Reconsidering Judicial Finality

Why the Supreme Court Is Not the Last Word on the Constitution

Louis Fisher

Federal judges, legal scholars, pundits, and reporters frequently describe the Supreme Court as the final word on the meaning of the Constitution. The historical record presents an entirely different picture. A close and revealing reading of that record, from 1789 to the present day, Reconsidering Judicial Finality reminds us of the “unalterable fact,” as Chief Justice Rehnquist once remarked, “that our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible.” And a Court inevitably prone to miscalculation and error, as this book clearly demonstrates, cannot have the incontrovertible last word on constitutional questions.

In this deeply researched, sharply reasoned work of legal myth-busting, constitutional scholar Louis Fisher explains how constitutional disputes are settled by all three branches of government, and by the general public, with the Supreme Court often playing a secondary role. The Court’s decisions have, of course, been challenged and reversed in numerous cases—involving slavery, civil rights, child labor legislation, Japanese internment during World War II, abortion, and religious liberty. What Fisher shows us on a case-by-case basis is how the elected branches, scholars, and American public regularly press policies contrary to Court rulings—and regularly prevail, although the process might sometimes take decades. From the common misreading of Marbury v. Madison, to the mistaken understanding of the Supreme Court as the trusted guardian of individual rights, to the questionable assumptions of the Courts decision in Citizens United, Fisher’s work charts the distance and the difference between the Court as the ultimate arbiter in constitutional matters and the judgment of history.

“In a field crowded with book-length studies of judicial review and the finality of Supreme Court decisions, Louis Fisher has something new and important to say. In Reconsidering Judicial Finality he demonstrates that judicial review is not the only means by which the meaning of the Constitution can by ascertained, and that the Court is not always the final authority on the meaning of the law. Fisher’s account of the ways in which Court finality has been contested will prove attractive to general readers and to scholars of constitutional law, legal history, and American politics.”

—Peter Charles Hoffer, coauthor of The Supreme Court: An Essential History, Second Edition

“For the same reasons that it distributes substantive governmental power across multiple federal and state institutions, the US Constitution also divides interpretative power across institutions; Congress, the president, the states, and the people all contribute to the development of constitutional law along with the Supreme Court. In Reconsidering Judicial Finality: Why the Supreme Court Is Not the Last Word on the Constitution, Louis Fisher, with his characteristic sweep and erudition, shows how all institutions of government engage in the enterprise of constitutional interpretation—and how they do so with widely varying skill and results that do not always reflect well on the federal courts. Covering more than two centuries of practice across a dozen different topics, this book should help put an end to the strangely enduring myth of judicial supremacy in constitutional interpretation.”

—Gary Lawson, coauthor of “A Great Power of Attorney”: Understanding the Fiduciary Constitution

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The verdict of Reconsidering Judicial Finality is clear: to treat the Supreme Court’s nine justices as democracy’s last hope or as dangerous activists undermining democracy is to vest them with undue significance. The Constitution belongs to all three branches of government—and, finally, to the American people.

About the Author

Louis Fisher is scholar in residence at The Constitution Project in Washington, D.C., and visiting scholar at the William and Mary Law School. From 1970 to 2010 he served in the Library of Congress as senior specialist in separation of powers at Congressional Research Service and specialist in constitutional law at the Law Library. His many books include Constitutional Conflicts between Congress and the President, Sixth Edition, Revised; Presidential War Power, Third Edition, Revised; Military Tribunals and Presidential Power, winner of the Richard E. Neustadt Award; and Supreme Court Expansion of Presidential Power, all from Kansas.