Constitution

  • May 29, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Perpetual campaigning for national offices, ongoing and intensifying gridlock in Congress and a Supreme Court that easily invalidates federal laws might be sensibly addressed if only it were easier to amend to the nation’s Constitution. As Sanford Levinson, a leading constitutional scholar writes in a column for The New York Times critical discussion of the Constitution’s imperfections and their impact on governance is needed, but often impossible to entertain because of the reticence to do so by prominent politicians.

    First Levinson notes the problem, writing:

    Our vaunted system of ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ – a legacy of the founders’ mistrust of ‘factions’ – means that we rarely have anything that can truly be described as ‘government.’ Save for those rare instances when one party has hefty control over four branches – the House of Representatives, the Senate, the White House and the Supreme Court – gridlock threatens. Elections are increasingly meaningless, at least in terms of producing results commensurate with the challenges facing the country.

    The nation’s founders, however, were not so wedded to an unchanging governing document. Indeed Levinson points to the Articles of Confederation, which many of the nation’s founders disparaged, and which was eventually dumped because it set up a weak central government.

    But Article V of the Constitution, Levinson writes, makes it one of the world’s most difficult to amend.

    On top of that few national leaders seriously question the Constitution’s adequacy. (He notes Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the last to publicly discuss drawbacks of the Constitution.)

  • February 13, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Catholic bishops and right-wing pundits and politicians are still slathering over the Obama administration’s contraception rule that requires health insurance policies to provide free contraceptives for employees at religious affiliated universities, hospitals and charities.

    On Friday after announcing a tweak to the rule – requiring insurance providers, not the religiously affiliated institutions to pay for the contraceptives – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement blasting the change as “unacceptable,” and continued to tar the policy as a violation of their religious liberty rights. (The religious liberties violation is a canard. The policy applies generally to all groups, secular and religious. As ACSblog noted last week there are numerous laws of general applicability that impact religious practice without amounting to a violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The contraception policy from the White House already exempts houses of worship, allowing them to provide inadequate health care coverage to their employees if they wish.)

    Nonetheless, Religious Right outfits, and not surprisingly many politicians, aren’t letting go of this one.

    For example, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) dished up hyperbole in a discussion of the Obama administration’s health care policy on CNN. Video of the segment is below.

    Rep. Mack claimed the flare-up over the contraception rule proved that the Obama “administration doesn’t believe that the Constitution and that personal freedoms and liberties matter. And it is an assault on our freedoms. So whether it is Obamacare forcing people to buy something they may not want to buy, and now this reaching into the church, and forcing the church to do something that is against its own tenants, this shows an arrogance.”

    “He’s a lawyer,” Mack continued, “and he is showing that the words of the Constitution don’t matter to him.”

    Regarding the administration’s landmark health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, numerous constitutional law scholars have argued that the law’s minimum coverage provision, which starting in 2014 will require people who can afford it to obtain minimum health insurance coverage or pay a penalty, is a lawful regulation either under Congress’s power to regulate commerce or its taxing power.

    For more on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s minimum coverage provision see this ACS Issue Brief by the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Simon Lazarus.

  • February 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A forthcoming study says the U.S. Constitution may not be the model charter it once was, and suggests other governing documents, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, may be more inspirational to people seeking to secure liberty and equality.

    As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak puts it, the U.S. Constitution “has seen better days,” and “its influence is waning.” Liptak bases his observations on a forthcoming study by Washington University Law School Professor David Stephen Law and University of Virginia Law School Professor Mila Versteeg. Liptak describes the study as bristling with data and says the professors conclude, “Among the world’s democracies, constitutional similarity to the United States has clearly gone into free fall.”

    The reporter says there are numerous reasons for the Constitution’s waning influence, including its “terse and old” language, and the fact that it “guarantees relatively few rights.”

    He also notes that at least one of this country’s Supreme Court justices has recognized the Constitution’s faltering influence. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said recently during a visit to Egypt that she “would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

    Liptak also cites a 2002 Harvard Law Review article by former Israeli Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, who wrote that the Constitution’s declining “global stature” has coincided with a diminished view of the U.S. Supreme Court “among courts in modern democracies.” Barak also wrote that Canadian law “serves as a source of the inspiration for many countries around the world.”

    The study by Law and Versteeg also notes the rising influence of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which as Liptak points out “is both more expansive and less absolute” than the U.S. Constitution.

    Indeed the Canadian charter’s language on equality is broader than America’s Constitution, stating that “Ever individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” Additionally the charter notes that the equality provision does not prevent the government from taking action to improve the “conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

  • December 20, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The dominance of a conservative legal orthodoxy might not be as solid as portrayed by several panelists at a recent Brookings Institution event about the “Conservative Legal Movement and the Future of Liberal Jurisprudence.”

    Pamela S. Karlan, a distinguished law professor at Stanford Law School, explained why many perceive the conservative legal movement as dominating the narrative of the Constitution, while William E. Forbath, a distinguished law professor and professor of history at the University of Texas, focused on sharpening a liberal response to the conservatives’ narrative of the Constitution primarily meant to protect individual interests, such as private property. Forbath also examined the Constitution’s promise of economic security and equality.

    Karlan (pictured), an ACS Board member, took exception with the overall tilt of the Brookings event that conservative legal activists have outmaneuvered liberals in advancing legal theories. Karlan, however, also leveled criticism of liberals who are cowed into silence or into dubbing themselves progressives.

    But first Karlan noted the circumstances, with which conservatives have seized upon to advance their legal precepts.

    “Today it is tempting to tell a story about the rise of the conservative legal movement as the inevitable consequence of a combination of strong ideas pressed by charismatic public figures, backed by tremendous resources,” Karlan said. “To be sure, conservatives have very skillfully played the hand that they held. But contingency has played a major role too.

    “If you go to the Brookings’ website to look for its description of the conference today, you’ll see the description that says ‘the conservative legal movement has shown remarkable success at defining the terms of the debate over jurisprudence, while various visions of liberal theories of law that confront conservative orthodoxy have struggled to gain currency in the political sphere. Conservative legal theorists have coalesced around a relatively compact and politically effective set of ideas while their liberal critics have offered a diverse series of responses.”

    Continuing, Karlan said, “Now if some other public policy organization were to have held a conference in say 1968, it could have taken the same paragraph, swapped the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ and held a parallel discussion to the one were going to be holding today.”

    Conservatives Karlan maintained, “Have been as lucky as they’ve been smart.” A few tweaks to history, she said, and the landscape would likely look really different.

  • October 6, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If only the populace had a better understanding of how the American government system is supposed to function, there would be a lot less complaining about inaction in Washington on a host of pressing national concerns, such as the expanding gap between the nation’s wealthiest and everyone else.

    In a Senate hearing two of the high court’s longest serving members, Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, attempted to educate the public on the structure of the federal government and the role the judiciary plays.

    The two justices hold different views on how to perform their jobs, which involves a heavy amount of constitutional interpretation. But during the event, those differences were only fleetingly touched upon by the justices. More often than not it appeared Breyer and Scalia were intent on showing Congress just how wonderfully a Republican-appointed justice and a Democratic-appointed justice can get along.

    Scalia, however, in his opening remarks loudly proclaimed that the other two branches of the government, legislative and executive, despite the appearances of constant rancor and little accomplishment, are performing just as the nation’s founders had planned.

    The country, Scalia said, needs to learn to love the dysfunction, “to learn to love the gridlock." It’s what the founders wanted. Such sentiment that the federal government is working when not working is popular with Tea Party activists and libertarians, but likely tiresome for large numbers of Americans who have seen nothing but dysfunction and gridlock on Capitol Hill. But again, Scalia faulted Americans for failing to appreciate the dysfunction, for “they don’t understand the genius of our Constitution.”

    He noted that’s why he does so much speaking to students about the Constitution, since “we are not teaching it very well.”

    Breyer, did not claim Americans should embrace gridlock, but he essentially agreed with Scalia that civics is poorly taught to the nation’s youngsters, noting retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s ongoing work promoting civics education.

    Indeed the two justices rarely disagreed during the two-hour plus hearing. Instead the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen pretty much nailed it, writing, “They came. They kibitzed. They tossed out fluffy platitudes about judicial restraint and constitutional boundaries.”   

    Near the end of the hearing Sen. Jeff Sessions tossed a rhetorical question to Scalia about how the Constitution should be interpreted.

    Moving into the subject, Scalia said that “the controversial nature of recent confirmation proceedings is attributable to some extent to the doctrine of the living Constitution, because when you indeed have a Supreme Court that believes that the Constitution means what it ought to mean in today’s times, it seems to me a very question for the Senate to ask, or for the president to ask when he selects the nominee, ‘what kind of a new Constitution would you write?’ You know, ‘Do you believe this new right is there or this old right isn’t there?’ That seems to me … It’s much less important whether the person is a good lawyer, whether the person has a judicial temperament, what’s most important is, ‘What kind of a new constitution are you gonna write?’ And that’s crazy; it’s like having a mini constitutional convention every time you select a new judge. So I’m hopeful the living constitution will die.”

    Breyer responded, saying he would like the senators to think of John Marshall’s famous words, "‘It is a Constitution that we are expounding.’ And he’s thinking that document has to last us for 200 years. And as I say, that doesn’t mean you change the words, but the hardest problem in real cases is that the words, ‘life,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘property,’ do not explain themselves, ‘liberty.’ Nor does ‘the freedom of speech,’ say specifically what counts as ‘the freedom of speech.’"

    Applying the Constitution’s values to ever-changing situations, therefore, cannot be done by a computer. It calls for some human judgment, Breyer said. Watch video of the hearing below or by clicking here.