George F. Will: Why judicial activism matters

Published: May 5, 2013
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“The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

— James Madison, Federalist 48

But under today's regulatory state, which Madison could hardly have imagined, the legislature, although still a source of much mischief, is not the principal threat to liberty. Suppose a federal executive department flagrantly abused its regulatory powers for the unmistakable purpose of suppressing truthful speech that annoys the government. If you assume the Supreme Court would rectify this assault on the First Amendment's core protection, you would be mistaken.

The government has done this and the court has declined to do its duty to enforce constitutional limits. Herewith an illustration of why conservatives must abandon their imprecise opposition to “judicial activism” and advocate for more vigorous judicial engagement in protecting liberty from the vortex of the regulatory state.

Spirit, Allegiant and Southwest are low-cost carriers that have thrived since the deregulation of the airline industry, which began in 1978. The government retains a narrow authority to prevent deceptive advertising practices. But as the airlines argued in petitioning the Supreme Court to hear their case, the government is micromanaging their speech merely to prevent the public from understanding the government's tax burdens.

The government's Total Price Rule forbids the airlines from calling attention to the tax component of the price of a ticket by listing the price the airline charges and then the tax component with equal prominence. The rule mandates that any listing of the tax portion of a ticket's price “not be displayed prominently and be presented in significantly smaller type than the listing of the total price.” The government is trying to prevent people from clearly seeing the burdens of government.

These three low-cost carriers compete for the most price-conscious travelers, and want to tell those travelers which portion of a ticket's cost the airlines control. The government, far from regulating to prevent customer confusion, is trying to prevent customers from understanding the taxes and fees that comprise approximately 20 percent of the average airline ticket.

Timothy Sandefur, of the public-interest, limited-government Pacific Legal Foundation, notes that decades ago the Supreme Court, without justification in the Constitution's text, structure or history, created a binary First Amendment. So today the amendment gives different degrees of protection to two kinds of speech — strong protection to political speech, minimal protection to commercial speech.