As 2014 draws to a close, we thought it appropriate to reflect on some of the most significant constitutional developments of the past year. Recognizing that any short-list requires difficult choices, we present our catalog of five noteworthy constitutional events or trends (in no specific order) below. Most interestingly, none of the five involves a particular 2014 ruling from the Supreme Court; instead, the list shows that other institutional actors (sometimes feeding off what the Court has done in the past and often acting completely independently from the Court) are crucial in giving meaning to the Constitution.
#1. President Obama’s Announcement of Immigration Enforcement (or non-Enforcement) Priorities
One of the biggest constitutional changes over the last century has surely been the rise in power and prominence of the presidency. The President and his executive branch have grown in influence and stature for a number of reasons. One is the modern need (in a world of increasing economic complexity and international linkages) for the federal government to make decisions quickly, decisively, and based on specialized expertise (as in the Great Depression) and sometimes making use of information that cannot be made fully public (as in the War on Terror). Another is the fact that, although the electoral college is still part of our constitutional fabric, we have moved in the direction of popular election of the President, such that he garners far more votes nationwide than does any other elected official, and thus has a special claim to national electoral legitimacy—unlike that of even the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader, the two elected leaders of Congress.
Many people embrace broadened Presidential authority, and many lament it. Some folks seem to have evolved in this regard. An example of such evolution might be Chief Justice John Roberts, who seemed to advocate for broad executive powers as a young government lawyer but who has recently bemoaned the fact that “the Framers could hardly have envisioned today’s vast and varied federal bureaucracy and the authority administrative agencies now hold over our economic, social and political activities.” But love it or hate it, broad executive discretion about whether and how to enforce laws is part of the federal constitutional landscape. And President Obama’s recent announcement removing the threat of deportation for four million or so persons who entered or stayed in the United States in violation of immigration laws is a good example. Drawing on his key role in foreign affairs and law enforcement, and reminding the American people that he was reelected in part to manage the immigration problem (thus playing on both the reasons for presidential ascension mentioned above), Mr. Obama laid out his plans for how best to implement immigration laws in the near term. His announcement was a reminder of how, in the normal run of things, the President makes a lot of important decisions over which the Supreme Court may never have a say. (There have been lawsuits filed that test the President’s actions here, and lower court judges are likely to express a range of opinions on the matter, but it remains unclear how the lower federal courts will ultimately adjudicate this issue and whether the Supreme Court will wade into this thicket.)
#2. The Events in Ferguson and NYC Regarding Police Actions Toward African American Men
A second set of events, involving local government rather than the federal government, raises important normative questions about race relations in the United States and public policy questions about the best way both to avoid these tragedies and to deal with them when they occur. We speak here, of course, of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City involving the killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers and the failure of grand juries to indict the officers involved. These police actions and grand jury decisions, like President Obama’s immigration announcement, remind us of how powerful a device executive discretion is within our constitutional system.
But these episodes also remind us of another important constitutional theme. The 14th Amendment proclaims that “No State shall . . . deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.” Surely, this provision requires the equal treatment of black and white Americans in the criminal justice system. If the equal protection of the laws means anything, it must mean that the use of force by police officers against persons alleged to violate the law cannot vary depending on the race of the perpetrator. Similarly, equal protection must require that prosecutors and grand juries ignore the race of both the police officer and the victim of the officer’s conduct in determining whether the officer’s use of force has violated the law.
Yet the Ferguson and New York City events reveal how little bite this constitutional guarantee has when the law gives government actors substantial, unguided discretion in performing their duties. Police officers have considerable discretion in determining whether and how much force should be used in the performance of their duties. Prosecutors have enormous discretion in deciding whether or not to bring charges to a grand jury and in determining how they will conduct the grand jury proceeding. Grand juries also have tremendous discretion. They can decide to indict a “ham sandwich,” as the saying goes, or they can decide not to indict a police officer who has choked someone to death.
Because, in circumstances involving official discretion, it is often very difficult to determine the extent to which race influenced state action, the constitutional guarantee of equal protection has little ability to control such decision making. Perhaps the Constitution’s primary and most effective role in these events is protecting the rights of individuals and groups to protest what they see as unsanctioned violations of the equal protection of the laws.
#3. Same-Sex Marriage in the Lower Courts
Equality was a theme not just in the Ferguson and New York controversies, but also in the treatment of same-sex marriage by the lower courts this year. Last year, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court teed up but did not resolve the question of whether states were prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment from treating same-sex marriages differently from opposite-sex marriages. And the lower federal courts have taken up that question in earnest ever since. Until the Sixth Circuit’s decision to uphold same-sex marriage bans in four states this fall broke the momentum, same-sex marriage advocates had achieved an overwhelming number of lower court victories; four U.S. Courts of Appeals and over twenty federal district courts had struck down state laws discriminating against same-sex marriage. Indeed, until the Sixth Circuit’s ruling by a divided three-judge panel in November, many commentators had concluded that the Supreme Court would not even take a marriage equality case anytime soon because the issue had essentially been resolved by the lower courts. Many of the lower court rulings took their cue from Windsor, of course, and now that the Sixth Circuit has created a split the Supreme Court will likely weigh in relatively soon—so no one is arguing the Supreme Court is irrelevant in this debate—but lower courts have definitely framed the issue and developed competing arguments in a way that makes it much harder for the Supreme Court to reject the right of same-sex couples to marry. For the marital equality movement, 2014 was the year of the lower courts.
# 4. Abortion Rights
The past year saw states continuing the recent trend of adopting and defending significant regulations of abortion services and access. The regulations vary in their content. Several states have enacted statutes (some of which are subject to lower court injunctions) that ban an abortion 20 weeks after fertilization occurs or at an even earlier time during the gestation period. Other regulations restrict the provision of medication used to induce an abortion. Other laws, responding to the new health care framework created by the Affordable Care Act, prohibit insurance offered through the Act’s exchanges from covering abortions. Yet other laws regulate clinics that provide abortion services by requiring them to comply with the building, equipment, and staffing standards applicable to an ambulatory surgical center or a hospital. They also require physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The lower courts are continually reviewing the constitutionality of many of these regulations, but it is (aggressive) state legislatures that are driving this issue right now.
Certainly, the need for greater clarity in this area of the law is obvious. Under the doctrine initially evolving from Roe v. Wade, the Court applied strict scrutiny review to pre-viability abortion regulations that ostensibly furthered some important state interest, such as promoting the health of the mother, but also increased the cost of abortions or otherwise limited access to providers. Under this rigorous standard of review, a state had to demonstrate that its regulations furthered a compelling state interest and that the state adopted the least restrictive means to further its objectives. This two- pronged approach required courts to balance the effectiveness of a state’s regulations against the burden the law imposed on the right to have an abortion.
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, however, the Court collapsed the two-pronged approach used in prior cases and adopted a unitary standard. All pre-viability abortion regulations are now constitutionally permissible as long as they do not have “the purpose or effect of imposing an undue burden on women seeking abortion.” This standard focuses on the magnitude of the burden, the percentage of women seeking abortions who will experience that burden, and whether the regulation serves some purpose other than the goal of inhibiting access to abortion services. The Court’s application of this standard to various regulations in the Casey case itself has mystified both constitutional law scholars and lower courts. The number and highly restrictive nature of new abortion regulations may require Supreme Court intervention and clarification of this standard in the near future.
#5. The 2014 Congressional Election
Although we have highlighted the way institutions other than the Supreme Court (e.g., the President, local governments, lower courts, state legislatures) have helped shape the meaning of the Constitution in 2014, we would never deny the centrality of the Court itself in constitutional interpretation. And yet we must remember that the Court is not a static institution, but rather one whose membership and decisions change over time. So our final candidate for important constitutional developments of the year is the congressional election in November that saw the Republicans gain solid control of the U.S. Senate. Because replacing departing Justices with new members is the single most important way the Constitution has been kept responsive to the values of the people, decisions by the American electorate about who shall be the President (and nominate new members to the Court) and who shall control the Senate (and decide whether to confirm presidential nominations) are quintessentially important constitutional events. Regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican wins the White House in 2016, Republican control of the Senate for the foreseeable future is likely to influence the kind of persons appointed to the (closely divided) Court in the coming years, which in turn is likely to affect how the Court rules in many controversial constitutional areas. It is fitting, even as it is sometimes overlooked, that We the People remain the most important institutional actors in giving content to our basic government charter.