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GORDON TULLOCK, Constitutional Mythology - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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MYTHS, AS A PART of literature, can be entertaining and even illuminating, but if they are believed and acted upon they can be dangerous. There is such a dangerous myth which is widely believed at the present time by Americans. This myth, that “the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is,” has the logical corollary that no action taken by the Supreme Court can be unconstitutional, and hence that decisions by the court are binding upon the executive and legislative branches. If the myth were true, then it would mean that the system of checks and balances set up in our constitution is incomplete. The powers of the legislative and executive branches are subject to checks, but those of the judicial branch are uncontrolled. Given the care which the drafters of that historic document obviously took to give no person or organization absolute power, this would be most surprising. The founders of our nation did not feel that the form of government they established could safely be trusted to the good will or self-restraint of any individual or body of men. Instead they built into the structure of government a system in which possible abuse of power by any branch could be checked by the others. If the popular myth of supreme court supremacy were true, then we would have to conclude that the founding fathers distrusted the elected legislature and the elected president, but somehow felt no suspicion of the appointed supreme court. Surely this is absurd.
The power of the Supreme Court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional was first established in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison by Chief Justice John Marshall. It is interesting that this case concerned a “plain violation” of the rights of five individuals. The Court refused to take action to redress the wrong to these individuals because it held that the act which gave them the right to sue before its bar was unconstitutional. In other words, it put enforcement of the Constitution above human rights. The reasoning upon which it did so is still the foundation of the doctrine of unconstitutionality.
Marshall’s argument, adhered to by all commentators from his day to the present, may be summed up by one paragraph from his decision:
Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently, the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void.1
Clearly this paragraph would make as much sense if the words “executive” or “judiciary” were substituted for “legislature.” The view that the executive or the judiciary is not bound by the Constitution would as much subvert the document as the view that the legislature is not so bound. It is true, of course, that we must not expect to find the court announcing that its own acts are unconstitutional, any more than we should expect to find the legislature passing laws which it explicitly states are unconstitutional. In each case the constitutional check is imposed from the outside, not by a given branch of the government judging its own acts.
The same principle will be found to fit the remainder of Marbury v. Madison. Marshall was a judicial officer engaged in deciding whether he would obey a law duly passed by the legislature and signed by the President. As such he confined his language to this particular problem and did not discuss the complementary problems which would arise if the court made an unconstitutional determination. Nevertheless, his language is still convincing if it is applied to the converse problem. As an illustration let us make the necessary changes for two and a half paragraphs:
If, then, the [executive] is to regard the constitution, and the constitution is superior to any [judicial decision], the constitution and not such [decision], must govern the case to which they both apply.
Those, then, who controvert the principle that the constitution is to be considered, [by the executive], as a paramount law, are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that the [President] must close [his] eyes on the constitution and see only the [decision].
This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written constitutions. It would declare that . . . [a decision] which, according to the principles and theory of our government, is entirely void, is yet, in practice, completely obligatory. . . .2
THE CONTRARY VIEW, that decisions of the Supreme Court are superior to the Constitution because “the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is” has never been claimed by the Court, although a Chief Justice once said this in a speech. The Court in its decisions always claims that it is bound by the Constitution. It does not purport to have the power to change the Constitution, only to interpret and to apply it. It is, of course, true that the Constitution is a rather short document and almost 175 years old for the most part. Interpretation under these circumstances may frequently involve interstitial law making; in fact this is the main function of the Supreme Court. There is, however, a great difference between deciding what the Constitution should mean in an area where it is unclear, and deliberately going against the plain words of the document. A decision, for example, that the Senate must be elected according to population would clearly and obviously be unconstitutional.
Marshall, however, had one more problem after he had demonstrated that the Constitution was superior to the acts of a branch of the government; he had to show that the Court was charged with a duty of enforcing the Constitution. His method was simple: he pointed out that the Constitution “direct[s] the judges to take an oath to support it.”
This oath certainly applies in an especial manner, to their conduct in their official character. How immoral to impose it on them, if they were to be used as the instruments, and the knowing instruments, for violating what they swear to support!3
Continuing this line of reasoning, the final full paragraph of his decision reads:
Thus, the particular phraseology of the constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.4
The argument, again, makes as much sense if the name of another department is substituted for that of the judiciary, as Marshall explicitly recognizes in the last full line of the above quotation. The same sentence of the Constitution which requires judges to support the Constitution also requires legislators, and other officials of the government, to swear to support it. Surely the oath is not more binding on one class of officials than on another. Let us repeat our experiment and substitute the executive for the judiciary in two more paragraphs of this fundamental decision:
Why does . . . [the President] swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the constitution of the United States, if that constitution forms no rule for his government? if it is closed upon him, and cannot be inspected by him?
If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe, or to take this oath, becomes equally a crime.5
It is hard to see why this is less reasonable as a matter of constitutional law than the original version. If Chief Justice Marshall’s reasoning was correct for the judiciary, clearly it is also correct for the executive and the legislature.
My argument that the Congress and the Executive also have responsibilities for preserving and protecting the Constitution, although it would have been acceptable to such liberals as Justices Black and Douglas in the late thirties, will be vigorously contested today. The argument which may be offered against it is that there must be a single ultimate authority to decide constitutional problems, and that the Supreme Court is that authority. This can be divided into two parts, an argument that a single authority is logically necessary, and that the Constitution established such an authority in the Supreme Court. The first, or logical, argument, although superficially plausible, is fairly easily answered. It would, of course, be impossible to have two or three bodies each issuing authoritative interpretations of the Constitution if these interpretations were equally binding upon the citizen and likely to conflict. We are not, however, faced with a dilemma of choosing between two equally unattractive alternatives, the one involving multiple and possibly conflicting authorities with power to interpret the Constitution and the other involving a single arbitrary authority. If the founding fathers had seen the problem in this light they would surely not have set up an appointed body as the ultimate sovereign. They had just fought a war to free themselves from the control of appointive royal governors, and there is no reason to believe that they would have wished to place themselves and their descendants under the complete control of a body of men who were not removable no matter how bad their decisions.
THAT THE DRAFTERS of the Constitution did not even think in terms of giving ultimate power to the Court can be readily seen from the provision of the Constitution that “the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.” (Article III, Section 2.) The right of Congress to make exceptions in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, upheld by that Court in Ex Parte McCardle,6 a case involving civil rights, is clearly inconsistent with the view that the Court is the ultimate authority on constitutional questions.
If we return to Marbury v. Madison we see that Marshall did not claim any sort of ultimate authority for the Court. He simply said that where he thought the Constitution and a law conflicted he would carry out his oath of office and refuse to enforce the law. Until very recently this purely negative concept of the duty of the courts in constitutional questions was the dominant theory. The whole subject was traditionally described under the rubric of “judicial review,” and that review amounted to “little more than the negative power to disregard an unconstitutional enactment.”7 This negative view of the problem of protecting the Constitution raises none of the logical problems of conflicting determinations of constitutionality while at the same time avoiding the grant of ultimate power to one body. Normally any act of the government will require the co-operation of two or three of the main branches of government. If the act initiated by one branch is constitutional, the other branches are required to co-operate. If the initial act, on the other hand, is unconstitutional then the other branches are required by the oaths that their officers have taken to uphold the Constitution, to refuse to play any part in destroying the constitutional guarantees. This is the famous system of “checks and balances” which the drafters of the Constitution thought more desirable than dependence upon the good will and self-restraint of a small body of men.
In practice, of course, the bodies initiating action in our system have normally been the legislature and the executive. The courts, until very recently, seldom took the initiative. This meant that most cases in point have been resolved through refusal by the courts to carry out unconstitutional acts of the legislature rather than through refusal by the legislature or executive to enforce unconstitutional decisions of the courts. The only major effort at judicial legislation prior to the last two decades was the Dred Scott case, which was, quite rightly, not enforced by many state governments and reversed “on the slight, bare slopes of Gettysburg.” However, the recent outburst of judicial activism, which contrasts so strongly with the restraint characterizing previous courts even in the exercise of their negative power of judicial review, has raised an essentially new problem. Although the court still talks the language of simply applying the Constitution, it now acts as though it were a sort of superior legislature, not only imposing new laws, but also actually changing the Constitution by its decisions. No longer are constitutional decisions largely limited to refusals to enforce laws; they now frequently take the form of positive orders to other branches of the government and general rules for the control of citizens. Most of the civil rights cases and the reapportionment decisions are of this nature. Under these circumstances the right of the other branches to “check” the Supreme Court by refusing to apply its decisions when they violate the Constitution, a right long held in abeyance, becomes a matter of first importance.
Even if a supreme authority is not logically necessary in a system where each branch checks the others, it might still be true that the Constitution did establish such an ultimate arbiter in the form of the Supreme Court. This is, however, not the case, for there is nothing in the language of Article III of the Constitution which directly assigns to the Supreme Court any special duties with respect to the Constitution. If the Constitution conferred such special powers on the Court it did so implicitly, not explicitly; and it is hard to see where supreme power is implied for the Supreme Court. The judiciary is given “the judicial power of the United States.” If they had been written in 1964, these words might be construed as implying arbitrary power of the Court to interpret the Constitution in any way it sees fit. But this mythological view of judicial power was not held in 1789. Nor did Marshall claim such power. He made only the following claim:
So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.8
The statement of the role of the Court is acceptable; but it is also a duty of the executive to decide which of two conflicting laws is to be enforced, especially if one of these laws is the Constitution itself.
THE PRESIDENT HOLDS a unique status in that the Constitution itself specifies the content of the oath he must take on assuming office. This oath concludes with the words “[I] will, to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The obligation devolving on the President is clearly more weighty than the mere duty “to support” the Constitution, the requirement specified for oaths to be subscribed to by all other officials including judges. In carrying out his duty to execute the laws, the President must, of course, make constitutional decisions. If he feels that a given law enacted by Congress is unconstitutional, he may veto it; and this is one of the reasons given by presidents for their vetoes. If an unconstitutional law is passed, he must follow his oath and refuse to enforce it. This, although it may appear novel, is simply a description of what the President has always done. The Attorney General frequently considers the constitutionality of various laws, and his rulings on such points are normally accepted by the executive arm.
A particularly interesting case has arisen in recent years with respect to defense appropriations. Congress quite frequently feels that some certain arm or weapon is more important than the executive believes. Congress has, therefore, tried to get the executive to spend more money than the Department of Defense requests for such arms, and it may put a specific provision in the appropriation act requiring that the money be spent. The intent of such provisions is to give the President the choice of vetoing the entire defense appropriation or spending the money. Since Truman, however, the executive branch has uniformly held that such provisions are unconstitutional and hence has refused to carry them out. No court was involved in this highly important decision on a constitutional issue, and clearly it does not involve any usurpation of judicial power by the executive.
The members of Congress are not only sworn to support the Constitution; they also tend to run heavily to lawyers, and hence are apt to be interested in constitutional questions. The question of whether a given measure is constitutional is frequently discussed on the floor of the two houses, and a consensus seems to prevail to the effect that unconstitutional acts should not be passed. If the President requests legislation which appears to the members of Congress to be unconstitutional, they should refuse to pass it. It is always a little hard to determine exactly why Congress has taken any given action since there will normally be many different arguments offered by different members; but it is reasonably clear that there have been occasions when legislation has been rejected or modified for constitutional reasons. Again this involves no usurpation of judicial prerogatives. Congress is unique in that the Constitution specifically limits its power to making “Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States. . . .” Surely Congressmen asked to appropriate money for a purpose they believe unconstitutional may refuse. The view that Congress shall refrain from considering constitutional questions is not only absurd but also directly contrary to the established practice of our government.
Thus it is not only the Constitution, but long established practice, which gives to each of the three branches of the government the right to check the others if their acts are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has seldom experienced such checks, but this simply reflects the fact that it has seldom taken positive action which required checking. Surely the restraint of previous judges does not give the present Court positive powers to do anything it wishes.
The well thought out plan of checks and balances is completely negated by the myth of judicial supremacy. Only if we feel assured that the Justices are not like other men, that they neither make mistakes nor try to extend their authority, will we favor a system giving them ultimate power. Our officials are sworn to uphold the Constitution, not the Supreme Court. Where judicial decisions conflict with the Constitution they should keep their oath and uphold the Constitution. The statesmen who drew up our Constitution did not leave the protection of our liberties solely to nine fallible men.
[* ] Gordon Tullock is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia. His latest book is The Politics of Bureaucracy; he is coauthor of The Calculus of Consent.
[1 ] Marbury v. Madison, 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803).
[2 ] 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) at 178.
[3 ] 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) at 180.
[4 ] 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) at 180. (Italics in original.)
[5 ] 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) at 180.
[6 ] 74 U. S. (7 Wall.) 506 (1868).
[7 ] Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U. S. 447, 488 (1923).
[8 ] 5 U. S. (1 Cranch) at 178.