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Friday, February 03, 2017

Constitutional Limits on Delaying or Denying a Hearing and Up-or-Down Vote on the Gorsuch Nomination?

My view during the Garland nomination was that the Republican refusal to grant a reasonably timely hearing and an up-or-down vote on that nominee was deplorable but not unconstitutional, and that such arguments as they provided to justify it were rationalizations, not good reasons.* I think that Democratic refusal to grant a timely hearing and up-or-down vote to Neil Gorsuch is also not unconstitutional, while setting aside for the moment whether it is deplorable or not. On the whole I think it is dangerous, although I understand the arguments that it is justified by the prior conduct. Many constitutionalists agree with me both that the obstruction of the Garland nomination was bad but constitutional, and that obstruction of the Gorsuch nomination would also be constitutional (and possibly bad, although there will be greater variation in views on that question).

But it is striking, in going back through the Garland debate, to see just how many law professors (and others) argued that the refusal to grant a hearing and straight vote to Garland was not just deplorable but unconstitutional; not just unconstitutional but clearly unconstitutional; and not just clearly unconstitutional, but clearly  and unequivocally unconstitutional, which is to say admitting of no clear exceptions, or no exceptions at all.

Here are only a few examples. 1) A letter by around 350 law professors publicized by the Alliance for Justice asserted that there was a "constitutional duty to give President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a prompt and fair hearing and a timely vote." "The Senate’s obligation in this circumstance is clear," the correspondents argued. "The Senate must not defeat the intention of the Framers by failing to perform its constitutional duty. The Senate Judiciary Committee should hold a prompt and fair hearing and the full Senate should hold a timely vote on the president’s nominee." The writers included some highly qualified and respected constitutional law scholars, including Laurence Tribe, Kenji Yoshino, Erwin Chemerinsky, Rebecca Brown, and Linda McClain. 2) Also under the AFJ, a letter from some 58 Indiana law professors argued that "an outright refusal to even consider his nomination runs counter to the Senate’s obligation, under Article II of the Constitution, to provide 'advice and consent.'" Its conclusion stated: "Chief Judge Garland is an eminently qualified nominee who deserves fair consideration of his nomination. Refusing to do so is an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty to provide advice and consent." The writers included a former head of OLC. 3) The AFJ publicized a similar letter from a similar number of Ohio law professors. Its language mostly tracked the Indiana letter. It concluded: "The Senate must perform its constitutional duty and deliberate over Judge Garland's suitability as a Supreme Court nominee. Holding a hearing and an up-or-down vote on his nomination are how the Senate does its job. Refusing to consider the Garland nomination on its merits would be an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty to provide advice and consent." 4) A letter from 43 current and former law school deans was, in fairness, cloudier in its arguments, but suggested the belief that there is a "constitutional duty to ensure a fully functioning Supreme Court," that this includes a constitutional duty of "holding hearings and providing an up-or-down vote on [a] nominee," at least where there is an eight-member Court. It added more straightforwardly that Article II, section 2 of the Constitution operates "without qualification." 5) In the Chicago Tribune, Professor Geoffrey Stone wrote that "it is [Senators'] constitutional obligation to have a fair and open hearing and to vote to confirm Garland." Note that Stone went further than his colleagues, arguing not just that there is a constitutional duty to provide hearings and an up-or-down vote but that, depending on how you read his op-ed, either as a matter of well-established practice or as a matter of "well-established constitutional tradition," the Senate must confirm any "well-qualified and reasonably moderate" Supreme Court nominee.

No doubt others could find more, and still more emphatic, examples. Although it's an obvious point, it's worth stating that no one put a gun to anyone's head and insisted these writers sign on to a constitutional argument of this sort. They could have said nothing, or argued on non-constitutional grounds, including grounds of traditional or optimal Senate custom and practice. They didn't. The fairest and most respectful reading of their action, therefore, is that they considered what the letters said before signing them and believed what they said, and that they should be treated as such.

Given what they wrote, I find it difficult as a matter of constitutional law (on their understanding, not mine) to conclude that there is not an identical constitutional duty in this case to provide a fair and timely hearing to Neil Gorsuch and an up-or-down vote on his nomination. (Possibly, on Stone's view, there is also an obligation to confirm him, although the "well-qualfied and reasonably moderate" language allows for some wiggle room, albeit one assumes it should not be used disingenuously). Of those several hundred signers, one would expect at least a few of them to say so equally publicly, and none of them to contradict their earlier reading without persuasive and sincere reasons to do so.

To be clear, I am not making--am frankly not interested in--charges of "hypocrisy," a move I generally find overused and under-important and try to avoid, and one for which I would have no grounds unless there was clear evidence that they were ignoring or contradicting their earlier-stated views. I am, instead, interested in the fact that this was a large group of law professors voluntarily making a constitutional argument; interested in the obvious implications of this boldly and broadly stated argument in the current case; and interested in whether they will follow through on their own presumably sincere professional constitutional views.

There are a couple of possibilities for action and a couple of colorable, although I think not plausible, counter-arguments. The writers are not obliged to say anything at all about the Gorsuch nomination, or to make any arguments in particular about whether Democrats can delay, resist, or deny a timely hearing and up-or-down vote on Gorsuch. They could write about other aspects of the nomination, or write only about the Garland debacle, or remain silent altogether. Given how strongly they asserted a broad and relevant constitutional principle, this would be unfortunate and suggestive of an unwillingness to speak truth to power. But it is an available option: the best option they have, I think, and the one most consistent with scholarly consistency if not integrity.

Then there are the usual "this case is different" arguments,* and the argument that delay or denial of a hearing or up-or-down vote in this case would be constitutional as a "remedy" to the earlier constitutional violation. I find neither line of argument especially plausible given the earlier assertions. Those arguments, on my reading and I think on any clear reading, were that Senators have a clear constitutional duty to provide a hearing and up-or-down vote to Supreme Court nominees, that the obligation is unequivocal, and that there is no right to ignore it, let alone to do so because you don't like the party in power or the nominee. Of course, one can argue that the Senators should fulfill their duty and then vote against the nominee. (Stone may be barred from making this argument, as we saw, depending on how he uses his wiggle room. Again, I think that wiggle room must be used with integrity.) But I think any fair reading of their earlier statements makes clear that they must believe the same duty applies here. Language like "admits of no qualifications" suggests that simply arguing that obstruction here would be justified in light of the prior obstruction is impossible to square with their apparent constitutional views.

And there are multiple problems with the "remedy" argument. For one thing, most of the time, constitutional lawyers argue, rightly or otherwise, that constitutional "remedies" must not themselves violate clear constitutional rules and duties, and people will go to some lengths to argue that an apparent constitutional violation for remedial purposes is actually consistent with a fair reading of the constitutional text. For whatever reason, constitutionalists generally avoid arguing that some action violates the Constitution but is justified nonetheless. Arguments in anti-discrimination and affirmative action law, for example (and with a good deal of generalization), generally assert that when race-conscious government action is employed for remedial purposes, it is constitutional where the remedy is aimed at addressing identified discrimination that continues to affect individual rights and is closely linked to ongoing governmental actions and effects. That is not an argument that the race-conscious remedy is unconstitutional but justified, but that it is not unconstitutional in that particularized context. It does not apply to this context clearly, if at all. It would certainly be a miracle if all of the several hundred letter and op-ed writers concluded otherwise. Moreover, it is much fairer to call any obstruction of Gorsuch a response to the Garland situation, not a remedy.        

One could argue--at least one writer on the constitutional law listserv has done so--that obstruction in this case would be unconstitutional, and that advocates of responsive or "remedial" obstruction in the Gorsuch case should say so in clear terms and argue for it just the same. This has the virtue of transparency and consistency, of forcing its advocates to think about the circumstances in which the Constitution can or should be violated as opposed to massaged or reread, and of being willing to convince fewer people that the "justified violation of the Constitution" argument is right--and risking the possibility that some readers will draw the conclusion that any violation of the alleged constitutional duty of a hearing and up-or-down vote with respect to Gorsuch is just that, and cannot be justified. It would sacrifice political effectiveness for candor. I might not agree with such an argument, but I would welcome having that view aired clearly and publicly. 

And, of course, if nothing else, there is a forward-looking possibility, which is that we should--once again--rethink our duties and obligations with respect to signing letters, writing op-eds, and making other public arguments. We could confine ourselves only to those arguments we are sure are right, refuse to sign letters or (especially) write op-eds where we are uncertain their arguments are right, use the narrowest possible arguments we are convinced are correct, and then hold ourselves to those views or clearly and publicly explain why we have sincerely changed our minds. 

Again, I make no accusations of hypocrisy or, more important to me, of a failure to make arguments in this case that are consistent with one's clearly stated constitutional views, which is important not for what it says about hypocrisy but for what it says about constitutional and scholarly integrity. To so do, I would have to wait and see how the Senate acted, and then examine every writer's publicly stated views in this case to see whether they followed their earlier views, skirted them, remained silent about those specific issues or about the Gorsuch confirmation process altogether, or offered sincere and persuasive justifications for a change in view. I have seen a couple of Twitter feeds from prominent figures who signed at least one of the documents listed above in which the new statements seem to be in tension with their earlier views. But they may yet qualify their positions, offer sincere and persuasive justifications for any alterations, recant their earlier or newer statements, or even come out in favor of timely hearings and an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch's nomination as a matter of constitutional duty. I do think, however, that what they wrote earlier must be treated as meaning what it said and as a statement of their own sincerely held constitutional views; that any fair reading of those views suggests that, absent some very good reasons, they must urge, or at a minimum not oppose, a hearing and up-or-down vote for Gorsuch; and that any direct contradiction of those freely, voluntarily offered views would raise fair questions about their constitutional views, constitutional and scholarly integrity, or reliability as experts and public commentators. 


* As a relevant aside, among the epistemic and rhetorical battles we fight these days, about "fake news," "alternative facts," and the like, there is another problem that I think is both more significant and widespread and much less discussed. That is the profusion of the kinds of arguments, rationalizations, justifications, and rhetorical tactics that are characteristic of both some lawyering and much forensic debate. The problem is not that they are valueless, but that they are much less valuable and much less genuinely respectful of serious attachment to either facts or reasoned elaboration than they appear to be, much more susceptible to "bullshitting," and in the end, in my view, more damaging than some fake story on Facebook to serious discourse or an attachment to integrity and seriousness in thinking and argument. Political argument is not or needn't be legal argument, and legal argument is itself often highly problematic. Once again, although the classic adage is that we are all Legal Realists now, and a few people argue that critical legal theory has not died but been absorbed into general legal thought, I find on the whole that lawyers and law professors at least appear to have internalized very little of the lessons of Legal Realism or CLS, and retain in thought and deed a surprising attachment to the appearance of "reasoned elaboration." Perhaps it ill-behooves a lawyer and law professor to say so, but I think this is a dangerous mistake, especially when this kind of approach to argument increasingly emigrates from the courts and colonizes public and political discussion and debate. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 3, 2017 at 08:53 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The bottom lines is if Dems obstruct Gorsuch after screaming about Garland, they will have legitimized the Repub. strategy against Garland. Dems can either say, "What the Repubs did was wrong and an anomaly of partisanship gone berserk" at which point there will be no "payback" for Garland. Or, the Dems can say, "The Repubs used a legitimate strategy and we were only yelling about it because it was detrimental to us. Now that such a strategy will benefit us, we will use it." Those are the only two options.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Feb 3, 2017 12:20:49 PM

Each side will use anything it can to get a judge who matches their beliefs on the Court and use any argument to justify it. It is all about politics not principle. The problem is that each move and countermove lead to a lessening of respect for the Court and its role in our system.

Thistime it looks like the Republicans will win.

Posted by: Sam Tenenbaum | Feb 3, 2017 8:17:14 PM

Dems can say, "What the Repubs did was wrong and an anomaly of partisanship gone berserk" AND they shouldn't blithely get away with it.

When norms are broken, there in various cases legitimate consequences, which can be argued to be follow principled ways of doing things. It is not "wrong" or "an anomaly" by definition to do this. And, realistically, the Democrats can only do so much here -- they don't have the votes probably to fully block Gorsuch. But, a good fight here has value, is not without problems for the Republicans necessarily and so forth.

It isn't merely "tit for tat," since the exact same thing isn't being done. They can "say" or "argue" this, to put it in neutral terms (vs "screaming" though sure politics can be emotional). Of course, one can argue in return the Republicans didn't do anything particularly bad as such, so that Democrats don't have a case. Or, "it's not principle, it's politics."

People disagree with that. Anyway, since different things are being done (including Democrats realistically not blocking Gorsuch for the next President to fill the seat), I'm not sure the "unconstitutional" brigade are in as much of a tricky situation as the OP argues. But, I've said enough & won't really argue that point. I think "deplorable" is strong enough & warrants a strong response from the Democrats even if it isn't "unconstitutional" as such. I think that also tends at times to be a matter of degree, sort of "constitutional norms" that are a bit more loose. Anyways.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 3, 2017 9:20:43 PM

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