Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 29 (1995)

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Cite as: 514 U. S. 211 (1995)

Opinion of the Court

how this could in any way cause the statute to be any less an infringement upon the judicial power. The nub of that infringement consists not of the Legislature's acting in a particularized and hence (according to the concurrence) nonlegislative fashion; 9 but rather of the Legislature's nullifying prior, authoritative judicial action. It makes no difference whatever to that separation-of-powers violation that it is in gross rather than particularized (e. g., "we hereby set aside all hitherto entered judicial orders"), or that it is not accompanied by an "almost" violation of the Bill of Attainder Clause, or an "almost" violation of any other constitutional provision.

Ultimately, the concurrence agrees with our judgment only "[b]ecause the law before us embodies risks of the very sort that our Constitution's 'separation of powers' prohibition seeks to avoid." Post, at 246. But the doctrine of separation of powers is a structural safeguard rather than a remedy to be applied only when specific harm, or risk of specific harm, can be identified. In its major features (of which the conclusiveness of judicial judgments is assuredly one) it is a prophylactic device, establishing high walls and clear distinctions because low walls and vague distinctions will not be judicially defensible in the heat of interbranch conflict. It is interesting that the concurrence quotes twice, and cites without quotation a third time, the opinion of Justice Powell in

9 The premise that there is something wrong with particularized legislative action is of course questionable. While legislatures usually act through laws of general applicability, that is by no means their only legitimate mode of action. Private bills in Congress are still common, and were even more so in the days before establishment of the Claims Court. Even laws that impose a duty or liability upon a single individual or firm are not on that account invalid—or else we would not have the extensive jurisprudence that we do concerning the Bill of Attainder Clause, including cases which say that it requires not merely "singling out" but also punishment, see, e. g., United States v. Lovett, 328 U. S. 303, 315-318 (1946), and a case which says that Congress may legislate "a legitimate class of one," Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U. S. 425, 472 (1977).


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