Tom Bowden: Justice Holmes Undermining of the U.S. Constitution

Writes Tom Bowden at New Ideal on “Justice Holmes and the Empty Constitution“:

Scholars have called it “the greatest judicial opinion of the last hundred years” and “a major turning point in American constitutional jurisprudence.” Today, his dissent not only exerts strong influence over constitutional interpretation and the terms of public debate, but it also serves as a litmus test for discerning a judge’s fundamental view of the United States Constitution. This means that any Supreme Court nominee who dares to question Holmes’s wisdom invites a fierce confirmation battle and risks Senate rejection. As one observer recently remarked, “The ghost of Lochner continues to haunt American constitutional law.”

What heinous offense did the Lochner majority commit to provoke Holmes’s caustic dissent? It was not the fact that they had struck down a New York law setting maximum working hours for bakers. Holmes personally disapproved of such paternalistic laws and never questioned the Supreme Court’s power to strike down legislation that violated some particular clause in the Constitution. No, in Holmes’s eyes the majority’s unforgivable sin did not lie in the particular result they reached, but in the method by which they reached it. The majority interpreted the Constitution as if it embodies a principled commitment to protecting individual liberty. But no such foundational principle exists, Holmes asserted, and the sooner judges realize they are expounding an empty Constitution — empty of any underlying view on the relationship of the individual to the state — the sooner they will step aside and allow legislators to decide the fate of individuals such as Joseph Lochner.

 

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