Lincoln’s First Inaugural, delivered in the gravest circumstances on March 4, 1861, is remembered for Lincoln’s passionate defense of the Union and implacable opposition to secession. It is also remembered for his closing, calling upon true patriotism and republican virtue. It is less remembered, except perhaps by Lincoln specialists and lawyers, for his principled rejection of judicial supremacy. Indeed, for Lincoln, the expansion of the power of the judiciary beyond particular cases was the end of self-government by a free people. For Lincoln, if the power of the Supreme Court were expanded to determine the policy of the entire government, the Supreme Court (or a majority of it) would rule, not the people.
This was not an academic question for Lincoln. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had pronounced the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and declared, going beyond the precise issue in Dred Scott, that Congress had no power to ban slavery in the territories. Lincoln noted that the Constitution was, in fact, silent on that point, notwithstanding Taney’s resolution of the specifics of the Dred Scott case. Given that the expansion of slavery was for Lincoln the entirety of the issue imperiling the Union, the Supreme Court’s decision threatened the most serious consequences.
It is against this background that Lincoln stated, “I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government.” For Lincoln, the limitation of judicial decisions to the parties to the case served as an important check on an erroneous decision. An incorrect decision could be reconsidered and overturned before it served as precedent if it were limited to the parties before the court.
But he offers a still more serious reason. Throughout the First Inaugural, Lincoln defends the proposition that in the United States, under the federal constitution, the people are sovereign. He observes, “[t]his country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it.” He articulates his theory of popular sovereignty when he says that, “[a] majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” On the other hand, he finds the expansion of the judiciary power beyond the particular cases before the courts—the expansion of the judiciary power, that is, into the policy of the entire government—to be the antithesis of this popular sovereignty. He says as much: “if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers . . . .”
Lincoln himself was true to his principles, refusing to abide by Chief Justice Taney’s May 28, 1861 decision in Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861), which held that Lincoln did not have the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus unilaterally. Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message to Congress, the most compelling theoretical argument for the president’s absolute leadership of the state in cases of emergency, is in large part an answer to Taney’s Merryman decision. In other words, Lincoln acted upon the principle he articulated in the First Inaugural: the courts did not and indeed could not set policy, even on constitutional questions, for the whole of the government.
In this view, Lincoln has a surprising antecedent: St. Thomas Aquinas. As we begin the work of recovering the classical legal tradition, it is important to note where the Anglo-American tradition finds support in the classical tradition. Much of the anxiety about the classical legal tradition—and much of the anxiety about common-good conservatism—stems from a thorough ignorance of the classical tradition. In many cases, the Anglo-American tradition represents a borrowing, often inexpert, from the ius commune. Aquinas’s jurisprudence, articulated systematically in the Summa Theologiae, represents an important part of the classical tradition. Finding, therefore, support for a particular position in the Anglo-American tradition, here Lincoln’s view of the limitations on judicial decisions, in Aquinas is a significant result.
Aquinas held that a judge’s judgment is like particular law regarding a particular fact (ST II-II q.67 a.1 co.). For this reason, just as a general law should have coercive power, so too should a judge’s judgment have coercive power between the parties. Indeed, Aquinas notes that the judge ought to be the personification of justice, which requires two parties (ST II-II q.67 a.3 co.). But Aquinas rejects outright the suggestion that the judge’s power is plenary over the commonwealth. Aquinas instead follows Aristotle who holds that it is better for laws to be framed than it is for judges to judge every single case (ST I-II q.95 a.1 ad 2). One may say then that Aquinas’s position is that a judge is empowered to make particular law for particular parties to justice between them, but not to make laws for the entire commonwealth.
This is bolstered by Aquinas’s sense of who rightly interprets laws. Throughout the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas emphasizes that the lawgiver is the interpreter of the law. In his article on the emergency, in fact, he objects that only the lawgiver is competent to interpret the law (ST I-II q.96 a.6 obj. 1). He answers this by observing that a person acting in a true emergency is not interpreting the law, but instead following the intention of the lawgiver who, keeping always the common good in mind, must have intended something than the perilous result that would be obtained by following the letter of the law (ST I-II q.96 a.6 ad 1). Nothing in this suggests that Aquinas holds that anyone other than the legislator properly interprets law. Indeed, his theory of the emergency is predicated on not being able to obtain an authoritative interpretation from the lawgiver (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.6 co.).
The conclusion is further strengthened by Aquinas’s discussion of whether a judge may remit a just punishment. First, the judge, as noted above, declares what is just between two parties, and remission of the punishment would deprive the prevailing party of his due (ST I-II q.67 a.4 co.). Second, the judge exercises public authority when he pronounces judgment, and is the good of the commonwealth that evildoers be punished (ibid.). Nevertheless, the sovereign, who is the supreme judge of the commonwealth, has the authority to remit a just punishment. The judge simply does not have the discretion that the supreme judge of the commonwealth does (ST I-II q.67 a.4 ad 1).
Therefore one may say with considerable authority that Aquinas’s view of the role of the judiciary is limited. The judge pronounces justice between two parties in a given case. He does not have plenary authority over the law, to say nothing of the laws framed by the legislator for the common good of the whole commonwealth (cf. ST I-II q.90 a.2 co.). The authoritative interpretation of the law—and the power to frame laws for the commonwealth—belongs to the legislator, not the judge. The idea that judges deciding particular cases between particular parties would be able to affect all the citizens of the commonwealth is altogether alien to Aquinas’s theory of jurisprudence.
We see then that Lincoln’s notion in the First Inaugural represents, in a definite way, an important conclusion of the classical legal tradition. Lincoln conceded that judicial decisions are binding between the parties. He also held that those decisions are “entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government.” Aquinas would no doubt agree with this. The lawgiver simply cannot have in mind all possible cases when he frames laws generally (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.6 co.). A judicial decision between two parties may well clarify for the lawgiver, who is the authoritative interpreter of the law, unintended consequences or the need for modification of a given law. Moreover, the lawgiver may be persuaded by the reasoning of the judge and accept the judge’s interpretation.
But Aquinas would also agree with Lincoln’s startling conclusion that “if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers . . . .” Judges do justice in particular cases between particular parties; they are not the sovereigns. Lincoln’s concept of sovereignty, which he articulates elsewhere in the First Inaugural, was ultimately popular sovereignty. His conclusion that the expansion of the Supreme Court’s power beyond particular cases was to the prejudice of the sovereign people follows upon eminently Thomistic principles.
The inherent dispute—whether the courts have the power to set the policy for the whole of the government—is low intensity most of the time. It emerged briefly during the chaotic run up to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, but the flare ups were quickly resolved and everyone acquiesced in Obergefell. Nevertheless, the resolution is mostly one of rhetoric: there is no definitive juridical resolution. There is no clear statement in the Constitution that resolves the matter against Lincoln and Aquinas. Indeed, the Case or Controversy Clause suggests that Lincoln and Aquinas have a point. As interpretative tools like textualism and stare decisis are employed to achieve substantive results well beyond anything those tools can support on their own terms, the rhetorical resolution of this dispute looks less and less satisfactory.
Of course, judges themselves are entirely free to adopt the classical approach. Just as originalism and textualism are supported with the claim that they reflect judicial humility, so too may the limitation of decisions to the parties to a case be supported with the claim of humility. Indeed, for Thomas Aquinas, the supreme example of judicial humility is to confine judicial decisions to particular cases between particular parties, leaving the declaration of law and policy to the legislator or the chief magistrate of the commonwealth. Certainly, given the support for that view in the American tradition, nothing prevents its adoption.