Judicial Independence in America

A look at the conventions of judicial independence in the United States

Although American constitutional thought has long ignored the fact that conventions are scarcely less important to the operation of the Constitution of the United States than they are to Westminster-type constitutions, this blind spot is being removed. Tara Leigh Grove’s forthcoming article on “The Origins (and Fragility) of Judicial Independence” under the US Constitution is largely, and deliberately, a story of conventions, and a well-told one. Although Article III of the Constitution entrenches some protections for judges ― the tenure and salary guarantees that were already protected in Great Britain by the Act of Settlement 1701 ― prof. Groves shows that much of the architecture of judicial independence that observers of the American judiciary take for granted has no obvious foundation in the constitutional text. It is, instead, built of convention.

Prof. Grove examines three ways in which judicial independence is respected in the United States that “are so deeply ingrained in our public consciousness that it rarely
occurs to anyone to question them”, and that they have assumed the status of “self-evident” “truths”:

judges are entitled to life tenure and salary protections, and cannot be removed outside the impeachment process. Political actors must comply with federal court orders. And “packing” the Supreme Court is wrong. (1)

There is, prof. Grove argues, nothing self-evident about any of this. The constitutional text was once thought to permit these violations of judicial independence. But then ― quite recently ― “political actors built the conventions” that make them well-nigh unthinkable. (2)

More specifically, prof. Grove shows that American political actors long thought that it was permissible to remove judges from office by abolishing their courts (except the Supreme Court itself, on the basis that it alone was explicitly mentioned in the constitution). There were a number of attempts to do so, some of them successful:

Through at least the early twentieth century, although the abolition of federal court judgeships was controversial, it was by no means considered “ridiculous” or “off-the-wall”. (13)

And yet over the course of the last century that is exactly how this idea came to be treated. Indeed the very fact that judges had in the past been removed because their courts were abolished was forgotten. Proposals of such measures are now met with consternation and fierce resistance ― as befits violations of conventions.

Similarly, although there now exists “widespread and bipartisan consensus that political actors must abide by federal court orders”, (17) this too is a relatively recent constitutional innovation. While some scholars still suggest that there is, occasionally, room for executive resistance to judicial decisions, political actors have abandoned this view, which they had long held. Prof. Grove traces this change of political heart to the aftermath of  desegregation decisions, showing that even those politicians who, like President Eisenhower, had originally seemed to accept resistance to court orders as legitimate then came to condemn it. From then on, “subsequent political actors did not want to be equated with the segregationists who led the ‘massive resistance’ to” the cause of civil rights. (25)

Last but not least, “[t]here is a strong norm today against … modifying the [Supreme] Court’s size in order to alter the future course of its decisions”. (29) Yet the text of the US Constitution says nothing about the number of judges there must be on the Court (except that there must be a Chief Justice), and historically, Congress has decreased and increased it on a number of occasions, “often … in part for partisan reasons”. (30) Indeed, the convention against doing so has not been around for as long as one might think. Prof. Grove points out that although Franklin Roosevelt’s notorious “court-packing” scheme  aroused “strong opposition”, it “also had considerable support in Congress and came close to passage”. (29) It is only “starting in the late 1950s”, (34) some time after a proposal for a constitutional amendment fixing the Supreme Court’s size failed to pass, that the convention against court-packing solidified ― to the point where the term “court-packing” became an all-purpose epithet.

Prof. Grove argues that the conventions of judicial independence are “historically contingent”; they could have been different now, and they might be different in the future. She notes that there is no convention preventing the enactment of legislation denying the federal courts, or specifically the Supreme Court, the jurisdiction over certain types of cases, although in her view “the protection for judicial independence would be far stronger if there were a convention leading officials not even to propose, much less seriously consider, jurisdiction-stripping bills”. (42) Why, though, is there no such convention, while there conventions against firing judges by abolishing courts, disobeying court orders, or court-packing? Prof. Grove attributes the difference to “narratives” ― to the way lawyers and officials (many of them, of course, lawyers by training) ― were told the stories of the various forms of interference with the courts and re-told these stories in their turn. Conventions developed against those practices that the “narratives” condemned, and against that which it did not.

Prof. Grove concludes with a question that has caused considerable difficulty to courts and scholars in the Commonwealth: that of the relationship between conventions and law. Could it be the case that “the norms protecting judicial tenure and requiring obedience with federal court orders have become so well-accepted that they have transformed into binding rules of law”? (54) Prof. Grove says that she “do[es] not foreclose the possibility that conventions may over time crystallize into legal rules”, thought “the precise mechanisms by which such crystallization may occur” remain uncertain. (54) She notes that ultimately both conventions and legal rules can change in response to a changed political environment ― and cautions that this change need not always be for the better.

Prof. Grove’s historical account is worth the attention of anyone interested in American Constitutional law. Her demonstration of the importance of conventions in the operation of the constitution ― small c ― of the United States should provide an effective counter-argument to claims of exceptionalism, and resulting superiority or inferiority (depending on the speaker’s substantive views), made both in America and in the Commonwealth. “Written” constitutions do not settle all constitutional questions, nor do they prevent the development of conventions that restrict the discretion that constitutional actors might seem to enjoy under the terms of black-letter constitutional law, whether authoritatively enacted or common law.

Prof. Grove’s account leaves a number of important questions unanswered ― not only that of the interplay between convention and law and the possibility of “crystallization”, but also that of the role of “narratives” in relation to conventions. Saying that narratives determine whether conventions do or not arise seems to beg the question of why narratives develop in one way rather than another, and perhaps to obscure the role of constitutional principles that underpin conventions in shaping those narratives. Perhaps prof. Grove might have paid more attention to what the principle of judicial independence means ― and, for instance, to whether it actually requires restrictions on legislatures’ ability to limit courts’ jurisdiction. (It seems to me that some legislative control over jurisdiction is necessary for the good administration of justice, and that removal of discrete elements of a court’s jurisdiction will not always, perhaps rarely, interfere with its independence.)

But these are friendly criticisms ― one cannot expect a single article to fully tell a story as complex as that which prof. Grove begins. I hope that she and/or her colleagues will take it up. Constitutional theory can only be enriched if American scholars pay constitutional conventions the attention they deserve. Prof. Grove makes a very valuable contribution to this endeavour.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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