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Should Judicial Review by Limited?
on November 1, 2005
This is a very fine work of scholarship. The research is staggering in its comprehensiveness, and it is a definite contribution to the literature on the federal courts at a time when there is much attention being devoted to judicial power. The basic thesis of the book is that throughout American constitutional history, what the author terms "popular constitutionalism" has played a "pivotal role" in interpreting the Constitution. The author believes that "judicial supremacy" has caused a disfunction in the political system and needs to be offset by more attention to the expressions of popular direction in making interpretations. In order to argue his thesis, the author has produced a very valuable history of judicial review.
At the outset, the author carefully defines his terms, including "customary constitution," "fundamental law," "natural law" and "common law." Next the author moves on to a discussion of judicial review in England to try and demonstrate that no solid precedent for this practice had developed prior to the drafting of the Constitution. An excellent example of popular sovereignty is the fact that juries during this period often made findings of law as well as fact. The author devotes considerable attention to the purported pre-constitutional precedents for judicial review, finding them either to be overstated or misinterpreted. The historical record does disclose limited acceptance of the practice, but only in cases where the judiciary was protecting its own prerogatives. The author argues that the issue really did not come up very much at this point. Similarly, a solid discussion is devoted to the Constitutional convention and the ratification debates where, once again, the issue came up only sporadically.
The post-ratification period also is examined in several chapters. Once again, the author concludes that there was no clear consensus on the practice of judicial review. The emegence of political parties inhibited popular interpretation, since it placed a layer between the people and the government. However, Jacksonian opposition to the practice persisted. It is only after the Civil War, with the increasing professionalization of the bar and the enhanced conservatism of courts that the practice became recognized (after all, it was not until the Dred Scott decision in the 1850's that the Court again exercised the power it had staked out in Marbury v. Madison). The "Old Court's" abuse of the power was checkmated by the New Deal Settlement stemming from FDR's court-packing attempt. That is, the power would be exercised to review laws impacting individual right, but not Congressional powers such as commerce and general welfare. This compromise lasted until the Rehnquist Court.
There is a lot to consider in this volume. The author's arguments are well thought out and he is straightforward when discussing historical periods when the sentiment in favor of judicial review was pronounced. None of the arguments for judicial review (e.g.,avoiding the tyranny of the majority) persuades the author that the practice should continue without restraint. The only problem I found in the argument was not with the historical evidence (although I don't necessarily share the author's reading of the historical record) but in his conclusion. How would "popular constitutionalism" operate within our current system? That is, how would the people's will be communicated to the courts and Congress, so they could interpret the Constitution and statutes accordingly? Some discussion on this point strikes me as a necessity. For those without some background in the topic, the book may be a bit heavy going due to its comprehensiveness. But for illuminating an important historical approach to the judicial review issue, it is hard to surpass.