by Katherine Beck Johnson , Arielle Leake
July 6, 2020
The recent ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County has once again brought the judiciary’s role to the forefront of public discussion. As Justice Alito pointed out in his dissent, what the Court did in Bostock was legislate. By redefining sex to mean “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” they changed the meaning and application of the 1964 Civil Rights Act without Congress even lifting a finger. However, this is not the first time that the Court has overstepped its bounds as the independent judiciary. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court took it upon itself to redefine “marriage.” In Roe v. Wade, they essentially created a “constitutional right” to have an abortion.
What is the proper role of the courts? President Reagan summed it up well in his speech at Justice Anthony Kennedy’s swearing-in:
The role assigned to judges in our system was to interpret the Constitution and lesser laws, not to make them. It was to protect the integrity of the Constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it—certainly not to rewrite it. For as the framers knew, unless judges are bound by the text of the Constitution, we will, in fact, no longer have a government of laws, but of men and women who are judges. And if that happens, the words of the documents that we think govern us will be just masks for the personal and capricious rule of a small elite.
Each of the three federal branches is equal, independent, and tasked with fulfilling its role under the Constitution. According to Article III of the Constitution, the judicial branch’s role is to interpret and apply the “Constitution, the laws of the United States and treatises made, or which shall be made, under their authority.” The Court checks the other two branches through judicial review. However, its primary function—as the Framers intended and as evidenced by the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and other documents from that time—is to act as the federal government’s enforcement arm by applying the laws. It is not the job of unelected judges to make laws or change laws, as they have done in Bostock, Roe, and Obergefell. Instead, they are charged with basing their judgments on the objective meaning of laws and the Constitution.
Originalism and textualism are usual tools of judicial interpretation supported by many conservatives. However, there is a new theory beginning to emerge. The theory was proposed by Adrian Vermeule, a conservative professor of constitutional law at Harvard, and has been labeled “common-good constitutionalism.” He describes this approach as being “based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good.” He advocates for reading into the “majestic generalities and ambiguities” of the Constitution, principles that advance the “common good.” Rather than focusing on the individual, he says the focus would be on a “powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy” that will advance society’s needs as a whole, even if it overrides an individual’s private rights. Vermeule says originalism has served its purpose, and now conservatives should begin advocating this “authoritative rule for the common good” to guarantee that ideas such as life, family, and natural marriage are elevated and promoted in society. He says this view has a basis in the Constitution, but instead of being wedded to the original meaning, judges and other government officials will read morality into the text.
It is important to think about all of the implications of various judicial philosophies. While common-good constitutionalism has not become mainstream yet, it is beginning to pick up followers in conservative legal thought—especially after Justice Gorsuch’s disappointing holding in Bostock. Yet, many staunch originalists and textualists have fought back against Professor Vermeule’s theory, arguing that a judge must always remain neutral. It is too soon to know whether a new era in conservative judicial interpretation has arrived.
Katherine Beck Johnson is Research Fellow for Legal and Policy Studies at Family Research Council.
Arielle Leake is a Policy & Government Affairs intern at Family Research Council.