Congratulations to the staff of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies for the publication of these papers connected to the symposium last February on Professors John Breen and Lee Strang’s forthcoming book, A Light Unseen: A History of Catholic Legal Education. The volume contains contributions by several law school deans and professors reflecting on the project.
I have an essay at First Things that lays out my understanding of what Judge Amy Coney Barrett has written about stare decisis and the fact of methodological disagreement in constitutional interpretation. The essay in part aims to correct this grossly misinformed and error-saturated piece published at Commonweal. But in much larger part, it tries simply to do justice to Judge Barrett’s view in her scholarly work. A bit:
Judge Barrett’s principal writing on this problem can be found in Precedent and Jurisprudential Disagreement and Originalism and Stare Decisis, although she has discussed these matters in other places as well. Her view can be summarized as originalist but also committed to the presumption of stare decisis force for existing precedent. She has elaborated a comparatively “weak” or “soft” presumption in favor of stare decisis in constitutional cases, but it is important to be clear about just what that means.
For Judge Barrett, the fact of methodological pluralism about fundamental issues in constitutional methodology (for example, in the disagreements between originalism and varieties of non-originalism) makes a comparatively soft stare decisis presumption attractive. This pluralism has implications for how judges view basic doctrinal error, because such error is likely to concern foundational methodological differences and deep jurisprudential commitments. In such situations, Judge Barrett writes, “stare decisis seems less about error correction than about mediating intense jurisprudential disagreement.”
As to precedents where a judge has a deep disagreement about method, it is not realistic or desirable, Judge Barrett says, to expect the judge to abandon her commitments simply for the sake of preserving those precedents. That would be asking the judge to betray her core judicial philosophy, something that would do no favors to judicial legitimacy, perceived or actual. Nevertheless, “the preference for continuity disciplines jurisprudential disagreement,” requiring from judges who would abandon stare decisis “both reason giving on the merits and an explanation of why its view is so compelling as to warrant reversal.” If these very strong reasons and explanations do not exist, then “the preference for continuity trumps.” New coalitions of judges (and at the Supreme Court, it is groups of judges that count) who argue for new interpretations are put at “an institutional disadvantage” by stare decisis, but they are not categorically disabled by it.
Judge Barrett’s “soft stare decisis” approach, in sum, accommodates the fact of methodological pluralism and deep substantive disagreement with the need for legal stability. The presumption favors existing doctrinal arrangements but permits challenges to them. To say that it is “soft,” therefore, is not at all to say that it encourages “constant upheaval” or wild unpredictability. To the contrary: Under a soft presumption of stare decisis force, “[t]he Court follows precedent far more often than it reverses precedent.”
This view is very much in line with the Court’s current approach to the force of stare decisis. And it flows not so much from Judge Barrett’s originalism, but instead from her view that stare decisis poses a problem for all theories of constitutional interpretation. She is “soft” on stare decisis not because she is an originalist, but because people disagree in good faith about how to interpret the Constitution.
Here is the latest over at the Liberty Fund in my small efforts to play with what a fusionist interpretive approach to constitutional interpretation–integrating originalism and what I have called traditionalism–might look like and require. The occasion is a reply to some fine essays by Professors Randy Barnett, Jesse Merriam, and Ilan Wurman, who were responding to this piece on stare decisis.
I find these more extended exchanges useful. You get a chance to really talk to people a bit more, so to speak. Here’s a little bit:
Originalists moved by Professor Barnett’s imperative [to align doctrine with original meaning] would be well-advised to attend to the difference between, on the one hand, an ancient and enduring cluster of precedents reflecting practices extending back to the founding (and even before it) and, on the other, a comparatively recent, one-off, “unmoored” (as Justice Thomas put it) decision that runs counter to such enduring practices. This distinction is important for at least two reasons, one theoretical and the other practical.
First, at least in cases where meaning is uncertain, old and enduring precedential lines carry greater epistemic weight about those meanings than do recent and isolated doctrinal innovations. Precedents proximate in time to the founding and repeatedly entrenched thereafter for centuries in subsequent doctrine and practice are more powerful evidence of permissible, even if not mandated, textual meanings, than precedents that do not share these qualities. True, they are not conclusive evidence. An ancient and enduring line of doctrine may have gotten it wrong, and wrong repeatedly, from the start. But for the many constitutional provisions where meaning is uncertain, and for situations in which there may be several interpretations that are not “demonstrably erroneous,” originalists concerned about epistemic warrant ought to grant such precedential lines a presumption of veracity.
Consider the bizarre and hubristic alternative: a world where early judicial interpretations, and the lasting and concentrated lines of precedent generated by them, are given no respect at all, or are even presumed to be wrong, and it is only the latest-arriving “knowledgeable scholars,” so much more distant in time and legal culture, who can see clearly and are owed epistemic deference. Judges evaluating practices close in time to the founding have access and insight that scholars who research original meaning today should acknowledge and respect. They are much more likely than we are to share in the political and cultural ethos of their own time. And where an early understanding has endured and been repeatedly reaffirmed for generations, thereby increasing its law-like properties, the respect we owe it likewise should increase.
Second, the justices whom originalists admire most do tend to invest ancient and enduring precedential lines with qualitatively different stare decisis force than recent, novel, and unmoored precedents. As I indicated in my first essay, this is something that judges inclined toward originalism have appreciated better than their scholar counterparts. I was therefore puzzled by Professor Barnett’s claim that “some justices” today may be eager to overrule D.C. v. Heller and Citizens United v. FEC, just as other justices of the Warren and Burger Court eras swept away ancient and longstanding precedents that obstructed their progressive political aims. That may be true, but I would not have thought that originalists would take these justices to be their models, let alone to vindicate Professor Barnett’s argument that Supreme Court justices “must be free” to vote as they like whenever they like, stare decisis notwithstanding.
Against Professor Barnett’s claim that Supreme Court justices “never have” treated stare decisis as especially powerful in the case of old and enduring precedents, I point back to my initial essay, where I described the considerable “buy-in” that already exists from the justices whom originalists admire and would like to win over—including Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch, and Justice Alito in their respective opinions in Gamble, Mesa, and Ramos. If the Chief Justice can be shown the error of his “insidious” conception of stare decisis in June Medical, as Professor Wurman puts it, then perhaps he, too, might be persuaded to buy in.
In highlighting age, deep roots in common practice, and enduring continuity—that is, in emphasizing the jurisprudential traditionalism of constitutional law—these justices are telling originalist scholars something important about the virtue of stability in constitutional law, and about its nature. As Judge Amy Coney Barrett has indicated, Justice Scalia likewise long defended the “stare decisis” of American political and cultural traditions against the doctrinal innovations of judges (and scholars) entirely disconnected from, and sometimes even disdainful of, those traditions. “In an important sense,” Judge Barrett argues, “originalism can be understood as a quintessentially precedent-based theory, albeit one that does not look primarily to judicial decisions as its guide.” Justice Scalia is no longer on the Court, of course. But others may come who have been influenced by his legacy. Originalists have reasons to listen to what these judges are telling them.
Professor Barnett is right, then, that integrating originalism and stare decisis will require accepting the “imperative” of gradual doctrinal alignment in accordance with original meaning. That will be stare decisis’ concession. But integration will require a concession from originalism, too—and something more than what Professor Barnett is offering at the moment. Originalists will need to acknowledge the traditionalism of constitutional law and that precedential age, endurance, and connection to common practice matter in constitutional law. They matter both for epistemic, interpretive reasons that ought to be of interest to originalists and for the stability that ought to be recognized by originalists and nonoriginalists alike as a legal virtue.
The final response to my essay on integrating originalism and stare decisis, by Professor Jesse Merriam (Patrick Henry College), is up. I will have a reply to all three of my respondents in a few days. A bit from the end of Professor Merriam’s piece:
Any effort to restore the American legal tradition must engage the fact that our constitutional order has been revolutionized through a vast array of “individual liberty” decisions. As Bruce Frohnen describes this shift, the Supreme Court’s Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence has transformed American constitutional law from a mediating order (i.e., a constitutional order that “mediates among more primary social groups and institutions”) into a commanding order (i.e., a constitutional order that “shape[s] the conduct of individuals, groups, and political actors to produce a society that has a specific character”).
In accord with this commanding order, the federal judiciary has emancipated the individual from the strictures of the past, including the traditional institutions of family, church, and community. This has had the effect of also emancipating us from one another, thus denying the “social bond individualism” that Richard Weaver found to be a critical part of a stable liberal order. And our emancipation from the past has severed us from the world we are creating. Traditions, as Burke described them, create “a partnership” not only among the living, but also among “those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” For this reason, Burke concluded that a people “who never look backward to their ancestors . . . will not look forward to posterity.”
How ironic, then, that Chief Justice Roberts would invoke Burke in his June Medical opinion, a case that, in striking down restrictions on abortion clinics, reaffirmed the Roe line of cases creating a constitutional right to abortion—in other words, the right to be emancipated from one’s posterity. June Medical is wrong, not because it got stare decisis wrong (as DeGirolami alleges), but because it got the meaning of tradition—and the meaning of personhood—wrong.
None of this is to say that DeGirolami’s effort is not worthwhile. But it does seem out of tenor with our current predicament. The task for a traditionalist is not to find a place for originalism and stare decisis in the American legal landscape, but rather to find a place for tradition in a political and legal culture that exalts emancipation as the highest good.
Faced with this task, DeGirolami may find that preserving the American tradition does not simply mean picking up a legal thread. It may, instead, mean picking up the needle and starting a new one.
Let me now turn to the issue of whether the Supreme Court is bound to follow its own previous erroneous decisions. This is called “horizontal stare decisis.” To begin with, it’s important to observe that the Supreme Court does not treat its previous decisions as binding in the same sense that lower courts do. And it never has.
True, the justices do periodically invoke the doctrine of stare decisis and attempt to explain when prior decisions should be followed or not, as Justices Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor did in Planned Parenthood v Casey. But quite unlike the inferior courts, the Supreme Court has always asserted the power to overrule its own prior decisions—even if a precedent is longstanding and even if it has been reaffirmed on many occasions. For example, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court refused to adhere to the “separate but equal” rule it had established almost 50 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.
For some justices, Roe v. Wade is currently and will always be in play. For other justices, Citizens United and D.C. v. Heller and a host of Rehnquist Court decisions are susceptible to reversal as soon as they have the votes. And, lest we forget, modern originalism arose in response to the New Deal, Warren, and Burger Court’s wholesale rejection of many precedents that stood in the way of their progressive political agenda.
This means that, unlike inferior court judges, an originalist Supreme Court justice—like every justice—has the option of voting inconsistently with previous Supreme Court decisions. Indeed, because the Supreme Court’s rulings are “final” within the judiciary, future justices must be free to vote otherwise so the Court’s errors can be corrected.
In this regard, Professor DeGirolami’s proposal that justices respect precedents that have become “grounded in deep-rooted traditions of law, politics, and culture” may or may not be a good idea. But it is not itself grounded in our deeply-rooted traditions of law, politics, and culture. Like originalism, his is also a reform proposal that would require “buy-in” by justices to become our practice. No doubt there is a normative case to be made for such a proposal. But so too is there a normative case to be made for judges to adhere to the original meaning of the text whenever a faithful application of that text leads to a particular result.
And that’s what’s missing from Professor DeGirolami’s proposal: any imperative to bring the precedents of the Supreme Court gradually into alignment with the original meaning of our written Constitution. Without that imperative, stare decisis becomes the “exception” that swallows the Constitution. It can also be invoked selectively to avoid originalist results a justice does not like—or ones that would be unpopular. Such opportunism by “originalist” justices undermines originalism.
To summarize, any theory of precedent must recognize, as does Professor DeGirolami’s, that stare decisis is valuable “because it supports legal continuity as a common, human project over a particular judge’s unconstrained sense, in a single time and place, of the correct outcome.” But this requires a chain of decisions over time, and not a single Supreme Court decision; recognition that ultimately these decisions over time matter only because the numerous individuals at different times and places that have agreed are more likely to have agreed on the correct answer; and that the correct answer must be within the range of possible original meanings. Only by understanding these points can we see how it was possible for the Founders themselves to think that judges would be both originalist and bound by precedent.
I have this essay at the Law and Liberty blog on what I consider to be a problem for originalism–its capacity to integrate stare decisis. Along the way I discuss the virtue of legal endurance and pieces of my traditionalist approach to understanding the Constitution. The piece will receive responses from Professors Randy Barnett, Jesse Merriam, and Ilan Wurman. A bit from the end:
“Again: why is stare decisis valuable in constitutional judging, and when is it especially so? These are the questions that originalists must ask. Some scholars have begun to do so. Professor Randy Kozel, for example, argues that stare decisis’s normative foundations in constitutional judging are rooted in the legal values of stability and “impersonality,” as contradistinguished from the changeability and passion of politics. As he puts it: “Calendar pages turn and political winds shift, but the law is still the law.” Impersonality is especially necessary given the welter of interpretive and methodological pluralism in constitutional law. So long as that pluralism exists (and that is likely to be a long time), Kozel contends that stare decisis will be normatively desirable as a constraint on judges.
Kozel is asking the right questions, and his normative account of stare decisis goes some distance to explaining its importance in constitutional law. An even thicker account would recognize not merely the fact of the problem of pluralism mitigated by the constraints of stare decisis, but that the central virtue of stare decisis is in promoting the law’s endurance. Such an account would internalize Kozel’s distinction between law and politics. It would pick up on the clues dropped by the justices in cases like Gamble, Mesa, and Ramos that stare decisis is far more powerful when the Court confronts ancient, long-standing, and continuous precedents than it is when the precedent at issue is “unmoored” from the adjudicative firmament. It would prize stare decisis especially, as Justice Thomas recognized in his Mesa concurrence, when the historical sweep of judicial precedents is connected—moored, as it were—to political and cultural practices of similar age and endurance. It would acknowledge that these virtues of stare decisis may be just as powerful whether the rationales supporting them are “deliberated” (in the liquidated sense) or not, whether re-ratified in a way that seems compelling to present judicial and academic sensibilities and investments or not. The sheer endurance of any precedent is intimately connected to its lawlike properties, though common law, constitutional, and statutory precedents may have different time horizons for these purposes.
Stare decisis is not about following the most recent case. It is not, as Chief Justice Roberts wrongly claimed in June Medical, about simply “treat[ing] like cases alike” and voting for something today that one thought was wrong four years ago. It is instead, as Justice Thomas rightly countered in the same case, about “fidelity…which demonstrates ‘reverence to antiquity.’” It is about picking up the legal thread connecting a long and lasting line of cases. Where the Court confronts precedents of great age, endurance, continuity, and connection to similarly ancient and longstanding common, popular practices, the virtues of legal stability fostered by stare decisis are especially potent. Such precedents are also, as it happens, likely (though not certain) to be consistent with, even if not mandated by, the Constitution’s original public meaning. It stands to reason that stare decisis will exert a particularly strong gravitational pull on constitutional adjudicators in those circumstances. Indeed, for the Court, it already has. No “demonstrably erroneous” precedent—let alone an indelibly evil precedent—should ever survive, irrespective of its lineage. But for the considerable quantity of constitutional precedent that does not fall into this category, and with time, judges might use the deep-rooted traditions of law, politics, and culture, to integrate originalism and stare decisis.”
In this podcast, we discuss the end of the Supreme Court’s term, which included a number of important cases related to law and religion–Bostock, Espinoza, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Little Sisters of the Poor. We take a big picture, thematic approach to these cases, talk about who won and who lost, and speculate about what these and future cases mean for the ongoing conflicts between what we call “Progressives” and the “Traditionally Religious.” Listen in!
A point of personal privilege and congratulations to Mark, whose article, Severability in Statutes and Contracts, 30 Ga. L. Rev. 31 (1994), was cited by Justice Gorsuch in his opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part in today’s Supreme Court case, Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants! The case is about the constitutionality of Congress’s regulation of “robocalls” and whether the offending part of the statute could be severed.
The American and French Revolutions are often thought of as entirely distinct types. But was there a connection? Here’s a little cold water thrown on the claim of distinctiveness by Tocqueville, from The Old Regime and the Revolution (201, Furet & Melonio, eds):
Our revolution has often been attributed to that of America: in fact, the American Revolution had a lot of influence on the French Revolution, but less because of what was then done in the United States than because of what was being thought at the same time in France. While in the rest of Europe the American Revolution was still nothing but a new and unusual fact, among us it only made more evident and more striking what we thought we already knew. It astonished Europe; here, it completed our conversion. The Americans seemed merely to apply what our writers had thought of: they gave substantial reality to what we were dreaming about….
The writers not only furnished their ideas to the people who made the Revolution; they also gave them their own temperament and disposition. Under this long training, in the absence of any other directors, in the midst of the profound practical ignorance in which they lived, the whole nation ended up adopting the instincts, the attitudes, the tastes, and even the eccentricities of those who write; with the result that when the nation finally had to act, it brought all the habits of literature into politics.
When we study the history of our Revolution, we see that it was carried out in precisely the same spirit in which so many abstract books on government are written. The same attraction for general theories, for complete systems of legislation and exact symmetry in laws; the same contempt for existing facts; the same confidence in theory; the same taste for the original, the ingenious, and the new in institutions; the same desire to remake the whole constitution all at once, following the rules of logic and according to a single plan, rather than trying to fix its various parts. A frightening sight! For what is merit in a writer is sometimes vice in a statesman, and the same things which have often made lovely books can lead to great revolutions.
Happy Independence Day…