The Supreme Court radically altered the meaning of the First Amendment this year — in an unsigned opinion
The United States Supreme Court issued on April 9 a decision in Tandon v. Newsom that struck down California's covid pandemic-related rule that limited the size of all events held in private homes, including religious gatherings, to three people per household. In an unsigned, four-page opinion, the high court's right-wing majority radically altered the law governing the First Amendment's free-exercise clause claims for special religious exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws.
Since the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, the free-exercise clause has been understood to require religious exemptions only to laws that discriminate against religion—that is, government cannot target religion for worse treatment. The California covid pandemic-related rule easily passed this test, for it limited the size of all gatherings in private homes, religious and secular alike.
In Tandon, however, the court flipped that rule. Under its new "most favored nation" approach, the government must provide a religious exemption if a law contains any secular exemption for "comparable" activities. Because California allowed larger groups to shop in supermarkets, it had to let larger groups pray indoors. The only way out was if California met a "strict scrutiny" standard by showing the law's application to religion was absolutely necessary to meet a compelling government interest.
In lower court proceedings, California public-health officials provided testimony that should have met that standard. "When people gather in social settings," they stated, "their interactions are likely to be longer than they would be in a commercial setting," with participants "more likely to be involved in prolonged conversations." They added that "private houses are typically smaller and less ventilated than commercial establishments," and that "social distancing and mask-wearing are less likely in private settings and enforcement is more difficult." But the Supreme Court's five conservatives, who have no apparent public health expertise, ignored this testimony.
Tandon is an enormous expansion of the government's obligation to provide religious accommodations to countless statutes and regulations. It's also questionable public health policy. But the most serious problem with what the Supreme Court's conservatives did in Tandon can be summarized in four words: They made it up.
That is, the Constitution does not mandate the "most favored nation" rule. The First Amendment prohibits government from either establishing religion, or prohibiting its "free exercise." But on what basis does the Supreme Court decide "free exercise" licenses such a searching judicial examination of public-health laws? The text doesn't say that. And neither history nor precedent command that approach.
At bottom, what the Supreme Court did in Tandon isn't law. It's politics. Which may help explain why the Supreme Court created this sweeping new rule through its shadow docket—which is to say, those cases decided with minimal briefing and no oral argument outside the court's normal procedure. In doing so, the court broke its own rules that bar it from changing the law in a shadow docket opinion.
None of this should surprise us. As I've written previously, Republicans have built their recent political strategy around stocking the federal bench with right-wing partisans. As a consequence, we are approaching a level of ideological conflict where politicians might start thinking about defying the court's rulings—especially rulings rooted in highly politicized readings of the Constitution, as Tandon was.
Which led me, on the morning following the opinion's release to tweet out a question:
The answer to this question, I think, is that Joe Biden, or any president, is free under the Constitution to decline to enforce any order of the Supreme Court that he or she believes to be unconstitutional. Why do I think this? There are three reasons.
First, as Alexander Hamilton candidly admitted in The Federalist Papers, the Constitution does not even directly establish that courts have the power to make definitive declarations regarding the Constitution's meaning.
"[T]here is," Hamilton wrote in Federalist 81, "not a syllable in the plan under consideration which DIRECTLY empowers the national courts to construe the laws according to the spirit of the Constitution, or which gives them any greater latitude in this respect than may be claimed by the courts of every State."
Hamilton believed judicial review was implied even if not explicitly provided. But that doesn't mean judges are the only actors empowered to interpret the Constitution's meaning. A better view is actors in each branch of government—all of whom have taken the same oath to "support and defend" the Constitution—have a duty to interpret the meaning of the Constitution and to act, in discharging their duties, in accordance with that interpretation. Hamilton suggests as much in Federalist 81, where he wrote of the Supreme Court's "total incapacity to support its usurpations by force."
Hamilton argued the court's utter dependence on the executive branch to enforce its judgments meant the court was no real threat to liberty. But for that argument to make sense it must also be true that, at least in cases where a court ruling provokes some disquiet, the president will make an independent assessment before enforcing it.
If the President were required to enforce the court's every order, and without independent assessment of its fidelity to the Constitution, he would effectively be dragooned into enforcing even the court's "usurpations." That would make the court every bit as dangerous as Hamilton's Anti-Federalist antagonists feared it to be.
Arch anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson, for his part, derided the idea that judges were "ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions." This was, to Jefferson, "a very dangerous doctrine, indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy." The Constitution "has erected no such single tribunal," and the plan of government, Jefferson wrote, admitted no supremacy in judges:
"My construction of the Constitution is … that each department is truly independent of the others and has an equal right to decide for itself what is the meaning of the Constitution in the cases submitted to its action; and especially where it is to act ultimately and without appeal."
Enforcement of court judgments is an executive act, not a judicial one. And in carrying out his duties, the president, Jefferson argued, must decide for himself what the Constitution requires. Which means that a president may decline to enforce a court order that he or she independently concludes is unconstitutional.
The second reason presidents are free under the Constitution to decline to enforce any order of the Supreme Court that he or she believes to be unconstitutional is history provides examples of presidents declining to enforce Supreme Court orders.
In 1832, the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia struck down a Georgia criminal statute prohibiting non-native Americans from residing on Native American lands without a license from the state. Only the federal government, the court held, had the power to regulate tribal lands. The court's ruling ordered the release of two missionaries imprisoned under the statute, but Georgia's courts refused to order the release, and President Andrew Jackson declined to enforce the Supreme Court's order on the recalcitrant state. Writing two decades later, journalist Horace Greeley quoted Jackson (probably apocryphally) giving the court's order the back of his hand: "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." The order was never enforced. A year after the court's decision, Georgia repealed the law and the two men were pardoned by Georgia's governor and released from jail.
Then there is President Lincoln's defiance of Chief Justice Taney's 1861 order in Ex Parte Merryman. That Civil War-era case involved a Maryland secessionist arrested in connection with attacks on federal troops in Baltimore and imprisoned in Fort McHenry. Shortly before Merryman's arrest, Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in a bid to allow federal troops to quell secessionist rioting without judicial interference. Days after Merryman's arrest, Taney issued an order stating that Lincoln lacked the power to suspend the writ; the Constitution, Taney held, permitted suspension only by Congress.
Lincoln ignored the order. In a message to the Congress he made clear his view that the president had his own responsibility to act according to the powers that he independently understood the Constitution to provide him:
"The provision of the Constitution that 'the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it' is equivalent to a provision—is a provision—that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made. Now it is insisted that Congress, and not the Executive, is vested with this power; but the Constitution itself is silent as to which or who is to exercise the power; and as the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it can not be believed the framers of the instrument intended that in every case the danger should run its course until Congress could be called together, the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion."
Third, there is the matter of America's current reality. In normal politics, it makes sense for presidents (and for Congress) to cede to the court's final authority to interpret the Constitution's meaning. The ordinary expectation, whether a Democrat or a Republican, is that you'll win some at the court and you'll lose some—and that's OK because there is value in finality, especially if the court is seen as an institution that is doing something more principled than simply imposing its own political preference. But these are not normal times. This is not a normal Supreme Court.
That was the point of my tweet: at some point, the perception that the court is doing politics and not law may lead to a political response. We see that already in proposals to limit judicial terms, to impose Supreme Court supermajority voting requirements, to strip courts' jurisdiction, and, most prominently, to pack the Supreme Court.
But perhaps the simplest way for Biden to push back against a right-wing Supreme Court is to follow his own oath to uphold the Constitution and refuse to enforce Supreme Court orders that he concludes fail to do so.
So imagine that California Governor Gavin Newsom decided to ignore the court's order and continued to enforce public health laws as written without religious exemption. What would happen? Would Biden send in federal troops to enforce the court's order? Or would he give California the same room to defy the court that Jackson gave Georgia in 1832? To me, it's at least imaginable that if California pushed back, Biden would have allowed California to enforce its law over the Court's order.
The covid vaccine means the crisis passed quickly enough that the court's order soon lost its practical public-health significance. But that was happenstance. Which means we may soon see another opportunity for politicians to test the limits of judicial power.