Rob Natelson Proves Founding Fathers Opposed Federal Takeover of State Tort Law

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In their zeal to adopt a federal malpractice reform bill to dictate procedures to state courts, many Republicans in Congress are doing precisely what they rightly accuse Democrats of doing: blithely disregarding the Constitution's clear limits on federal power.

Their proposals, once encapsulated in H.R. 5 and then slipped into the Senate Republican "jobs bill," not only violate the true meaning of the Constitution, but also likely run afoul of such modern Supreme Court cases as New York v. United States and Printz v. United States, which voided efforts to impose unfunded federal mandates on state officials. The same Virginia attorney general who brought the first suit against Obamacare has threatened to challenge this measure in court as well.

The effort to impose federal control over state courts and state civil justice violates one of the core principles of our federal system: That most judicial matters are local. Keeping courts and procedures local is, in fact, a crucial protection for individual liberty.

As I show in my new paper, "The Roots of American Judicial Federalism," one of the chief causes of the American Revolution was the British effort to undercut local courts by centralizing the administration of justice. As I also explain, after the Revolution Americans deliberately enshrined the local-control principle in our Constitution.

In other words, medical malpractice reform, like most other aspects of civil justice, is a matter for state, not federal, law. (Emphasis added.)

So wrote Rob Natelson, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Independence Institute in Colorado, in a post titled, "Congress, Butt Out! The Constitution Reserves Malpractice Reform for the States" to introduce his newest research study, The Roots of American Judicial Federalism. Rob Natelson is one of the most respected constitutional scholars in America; was Montana's best known political activist -- leading, among other campaigns, the most successful petition-referendum drive in Montana history -- and in June 2000, was the runner-up among five candidates in the party primaries for Governor of Montana.

The Roots of American Judicial Federalism is not Rob Natelson's first foray into the federal medical malpractice debate. In April, he became the first of a long line of conservative and Tea Party-side activists and scholars who oppose federal medmal laws on federalism grounds. In his letter to Congress, he spelled out the constitutionally based objections to H.R. 5, the primary bill desired by the medical groups to limit all health care lawsuits, including those filed for medical malpractice. "H.R. 5 flagrantly contravenes the limitations the Constitution places places upon Congress, and therefore violates both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. H.R. 5 is purportedly an exercise of the Constitution's Commerce Power. Yet as I shall explain, its subject-matter--civil actions in federal and state courts--is not within the Constitution's meaning of 'Commerce.' Nor can H.R. 5 be justified under the Necessary and Proper Clause as incidental to the regulation of interstate Commerce."

In the opening page of Roots, Natelson explains that the Founding Fathers were committed to reserving tort law for the states, even years before the drafting of the Constitution.

In drafting the Constitution, the Framers provided for additional federal judicial authority. Like the post-1768 pre-Revolutionary pamphleteers, however, they rejected proposals for a central government with power over all activities with inter-jurisdictional impact. Instead, they limited federal authority to items specifically enumerated. Reserved to the states would be nearly all the authority they had exercised previously, including power over state court procedures and over existing areas of substantive jurisdiction. With a few exceptions, therefore, the states were left in exclusive possession of the law of torts, contracts, inheritance, property, and criminal law.

When the Constitution became public in September, 1787, opponents argued that the Constitution could be construed to permit Congress or the federal courts to exceed prescribed limits. They contended that the new government might interfere with criminal and civil justice within the states. The Constitution, they said, should be rewritten to prevent manipulation of its terms by legal "sophistry."

To quiet such apprehensions, the Constitution's proponents explained to the ratifying public that the Constitution, if adopted, would grant only restricted authority to the new government. The Constitution's proponents listed for the ratifying public numerous areas in which the federal government would have no power and the states would enjoy exclusive power. Among the areas listed were several pertaining to state judicial systems.

The remainder of the study reveals the detailed writings of the Founding Fathers in support of judicial federalism. Professor Natelson quotes them time and again, including in letters and pamphlets that many Americans have probably never read before:

Like earlier authors, the writers of the 1774 pamphlets emphasized that judicial matters should be administered locally. In his Novanglus, (John) Adams pointed out that the dispute between colonists and the British government was not limited to taxes:

"Is the threepence upon tea our only grievance? Are we not in this province deprived of the privilege of paying our governors, judges, &c.? Are not trials by jury taken from us? Are we not sent to England for trial? Is not a military government put over us? Is not our constitution demolished to the foundation?"

Alexander Hamilton, in A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress, agreed:

"Give me the right to be tried by a jury of my own neighbors, and to be taxed by my own representatives only. What will become of the law and courts of justice without this? The shadow may remain, but the substance will be gone. I would die to preserve the law upon a solid foundation; but take away liberty, and the foundation is destroyed."

Professor Natelson discusses the assurances that delegates to the Constitutional Convention gave to the public that the right to a civil jury trial would not be abridged:

At the New york convention, Hamilton underscored exclusive state jurisprudence over internal state administration, arguing that state powers are "civil and domestic--to support the legislative establishment, and to provide for the administration of the laws." He added that:

"Were the laws of the Union to new-model [reform] the internal police of any state; were they to alter, or abrogate at a blow, the whole of its civil and criminal institutions; were they to penetrate the recesses of domestic life, and control, in all respects, the private conduct of individuals,--there might be more force in the objection; and the same Constitution, which was happily calculated for one state, might sacrifice the welfare of another."

Chancellor Robert R. Livingston assured the convention that state power over traditional areas of judicial power was exclusive:

"They tell us that the state governments will be destroyed, because they will have no powers left them. This is new. Is the power over property nothing? Is the power over life and death no power? . . .In one word, can [Congress] make a single law for the individual, exclusive purpose of any one state?"

Natelson concludes by discussing the fight to recognize the right to a civil jury trial and the states' right to run their own civil justice systems through a Bill of Rights.

Federalists had to go beyond representing the meaning of disputed provisions. They also had to promise that they would support a bill of rights once the Constitution was ratified. Five of the 11 ratifying state ratifying conventions had accompanied their approval with suggested amendments. The two states that thus far had refused to ratify, North Carolina and Rhode Island, determined to stay out of the union until a bill of rights was proposed.

Among the restrictive amendments were some restraining the federal judiciary. Thus, the Fourth Amendment regulated judicially-issued warrants, the Fifth barred double jeopardy, the Seventh prescribed jury trial in civil cases, and so on. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments were the declaratory amendments. They highlighted the limited scope of federal powers, including federal powers over judicial matters.

Although the Ninth Amendment is widely misunderstood today, its principal role was as a protection for federalism, including judicial federalism. It affirmed that Congress was no more able to impair the independence of the state judiciaries after adoption of the Bill of Rights than had been true before adoption.

The Tenth Amendment, based on the most popular proposal from the states, reinforced that whatever was not given was reserved. It may have been targeted specifically against claims raised during the Confederation period that, despite the Articles' limits on congressional power, Congress enjoyed additional "inherent" authority merely by virtue of being a sovereign.

In other words, both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments rendered explicit the Constitution's implicit restraints on Congress and the federal judiciary, as explained by Federalist essayists during the ratification debates. Both amendments protected the exclusive sphere of the states, including the integrity of the state courts.

Rob Natelson's study is a enormously revealing and powerful paper that will assist real constitutional conservatives in their fight against the federal takeover of state courts. The tort reform movement finds itself without intellectual ammo, and cannot cite any writing from the Founding Fathers in support of their positions (I've offered free dinner on that). I will post quotes from this outstanding paper throughout the coming weeks.

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This page contains a single entry by Andrew Cochran published on November 21, 2011 5:28 PM.

My Dinner Bet on the Founding Fathers Vs. "Tort Reform" was the previous entry in this blog.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee Opposes Current Federal Tort Reform Bills is the next entry in this blog.

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