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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Nomenclature and judicial review (Updated)

The erroneous nomenclature that courts use in describing constitutional review contributes to common misunderstanding. Case in point: The Fourth Circuit decision affirming the convictions of two white-supremacist Charlottesville protesters under the Federal Anti-Riot Act, while declaring invalid certain portions of the statute as inconsistent with Brandenburg. The court talks about "invalidating" the statute, while commentators speak of the court "striking down" or "throwing out" the law, in whole or in part.

But the court did not do anything to the statute or those provisions of the statute--they remain on the books and they remain part of federal law, not erased or thrown out.

A more accurate description of what happens also would be cleaner: The court held that those provisions could not be enforced against these plaintiffs because doing so would violate their First Amendment rights, then affirmed the convictions because their conduct violated other provisions that could be enforced consistent with the First Amendment. The same is true of discussions of severability. The court does not sever some provisions from others--eliminating some and keeping others--because the entire thing remains on the books. I suppose what we call severability could be a way of asking whether the court can enforce some provisions and not others or whether the Constitution prohibits enforcement of all the language in the statute. Or it could be framed as Henry Monaghan described overbreadth--the presence of some constitutional defects means the statute cannot be applied, because there is a right to be convicted only under a constitutionally valid statute.

Either way, it would be cleaner to think about courts applying or not applying some provisions, rather than courts erasing them from existence.

Update: Zachary Clopton (Northwestern) reminds me that my discussion sounds in the debate between Justices Kavanaugh and Thomas described in a footnote in AAPC, which I wrote about after the decision and which Zach wrote about in Yale J. Reg. I think Thomas would agree with the approach I describe. Kavanaugh is correct in AAPC that future enforcement of the invalid provisions will be barred, at least in the Fourth Circuit, as a matter of precedent.

On further thought, this cases illustrates why injunctions should be particularized and why precedent does the real work. The constitutional issue arose in a government-initiated enforcement action--a criminal prosecution against these individuals, who then attempted to defeat enforcement by arguing that the law is invalid and thus cannot be enforced against their conduct. No one believes that the judgment in this case applies to anyone other than the defendants or that the government violates the judgment if it attempts to enforce the "invalid" provisions against someone else; in fact, the only thing the judgment does here is affirm their convictions. The prospective non-party effects of this decision come from the opinion, operating through precedent and stare decisis to require any court within the Fourth Circuit to dismiss a future attempt to enforce those provisions. So I return to my argument that a pre-enforcement injunction anticipates the enforcement judgment--and if the latter is limited to the parties, so is the former.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 25, 2020 at 03:55 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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