By David Kopel
Today South Carolina Republican Senator Jim Demint hosted a forum at which five Republican presidential candidates spoke. The transcript is here. Each candidate appeared one at a time, and the format allowed for in-depth questions and answers. Among the questioners was Princeton University’s Robert George. Prof. George asked each candidate if he or she would support congressional legislation, under section 5 of the 14th Amendment, to ban abortion. To state the obvious, such legislation would be contrary not only to Roe v. Wade and Penn. v. Casey(abortion rights are protected by section 1 of the 14th Amendment), but also to Boerne v. Flores (Congress cannot use section 5 to protect a right in defiance of direct Supreme Court holding about the particular aspect of the right). The question explicitly presumed that Roe v. Wadehad not been overturned, and that a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution had not been adopted.
The candidates’ answers were as follows:
Gingrich: Yes. Cooper v. Aaron’s assertion of judicial supremacy was wrong. Following the precedent of the first Jefferson administration, I would abolish some federal judgeships. But I am not as bold as Jefferson. “I would do no more than eliminate Judge Barry in San Antonio and the ninth circuit. That’s the most I would go for. (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE). But let me say this. That’s part of the national debate. That’s not a rhetorical comment. I believe the legislative and executive branches have an obligation to defend the constitution against judges who are tyrannical and who seek to impose un-American values on the people of the United States.”
Paul: No. Violence and murder should be dealt with by the states. The federal police are already too numerous. I support a bill to deprive lower federal courts of jurisdiction over abortion cases, so that state restrictions on abortion would be immune from judicial review.
Romney: No. I would focus on appointing judges who would return abortion regulation to the states. The George proposal “would create obviously a constitutional crisis. Could that happen in this country? Could there be circumstances where that might occur? I think it’s reasonable that something of that nature might happen someday. That’s not something I would precipitate.”
Personally, I agree with the Romney approach. Moreover, the next President is going to have to address a fiscal crisis that will devastate the United States economy soon if it is not solved. Dealing with the fiscal crisis is going to be quite difficult politically, in part because there are many millions of people who benefit from the current, and unsustainable, levels of federal spending. The tax consumers may be very highly resistant to any reduction in the amount of money that flows to them. So there will be no shortage of national division and acrimony. Thus, 2013 would be an especially bad time to precipitate a constitutional crisis over a social issue. The answers of Romney and Paul displayed prudence, which I think is a very important characteristic for a President, and the answers of Bachmann, Cain, and Gingrich did not.
As for the Ninth Circuit, Gingrich has been saying the same thing since March, according to Politico. I have not found anywhere where he has provided details on this plan, but perhaps it would involve merging the 9th circuit states into the 8th and 10th circuits, since they border the 9th. The Politico article is not entirely clear, but it appears that Gingrich has claimed that he could get rid of the 9th circuit by signing an executive order. This would be plainly unconstitutional, a usurpation of power worthy of impeachment. Article III gives Congress, not the President, the power to “ordain and establish” the inferior federal courts. During the Jefferson administration, the Judiciary Act of 1802 repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, in which the lame duck Federalist Congress had created many new federal judgeships, to which President John Adams had appointed Federalists in the waning days of his administration. As President Jefferson recognized, the choice to eliminate federal judgeships belongs to Congress, not the President acting by himself. [Update: a commenter says the video (for which a link was not provided) shows that Gingrich was not claiming that he could abolish the 9th Cir. by executive order. I looked on the Internet, and did not find a video of the March 25 Iowa speech by Gingrich. There’s a video of a speech earlier that month in Iowa, in which he criticizes the 9th cir. but does not call for its abolition.]