January 13, 2010

Actually, Justice Breyer, the Constitution Enumerates Specific Powers, not Limitations on Otherwise Plenary Federal Power

This won't come as a shock to anyone, but it is a nice reminder that there are those on the Court who see NO limit to federal power unless it infringes on a pet issue of the left.

From Ilya Shapiro:
I don’t think her “cascading powers” theory of the Necessary and Proper Clause is a winner — for reasons I describe in my recent podcast — and Justice Scalia also wasn’t convinced. Justice Breyer, however, at one point asked where the Constitution prohibited the federal government from “help[ing] with” a problem it identified (see page 31 of the transcript) and in general was hesitant to find limits to congressional action to solve big policy areas.

Breyer has it all backward: We don’t operate on the premise that the government has full plenary power to do whatever it thinks is best, for the “general welfare,” for “the children,” for “society,” or for any particular group, checked only by specific prohibitions. Instead, our system of government — our constitutional rule of law — provides for islands of government involvement in a sea of liberty. It is individual people who can do whatever they want that isn’t prohibited by law, not the government.

And so we’ll see soon enough which vision of the relationship between citizen and state the Supreme Court embraces. Along with Justice Breyer, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg also were not very sympathetic to the federalism and libertarian arguments ably presented by federal public defender G. Alan Dubois. Along with Justice Scalia, Justice Alito was (refreshingly) skeptical of undue government power — and one would expect (the silent) Justice Thomas to be in that category as well. Justice Sotomayor also asked some interesting questions inquiring into the federal government’s ability to hold someone indefinitely — including on the relationship of that power to the Commerce Clause authority underlying most federal exercise of power — so she could go either way. Finally, the Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy were, uncharacteristically, not all too active — seeming to question both sides equally — so it’s hard to predict how the Court will ultimately rule.