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Reject Justice Brown

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

THE SENATE filibuster agreement guaranteeing up-or-down votes for most judicial nominees creates a test for conservatives who rail against judicial activism. For decades, conservative politicians have objected to the use of the courts to bring about liberal policy results, arguing that judges should take a restrained view of their role. Now, with Republicans in control of the presidency and the Senate, President Bush has nominated a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit who has been more open about her enthusiasm for judicial adventurism than any nominee of either party in a long time. But Janice Rogers Brown's activism comes from the right, not the left; the rights she would write into the Constitution are economic, not social. Suddenly, all but a few conservatives seem to have lost their qualms about judicial activism. Justice Brown, who serves on the California Supreme Court, will get her vote as early as tomorrow. No senator who votes for her will have standing any longer to complain about legislating from the bench.

Justice Brown, in speeches, has openly embraced the "Lochner" era of Supreme Court jurisprudence. During this period a century ago, the court struck down worker protection laws that, the justices held, violated a right to free contract they found in the Constitution's due process protections. There exist few areas of greater agreement in the study of constitutional law than the disrepute of the "Lochner" era, whose very name -- taken from the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York -- has become a code word for judicial overreaching. Justice Brown, however, has dismissed the famed dissent in Lochner by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying it "annoyed her" and was "simply wrong." And she has celebrated the possibility of a revival of "what might be called Lochnerism-lite" using a different provision of the Constitution -- the prohibition against governmental "takings" of private property without just compensation.

In the context of her nomination, Justice Brown has trivialized such statements as merely attempts to be provocative. But she has not just given provocative speeches; "Lochnerism-lite" is a fairly good shorthand for her work on the bench, where she has sought to use the takings doctrine aggressively. She began one dissent, in a case challenging regulation of a hotel, by noting that "private property, already an endangered species in California, is now entirely extinct in San Francisco." Her colleagues on the California Supreme Court certainly got what she was up to. In response, they quoted Justice Holmes's Lochner dissent and noted that "nothing in the law of takings would justify an appointed judiciary in imposing [any] personal theory of political economy on the people of a democratic state."

Justice Brown is that rare nominee for whom one can draw a direct line between intellectual advocacy of aggressive judicial behavior and actual conduct as a judge. Time was when conservatives were wary of judges who openly yearned for courts, as Justice Brown puts it, "audacious enough to invoke higher law" -- instead of, say, the laws the people's elected representatives see fit to pass. That Justice Brown will now get a vote means that each senator must take a stand on whether some forms of judicial activism are more acceptable than others.

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