Historical Gloss, Constitutional Conventions, and the Judicial Separation of Powers

68 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2016 Last revised: 11 Jan 2021

See all articles by Curtis Bradley

Curtis Bradley

University of Chicago Law School

Neil Siegel

Duke University School of Law

Date Written: January 24, 2016


Scholars have increasingly focused on the relevance of post-Founding historical practice to discern the separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch, and the Supreme Court has recently endorsed the relevance of such practice. Much less attention has been paid, however, to the relevance of historical practice to discerning the separation of powers between the political branches and the federal judiciary—what this Article calls the “judicial separation of powers.” As the Article explains, there are two ways that historical practice might be relevant to the judicial separation of powers. First, such practice might be invoked as an appeal to “historical gloss”—a claim that the practice informs the content of constitutional law. Second, historical practice might be invoked to support non-legal but obligatory norms of proper governmental behavior, something that Commonwealth theorists refer to as “constitutional conventions.” To illustrate how both gloss and conventions enrich our understanding of the judicial separation of powers, the Article considers the authority of Congress to “pack” the Supreme Court, and the authority of Congress to “strip” the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. This Article shows that, although the defeat of Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan in 1937 has been studied almost exclusively from a political perspective, many criticisms of the plan involved claims about historical gloss; other criticisms involved appeals to constitutional conventions; and still others blurred the line between those two categories or shifted back and forth between them. Strikingly similar themes emerge in debates in Congress in 1957-58, and within the Justice Department in the early 1980s, over the authority of Congress to prevent the Court from deciding constitutional issues by restricting its appellate jurisdiction. The Article also shows, based on internal executive branch documents that have not previously been discovered or discussed in the literature, how Chief Justice John Roberts, while working in the Justice Department and debating Office of Legal Counsel head Theodore Olson, failed to persuade Attorney General William French Smith that Congress has broad authority to strip the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. The Article then reflects on the implications of gloss and conventions for the judicial separation of powers more generally.

Keywords: historical gloss, constitutional conventions, Court packing, jurisdiction stripping, separation of powers, Exceptions Clause

Suggested Citation

Bradley, Curtis and Siegel, Neil, Historical Gloss, Constitutional Conventions, and the Judicial Separation of Powers (January 24, 2016). Georgetown Law Journal, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2016-11, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2721346 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2721346

Curtis Bradley (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Neil Siegel

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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