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The imperial Court


Josh Chaffetz is very good on how the protesting-too-much of the reactionary wing on the Court reflects an extraordinary aggrandizement of power:

In the cases it has decided, the Supreme Court has gutted an important provision of the Clean Water Act and made it easier for private litigants to mount constitutional challenges to an administrative agency’s structure or existence. Opinions still to come threaten to strike down everything from affirmative action in education to student debt relief to the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Court observers might be tempted to describe all this as a relatively recent development, a function of the court’s 6-to-3 Republican-appointed supermajority. The University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman has called this the “YOLO court” (for “you only live once”), because of the majority’s apparent sense of liberation in pursuing long-held conservative goals. Mark Lemley of Stanford placed the beginning of the “imperial Supreme Court” in 2020.

Mr. Lemley is right to decry the self-aggrandizing nature of the court. But his dating is somewhat off. Judicial self-aggrandizement has been in the works for a lot longer: It has been a hallmark of the John Roberts years.

Over roughly the past 15 years, the justices have seized for themselves more and more of the national governing agenda, overriding other decision makers with startling frequency. And they have done so in language that drips with contempt for other governing institutions and in a way that elevates the judicial role above all others.

The result has been a judicial power grab.

I also agree that in some ways this is even more evident in statutory cases than in constitutional ones:

Congress is not alone; administrative agencies also bear the brunt of the justices’ disdain. In a series of recent cases that, for example, struck down the E.P.A.’s clean power plan for addressing climate change, the Republican-appointed justices have invented the so-called major questions doctrine. If they consider an issue major — and they have not told us what makes a question major beyond “vast economic and political significance” or “earnest and profound debate across the country” — then they will not allow an agency to regulate in that manner unless Congress has clearly stated that it may.

To use an analogy: If a majority of justices determine that eating an ice cream cone is a major question, then it is not enough that Congress has empowered the agency to “eat any dessert it chooses.” It must legislate that the agency can “eat any dessert it chooses, including ice cream cones.” But Congress has no way of knowing whether eating an ice cream cone is major until it sees what a majority of justices have to say about it.

In justifying this doctrine, the justices have raised the specter of out-of-control bureaucrats intruding on the liberty of citizens, undermining legal stability, serving only special interests and invading the domain of the states.

You might think that this doctrine is meant to protect congressional power, except that it dictates to Congress how it must legislate, despite the fact that Congress has no way of knowing in advance what issues will be considered major. Moreover, as the legal scholar Beau Baumann has noted, Justice Neil Gorsuch and his colleagues have justified the doctrine on the grounds that Congress is too eager to delegate to agencies in order to avoid political responsibility, so the courts must keep Congress in line. In other words, the justices are paternalistically claiming to protect Congress from itself.

And if Congress then breaks through the gridlock and somehow amends the law to say that the agency can eat ice cream cones, it’s time for the Brnovich strategy of amending the legislation to place five ad hoc arbitrary conditions, contrary to the explicit purpose of the statute, on the agency before it can eat any ice cream. Repeat as necessary. And don’t call them partisan hacks!

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