At President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit faced ample vacancies that the United States Courts’ Administrative Office labeled “judicial emergencies” because of their protracted length and its huge caseload. Recent departures by Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt and former Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who occupied California posts, and other jurists’ decision to change their active status mean that the circuit has five emergencies, three in California, because Trump has appointed only three nominees. The court also resolves the most filings least expeditiously.
Limited clarity about whether more judges will leave active service over Trump’s presidency suggests that additional confirmations may be necessary; however, the selection process’s stunning politicization will compromise this initiative. For example, when the tribunal enjoined Trump’s controversial determinations which excluded immigrants from seven predominately Muslim nations, he excoriated multiple jurists of the circuit. Trump afforded numerous candidates, but merely three have received approval, partly because home state Democratic politicians retained “blue slips” when the White House minimally consulted. The vacancies—which exceed seventeen percent, and three California openings, which are ten—show the crucial need to fill more vacancies.
Our constitutional jurisprudence is in large measure built around the concept of guarding against arbitrary governmental action. But in an age of increasing legislative dysfunction, a more pronounced threat may be arbitrary congressional inaction. Individual members of Congress block majorities from voting on key legislation, and a single senator may prevent votes on executive and judicial branch nominations through the use of holds and other tactics. This form of congressional inaction not only poses a threat to many framework principles such as legislative supremacy, democratic accountability, and separation of powers, but also embodies the very concerns over arbitrary government that form the basis of over two hundred years of judicial review. For these reasons, this Article advances a novel, and undoubtedly contentious argument: federal courts should review certain types of congressional inaction for arbitrariness. To overcome the skepticism likely to greet the proposal, the Article establishes the solid historical and analytic foundations for such review before undertaking the step of explaining how it might work in practice.
This Article considers the likely effects of continued political polarization on the relative power of Congress and the Supreme Court. Polarization is already leading to an increase in the power of the Court against Congress, whether or not the Justices affirmatively seek that additional power. The governing model of congressional-Supreme Court relations is that the branches are in dialogue on statutory interpretation: Congress writes federal statutes, the Court interprets them, and Congress has the power to overrule the Court’s interpretations. The Court’s interpretive rules are premised upon this dialogic model, such as the rule that Supreme Court statutory interpretation precedents are subject to “super strong” stare decisis protection because Congress can always correct an errant court interpretation. Legislation scholars also write as though congressional overriding remains common.
In fact, in the last two decades the rate of congressional overriding of Supreme Court statutory decisions has plummeted dramatically, from an average of twelve overrides of Supreme Court cases in each two-year congressional term during the 1975-1990 period, to an average of 5.8 overrides for each term from 1991-2000, and to a mere 2.8 average number of overrides for each term from 2001-2012. Although some of the decline seems attributable to the lower volume of Supreme Court statutory interpretation decisions, the decline in overrides greatly outpaces this decline in cases. Moreover, the decline does not appear to be driven by a decline in the amount of overall legislation. Instead, partisanship seems to have strongly diminished the opportunities for bipartisan overrides of Supreme Court cases, in which Democrats and Republicans come together to reverse the Supreme Court.
In its place we see a new, but rarer, phenomenon, partisan overriding, which appears to require conditions of near-unified control of both branches of Congress and the presidency. Two recent examples are (1) the Military Commissions Act of 2006, in which Republicans overturned the Court’s statutory interpretation decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld on the habeas corpus rights of enemy combatants, and (2) the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, in which Democrats overturned the Court’s statutory interpretation decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. on how to measure the statute of limitations period in certain employment discrimination lawsuits. In a highly polarized atmosphere and with Senate rules usually requiring sixty votes to change the status quo, the Court’s word on the meaning of statutes is now final almost as often as its word on constitutional interpretation.
Last year, the country watched incredulously as Congress investigated whether the Department of Justice and the White House had used the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for political advantage.
Federal agencies make an astounding number of policy decisions, engaging in more lawmaking and adjudication than Congress and the federal courts. These policy judgments range from the seemingly trivial, such as the size of holes in swiss cheese, to matters of life-and-death importance, such as how to limit power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. According to the statute books, over 1100 Senate-confirmed presidential appointees are supposed to run these agencies and direct these policy decisions, comprising a small but critically important component of a federal workforce of over 2.5 million employees. Yet filling these top-level positions in the federal administrative state is cumbersome, inconsistent, and at times controversial. New administrations are often quick to select the cabinet but take much longer to staff the next few layers. Appointee tenure is short, leading to many new openings a year or two later. Then agency officials flee government service near the end of an administration. Vacancies, particularly if frequent and lengthy, may have detrimental consequences for the modern administrative state. They contribute to agency inaction, foster confusion among nonpolitical employees, and undermine agency legitimacy. More surprising is that vacancies also can have beneficial repercussions for agency performance.