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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court as a Branch of the U.S. Government: Is There a Conflict of Interest in Federalism Cases?

As to whether the supreme courts of particular American states, or republics, should be able to declare the general (U.S.) government’s health-insurance mandate unconstitutional in the sense of being an encroachment of the government of the union beyond its enumerated powers, it is typically presumed that the U.S. Supreme Court is the rightful and proper umpire--the court of last resort on disputes on federalism applied to particular legislation. Forgotten is the argument made by Thomas Jefferson against that court’s suitability owing to its institutional conflict of interest in contests between the U.S. Government, of which the U.S. Supreme Court is a branch, and a goverment of one of the several states.  Typically, we do not consider how the conflict of interest can be solved. We do not “think outside the box.” Rather, we feel resigned to have branch of one of the parties of the dispute act as the final decider short of a constitutional amendment.

We do not consider, for example, that perhaps a council of the States’ Supreme Court Chief Justices (or their attorney generals) might be a less problematic alternative. We need not throw up our hands and leave it to any state to nullify any federal law it doesn’t like. We can design an umpire of federalism in such a way that the the encroaching tendency of the center is counterbalanced by the interests of the states in deciding the question. That is to say, we ought to design the umpire mechanism in such a way that tilts in the direction of the states, given the tilt of power in the other direction historically and today. It is well worth reviewing Jefferson’s argument so this doesn’t sound so radical. Given our aversion to real change, the need for a constitutional amendment must be backed up by a mainstream figure.

Essentially, Jefferson maintained that there is a conflict of interest in one branch of the US Government–the US Supreme Court–being the ultimate umpire in federalism disputes between a State and the US Government. It is like having a member of one of the two baseball teams playing being the umpire. In college, I was a referee for intermural football. I was stunned when the coordinator of the refs, himself a student, assigned himself to referee the game involving his own fraternity. When I suggested that there is a conflict of interest in his self-assignment, he dismissed my concern out of hand. Sadly, this sort of attitude characterizes Americans in general with respect to institutional conflicts of interest in our government (and between business and government). I contend that we are blind to such ethical problems, and the viability of our federal system of public governance, which includes semi-sovereign States, is paying the price in the form of a massive imbalance.

One might counter that the separation of powers in the US Government make the US Supreme Court independent of the Congress and President. According to Thomas Woods, the separation of powers in the federal government cannot be relied on to distinguish the US Supreme Court’s interest from its basis as a branch of the US Government because the “three federal branches can simply unite against the independence of the states and the reserved rights of the people.”[i] In 1825, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of [the Federal government] are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic.”[ii] Jefferson believed that in a dispute between the states and the federal government, the resolution should not come from a branch of the federal government. With the US Supreme Court as the umpire on federalism questions, the states “would inexorably be eclipsed by the federal government.”[iii] Woods observes, “(S)ince the federal courts are themselves a branch of the federal government, how can the people be expected to consider them impartial arbiters? The [US] Supreme Court itself, after all, although usually pointed to as the monopolistic and infallible judge of the constitutionality of the federal government’s actions, is itself a branch of the federal government.”[iv] For one thing, US Supreme Court justices are selected by the US President and confirmed by US Senators. In this process, even an unconscious “similarity of perspective” is likely to be sought or welcomed even with respect to one’s vantage-point (i.e., perspective). Spencer Roane, a Virginia judge whom Jefferson would have nominated to the US Supreme Court, wrote, “the States never could have committed an act of such egregious folly as to agree that their empire should be altogether appointed and paid by the other party. The [US] Supreme Court may be a perfectly impartial tribunal to decide between two States, but cannot be considered in that point of view when the contest lies between the United States and one of its members… . The [US] Supreme Court is but a department of the general government. A department is not competent to do that to which the whole government is inadequate… . They cannot do it unless we tread underfoot the principle which forbids a party to decide his own cause.”[v] As a branch of the Federal government, the US Supreme Court justices have at the very least a perspective from the “whole”–meaning the US as a whole–which is the vantage-point of the US Government. This is a background basis of similarity; the nominating President and the confirming Senators are likely to ask questions of a nominee that would show the nominee’s attitude or opinion concerning the power of the US Government (i.e., the power of the President and Senators!). The conflict of interest is clear, yet no one points to it. This is very odd indeed–tantamount to a societal blindspot.

Not unexpectedly, the US Supreme Court has consistently and overwhelmingly decided federalism cases in favor of the US Government. Even the Morrison and Lopez cases on the reach of the interstate commerce clause in the 1990s allow for indirect economic effects from such commerce to justify the jurisdiction of the US Government over those of the States. An indirect effect is just the sort of loophole that the US Government has been using to expand its power. So even the Rhenquist court was pro-US Government vis a vis the States. Joseph Desha, governor of Kentucky in 1825, wrote, “most of the encroachments made by the general government flow through the [US] Supreme Court itself, the very tribunal which claims to be the final arbiter of all such disputes. What chance for justice have the States when the usurpers of their rights are made their judges? Just as much as individuals when judged by their oppressors.”[vi] What amazes me is not so much the historical trend; rather, I’m bewildered by how such an obvious conflict of interest could be allowed to fly for so long under the radar screen of American public consciousness. This really should tell us something about ourselves, and we ought not to be flattered by what we see.


Click to add a question or comment on the ethics of the Supreme Court on federalism cases.

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[i] Woods, Jr., Thomas E. Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2010), 4.

[ii]Thomas Jefferson to William B. Giles, December 26, 1825, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, ed. Paul L. Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 355.

[iii] Woods, Jr., Thomas E. Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2010), 5.

[iv] Woods, Jr., Thomas E. Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2010), 5.

[v] James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1957), 156.

[vi] State Documents on Federal Relations: The States and the United States, ed. Herman V. Ames (New York: Longman’s, Green, 1911), 113.