Thursday, June 08, 2017
Expressive legislation, legitimacy, and judicial departmentalism
Sherry Colb discusses pending Texas legislation that would ban Dilation-and-Extraction (D&E), the most common method of second-trimester abortions. If enacted, the law would restrict second-trimester abortion to a degree that it almost certainly would constitute an invalid undue burden on reproductive freedom under current Fourteenth Amendment doctrine and almost certainly will be declared invalid and unenforceable by the courts. Colb wonders why Texas would enact legislation so obviously likely to lose in court (noting how common it is for states to do this with abortion legislation) and argues that such legislation is a form of expression for the legislators. She labels such practices "potentially legitimate but generating discomfort and possible problems;” it depends on how long the law would be in effect and how likely it is to have a chilling effect on Fourteenth Amendment liberties in the lag between enactment and injunction. Legislation-as-expression is better than violence, but inferior to other forms of anti-choice speech that would not have the same practical effect on doctors and women in Texas.
Colb does not mention or consider that the Texas legislators and governor (presumably) believe such legislation is constitutionally valid. This is where the model of "judicial departmentalism" I have been urging comes into play. Because the judicial interpretation or understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment does not bind any other branches, Texas lawmakers remain free (and act consistent with their oaths) to act on their own constitutional views and understandings, even if those views run contrary to those of the judiciary. What they are doing here is in no way illegitimate and should not be regarded as such. It instead is what coordinate constitutional actors are entitled, and expected, to do--change the law of Texas to match their policy preferences (and, presumably, those of their constituents) and their constitutional vision.
Colb is right that a court, bound to follow the judicial understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, will declare this law invalid and enjoin its enforcement. And she therefore is right that the practical effect of such legislation at the moment is symbolic and expressive, except to the extent that it sets-up an opportunity to argue for a change in judicial doctrine. In fact, laws such as this represent the only way to change judicial doctrine, making them not only legitimate, but necessary to the development of constitutional law. So judicial departmentalism recasts Colb's argument--in practice it is symbolic, in theory it should not be derogated as only contingently legitimate. It is not that Texas is ignoring the courts, but that Texas' constitutional vision conflicts with that of the federal courts. Neither party acts illegitimately in following its vision.
Amen. I would just add that citizens, legislatures, governors, and presidents also have the right to complain about court decisions which they believe are mistaken.
Posted by: biff | Jun 8, 2017 8:35:33 PM