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Further Views on the Proper Role for the Supreme Court
on September 21, 2010
This book is a continuation of the dialogue Justice Breyer began in his previous work "Active Liberty." There, he argued that the Court should implement greater participation of citizens in their government. Although he touched at points upon the originalist/literalist approach to interpretation favored by Justices Scalia and Thomas, in his typical polite and reasonable fashion he preferred to explain his approach rather than lob grenades at their dedication to text and originalism. This book too is polite and reasonable, but aims to look at a wider and more fundamental issue--how can the Court contribute to making a "workable democracy" by applying enduring constitutional values to ever-changing circumstances. The short answer in this pragmatic-oriented book, is for the Court to build productive relationships with other governing institutions, as it protects individual rights and searches for the values underlying the Constitution. In short, Breyer is again arguing for what might be termed a greater degree of "judicial modesty" which facilitates better governance.
Breyer first discusses the concept of judicial review, where it came from in Marbury v. Madison, and how history demonstrates (in the Cherokee removal, Dred Scott, and the Little Rock desegregation cases) how dependent the Court is upon ephemeral public support. Breyer is unique in his ability to explain historical and legal concepts in terms that the general reader can assimilate--a rare talent indeed. Basically, Bryer concludes, as long as the Court's opinions are "principled, reasoned, transparent and informative" it will hold public support. Once again, I was disappointed that his discussion of the Bush v. Gore case is highly polite and reasonable and does not, I am sure, reflect the intra-Court dynamics involved in that sad episode.
One of the most masterful sections of the book is where the Justice discusses why he thinks originalism, reliance upon text, and founders' history are not determinative in interpreting the Constitution or statutes. As usual, he is polite and positive, but he makes his point well. Rather, reliance upon purpose and consequences constitute a superior approach.
So, how should the Court proceed to build cooperative relationships? Breyer devotes individual chapters to answering this question as relates to Congress and statutes ("reasonable" interpretation), the executive branch and administrative agencies (recognize its greater expertise than courts), and the states and federalism (like Justice Brandeis, recognize the benefits of state and local experimentation and defer strongly). Two the best chapters in the book, for both the general reader and those better versed in the issues, address how the Court should deal with lower federal courts, and why precedent is important and when it should be followed (the current Court majority might find this discussion particularly illuminating).
The final section of the book deals with concepts such as permanent values, proportionality, "core elements," and "workable reality." These are somewhat intangible concepts, and Breyer's discussion may encourage some to embrace originalism, history and text as somewhat more substantial interpretative guidelines. He uses the Court's recent decisions in the Second Amendment and Guantanamo prison cases, as well as the 1940's Japanese relocation cases, to explore these concepts. It is quite interesting to peek into the mind of a sitting Justice (as it was with "Active Liberty") to see how he perceives the Court's role. This dimension is as helpful to the experienced student of the Court as it is to the average citizen.
The book runs some 254 pages including notes, and contains some illustrations and an appendix designed to quickly educate the general reader about the Court and how it works. Although sometimes Breyer seems to be "up in the clouds" as he tackles ephemeral concepts, there is no question that this is one of the rare books that really opens up the reader's mind to new concepts and considerations.