RECENT U.S. SUPREME COURT DECISIONS:
MAINSTREAM AMERICAN CONSTITUTIONAL THOUGHT
By Professor Eugene Volokh
In this regard, the chief point I’d like to make is that the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence, including the views of the Court’s more Conservative members, has been firmly within the mainstream of American constitutional thought. One may agree or disagree with this jurisprudence, but one has to acknowledge that it’s entirely mainstream.
The substantive federal power decisions [United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), and United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000)] are excellent examples of this sort of mainstream, eminently justifiable constitutional decisionmaking. The U.S Constitution clearly sets up a federal system of government, with a national government of enumerated powers—this is one of the fundamentals of James Madison’s scheme. That’s clear from the text of the document, and from all the contemporaneous historical evidence.
By very mildly reining in the power of the national government, the Supreme Court has simply reaffirmed this fundamental constitutional principle. In fact, in one of these cases, Boerne, even Justices Stevens and Ginsburg agreed that the Congress had overreached its enumerated powers. And in Jones v. United States, 529 U.S. 848 (2000), all nine Jus- tices (in an opinion written by Justice Ginsburg) took the view that applying a federal arson statute to “traditionally local criminal conduct” with no connection to commercial activity would at least pose a very serious constitutional problem.
Moreover, even in Lopez and Morrison, the debate was between the more Liberal jus- tices’ position that Congress has powers that are 100% unlimited (except by the Bill of Rights), and the more Conservative justices’ position that Congress has powers that are 95% unlimited. Congress still has tremendous powers, even in areas of traditional state influence. The Supreme Court simply recognized that, at some point, even Congress’s great powers go too far. The decisions are important, but they are mostly symbolic con- straints. They do not seriously interfere with Congress’s power to legislate.
Likewise, the state sovereign immunity decisions are part of a tradition that goes back a century and a half. There’s a contentious historical debate about how the U.S. Constitu- tion should be interpreted on this question; I don’t know which side is right on this mat- ter. Though, as a policy matter, I do not like sovereign immunity, it’s clear to me that the Court’s decisions follow a longstanding tradition, and are consistent with the great ma- jority of the precedents.
Though the Rehnquist Court has not tried to transfigure the legal system by overturning state laws anywhere nearly as much as the Warren Court did, it has been striking down federal laws more often than past courts have. But this is largely because there are now more federal laws than there were in the past, especially in constitutionally sensitive areas.
Before the advent of the Internet, most speech restrictions (except in the specialized area of radio and television broadcasting) were imposed by states. Congress had never passed the Book Decency Act or the Movie Decency Act. But when Congress stepped in to restrict speech in the new nationwide (and international) medium of the Internet, nat- urally the Supreme Court stepped in, and imposed on Congress the same rules that it had long imposed on the states.
Until recent years, violent crime—except in the context of clearly interstate transactions —was largely seen as a state matter. But when Congress enacted laws such as the Gun- Free School Zones Act or the Violence Against Women Act, the Supreme Court had to step in and consider whether Congress had overreached the constitutional boundaries. That is the Court’s job, and the further Congress tries to reach, the greater the likeli- hood that Congress will be overreaching, exceeding the powers delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution and encroaching on the powers reserved to the states by that docu- ment--and the greater the likelihood that the Supreme Court will be stepping in to clip the wings of an overreaching national government.
More on U.S. Constitutional Law & Political Philosophy
Eugene Volokh, Professor of Law on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles Law School, presented the foregoing
analysis, on June 26, 2001, as testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. At the UCLA
Law School, Professor Volokh teaches free speech law, copyright law, the law of government and religion, and a seminar on firearms
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