WC doesn’t propose to do a post-mortem on the Kavanaugh confirmation. The nearly-secret installation of the serial liar says it all. As citizens and voters, our only recourse is at the polls in November and in November 2020. We have to move on, which takes WC back to his Administrative Law course, back in law school.
The professor in that class was the late Nate Nathanson. It says something about WC’s age that some of his law school profs were members of the Roosevelt Administration.1 But it’s true. Nathanson was part of Roosevelt’s Justice Department, whose tasks included defending the reform and Great Depression recovery programs from the unrelenting attacks of the U.S. Supreme Court. And Nate had great stories.
In 1935 alone, the four justice majority of the Hughes court struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936)), along with the Federal Farm Bankruptcy Act, the Railroad Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Coal Mining Act. Despite the vast human misery caused by the Great Depression, the Four Horsemen clung to a 19th Century policy of “laissez-faire” economics, narrowly interpreting the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution despite the profound changes in the nature of the U.S. economy.
On the political side, the Roosevelt Administration pursued its controversial – and ultimately unsuccessful – court packing scheme. But in the trenches, DOJ’s tactic, according to Prof. Nathanson, was to keep the new federal laws enacted to replace those voided by the Supreme Court, away from the Supreme Court for as long as possible. The idea was to stall as long as possible, letting the laws have as much impact as possible in relieving the economic crisis before the SCOTUS voided them. The Rules of Appellate Procedure – the rules for getting cases heard on appeal – were a lot more Byzantine back in the 1930s, as were the trial court rules. Nate told how his DOJ team took every advantage of those overly-complex rules to keep cases away from the Four Horsemen for as long as possible.
But Nate’s best story involved Justice Owen Roberts. He was the swing vote on New Deal cases. Nathanson had clerked for Justice Roberts after graduating from law school. In 1936, Justice Roberts changed his views on the Commerce Clause, and started voting with the other four justices and the New Deal programs started passing constitutional muster. It’s called “The switch in time that saved nine,”
But, at least according to Nathanson, its origins may have been more prosaic. Justice Roberts hosted an annual dinner for his former law clerks. At the 1936 dinner, another former law clerk movingly told the group how he had been volunteering at a soup kitchen, and described eloquently the size of the lines waiting for a meal, the misery and despair, and the sheer human suffering. Justice Roberts, according to Nathanson’s story, was visibly shaken. And after oral argument the next week in the federal minimum wage case, West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, Justice Roberts reversed his position in the earlier Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (a decision he had authored) and voted to sustain the federal minimum wage, a 180 degree change from the year before.
When one of the Four Horsemen, Justice Willis Van Devanter, retired the next year Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black in his place. And very few New Deal initiatives were held unconstitutional afterwards.
So the solution for dealing with the Kavanaugh court may be to stall, to work to keep cases away from the SCOTUS, and to work on changing the points of view of some of the members of the conservative majority. Impeachment of Justice Kavanaugh for his multiple lies to Congress while under oath will have to wait for a change in Congress.