By Alan W. Cohen
During oral argument today, May 8, 2017, before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, one judge asked the ACLU attorney a basic question that pretty much goes like this: If Hillary Clinton had won and issued the identical order, would that order be constitutional. His answer was telling. Yes, of course it would. But this one is not because of comments made by Donald Trump during the election.
Huh? In my 25 years of law practice, and the multitude of oral arguments at the appellate level, this was a first. Judges are to interpret statutes as written, and, only if there is an ambiguity, do they go further to seek the intention of the legislature. Here was a law in place in the 1950s, used many times by many Presidents, including the second most liberal in history, Jimmy Carter, to ban certain foreigners from entering the country. That is the plain language of the statute. It gives the President not discretion, but absolute authority, to exclude entry from the United States he deems is a threat to national security. Period. There is nothing new here.
Yet, it’s not surprising that the judiciary does what it wants to do on an almost daily basis, each knowing that the legislature is pretty much powerless to stop them from interpreting laws however they wish because a higher court, not the elected officials who drafted the law, had the final say. That is our history. In our Mother Country, law was judge created, and opinions of judges were used as precedent, and ironically, permitted a final appeal in the House of Lords. In France, law was always statutory, and the judges were to follow that strict construction of the written language. America began as a judge driven law and gradually morphed into a statute driven law, all while giving to the judiciary the final say on how that law was to be interpreted.
While there are countless examples, nothing better explains it then the treatment of the Fourteenth Amendment. As Mr. Justice Hugo Black once wrote, Congress explicitly passed the Amendment to nullify an 1833 Supreme Court decision excluding state and local government from constitutional scrutiny as it pertained to fundamental rights. Under that ruling, states were free to establish religions, and violate the fundamental freedoms that had agreed to in their compact, those God-given rights to pursue happiness stated in the Declaration of Independence. But when the matter came before that same Supreme Court just a few years after the passage of the post-Civil War Amendments, the Court decided that no, it didn’t, that, despite its clear language stating otherwise, it was just and anti-slavery amendment. As a result of this judicial overreach, our nation endured almost a century of court authorized religious intolerance and racial bigotry, not to mention gender bias.
So when we complain about activist judges seeing everything through a prism of political party, why should we be surprised? That is how the ACLU could argue that if a Democrat issued the same order it would be valid, but since it’s a Republican, it’s not. That is why the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will almost assuredly strike down the ban, not for any legal reason, but because it was issued by a Republican. Based on today’s oral argument, despite that glaring admission from the ACLU attorney, this case can go either way. We just have to determine the political leanings of its court members. The law be damned.
Alan W. Cohen is a retired attorney, blogger and author. His new book, Private Vows: The Case for Ending State Regulation of Marriage and Divorce is available at Amazon.
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