I promised to offer today some of the “general lessons” from my new book, Constitutional Cliffhangers. I will divide them into two posts that excerpt and paraphrase the final chapter of the book. This one will deal with the way that law and politics interact when constitutional cliffhangers play out.
For the cliffhangers that would play out entirely in court (presidential prosecutions and self-pardons), one would hope that judges would base their decisions on law, not politics. When Clinton claimed he was immune from Paula Jones’s civil suit, all nine justices disagreed, including the four liberals. Similarly, when President Nixon refused to turn over the Watergate tapes, the justices — many of whom Nixon had appointed — were unanimous in ordering him to.
But the starting point for most cliffhangers is that the law is unclear. When the law is in equipoise but the politics are screamingly unbalanced, the court’s decision will be inextricably linked with its political context. Here, the example is not Clinton or Nixon, but Bush v. Gore.
The Bush v. Gore litigation was, on its face, all about the complicated legal issues; no lawyers said in court, “My client should win because he belongs to your favorite political party, your honor.” But it was evident that if Bush won the case, he would win the presidency. That political ramification overwhelmed the legal issues. Few believe that all nine justices would have voted the same way if the parties had been reversed. When politics infuse the courts like that, the moral authority of the judicial system necessarily suffers. There is an added incentive, then, to prevent constitutional cliffhangers if we think that they would play out in court in such a politicized manner.
Several of my cliffhangers also implicate the political-question doctrine, through which courts [...]