Monday, February 17, 2014

Does an Originalist Constitution Need a Standing Doctrine?

One of originalism's self-reported strengths is that it fixes constitutional meaning in a time and manner distant from immediate social controversies. The trouble with a constitution that adopts to the times is that constitutional rights are vulnerable to prevailing political winds. You may have robust freedom of speech protections now, because legal elites think it wise, but if tides change those rights disappear as the document "evolves" in another direction. And such politicized interpretations are more likely under a living constitutionalist model, because making constitutional law "in the moment" means that the enactors (i.e., the judges) will necessarily be more prone to self-interested or partisan motivations. They'll have skin in the game (even if it is only ideological) slanting their interpretations; the framers, who crafted their rules distant from today's particular social controversies, are more likely to be objective. And indeed, this is a large part of the reason why we want constitutional entrenchments in the first place: we make decisions today, when passions are cool, precisely because we cannot guarantee how we'll respond in the fires of a particular heated social controversy.

Now compare the above to modern constitutional standing doctrine. Courts can only hear actual "cases or controversies", defined as situations where the plaintiff has suffered a concrete and particular (not conjectural or hypothetical) "injury-in-fact", caused by the defendant, and redressable by a favorable ruling. The rationale is that "concrete adverseness . . . sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions." Deciding cases only once they've become a case ensures that courts have access to the full range of circumstances and consequences of adopting a particular constitutional rule. By contrast, "advisory opinions" passing hypothetical judgment on legal challenges which have not yet risen to a true adversarial controversy are unreliable because they lack this immediacy -- they operate in an unreal and speculative atmosphere not conducive to accurate decision-making.

These theories of decisional efficacy are in tension. The former (originalism) values distance as a means of securing objectivity, the latter (standing doctrine) favors proximity in order to achieve clarity. If we adopt an originalist methodological approach to constitutional interpretation, it is unclear why we would need or even want to preserve modern standing doctrine (at least in constitutional cases). The whole point, after all, is to decide cases without being mired inside the pressures and obscuring tendency of a genuine social controversy. The latter by definition cannot aid in ascertaining the meaning of the relevant constitutional clause (which was fixed long before); it can only distract adjudicators by drawing out the proximate and partisan consequences of a particular holding.

It is true one can craft a very instrumentalized version of the value of standing doctrine which would still apply even under "originalist" values. Under this rendition, standing doctrine assists courts because the presence of an actual controversy ensures that the relevant legal issues will be argued robustly by legal counsel with a strong incentive to press their case to the fullest. Basically, constitutional standing is valuable because it produces good briefs.

This justification for standing is oft-repeated, but I wonder if anyone believes it. Anyone who has ever observed a courtroom is well aware that standing is not actually any bar to very poorly argued cases, or worse (from the perspective of trying to come to a legally accurate decision), cases with complete mismatches between the skill sets of the attorneys. One often thinks about how one does not want a given set of facts to be the ones which set a particular legal precedent, but as a clerk I was more often worried about the precedent-setting effect of cases where important issues were being inadequately lawyered -- making potential valid arguments sound off-the-wall and foreclosing them for everyone. And even if we could be assured of competent and evenly-matched counsel, it just isn't true that concrete adverseness always promotes a full airing of legal arguments. An actual controversy means that litigation positions are chained to the idiosyncratic interests of the litigants, who may have ample reason to not promote certain outcomes or ways of looking at the case (particularly when we're talking about rules which will govern many future cases -- the problem of "playing for rules").

Once the value of the proximate social circumstances is taken out of the occasion, it is possible that advisory opinions would promote better advocacy precisely because only persons and groups who are highly invested in the issue in the abstract, not just because of how it happens to affect them immediately, would bother to argue for it.

So that's the question for the floor: Is there a tension between the decision-making values of modern standing doctrine and constitutional originalism?


PG said...

Sorry to be totally off-topic, but being stuck in an airport with CNN means I got an excruciating amount of coverage about the Michael Dunn case, and the jurors' difficult with the self-defense claim reminded me of a post on here where someone commented that racism ought to become merely an unfortunate weakness, like trouble with math, rather than being seen as a moral failing. The fact that someone's racism changes his perception of threat, such that he perceives a car full of black teenagers as more likely to be armed and therefore an imminent threat to his life, seems to me to make this extremely different from something like being bad at math. You can't fire 10 times into a vehicle of numbers.

It's in rare cases like these where my ability to do what in most circumstances does seem like the right thing -- turn the focus away from accusing an individual of being racist, and toward focusing on a specific statement or action as having an unjustly detrimental effect on certain races -- doesn't seem to be able to operate. When an unarmed black person is dead because of another person's racialized perception of him as a threat, isn't that the point at which we need to treat that person's psychological racism as the problem itself? Waiting for the act seems to extract too high a price.

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