It Isn’t Everyday You See a President Get Reprimanded By the Courts

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 3, 2012

But President Obama invited this:

In the escalating battle between the administration and the judiciary, a federal appeals court apparently is calling the president’s bluff — ordering the Justice Department to answer by Thursday whether the Obama Administration believes that the courts have the right to strike down a federal law, according to a lawyer who was in the courtroom.

The order, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, appears to be in direct response to the president’s comments yesterday about the Supreme Court’s review of the health care law. Mr. Obama all but threw down the gauntlet with the justices, saying he was “confident” the Court would not “take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

Overturning a law of course would not be unprecedented — since the Supreme Court since 1803 has asserted the power to strike down laws it interprets as unconstitutional. The three-judge appellate court appears to be asking the administration to admit that basic premise — despite the president’s remarks that implied the contrary. The panel ordered the Justice Department to submit a three-page, single-spaced letter by noon Thursday addressing whether the Executive Branch believes courts have such power, the lawyer said.

The panel is hearing a separate challenge to the health care law by physician-owned hospitals. The issue arose when a lawyer for the Justice Department began arguing before the judges. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law.

The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became “very stern,” the source said, suggesting it wasn’t clear whether the president believes such a right exists. The other two judges on the panel, Emilio Garza and Leslie Southwick–both Republican appointees–remained silent, the source said.

Smith, a Reagan appointee, went on to say that comments from the president and others in the Executive Branch indicate they believe judges don’t have the power to review laws and strike those that are unconstitutional, specifically referencing Mr. Obama’s comments yesterday about judges being an “unelected group of people.”

This may seem like quite the patronizing little maneuver, but when you have a president of the United States who pretends that Marbury v. Madison just never happened, I have a hard time faulting the 5th Circuit for employing unorthodox measures to remind the president–and the Justice Department–that the decision cannot be wished away. Again, it needs to be emphasized that in the past, Barack Obama was perfectly happy to celebrate decisions by the Supreme Court that struck down acts of Congress, as he did in Boumediene. And that, of course, makes his convenient lapse of memory regarding Marbury especially bizarre, and especially worthy of opprobrium.

Ruth Marcus–who is a fan of the individual mandate–nevertheless quite properly piles on:

There was something rather unsettling in President Obama’s preemptive strike on the Supreme Court at Monday’s news conference.

“I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench is judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law,” Obama said. “Well, here’s a good example. And I’m pretty confident that this court will recognize that, and not take that step.”

To be clear, I believe the individual mandate is both good policy and sound law, well within Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause. I think overturning the mandate would be bad not only for the country but for the court itself. Especially in the wake of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, it would look like a political act to have the five Republican-appointed justices voting to strike down the law and the four Democratic appointees voting to uphold it.

That unfortunate outcome would risk dragging the court down to the partisan level of a Congress that passed the law without a single Republican vote. As much as the public dislikes the individual mandate, a party-line split would not be a healthy outcome for public confidence in the court’s integrity.

And yet, Obama’s assault on “an unelected group of people” stopped me cold. Because, as the former constitutional law professor certainly understands, it is the essence of our governmental system to vest in the court the ultimate power to decide the meaning of the constitution. Even if, as the president said, it means overturning “a duly constituted and passed law.”

I suppose that the only thing to disagree with here is the notion that somehow the Republican-appointed justices will be the only ones who look bad if the Court rules to strike down the individual mandate and perhaps the rest of the health care reform bill. But Marcus’s critique of the president’s rhetoric is spot-on. The last two paragraphs of her editorial are especially good.

Continuing the entirely-justified pile-on:

President Obama is a former president of the Harvard Law Review and famously taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. But did he somehow not teach the historic case of Marbury v. Madison?

That’s a fair question after Mr. Obama’s astonishing remarks on Monday at the White House when he ruminated for the first time in public on the Supreme Court’s recent ObamaCare deliberations. “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress,” he declared.

Presidents are paid to be confident about their own laws, but what’s up with that “unprecedented”? In Marbury in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall laid down the doctrine of judicial review. In the 209 years since, the Supreme Court has invalidated part or all of countless laws on grounds that they violated the Constitution. All of those laws were passed by a “democratically elected” legislature of some kind, either Congress or in one of the states. And no doubt many of them were passed by “strong” majorities.

We were told back in 2008 that if Barack Obama were elected president, we would have a chief executive who is constitutionally literate. I have no doubt that the president is constitutionally literate. Too bad, however, that he decided to pretend otherwise, and play the role of demagogue.

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