Political Theory


Full of Sound and Fury: Curbing the Cost of Partisan Opportunism in Congressional Oversight Hearings

Cristian R.C. Kelly

As Congress creates bigger and broader federal programs and administrative agencies, appropriates larger sums on their behalf, and delegates more of its legislative authority to their leaders, it takes on a commensurate responsibility to diligently oversee those agencies. Because time and resources available for congressional oversight are limited, a committee’s decision to conduct a formal oversight hearing implicates a substantial opportunity cost. At the same time, oversight hearings present committees with considerable opportunities for grandstanding and political gamesmanship. The voting public should therefore demand that congressional committees use oversight hearings efficiently, pursuing benefits like agency accountability, transparency, and democratic legitimacy, rather than the committees’ own partisan electoral advantage. However, because congressional committees are complex political institutions and because legitimate oversight benefits can often coincide with partisan political objectives, the distinction is not always easy to discern from the outside. With these nuances in mind, I argue that the outside observer can infer a committee’s underlying motivations and predict a given hearing’s likely benefits by looking for specific patterns in the way the hearing is conducted—i.e., the hearing’s “operational functions.”

The Resolution of Contested Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives: Why State Courts Should Not Help with the House Work

Kristen R. Lisk

The resolution of federal congressional election contests implicates a tension between states’ Article I, Section 4 power to conduct elections for federal office and Congress’s Article I, Section 5 power to decide the elections of its members. The seminal Supreme Court decision on this issue, Roudebush v. Hartke, held that state courts may order administrative recounts in congressional elections because these decisions require state courts only to engage in “nonjudicial functions” and do not impinge on Congress’s ability to make independent and final decisions in these contests. The Roudebush decision has, in some cases, been interpreted expansively, permitting electoral losers to seek substantive post-election remedies (such as new elections) simultaneously in state courts and in Congress. This “Congress-and-courts” approach to deciding congressional election contests is problematic in light of constitutional considerations, federalism concerns, and the values underlying election contest resolution. This Note argues that the Roudebush decision instead should be interpreted narrowly and, therefore, that all congressional election contests should be resolved by Congress exclusively.

The Politics of Legislative Drafting: A Congressional Case Study

Victoria F. Nourse, Jane S. Schacter

In judicial opinions construing statutes, it is common for judges to make a set of assumptions about the legislative process that generated the statute under review. For example, judges regularly impute to legislators highly detailed knowledge about both judicial rules of interpretation and the substantive area of law of which the statute is a part. Little empirical research has been done to test this picture of the legislative process. In this Article, Professors Nourse and Schacter take a step toward filling this gap with a case study of legislative drafting in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their results stand in sharp contrast to the traditional judicial story of the drafting process. The interviews conducted by the authors suggest that the drafting process is highly variable and contextual; that staffers, lobbyists, and professional drafters write laws rather than elected representatives; and that although drafters are generally familiar with judicial rules of construction, these rules are not systematically integrated into the drafting process. The case study suggests not only that the judicial story of the legislative process is inaccurate but also that there might be important differences between what the legislature and judiciary value in the drafting process: While courts tend to prize what the authors call the “interpretive” virtues of textual clarity and interpretive awareness, legislators are oriented more toward “constitutive” virtues of action and agreement. Professors Nourse and Schacter argue that the results they report, if reflective of the drafting process generally, raise important challenges for originalist and textualist theories of statutory interpretation, as well as Justice Scalia’s critique of legislative history. Even if the assumptions about legislative drafting made in the traditional judicial story are merely fictions, they nonetheless play a role in allocating normative responsibility for creating statutory law. The authors conclude that their case study raises the need for future empirical research to develop a better understanding of the legislative process.

Partisan Fairness and Redistricting Politics

Adam B. Cox

Courts and scholars have operated on the implicit assumption that the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” jurisprudence put redistricting politics on a fixed, ten-year cycle. Recent redistricting controversies in Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere, however, have undermined this assumption, highlighting the fact that most states are currently free to redraw election districts as often as they like. This essay explores whether partisan fairness-a normative commitment that both scholars and the Supreme Court have identified as a central concern of districting arrangements-would be promoted by a procedural rule limiting the frequency of redistricting. While the literature has not considered this question, scholars generally are pessimistic about the capacity of procedural redistricting regulations to curb partisan gerrymandering. In contrast, this essay argues that a procedural rule limiting the frequency of redistricting will promote partisan fairness by introducing beneficial uncertainty in the redistricting process and by regularizing the redistricting agenda.

Group Judgments: Statistical Means, Deliberation, and Information Markets

Cass R. Sunstein

How can groups elicit and aggregate the information held by their individual members? There are three possibilities. Groups might use the statistical mean of individual judgments; they might encourage deliberation; or they might use information markets. In both private and public institutions, deliberation is the standard way of proceeding; but for two reasons, deliberating groups often fail to make good decisions. First, the statements and acts of some group members convey relevant information, and that information often leads other people not to disclose what they know. Second, social pressures, imposed by some group members, often lead other group members to silence themselves because of fear of disapproval and associated harms. As a result, deliberation often produces a series of unfortunate results: the amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects, and group polarization. A variety of steps can be taken to ensure that deliberating groups obtain the information held by their members; restructuring private incentives, in a way that increases disclosure, is the place to start. Information markets have substantial advantages over group deliberation; such markets count among the most intriguing institutional innovations of the last quarter-century and should be used far more frequently than they now are. One advantage of information markets is that they tend to correct, rather than to amplify, the effects of individual errors. Another advantage is that they create powerful incentives to disclose, rather than to conceal, privately held information. Information markets thus provide the basis for a Hayekian critique of many current celebrations of political deliberation. They also provide a valuable heuristic for understanding how to make deliberation work better. These points bear on the discussion of normative issues, in which deliberation might also fail to improve group thinking, and in which identifiable reforms could produce better outcomes. Applications include the behavior of juries, multimember judicial panels, administrative agencies, and congressional committees; analogies, also involving information aggregation, include open source software, Internet “wikis,” and weblogs.

Sacrificing Corporate Profits in the Public Interest

Einer Elhauge

The canonical law and economics view holds that corporate managers do and should have a duty to profit-maximize because such conduct is socially efficient given that general legal sanctions do or can redress any harm that corporate or noncorporate businesses inflict on others. Professor Elhauge argues that this canonical view is mistaken both descriptively and normatively. In fact, the law gives corporate managers considerable implicit and explicit discretion to sacrifice profits in the public interest. They would have such discretion even if the law pursued the normative goal of corporate profit-maximization because minimizing total agency costs requires giving managers a business judgment rule deference that necessarily confers such profit sacrificing discretion. Nor is corporate profit-maximization a socially efficient goal because even optimal legal sanctions are necessarily imperfect and require supplementation by social and moral sanctions to fully optimize conduct. Accordingly, pure profit-maximization would worsen corporate conduct by overriding these social and moral sanctions. In addition to being socially inefficient, pure profit-maximization would harm shareholder welfare whenever shareholders value the incremental profits less than avoiding social and moral sanctions. For companies with a controlling shareholder, that shareholder is exposed to social and moral sanctions and has incentives to act on them, and thus controlling shareholders are well-placed to decide when to sacrifice corporate profits in the public interest. In contrast, the structure of large publicly-held corporations insulates dispersed shareholders from social and moral sanctions and creates collective action obstacles to acting on any social or moral impulses they do feel. Thus, in public corporations, optimizing corporate conduct requires giving managers some operational discretion to sacrifice profits in the public interest even without shareholder approval because, unlike shareholders, managers are sufficiently exposed to social and moral sanctions. Managerial incentives toward excessive generosity are constrained by various market forces, which generally mean that any managerial decision to sacrifice profits in the public interest substitutes for more self-interested profit sacrificing exercises of agency slack. Managerial discretion to sacrifice profits is further constrained by legal limits on the amount of profit sacrificing, which become much tighter when market constraints are inoperable because of last-period problems. Managers should have donative discretion because courts cannot distinguish profit-enhancing donations from profit sacrificing ones, because shareholders are insulated from the social and moral processes that desirably generate the special donative impulses that arise from running business operations, and because otherwise managers would often inefficiently substitute more costly operational profit sacrificing decisions to avoid social and moral sanctions. This explains the legal requirement that corporate donations have a nexus to corporate operations. Antitakeover laws can partly be explained as necessary to preserve sufficient managerial discretion to consider social and moral norms.

A Useful Conversation

William Creeley

Judges in Contemporary Democracy: An International Conversation

The inherent premise underlying Judges in Contemporary Democracy: An International Conversation may be stated simply: When judges talk, people listen. The attention is entirely deserved; the power of the judge in modern constitutional democracies, particularly those with provisions for judicial review, is extensive. Concordantly, the authority of the constitutional judge long has been in tension with democratic structure, where the will of the people, expressed through legislative act, otherwise would be considered supreme. What power does the judge have to determine the contours of constitutional imperatives, especially if judicial interpretation represents a divergence from popular sentiment and legislative decree? How can she purport to have an exclusive interpretative license on what otherwise might be thought of as common province, i.e., the securing terms of a shared constitution? The questions of legitimacy surrounding the countermajoritarian potential of judges exercising (or merely asserting) the power of judicial review have become particularly pressing following the contemporary incorporation of forms of judicial review throughout Western European countries in the latter half of the past century. No longer a vestige of American exceptionalism, judicial review-and the accordant power of the judge-has become an integral feature of the modern democratic state.

Application of the Federal Death Penalty Act to Puerto Rico

Elizabeth Vicens

A New Test for the Locally Inapplicable Standard

Ever since Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States following the Spanish-American War, Congress and the courts have struggled with applying federal law to the island. Puerto Rico has been treated alternately as a state, territory, or something in between for purposes of federal law since the island became a commonwealth in 1952. In this Note, Elizabeth Vicens argues that in determining whether a federal statute should apply to Puerto Rico, in the absence of a clear statement by Congress, courts should inquire whether the law contradicts an overriding local interest. This test is based on the language of the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, which states that federal laws that are “not locally inapplicable” shall be applied to the island. After supporting the proposed model of statutory interpretation, Vicens applies the test to a recent controversial application of federal law to Puerto Rico: the application of the Federal Death Penalty Act. Vicens argues that under her model, the First Circuit should not have applied the Federal Death Penalty Act in United States v. Acosta-Martinez. The Note concludes that this test will aid Congress and the courts in a murky area of law, as well as help to improve U.S.-Puerto Rican relations.

Pluralism in America: Why Judicial Diversity Improves Legal Decisions About Political Morality

Joy Milligan

Why does the race of judges matter? This Note argues that racial diversity in the judiciary improves legal decisions about political morality. Judges play a substantial role in regulating our political morality; at the same time, race and ethnicity influence public views on such issues. In cases that involve difficult legal questions of political morality, judges should seriously consider all moral conceptions as potential answers. Racial and ethnic diversity is likely to improve the judiciary’s institutional capacity for openness to alternative views—not because judges of any given race will “represent” a monolithic viewpoint, but because of the likelihood that judges of a particular race or ethnicity will be better positioned to understand and take seriously views held within their own racial or ethnic communities. Judicial dialogue, taking place within appellate panels and across courts, serves to diffuse alternative viewpoints more broadly. Greater judicial willingness to consider disparate moral views should ultimately result in better decisions regarding political morality. Specifically, the judiciary may fashion new compromises to resolve political-moral dilemmas, judges and society may better understand the contours of such dilemmas, and the public may even arrive at new conclusions regarding basic questions of political morality.

Judicial Decisions as Legislation: Congressional Oversight of Supreme Court Tax Cases, 1954–2005

Nancy Staudt, René Lindstädt, Jason O’Connor

This Article offers a new understanding of the dynamic between the Supreme Court and Congress. It responds to an important literature that for several decades has misunderstood interbranch relations as continually fraught with antagonism and distrust. This unfriendly dynamic, many have argued, is evidenced by repeated congressional overrides of Supreme Court cases. While this claim is true in some circumstances, it ignores the friendly relations that exist between these two branches of government—relations that may be far more typical than scholars suspect.

This Article undertakes a comprehensive study of congressional responses to Supreme Court tax cases and makes a surprising finding: Overrides, although the main focus of the extant literature, account for just a small portion of the legislative activity responding to the Court. In fact, Congress is nearly as likely to support and affirm judicial decisionmaking through the codification of a case outcome as it is to reverse a decision through a legislative override. To investigate fully the nature of congressional oversight of Supreme Court decisionmaking, this Article undertakes both qualitative and quantitative analyses of different types of legislative review of Supreme Court decisions—examining codifications and citations, as well as overrides, in legislative debates, committees, and hearings. The result is a series of important and robust findings that challenge and build on the Court-Congress literature, identifying the legal, political, and economic factors that explain how and why legislators take notice of Supreme Court cases.

The study reveals a complex and nuanced interbranch dynamic and shows that the Justices themselves affect the legislative agenda to a greater extent than previously understood. This result challenges scholars who have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have jurisdiction over complex issues, such as those in the economic context, in which the Justices may lack sufficient training. This Article argues that scholars have little need to worry about Court decisionmaking in these areas: Not only do legislators routinely review the Court’s decisions, but they also frequently confirm the outcomes as valuable contributions to national policymaking via the codification process.