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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Georgia trial court rejects judicial departmentalism

A Georgia trial court declares Georgia's heartbeat ban constitutionally invalid underGeorgia's "void ab initio" doctrine--a law enacted contrary to binding judicial precedent never had any force or effect. While "on the books," the law never carried any force or effect. It "'is not a law; it confers no rights; it imposes no duties; it affords no protection; it creates no office.'" It is "'in legal contemplation, as inoperative as though it had never been passed.'" The court adds that "an unconstitutional statute, though having the form and name of law, is in reality no law, but is wholly void." There can be no zombie laws that "spring back to life" when precedent changes.

Obviously I disagree with this framing. The legislature did enact a law that is in effect in the state of Georgia. The law is not enforceable--or at least enforcement is certain to fail once the issue reaches the judiciary and the judiciary applies then-existing constitutional doctrine. Moreover, this approach presumes that a law violates the Constitution (in this case, the rights of pregnant people) by existing and thus the legislature violates the Constitution by enacting it. But the constitutional violation arises from the actual or threatened enforcement of the law, not from the law itself; the legislature does nothing wrong in enacting a  law. Put differently: The court says that the heartbeat ban "exist[ed] only on paper." But all laws exist only on paper. Their force and effect comes from actual or attempted enforcement--at which point the judiciary and controlling precedent come into play.

Here is the topper:

What does this ruling mean? Most fundamentally, it means that courts -- not legislatures -- define the law. This is nothing new, but it seems increasingly forgotten (or ignored): “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 177 (1803); see also Beall v. Beall, 8 Ga. 210, 219–20 (1850). If the courts have spoken, clearly and directly, as to what the law is, as to what is and is not constitutional, legislatures and legislators are not at liberty to pass laws contrary to such pronouncements. This does not, as the State protests, leave the legislative branch powerless in the face of “judicial supremacy run amok.” (Defendant’s Response at 1). To the contrary, “[t]he inherent powers of our State General Assembly are awesome.... [It] is absolutely unrestricted in its power to legislate, so long as it does not undertake to enact measures prohibited by the State or Federal Constitution.” Sears v. State of Ga., 232 Ga. 547, 553–54 (1974) (citation omitted). The void ab initio doctrine and its application to something like the LIFE Act properly cabins that broad legislative authority to set policy for our State and for the people who comprise it: do what you will, only do so within the bounds of the constitution that the courts have established.

If I were looking to give my students a definition of judicial supremacy, I could not do any better--the courts define the law, the Constitution means what the courts say it means, and the legislature must yield to the judiciary's constitutional understanding. The legislature's power is unrestricted unless the judiciary restricts it.

One criticism of judicial departmentalism (as Kevin Walsh framed it and as I have applied it to disputes about SB8 and universal injunctions) is that it collapses into judicial supremacy--because every dispute reaches court, the judicial view prevails at the end of the day. This case demonstrates the difference--judicial departmentalism leaves the legislature a modicum of power to engage in the legislative process and to define the state's statute books--however the laws on those books may or may not be enforced.

Besides being a bad approach to constitutional law, this approach may prove to much and raises a number of open issues:

    • Must legislatures repeal zombie laws and ensure the statute books are consistent with the state of judicially declared constitutional law? Alternatively, must they reenact zombie laws when the Court changes its constitutional understanding? If a new law contrary to judicial precedent never gains legal effect, does an existing law contrary to new judicial precedent lose all legal effect? The court's logic is yes--the zombies never "spring back to life." So a new law is required for any effect.

    • How can the political branches seek to change judicial precedent? There must be a law and actual or threatened enforcement to present a case in which the judiciary could change precedent. So Mississippi succeeded in getting the Court to overrule Roe by enacting a new law and triggering the litigation through which the Court changed precedent. But if the new law is void ab initio, the court never reaches the substantive constitutional question (or must reach out to do so when unnecessary, which we say courts should not do) because the new law never was law. And that will be the case for any new law. And if I am right about the prior bullet point, the state cannot use existing laws for the challenge, because those lost all force and effect.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 16, 2022 at 10:56 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

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Posted by: โจ๊ก เกอร์ สล็อต | Nov 24, 2022 11:49:41 PM

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Posted by: ทางเข้าpg | Nov 24, 2022 11:48:21 PM

I don't agree that Georgia's 'void ab initio' (or a similar approach to what it means for a law to be federally unconstitutional) is 'judicial supremacy.' The judiciary gets the final word only because it acts last. It takes all three (or four if you count HR and Senate separately) branches to concur for a law to be constitutional. If Congress thinks it's unconstitutional, it won't enact it. If the President thinks it's unconstitutional, he'll veto it. And if the Supreme Court thinks it's unconstitutional, it will invalidate it. In my view, that's compatible with at least one vision of departmentalism, in which each branch has its own form of 'veto' of an unconstitutional laws. That the legislature has to accept the judiciary's veto is no different from the fact that just because the courts say a law is constitutional doesn't mean the legislature has to enact it (or the President has to refrain from vetoing it).

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Nov 17, 2022 10:47:09 AM

Seems to me like Georgia just doesn't agree with you. Not sure why you should get to decide what principles are established in Georgia's state constitution, but if you're going to try, you'll need to advance something besides (highly) disputed concepts of abstract legal theory.

Perhaps everything you say about departmentalism is completely true--for the federal judiciary. Georgia has decided to try a different way. I suspect that they've been doing so for quite some time, strangely without triggering any of the parade of horribles you've dreamed up.

I think you need to decide whether your vision of departmentalism is descriptive or normative. If the first, well, it's wrong--at least as to Georgia. If the second, you're really supposed to say so up front.

Posted by: IRejectYourDepartment | Nov 16, 2022 1:59:47 PM

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