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Author: Rob Natelson

How the New York Times Misrepresents the Supreme Court

How the New York Times Misrepresents the Supreme Court

A recent New York Times story, titled “A Polarized Supreme Court, Growing More So,” illustrates how left-of-center media distort perceptions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The story’s problems begin with the lead paragraph’s assertion that Justice Neil Gorsuch’s appointment is “a conservative replacing another conservative.” What the Times probably intended to say is that the appointment replaces an originalist with an originalist. Originalism and conservatism are not the same thing.

Originalism is untied to political results, whether liberal or conservative. It applies the methods English and American judges have used for centuries to interpret most documents, including constitutions. The primary difference between modern originalists and non-originalists hinges on whether judges should be consistent or whether they should change the rules of interpretation for some hot-button constitutional issues.

In the article, as elsewhere, the Times describes the Court as split five-to-four, with the majority constituting a “conservative bloc.” It is more accurate to describe the Court as split four ways: (1) liberal activists (Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor), (2) originalists (Clarence Thomas and Gorsuch), (3) advocates of judicial deference (John Roberts, Samuel Alito), and (4) an erratic social libertarian (Anthony Kennedy).

“And, in a shift in recent years,” the Times writes, “partisan affiliation has become a very strong predictor of voting trends for all its members.” The sentence is technically true but substantially misleading. This description would be better: although Democratic appointees have been reliably liberal on most issues, Republican appointees have commonly slipped to the left—a slippage reduced recently as GOP administrations have adopted better vetting procedures.

The article’s thigh-slapper is its description of Kennedy as “a moderate conservative.” Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s judicial style knows that he is not a moderate anything, much less a conservative. It is true that he has voted to strike down some particularly ambitious pieces of congressional legislation, but he has also reaffirmed the very liberal view that the federal government may exercise almost unfettered control over the national economy. More importantly, he has written a series of opinions reaching radical social results through an untethered and virtually unprecedented methodology.

Similarly revealing are the “experts” the Times chose to quote. Apparently, there are no experts in flyover country or in the South. Everyone worth hearing is from the Northeast or West Coast.  This is an extraordinary omission because the nomination of Gorsuch, a Coloradan, was widely viewed as an effort to rebalance the court toward the country’s center.

Neither do practicing lawyers exist in the Times’ world. Everyone quoted is affiliated with an academic or policy institution.

Nor do consistent originalist experts exist—even though the Gorsuch hearings dwelt largely on originalism. The Times quotes four liberals and one activist libertarian. No originalist scholars at all.

The Times article cites just one case by name: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Times treats that case, as is common among liberal writers, as an unqualified “conservative” victory. In fact, it was a split decision, with originalists winning on one issue but losing on the other.

Several years ago, the Times was properly criticized for describing the Court’s activist liberals as its “four moderates.” While the latest article doesn’t make that mistake, it does reveal the Times’ propensity for putting its left-of-center views at the hub of the ideological universe. Thus the reporter describes Obama appointee Merrick Garland as “not especially liberal.” And he selected for publication an unrebutted claim that Garland was “centrist.”

Yet the reporter’s own article shows this to be untrue. It includes another unrebutted quotation in which a long liberal wish list is described as “safe” with Garland. If he were a centrist, presumably liberals would lose sometimes!

In fairness, the Times does quote an expert who cautions against its stereotyped nomenclature—pointing out that labeling Gorsuch and Garland as “‘conservative” or “liberal” is “too simplistic and unfair to both of them.” That caution, however, is buried at the end.

This article was originally published in the American Conservative.

A Founder Gives Us a Lesson on the Constitution’s Amendment Process

A Founder Gives Us a Lesson on the Constitution’s Amendment Process

Among the best tools for interpreting the Constitution are public explanations by its advocates made during the ratification fight. These explanations helped shape how the public understood the Constitution. They reassured the public about what the Constitution did NOT mean.

Those statements were at the heart of the ratification deal.

One reason the Federalist Papers are so useful because they were exactly this sort of literature. But they are tough going for many readers, both now and then. That helps explain why the more readable essays of Tench Coxe likely had as much influence with the common people as The Federalist.

So when Coxe explains what the Constitution means, we must attend respectfully.

Here is Tench Coxe writing about the Article V amendment process. This passage comes from an op-ed in the Pennsylvania Gazette of June 11, 1788:

The sovereign power of altering and amending the constitution . . . does not lie with this foederal legislature, whom some have erroneously apprehended to be supreme—That power, which is truly and evidently the real point of sovereignty, is vested in the several legislatures and [ratifying] conventions of the states, chosen by the people respectively within them. The foederal government cannot alter the constitution, but the representative bodies of the states, that is, their legislatures and conventions, only can execute these acts of sovereign power.

From the foregoing circumstances results another reflection equally satisfactory and important, which is, that as the foederal legislature . . . cannot prevent such wholesome alterations and amendments as are now desired, or which experience may hereafter suggest. . . . If two thirds of those legislatures require it, Congress must call a general convention, even though they dislike the proposed amendments, and if three fourths of the state legislatures or conventions approve such amendments, they become an actual and binding part of the constitution, without any possible interference of Congress.

This statement is a very fat one, but here’s its skeleton:

1. Some people are claiming that under the Constitution, Congress will hold supreme power.

2. But real supremacy belongs to those who can amend the Constitution.

3. The Constitution puts that power in the hands of the state legislatures and state ratifying conventions—the “representative bodies of the states.”

4. Congress cannot alter the Constitution.

5. And Congress cannot block amendments it doesn’t like—by, for example, refusing to call an amendments convention that two thirds of the state legislatures want.

Let’s look at some of the wider implications:

* Congress can’t pass amendments alone. This argues against claims that Congress can gerrymander the membership of a “convention for proposing amendments,” change deadlines in midstream, or otherwise dominate the amendment process.

* By contrast, state legislatures and state conventions can amend the Constitution any time they want, and Congress can’t block them. This necessarily means that only state legislatures control the convention for proposing amendments. It means they can limit the scope of their applications, of the call, and of the convention. And it means they can choose and instruct their commissioners as they wish.

* This power to amend is in the “representative bodies of the states.” When a state legislature or state convention operates under Article V, it acts as a direct representative of the people, not as an arm of state government. Thus, Coxe’s article tends to support modern case law and undercut claims that state governments can direct or change the amendment process through laws and compacts.

Scalia Probably Favored An Amendments Convention — But Does It Matter?

Scalia Probably Favored An Amendments Convention — But Does It Matter?

A majority of state legislatures have voted to trigger the U.S. Constitution’s most important procedure for reforming the federal government. This is the gathering that Article V of the Constitution calls “a convention for proposing amendments”—more popularly known as a “convention of states.”

Advocates of a convention of states rely on a supportive statement made by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 1979, when he was still a law professor. Opponents counter with a 2014 statement they claim contradicts his earlier one.

Was Scalia inconsistent? Did he change his mind after he became part of the government? Or, can these two statements be reconciled? The answer is: They probably can be reconciled—and in a way helpful to those supporting a convention.

But another question is: Should we give much weight to either of these statements? The answer to that one is, “Probably not.”

Scalia’s Earlier Statement About a Convention

In 1979, when supporting a convention, Scalia argued that it could be limited in scope. The only problem with his statement was that he showed limited understanding of the institution when he referred to it as a “constitutional convention”—something it clearly is not.

A constitutional convention is an assembly held to produce an entirely new document. A convention for proposing amendments, on the other hand, merely suggests one or more amendments. Earlier generations of Americans understood this, but during the 20th century, the two terms became confused. When Scalia spoke in 1979, that confusion had not yet been cleared up.

Scalia’s Later Statement

In his 2014 interview, Scalia said he opposed a “constitutional convention.” This time, however, he may have been using the phrase correctly. If you watch the 2014 video, you can see that the context suggests a broad general rewrite, rather than merely an amendment or two.

It is not hard to figure out why Scalia’s usage may have changed. Shortly before 2014, seven articles were published in law journals correcting the confusion between the two kinds of conventions. One of those articles appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, a magazine with which Scalia had a long-standing connection.

Moreover, I authored five of those seven, including the one published by the Harvard Journal, and there is good evidence that Scalia was familiar with my work. In 2008, our articles (on other subjects) appeared together in the same issue of the Harvard Journal. Later that year, Scalia sent me a handwritten letter inviting me to visit him when I came to Washington, DC. I never took him up on his invitation, but in 2014, he cited still another of my Harvard Journal articles three times in a Supreme Court opinion.

It is likely, therefore, that by 2014 Scalia knew that a convention for proposing amendments is not a constitutional convention, and that he was opposing a general rewrite, not the amendments procedure.

Does All This Really Matter?

But does all of this really matter? Probably not.

Scalia is a revered figure, and rightly so. He was learned, eloquent, principled, and courageous. He also researched and published on many subjects, but Article V law was not one of them. And he seems never to have decided a case involving Article V. When Supreme Court justices, like other people, make statements on topics they have not studied, their views may not be well grounded.

In this respect, Scalia may have been in the same position as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Arthur Goldberg, whose uninformed comments sometimes are trotted out by convention opponents. Two other modern justices—William Rehnquist and John Paul Stevens—did preside over important Article V cases, but neither opined on whether we should hold a convention.

The Constitution’s amendments process is not taught in law school and not widely understood. Despite his brilliance and wisdom, there is no reason to believe that Scalia was an expert in Article V.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Caller.

First National Convention of States in 150 Years!

First National Convention of States in 150 Years!

Americans finally have a real chance to “clean up the mess in Washington.” That’s the implication of the news that the Arizona legislature has called the first national “convention of states” in over 150 years.

The conclave will meet in Phoenix on September 12. Its purpose is to plan for a later convention to propose a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Contrary to some histrionic claims, neither the planning assembly nor the subsequent gathering will be constitutional conventions. Each will be a taskforce limited to narrow topics. Any amendment suggested by the later convention would become part of the Constitution only if approved by 38 states.

State lawmakers nationwide have become increasingly frustrated by federal dysfunction. One complaint is Congress’s persistent failure to balance its budget, which has resulted in a skyrocketing national debt.

The Constitution’s chief mechanism for addressing such long-term problems is a special kind of convention of the states the Constitution calls a “convention for proposing amendments.” This assembly must be called if two-thirds of the state legislatures (34 of 50) demand it. Most state legislatures already have done so.

The Arizona legislature is among them, and it apparently believes the 34-state threshold will be crossed soon.

Convention History

Although the last national convention of states was held in 1861, such gatherings — both national and regional — have had prominent roles in American history.

Before American Independence, inter-colony conventions deliberated over defense matters and relations with the Indians and with the British. Examples include the Stamp Act Congress (1765) and the First Continental Congress (1774). After Independence, several interstate conventions addressed defense, as well as such issues as trade and monetary inflation. In 1787, an interstate convention with an unusually broad mandate proposed the U.S. Constitution.

Later conventions of the states have been far more limited than the Constitutional Convention. Gatherings in 1814 and 1861 informally proposed specific constitutional amendments. An 1889 regional convention recommended uniform anti-trust laws. One of its recommendations induced Congress to pass the Sherman Anti-Trust Act the following year.Regional conventions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s negotiated interstate water compacts.

The latest call is Arizona House Concurrent Resolution 2022, passed on March 30. It also requires a strictly limited conclave. It provides: “The State of Arizona respectfully calls a planning convention of the states, consisting of commissioners chosen and authorized in the manner that each respective state legislature determines… on September 12, 2017 in Phoenix.”

The planning convention will recommend (1) rules and procedures for the balanced budget convention and (2) a date and location that Congress can use when calling the balanced budget convention.

The resolution also recommends that the planning convention adopt “Mason’s Manual” — the same guide currently used by the legislatures of most states — for its parliamentary procedures.

Convention Procedure Well Understood

Despite some uninformed assertions on the subject, there is no mystery surrounding the protocols governing conventions of states. Those protocols have been firmly established for over two centuries. For example, each state has equal voting power; the convention elects its own officers; and the convention is limited by the scope of its “call.”

The Arizona resolution recognizes all these protocols.

This is the latest in a parade of events showing the state legislatures are becoming serious about addressing problems the feds refuse to face. In 2016, the Assembly of State Legislatures, a national bipartisan group, proposed rules for amendments conventions. In October, representatives from nearly all the state legislatures met in a simulated convention held in Williamsburg, Virginia in October. They adopted rules based on a set I had put together based on prior convention experience.

In addition, 10 states have demanded a convention to propose federal term limits and controls on federal power.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a state legislative trade group, has published a popular guide to the process, which I authored.

This article first appeared in the American Spectator.