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Bench Memos

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Judicial Review and Specter



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What, then does all of this talk of judicial review have to do with Specter’s letters, which complain about the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down congressional enactments in Lopez, Morrison, and Garrett? Specter suggests these decisions are activist, and argues for greater deference for legislative fact finding. While there is a general presumption in favor of the constitutionality of congressionally-passed legislation, that presumption is predicated upon the understanding that Congress fulfills its collateral duty of passing only legislation within its constitutional competence. As the McCain-Feingold example illustrates, however, many in Congress now view those determinations to be outside their scope, so that they can pass legislation they believe to be unconstitutional, while leaving it to the courts to figure out the details. Admittedly, this is in large measure a result of the Cooper-judicial-supremacy understanding of judicial review, but there is more to it than that. For years, the Supreme Court had a co-dependent relationship with Congress—each facilitating the other’s aggrandizement of power. Thus, Congress yielded to the Courts as the sole arbiter of all things constitutional, and the Supreme Court signed off on Congress’s increasingly bloated theory of its own power. Regrettably, it has gotten to the point that even reliable Congressmen no longer understand the first branch to be one of limited powers—at least, they give no hint of this based on the legislation they offer and support. Findings are larded into the record without serious consideration, and these same findings are in turn used to support boilerplate language concerning Congress’s authority to pass particular legislation under provisions of the Constitution intended to be limited, but now relied upon to be plenary grants of power. So in response to Specter, the enforcement of these constitutional limitations by the Court is not judicial activism, even where Congress disagrees. It is not the assertion of will over judgment. Rather, it is simply the Court carrying out its constitutional duty to use judicial review as a check against the flagrant abuses of the legislative branch.



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