An originalist libel defense

By David B. Rivking Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

31 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed high-school student Nicholas Sandmann’s libel suit against the Washington Post last week. That’s no vindication of the newspaper’s skewed reporting on the teen’s run-in with American Indian activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall in January. But it’s a vindication of the First Amendment’s limitations on state libel law, which have come under scrutiny of late, including from President Trump and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Sandmann and his peers were targeted by a Twitter mob, and the Post joined in portraying him as the villain in a “white privilege” morality play. Mr. Sandmann claimed the Post had defamed him by repeating Mr. Phillips’s claim that Mr. Sandmann had physically “blocked” him. That judge held that was an opinion, not a factual claim, and therefore shielded by the First Amendment.

That conclusion may be debatable, but the First Amendment’s protection of opinion shouldn’t be. It is the legal expression of America’s “national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” as Justice William Brennan put it in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which established that the Constitution imposes limits on state libel law.

Mr. Trump said in 2016 that he wanted to “open up” libel laws, and in February Justice Thomas wrote a solo opinion arguing that Sullivan departs from the Constitution’s original meaning. He has a point: Brennan’s reasoning is all policy. For decades, originalists like Justice Antonin Scalia have criticized it as an exercise of raw judicial power. Yet there’s a good originalist case for limits on libel law.

Sullivan established that government officials suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statements were false or acted with “reckless disregard” for their accuracy—a standard confusingly known as “actual malice.” Later decisions extended the requirement to all “public figures,” whether or not they hold office.

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How to put citizenship back in the census

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Gilson B. Gray

5 July 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration said Wednesday it will attempt to add a citizenship question on the 2020 census while complying with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York. Five justices held that the Census Act allows the question, but a separate five-justice majority found the rulemaking that added the question was procedurally deficient. There is a way forward. The Constitution itself requires the collection of citizenship information.

Section 2 of the 14th Amendment provides that if a state denies the franchise to anyone eligible to vote, its allotment of House seats shall be “reduced in the proportion which the number of such . . . citizens shall bear to the whole number of . . . citizens . . . in such state.” This language is absolute and mandatory. Compliance is impossible without counting how many citizens live in each state.

The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868, and this provision meant to secure the voting rights of newly freed slaves. But it wasn’t limited to that purpose. An earlier version of Section 2, introduced in 1865, specifically referred to limits on suffrage based on “race or color,” but the Senate rejected that limitation. The amendment forbids state interference with the rights of all eligible voters (then limited to males over 21).

Section 2 also applies to every state, a point Rep. John Bingham, the amendment’s principal drafter, emphasized during the floor debate: “The second section . . . simply provides for the equalization of representation among all the States in the Union, North, South, East, and West. It makes no discrimination.”

Congress has dealt with suffrage-abridgement problems through other constitutional and statutory means, especially the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn’t change the constitutional obligation to obtain citizenship data. A future Congress could decide to rely on Section 2 to enforce voting rights, particularly as the VRA’s core provision, requiring Justice Department approval when certain states change voting procedures, becomes irrelevant because of changing attitudes and Supreme Court precedent.

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Alito Teases a Judicial Revolution

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

23 June 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Gundy v. U.S. was deceptively anticlimactic. The vote was 5-3, but there was no majority opinion and the decision made no new law. Justice Samuel Alito’s lone concurrence, however, suggested that a major break with precedent—and a return to the Constitution’s original meaning—will soon be in the offing.

The Constitution’s first clause after the Preamble states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Since 1935 the justices have ignored that provision and permitted lawmakers to delegate their authority to the executive branch. At issue in this case was a provision of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act of 2006, or Sorna, that directed the attorney general to “specify the applicability” of the law’s registration requirements to offenders, like Herman Gundy, whose crimes predated the act. Mr. Gundy, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to register, claimed this delegation was illegitimate.

The case was heard four days before Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Had Justice Alito dissented, the resulting 4-4 split would have upheld the lower court’s ruling against Mr. Gundy without any opinion being issued. Instead, Justice Alito joined his four liberal colleagues in rejecting Mr. Gundy’s appeal but said he was prepared to switch sides: “If a majority of this Court were willing to reconsider the approach we have taken for the past 84 years, I would support that effort.” A dissent from Justice Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, set forth the case for nondelegation.

In their quest to control governmental power and protect individual liberty, the Framers separated federal power among three branches of government. As Justice Gorsuch notes, they also “went to great lengths to make lawmaking difficult,” requiring consent of both houses of Congress and the president, or legislative supermajorities. The veto was the executive branch’s only role in the legislative process.

That was deliberate. Justice Gorsuch quotes Montesquieu, who was quoted by James Madison in Federalist No. 47: “There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates.”

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Congress Can’t Outsource Impeachment

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

31 May 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

It’s as if nothing happened. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department found no wrongdoing by President Trump, so House Democrats stepped up their calls for impeachment. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena for millions of pages of evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, including grand-jury material, which is secret under the law. When the department didn’t comply, Democrats said there was a “constitutional crisis,” and the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

Yet if there is a constitutional crisis, its source is the Democrats. They are abusing the powers of investigation and impeachment in an illegitimate effort to unseat a president they despise.

Congressional Democrats claim they have the power to investigate the president to conduct “oversight” and hold him “accountable.” That elides an important constitutional distinction. As the Supreme Court said in Watkins v. U.S. (1957), Congress may “inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government.” Executive departments and agencies are created by Congress and therefore accountable to it. The president, by contrast, is not a creature of lawmakers. He is Congress’s coequal, accountable to Congress only via impeachment.

To commence impeachment, the House has a constitutional obligation to articulate clear evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A two-year Justice Department investigation did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes. On the Russian collusion issue, Mr. Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” so the duty to do so fell on his boss, Mr. Barr—who, with senior Justice Department officials, concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Read more »

Should Noncitizens Be Represented in Congress?

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Richard Raile

24 April 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court Tuesday will hear oral arguments in the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court orders forbidding it to ask a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The justices’ task in Department of Commerce v. New York won’t be difficult: The law and facts overwhelmingly support the administration. But the case is a proxy for future battles over redistricting and reapportionment, vital components of American democracy that determine the balance of political power within and among states.

The Census Act grants the commerce secretary discretion to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine.” In rejecting the citizenship question, the lower courts usurped that authority and frustrated Congress’s intent. The question about citizenship is far from unprecedented: It was asked in every census but one from 1820 to 1950. Most advanced democracies ask for citizenship information in censuses, a United Nations-recommended best practice.

The administration argues that the citizenship data would help in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and that is manifestly true. By law, “majority minority” districts must be drawn so at least 50% of eligible voters—i.e., citizens over 18—are members of the minority in question. If too many minority residents are ineligible to vote, that defeats the purpose of avoiding the dilution of minority voting strength. Voting-rights litigation and compliance are hampered by the lack of citizenship data in the decennial census.

The plaintiffs in this case, which include 18 states and the District of Columbia, are using the litigation as a means of stifling the legal and policy debate over whether and how citizenship information should be used in redistricting and reapportionment. Read more »

Gerrymandering Disputes Don’t Belong in Court

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Richard Raile

26 March 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

Not every day does the Supreme Court have a chance to advance democracy and reverse a major mistake while also lightening its future workload. But it can do all those things in two cases it hears Tuesday dealing with gerrymandering of congressional districts.

In Davis v. Bandemer (1986), six justices agreed that courts can resolve complaints about so-called partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to favor the party that controls the process. In legal parlance, the justices held that such complaints are “justiciable.” But no five justices were able to agree on what legal principles courts should apply in deciding such cases. That question has been litigated ever since, including this week’s cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek. The court should put an end to this futile experiment by ruling that such claims are nonjusticiable political questions.

Electoral maneuvering, of which gerrymandering is one example, is as old as democracy itself. One of the more colorful examples is the English rotten boroughs system, which allowed the Crown and its supporters to control a substantial number of seats in the House of Commons until the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. Partisan gerrymandering strikes many observers as unfair, but it’s not clear what constitutional provision it might violate. The Constitution itself doesn’t even anticipate the existence of political parties.

The Constitution does address the question of who has the power to draw district lines. Article I, Section 4 provides that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” But the framers understood that what Alexander Hamilton called the “discretionary power over elections” entailed the danger, noted by James Madison, that legislatures might “mould their regulations as to favor the candidates they wish to succeed.” Hamilton went even further, saying unlimited state legislative authority over congressional elections would entail the power to “annihilate” the federal government.

Thus the same section also provides that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” That this delegation of power to Congress was the response to the possibility of abuse is powerful evidence that the Framers addressed the problem through the structural balance-of-power provisions and that a judicial check on legislatures’ politics is unavailable. Because the Framers agreed that a national election code was unworkable and that a benefit inhered in state legislatures’ ability to address local needs and traditions, they chose not to codify standards in the constitution. Read more »