Larry Lessig on the Politics of the Supreme Court’s Federalism Jurisprudence

In this recent Atlantic article, Professor Larry Lessig argues that, if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate, it could only be the result of politics, given its previous decisions rejecting “liberal” challenges to congressional legislation:

The Court has been asked to limit the scope of Congress’s authority in a wide range of cases. Some of these have been for liberal causes, some for conservative. I was lead counsel in a case that asked the Court to apply its newly announced will to enforce the limits on enumerated powers in the context of the copyright clause — viewed by many as a “liberal cause.” The Court said no, twice. The same with federal regulation of medical marijuana, which, the (said to be liberal) 9th Circuit had ruled, violated the limits on Congress’s power. The Supreme Court — including Scalia — said it didn’t.

So with these liberal cases, limits were not enforced. But when the cause is conservative, the willingness to limit Congress’ power comes alive. The Court has struck laws regulating guns — twice. It has struck a law that regulated violence against women. And if Obamacare falls, it will have struck down the most important social legislation advanced by the Democratic Party in a generation.

With that score sheet, I fear the cynics win.

I don’t doubt that the Supreme Court is often influenced by political factors, including in its federalism cases. But Lessig’s argument is greatly overstated. He ignores the fact that many of the votes upholding federal laws against “liberal” challenges in the medical marijuana and copyright cases actually came from the Court’s liberal justices. In Gonzales v. Raich, a decision I have been very critical of, four of the six votes in the majority came from the liberal justices. The five conservatives actually voted 3-2 to strike down the law which allowed the federal government to ban the possession of medical marijuana that had never crossed state lines or been sold in any market. If it were up to the Court’s conservatives, the “liberal” challenge to the medical marijuana ban would have succeeded.

The underlying dynamic here is that the Court’s liberal wing has consistently opposed virtually any limits on Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the Tenth Amendment over the last twenty years. As a result, such limits are only enforced on the rare occasions when all five conservative justices are willing to do so. We can and should criticize the conservatives for enforcing those limits unevenly and for developing a federalism jurisprudence that is far from a model of clarity. But the liberal justices also deserve considerable blame for essentially treating the Commerce Clause as a blank check for unconstrained Congressional power.

In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the first of the copyright cases Lessig complains about, the majority opinion was written by liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though two of the other three liberal justices did dissent. In Golan v. Holder, a recent extension of Eldred, there were only two dissenters – one of them the conservative justice Samuel Alito.

I actually doubt that the copyright cases are fairly characterized as a liberal vs. conservative issue. Many liberal Democratic members of Congress voted for the broad extensions of copyright that these lawsuits challenged (as also did many Republicans). Among their critics were many libertarians and pro-free market conservatives. This is an issue that splits both liberals and conservatives internally. Libertarians are internally divided on intellectual property issues as well, though my impression is that more of them oppose broad extensions of copyright than support it.

Finally, Lessig’s argument that Justice Scalia cannot vote to uphold the individual mandate without contradicting his concurring opinion in Raich ignores the fact that that opinion addresses only the issue of what qualifies as “necessary” under the Necessary and Proper Clause, while the main argument against the mandate turns on the meaning of “proper.” This is the point of the amicus brief I wrote on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and a group of constitutional law scholars, which explains why the mandate is improper even if it is “necessary.” As the brief explains (pp. 13-14, 28-29), Scalia has written several opinions emphasizing that necessity and propriety are separate and distinct requirements, both of which must be met in order for federal legislation to be authorized by the Necessary and Proper Clause. He made that point in the Raich concurrence itself. In the oral argument on the individual mandate case, Scalia emphasized the same issue in his questioning of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. For some fifteen years now, Scalia has focused on the issue of propriety more than any other member of the Court.

I am no fan of Scalia’s Raich concurrence. But he could easily write an opinion striking down the mandate without contradicting anything he said in that earlier case.

NOTE: The arguments of this post overlap slightly with co-blogger Randy Barnett’s earlier critique of Lessig’s article. I have chosen to leave the overlap in place rather than cut out important logical links in my own argument.