Conservatives claim that they are rising up against "activist judges," who decide cases based on their personal beliefs rather than the law. They frequently point to Justice Antonin Scalia as a model of honest, "strict constructionist" judging. And Justice Scalia has eagerly embraced the hero's role. Last month, after the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for those under 18, he lashed out at his colleagues for using the idea of a "living Constitution" that evolves over time to hand down political decisions - something he says he would never do.
The idea that liberal judges are advocates and partisans while judges like Justice Scalia are not is being touted everywhere these days, and it is pure myth. Justice Scalia has been more than willing to ignore the Constitution's plain language, and he has a knack for coming out on the conservative side in cases with an ideological bent. The conservative partisans leading the war on activist judges are just as inconsistent: they like judicial activism just fine when it advances their own agendas.
Justice Scalia's views on federalism - which now generally command a majority on the Supreme Court - are perhaps the clearest example of the problem with the conservative attack on judicial activism. When conservatives complain about activist judges, they talk about gay marriage and defendants' rights. But they do not mention the 11th Amendment, which has been twisted beyond its own plain words into a states' rights weapon to throw minorities, women and the disabled out of federal court.
The 11th Amendment says federal courts cannot hear lawsuits against a state brought by "Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." But it's been interpreted to block suits by a state's own citizens - something it clearly does not say. How to get around the Constitution's express words? In a 1991 decision, Justice Scalia wrote that "despite the narrowness of its terms," the 11th Amendment has been understood by the court "to stand not so much for what it says, but for the presupposition of our constitutional structure which it confirms." If another judge used that rationale to find rights in the Constitution, Justice Scalia's reaction would be withering. He went on, in that 1991 decision, to throw out a suit by Indian tribes who said they had been cheated by the State of Alaska.
Conservative politicians insist that courts should defer to the democratically elected branches, but conservative judges do not seem to be listening. The Supreme Court's conservative majority regularly overturns laws passed by Congress, like the Violence Against Women Act and the Gun-Free School Zones Act. The court has even established a bizarre series of hoops Congress must jump through to pass a law protecting Americans' 14th Amendment equal-protection rights. Congress must prove in many cases that the law it passed is "congruent" and "proportional" to the harm being addressed. Even John Noonan Jr., an appeals court judge appointed by President Reagan, has said these new rules - which Justice Scalia eagerly embraces - reduce Congress to the level of an "administrative agency."
Justice Scalia likes to boast that he follows his strict-constructionist philosophy wherever it leads, even if it leads to results he disagrees with. But it is uncanny how often it leads him just where he already wanted to go. In his view, the 14th Amendment prohibits Michigan from using affirmative action in college admissions, but lets Texas make gay sex a crime. (The Supreme Court has held just the opposite.) He is dismissive when inmates invoke the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment to challenge prison conditions. But he is supportive when wealthy people try to expand the "takings clause" to block the government from regulating their property.
The inconsistency of the conservative war on judges was apparent in the Terri Schiavo ordeal. Mr. DeLay, an outspoken critic of activist courts, does not want to investigate the federal trial judge and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit for judicial activism, but for the opposite: for refusing to overturn the Florida state courts' legal decisions, and Michael Schiavo's decisions about his wife's medical care.
The classic example of conservative inconsistency remains Bush v. Gore. Not only did the court's conservative bloc trample on the Florida state courts and stop the vote counting - it declared its ruling would not be a precedent for future cases. How does Justice Scalia explain that decision? In a recent New Yorker profile, he is quoted as saying, with startling candor, that "the only issue was whether we should put an end to it, after three weeks of looking like a fool in the eyes of the world." That, of course, isn't a constitutional argument - it is an unapologetic defense of judicial activism.
When it comes to judicial activism, conservative judges are no better than liberal ones - and, it must be said, no worse. If conservatives are going to continue their war on the judiciary, though, they should be honest. They do not want to get rid of judicial activists, a standard that would bring down even Justice Scalia. They want to rid the courts of judges who disagree with them.