More Evidence An Article V Convention is a “Convention of the States”

November 20, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Leave a Comment
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding 
Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Earlier this year, I documented one of the reasons we know an Article V convention is a “convention of the states” rather than a mass popular gathering: Founding Era documents tell us so. I listed several such documents. (Subsequent to the Founding, in the case of Smith v. Union Bank, the Supreme Court also referred to an Article V convention as a “convention of the states.”)

Here is another piece of evidence:

In 1788, New York ratified the Constitution, but the state ratifying convention called for extensive amendment. In a circular letter to the other states, it urged that an amendments convention be called. On February 4, 1789, therefore, the New York state assembly, the lower house of the legislature, debated whether to submit an application to Congress for an Article V convention. Only four assemblymen spoke to the issue, but two of them characterized the gathering as a “convention of the states.”

Both of those two were highly significant figures. Samuel Jones had been a key member of the ratifying convention. So also had John Lansing, Jr., a respected judge. Lansing, furthermore, had been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention itself.

No one called the amendments convention anything else, although the eventual application used the term “Convention of Deputies from the several States.” The term “Deputy” was a synonym for “agent”—in this case, the agent of one’s state.

You can read the legislative proceedings in volume 23 of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the United States Constitution.

I have updated the earlier posting accordingly.

One Reason Government Keeps Expanding and Freedom Keeps Shrinking

November 16, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Leave a Comment
Filed under: All Postings 
Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Find out how much federal land ownership the Constitution really authorizes! Get Rob’s book, The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant.

****

Mary Taylor Young’s work, Rocky Mountain National Park: The First 100 Years (2014) contains this profile (p.151) of George B. Hartzog, Jr., the Assistant Superintendent of the park from 1955 to 1957:

“He went on to become National Park Service director from 1964 to 1972. . . He oversaw the acquisition of seventy-two new sites for parks, seashores, and historical monuments . . . Under his leadership, the National Park System more than doubled in size . . . Park Service historian Robert M. Utley described Hartzog as ‘the greatest director in the history of the service.’”

Keep in mind that whatever may have been the benefits from expanding the National Park System, Hartzog’s legacy was one of bigger government and less human freedom. Less freedom because when land becomes part of a national park, citizens may no longer buy, sell, occupy, own, or lease that land. Citizens may not use the land for anything but a narrow range of activities. Classification as a national park also impairs state government’s jurisdiction over territory within its borders.

Ms. Young did not mention that Hartzog is famous (or infamous) for another reason: He pioneered the notorious “Washington Monument Syndrome”—the bureaucratic strategy of blackmailing politicians and the public by diverting available funds to unpopular uses and away from popular ones. The July 5, 2008 Washington Post summarized it this way: “In 1969, when his budget was cut by [President] Nixon, Mr. Hartzog made a daring countermove: He closed all the national parks, including the Washington Monument and Grand Canyon, two days a week.”

Of course, Nixon should have fired Hartzog—who was, in any event, a Democratic holdover hostile to the conservative message the voters had sent in the 1968 election. But it took the unprincipled Nixon three years to dump him. According to the Post, “In 1972, Mr. Hartzog revoked a permit to use a private dock in Biscayne National Park in Florida. The permit was used by Bebe Rebozo, a close friend of Nixon’s. The president promptly fired Mr. Hartzog.”

Here’s more about what the Post wrote about this consummate bureaucrat:

“In almost nine years as director, Mr. Hartzog used personal charisma, political savvy and deep-rooted knowledge of the nation’s park system to increase the scope of Park Service programs and to raise their popularity. He ran the agency like a benevolent dictator . . . .

“He added more than 70 new areas to the Park Service, totaling 2.7 million acres, and doubled attendance at the nation’s parks and historic sites. He was also the only Park Service director to be profiled in the New Yorker magazine . . .

“‘He was an empire builder,’ said Robert M. Utley, who was the Park Service’s chief historian under Mr. Hartzog. ‘His vision fit right into Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society ideas.’

“In 1966, Mr. Hartzog was a key proponent of the National Historic Preservation Act, which increased the range of historically significant properties and created the National Register of Historic Places. The register is administered by the Park Service. . . .

Clemson University memorializes this empire-building bureaucrat with a lecture series in his honor. The Park Service recognizes outstanding volunteers with “Hartzog Awards.”

Now, here’s a question for you: How often have you seen that kind of respect and recognition awarded to a public servant (other than perhaps Ronald Reagan) who actually expanded freedom or trimmed government?

Government will continue to grow and freedom diminish as long as we celebrate people like Hartzog and disregard those anonymous public servants (and believe me, they exist) who trim the size of government and give the public top value for taxes paid.

Treatise on Amendments Conventions Updated to Include Rules for Congress’s “Call”

November 6, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V 
Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Some people claim the rules pertaining to the Constitution’s “Convention for Proposing Amendments” are largely unknown, but there actually is quite a lot of law on the subject.

Earlier this year, I pulled together that body of law in a legal treatise entitled “State Initiation of Constitutional Amendments: A Guide for Lawyers and Legislative Drafters.” This is actually the latest of several legal treatises I’ve written on various subjects for national publishers, mostly on constitutional and property law.

Section 3.9 of the treatise deals with the rules by which Congress must call the convention. That section has now been updated and supplemented extensively. You can read the treatise here. It is primarily designed for legal professionals, but many lay people will find it useful.

Embracing Foreign Languages

October 31, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding 
Rob and daughter Sarah atop the Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy

Rob and daughter Sarah atop the Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy

Republican Congressman Mike Coffman and his Democratic opponent Andrew Romanoff held a public debate yesterday—all in Spanish. It was billed as the first non-English candidate debate in Colorado state history.

Well, maybe not. Hispanics settled Colorado long before Anglos did. When I was practicing law in Denver in the 1970s and 1980s (before embarking on my academic career), I had Hispanic clients who traced their family’s Colorado residence back to the 1700s. So I suspect there were Spanish-language political debates within Colorado well before there were English-language ones.

People concerned about large non-English speaking populations in the United States needn’t worry. We have had them before, all through our history. Much of the debate over the U.S. Constitution in Pennsylvania in 1787 and 1788 was held in German: Speakers of that language made up perhaps 40% of the state population. Dutch was still widely spoken in New York.

During the 20th century, politicians such as New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned in Italian and Yiddish as well as English because large parts of the city’s population used Italian and Yiddish in daily life. Yet today most of the descendants of those Italian speakers know little, if any, of their ancestral tongue. The descendants of the Yiddish speakers know words like “shlemiel” and maybe a few vulgarities, but that’s about it. I’m shocked at how many second generation Mexican-Americans can speak hardly any Spanish and how many second generation Chinese- and Japanese-Americans know hardly any of their parents’ language.

Don’t get me wrong. In my view, it is imperative that Americans know English, and I think competency in English should be a requirement for citizenship. But I also think it is a mistake for immigrants not to pass on their native tongues to their children. Spanish speakers should teach their kids Spanish; speakers of Indian tribal languages should pass their own languages on to the rising generation. I have long regretted that my father, who although a native of this country was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, did not teach me that language when I was at an age when I could have easily absorbed it. He could done this by speaking to me exclusively in Yiddish. I could have learned English quite well from my Nova Scotia-born mother and from the larger culture.

Knowing a second language not only enriches one’s knowledge base; it is also a window into another way of seeing the world, into a different way of thinking. The more a foreign language diverges from English, the more different its perspective. The bilingual person enjoys the kind of additional depth provided by seeing through two eyes instead of one, or in color rather than in black and white.

Moreover, there is good evidence that when one studies foreign languages in addition to English, it improves one’s knowledge of English beyond any advantage from devoting those extra hours solely to English. This is particularly true of Latin.

In my view, any American with any pretensions to a college-level education should be fluent in English, but also (1) know the rudiments of Latin (both for its linguistic and cultural benefits) and (2) be conversant in at least one modern language.

I walked the walk when raising my own daughters: I taught all three basic spoken Latin from childhood. The youngest, Sarah, and the eldest, Rebecca, went on to study Latin literature in school. Sarah is reasonably conversant in Spanish, and now has branched out into Hebrew and Greek. Rebecca, now a Latin teacher, also speaks Japanese, as does her husband (although he is not of Asian ancestry). Deborah, my “central” daughter, not only imbibed Latin in childhood, but has studied German and a smattering of Italian and Russian.

I should add that my brother has given his own children the same sort of advantage. He is fluent in Italian, and speaks to his son and daughter only in that language. His son recently entered college, where he is majoring in business, but supplementing it with Italian.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should have that level of linguistic interest. I am arguing only that in addition to insisting that Americans all know English, we should embrace the variety and the insights offered by many other languages.

The Washington Post Picks Up the Flag from the Convention Alarmists

October 27, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob in Roxborough State Park Colorado

Rob in Roxborough State Park Colorado

The past week saw yet another assault on those reformers who seek to cure federal dysfunction by promoting a “Convention for proposing Amendments.”

The latest attack took the form of an opinion column that in content offered nothing new. It featured many of the usual errors of commission and omission: The author confused a “Convention for proposing Amendments” with a constitutional convention. He alleged that convention protocols are unknown, and that “anything goes” with “no rules, guideposts, or procedures.” He asserted that the courts won’t provide any guidelines and that the convention would threaten “the freedoms we take for granted under the Bill of Rights.” He demonstrated no awareness whatsoever of the history behind the amendment process nor of the long line of judicial decisions, from the Supreme Court and other tribunals, prescribing ground rules for that process.

But this alarmist column was distinctive in two respects. It was not penned by one of the conspiracy types with whom we usually associate such stuff. It was written by Robert Greenstein, a Washington, D.C. insider who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations and on the Obama transition team. Moreover, the medium of publication was the liberal establishment’s iconic newspaper, the Washington Post.

So why are pillars of the liberal establishment picking up the flag from rightwing conspiratorialists?

The answer to this question has three parts:

* They are resorting to a playbook that was, in fact, scripted not by conservatives but by the Left;

* the Left has a great deal to lose if the convention movement goes forward; and

* at least some establishment Leftists have become concerned about reformers’ recent successes.

First, as to the playbook:

For many years after the Founding, no one seems to have confused an amendments convention with a constitutional convention. For decades, everyone seems to have recognized that an amendments convention was a convention of states that—like all previous interstate gatherings—was nothing more than a diplomatic task force of state government representatives (”commissioners”) operating under a prescribed agenda.

At the turn of the last century, however, when state legislatures were applying for a convention to propose direct election of U.S. Senators, a few opponents began to contend that any such gathering would be a “constitutional convention.” During the 1960s and 1970s, the liberal establishment elaborated this contention into the “runaway convention” scenario often advanced today.

Several perceived threats precipitated the Left’s invention of the runaway scenario. The first was an effort by Senator Everett Dirksen (R.-Ill.) for a convention to propose an amendment overruling the Supreme Court’s legislative reapportionment decisions. The second was a movement to adopt a federal balanced budget amendment. The third was talk of a convention to propose an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortion decision in Roe v. Wade.

Russell Caplan’s book Constitutional Brinksmanship (Oxford University Press, 1988) chronicles some of the methods the Left used to respond to those perceive threats. Senators Robert Kennedy (D.-N.Y.) and Joe Tydings (D.-Md.) led opposition in the Senate, and several Kennedy associates, such as Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Goldberg, led a public disinformation campaign. Various liberal academics also participated.

Perhaps the most heated anti-convention rhetoric came from the New Yorker’s Richard Rovere, a Kennedy sycophant. Rovere charged that a convention could “reinstate segregation and even slavery; throw out much or all of the Bill of Rights . . eliminate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process clause . . . and perhaps, for good measure, eliminate the Supreme Court itself.” In the 1980s, Chief Justice Warren Burger, apparently concerned for the power of his court, adopted a less heated version of the same line.

From the participants’ viewpoint, the disinformation campaign was an unqualified success: It frightened enough people effectively to disable one of the Constitution’ most important checks and balances. Unfortunately, it was a disaster for the country, because it removed a crucial constitutional curb on federal overreaching.

During next 20 years, figures on the political Left found it unnecessary to do their own heavy lifting because many naive conservatives did it for them by alarming enough people to defeat all efforts to impose restraint, fiscal or otherwise, on Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, however, the tide began to change. Several scholars, I among them, undertook previously-neglected legal and historical research into the amendment procedure. We restored for all to read the rules as the Founders understood them and as the courts apply them. Then Mark Levin publicized these findings in his best-selling book, The Liberty Amendments.

Empowered by this new information, state lawmakers began to resume their constitutional responsibilities in the amendment process. Most state legislatures now participate in the Assembly of State Legislatures, an organization planning for a possible amendments convention. Since 2011, at least 11 states have adopted at least 15 formal applications for a convention. Most of those applications are targeted at federal fiscal excess.

Obviously, reinvigorating of a procedure by which the people, acting through their state legislatures, can check federal overreaching, is not something that people like Mr. Greenstein and other Washington, D.C. power brokers want to see. It poses to them the threat of authority seeping out of Washington and back to the state capitals and to the people at large. Hence their wish to bury the movement as quickly as they can. If scaremongering from the Right won’t do the job, then they’ll try scaremongering from the Left.

Several years ago, I advised reformers that they would know they were winning when the liberal establishment stopped using misguided conservatives as cannon fodder, and entered the fray directly. That has now happened.

I further advised that the power of the Left would pose a far greater challenge than the arguments of conservatives. Reformers have largely overcome the lesser challenge. America’s future depends heavily on whether they can overcome the greater.

Colorado Goes to the Supreme Court to Defend TABOR

October 24, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, TABOR, The Founding, supreme court 
Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Rob in the Colorado Rockies

Three years ago, a group of primarily government plaintiffs sued in federal district court to void Colorado’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR). TABOR allows the people, not just the legislature, to vote on most tax increases, most debt increases, and some spending hikes.

The plaintiffs argued that the 20-year old state constitutional provision violated the U.S. Constitution’s Guarantee Clause by putting Colorado out of compliance with its requirement that each state have a “republican form of government.”

In addition to its (very) late filing, the lawsuit faced a number of obstacles: It was doubtful whether, under U.S. Supreme Court case law, the plaintiffs had standing to sue. It was doubtful whether, under Supreme Court case law, any claim under the Guarantee Clause was justiciable. Previously, the Court had ruled that Guarantee Clause questions should be presented to Congress, not to the judiciary. In addition, for a case to be justiciable there have to be legal standards for deciding it, and the Plaintiffs’ legal papers were massively unclear about what the correct standards were.

Finally, the case had big problems on the merits: The evidence is crystal clear that the term “republican” as the Constitution uses the term, allows for direct public votes on policy matters. Nearly all states permit such voting to some extent, particularly on taxes, spending and debt.

That such an open-and-shut case was not dismissed immediately is a grave commentary on the efficiency of the federal judicial system. Three years later, the courts still have not reached the merits. Both the district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals have allowed the case to proceed even though it still is unclear what legal standard of “republicanism” the plaintiffs propose to apply. Dissenting judges on the Court of Appeals argued, correctly, that enough is enough: Taxpayers should not be forced to endure additional time-wasting on a meritless case.

The Colorado Attorney General agrees with the dissent, and has filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. The term certiorari is Latin for “to make more certain,” and it is the traditional introductory wording for a court order (writ) demanding that a case be sent to it for review.

The Supreme Court, rightly, is sparing in how often it grants certiorari. This case, however, is a classic case not just for certioriari, but for summary reversal of the kind the Supreme Court ordered in 2012 in response to a baseless Montana state decision.

You can read the Attorney General’s petition for certiorari here. Most of this long document consists merely of appended documents. The argument itself is quickly read.

More Evidence From Last Term That It’s Not a “Conservative Supreme Court”

October 20, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, ObamaCare, The Founding, supreme court 

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Note: This article was first published at cns news.

There is a common media myth that the current U.S. Supreme Court, or at least a majority of the current justices, is “conservative.”

But if a “conservative” justice is one who consistently interprets the Constitution in accordance with traditional methods of judging—as the Founders intended for it to be interpreted—then the Court is anything but conservative.

On social issues the Court has been pushing society to the Left. Otherwise, the best description of its jurisprudence is “status quo.” And in this instance, preserving the status quo renders the Court liberal, not conservative.

That is because the status quo the justices are preserving is a body of liberal jurisprudence created in the 20th century when the Court was usually controlled by “progressive” majorities.

The Court’s tendency to protect liberal jurisprudence appears even in cases where the specific outcomes are pleasing to conservatives. In fact, the “conservative” outcomes often are relatively marginal—minor victories—while the jurisprudence that underlies the result is a major triumph for liberals.

Three cases from the Supreme Court term illustrate the point.

The first is the famous Hobby Lobby case, in which the Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects an employer’s right not to provide abortifacients. I have written elsewhere about a liberal victory in Hobby Lobby that received almost no publicity. But there was another, more important, liberal victory on a point of fundamental principle.

The Hobby Lobby dispute arose from federal regulations of employment and of health insurance purportedly authorized by Congress in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Unlike the “tax” justification for Obamacare’s individual insurance mandate, the supposed constitutional basis for those regulations is Congress’s Commerce Power, contained in the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause.

Everyone concedes, at least in theory, that Congress has only the authority the Constitution grants it—Congress’s “enumerated powers.” But properly construed, Congress’s enumerated power to regulate “Commerce” does not encompass employment relations or insurance, except in some peripheral situations. The Supreme Court recognized this consistently for the Constitution’s first 150 years. Indeed, during that time the Court held repeatedly, and unanimously, that most insurance is NOT “Commerce.” It was not until “progressive” justices took control in in the late 1930s and 1940s that the rules changed, and it was not until relatively recently that Congress began systematically to interfere in the insurance market.

A bench consisting of traditional (conservative) justices, therefore, would have held that the Obamacare regulations were outside the federal government’s enumerated powers, and thereby invalid for that reason. Such a court would not have reached the RFRA issue because there was no need to do so.

A second example from the Supreme Court term just past is the campaign finance decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. This case invalidated a congressional effort to limit the total amount any person could donate to all candidates combined. The basis for the decision was the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Media outlets have described this case also as a “conservative” triumph.

Yet a truly conservative court would never have reached the First Amendment issue because in presuming to regulate campaigns, Congress again exceeded its enumerated powers. The Constitution does confer on Congress authority to regulate the “Manner of holding [congressional] Elections.” But this constitutional grant does not extend to regulation of campaigns.

The scope of the constitutional grant is quite clear from the historical record, as I explained at length a 2010 article cited last year by Justice Thomas, the only member of the Court who consistently interprets the Constitution in the traditional (”conservative”) manner. Congress’s authority to regulate “the Manner of holding Elections” refers strictly to voting mechanics. For example, Congress may specify whether we vote by open or secret ballot and whether a candidate needs a majority to win or can win by a plurality. But the Constitution leaves regulation of campaigns to state laws governing defamation, corrupt practices, and so forth.

The Supreme Court did not hold that “Manner of Election” included campaigns until a “progressive” majority did so in 1941. The Court’s accompanying opinion was based on little or no inquiry into the real meaning of the constitutional language.

Yet in McCutcheon the justices (and the parties) accepted that suspect holding without question, and proceeded immediately to the First Amendment issue.

The third example from the term just ended is NLRB v. Noel Canning, which unanimously invalidated some of President Obama’s “recess appointments.” The Constitution’s Recess Appointments Clause is an enumerated power of the President that grants him the prerogative, without Senate consent, “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate.” The Court needed to decide (1) whether the “Recess” meant only the intersession recess or encompassed other breaks as well, and (2) whether for a vacancy to “happen” it had to arise during the recess or could merely continue into a recess.

The Founding-Era record is crystal clear on both questions: A “Recess” means only an intersession break and the vacancy must arise then. A traditional (“conservative”) bench would have so found. And, in fact, four justices did so find—relying on an article I wrote earlier this year that documented the Founders’ understanding at length.

But the majority did not follow the Recess Appointments Clause as the Founders understood it. Rather, it applied a sort of balancing test of the “living constitution” variety. President Obama lost only because he had violated even that flaccid and malleable standard.

The result was a small conservative victory, but at great cost: That cost was a complete revision and a serious weakening of an important constitutional check-and-balance—yet another example of the fundamentally liberal jurisprudence of a Court that many in the national media insist on calling “conservative.”

The Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Non-Decision: Cowardly and Irresponsible

October 13, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, supreme court 
Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

This article was first posted at cnsnews.com.

The Supreme Court’s decision to reject all requests for review of lower-court homosexual marriage cases was cowardly and irresponsible. Certainly it is absurd to call this non-decision, as liberal commentator Cass Sunstein did, a manifestation of “the passive virtues.”

There are two possible reasons for the Court’s avoidance. The less likely is that the justices are waiting for further issue development in the tribunals below. The Court frequently defers considering an issue until that issue has “gestated” throughout the judicial system. In this instance, however, the effect of inaction is to require most states to license same-sex marriages. Tens of thousands of couples will be entering into such unions. If the Court later decides that state provisions banning such marriages have been valid all along, those couples will be left in legal limbo. In that respect, the Court’s non-decision is irresponsible to the point of cruelty.

This is particularly so because it was the justices’ pretentious pontificating in United States v. Windsor that helped create this mess.

There is a more likely reason for the Court’s dodge: It was designed to legalize same-sex unions nationwide, while avoiding a hearing or a formal legal opinion. If this is the correct explanation, it was a cowardly and contemptuous way of treating the “separate and independent sovereigns,” as Chief Justice Roberts has described the states. It also is an extraordinary manner of altering a fundamental, ancient, and revered institution.

Since the 1960s, the Court has emitted a burst of decrees imposing a code of liberal/secular social and sexual mores on Americans, despite previous popular rejection. (Advocates of traditional marriage won 32 of the 34 state constitutional referenda on the subject, mostly in landslide victories, and all within the last 16 years.) All of these decrees, except the latest, have been accompanied by written opinions whose common characteristic has been weak and specious analysis—well below the standards the Court applies in other kinds of cases. Decisions like Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, Roe v. Wade, Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, U.S. v. Windsor, and the plurality opinion in Casey v. Planned Parenthood have relied on doctored history, factual omissions, and obvious constitutional mistakes. In the Windsor case, the holding was not based clearly on any specific constitutional provision at all. In each of these opinions, the Court stuffed the holes with pious sermonizing or rhetorical bombast.

Now, it appears, the Court has simply given up. No need to justify your decisions if you can govern by mere decree.

Make no mistake: This is a development of major importance. That it will have wide social consequences is generally understood. What is not generally understood is that the Court’s high-handed maneuver will trigger set off enormous political consequences as well.

* * * *

Just to clarify: This is a constitutional discussion; the Independence Institute does not take a position on the substantive merits of same-sex marriage.

Montana Supreme Court’s War Against the Rule of Law Finally Getting The Attention It Deserves

October 10, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, supreme court 
Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Respect for the rule of law is fundamental to a free society. It also is necessary for economic well being.

Montana is among the nation’s poorest states. I was a law professor there for over 23 years and I also serve as Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Montana Policy Institute. In a 2012 study I explained a crucial reason for Montana poverty: The state’s highest court has one of the nation’s worst records in following the rule of law.

The court’s defects are an open secret among Montana lawyers, but the problem has remained uncorrected for many years. Now a heated election campaign suggests “the times they are achangin’.”

For several decades, the Montana court has been notorious for overruling its own opinions, issuing incoherent decisions, and exhibiting political bias. My 2012 study documented all of this in detail: The Montana Supreme Court vs. The Rule of Law.

If the Montana Supreme Court is not following the rule of law, can’t the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) step in? Usually not. Most of the Montana tribunal’s opinions deal with issues of state law, and on that topic the state supreme court is usually final. Even when a federal issue is involved, the wronged party may not apply for SCOTUS review. For example, he may not have the funds to pursue the case (Remember: It’s a poor state). Or his lawyer may be reluctant to challenge the same judges who control his license.

Sometimes, however, justice is done. Shortly after my study, the U.S. Supreme Court promptly reversed two of the Montana court’s more outrageous rulings.

Montana judges are elected, but for several reasons the state’s judicial election system has been stacked heavily against reform. This year, however, all that could change: The state’s former solicitor general, Harvard Law grad Lawrence Van Dyke, is running for the court, and he’s not pulling any punches. Not surprisingly, members of the good ole boy network that has dominated the bench are desperately unhappy about that. In fact, some of their charges have been, well, rather unjudicial.

It is, moreover, hilarious to hear former justices who were elected with special interest money complain about special interest money. Or to cite screeds from “non partisan” organizations without revealing that those organizations have explicitly leftist agendas.

The good ole boy network’s real gripe seems to be that SCOTUS has struck down the state laws that protected their campaign finance monopoly. This has opened the system to groups formerly locked out, and has increased the possibility that Montana voters might learn the truth. I understand how this would terrify some people.

Eric Holder & Other Overreaching Prosecutors vs. the Independence Institute

September 26, 2014 by Rob Natelson · Comments Off
Filed under: All Postings, supreme court 
Rob at the Univ. of Montana

Rob at the Univ. of Montana

An important citizen protection against government is the rule that in criminal prosecutions, criminal statutes are interpreted strictly. In other words, if the government wants to punish someone for violating a statute, it has to show that the wording of the statute unambiguously rendered the defendant’s conduct illegal. Citizens are not held criminally responsible for guessing “wrong” about the meaning of an ambiguous law. This is also called the rule of lenity, and it has been embedded in Anglo-American jurisprudence for centuries.

A recent case seems to violate that rule. In United States v. Esquenazi, two defendants were sentenced to substantial prison terms for allegedly violating a statute that was unclear and never had been authoritatively interpreted by a court. The Independence Institute has joined with the Washington Legal Foundation in a “friend of the court” brief asking for Supreme Court review.

* * * *

Speaking of inappropriate behavior by prosecutors: When announcing his resignation, Attorney General Eric Holder told the press, “as a young boy, I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the Civil Rights Movement how the department can — and must — always be a force for that which is right.”

Two aspects of this statement help to explain Holder’s record at the Justice Department. The first is his reliance on Robert Kennedy as a model. Kennedy was one of our most political attorneys general—notorious for turning his position of trust into an instrument of hard-knuckle, partisan politics.

The other is Holder’s statement that the department must “always be a force for that which is right.” But that is not the A-G’s job. The A-G’s job is to enforce the law as written and to advise the government on what the law means. He has no right to expand or contract the law based on his personal political views.

In our democratic republic, it is the prerogative of the elected members of Congress decide what is right—not the prerogative of an unelected attorney general.

On the breakdown of the rule of law in America during the last few years, see my posting here. Another post, discussing U.S. v. Windsor, is also relevant.

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