Several generations of law students and their teachers grew up with federal courts dominated by conservatives. Not surprisingly, they found themselves wandering in the wilderness, looking for any sign of hope. The result: Defensive-crouch constitutionalism, with every liberal position asserted nervously, its proponents looking over their shoulders for retaliation by conservatives (in its elevated forms, fear of a backlash against aggressively liberal positions).
It’s time to stop. Right now more than half of the judges sitting on the courts of appeals were appointed by Democratic presidents, and – though I wasn’t able to locate up-to-date numbers – the same appears to be true of the district courts. And, those judges no longer have to be worried about reversal by the Supreme Court if they take aggressively liberal positions. (They might be reversed, but now there’s no guarantee.) And, we shouldn’t focus on the Court’s docket this year, which was shaped by conservative justices thinking that they could count to five on a bunch of cases. The docket will look quite different if they can’t see that path to five votes when they decide which cases to review.
What would abandoning defensive-crouch liberalism mean? (I’ve blogged about some of these points before.)
1 A jurisprudence of “wrong the day it was decided.” Liberals should be compiling lists of cases to be overruled at the first opportunity on the ground that they were wrong the day they were decided. My own list is Bakke (for rejecting all the rationales for affirmative action that really matter), Buckley v. Valeo (for ruling out the possibility that legislatures could develop reasonable campaign finance rules promoting small-r republicanism), Casey (for the “undue burden” test), and Shelby County. (I thought about including Washington v. Davis, but my third agenda item should be enough to deal with it.) Others will have their own candidates. What matters is that overruling key cases also means that a rather large body of doctrine will have to be built from the ground up. Thinking about what that doctrine should look like is important – more important than trying to maneuver to liberal goals through the narrow paths the bad precedents seem to leave open.
2 The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. Remember, they were the ones who characterized constitutional disputes as culture wars (see Justice Scalia in Romer v. Evans, and the Wikipedia entry for culture wars, which describes conservative activists, not liberals, using the term.) And they had opportunities to reach a cease fire, but rejected them in favor of a scorched earth policy. The earth that was scorched, though, was their own. (No conservatives demonstrated any interest in trading off recognition of LGBT rights for “religious liberty” protections. Only now that they’ve lost the battle over LGBT rights, have they made those protections central – seeing them, I suppose, as a new front in the culture wars. But, again, they’ve already lost the war.). For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.) I should note that LGBT activists in particular seem to have settled on the hard-line approach, while some liberal academics defend more accommodating approaches. When specific battles in the culture wars were being fought, it might have made sense to try to be accommodating after a local victory, because other related fights were going on, and a hard line might have stiffened the opposition in those fights. But the war’s over, and we won.
3 Aggressively exploit the ambiguities and loopholes in unfavorable precedents that aren’t worth overruling. Take Wal-Mart: Confine it to its unusual facts (a huge nation-wide class, a questionable theory of liability), and don’t treat it as having any generative power in other cases. Or Washington v. Davis, which said that disparate racial impact wasn’t enough to trigger strict scrutiny, but that sometimes such an impact could support an inference of impermissible motive: Play the “sometimes” for all its worth. Defensive-crouch liberalism was afraid to be aggressive about the precedents because of a fear of reversal by higher courts. That fear can now be put aside. (Judge Reinhardt’s essay on habeas corpus, in the Michigan Law Review, is an exemplary discussion of how liberals can exploit ambiguities and loopholes.)
4 Related: Remember that doctrine is a way to empower our allies and weaken theirs. Conservative decisions on class-action arbitration should be understood as part of a long-term project of defunding the left. Much of the current Court’s voting rights jurisprudence strengthens Republican efforts selectively to shrink the electorate. Similarly with campaign finance jurisprudence. I don’t mean that these doctrines are consciously designed by the justices to have those effects, but outsiders – academics and activists – should understand that that’s what they do. (Nor do I mean that the efforts always succeed – see Evenwel for a failure.)
5 Our models are Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, not David Souter or John Marshall Harlan. With some ambivalence I’d add Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the list, the reluctance arising from the fact that her work as a judge has been shaped more than it should be by defensive crouch constitutionalism, particular in her sensitivity to the possibility of backlash. Still, when the votes are there, she’s been much like Brennan and Marshall (personality aside). Famously, Brennan said that he’d been around long enough to know what it was like to win, and what it was like to lose, implying that “this too shall pass,” though it’s taken a long time. (Or, channeling Sophie Tucker [or Mae West, or Beatrice Kaufman], he ‘d been a winner and a loser, and winning is better.)
6 Finally (trigger/crudeness alert), fuck Anthony Kennedy. I don’t mean that liberals should treat him with disrespect. But defensive-crouch liberalism meant not only trying to figure out arguments that would get Kennedy’s apparently crucial vote (not so crucial any more), but also trying to milk his opinions – and more generally, obviously conservative opinions – for doctrines that might be awkwardly pressed into the service of liberal goals. (Think here of how liberal constitutional scholars treated Kennedy’s [truly silly] concurring opinion in Parents Involved [“You can deal with the consequences of segregated housing patterns by locating new school construction carefully” – in districts that are closing rather than building schools], or his “views” about affirmative action, or recasting the Court’s federalism cases as actually good for liberals.) There’s a lot of liberal constitutional scholarship taking Anthony Kennedy’s “thought” and other conservative opinions as a guide to potentially liberal outcomes if only the cases are massaged properly. Stop it. (See agenda items 1 and 3 for how to treat those opinions.)
Of course all bets are off if Donald Trump becomes President. But if he does, constitutional doctrine is going to be the least of our worries.