Guest Essayist: Kevin Theriot, Senior Counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund

A crucial aspect of our republican form of government is an independent judicial branch that cannot be cowed by either of the two other branches. Lifetime tenure – addressed in Federalist #78 – prohibits the president from revoking a judicial appointment should he later come to regret it. And a set salary, which cannot be diminished, keeps the legislature from starving a judge off the bench. This is the topic of Federalist #79.

For the most part, this Paper is relatively straightforward and unremarkable.  The subject matter is not particularly complicated.  If judges are to be as unbiased as possible, they cannot be tempted to adjust their decisions to conform with the views of the current majority in Congress – lest they have their salary cut.

But at least one remarkable aspect of #79 is the evidence it provides of the foresight of the Founding Fathers.  In explaining why the amount of judicial compensation is left to the discretion of Congress, Hamilton notes that the value of money changes over time, and “[w]hat might be extravagant to-day, might in half a century become penurious and inadequate.”  Quite an obvious consideration, but it demonstrates that the authors of the Constitution knew the policies they were establishing had ramifications for years to come and acted accordingly.

This important principle was reiterated about 30 years later by Justice Marshall in M’Culloch v. State of Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), which determined that Congress has the right to charter a national bank, even though the power to do so is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.  Justice Marshall reasoned that, so long as it is not prohibited by the Constitution, Congress has the discretion to use such means as needed to further the powers they do have, such as collecting taxes and regulating commerce.

This provision is made in a constitution, intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. To have prescribed the means by which government should, in all future time, execute its powers, would have been to change, entirely, the character of the instrument, and give it the properties of a legal code. It would have been an unwise attempt to provide, by immutable rules, for exigencies which, if foreseen at all, must have been seen dimly, and which can be best provided for as they occur.

Id. at 41 (emphasis added).

Perhaps this willingness to think in terms of decades, centuries, and ages, instead of just the next year or two, is why our form of government has survived relatively unchanged for over 200 years.  The Founders’ foresight is in marked contrast to recent acts of our legislature that are more concerned about appeasing the current constituency rather than doing what’s best for the nation. Our leaders would do well to heed the Founders’ example and do what is right – long term, as well as short term – instead of what is expedient.

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Kevin Theriot is senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance that employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.


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