Adam Cohen’s NYTimes Op-Ed points to the worst “activist judge” offender.
The idea that liberal judges are advocates and partisans while judges like Justice Scalia are not is being touted everywhere these days, and it is pure myth. Justice Scalia has been more than willing to ignore the Constitution’s plain language, and he has a knack for coming out on the conservative side in cases with an ideological bent. The conservative partisans leading the war on activist judges are just as inconsistent: they like judicial activism just fine when it advances their own agendas.
Justice Scalia’s views on federalism – which now generally command a majority on the Supreme Court – are perhaps the clearest example of the problem with the conservative attack on judicial activism. When conservatives complain about activist judges, they talk about gay marriage and defendants’ rights. But they do not mention the 11th Amendment, which has been twisted beyond its own plain words into a states’ rights weapon to throw minorities, women and the disabled out of federal court.
The 11th Amendment says federal courts cannot hear lawsuits against a state brought by “Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” But it’s been interpreted to block suits by a state’s own citizens – something it clearly does not say. How to get around the Constitution’s express words? In a 1991 decision, Justice Scalia wrote that “despite the narrowness of its terms,” the 11th Amendment has been understood by the court “to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition of our constitutional structure which it confirms.” If another judge used that rationale to find rights in the Constitution – in this case, rights for states – Justice Scalia’s reaction would be withering. He went on, in that 1991 decision, to throw out a suit by Indian tribes who said they had been cheated by the State of Alaska.
Justice Scalia likes to boast that he follows his strict-constructionist philosophy wherever it leads, even if it leads to results he disagrees with. But it is uncanny how often it leads him just where he already wanted to go. In his view, the 14th Amendment prohibits Michigan from using affirmative action in college admissions, but lets Texas make gay sex a crime. (The Supreme Court has held just the opposite.) He is dismissive when inmates invoke the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment to challenge prison conditions. But he is supportive when wealthy people try to expand the “takings clause” to block the government from regulating their property.
The classic example of conservative inconsistency remains Bush v. Gore. Not only did the court’s conservative bloc trample on the Florida state courts and stop the vote counting – it declared its ruling would not be a precedent for future cases. How does Justice Scalia explain that decision? In a recent New Yorker profile, he is quoted as saying, with startling candor, that “the only issue was whether we should put an end to it, after three weeks of looking like a fool in the eyes of the world.” That, of course, isn’t a constitutional argument – it is an unapologetic defense of judicial activism.