Justice Sotomayor Errs on “Basic Constitutional Principles”

February 23rd, 2017

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Arthur v. Dunn, a capital case from Alabama, chides the Eleventh Circuit for “contraven[ing] basic constitutional principles.”

Even more troubling, by conditioning federal constitutional rights on the operation of state statutes, the deci- sion below contravenes basic constitutional principles.

Alas, in stating those “basic constitutional principles,” Justice Sotomayor herself erred. She wrote (with my emphases added):

And for more than two centuries it has been axiomatic that this Court—not state courts or legislatures—is the final arbiter of the Federal Constitution. See Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). Acting within our exclusive “province and duty” to “say what the law is,” ibid., we have interpreted the Eighth Amendment to entitle prisoners to relief when they succeed in proving that a State’s chosen method of execution poses a substantial risk of severe pain and that a constitutional alternative is “known and available,” Glossip, 576 U. S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 1–2).

First, Marbury did not asssert the Supreme Court is the “final arbiter” of the Constitution, nor did it say that the power to interpret the Constitution was “exclusive” to the Supreme Court. The penultimate sentence of Marbury states a contrary rule:

Thus, the particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written Constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.

All “departments” of the government are bound by the Constitution, and each official takes an oath “to support this Constitution.” The former does not have a monopoly on interpreting the meaning of the Constitution. Rather, all officers that take an oath to “support this Constitution,” and have the authority to determine its meaning. This view of shared supremacy is commonly referred to as “departmentalism.” As a matter of practice, members of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the states, consistently make judgments about what is, and is not constitutional, without ever seeking a judicial declaration. Only the controversial or contested questions are submitted for resolution before a state or federal tribunal—and only the rarest cases are elevated to the Supreme Court itself. This may come as a surprise to most law students—who do little except read cases—but the overwhelming majority of constitutional law is developed outside the friendly confines of Article III.

The case Justice Sotomayor was thinking of, that established the norm of judicial supremacy, was not Marbury v. Madison, but Cooper v. Aaron, which stated:

Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the “supreme Law of the Land.” In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, referring to the Constitution as “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” declared in the notable case of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U. S. 177, that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This decision declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system. It follows that the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land, and Art. VI of the Constitution makes it of binding effect on the States “any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Every state legislator and executive and judicial officer is solemnly committed by oath taken pursuant to Art. VI, cl. 3 “to support this Constitution.”

This has not been the rule for two centuries, but for about six decades (despite the Cooper Court’s unpersuasive effort to recast Marbury). Under Cooper, indeed, the Supreme Court is the “final” expositor of the Constitution, but we should not pretend this principle flows from Chief Justice Marshall.

In any event, Justice Sotomayor is not alone. Justice Breyer made a similar error in DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, in which he wrote:

The Federal Arbitration Act is a law of the United States, and Concepcion is an authoritative interpretation of that Act. Consequently, the judges of every State must follow it. U. S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2 (“[T]he Judges in every State shall be bound” by “the Laws of the United States”).

It is certainly true that the FAA is the “supreme law of the land,” but it does not necessarily follow from the Supremacy Clause by itself that Concepcion is–although it is certainly “an authoritative interpretation of that Act.” Here too, the correct citation is Cooper v. Aaron, not the Supremacy Clause, nor Marbury itself.

For those who are interested, I am working on an article titled The Irrepressible Myth of Cooper v. Aaron. I’ve pulled from the archives all of papers from the Justices that worked on this case, and will trace the drafting of that remarkable opinion, which was signed by all nine Justices. This case is extremely misunderstood–perhaps why the Justices would rather mistakenly cite Marbury, rather than reaffirm Cooper.

Finally, another quip: Marbury said nothing about state courts or state legislatures. Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee established the proposition that the Supreme Court can review judgments from state supreme courts. At the time Marbury was decided, this was admittedly an open question. This is not “axiomatic.”

H/T @Greg651 for drawing this to my attention.