Tuesday, November 23


EJ Dionne references Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's recent series of lectures at Harvard University, which offer an alternative to the theories of conservative jurists such as Justice Antonin Scalia.

Conservative politicians, including President Bush, say that they oppose judges who "legislate from the bench" and that they hope to fill the judiciary with "strict constructionists." That sounds good, because we want democratically elected politicians, not judges, making the crucial decisions. Yet, at this moment in our history, it is conservative judges who want to restrict the people's right to govern themselves.

That may sound sweeping, but the current trend among conservatives is to read the Constitution as sharply limiting the ability of Congress and the states to make laws protecting the environment, guaranteeing the rights of the disabled and regulating commerce in the public interest.

This new conservatism is actually a very old conservatism. It marks a return to the time before the mid-1930s when judges struck down all sorts of decent laws -- for example, regulating the number of hours people had to work without overtime pay -- reasoning that such statutes violated contract and property rights. Such rulings denied legislators the ability to resolve social problems and make our society more just. The pre-New Deal judiciary that many conservatives are now trying to restore was the truly "imperial judiciary."
Breyer's master concept is "active liberty." He argues that the point of our Constitution is democracy -- to guarantee "the principle of participatory self-government" that gives the people "room to decide and leeway to make mistakes."

He suggests that justices who focus primarily on the Constitution's text and "the Framers' original expectations narrowly conceived" miss the Founders' basic intention. Their purpose, Breyer says, was "to create a framework for democratic government -- a government that, while protecting basic individual liberties, permits citizens to govern themselves, and to govern themselves effectively."
Almost all of the journalism about judicial nominations focuses on filibusters, personal conflicts and partisan advantage. But this battle is so much more important than that.

Will judges invoke their own narrow, ideological readings of the Constitution to void progressive legislation? Or will they join Breyer in viewing the Constitution as a framework that "foresees democratically determined solutions, protective of the individual's basic liberties"? The fight over judges is not about politics, narrowly conceived. It is a struggle over what kind of democracy we will have. Breyer has helped us understand that.


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