Which is More Important?

A Federal judge’s oath of office, or adherence to superior court precedent?  To be sure, both hierarchy in our judiciary and the precedence of rulings are critical to rule of law and to the US remaining a nation of laws and not of men.  But so is a judge’s adherence to his oath of office, and so is the Constitution.

Here’s the oath:

I, _________, do solemnly swear or affirm that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as _________, according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the constitution and laws of the United States.  So help me God.

This oath is tightly bound to the Constitution of the United States in Article VI:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution….

Moreover, the Constitution is the supreme Law of the Land.

Hence my question: in a conflict between a judge’s (subordinate, in particular, but all judges in general) oath and rulings of a superior court, how must a judge resolve this?

The principles statement of our social compact shows one way:

[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…when a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off….

While keeping in mind that such a thing is not to be done lightly or for triflings:

Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes….

Had subordinate judges been willing to rule contrary to the Taney Court on a matter of runaway slaves, a war might have been averted.  Had subordinate judges been willing to rule contrary to a superior court’s ruling, the 80 years of injustice flowing from Plessy might have been cut short.  Had subordinate judges been willing to contradict superior courts, property rights might still be intact.  The list goes on and on.  Notice that plural, though.  A single judge acting contrary is likely to act wrongly, and a court of law is not the proper venue for a lone act of civil disobedience.

Still, the question demands a care: is the precedent contrary to the Constitution, or is the judge’s opinion on the matter the thing that is wrong?  This answer can be sought out only after we recognize that neither a law nor the supreme Law is what a judge thinks it is; the law, the Constitution, is what the law, the Constitution, says it is.

Given this, is it possible for a judge to adhere to precedent and, as a result, violate his oath of office?  You bet.  Must he rule against precedent, then?  That’s harder in a practical sense.

The judge certainly can discuss matters with his fellows and develop a unified position to rule, all of them, against superior courts when they believe the superior ruling at hand is wrong—a morally necessary act of throwing off.  Notice though that this is a throwing off of the superior ruling, not of the superior court itself.

But when a single judge embarks on such a course, is it legitimate revolution, or is it insubordination?  A revolution requires more than just a single actor acting in disobedience; it requires a significant fraction of the men and women available to join the action.  Hence, that collection of like-minded judges, if such a collection can be assembled.  If a collection cannot, this does not, of necessity, demonstrate that he’s the one who’s wrong; however, the failure must give the single judge pause.  If that man still believes he cannot rule in accordance with his superiors, his proper course becomes to resign his office.

To return to the question, it’s clear that adhering to the oath is far more important than adhering to precedent.  The former never is wrong; the latter often is, because the precedent itself often is.  However, the response to such a conflict must be influenced by how widespread the error can be demonstrated to be.

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