Jeff Shesol, author of the fascinating Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, has some advice for President Obama in a new blog post for the American Constitution Society. Shesol argues that Obama can learn a thing or two from Roosevelt’s struggles with an “activist” Supreme Court that was overturning key legislative initiatives to protect individual rights and his success in shifting the frame of the public’s debate on the Court and the Constitution.
It’s a paradox: we’ve got a former constitutional law professor as president, but he’s had far less to say than his critics (and some of his supporters) about the relevance of the Constitution to key questions of national policy. No doubt he’s got plenty to say on the subject. No doubt he’s unwilling to cede the argument to Republicans mouthing pieties about "the plain language of the Constitution." So what’s holding the professor back?
Understandably, his focus now is the confirmation of Elena Kagan, and that goal might not be served by starting a debate with the self-styled defenders of the Constitution. But as Senator Cornyn said last year, not incorrectly, "each Supreme Court nomination is a time for national conversation and reflection on the role of the Supreme Court." And by keeping mostly mum on the matter, President Obama is missing an important opportunity to "take the country to school," as Felix Frankfurter advised President Roosevelt to do in the mid-1930s. Frankfurter urged FDR to launch a campaign of "quiet education" about the Court’s proper role and the ways in which ideologically driven conservative justices were overstepping it.
As Shesol points out, for decades conservatives have dominated the debate over the meaning of the Supreme Court and the Constitution. But in recent months, their talking points have been noticeably loosing credibility. The Roberts Court’s far-reaching decision in Citizens United—in which it went out of its way to upend 100 years of settled law to give corporations the same rights as citizens to influence elections— angered Americans across the political spectrum, and soundly debunked the myth of “judicial activism” as a liberal trait. And the Republican National Committee’s recent attempt to smear Elena Kagan for questioning the perfection of the original Constitution spectacularly backfired when the flaws in their argument became clear.
Americans are clearly ready to embrace a view of the Supreme Court and the Constitution that does not fit neatly into flawed baseball-themed talking points. The debate over Kagan’s nomination provides an opportunity to have that conversation.