Can legal formalism help save democracy? That is a question posed by a very interesting draft paper posted by Will Baude of the University of Chicago last week, “The Real Enemies of Democracy.” Baude’s paper is a response to Pam Karlan’s 2020 Jorde Symposium lecture, “The New Countermajoritarian Difficulty,” in which Karlan laments the recent Supreme Court’s failure to take action against anti-majoritarian forces that dilute the votes of, or outright disenfranchise, millions: the Electoral College, the filibuster, campaign finance, gerrymandering, and anti-suffrage laws.
But Baude has his eyes set on a different horizon: “I worry that democracy faces far worse enemies than the Senate, the Electoral College, or the Supreme Court. Those enemies are the ones who resist the peaceful transfer of power, or subvert the hard-wired law of succession in office.” And he suggests a different bulwark to hold them back: “The shield against them may be more formalism, not less.”
I agree with Baude’s sense of the threats, but I think the hope that formalism—or even the rule of law generally—will save us is misplaced. It was often said of the Soviet Union that it had an extremely rights-protective constitution; better than that of the United States, even. But of course the problem was that the Communist Party was not really bound by it. Formal guarantees mean nothing without the will to back them up. Law without faith is dead.
Under Wisconsin Law, the governor possesses extremely broad power to issue any order that he or she deems necessary to protect lives and property during a state of emergency. When responding to an outbreak of a communicable disease, the governor has the specific power to prohibit public gatherings in any place within the state and for any period of time while the emergency is ongoing. The source of this authority is the power granted to the governor under the Emergency Management Act, which places a duty on the governor to issue orders coordinating the state’s response to a disaster, and the power granted to the Secretary of the Department of Health Services to issue orders forbidding public gatherings during an epidemic. As the top executive branch official in the State of Wisconsin, Governor Evers has both the statutory authority to direct the state’s emergency response efforts and the constitutional authority to make full use of the power of the state’s administrative departments.
On April 6, the Wisconsin Supreme Court — its members meeting under emergency procedures intended to protect their own health — issued an order that had the practical effect of requiring Wisconsin voters who had not already received an absentee ballot to visit a polling place on April 7 and vote in person if they wished to cast a ballot in the spring election.
The result of the Court’s ruling in Wisconsin Legislature v. Evers was to place Wisconsin voters in an untenable position. The ruling disenfranchised anyone who wished to shelter at home in order to avoid possible exposure to Covid-19, a deadly communicable disease, if that person lacked either a computer, internet access, a scanner for making a digital copy of their ID, or a witness to verify their absentee ballot. All of these prerequisites were necessary before a Wisconsin voter could obtain and cast an absentee ballot whilst still sheltering in place. The majority opinion was clear: for anyone who fell into this category, the price of casting a ballot was risking exposure to Covid-19.
The majority opinion in Wisconsin Legislature v. Evers has nothing to do with defending the Rule of Law, and it is a mistake to characterize it in that fashion. There is nothing in any law passed by the Wisconsin legislature that requires the result announced by the Court. Indeed, had the Wisconsin Supreme Court truly intended to uphold the longstanding statutory scheme relating to government powers in response to an outbreak of communicable disease, the Court would have arrived at a contrary result.
The State of Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, has been engaged in a struggle to contain the spread of a coronavirus known as Covid-19. On March 12, 2020, Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order 72, declaring a public health emergency in Wisconsin. This order was part of a series of executive actions taken by Governor Evers and other executive branch officials in order to address public health and safety concerns during the spread of this deadly communicable disease. On March 24, 2020, the Secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Andrea Palm, acting at the direction of Governor Evers, issued Emergency Order 12 (the “Safer-at-Home Order”). That order directed all individuals in Wisconsin to shelter at home, unless engaged in essential activities, until April 24, 2020, or until such time as a superseding directive took effect.
The Summer 2019 issue of Marquette Lawyer features three pairs of stories with an underlying common theme that can be summed up by one of the headlines: “In Search of Better Outcomes.” This issue of the Marquette Law School semiannual magazine overall has a substantial historical orientation, but it also speaks strongly to current realities and issues—as has become even clearer since the magazine hit the streets a few weeks ago. Simply put, learning about the past helps in understanding the present and considering the future. This post takes up one pair of articles: the cover story and a reaction to it.
The cover story, “Dying Constitutionalism and the Fourteenth Amendment,” is an edited version of the Robert F. Boden Lecture given at Marquette Law School in fall 2018, by Ernest A. Young, the Alston & Bird Professor at Duke Law School. While the Fourteenth Amendment later would be crucial to the growth of constitutional protections and the extension of civil rights—the linchpin of America’s “second founding,” as it is sometimes called—Young focuses on the first 75 years after the amendment was ratified in 1868. It was a period of broad suppression of civil rights, particularly those of African Americans—the Fourteenth Amendment not working much to the contrary.
Young’s purpose is not so much historical as jurisprudential: He presents his essay as a cautionary tale about “living constitutionalism,” demonstrating that, while that mode of constitutional interpretation was not the Court’s stated approach in those 75 years, it could have been: For “every one of [living constitutionalism’s] modalities strongly supported the compromise or even abandonment of the amendment’s core purpose of freedom and equality for black Americans.” Simply stated, the history of the use of the amendment is a reminder that “social progress is not inevitable, that social forces can push constitutional meaning in bad as well as good directions, that living can turn into dying constitutionalism if we are not very, very careful,” Young writes.
In a comment on Young’s lecture, David A. Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago and author of The Living Constitution (Oxford 2012), says that the early failures under the Fourteenth Amendment need to be reckoned with by those who are proponents of living constitutionalism. He writes that Young’s lecture shows that “in the end, there is only so much that the law can do to save a society from its own moral failings.”