Weighing in on the legal extremism of the Obama Administration

June 26

I agree with Ilya, writing below, that the Obama Administration’s legal positions have been extreme, and I agree with Orin,writing below, that one can’t measure the extremism of the Obama Administration simply by counting 9-0 Supreme Court votes. But here are some examples of Obama Administration extremism, from Supreme Court litigation and otherwise:

(1) Hosanna-Tabor: At oral argument, the Justices clarified that the administration’s position was that churches have no free exercise or establishment clause right to choose their clergy free from government interference.  This was contrary to the position previously taken by every circuit court ruling on the issue, and contrary to what just about all law and religion scholars, save a few on the far left who think that the government should force the Catholic Church to accept women priests and the like, believed the First Amendment to require.  At oral argument, Justice Kagan deemed the government’s position “amazing.”   The government argued that, hey, churches could still rely on the right to expressive association, which applies to all non-commercial entities, if the government tried to interfere with their choice of clergy via antidiscrimination law or otherwise.  Making that argument required a huge amount of chutzpah, given that everyone knows that liberal lawyers of the sort who populate the Obama Administration DOJ hate the leading case on expressive association, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, precisely because it provides private non-profit institutions with some  autonomy to discriminate in employment.  Not surprisingly, the government lost Hosanna Tabor 9-0. If it could  have been 50-0, it would have been.

(2) Libya and the War Powers Act: The War Powers Act provides that on commencement of foreign hostilities involving American forces, the president must inform Congress, and then must withdraw forces within ninety days absent Congressional approval.  Defense Department lawyers told the president the War Powers Act applied to the bombing of Libya.  OLC lawyers told the president the same.  The president then went trolling for a lawyer who would say the opposite, and found, of all people, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, who ironically had built his academic career on arguing that the Constitution forbids the president from acting unilaterally in national security matters.  Koh’s legal rationale was that bombing the heck out of Libya did not constitute “hostilities” under the Act.  Most lawyers I know who are familiar with the issue can’t repeat this argument with a straight face.  The strongest “defense” I’ve heard of Koh’s reasoning, from a law professor sympathetic to the administration, is that Koh’s argument, adopted by the president, “isn’t completely ridiculous”–which is not, of course, to say it wasn’t extreme.

(3) Unilaterally delaying Obamacare mandates for transparently political reasons.  If there’s anyone who’s managed to come up with a plausible legal defense of the president unilaterally delaying enforcement of mandatory Obamacare rules past their statutory timeframe so they won’t affect the 2014 midterm elections, I haven’t seen it yet.  And if there’s anyone who’s managed to come up with a plausible case that these delays are not in fact primarily political in nature, I haven’t seen that yet, either.  The Obama Administration and its government-by-Friday-afternoon-blogpost (h/t Josh Blackman) announcing changes to  the ACA seems predicated on the very radical legal theory that “if we can get away with it because no one has standing to challenge it, then in effect it’s legal.”

These are hardly the only examples.  Noel Canning, rearranging the ranking of creditors in the Chrysler bankruptcy, appointing “czars” with real policy-making authority to avoid confirmation hearings (see Sollenberger and Rozell, The President’s Czars), DOJ votings rights division lawyers acting on the belief that the Voting Rights Act either doesn’t or shouldn’t be construed to  protect white voters from discrimination in majority-minority districts, the president ordering his underlings not to implement immigration laws to try to accomplish much of what the failed Dream Act was meant to achieve–one can go on and on about the extreme, sometimes truly lawless, “legal positions” this administration has taken.  I don’t think this is merely a difference in degree from prior administrations, Democratic and Republican, but of kind.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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Prof. William Birdthistle (guest-blogging) | June 26