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Unforgiven

[ 0 ] April 25, 2008 |

Antonin Scalia continues to tell people to “get over” the disgraceful decision in Bush v. Gore. As he must know, that won’t happen. Since he continues to do things like say that the equal protection rationale was “7-2,” it’s worth repeating exactly why the decision was so problematic.

The problem is not that the decision was “political” in the sense that “many constitutional provisions have multiple plausible interpretations when in comes to any interesting case, and justices are likely to choose the plausible interpretation that is consistent with their political values.” That’s something you have to accept as long as you have judicial review. Admittedly, one would like at least some measure of internal consistency, so Scalia — who previously thought that William Rehnquist construed the equal protection clause too broadly — suddenly embracing an innovative equal protection analysis that (if taken seriously) would have very broad implications merits considerable criticism. But since the unprecedented equal protection claim wasn’t actually inconsistent with the text of the Constitution, that’s not the biggest problem. If they were willing to apply that principle in a coherent manner, one could live with the result no matter how opportunistic the sudden embrace of William Douglas’s way of reading of the 14th Amendment was.

The bigger problem is that (and Scalia has been particularly vocal about this) that judges are supposed to actually apply principles to similar cases, not abandon and then abandon resolutions to favor particular litigants. Bush v. Gore, of course, did the latter, in a way that wasn’t so much “minimalist” as not constitutional law at all. And even worse than that, it failed to apply the alleged equal protection principle coherently with respect to the case itself. If the vote dilution that comes from arbitrary differences in vote count methods violates the federal Constitution, then not only to many states have to change their vote counting and recount statutes, the vote count that elected Bush also violated the Constitution. To the extent that the equal protection analysis meant anything at all, the remedy absolutely could not be “shutting down vote counts and accepting a vote count and recount that did not use anything resembling uniform standards and hence diluted the votes of some classes of individuals”–but that’s exactly what the Court did. And that’s what makes the Court’s actions political in the pejorative sense, and also entirely indefensible.

And that’s not the only problem with lawlessness. It’s also worth noting, for example, that the Florida court’s “recount scheme” lacked uniform standards in part because the Supreme Court of the United States told them not to use them. As Kim Scheppele has demonstrated in detail, creating these kinds of Catch-22s is not consistent with the rule of law. Long after Bush has left office, Bush v. Gore will continue to be a disgrace for Scalia and his four colleagues because they violated their obligations in the most fundamental way.

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