It’s easy to think that the Federalist Papers, written 222 years ago, are dusty, outdated ramblings of men in wigs. The truth is, its issues still arise today. In his fourth of five essays on the judiciary, Hamilton addressed concerns that the proposed Supreme Court might become the supreme branch of government because it had the power to interpret laws passed by Congress in any way it thought proper. Opponents feared that the court’s decisions would not be subject to revision by Congress.
Hamilton pointed out that nothing in the Constitution empowered the federal courts to “construe the laws according to the Constitution.” He said that “the general theory of a limited Constitution” meant the courts must overturn a law if it violated the Constitution. Hamilton called it a “phantom” to expect that the Supreme Court would become the supreme power. True, the Court may get it wrong from time to time, but it could never rise to an alarming level of judicial activism. And, anyway, the legislative branch could overrule an objectionable court decision through subsequent legislative acts.
Unfortunately, history has proved Hamilton at least partially wrong. The Supreme Court has done quite a bit more than strike down unconstitutional laws or misinterpret others. Take segregated schools, as an example. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court held that separate but equal public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. No one but a racist would argue that Brown’s public policy outcome was not the right one. Students should not be assigned to a school because of race. The question, however, is whether the Supreme Court’s decision was a proper exercise of its powers, or a case of judges making law.
Authors Woods and Gutzman in Who Killed the Constitution?, point out that Justices Frankfurter and Jackson conceded that they could not find anything in the original purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment that warranted the Court’s decision in Brown. Jackson said that the Court should just admit that it was “declaring new law for a new day.” At least according to these jurists, Brown was definitely not a case of simply declaring a law unconstitutional.
In Brown II (1955), the Court decided how to solve the problem of segregated schools declared unconstitutional in the first Brown case. The Court ruled that segregated state schools should be ended “with all deliberate speed.” But how?
North Carolina’s answer was to make school assignments based on residence, not race. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), the Court held that racially identifiable schools could not exist. Students must be bussed according to race to achieve integration in the schools. In other words, if a school was clearly black, white children would be bussed to that school to balance the racial inequity, even if the school’s neighborhood was identifiably black.
Unfortunately, the Swann court ignored the plain language of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where Congress defined “desegregation” as “the assignment of students to public schools…without regard to their race [and] shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.” [Italics mine]
To be clear, integrated schools are desirable. But was it within the Supreme Court’s constitutional power to achieve that end through racially-based bussing? If Hamilton was right, and we need not fear the Court construing laws according to its own whim, then the Court acted unconstitutionally. Congress clearly acted to prevent bussing according to race when it passed the Civil Rights Act. Hamilton warned us that Congress could always overcome an objectionable court opinion by passing laws. But that’s exactly what Congress seemed to be doing. The Court ignored Congress’ definition of desegregation, preferring instead its own definition.
Isn’t this much ado about nothing? After all, the Court arguably accomplished the right result, only faster than Congress could do. It does matter. The issue goes to the heart of our republican form of government. The United States is not an oligarchy, where power is vested in a small group—in this case, the United States Supreme Court. Such forms of government are dangerous and have resulted in disastrous consequences. In fact, author George Orwell warned of such danger in his novel 1984. No, the United States is a republic, where officials are representatives of the people, who must govern according to the limits of the Constitution. That includes the United States Supreme Court.
Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
Jeffrey Reed, a professional orchestra conductor, holds a degree from the Louis B. Brandeis School of Law. Before beginning his music career, he practiced law and taught constitutional law at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he resides.