Supreme Anxiety

Do the Supreme Court strategies of Obama, Clinton, and McCain offer any reason to cheer?


On Sunday, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday. Last month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned a spry seventy-five. It takes no leap of faith to imagine America's next president replacing one or both of these justices on the Court. Aside from the usual talking points—one side will protect the right to choose, the other will overturn Roe v. Wade, etc.—what sort of justices should we expect from major party frontrunners Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain?

On the most pressing issues of the day, executive power and civil liberties during times of war, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is by far the most palatable. For starters, he's clearly on record against the Bush administration's illegal wartime power grab—what the University of Chicago's Richard Epstein has called "executive power on steroids." Obama has said repeatedly that he'll close Guantanamo, restore habeas corpus to American-born enemy combatants, and end "the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries." He thinks the detention of American citizens without trial is illegal and is opposed to both warrantless wiretapping and the use of presidential signing statements to bypass federal law. Any judge sharing most or all of these views would be a welcome addition to the current Supreme Court.

At a glance, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) occupies similar ground. Stating her opposition to Judge Samuel Alito's recent confirmation to the Supreme Court, for instance, Clinton excoriated Alito's "excessive deference to presidential authority, coupled with his restrictive view of congressional authority, [which] tells me he doesn't have the proper reverence for separation of powers."

Fine words. But what about her own deference to the wishes of the White House when voting for the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and its reauthorization in 2006? What about her support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a position she's trying unsuccessfully to downplay in the face of Obama's more credible antiwar record? Does anyone actually believe President Hillary Rodham Clinton will inaugurate a more restrained executive branch? The candidate herself apparently doesn't. As Jacob Sullum noted here earlier this week, Clinton told ABC News that, "I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority."

John McCain, of course, has made winning the Iraq War the centerpiece of his campaign. Yet he's also spoken out forcefully against the use of waterboarding and rejected outright the use of presidential signing statements, telling the Boston Globe, "I will either sign or veto any legislation that comes across my desk." Those are big pluses.

On the question of enemy combatants, however, McCain turns coy, maintaining that while American citizens are entitled to due process, the commander in chief nonetheless retains the power to hold them as enemy combatants. Precisely what due process means in this context remains unclear. Ultimately, however, it's McCain's vigorous and misguided support for this unnecessary war that's the most troubling in terms of the future Court. There is every reason to believe that McCain's nominees would vote to uphold his administration's conduct and pursuit of the war. That's why he'd place them on the Supreme Court in the first place.

Nevertheless, McCain does have his moments. Asked by a writer from Human Events which legal precedent he'd most like the Supreme Court to overturn, McCain responded "eminent domain," a reference to Kelo v. City of New London, the deplorable 2005 decision which allowed the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to acquire private property seized via eminent domain under an "economic revitalization" plan. "That is one I am very concerned about," McCain stressed.

That's a great answer. But what about McCain's frequently repeated promise to avoid so-called activist judges, to nominate only those individuals who "do not legislate from the bench?" The Kelo decision, it's important to remember, represents McCain's dream of judicial restraint, not his nightmare of judicial activism. In Kelo, Justices Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and Kennedy deferred to the wisdom of local officials; they respected the electoral preferences of local voters. Only an activist Court would have struck down New London's development scheme. Indeed, it would have taken a majority that legislated its own views "from the bench" to save Susette Kelo's home from the bulldozer. On this point, of course, McCain simply echoes the confusion of most contemporary conservatives, who rail against judicial activists for striking down sodomy laws on the one hand, while openly wishing for activist judges to strike down affirmative action and eminent domain laws on the other.

Still, McCain's muddled take on law and economics at least recognizes property rights. His Democratic opponents are openly hostile to any decision that would limit the size or scope of the regulatory state. Explaining his vote against the confirmation of Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, for example, Senator Obama listed a handful of contentious issues where "what is in the judge's heart" will prove critical. In addition to abortion and affirmative action, both of which are predictable litmus tests for any Democrat, Obama singled out the question of "whether the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce."

He's referring here to the post-New Deal trend of Congress relying on its constitutional power, under Article 1, Section 8, "To regulate Commerce…among the several states," in order to pass legislation touching on every aspect of American life, from economics to crime. In essence, as the legal scholar Randy Barnett has argued, by adopting the widest possible interpretation of the Commerce Clause, "courts have granted Congress a near plenary power to do anything it wills and have thus nearly destroyed the system of limited enumerated powers."

Which is apparently fine with Barack Obama. So is the Court's disastrous decision in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), which struck down California's medical marijuana law in favor of federal anti-drug laws "tangentially related" to interstate commerce. Given Obama's weepy remarks last year to Planned Parenthood, where he described his ideal Supreme Court justice as "somebody who's got the heart, the empathy" to sympathize with society's downtrodden, Obama's lack of empathy for medical marijuana users is doubly deplorable.

Not that Hillary Clinton's record on the Commerce Clause is much better. Consider her response to U.S. v. Lopez (1995), where the Supreme Court nullified the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which had made it a federal crime under the Commerce Clause to knowingly possess a handgun within 1,000 feet of a school. Speaking before the liberal American Constitution Society in 2003, a speech later reprinted in the Georgetown Law Journal, Senator Clinton attacked Lopez for imposing-for "the first time in sixty years," no less-a "substantive limit on what Congress can and cannot do under the Commerce Clause." As if that wasn't bad enough, Senator Clinton found herself worrying about the constitutionality of every bright new idea. "The next time I consider school safety legislation, should I wonder whether school safety is 'truly national' or 'truly local,'" she asked. The answer, by the way, is yes. Of course she should wonder, as should every lawmaker. That they don't is all too obvious.

So where does all that leave libertarians over the next four years? Given that the Supreme Court is very likely to hear cases challenging the Bush administration's wartime policies and very unlikely to revisit the Kelo or Raich decisions, Obama definitely emerges as the lesser evil. But given his dangerously illiberal views on economics, as well as the tough political realities he (or Clinton or McCain) will likely face, we're better off forgoing hope and preparing for the worst.

Damon W. Root is a reason associate editor.