New Article: Can Congress Overturn Kennedy v. Louisiana? The Fallacy of the “National Consensus”

January 6th, 2010

Forthcoming in the Harv. JLPP, Can Congress Overturn Kennedy v. Louisiana? The Contingency of Recent Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence,” and here is the abstract by Richard Re(H/T Sentencing Blog):

As recently illustrated by Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court regularly interprets the Eighth Amendment based on the perceived existence of “national consensus.” While this practice has been the topic of extensive commentary and criticism, the existing debate has overlooked the most natural implication of the Court’s consensus-based argumentation – namely, the possibility that recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is subject to federal legislative override. This Article argues from existing case law that Kennedy should be susceptible to democratic correction via countervailing federal legislation. Such legislation would demonstrate that no “national consensus” supports the Court’s holding, thereby suggesting that the punishment in question does not actually violate the Eighth Amendment. One might respond that Kennedy would have found a constitutional violation based on the Court’s “independent judgment,” regardless of whether a supportive national consensus existed. But even assuming that is true, federal legislation could address the concerns that underlie the Court’s independent judgment analysis. Either way, Kennedy’s contingent reasoning would permit at least some correction by the democratic branches. Exploring these possibilities allows us to better understand and justify recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, as well as recent substantive due process cases like Lawrence v. Texas that also look to state and federal practice as sources of constitutional law. Ultimately, though, the most important consequence of appreciating Kennedy’s democratic reversibility has more to do with the President than with the professoriate. As a candidate for President, Barack Obama pointedly criticized Kennedy’s holding. If this Article is correct, then the President and Congress now have an opportunity to engage the Court in a dialogue regarding the Eighth Amendment’s contemporary practical meaning.

Re provides a very good explanation, and critique of Kennedy’s approach.

I discuss the fallacy of the “national consensus” in Pandora’s Box, pp. 57-62 beyond the context of the 8th Amendment. The “national consensus” is one of the approaches Professor Balkin and the Constitution in 2020 crowd seek to use to recognize new rights and evolving standards of decency.

The fallacy of recognizing national consensuses is highlighted by the aftermath of Kennedy v. Louisiana. If the Supreme Court could not properly analyze the extent of the consensus among state laws governing the sentencing of child rapists, an area that any first-year law student could understand with the proper Lexis search, how can we expect judges to understand consensuses on nebulous and polarizing social issues—on which public opinion ebbs and flows—such as the right to health care, the right to education, or reproductive rights?

Balkin himself acknowledges that “[i]n 1973, when Roe was decided, the right to abortion was not a privilege or immunity of national citizenship” because only four states had adopted the rules Roe laid down. He counters, however, that “most of the public now regards a basic abortion right as among the guarantees of citizenship” and, in the long run, “it should eventually be protected under the declaratory model of the Privileges or Immunities Clause.” But how is the Court to determine society’s views to a point that gives them constitutional authority?—particularly in light of the complications in as comparatively simple a task as surveying state laws regarding capital punishment for child rapists. Kennedy v. Louisiana thus belies Balkin’s attempt to portray the right to abortion as a privilege or immunity of national citizenship by virtue of a national consensus.

Moreover, what constitutes a national consensus? Half the population? Two thirds? Ninety percent? To paraphrase Justice Brennan’s quip, why not whatever five duly confirmed justices think? Should the Court commission its own Gallup Poll? What standard should the consensus be based on? How long should it exist? These are inherently subjective determinations, not reducible to judicially or legislatively manageable standards.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly from a constitutional perspective, for a court to determine that simply because “most of the public” considers some right to be among the privileges or immunities of citizenship—not that the public thinks in terms of “privileges or immunities” or any other constitutional terms of art—ignores the rights of minorities. That is, the Constitution is countermajoritarian in many ways—as would be expected from a charter that establishes a republic, not a pure democracy. The Constitution provides for the indirect election of the president through an electoral college and, before the Seventeenth Amendment, for state legislatures to select senators. Impeachment requires super-majorities, as does the constitutional amendment process—which is why Balkin, Ackerman, and others propose constructive amendment theories. All these provisions reflect a fear of oppressive majority rule and aim to prevent factions from seeking economic advantage and overwhelming our system of liberty.

Finally, why limit this analysis to consensus among states? Why not consider consensuses among nations? For example, Justice Kennedy has looked to foreign and international law to establish norms with respect to executing minors—and thus confirm his understanding of the Eighth Amendment. Why then not look to European conventions and treaties to recognize consensuses on rights among modern, progressive peoples to confirm our understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment? These are such divisive and controversial issues that, ultimately, a consensus model would “just [be] giving effect to the [Court’s] own preferences.”

This discussion of national consensuses is closely related to my previous posts about whether the Constitution has a geography clause? Should the meaning of the Constitution change based on what legislators do, or based on different circumstances in different locations? Or is it fixed? Even self-proclaimed originalists seem to accept these doctrines without challenging them on originalism grounds. Stay tuned. I’m working on it.