December 05, 2010

The Case for Engaged Justices

George Will is on his game today.
In our democracy, the legislature's policymaking power "though unrivaled, is not unlimited." The Constitution reigns supreme: "There must remain judicially enforceable constraints on legislative actions that are irreconcilable with constitutional commands."

Thus a legislature's judgment that a measure is desirable does not relieve a court of the duty to judge whether it is constitutional. "The political branches decide if laws pass; courts decide if laws pass muster," wrote Willett. Judges must recognize that legislators' policymaking primacy "is not constitutional carte blanche to regulate all spheres of everyday life; pre-eminence does not equal omnipotence."

What Willett says of the states' police power is applicable to Congress's power under the commerce clause: "When police power becomes a convenient talisman waved to short-circuit our constitutional design, deference devolves into dereliction." And: "If legislators come to believe that police power is an ever-present constitutional trump card they can play whenever it suits them, overreaching is inexorable."

The judiciary's role as referee of constitutional disputes is, Willett says, "confined yet consequential." But, "If judicial review means anything, it is that judicial restraint does not allow everything." And there can come a "constitutional tipping point" where, by excessive deference to a legislature in the face of a constitutional limitation, "adjudication more resembles abdication." Then a state's police power (or Congress's power under the commerce clause) can "extinguish constitutional liberties with nonchalance."

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