By Karl Peterjohn
While it has become increasingly common for members of the U.S. Supreme Court to make news by public comments, particularly during their summer recess, Wichita Pachyderm Club members had the opportunity for Kansas federal district Judge Eric F. Melgren to quote from his judicial colleagues in a way of defending the Constitution’s concept of the separation of powers. Judge Melgren cited various appellate court rulings, particularly as they related to the largely little known Chevron decision, that damages that constitutional protection at his July 21 speech in Wichita.
Judge Melgren, a former member of this club before his selection as the U.S. attorney for Kansas that was followed by his 2008 elevation to a federal district court post, began by discussing this governmental paradox, “those who favor (government) efficiency, or inefficient, representative government,” and he quoted from three appellate decisions as well as several of Madison’s Federalist papers to make this point.
The founders feared tyrannical government and worried about this new government having too much power. That is the reason for the three separate branches where Congress writes the law, the executive branch administers the law, and the judiciary interprets it. This system of checks and balances make government very inefficient, and Melgren cited Madison’s Federalist 47.
Judge Melgren followed by quoting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion in the Department of Transportation v. American Railroads case on this point. Our progressive law has now put the power of taking a general federal statute and having a federal agency basically write the rules and regulations that are then administered by the bureaucracy, and if a dispute arises, is then settled in the agencies own administrative law courts. Congress, often the executive, and unless extensive litigation occurs, the courts are all bypassed. The Chevron decision pushed these legal disputes away from the courts and back to bureaucratic resolutions.
This creates an environment where the bureaucracy has assumed much of the law making powers, administers the law, and then has their own administrative courts to interpret it.
In theory, the bureaucracy is part of the executive branch and reports to the president. However, as U.S. attorney Melgren was reminded by his staff that they would be there after he had left that office. This also applies to the rest of the federal government’s bureaucracy.
To amplify upon this situation Melgren quoted from then federal appeals court judge Gorsuch in an immigration case that turned on the legal question of which conflicting rules from the government applied. The U.S. Supreme Court’s little known but legally controversial Chevron decision took this issue away from the federal courts and gave it to the professional bureaucracy. Gorsuch’s opinion was part of this 10th circuit (federal appellate court) case involving the U.S. justice department in 2016.
Then President Obama’s rule making authority was at issue, that created this legal problem in the realm of federal administrative law making. This was also a problem in Thomas’ opinion in the railroad case.
Justice Thomas warned about this dangerous trend. This amplified the warning Gorsuch bemoans in the weakening of the separation of powers in his appellate case. Thomas warned that too often we abrogated and allowed the power to make laws by administrative fiat. It might help make, as is often suggested, “make the trains run on time,” although Judge Melgren expressed serious doubts on this point there was no doubt about the cost to our Constitution, and the individual liberty it is supposed to protect.
Judge Melgren spoke about the Chevron decision’s impact where the courts must defer to administrative agencies. “Apply the law as it is, and not how they wish it to be,” citing Gorsuch’s opinion, this means that the separation of powers is being totally undermined by the Chevron edict. The solution is: legislation. Law writing is arduous and difficult, but this is not a bug in the system, but this difficulty is a constitutional protection.
This shift in power under Chevron would astonish the founders if they could see our current system as seen by the growth in the federal government in general. Judge Melgren pointed out that within the lifetime of some of the Pachyderm Club members the number of judges in the federal court system in Kansas had expanded from one in 1940 to six today, and that excludes a number of senior federal judges who have officially “retired,” but still on occasion hear about 1/3 of the total number of cases in the three federal courthouses (Wichita, Topeka, and K.C.) in Kansas. Melgren mentioned his late colleague Judge Brown, who was an appointee of President Kennedy and was still hearing cases while over 100 years old. Judge Brown passed away at the age of 104.
Melgren readily acknowledged that the separation of powers was not absolute. The federal court system underneath the supreme court is created by congress. The close to 1,000 federal district and appellate judges operate nationally within an organization structure created by Congress.
Melgren’s last case he quoted was from Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall’s opinion in the selection of district court judges, Sullivan v. Kansas. Stegall’s separation of powers argument cited Madison’s Federalist 51 concerning the concentration of power in any one government agency.
Stegall applied the warnings over the separation of powers and the direction that state law has taken going back to Kansas Supreme Court cases granting additional administrative power going back to a 1976 ruling that involved the complexity created by the separation of powers. The separation of powers was a critical constitutional concept that is a key to protecting our liberties from government expansion.
This cautionary litany of judicial rulings quoted by Judge Melgren served as a legal foundation concerning our Constitution and the separation of powers legal structure. The Chevron decision that weakens our liberty, and expands government’s powers, places a roadblock in the effort to preserve, protect and defend our liberty with this important constitutional protection of the separation of powers today.
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