Eric Posner Throws Down the Gauntlet on “Trump v. Judiciary”

Over at his customarily insightful web-log, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner is issuing a challenge: “I’m looking for someone who will provide a legal or constitutional defense of Trump’s attack on the courts.” By “attack,” Posner means President Donald Trump’s recent statements that the judiciary (or at least part of it) is standing in the way of the nation’s national security interests. These statements come on the heels of Judge James Robart’s decision to issue a temporary restraining order against Trump’s controversial executive order (EO) 13,769, which temporarily restricts travel and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The matter is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

I am skeptical that either “a legal or constitutional defense of Trump’s attack on the courts” is necessary given that this so-called attack is, at the moment, primarily political and rhetorical. Although Posner makes a loose comparison between “Trump vs. Judiciary” and “Reagan/G.W. Bush v. Congress,” the latter battle, although infused with political elements, was carried out at the legal level. Poser acknowledges, for instance, that “the Reagan administration . . . sought to change [constitutional doctrine concerning executive power] from within by appointing ideologically committed conservative judges and justices.” Arguably, Trump could go a similar route, though it would take a great deal of time—and even then there is no guarantee that judges who appear highly deferential ex ante their appointments will remain so ex post. As recent Supreme Court history has shown, Republican-appointed justices can and will defect from conservative orthodoxy on numerous matters, ranging from abortion to the power of the government to (apparently) mandate individual entry into the health-care market.

Now, as to Trump’s attack itself, whether it is accurate or not is an empirical question. Up until recently, few doubted that the courts are largely deferential to the executive when it comes to foreign affairs, including national security. Posner does not believe this has changed; rather, he appears to believe that the judiciary does not want to green-light ethnic or cultural discrimination. (It is interesting that Posner does not use the word “religious,” perhaps because he acknowledges that the judiciary has a long history of upholding certain discriminations against religious groups and practices.) And so, to the extent that Trump’s EO (and anticipated future national-security measures) seeks “to purify America of foreign influences in a cultural or even ethnic sense,” the courts are unlikely to budge. If so, that likely has far more to do with ideological rather than legal commitments. The Constitution is openly available to be read in a decidedly ideological manner with little-to-no immediate concern being given to legalism in the strict sense. Whatever creative legal or constitutional argument that can be constructed upholding the EO can be thwarted by equally creative legal or constitutional arguments to the contrary. Ideology, not law, is king.

In the end, there appears to be little reason to believe that a “Trumpian view of the Constitution” isn’t ideological as well. The constitutional text, along with the laws which are ostensibly in harmony with it, is silly putty; it can be twisted and stretched in incalculable ways and pressed against the Zeitgeist to take on new appearances. Maybe Trump does want to “purify” America, or maybe he just wants to keep it secure from credible foreign threats which happen to be associated in the public imagination with a particular ethnic-religious grouping. The judiciary, as currently constituted, may be uncomfortable with one or both possibilities, but Trump needn’t appeal forever to law to overcome them; there are many other less savory means at his disposal.

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