Mikhail on James Wilson on ISLT

John Mikhail has some interesting analysis in a post on James Wilson over at Balkinization:

The Independent State Legislature Theory

In light of current events, another pertinent topic is the Elections Clause. Its crucial word, generating the challenge in Moore v. Harper and other recent election law disputes, is “Legislature.” Who incorporated this word into the Elections Clause and vested state legislatures with authority over the “Times, Places, and Manner” of federal elections, subject to override by Congress? Once again, it was Wilson—a fact curiously underappreciated in the vast amount written about a case that has been called “the most important case for American democracy in the almost two and a half centuries since America’s founding.” Wilson was one of the period’s biggest champions of judicial authority, after all, along with democratic elections. As McCloskey emphasized half a century ago, he also was the only prominent founder to embrace the underlying principle of “one person, one vote” on which the Warren Court relied in Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims.

So would Wilson have embraced the independent state legislature theory? In a word: No. In fact, he is about the last member of the founding generation who would have endorsed the concept of an “independent” state legislature. Wilson favored capable legislatures, to be sure, but he consistently advocated judicial review at both the state and federal levels. Between 1776 and 1790, he led the movement to impose more checks on the Pennsylvania legislature than existed in the state’s 1776 constitution. These efforts culminated in a “counter-revolution in Pennsylvania” and the adoption of a new state constitution in 1790. Wilson was a primary architect of that constitution—one of the only framers to play this leading role at the state level after drafting the federal Constitution—and almost certainly the author of its “free and equal” elections provision, which soon migrated elsewhere and now appears in some form in about one third of all state constitutions. The newly popular tendency to denigrate state constitutional provisions like this one and declare them judicially unmanageable in favor of the Elections Clause would likely have amused Wilson, since he drafted both provisions.

More importantly, the best evidence we possess affords little reason to doubt that Wilson would have repudiated the independent state legislature theory. Like virtually all the founders, he believed that legislatures were invariably limited by their constitutional mandate. In his last known publication, a 1797 letter to Congress, Wilson reinforced just this point by amplifying Justice William Paterson’s opinion in Vanhorne’s Lessee v. Dorrance. Quoting Paterson, Wilson wrote:

What is a Constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental laws are established. The Constitution is certain and fixed; it contains the permanent will of the people, and is the supreme law of the land. It is paramount to the power of the Legislature, and can be revoked or altered only by the authority that made it.

What are Legislatures? Creatures of the Constitution; they owe their existence to the Constitution. It is their commission, and, therefore, all their acts must be conformable to it, or else they will be void. Whatever may be the case in other countries, yet in this there can be no doubt, that every act of the Legislature, repugnant to the Constitution, is absolutely void (emphasis on “Constitution” and “void” added by Wilson).

These are the convictions of the man who actually drafted the Elections Clause. Significantly, they echo prominent criticisms of the independent state legislature theory almost word-for-word. Any lingering doubts about the dubious originalist credentials of this theory should have been dispelled by now (see, e.g., hereherehere, and here), but perhaps a closer familiarity with Wilson and his firm belief in the importance of constitutional limits on state legislatures can serve as another nail in the coffin—assuming the Supreme Court wants to maintain any credibility at all on this issue.

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