Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—March 6

1857—Chief Justice Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott marks the Supreme Court’s first use of the modern liberal judicial activist’s favorite tool—“substantive due process”—to invalidate a statute. In striking down the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern portion of the Louisiana Territories, Taney nakedly asserts: “[A]n act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty and property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” 

The dissenters in Dred Scott invoke, and properly apply, the originalist principles that liberal judicial activists regard as abhorrent. As Justice Curtis declares rhetorically in exposing Taney’s deviation from originalist principles: “[I]f a prohibition of slavery in a Territory in 1820 violated this principle of [due process], the ordinance of 1787 also violated it.” Further:  “[W]hen a strict interpretation of the Constitution, according to the fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws, is abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control its meaning, we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean.”

1996—On the anniversary of Dred Scott, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit, in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, rules that a Washington statute prohibiting physician-assisted suicide violates substantive due process. The majority opinion, by notorious liberal activist Stephen Reinhardt, garners votes from eight of the eleven panel members.

A year later, the Supreme Court unanimously reverses the Ninth Circuit (in an opinion styled Washington v. Glucksberg). But any assurance or clarity that the unanimous judgment might seem to provide is undercut by five separate opinions (by Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) signaling a willingness to concoct at some future point some sort of constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.

2003—Senate Democrats use the anniversary of Dred Scott to punish a Hispanic judicial nominee who has escaped from the liberal plantation. Initiating the unprecedented use of the filibuster as a partisan weapon to block forever an up-or-down vote on a judicial nominee, 44 Democrats prevent a Senate floor vote on President Bush’s nomination of the superbly qualified Miguel Estrada to the D.C. Circuit. This is the first of seven unsuccessful cloture votes before Estrada ultimately withdraws his candidacy.

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