop is Eustace himself—as showy as the bright creature catching his glance but oh, how much more contrived in his top hat and impossibly high neckcloth. I can’t help wishing that Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor who has made a career of turning a supercilious monocle on conservatives and explaining their curious, “reactionary” ideas to his fellow enlightened “progressives,” had shown a scintilla of Irvin’s wry self-knowledge in his new book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, an excerpt of which the New Yorker coincidentally has just published. But since Robin’s assessment of the Supreme Court justice lacks a single self-questioning moment, let’s look back at him through his monocle and take our own measure of the author before we consider his account of our era’s greatest jurist.

How fashions have changed! Despite a modish dash of race, class, and gender, today’s New Yorker of refined sensibility, if Robin is a representative specimen, presents himself in his book as a conventional socialist, an admirer of the French rather than the American Revolution, and still mooning with nostalgia for that imaginary 1960s “revolution” that Bernie Sanders has dreamt of since his long-ago youth. In Robin’s vision, politics centers on the “power the state will have to involve itself in the affairs of the citizens,” making “rules for a more just and humane economy.” It is a realm of “democratic transformation, where men and women act deliberatively and collectively to alter their estate,” led by the “heroic action of an elite few,” masters of “the arts of persuasion, the mobilization and transformation of popular belief”—though Robin’s evocation of the Robespierres and Lenins of the world is bound to make one wonder just how democratic his vision of the popular will really is. What were the editors of the publication for which he writes a column thinking when they called it Jacobin, after a political elite that wrought its social transformation by removing the heads of those of the wrong class or opinion?

For Robin, capitalism is a system of “overwhelming, anti-democratic constraint” that takes “the great questions of society—justice, equality, freedom, distribution—off the table of public deliberation,” shielding them from “the conscious and collective interference of citizens acting through their government.” In this collectivist vein, he casts a cold eye on Madison’s classic formulation of American constitutionalism in Federalist 10. The Constitution protects life, liberty, and property, Madison writes, and since individual citizens have a boundless variety of talents, ambitions, and energies, the liberty the Constitution safeguards will result in different and unequal outcomes, including economic inequality. The danger in the democratic republic that the Constitution frames, Madison wrote, is that the unpropertied majority could use their voting numbers to expropriate the wealth of the rich few, trampling the Constitution’s protection of property. Such an expropriation is what Madison meant by the tyranny of the majority, and a key goal of the Constitution’s checks and balances is to forestall just that. When Robin holds up Justice Thomas’s citation of Madison’s argument as a mere ploy “to moralize moneymaking, to lend the market a legitimacy it had been denied by New Deal liberalism, to shield money and the market from political critique,” he seems to be looking at the Constitution through the wrong end of a telescope, seeing FDR and the New Deal’s tyranny of the majority, rather than James Madison and the protection of individual liberty, as the nation’s real Founding Father. Of the individual citizen whose liberty the Constitution is meant to shield, we hear nary a word until a third of the way through the book, and then only once or twice thereafter. Everyone is simply an atom dissolved in the mass of race, class, or gender.

The lens through which Robin views Thomas is even more distorting—not surprising, given that he “reject[s] virtually all of Thomas’s views” and moreover believes that the justice, during his confirmation hearings, “lied to the Judiciary Committee when he stated that he never sexually harassed Anita Hill,” an allegation that’s now the stock, and thus increasingly incredible, gambit for opponents of conservative judicial nominees. In the justice’s opinions, what Robin sees, as anyone who spends even an hour or two reading them must see, is Thomas’s striking concern with race, a subject that he raises repeatedly, even in cases seemingly far from the question. Upon this observation, Robin erects a wildly far-fetched account of the justice’s worldview and jurisprudence, one that imperiously sweeps away Thomas’s own careful exposition of his intellectual journey in his speeches and memoir as if he must be incapable of understanding his own mind and heart. But of course, this concern springs not just from Thomas’s personal history but also from the belief, central to his jurisprudence, that it’s precisely on race matters that the Court has made so many fateful wrong turns that need correction. Continue reading

09/11/19

Clarence Thomas, the Repairer of Our Constitution

SEPTEMBER 10, 2019|
Justice Clarence Thomas, Myron Magnet

Clarence Thomas, the Repairer of Our Constitution
by RALPH ROSSUM|

During the 28 years that Clarence Thomas has served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, he has written approximately 560 majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions. Myron Magnet has undertaken an insightful analysis of Thomas’s major opinions and his many speeches and addresses. The historian and editor-at-large of City Journal convincingly demonstrates that in those opinions and speeches, Thomas has articulated a clear and consistent jurisprudence of constitutional restoration that seeks to retrieve the original meaning of the Constitution—what the author calls “the lost Constitution.”

Pursuing an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation, Thomas has been unswayed by the claims of precedent—by the gradual build-up of interpretations that, over time, can obscure the original meaning of the constitutional provision in question and encourage activist justices to reach results-oriented and consequentialist decisions. As with too many layers of paint on a delicately carved piece of furniture, precedent based on precedent—focusing on what the Court has, in past cases, said the Constitution means as opposed to focusing on what the 1787 document actually means—hides the constitutional nuance and detail that Thomas would restore.

He is unquestionably the justice who is most willing to reject this build-up, this excrescence, and to call on his colleagues to join him in scraping away past precedent and getting back to bare wood: to what the Constitution originally meant. Just how willing Thomas is to toss precedent aside is apparent in Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel (1998), in which he indicated that the 200-year-old precedent of Calder v. Bull (1798) incorrectly interpreted the ex post facto clauses of Article I, Sections 9 and 10 to apply only to criminal matters and not civil matters.

His Grandfather’s Son

Magnet describes himself as “not a constitutional law professor but a writer.” And a fine writer he is! Moreover, his knowledge of the political thought of the Founding generation and his clear grasp of case law rival that of the best constitutional law professors. He has written “a life-and-works book in which life and works mutually illuminate each other to a greater than usual degree.” Thus he offers a thorough biographical sketch of his subject, one that concisely summarizes Thomas’s 2007 memoir, My Grandfather’s Son.

The biographical chapter will prompt many to want to read the memoir in its entirety (or listen to the audio book that Thomas himself narrates). In it Magnet brings out how the justice’s hardscrabble early life in Pinpoint, Georgia; his upbringing by his stern but loving grandfather in segregated Savannah, Georgia; his seminary, Holy Cross, and Yale Law experiences; his public service in the Missouri Attorney General’s office and federal agencies (the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission); and, his bruising Senate confirmation, all contributed to his views once on the Court, on such matters as equality and race, affirmative action, property rights, the right to keep and bear arms, and freedom of speech and the press.

The book then turns to how the Constitution came to be “lost.” Magnet calls this chapter “Who Killed the Constitution?” but here he overstates the matter. For he will later describe the Constitution as not dead but “vandali[zed],” and he has no doubt that “it is vandalism” that Thomas and other originalist justices following his lead can repair.

For Magnet, the original Constitution established a “small government of limited and enumerated powers” that has been lost to us for “nearly a century” because of 1) the post-Civil War Supreme Court’s “subversion” of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, 2) the late-New Deal Supreme Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence and its acceptance of the administrative state with independent agencies “acting as a fourth branch of government,” and 3) the Warren Court’s embrace of the doctrine of the “living constitution,” making it, in effect, “a permanent constitutional convention, continually making and remaking the law, to adapt, in a kind of Darwinian evolution to changing circumstances.”

Originalism in Action

Next comes “Originalism in Action,” and with that, we enter the “works” part of the “life-and-works” structure of Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution. Here we read of Thomas’ major opinions (mostly concurrences and dissents) and get an idea of what he has done to save what was lost and repair what has been vandalized. With admirable concision and clarity, this 47-page chapter keeps the justice’s arguments front and center.

Magnet addresses, at considerable length, Thomas’ attempt to overturn the post-Civil War Court’s evisceration of the Privileges or Immunities Clause in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases. In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), a five-member majority incorporated the Second Amendment, which secures an individual right to keep and bear arms, to apply to the states.

In a rather mechanistic application of substantive due process, Justice Samuel Alito held for four justices that the right to keep and bear arms was a liberty interest protected from state interference by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thomas supplied the fifth vote, but as a son of the segregated American South, he relied instead on the Privileges or Immunities Clause, arguing that the right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment was a privilege and immunity of citizens of the United States that no state can abridge.

The majority in Slaughter-House had argued to the contrary; it claimed that the “Privileges or Immunities of citizens of the United States” were few in number and limited to such matters as free access to the nation’s seaports, protection on the high seas, and use of the navigable waters of the United States. Most assuredly, they did not include those rights spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

Slaughter-House led inexorably to United States v. Cruikshank (1876), in which the Court failed to vindicate the rights of the freedmen of the state of Louisiana.

On Easter Sunday 1873, approximately 150 black Republicans were killed in Colfax, Louisiana, for exercising their First Amendment right “peaceably to assemble” in what Eric Foner has called “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction Era.” When the state failed to prosecute the perpetrators, federal authorities indicted their leaders for violating the 1870 Enforcement Act making it a crime for individuals to interfere with U.S. citizens exercising their privileges and immunities under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In Cruikshank, however, a unanimous Court, relying on Slaughter-House, denied that First Amendment rights were privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States and concluded that the Enforcement Act could not be used to prosecute those responsible for what came to be known as the Colfax Massacre. If First Amendment rights were not privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, neither was the right to keep and bear arms secured by the Second Amendment. Without federal enforcement of the freedmen’s right to keep and bear arms, Thomas observed, the Ku Klux Klan was able to “subjugate these newly freed slaves and their descendants through a wave of private violence designed to drive blacks from the voting booth and force them into peonage, an effective return to slavery.”

For Justice Thomas, Cruikshank was “not a precedent entitled to any respect,” and neither was Slaughter-House.

Magnet calls Thomas’s concurrence in McDonald his “magnum opus to date,” a “textbook demonstration of his method of judging. Here, with characteristic skepticism toward stare decisis, he utterly repudiates the Supreme Court’s most tragically wrong and history-changing decisions of all that strangled Reconstruction in its cradle and licensed the generations-long grip of Jim Crow on black Southerners.”

It should be noted that McDonald was Thomas’s first opportunity after his elevation to the Supreme Court to vote on the incorporation of a Bill of Rights provision to apply to the states. He had a second occasion earlier this year, when he voted in Timbs v. Indiana to incorporate the excessive fines provision of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment to apply to the states. Even though the issue had nothing to do with race or the right to keep and bear arms, Thomas again wrote separately to indicate that the provision should be incorporated not because of substantive due process but because the protection against excessive fines is a privilege and immunity of citizens of the United States. (The case goes unmentioned by Magnet because his book was already in production when it was decided.)

Magnet also takes up how Thomas has gone to work repairing the constitutional vandalism inflicted, this time, by the late-New Deal Supreme Court in its Commerce Clause jurisprudence. Thomas, he argues, has consistently sought to overturn the Court’s longstanding “substantial effect on commerce” test, for two reasons.

First, as Thomas declared in his concurring opinion in United States v. Lopez (1995), the test renders “wholly superfluous” many of “Congress’ other enumerated powers under Article I, Section 8.” As he pointed out, the powers to tax and borrow, coin money, establish post offices and post roads, grant copyrights and patents, enact bankruptcy laws, declare war, and raise and support an army and navy—all have a substantial effect on commerce and are therefore rendered superfluous. In his mind, any interpretation of the Commerce Clause that does so “cannot be correct.”

Second, Thomas argues that the “substantial effects” test strikes a serious blow at federalism by giving Congress a police power over all aspects of American life. Since it effectively converts the federal government from one of delegated powers to one of reserved powers, it makes the rise of the administrative state even more pernicious and threatening to liberty. Congress delegates to independent agencies the power to enact, enforce, and adjudicate rules (itself a major violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers) on matters only reachable by the federal government because of the “substantial effects” test.

Thomas has sought to overturn Court precedents that require courts to defer to an executive branch agency’s reasonable interpretation of ambiguous language in a statute it is charged with executing, and even to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of ambiguous regulations that it has itself promulgated.

Magnet carefully takes the reader through Thomas’s concurring opinions in two relevant cases from 2015: Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association and Michigan v. EPA. He quotes from Thomas in Michigan: Deference forces judges “to abandon what they believe is the ‘best reading of an ambiguous statute’ in favor of an agency’s construction. It thus wrests from Courts the ultimate interpretive authority to ‘say what the law is.’”

Roberts Challenges His Colleagues

Finally, Magnet takes up what Thomas has done to challenge the doctrine of the living Constitution. Examples abound. One is Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s contention in Grutter v. Bolinger (2003) that diversity is a compelling state interest for the University of Michigan Law School to accept students on the basis of race—but that, 25 years hence, it will not be. Thomas dissented, declaring that “the Law School’s current use of race violates the Equal Protection Clause” and insisting “that the Constitution means the same thing as it will in 300 months.”

Then there was Justice John Paul Stevens’ opinion in Kelo v. New London (2005), which had the effect of reading “public use” out of the Takings Clause, prompting Thomas to declare: “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not. I do not believe that this Court can eliminate liberties expressly enumerated in the Constitution.”

Still another example is Chief Justice John Roberts’ claim in Carpenter v. United States (2018) that the Court-invented notion (from a concurring opinion by Justice Harlan in the 1968 case of Katz v. United States) of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” required the FBI to obtain a search warrant before it obtained cell-tower location information from cell phone companies’ business records. As Thomas pointed out, the Fourth Amendment protects individuals’ right to be secure in their “persons, homes, properties, and effects,” which means that individuals do not “have Fourth Amendment rights in someone else’s property.” Additionally, he noted, the “Fourth Amendment cannot be translated into a general constitutional ‘right to privacy.’”

Other instances mentioned by Magnet of Thomas’s rejection of the “living Constitution” include the Court’s abortion jurisprudence and its early campaign-finance reform decisions. His summation: “These opinions, Thomas’s best, add up to a sweeping critique of what the Court, sitting as a permanent constitutional convention and legislating from the bench with ample audacity, over seven decades, has wrought.”

The book’s concluding chapter is somewhat of a disappointment. It recapitulates neither Thomas’s life nor his works, offering instead a summary of Alexis de Tocqueville’s concern in Democracy of America about what we call today the administrative state. While Thomas would no doubt agree with the great French thinker, Magnet provides no supporting quotations from him. Then, too, the concluding comparison of the individual responsibility themes of My Grandfather’s Son to the victimology themes of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope does not add much to what is, over all, a splendid book about Clarence Thomas, an inspiring man and inspiring jurist.

Ralph Rossum
Ralph Rossum is the Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy & American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of Antonin Scalia’s Jurisprudence: Text and Tradition (University Press of Kansas, 2006).

06/20/19

Justice Thomas’s Credo

The Constitution, not precedent, is the law of the land.
Myron Magnet
June 19, 2019

One of the most striking aspects of Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Gamble v. United States was Clarence Thomas’s eloquent summary of the core precept of his judicial philosophy: that stare decisis—the venerable doctrine that courts should respect precedent—deserves but a minor place in Supreme Court jurisprudence. His 17-page concurrence in a case concerning double jeopardy, really a stand-alone essay, emphasizes that, in America’s system of government, the “Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties are the law.” That’s why justices and other governmental officers take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”—not to safeguard judicial precedents. “That the Constitution outranks other sources of law is inherent in its nature,” he writes. The job of a Supreme Court justice, therefore, “is modest: We interpret and apply written law to the facts of particular cases.” Continue reading

05/27/19

How John Marshall Made the Supreme Court Supreme


Myron Magnet
Spring 2019

His brains and bonhomie forged a band of Federalist brethren.

Most serious American readers know National Review columnist and National Humanities Medal laureate Richard Brookhiser as the author of a shelf of elegantly crafted biographies of our nation’s Founding Fathers, from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton up to our re-founder, Abraham Lincoln. Those crisp, pleasurable volumes rest on the assumption that these were very great men who created (or re-created) something rare in human history: a self-governing republic whose growing freedom and prosperity validated the vision they strove so hard and sacrificed so much to make real. It’s fitting that the most recent of Brookhiser’s exemplary works is John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, for it was Marshall—a junior member of the Founding Fathers, so to speak—who made the Court a formidable bastion of the nation’s founding governmental principles, shielding them from attacks by demagogically inclined presidents from Jefferson to Jackson, until his death in 1835.

It takes all a biographer’s skills to write Marshall’s life, for he left no diaries and few letters or speeches. One must intuit the man’s character from bits and pieces of his own writings, his weighty but wooden biography of George Washington, his judicial opinions, and his contemporaries’ descriptions of him. From these gleanings, however, like Napoleon’s chef after the Battle of Marengo, Brookhiser concocts a rich and nourishing dish.

Born in backwoods Virginia in 1755, Marshall all his life kept a rural simplicity of manner and dress that once misled a Richmond citizen to think him a porter and ask him to carry a turkey home from the market, which the chief justice cheerfully did, refusing a tip for his efforts. Gregarious, athletic, and full of jokes, Marshall in his thirties was the life of the Quoits Club, a select Richmond group dedicated to weekly bibulous good fellowship and a horseshoe-like game played with metal rings, activities at which Marshall excelled. During one barroom game of inventing rhymes on assigned words, he drew “paradox” and, glancing at a knot of bourbon-drinking Kentuckians, promptly declaimed:

In the Blue Grass region,
A paradox was born.
The corn was full of kernels,
And the colonels full of corn.

“In his youth, he gamed, bet, and drank,” a temperate congressman grumbled; yet in old age, the legislator had to drive uphill in his gig, “while the old chief justice walks.”

Service in Washington’s army during the Revolution left Marshall with veneration for his commander in chief—“the greatest Man on earth,” he thought. Like most of his fellow officers, he came away from the war with the beliefs, born from the bone-chilling, stomach-gnawing privation of icy winter quarters, that became the core principles of Federalism once the Constitution was ratified—including by the Virginia ratifying convention, where Marshall played a key role. For its own preservation, the United States needed to be a real union, not a confederation of states, the Federalists held, with a central government powerful enough to fight a war and fund it, without inflicting superfluous suffering on its soldiers.
Continue reading

05/24/19

Clarence Thomas Boldly Saving the Constitution

This month, Clarence Thomas, now the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, wrote a 5-4 opinion overturning a 40-year precedent on states’ individual sovereignty, and stood against all his colleagues except Ruth Bader Ginsburg in favor of armed services members suing the government for medical malpractice.

Thomas goes wherever the Constitution and the law as written lead, ideology be damned. And history will judge him a giant for it.

In Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that a state cannot, without its own consent, be sued in another state’s courts, overruling the high court’s 1979 Nevada v. Hall decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the slim majority, stated that stare decisis, referring to the much-hyped practice of following well-grounded previous Supreme Court rulings, “does not compel continued adherence to this erroneous precedent.”

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wasted no time in his dissent, calling Thomas’s majority opinion “the absolute approach,” later asserting that “stare decisis requires us to follow Hall, not overrule it,.” Then the Clinton appointee slyly added: “See Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey” – Casey being the 1992 joint opinion of three Republican-appointed justices preserving the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion on demand, nullifying all 50 states’ various abortion laws.

The Constitution Trumps Flawed Precedent

“Overruling a case always requires ‘special justification,’” Breyer went on to write. “What could that justification be in this case? The majority does not find one.”

Clarence Thomas finds the Constitution of the United States to be “special justification” enough, and in this case he quotes Madison and Hamilton on how immunity from private lawsuits was integral to sovereignty. But Breyer was sending a not-too-subtle signal that Roewould soon be on the chopping block.

The Supreme Court also, on Monday, refused, 7-to-2, to hear Daniel v. United States, in which the husband of a Navy lieutenant sought to sue the federal government after his wife bled to death after giving birth at a naval hospital. In this case, Justice Ginsburg was with Thomas, who wrote an individual dissent calling, not for the first time, for the striking down of the 1950 Feres v. United States decision, which holds that military personnel injured due to a federal employee’s negligence can’t sue the government under the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act.

Thomas pointed out in 2013, when the court refused another attempt to reconsider Feres, that the actual law only allows the government immunity when the injury is the result of “combatant activities of the military or naval forces, or the Coast Guard, during time of war.” Feres thus “has the unfortunate consequence of depriving servicemen of any remedy when they are injured by the negligence of the Government or its employees,” Thomas wrote.

A case like that makes you wonder if Thomas is the only current Supreme Court justice who reads the actual words of enacted statutes.

A Trail Future Justices Can Follow

Myron Magnet, editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and author of one of the most important books of the last 30 years, The Dream and the Nightmare: the Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass, has devoted his newest work to the senior associate justice. In Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, published this month, Magnet argues that “in the hundreds of opinions he has written in more than a quarter century on the court,” Thomas “has questioned the constitutional underpinnings of the new order and has tried to restore the limited, self-governing original one, as more legitimate, more just, and more free than the one that grew up in its stead.”

While Thomas’s legacy may not be fully evident today, Magnet believes “Like such other great dissenters as the first John Marshall Harlan or Antonin Scalia, he has blazed a trail to liberty that future justices can follow.”

Stare decisis “in modern times has been a handmaiden of judicial policy-making: judges tinker with the precedents until ‘they get what they want, and then they start yelling stare decisis, as though that is supposed to stop you,’ Thomas said in 2016 … An iron-bound allegiance to stare decisis, as the court has demonstrated more than once, can result in generations of error piled upon error,” Magnet warns.

“’I trust the Constitution itself. The written document is the ultimate stare decisis,’ Thomas argues. ‘Instead of saying stare decisis,’ he explained recently, ‘we should say quo warranto – by what authority?’”

A Supreme Court That Kept Blacks Unarmed

Magnet then plays tour guide to some of Thomas’s most insightful opinions, like 1995’s United States v Lopez, in which he used a congressional overreach of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to point out that even supposedly legitimate uses of that provision might eventually “give Congress a ‘police power’ over all aspects of American life,” pointing out that “when asked [in oral argument] if there were any limits to the Commerce Clause, the Government was at a loss for words.”

According to Magnet, “Thomas’s magnum opus so far” is his concurrence in the 2010 McDonald v. Chicago decision, in which Chicago’s handguns-within-the-home prohibition was struck down. Thomas “utterly repudiates the Supreme Court’s most tragically wrong and history-changing decisions of them all, the Slaughter-House Cases and United States v. Cruikshank, the two cases … that strangled Reconstruction in its cradle and licensed the generations-long grip of Jim Crow on black Southerners.”

White Southerners in the aftermath of the Civil War did not want freed blacks able to arm themselves, so only five years after the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification the new amendment was falsely interpreted by the Supreme Court as not applying the Bill of Rights – including Second Amendment gun rights – to the states.

Cruikshank’s holding that blacks could look only to state governments for protection of their right to keep and bear arms enabled private forces, often with the assistance of local governments, to subjugate the newly freed slaves and their descendants through a wave of private violence designed to drive blacks from the voting booth and force them into peonage, an effective return to slavery,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Without federal enforcement of the inalienable right to keep and bear arms, these militias and mobs were tragically successful in waging a campaign of terror against the very people the Fourteenth Amendment had just made citizens.”

The Second Amendment suppressed for white supremacist purposes. Imagine.

The “substantive due process” doctrine used by the others in the McDonald majority, as venerable and oft-used over many years as it may be, repeatedly “applies rights against the States that are not mentioned in the Constitution at all, even without seriously arguing that the Clause was originally understood to protect such rights,” Thomas noted, citing Roe and 1905’s Lochner v. New York, a discredited ruling that held that laws limiting working hours violated the due process clause.

Thomas called the doctrine “a legal fiction” that “fails to account for both the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and the history that led to its adoption, filling that gap with a jurisprudence devoid of a guiding principle. I believe the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment offers a superior alternative, and that a return to that meaning would allow this Court to enforce the rights the Fourteenth Amendment is designed to protect with greater clarity and predictability than the substantive due process framework has so far managed.”

Thomas reminded his colleagues: “stare decisis is only an ‘adjunct’ of our duty as judges to decide by our best lights what the Constitution means.”

Experts Vs. The People Themselves

Clarence Thomas’s life experience was a near-perfect prelude to his becoming champion of the true, plain meaning of the Constitution. Growing up in poverty in segregated Savannah, Georgia, raised by a grandfather whose love for him manifested itself in harshly demanding responsibility of him, with no excuses allowed; “flirting with and rejecting black radicalism at college,” as Magnet notes, “and running one of the myriad administrative agencies that the Great Society had piled onto the New Deal’s batch – an agency that supposedly advanced equality – he doubted that unelected experts and justices really did understand the moral arc of the universe better than the people themselves. He had seen how the rules and rulings they issued too often made lives worse, not better.”

Justice Breyer apparently has the company of pro-life lawmakers in Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri and other states in believing stare decisis will not protect Roe v. Wade from the current composition of the court on which he sits. If they’re right, it won’t be “the absolute approach” that wins. It will be the unaccountable “permanent constitutional convention, continually making and remaking the law,” as Magnet calls it, that at long last loses.

05/19/19

C-SPAN Book Talk

Manhattan Institute Book Forum | May 8 2019, New York City

 

07/22/17

“Let Right Be Done!”

A classic film’s lesson in liberty

July 21, 2017

May I recommend one of my candidates for the Ten Greatest Movies list—The Winslow Boy? What the 1948 British film (not David Mamet’s 1999 remake) has going for it is a brilliant director, Anthony Asquith—who ranks with such luminaries as Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, or Jean Renoir—and a stellar cast, which includes some of the most skilled actors in movie history, from Cedric Hardwicke on down, all at the top of their form. But above all these advantages, the movie’s animating spirit is its script, by Terrance Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald from Rattigan’s play, which grippingly dramatizes a principle at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon liberty—a principle that today’s America badly needs to relearn.

The Winslow Boy–and his father

The story, set in 1912—when director Asquith’s father, H. H. Asquith, was Britain’s Liberal prime minister, and World War I was brewing—is simple, and it won’t spoil the movie for you if I sketch its outline. Twelve-year-old Ronnie Winslow gets expelled from Osborne, the prestigious boarding school for cadets headed for Royal Navy commissions, for allegedly stealing five shillings. Though the sum is trivial, the alleged breach of the code of officers and gentlemen is not. His father, Arthur, a newly retired Wimbledon bank manager played by Hardwicke, solemnly asks him if he is guilty—twice—and when the boy twice asserts his innocence, his father, who raised him to tell the truth, vows to vindicate the boy’s honor, whatever the cost.It proves immense. In his quest, which lasts until after Ronnie turns 14, Arthur sacrifices his health, much of his savings, and the happiness and future of his solidly respectable and eminently likable upper-middle-class family. He meets obstacles at every point. The school’s commandant tells him that, as he had no doubt of Ronnie’s guilt after hearing the details of the theft, he has no second thoughts about summarily expelling the boy, without any formal procedure or even someone to advise Ronnie or speak in his defense. He won’t reconsider the evidence or say what it was. A visit to the Admiralty Commission to threaten a lawsuit gains Arthur only a haughty declaration that he needn’t bother: a subject of the king can’t sue the king’s representatives, for the law holds that the king can do no wrong.

True enough, his solicitor tells him; but nevertheless Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century charter of English liberties, declares that “no subject of the King may be condemned without a trial,” so perhaps Arthur should ask his MP to denounce the wrong done to Ronnie in Parliament. Good advice: for the MP, seeing a chance to win favorable press as a defender of justice, is glad to oblige. Reporters readily take the bait and make the Winslow case a national cause célèbre.

The uproar catches the interest of Sir Robert Morton, England’s most eminent—and expensive—barrister, masterfully played by Robert Donat as a complex mix of eloquence, cold hauteur, ruthless intelligence, and deep but hidden feeling, a legal version of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. Morton drops in at the Winslows’ house on his way to dinner with a duchess, politely introduces himself, and mercilessly cross-examines Ronnie, until the boy stammers with confusion and his family (along with the audience) wonders if he’s been telling the truth. But after such browbeating, the great man abruptly announces that he’ll take the case, for he thinks Ronnie is innocent. Continue reading

07/23/16

Why Are Voters So Angry?

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Summer 2016

They want self-government back.

Haunting this year’s presidential contest is the sense that the U.S. government no longer belongs to the people and no longer represents them. And this uneasy feeling is not misplaced. It reflects the real state of affairs.

We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.

What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete. (See “It’s Not Your Founding Fathers’ Republic Any More,” Summer 2014.) What a modern country needed, he said, was a “living constitution” that would keep pace with the fast-changing times by continual, Darwinian adaptation, as he called it, effected by federal courts acting as a permanent constitutional convention. Continue reading

07/4/15

The Vision of the Founding Fathers

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What kind of nation did the Founders aim to create?
By Myron Magnet — July 3, 2015

Men, not vast, impersonal forces — economic, technological, class struggle, what have you — make history, and they make it out of the ideals that they cherish in their hearts and the ideas they have in their minds. So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Continue reading

08/7/14

It’s Not Your Founding Fathers’ Republic Any More

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Summer 2014

It’s Not Your Founding Fathers’ Republic Any More
Presidents, Congresses, and courts are creating an elective despotism.

How far have we distorted the Constitution that the Founders gave us, and how much does it matter? A phalanx of recent books warns that we have undermined our fundamental law so recklessly that Americans should worry that government of the people, by the people, and for the people really could perish from the earth. The tomes—Adam Freedman’s engaging The Naked Constitution, Mark R. Levin’s impassioned The Liberty Amendments, Richard A. Epstein’s masterful The Classical Liberal Constitution, and Philip K. Howard’s eloquent and levelheaded The Rule of Nobody (in order of publication)—look at the question from different angles and offer different fixes to it, but all agree that Americans need to take action right now.

Several benighted Supreme Court rulings subverted the Fourteenth Amendment and crushed President Lincoln’s dream of binding up the nation’s Civil War wounds with malice toward none and charity for all.

Several benighted Supreme Court rulings subverted the Fourteenth Amendment and crushed President Lincoln’s dream of binding up the nation’s Civil War wounds with malice toward none and charity for all.


THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NYC

Before we scramble, though, we had better understand just what happened. There’s no single villain. As these books show, all branches of government conspired over more than a century to turn the Constitution that the Framers wrote in 1787, plus the Bill of Rights that James Madison shepherded through the first Congress in 1789 and the Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, into something their authors would neither recognize nor endorse. Continue reading

06/22/14

Liberty or Equality?

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Myron Magnet
Liberty or Equality?
The Founding Fathers knew that you can’t have both.
Spring 2014
With the fulminating on the left about inequality—“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his postelection powwow with President Barack Obama—it’s worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson’s deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he went on to explain, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us. But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent and virtue, he ardently hoped, not from inherited wealth or status.

In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can’t have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison believed (as did all the Founding Fathers), to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government—rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official cloaked with the authority to wield our collective power to restrain or punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of being trampled by someone stronger than we. Over time, though, those officials’ successors grew autocratic, and their governments overturned the very rights they were supposed to protect, creating a world as arbitrary as the inequality of the state of nature, in which the strongest took whatever he wanted, until someone still stronger came along.

In response, Americans—understanding that “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as Jefferson snarled—fired their king and created a democratic republic. Under its safeguard of our equal right to liberty, each of us, Madison saw, will employ his different talents, drive, and energy, to follow his own individual dream of happiness, with a wide variety of successes and failures. Most notably, Federalist 10 pointed out, “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” That inequality would be a sign of the new nation’s success, not failure. It would mean that people were really free. Continue reading

11/28/13

Giving Thanks in the Land of the Free

Wall Street JournalOPINION

Americans have long treasured their right to worship as they choose.

By
MYRON MAGNET
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 26, 2013 7:18 p.m. ET

In the fall of 1621, some 50 of the Puritans who had left the Old World in search of religious freedom sat down in their tiny thatched hamlet of Plymouth with their Wampanoag neighbors to feast on turkey, venison, corn and cod. They also gave thanks for surviving their first terrible New England winter, whose cold and privation had carried off half their community.

Continual waves of pilgrims fleeing religious persecution would follow them across the sea. Their sense of providential escape from foreign oppression stayed vividly alive in the American memory, and ultimately helped guide the Founding Fathers to make a revolution and fashion a new kind of government.

WSJ illustrationGetty Images

Hard as it is to believe at this distance of time, British law once jailed non-Anglican Protestants like the Pilgrims for worshiping as they chose. The law also barred them from the universities and public office. Thousands of Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others left their native land, bringing to the New World their Dissenting tradition of self-government, individualism and personal responsibility. They had long run their own congregations, hired and fired their own ministers, read the Bible and freely judged its meaning for themselves. They believed that each individual has a direct relation to God independent of, and higher than, any worldly authority.

As late as the 1750s, Constitution-signer William Livingston was still reminding readers of his influential magazine, The Independent Reflector, how “the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment” drove them “to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.”

Decades later, Chief Justice John Jay wrote a gripping account of how his grandfather, a French Protestant, had returned home from a trading voyage abroad in 1685 to find his family and neighbors gone, their church destroyed. While he had been away, Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had extended religious toleration and civil rights to Protestants for almost a century. Jay’s grandfather was lucky to be able to sneak aboard one of his ships and, like many others, sail away to freedom in the New World.

With this long history, Americans have had an almost physical thirst for liberty, as people do who truly know its opposite, like Eastern Europeans who once lived under communist tyranny. Long before Emma Lazarus wrote her Statue of Liberty verses about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, George Washington noted that for “the poor, the needy, & the oppressed of the Earth,” America was already “the second Land of promise”—the Promised Land. It offered, said James Madison, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”

That thirst for liberty led the Founders to revolt when they thought that George III was squeezing upon them the tyranny that had crushed their forebears. It also led them to hedge their new government with every safeguard to keep them free.

To protect life, liberty and property from what they called the depravity of human nature—from man’s innate capacity for inhumanity to others—the Founders knew they needed some kind of government armed with power. But since the officials who wield such power have the same fallen human nature as everyone else, who can be sure that they won’t use it to oppress others? Who can guarantee that imperfect men wouldn’t turn even the democratic republic the Founders were creating into what Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee called an elective despotism?

The Constitution they wrote in the summer of 1787 explicitly limited government’s powers to what they deemed absolutely essential. They divided and subdivided power, and they made each branch of government a watchdog over the others. But they also recognized that constitutions are only what they called “parchment barriers,” easily breached if demagogues subvert the “spirit and letter” of the document.

In the first State of the Union address, George Washington stressed that the ultimate safeguard against such a danger is a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty. “The security of a free Constitution,” he said, depends on “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them.”

If citizens start to take liberty for granted, he said, the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out, for “no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”

It’s that culture of liberty we nourish by recalling that our forebears came to these shores in search of freedom—and by giving thanks that they found it.

Mr. Magnet is editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His new book is “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817” (Norton).

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304655104579165800736157752?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTTopOpinion