Filed under: All Postings, Article V, The Founding, supreme court
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 early 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 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.
Filed under: All Postings, TABOR, The Founding, supreme court
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.
Filed under: All Postings, ObamaCare, The Founding, supreme court
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.”
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court
Does that give him authority to utilize our armed forces for a purely non-military purpose like addressing the Ebola outbreak in Africa?
The Denver Post thinks so, editorializing that Obama’s decision is “fully justified.” But the Post doesn’t tackle the constitutional issues.
The Ebola mission, according to the Associated Press, is “to supply medical and logistical support to overwhelmed local health care systems and to boost the number of beds needed to isolate and treat victims of the epidemic.” Our troops will be doing things like handing out home health kits to Africans and building health clinics.
Note that this is different from the armed forces carrying on humanitarian actions as an incident to military operations. When you are fighting an enemy abroad, it makes sense to build hospitals to retain local good will or to care for those injured a result of war.
But we are not engaged in military operations in Africa.
So what does the Constitution have to say?
The Constitution contains no clause specifically prohibiting the president from using the armed forces this way. You might think that such a limit would be inherent in the Constitution’s use of the word “Army.” That is, you might think the word “Army” would be limited to an exclusively military organization. But founding-era dictionaries do not impose that restriction on the term “Army.” As those dictionaries define the word, an “Army” is merely a large number of armed men subject to central leadership. (This, by the way, is one reason the U.S. Air Force is constitutional, even though the Constitution doesn’t refer to it. The Air Force fits within the constitutional meaning of “Army.” Indeed, it was originally the Army Air Service and later the Army Air Corps.)
The operations in Africa sound noble. But the old legal saying is: Hard cases make bad law. In other words, yielding to an innocent-sounding usurpation may create a dangerous precedent. So ask yourself: Does the Constitution allow the president to use the “Army” for any non-military purpose he pleases?
Or maybe you prefer to focus on some narrower examples:
* If the president decides that Argentina does not have sufficient health facilities, may he constitutionally send in the army to open and staff clinics there? (He could take the needed funds from Department of Defense appropriations.)
* Could he make the same decision for Pennsylvania?
* Could he send the army to register voters when there is no accompanying military threat?
* If your answer to the last question is “yes,” then could he focus the army’s registration campaign in states that lean toward his own party? If not, how does this differ constitutionally from the previous example?
* Could he send the military to build a highway in Ohio, if he concluded the highway was necessary for the economy there? Suppose his decision was related to Ohio’s vote in the next election?*
If those examples make you nervous, then your gut is telling you something. The army is not the president’s personal plaything. It is not a generalized work crew the president can order to do whatever he wants done. It is a military instrument, and it is dangerous to allow the president to use it for other purposes.
My guess is that the Constitution does not contain a clause banning the president from using the army for non-military ends only because the framers never imagined that any American president would do so.
Yet it has happened, and it demonstrates a flaw in our political system. For all its strengths, our Constitution contains inadequate protection against a president determined to ignore conventional limits. We have seen this before.
For example, it occurred in World War II, when the president shot at least one American citizen within the continental U.S. without a civilian trial and without habeas corpus, and when he imprisoned tens of thousands of others. (The U.S. Supreme Court failed to stop either action.) We now recognize that these were impermissible constitutional violations, but our repentance didn’t come in time to save the victims.
Once again we are witnessing the exercise of arbitrary executive power—and this time, the president does not even have the excuse of a war. But without a constitutional amendment, we are probably powerless to stop it.
* * * *
* The possibility of political abuse is not far-fetched. This administration’s history of misusing government agencies for political purposes raises the question of whether this operation was triggered in part by a perceived need to rally the heavily-Democratic African-American vote in the coming election. Certainly that is how some pro-Democrat activists are using it. Compare JFK’s pre-election timing of the Cuban missile crisis.
Institute Research Director Dave Kopel has long urged me to do a broadcast production on the Constitution in the Latin language, and now it’s here!
Produced by II web monkey Justin Longo, the program features an interview of me by my daughter Sarah on the American Founding and the nature of the Constitution. Sarah, 23, is a classics major at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
I raised all three of my daughters to be bilingual: While they were growing up, my wife spoke exclusively to them in English while I spoke to them exclusively in Latin.
For linguistic wimps, the telecast includes subtitles in English. You can see the program here.
For linguistic jocks: Not even the Romans navigated all of Latin’s grammatical mistakes perfectly. See if you can identify the specific grammatical errors I made in the course of this interview. (Hint: On reviewing the video, I counted four.)
Finally: The pronunciation Sarah and I use is that of “Late Latin.” This is pretty much the same as classical Latin, except that the letter “V” is pronounced as in Italian or English.
Recently when commenting on how Americans view the Founding, an associate of mine observed that in many people’s minds the Founders had become mythological rather than historical figures. That is, many people routinely ascribe ideas and actions—both good and bad, wise and stupid—to them that have little to do with historical reality or even human probability.
A common example: Some commentators who profess to revere the Founders and may even claim they were divinely inspired, nevertheless also insist that they grossly breached their faith in proposing a new Constitution rather than amendments to the Articles of Confederation.
My associate’s observation induced me to recall how ancient Greek and Roman writers portrayed their gods. They frequently portrayed the gods as just, majestic, imperturbable, gracious, and wise. But they also told stories that depicted the gods as wicked, petty, jealous, mean, and stupid. To cite one example: Jupiter (Zeus) was pater deumque hominumque—the father of gods and men, the defender of justice, the guardian of the world. Yet he was also a multiple rapist who turned himself into a bull so as to lure a young girl (Europa) in service of his lascivious plans.
Obviously, such portrayals have nothing to do with historical reality. But they are different only in degree from some portrayals of the Founders.
On the one hand, we need to remember that the Founders—framers, ratifiers, and opinion-molders—were not a passel of hicks who, in the dismissive words of Professor Louis Michael Seidman, “thought it was fine to own slaves.” On the other hand, we need to remember that they were not gods either. They were very wise, educated, and experienced men—and in some cases, such as that of Mercy Otis Warren, women. Nearly all were honorable and believed that slavery was a violation of natural law. Their knowledge of human nature and politics enabled them to erect our system of checks and balances. Their knowledge of history enabled them, to a very great extent, to transcend their own time and circumstances. Their drafting skill enabled them to produce a beautiful document, whose phrases have real meaning—even if, as in the case of the Necessary and Proper Clause, those meanings are often technical in nature.
Yet because they were men, they were fallible, and because they lived in a particular time and set of circumstances, they had to make compromises. One of those, and the one most often used to bash them, was their accommodation with slavery: They were faced with the difficult choice of indulging their belief that slavery was wrong or creating a new form of government that all states might ratify. They chose the latter. It was a nasty choice, but it also was one that helped ensure that America did not become, like Europe, a collection of small countries incessantly warring against each other.
In treating the Founders therefore, we should take them as they were. No hagiography and no demonology, either.
A few days ago I heard a presentation by a spokesman for a group that claims to defend the Constitution and revere the Founders. Yet the spokesman trashed the Constitution’s framers for allegedly exceeding their authority and claimed they added a provision that largely rendered another provision useless. In other words, the spokesman charged the framers with being both (1) dishonorable and (2) incompetent.
The framers inserted the “Convention for proposing Amendments” in the Constitution to provide the states with a way of obtaining constitutional amendments without federal interference. Tench Coxe, a leading advocate for the Constitution during the ratification debates, pointed out that the convention device allows the states to obtain whatever amendments they choose “although the President, Senate and Federal House of Representatives, should be unanimously opposed to each and all of them.” (Italics in original.)
The spokesman, however, asserted that the Constitution allowed Congress, through the Necessary and Proper Clause, to dictate, either in the convention call or by previous legislation, how an amendments convention is structured and how commissioners (delegates) are selected and apportioned.
The claim that Congress can use the Necessary and Proper Clause to structure the convention was first advanced in the 1960s, and has been repeated numerous times since then. A Congressional Research Service report published earlier this year noted that some in Congress have taken the same line, although the report did not actually endorse it.
But pause to consider: Why would the framers place in the Constitution a method by which Congress could largely control a convention created to bypass Congress? Were that framers that stupid?
Of course not. Most of them were highly experienced and extremely deft legal drafters.
Behind the belief that the Necessary and Proper Clause empowers Congress to structure the convention are three distinct assumptions—all erroneous: They are (1) that the scope of Congress’s authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause is broader than it is, (2) that the Clause covers the amendment process, and (3) that ordinary legislation may govern the amendment process.
The Necessary and Proper Clause is the last item in the Article I, Section 8 list of congressional powers. It reads:
The Congress shall have Power . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
It happens that the most extensive treatment of the Necessary and Proper Clause is an academic book I co-authored with Professors Gary Lawson, Guy Seidman, and Geoff Miller: The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press, 2010) (cited by Justice Thomas in a Supreme Court case earlier this year and apparently relied on by Chief Justice Roberts in 2012). This book reveals the Necessary and Proper Clause to be a masterpiece of legal draftsmanship.
The Clause was based on usage common in 18th-century legal documents. It is not a grant of authority, but a rule of interpretation. It tells us to construe certain enumerated powers as the ratifiers understood them rather than in an overly-narrow way. In legal terms, the Necessary and Proper Clause informs us that those enumerated powers include “incidental” authority.
Even if the Clause did apply to the amendment process, the authority “incidental” to Congress’s call would be quite narrow. An entity that calls an interstate convention always has been limited to specifying the time, place, and subject matter. It is the state legislatures who control selection of their own commissioners, thank you very much.
But in fact the Necessary and Proper Clause does not extend to the amendment process. To explain:
The Constitution includes numerous grants of power. These grants are made to Congress, to the President, to the courts, and to state legislatures and various conventions. The Clause is crafted to apply to most of those grants, but it also excludes a number of them. Specifically, it covers only the powers listed in Article I, Section 8, and those vested in the “Government of the United States” and in “Departments” and “Officers” of that government.
In other words, the Clause omits constitutional grants made to entities that are not part of the “Government of the United States.” For example, the Clause does not apply to state legislatures regulating congressional election law, prescribing selection of presidential electors, or (before the 17th amendment) choosing U.S. Senators. Nor does it apply to the conventions and legislatures operating in the amendment process.
But is Congress a “Department” of government as the Necessary and Proper Clause uses that word? When Congress acts in its normal legislative capacity, you can argue this either way. But when Congress acts under the amendment process, the answer is clearly “no.”
This is because when Congress and state legislatures act in the amendment process, they do so not as branches of government, but as ad hoc assemblies. We know this (1) from the Founding Era record, (2) from subsequent history and, perhaps most importantly, (3) from decisions of the United States Supreme Court. See, for example, United States v. Sprague (1931).
Well, if Congress cannot insert language in the “call” structuring the convention, can it pass laws for the same purpose? Again, the answer is “no.” A long list of 20th century cases from courts at all levels holds that ordinary legislation does not bind the amendment process. See, for example, Leser v. Garnett (1922).
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding, supreme court
While hosting a Montana radio talk show in the late 1990s, I interviewed a prominent left-wing environmental activist. He was promoting an anti-mining ballot measure. During the interview, he read from a 16th-century book that (he said) had shown that mining had all sorts of evil effects.
But something about the quote did not ring true. So I obtained a copy of the book myself.
When I read the passage the activist had read over the air, I found that my suspicions had been justified. He had taken the language completely out of context. The author was not against mining at all. He was listing exaggerated claims by mining opponents as a preliminary to rebutting them. The author was a professional mining engineer, and a big fan of mining.
Someone had lied to me, and to my radio audience. The guilty party was either the activist or the person who had, directly or indirectly, provided him with the quotation. I’ll never know the answer. When I contacted the activist to offer him an opportunity to explain, he failed to respond.
That’s when I learned that left-wing environmental activists sometimes abuse the truth. Subsequently, I learned that they abuse it quite a lot.
Consider how they depict the legal doctrine of “public trust.” The following gem comes from an outfit called the “Center for Progressive Reform:”
Across cultures and continents, communities have always imbued certain natural resources with a sense of permanent public ownership. . . . These resources belong to the public, and no private entity can ever acquire the right to monopolize or deprive the public of the right to use and enjoy them. In legal terms, this concept became known as the public trust doctrine, imported into the United States as common law from ancient Roman, Spanish, and English law.
Okay, then, the public trust doctrine is supposedly designed to restrict the freedom of “private entities.”
But re-read that passage carefully. Doesn’t it make you just a little suspicious? It states, “Communities have always imbued certain natural resources with a sense of permanent public ownership.” How would the Center for Progressive Reform know that? Do they know the history of how all communities have “always” worked? Are they gods? Surely to support a generalization like that it is not enough to cite the law of Rome, Spain, and England. What of the rest of the world? What of other eras?
That’s the sort of smell that makes me hold my nose and dig a little further. It doesn’t take much digging to find out that someone at the Center for Progressive Reform is a fiction writer. For example:
* Their version of the public trust doctrine does not, in fact, come from “ancient Roman . . . law.” It’s just not there. Some writers do cite passages from Justinian’s Institutes or Digest. But like my 1990s radio guest, they tear the language out of context. Those passages do not address people’s rights over their own property. They refer only to the status of resources BEFORE those resources are reduced to private ownership.
* Nor does their version of “public trust” come from the English common law. Although some point to Magna Carta, that document does not empower government against private citizens. On the contrary, it protects private citizens against the Crown.
* Environmentalists are fond of claiming that the Supreme Court adopted their version of public trust in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois (1892). But if you read that case, you find that it is really not about restricting private rights. The case held that a state government could not disregard its trust duties through a corrupt land sale.*
Is there a real public trust doctrine? Yes, there is.
But it is not about restricting private rights. It is about controlling government.
The historical (as opposed to fictional) public trust doctrine says that government’s agents are trustees or fiduciaries and are bound by the same duties that apply to private sector managers such as bankers, trustees, and guardians. Those duties include obligations of good faith (honesty), reasonableness, loyalty (including avoidance of conflict of interest), and impartiality (serving your beneficiaries fairly).
You can find the true public trust doctrine in the writings of Aristotle and Cicero and in essays by medieval scholars, British Presbyterian theorists, and early modern writers such as John Locke. From such sources many of the American Founders adopted the view that government actions in violation of fiduciary duties were void. That was basically the same approach the Supreme Court applied in the Illinois Central Railroad case.
The public trust doctrine was designed to control government, not to empower it. Claiming it as an instrument to allow government to control innocent citizens is not just a lie—it also turns the concept of “public trust” on its head.
* * * *
* By the way, the Illinois Central Railroad case is pretty shaky as constitutional law. It was decided by a four-justice court minority, with three justices dissenting and two recusing themselves. The case held that the state had exceeded its “police power” through a land sale, but cited nothing in the U.S. Constitution supporting its decision. One might argue that the state violated the 14th Amendment, but the Court never said so.
The Constitution was adopted amid a belief that government is a public trust.*
Does the Constitution require federal and state governments to adhere to formal duties of public trust—that is, to fiduciary duties?
In some places, at least, it clearly does: The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment imposes on the states what is essentially the fiduciary duty of impartiality—that is, the requirement that states not treat people differently without good reason. The requirement in the Necessary and Proper Clause that incidental laws be “proper” may impose a similar rule on the federal government when that government legislates under the Necessary and Proper Clause rather than under its core enumerated powers.
But what if no specific clause governs the issue? Last year I reported that Gary Lawson, Guy Seidman, and I—three constitutional scholars of contrasting political views—had written an article exploring that question.
We pointed out that in interpreting any fiduciary document (like the Constitution), the Courts are supposed to apply certain background rules, unless the document says differently.We noted that one of the standard background rules—existing both at the Founding and today—is that fiduciaries have an obligation not to treat people differently without reasonable cause: the duty of impartiality. We concluded, therefore, that the 1954 Supreme Court case invalidating segregation by race in District of Columbia schools was correctly decided, because in the area of education mere skin color is not reasonable cause.
The article has now been formally published by Boston University Law Review, one of the nation’s more prestigious law journals. You can read it here.
* Note: Our Founders understood the term “public trust” in the way used by John Locke and others: as the obligation of the government to comply with fiduciary standards. Left-wing environmentists have hijacked the term to restrict the freedom of private citizens. The problem began when someone misunderstood and distorted an 1892 Supreme Court case on public trust. More on that soon.