Judge Bumatay on Originalism in the Lower Courts: “It is our duty to apply the Constitution—not extend precedent”
Today, Judge Patrick Bumatay dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc in NLRB v. International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers. I would commend everyone to read his careful analysis about how lower courts should approach originalism and stare decisis. I may be partial to his approach, as he cites my article on this issue.
I agree with Judge Berzon that this case should have been taken up en banc. I write separately to emphasize my views on why the Supreme Court’s decision in International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 501, A.F. of L. v. NLRB, 341 U.S. 694 (1951) (“IBEW“), is not binding in this case and why it is our duty to apply the Constitution—not extend precedent—here.
As inferior court judges, we are bound to follow Supreme Court precedent. Hart v. Massanari, 266 F.3d 1155, 1170–71 (9th Cir. 2001). After all, “[f]idelity to precedent—the policy of stare decisis—is vital to the proper exercise of the judicial function.” Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310, 377 (2010) (Roberts, C.J., concurring). But our fidelity is not blind. We always have a “duty to interpret the Constitution in light of its text, structure, and original understanding.” NLRB v. Noel Canning, 573 U.S. 513, 573 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring). The same could be said of precedent that has been eroded by more recent jurisprudence.
This doesn’t mean that lower court judges can refuse to follow precedent—even if subsequent caselaw or the original meaning cast it into doubt. See Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/Am. Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484 (1989). Lower court judges don’t have license to adopt “a cramped reading” of a case in order to “functionally overrule” it. Thompson v. Marietta Educ. Ass’n, No. 19-4217, 2020 WL 5015460, at *3 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2020). Nor are we permitted to create “razor-thin distinctions” to evade precedent’s grasp. Josh Blackman, Originalism and Stare Decisis in th
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