Judges Brown and Sentelle Urge the Supreme Court to End Rational Basis Review of Economic Regulations

In a concurring opinion today in Hettinga v. United States, Judge Janice Rogers Brown (joined by Judge Sentelle) contends that the Supreme Court should overturn its rational basis caselaw in the economic area and return to a Lochner-era regime of judicial scrutiny for economic regulations. A taste:

America’s cowboy capitalism was long ago disarmed by a democratic process increasingly dominated by powerful groups with economic interests antithetical to competitors and consumers. And the courts, from which the victims of burdensome regulation sought protection, have been negotiating the terms of surrender since the 1930s.

First the Supreme Court allowed state and local jurisdictions to regulate property, pursuant to their police powers, in the public interest, and to “adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare.” Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502, 516 (1934). Then the Court relegated economic liberty to a lower echelon of constitutional protection than personal or political liberty, according restrictions on property rights only minimal review. United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152–53 (1938). Finally, the Court abdicated its constitutional duty to protect economic rights completely, acknowledging that the only recourse for aggrieved property owners lies in the “democratic process.” Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97 (1979). “The Constitution,” the Court said, “presumes that, absent some reason to infer antipathy, even mprovident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process and that judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwisely we may think a political branch has acted.” Id.

As the dissent predicted in Nebbia, the judiciary’s refusal to consider the wisdom of legislative acts—at least to inquire whether its purpose and the means proposed are “within legislative power”—would lead to only one result: “[R]ights guaranteed by the Constitution [would] exist only so long as supposed public interest does not require their extinction.” 291 U.S. at 523. In short order that baleful prophecy received the court’s imprimatur. In Carolene Products (yet another case involving protectionist legislation), the court ratified minimalist review of economic regulations, holding that a rational basis for economic legislation would be presumed and more searching inquiry would be reserved for intrusions on political rights. 304 U.S. at 153 n.4. . . .

The practical effect of rational basis review of economic regulation is the absence of any check on the group interests that all too often control the democratic process. It allows the legislature free rein to subjugate the common good and individual liberty to the electoral calculus of politicians, the whim of majorities, or the self-interest of factions. See Randy E. Barnett, Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty 260 (2004).

The hope of correction at the ballot box is purely illusory. See generally Ilya Somin, Political Ignorance and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty: A New Perspective on the Central Obsession of Constitutional Theory, 89 Iowa L. Rev. 1287 (2004). In an earlier century, H. L. Mencken offered a blunt assessment of that option: “[G]overnment is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe 331 (1996). And, as the Hettingas can attest, it’s no good hoping the process will heal itself. Civil society, “once it grows addicted to redistribution, changes its character and comes to require the state to ‘feed its habit.’” Anthony De Jasay, The State 226 (1998). The difficulty of assessing net benefits and burdens makes the idea of public choice oxymoronic. See id. at 248. Rational basis review means property is at the mercy of the pillagers. The constitutional guarantee of liberty deserves more respect—a lot more.

It is unsurprising that Judge Brown holds these views: She expressed some similar points in a 2000 speech before the Federalist Society chapter at the University of Chicago. And I’m always pleased when my co-bloggers are cited in judicial opinions. At the same time, I’m not convinced of the propriety of placing these views in the Federal Reporter instead of a law review or published speech. Questions of judicial propriety are matters of taste, of course. But given that these views have no obvious relevance to the job of a lower court judge, and yet resonate with certain current political movements, a decision by judges to publish such comments in a judicial opinion (even in a non-binding concurrence) runs a risk of being perceived as blending political and judicial roles. In my view, it’s better to keep the roles more separate by reserving criticisms of settled Supreme Court doctrine to contexts like speeches and articles that are clearly outside the judicial capacity. But then I realize I am more squeamish about such matters than others.

Incidentally, I’m reminded of a somewhat analogous example of liberal judges using a concurring opinion to express rather fiery disagreement with a conservative Supreme Court ruling: The concurring opinion of Judges Boyce Martin and Gilbert Merritt in United States v. Almany, which I criticized here. It’s not exactly analogous, and obviously the issue had less ideological valence. But I think it’s an interesting example to consider.

Thanks to How Appealing for the link.