June 30, 2022
Today at noon, Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first Black female justice on the Supreme Court.
Before Justice Brown took her oath, the court also signaled the end of the federal government as we know it.
In the past, the Supreme Court has operated on the basis of “stare decisis,” which literally means “to stand by things decided.” The purpose of that principle is to make changes incrementally so the law stays consistent and evenly applied, which promotes social stability. On occasion, the court does break precedent, notably in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that rubber stamped racial segregation. When that sort of a major change happens, both the court and elected officials work hard to explain that they are changing the law to make it more in line with our Constitution, and to move people along with that change.
With the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision of last Friday, the court simply tore up 49 years of law and history, ending federal recognition of a constitutional right Americans have enjoyed since 1973.
Today, the court’s decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency reversed almost 100 years of jurisprudence by arguing that Congress cannot delegate authority on “major questions” to agencies in the executive branch. At stake were EPA regulations that would push fossil fuel producers toward clean energy in order to combat climate change. The vote was 6 to 3, along ideological lines. That the court agreed to hear the case despite the fact that the rules being challenged had been abandoned suggested they were determined to make a point.
That point was to hamstring federal regulation of business. The argument at the heart of this decision is called the “nondelegation doctrine,” which says that Congress, which constitutes the legislative branch of the government, cannot delegate legislative authority to the executive branch. Most of the regulatory bodies in our government are housed in the executive branch. So the nondelegation doctrine would hamstring the modern regulatory state.
To avoid this extreme conclusion, the majority on the court embraced the “major questions” doctrine, which Chief Justice Roberts used today for the first time in a majority opinion.
That doctrine says that Congress must not delegate “major” issues to an agency, saying that such major issues must be explicitly authorized by Congress. But the abuse of the Senate filibuster by Republican senators means that no such laws stand a hope of passing. So the Supreme Court has essentially stopped the federal government from responding as effectively as it must to climate change. And that will have international repercussions: the inability of the U.S. government to address the crisis means that other countries will likely fall behind as well. The decision will likely apply not just to the EPA, but to a whole host of business regulations.
As recently as 2001, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the nondelegation argument in a decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the court must trust Congress to take care of its own power. But now it has become law.
In the dissent, written by Justice Elena Kagan, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Kagan argued that Congress had, in fact, properly given authority to the EPA to act, recognizing that agencies need to be able to respond appropriately to new and big problems. “Congress knows what it doesn’t and can’t know when it drafts a statute; and Congress therefore gives an expert agency the power to address issues—even significant ones—as and when they arise.” She noted that “[t]he Clean Air Act was major legislation, designed to deal with a major public policy issue.” “This is not the Attorney General regulating medical care, or even the CDC regulating landlord-tenant relations. It is EPA (that’s the Environmental Protection Agency, in case the majority forgot) acting to address the greatest environmental challenge of our time. She concluded: “The Court appoints itself—instead of Congress or the expert agency—the decision-maker on climate policy.I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
Kagan’s dissent noted the hypocrisy of the Republican justices claiming to be originalists when they are, in fact, inventing new doctrines to achieve the ends they wish. “The current Court is textualist only when being so suits it,” she wrote. “When that method would frustrate broader goals, special canons like the ‘major questions doctrine’ magically appear as get-out-of-text-free cards. Today, one of those broader goals makes itself clear: Prevent agencies from doing important work, even though that is what Congress directed.”
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) applauded the ruling, saying it limited the power of “unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.”
The court also said today that it will consider making even greater changes to our country. It will hear Moore v. Harper, a case about whether state legislatures alone have the power to set election rules even if their laws violate state constitutions.
The case comes from North Carolina, where the state supreme court rejected a dramatically partisan gerrymander. Republicans say that the state court cannot stop the legislature’s carving up of the state because of the “independent state legislatures doctrine.” This is a new idea, based on the clause in the U.S. Constitution providing that “[t]he times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.” Those adhering to the independent state legislature theory ignore the second part of that provision.
Those advancing the independent state legislature theory also point to another clause of the Constitution. It says: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.”
Until now, states have interpreted “legislatures” to mean the state’s general lawmaking processes, which include shared power and checks and balances among the three branches of state government. Now, a radical minority insists that a legislature is a legislature alone, unchecked by state courts or state constitutions that prohibit gerrymandering. This interpretation of the Constitution is radical and new. It caught on in 2015, when Republicans wanted to get rid of an independent redistricting commission in Arizona.
This doctrine is, of course, what Trump and his allies pushed for to keep him in power in 2020: Republican state legislatures throwing out the will of the people and sending electors for Trump to Congress rather than the Biden electors the majority voted for.
That doctrine would also give to state legislatures the power to control who can vote, and how and where they can do so. It would strip power from elections commissions and secretaries of state, and it would take from state courts the power to challenge gerrymandering or voter suppression. Republicans currently control 30 state legislatures, in large part thanks to the gerrymandering and voter suppression in place in a number of those states.
Revered conservative judge J. Michael Luttig has been trying for months to sound the alarm that this doctrine is a blueprint for Republicans to steal the 2024 election. In April, before the court agreed to take on the Moore v. Harper case, he wrote: “Trump and the Republicans can only be stopped from stealing the 2024 election at this point if the Supreme Court rejects the independent state legislature doctrine (thus allowing state court enforcement of state constitutional limitations on legislatively enacted election rules and elector appointments) and Congress amends the Electoral Count Act to constrain Congress' own power to reject state electoral votes and decide the presidency.”
And yet in March, when the Supreme Court let the state supreme court’s decision against the radical map stay in place for 2022, justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh indicated they are open to the idea that state courts have no role in overseeing the rules for federal elections.
In the one term Trump’s three justices have been on the court, they have decimated the legal landscape under which we have lived for generations, slashing power from the federal government, where Congress represents the majority, and returning it to states, where a Republican minority can impose its will. Thanks to the skewing of our electoral system, those states are now poised to take control of our federal government permanently.
Almost exactly 35 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan nominated originalist Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) recognized his legal theory for what it was: an unraveling of the modern United States.
“Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”
“America is a better and freer nation than Robert Bork thinks,” Kennedy said.
And yet, here we are.