When is it Legitimate for Judges to Base Constitutional Decisions on their Perceived Legitimacy?

In a previous post, I argued that Supreme Court justices should not decide the individual mandate case based on the decision’s effect on their perceived “legitimacy.” Mark Tushnet asks, why not?

[W]hy exactly shouldn’t [Chief Justice John Roberts] worry if he believes that a Court decision — any one, really — will impair the Court’s legitimacy, in the sense that it would make it more difficult for the Court to hold public support for its (other) decisions? Or, believes that a decision will not be seen in retrospect as a wise one (the “verdict of history” point)? I’m not here endorsing the view that a decision striking down the Affordable Care Act would impair the Court’s legitimacy or be seen in retrospect as unwise, just wondering what’s wrong with taking those things into account when a justice is thinking about how best to interpret the Constitution. (Would Justice Henry Billings Brown have been wrong to think about them when trying to decide whether to pull his draft opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson in favor of Justice Harlan’s dissent?…)

This is a good question. The answer, in my view, is that the job of Supreme Court justices is to enforce the Constitution, not to make decisions that will have broad public support or be perceived as legitimate. Indeed, judicial enforcement of constitutional restrictions on government power is particularly crucial precisely in those cases where violations of those restrictions enjoy strong political support. To turn Mark’s question about Plessy around: Was Justice Brown’s decision justified by the fact that a contrary result might have been considered “illegitimate” by majority public opinion in the 1890s, and deeply resented by millions of white southerners? Was Korematsu justified because the internment of Japanese-Americans enjoyed overwhelming public support at the time, and a decision striking it down would have been widely denounced as an illegitimate intrusion on the wartime powers of the political branches?

This point applies to legitimacy in the eyes of future public opinion, as well as contemporary opinion. Future public opinion can easily be wrong, and can often support violations of the Constitution. For example, public opinion in 1900 was far less favorable to judicial enforcement of African-American rights than public opinion in the 1870s. If 1870s Supreme Court justices could accurately predict that trend, would they have been justified in cutting back on enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment? It’s possible that future terrorist attacks will turn majority public opinion strongly against the Supreme Court’s Guantanamo decisions. If the justices believed that to be likely, should they have endorsed the Bush administration’s position in those cases in order to get on the “right side” of history?

Nonetheless, I think there are narrow circumstances where courts can legitimately take account of legitimacy. One such situation is when a correct constitutional decision would attract such wide opposition that it cannot be effectively enforced. If that is the case, courts are simply incapable of doing their normal duty, and perhaps they would be justified in not even trying. The case for making discretion the better part of valor in such situations might be especially strong if a the correct-but-unenforceable decision undermines the Court’s ability to enforce other parts of the Constitution in future cases. Perhaps a decision like Korematsu can be defended on that basis. A contrary ruling would almost certainly have been successfully disobeyed by the president and Congress. On the other hand, it’s possible that correct decisions in such cases would at least increase the chance that public opinion would change in the future, making it possible to eventually enforce the Constitution at a later date.

It’s also possible that a decision perceived as illegitimate is itself enforceable, but might still undermine enforcement of future decisions by compromising the Court’s reputation. If this is the case, the justices will have to consider whether the future damage to the Constitution outweighs the constitutional principles that would be sacrificed by reaching the wrong result in the present case. I think this kind of scenario is unlikely. If people are willing to obey the initial “illegitimate” decision, it seems like they would also obey future decisions that are less controversial. But it’s not impossible.

In both of these scenarios, the reason why it is legitimate for the justices to consider legitimacy is because of its potential effect on their ability to do their proper job of enforcing the Constitution – not because legitimacy is valuable in itself.

I think it’s fairly clear that a decision striking down the mandate doesn’t even come close to falling into one of these two categories. As I discussed in my previous post, the vast majority of the public – including many Democrats – would actually support such a ruling.

One can reasonably argue that legitimacy should play a much larger role in judicial decision-making than I would support. Perhaps the justices should value legitimacy for its own sake. Alternatively, perhaps widespread and deeply felt public opposition to a given ruling should lead the justices to doubt the validity of its reasoning. However, anyone who believes that the Court should uphold the mandate because of the perceived illegitimacy of a contrary ruling must also oppose other decisions that are viewed as illegitimate by a larger proportion of the population. These include cases such as Roe v. Wade, Kelo v. City of New London, the school prayer and religious display decisions, the Guantanamo cases, several of the Warren Court’s defendants’ rights rulings, the flag burning cases, and other decisions supported by liberal constitutional theorists. At the time they were decided – and in some cases even today – each of these rulings were perceived as illegitimate by a larger proportion of the public than is likely to oppose a decision striking down the mandate. Some of them also attracted vociferous criticism by parts of the legal elite.

In my view, many of the above decisions were actually correct. That’s because I do not think that perceived legitimacy should be an important factor in Supreme Court decision-making, except in very rare instances. But if you believe that legitimacy should be a major factor when it comes to the mandate, that principle cannot be limited to the present case. You have to apply it consistently across the board. Doing so would call into question a wide range of Supreme Court decisions.

UPDATE: I have slightly edited this post to fix one or two typos.