Sunday, June 14, 2009

Strong versus Weak Judging

As so often happens in the field of constitutional law, events converge that serve to illustrate how real-world practice often departs from constitutional principle. The same-day announcements on May 26 by President Obama of Sonya Sotomayor as his choice for the U.S. Supreme Court and by the California Supreme Court of its decision to uphold Proposition 8 is but another such serendipitous pairing.

First, constitutional principle suggests that President Obama owed the nation a strong nominee - and with Sonya Sotomayor, he delivered.

Those who framed the Constitution knew that it would take a special kind of person to guarantee equal justice to all - including the less powerful - even when majorities in the legislative and executive branches would not. “It is easy to see,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “that it would require an uncommon portion of fortitude in the judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the Constitution, where legislative invasions of it had been instigated by the major voice in the community.”

Sonya Sotomayor understands the constitutional role of judges. As she commented in 1997, “I believe we should not bend the Constitution under any circumstances. It says what it says. We should honor it.” A strong judge like Judge Sotomayor knows that when majorities abridge the rights of individuals, it is the judge’s sometimes unpopular role to overcome the majority’s will.

Weak judges, by contrast, hide behind majority opinion to avoid protecting individual liberty and equality. The California Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to uphold Proposition 8 (despite holding just last year that discrimination against gays is no less unconstitutional than discrimination based on race or religion) is an example of judging that is, well, weak.

As the lone strong voice, dissenting Justice Carlos J. Moreno, put it, “The rule the majority crafts today … weakens the status of our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.”

Exactly right.

These principles apply to the federal Constitution as well. The framers believed that the whole point of majoritarian government is to protect liberty and equality for all. As James Madison explained in arguing for the Bill of Rights before the First Congress, “independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.” And Hamilton commented that “the interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts…. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable difference between [the Constitution and a legislative act]…, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”

In concept, the principle of judicial review is one upon which liberals and conservatives can agree. At his confirmation hearings in 2005, for example, Chief Justice John Roberts commented, “I don't think the Court should be a taskmaster of Congress. The Constitution is the Court's taskmaster, and it is Congress's as well.” Neither federal, state nor local majorities, in other words, may pass laws (including amendments to state constitutions) that abridge rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution - and it is the judge’s responsibility to make sure that they do not.

Viewed in this light, the “judicial activist” warhorse regularly trotted out by those opposed to judges doing their jobs to protect the rights of minorities (usually under the guise that such action constitutes inappropriate “legislating from the bench”) is exposed for what it is: a tired old nag ready for the glue factory.