Skip to main content

Obama should know better on Supreme Court's role

By Stephen B. Presser, Special to CNN
updated 5:02 PM EDT, Tue April 3, 2012
Stephen Presser says the president's remarks Monday on the Supreme Court's role were mistaken.
Stephen Presser says the president's remarks Monday on the Supreme Court's role were mistaken.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President said top court would break with precedent if it overturns the health care law
  • Stephen Presser says Obama, who taught constitutional law, should know better
  • He says the Supreme Court has long exercised power to overturn unconstitutional laws
  • Presser: Judicial review doesn't usurp Congress' power; it maintains the rule of law

Editor's note: Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger professor of legal history at Northwestern University School of Law and a professor of business law at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He signed two of the amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court challenging the health care law.

(CNN) -- In what must be the most extraordinary statement of his presidency, Barack Obama on Monday blasted the possibility that the United States Supreme Court might overturn the Affordable Care Act. Obama said the court would take an "unprecedented, extraordinary step" if it overturns the law, because it was passed by "a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."

Setting aside the point that the ACA did not pass with an overwhelming majority, but by a party-line vote in the Senate and seven votes in the House, and without the support of a single member of the Republican Party, the most astonishing thing about Obama's diatribe was the fundamental misunderstanding of our constitutional tradition it revealed.

Since 1788, in the famous defense of the Constitution set forth by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, it has been understood that it is the task of the Supreme Court to rein in majoritarian legislatures when they go beyond what the Constitution permits.

Stephen B. Presser
Stephen B. Presser

This is not, as Obama implies, judicial activism, or political activity on the part of the justices. This is simply, as Hamilton explained, fidelity to the Constitution itself, fidelity to the highest expression of "We the People of the United States," the body whose representatives ratified that Constitution.

That doctrine of judicial review was most famously expressed by the great Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (1803), but it had been noted not only by Hamilton, but by many other federal judges in the late 18th century. And over the years, in more than 50 instances, courts have struck down unconstitutional behavior by the federal and state legislatures.

Judicial review is not usurpation -- it is the manner in which the rule of law is preserved in this nation. It is certainly true that sometimes courts, and even the Supreme Court, have erred in their interpretation of the Constitution, and some legislative acts that clearly were permitted by the Constitution have been struck down. But if the ACA's individual mandate is rejected, this will be fully within the legitimate exercise of judicial powers.

Opinion: Supreme Court is playing with fire

This is because, as was made clear in the recent arguments in the court, that mandate, for the very first time in history, is an attempt to compel virtually every adult American to participate in commerce. It is not an attempt to regulate commerce -- which the Constitution permits -- but is, instead, an attempt to create and compel commerce, which the Constitution does not authorize.

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a measure regarded as fundamental by those who argued for the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides that the powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people thereof.

As the Supreme Court told us in the Lopez (1995) and Morrison (2000) cases, this means that there must be some limits on the powers of the federal government, and it also means that the basic law-making power, the police power, must reside in the governments closest to the people themselves, the state and local governments.

This is our tradition, and the ACA's individual mandate is a fundamental break with that tradition. If, as it should, the Supreme Court declares the individual mandate unconstitutional, it will be reaffirming our traditions, and not usurping them. The president, a former constitutional law teacher, should be ashamed of himself.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen B. Presser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT