Democracy and Law


Movement Judges

Brandon Hasbrouck

Judges matter. The opinions of a few impact the lives of many. Judges romanticize their own impartiality, but apathy in the face of systems of oppression favors the status quo and clears the way for conservative agendas to take root. The lifetime appointments of federal judges, the deliberate weaponization of the bench by reactionary opponents of the New Deal and progressive social movements, and the sheer inertia of judicial self-restraint have led to the conservative capture of the courts. By contrast, empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden renders substantive justice possible and leaves room for unsuccessful litigants to accept unfavorable outcomes. But some judges—movement judges—bring more to the bench than just empathy, raging against systemic injustice with an understanding of its burdens on real human lives. This Article argues that we need movement judges to realize the abolitionist and democracy-affirming potential of the Constitution. Although the judiciary is often described as the “least democratic” of the three branches of government, it has the potential to be the most democratic. With movement judges, the judiciary can become a force for “We the People.”

Textual Gerrymandering: The Eclipse of Republican Government in an Era of Statutory Populism

William N. Eskridge, Jr., Victoria F. Nourse

We have entered the era dominated by a dogmatic textualism—albeit one that is fracturing, as illustrated by the three warring original public meaning opinions in the blockbuster sexual orientation case, Bostock v. Clayton County. This Article provides conceptual tools that allow lawyers and students to understand the deep analytical problems faced and created by the new textualism advanced by Justice Scalia and his heirs. The key is to think about choice of text—why one piece of text rather than another—and choice of context—what materials are relevant to confirm or clarify textual meaning. Professors Eskridge and Nourse apply these concepts to evaluate the new textualism’s asserted neutrality, predictability, and objectivity in its canonical cases, as well as in Bostock and other recent textual debates.

The authors find that textual gerrymandering—suppressing some relevant texts while picking apart others, as well as cherry-picking context—has been pervasive. Texts and contexts are chosen to achieve particular results—without any law-based justification. Further, this Article shows that, by adopting the seemingly benign “we are all textualists now” position, liberals as well as conservatives have avoided the key analytic questions and have contributed to the marginalization of the nation’s premier representative body, namely, Congress. Today, the Supreme Court asks how “ordinary” populist readers interpret language (the consumer economy of statutory interpretation) even as the Court rejects the production economy (the legislative authors’ meaning).

Without returning to discredited searches for ephemeral “legislative intent,” we propose a new focus on legislative evidence of meaning. In the spirit of Dean John F. Manning’s suggestion that purposivists have improved their approach by imposing text-based discipline, textualists can improve their approach to choice of text and choice of context by imposing the discipline of what we call “republican evidence”—evidence of how the legislative authors explained the statute to ordinary readers. A republic is defined by law based upon the people’s representatives; hence the name for our theory: “republican evidence.” This Article concludes by affirming the republican nature of Madisonian constitutional design and situating the Court’s assault on republican evidence as part of a larger crisis posed by populist movements to republican democracies today.

Answering the Lochner Objection: Substantive Due Process and the Role of Courts in a Democracy

Douglas NeJaime, Reva Siegel

In a world in which liberals and conservatives disagree about almost everything, there is one important point on which surprising numbers of liberals and conservatives agree: They view the Court’s modern substantive due process decisions as repeating the constitutional wrongs of Lochner. In this Article, we draw on the history of modern substantive due process cases to refute the Lochner objection and to show how these cases demonstrate the democratic potential of judicial review often questioned in contemporary debates over court reform.

In the late 1930s, the Court repudiated Lochner while affirming the importance of judicial review in securing our constitutional democracy. In Carolene Products Footnote Four, the Court famously staked out a continuing role for “more searching judicial inquiry” in cases where “prejudice . . . tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities.” Yet our understanding of the Carolene Products framework dates not to the 1938 decision but instead to the 1980s. In Democracy and Distrust, John Hart Ely developed Footnote Four into a liberal theory of representation-reinforcing judicial review that endorsed decisions protecting certain rights— voting, speech, and equal protection, specifically Brown v. Board of Education— and repudiated decisions protecting other rights—specifically substantive due process. Ely published his attack on substantive due process in 1980, just as conservatives elected President Reagan to overturn Roe v. Wade.

With the benefit of the intervening forty years, this Article revisits and reassesses Ely’s now-canonical interpretation of the Carolene Products framework. We answer the “Lochner objection” by showing how modern substantive due process claims were candidates for close judicial scrutiny in the Carolene Products framework; how the claimants’ strategies of “speaking out” and “coming out” were efforts to be heard in democratic politics; and how bottom-up mobilization around courts can be democracy-promoting in ways that Ely did not imagine. In short, we show that Ely had the big idea that judicial review could be democracy-promoting, but he argued his case on faulty premises. Democracy and Distrust bore significant influence of the traditions and the cultural forces Ely argued against. We show what Ely missed, not because we imagine federal courts are now likely to act as they did in the 1970s, but rather because Ely’s framing of these cases has become dominant and shapes the ways Americans continue to debate the role of courts. We examine the arguments of the claimants in the modern substantive due process cases—then unrepresented in positions of legal authority—and reason about their cases in light of scholarship on the ways family structures citizenship, and on the different roles of courts in a democracy, that has evolved in the four decades since Ely wrote.

What might this reconsideration of the modern substantive due process cases suggest about the ongoing debate over the role of federal courts in a constitutional democracy? This Article does not engage with the particulars of court reform, but it does shed light on certain fundamental premises of that debate. Our analysis rules out one commonly cited justification for reform: that judicial restrictions on legislative sovereignty are by definition antidemocratic and that the modern substantive due process cases are the classic illustration. We show the many ways in which judicial intervention in these cases was democracy-promoting. As one looks at concrete lines of cases and structural features of courts, one can ask about the democracy-promoting and democracy-inhibiting ways that courts perform and pose more discriminating questions about the goals of court reform—whether to adopt reforms that make courts more independent, less polarized, more open, and more democratically responsive, or to limit their role in all or certain areas of a democratic order.

Elections, Political Parties, and Multiracial, Multiethnic Democracy: How the United States Gets It Wrong

Lee Drutman

How can self-governance work in a diverse society? Is it possible to have a successful multiracial, multiethnic democracy in which all groups are represented fairly? What kinds of electoral and governing institutions work best in a pluralistic society? In the United States today, these are not just theoretical concerns but fundamental inquiries at the core of an urgent question with an uncertain answer: How does American democracy survive?

This Article looks for an answer by placing the United States in a broader context of multiracial, multiethnic democracies around the world. The basic argument is straightforward: The majoritarian politics of single-winner electoral districts and the two-party system it produces is bad for both minority representation and, by extension, for democracy itself. A more inclusive and stable democracy requires a proportional system of voting and more than two parties. This Article thus proceeds in three parts. Part I takes a broader look at the theory of multiracial, multiethnic democracy, with a particular focus on the role of parties and elections in sustaining or undermining multiracial, multiethnic democracy. Part II looks more closely at minority representation in the United States through the lens of the American party and electoral system and its deep inadequacies in supporting multiracial, multiethnic democracy. Part III argues that proportional representation is the logical solution for the United States if it wants to have a chance at being a stable multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

The Penalty Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Consistency on Universal Representation

Ethan Herenstein, Yurij Rudensky

Many judges and scholars have read Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment as evidence of the Constitution’s commitment to universal representation—the idea that representation should be afforded to everyone in the political community regardless of whether they happen to be eligible to vote. Typically, this analysis starts and stops with Section 2’s first clause, the Apportionment Clause, which provides that congressional seats are to be apportioned among the states on the basis of “the whole number of persons in each State.” Partly for this reason, the Supreme Court’s lead opinion in Evenwel v. Abbott rejected the argument that “One Person, One Vote” requires states to equalize the number of adult citizens when drawing legislative districts, affirming that states can draw districts with equal numbers of persons.

But skeptics of the universal representation theory of the Fourteenth Amendment, most notably Justice Alito, have complained that this analysis is flawed because it ignores Section 2’s less-known and never-enforced second clause: the Penalty Clause. Under the Penalty Clause, states that deny or abridge otherwise qualified citizens’ right to vote are penalized with a reduction of their congressional representation. Any theory of representation drawn from the Fourteenth Amendment, the skeptics argue, must grapple with all of Section 2.

This Article takes up that call and explains how the Penalty Clause is not only consistent with but also reinforces the Fourteenth Amendment’s broader commitment to universal representation. Contrary to common misconceptions about the Penalty Clause, the Clause is structured so that the state as a whole loses representation in Congress, but no individual within the state is denied representation. In other words, the Penalty Clause does not operate by subtracting those wrongfully disenfranchised from a state’s total population prior to congressional apportionment. Rather, it imposes a proportional reduction derived from the percent of the vote-eligible population denied the vote that is scaled to an offending state’s total population. The Penalty Clause thus does nothing to upend Section 2’s advancement of universal representation. If anything, the Penalty Clause actually reinforces Section 2’s commitment to that idea. By reducing a state’s representation proportionally, it contemplates the representational interests of nonvoters, a key feature of the universal representation theory.

Failed Elections and the Legislative Selection of Presidential Electors

Justin Levitt

Questions about the state legislative role in determining the identity of presidential electors and electoral slates, and the permissible extent of a departure from regular legislative order, have recently reached peak prominence. Much of the controversy, including several cases to reach the Supreme Court, has concerned the constitutional delegation of power over pre-election rules. But a substantial amount of attention has also focused on the ability of state legislatures to appoint electors in the period between Election Day and the electors’ vote.

An asserted legislative role in the post-election period has two ostensible sources: one constitutional and one statutory. The constitutional provision—the portion of Article II allowing states to appoint electors in the manner the legislature directs— has received substantial scholarly and judicial attention. In contrast, there has been no prominent exploration of the federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 2, despite text similar to the constitutional provision. This piece is the first to explore that federal statute as an ostensible basis for a legislature’s appointment of electors beyond the normal legislative process, in the aftermath of an election that has “failed to make a choice.” After reviewing the constitutional controversy, the Essay canvasses the history of the statute and its context. And it discovers a previously unreported historical anomaly, which might well affect construction not only of the statutory text, but also the constitutional predicate, in the event of a disputed presidential election.

Parsing Partisanship and Punishment: An Approach to Partisan Gerrymandering and Race

Janai Nelson

The threat of extreme and punishing partisan gerrymandering has increased exponentially since 2019 when the Supreme Court held partisan gerrymandering claims nonjusticiable. Although the Court was unanimous in recognizing that partisan gerrymandering can undermine the fair functioning of the electoral process, neither Rucho’s majority nor its dissent acknowledged the unique harm partisan gerrymandering visits upon the operation of our multiracial, multiethnic democracy when coupled with the upsurge of conjoined racial and partisan polarization. The Court’s failure to establish a limiting principle for the degree to which partisanship can usurp the redistricting process means that there is no federal guidance to cabin partisan gerrymandering and no measure to take account of the race-driven effect of the group lockout that partisan gerrymandering often produces. Absent this critical instruction from the Supreme Court, lower courts, civil rights advocates, and affected voters must turn to racial gerrymandering jurisprudence to discern first principles to guide a judicial response to partisan gerrymandering’s particular relation to and compounded effect on account of race. Fortunately, there is a through line from Rucho to the Court’s racial gerrymandering jurisprudence that plausibly permits federal courts to address hybrid racial and partisan gerrymandering claims and parse pure partisanship from punishment—if they are willing.

Constructing the Right to Vote

Joshua S. Sellers, Justin Weinstein-Tull

The right to vote is foundational to our democracy, but it lacks a strong foundation. Voting rights litigants are constantly on their heels, forever responding to state-imposed impediments. In this regard, the right to vote is decidedly reactive: directed and defined by those seeking to limit the right, rather than by those who advocate for it. As a consequence, the right to vote is both deeply fragile and largely impersonal. It is fragile because voters must reckon with flimsy electoral bureaucracies that are susceptible to meltdown from both intentional efforts to limit the franchise and systemic strain. The right to vote is impersonal because, with few exceptions, it is shaped through litigation, rather than comprehensive consideration of voters’ circumstances and needs.

To address these weaknesses, this Article champions the idea that a robust right to vote must be constructed. Unlike most other rights, the right to vote relies on governments to build, fund, and administer elections systems. This obligation is not ancillary to the right to vote; it is foundational to it. Drawing from state constitutional law, electoral management theory, federalism scholarship, and rarely examined consent decrees, we argue that a constructed right to vote incorporates three essential features: electoral adequacy (including the right to adequate funding of elections, the right to competent management, and the right to democratic structures), voting rights legislation tailored to individuals’ experiences, and voting rights doctrines that require states to build their elections systems in rights-promoting ways.

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