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Judicial Supremacy: Not So Bad

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At the Law & Liberty site today, I have a review of Louis Fisher’s new book on judicial supremacy, Reconsidering Judicial Finality. Contra Fisher, I argue in favor of judicial supremacy, properly understood as a rebuttable presumption that Court rulings are binding on other political actors and the people as a whole. Here’s an excerpt:

But the better view, and the one most scholars would take, is that Court judgments are presumptively binding in this broader sense. In the great sweep of our constitutional history, resistance to Court rulings has been comparatively rare. The strength of this presumption is impossible to state in categorical terms. Richard Fallon offers a good way to think about it. Judicial supremacy means that “judicial rulings must be obeyed as long as they are intra rather than ultra vires”—that is, as long as they are plausibly “within a court’s authority to render”—and “not unreasonable as judged from the perspective of the President and a majority of the American people.” If our constitutional democracy is tolerably functional, occasions for resisting Court rulings will arise relatively infrequently.

Note that, on a proper view of judicial supremacy, the Court remains free to change its mind and rule differently in subsequent cases. And political actors, as well as the public at large, remain free to try to persuade the Court to do so. After all, unless some litigant brings a challenge, the Court will never have an opportunity to revisit an earlier decision. Lincoln put it well in responding to the Court’s disastrous ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857), in which the Court held that the Constitution did not allow African-Americans to be citizens or Congress to outlaw slavery in federal territories. The Court’s decisions on constitutional questions, Lincoln conceded, “should control, not only the particular cases decided, but the general policy of the country.” Nevertheless, “[w]e know the Court . . . has often overruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it overrule this.” . . .

Fisher is unfortunately dismissive of arguments in favor of judicial supremacy. “No matter what evidence is presented,” he writes, “some scholars and courts will continue to rely on and promote the doctrine of judicial finality.” But it is not simply obstinance. Good arguments exist for judicial supremacy, including the desirability of settling legal questions and promoting reliance on the part of citizens, who need to know what the law requires at any particular time. Besides, the logic of judicial review itself suggests some sort of judicial supremacy. The Constitution is not simply what the Court says it is; but if the Court’s decisions are not broadly authoritative, constitutional impasses will occur much more frequently—not the end of the world, but not the best situation, either.

You can read the whole review here.


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About The Author

Mark Movsesian

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