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The Define and Punish Clause doesn’t authorize vast federal power either

The Define and Punish Clause doesn’t authorize vast federal power either

Legal commentators have spread a good deal of ink trying to show that the Constitution authorizes the enormous expansion of the federal government since the 1930s.

Leading the way have been some associated—as professors, students, or alumni—with the most privileged educational institutions: Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and so forth. Their publications inflated the Commerce Clause to comprehend almost every activity in modern life. They tore the Necessary and Proper Clause from its intended moorings and re-fit it to carry almost unlimited congressional power. They converted the General Welfare Clause from a restriction on taxation into a permit for unrestricted spending. And they reworked the Property and Enclave Clauses until they supposedly authorized the federal government to own almost 30 percent of the land in the country.

Their arguments have been subtle and ingenious, politically self serving, and occasionally appear dishonest.

Now someone has found a basis for vast federal power in another unsuspected place: the Define and Punish Clause. This is the constitutional provision that allows Congress to “define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas and Offences against the Law of Nations.” Apparently those words have been in the Constitution for over 200 years without anyone realizing that they authorize the federal government to pass all sorts of domestic regulations.

Although the conclusion might be surprising, it is no surprise that this latest effort was published in one of the Harvard journals. The author is a law student rather than a professor, judge, or practicing lawyer, but the editors apparently thought the article was so important and powerful that they gave it the status generally reserved for legal professionals.

Ordinarily, I do not respond to student productions. But, who knows? Maybe this is the next popular justification for the federal monster state: After all, some political activists rely on student writings when it serves their purposes. Promoters of reviving the Equal Rights Amendment cite a student law school project  as their legal authority for ignoring the amendment’s ratification deadline.

Now, the truth is that the Define and Punish Clause does not authorize vast federal power. No one should be misled into thinking it does. So I offer the following by way of correction.

The gist of the author’s argument is that the Define and Punish Clause empowers Congress to create offences far outside the scope of the Founding-Era “law of nations” (i.e., international law). For example, Congress may regulate according to international norms established long after the Constitution was ratified. This conclusion would, of course, give a consortium of foreign governments de facto power to change our constitutional system.

The author goes further: Under the Define and Punish Clause, he claims, Congress also may regulate behavior that does not violate established norms at all, but treads merely on the internationally-related preferences of one or more foreign nations. Indeed, Congress may even regulate behavior that Congress thinks should violate international norms, even if no other country agrees!

Now as a general matter, the “vast federal power” literature suffers from certain common defects:

First: During the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, ratification advocates needed to reassure the public about the limited scope of federal power authorized by the Constitution. They issued long lists of subjects that under the Constitution would remain outside the federal sphere. These included social services, most civil and criminal law, agriculture and other land use, manufacturing, and many others. These representations were central to the ratifying public’s understanding of the Constitution. However, “vast federal power” promoters never address them.

Second: These writers usually rely on developments well after the Founding at the expense of material arising before or during the Founding.

Third: They very often present historical and legal sources as meaning something other than what they actually mean. Sometimes they simply misunderstand 18th century language. Sometimes they read a passage out of context or edit it deceptively.

Fourth: It is odd, but true, that in writing about a legal document drafted and promoted mostly by lawyers (i.e., the Constitution), these authors usually under-research Founding Era law.

All four of these defects mar the Define and Punish article.

First: The author does not mention the assurances made by the Constitution’s advocates as to the limited scope of federal power. He certainly does not explain how his expansive view of the Define and Punish Clause could be consistent them.

Second: The author dwells on developments, including court decisions, arising long after the Constitution was ratified. A court decision in 1820 or 1887 may be interesting, but it could not have affected how Americans understood the Constitution in the ratification era (1787-90). (Admittedly, this article does not claim to be purely originalist.)

Third: The author relies on at least one passage deceptively lifted from context. The passage is from Blackstone’s Commentaries. The author reports Blackstone as saying that the “principal offenses” against the law of nations were violations of safe-conducts, infringement of the rights of ambassadors, and piracy. The author then suggests that these were the only existing offenses against the law of nations. So he says Clause must give Congress power over offenses beyond those—because if the framers had wished to limit Congress’s power to them, the framers could have just listed those three areas. Also, the Continental Congress had defined offenses other than those three.

The trouble is that Blackstone never said the three listed offenses were the only offenses against the law of nations. Rather, he stated that they were the only offenses for which Parliament had thus far passed clarifying legislation (“animadverted on as such by the municipal laws of England”). Moreover, even though Blackstone’s treatise was not principally about international law, he identified several other offenses against the law of nations: committing acts of hostility against one’s country in league with a foreign king, making war without a formal declaration, violation of the law merchant (international mercantile law), and violation of immigration law.

Fourth: Although the author (mis)quotes Blackstone, he gives almost no attention to works the Founders relied on that were treatises on the law of nations. The most influential were those written by Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and Emer de Vattel. These scholars spent hundreds of pages outlining the scope of the law of nations, and offenses against that law, as then established.

In several provisions, the Constitution refers to specific bodies of jurisprudence. It does so, for example, in phrases such “on the subject of Bankruptcies,” “regulat[ing] Commerce,” and the “Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus.” The Define and Punish Clause is another illustration of this practice: “Offences against the Law of Nations” denotes violations of established international law, as explicated by writers such as Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel. No more.

How progressives Promoted the ‘Runaway Convention’ Myth to Protect the Warren Court’s Judicial Activism

How progressives Promoted the ‘Runaway Convention’ Myth to Protect the Warren Court’s Judicial Activism

You may have heard alarms that if we hold a national convention for proposing constitutional amendments the gathering would be an uncontrollable constitutional convention (“con-con”) that could propose anything at all.

The claim is called the “runaway scenario.” It has almost no basis in history or law. But it has long frightened Americans away from using the Constitution’s chief mechanism for bypassing Congress and curing our dysfunctional federal government.

The “runaway” specter has been raised by fringe elements on both the left and the right. It is a ghost that haunts the imagination of groups like the John Birch Society and Common Cause.

Now we have more information about how it was conjured up.

Last year, the Article V Information Center published my paper showing that confusion between an amendments convention and a constitutional convention first arose in the 20th century. The paper further documents how, during the 1960s and 1970s, leading establishment liberals, such as Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen and Kennedy confidant Arthur Goldberg, capitalized on that confusion by raising the runaway specter.

The paper concluded that their plan was to scare people away from using the Constitution’s convention mechanism. Their goals were twofold. First, they wanted to protect from reversal by constitutional amendment several Supreme Court decisions that had proved highly controversial—among them Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion nationwide. Second, they sought to block growing momentum for amendments imposing term limits and requiring a federal balanced budget.

Now the curator of the Article V Library has produced more evidence confirming these conclusions.

The Article V Library collects every state legislative resolution calling for an amendments convention. It also offers features for screening them by subject and for ascertaining which are still in effect.

Without prior knowledge of my own conclusions, Robert Biggerstaff, the library’s curator, conducted an n-gram search in Google Books to find out when the phrase “runaway convention” arose (now updated to 2008, the last year for which data are available). He discovered that the term was almost unknown until around 1960—when it suddenly became extraordinarily common. Usage rose to counter rising popular demand for constitutional amendments. In the 1990s, as momentum for amendments abated, so also did resort to the runaway scenario. Another n-gram searchshows that the abbreviation “con con,” widely used by convention opponents, also was invented around 1960.

Biggerstaff notes: “In the 1950’s and 60’s progressives actively sought change through courts when it was not possible through legislatures.  This was an express tactical choice to seek through judicial activism what was stymied by legislatures.”

However, their strategy had what he calls an “Achilles’ heel.” Supreme Court decisions can be—and several times have been—overturned by constitutional amendment. After the Supreme Court required states to reapportion their legislatures in the 1960s, for example, 33 of the necessary 34 state legislatures filed applications demanding a convention to propose an amendment reversing the court’s rulings.

“As a result,” Biggerstaff says, “it became important to neuter the Article V Amendment process—particularly to prevent triggering by convention applications—to protect progressive successes achieved in the courts.”

Biggerstaff concludes that this was why the runaway convention fiction suddenly emerged from nowhere during the 1960s. In his view, “generating unwarranted fear of the Article V convention process was a ploy introduced by progressives as a way to prevent states from countering progressives’ use of judicial activism.”

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

All In One Place: The Evidence that an Amendments Convention is a Traditional “Convention of the States”

All In One Place: The Evidence that an Amendments Convention is a Traditional “Convention of the States”

You may have heard opponents of the Article V convention process claim that the make-up of a convention for proposing amendments is a “mystery”—that we have no idea of how the membership would be selected, how they would vote, etc.

Those active in the Article V movement have known for some time that this is inaccurate. For one thing, scholarly research by myself and other scholars, such as Professor Michael Rappaport at the University of San Diego School of Law, has established that an amendments convention is a convention of the states—something the Supreme Court itself acknowledged in 1831. Conventions of the states (and, before them, conventions of colonies) have a 300 year history and have played a prominent part in American life. Their protocols are well understood.

I thought it would be a good idea to collect in a single article all the major pieces of evidence that an amendments convention is a “convention of the states.” The material includes the Supreme Court opinion, pre-constitutional history, and records from the Founding era: comments by the Founders, formal state papers, and resolutions by state legislatures.

Pending selection of a final publisher, you can obtain a copy of the article here.

Court rulings on Trump travel ban endanger state rules used to block school choice

Court rulings on Trump travel ban endanger state rules used to block school choice

Liberal politicos celebrating court decisions voiding President Trump’s travel orders seem not to have noticed something: Those decisions pose a direct threat to the state constitutional language they rely on to block school choice programs.

This danger is not merely theoretical: The state constitutional language they rely on will come under Supreme Court scrutiny later this year.

The state constitutional provisions at risk are called “Blaine clauses” or, less accurately, “Blaine amendments.” They ban state aid to schools and other institutions deemed “sectarian” or “denominational.” Liberal lawyers, judges, and pressure groups have long argued that Blaine clauses ban school choice programs that include religious schools.

But if Trump’s travel orders violate the U.S. Constitution, then Blaine clauses probably do as well. Indeed, the case against the Blaine clauses is stronger in some ways than the case against the travel orders.

Blaine clauses are named for the prominent 19th century federal politician James G. Blaine. During Blaine’s political career, many Americans disliked new Catholic immigrants and their religion. Many states forced immigrant children into public schools imbued with Protestant theology. The idea was to wedge them into a non-denominational Protestant mold.

Catholics naturally asked for public assistance in funding their own schools. Blaine, whose mother was Catholic, seems not to have been prejudiced himself. However, his ambition led him to cater to prejudiced voters. In 1875, while serving as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to permanently block “sectarian” (i.e., Catholic) institutions from enjoying equal treatment.

Blaine’s amendment failed to pass, but Protestant majorities wrote similar clauses into most state constitutions.

The word “sectarian” was carefully chosen. Some modern lawyers and courts think it meant merely “religious,” but they are mistaken. After all, the public schools receiving state aid were religious (Protestant).

The dictionaries of the time show that “sectarian” carried negative meanings of dissent, bigotry, and heresy. These were terms by which many Protestants described Catholics.

In his new study, Blaine’s Shadow, Ross Izard, an educational analyst at Denver’s Independence Institute, shows the direct connection between the Colorado constitution’s Blaine clause and religious and ethnic prejudice. He points out, for example, that Colorado’s Catholic population consisted largely of unpopular Mexican-Americans. He quotes from anti-Catholic newspaper editorials. And he observes that the state constitutional convention itself met in the lodge of a secret society that refused to admit Catholics!

Is this sort of evidence useful for determining whether a rule violates the First Amendment? The court decisions voiding Trump’s travel orders hold that it is. Those rulings rely on allegedly-anti-Muslim statements issued around the same time the orders were issued. The evidence of anti-Catholic bias surrounding Blaine provisions is far more extensive and unequivocal.

Moreover, courts traditionally don’t defer to alleged state violations of the First Amendment nearly as much as they defer to federal foreign affairs and immigration policies.

Liberal defenders of the Blaine clauses sometimes note that evidence of anti-Catholic bias does not exist in all the states that adopted them. This is true. For example, although Montana’s Blaine clause originated in that state’s 1889 constitution, its current version dates only to 1972—when anti-Catholic bias was presumably less.

But Blaine clauses can be used as weapons to attack any unpopular religious denomination. All state courts need do is brand a disfavored denomination as “sectarian,” and —presto!—the state constitution thrusts them into a position of inequality. Even under proper modern usage, a non-denominational Protestant school is “non-sectarian,” while a Catholic, Mormon, or Orthodox Jewish denominational school is “sectarian.”

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not permit government to play favorites in that manner. It does not permit the government to make judgments about which religions are acceptably “non-denominational” (good!), and which are “sectarian” (bad!).

Suppose a state constitution contained a clause that read, “Freedom of speech is guaranteed, except for any speech judges find to be contrary to the public good.”

Would such a clause survive review under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? No it would not.

By the same reasoning, neither should Blaine clauses.

This article first appeared in The Hill.

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.