Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    Nothing in the almost two and a half hours of oral arguments altered my prediction that at the end of June 2015 the Supreme Court will hold that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage deny equal protection to gays and lesbians. The only question is whether it will be 5-4 or 6-3 to declare unconstitutional laws prohibiting marriage equality and whether the opinion will be written by Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    Why the certainty of this prediction? To begin with, the states that are defending their bans on same-sex marriage – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee –failed to articulate any legitimate justification for their laws. In reality, the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage stem from a moral condemnation of homosexuality, but the Supreme Court has been explicit that it will not accept such a justification for laws discriminating against gays and lesbians.

    So the states are trying to defend their laws by stressing tradition and the historic definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. But a tradition of discrimination is not an acceptable reason in the courts for continuing to discriminate. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state law that prohibited interracial marriage. Such laws had existed throughout American history, even in California until the 1940s. But the Court rightly gave no deference to this tradition and rejected the argument that the definition of marriage should be left to the political process.

    The primary argument made by the states is that marriage is linked to procreation and that only opposite sex couples can procreate without artificial assistance. Michigan, for example, declares in its brief:   “Separating marriage from procreation dramatically changes the state’s interest in the institution. . . .  It is the state’s interest to encourage opposite-sex couples to enter into a permanent, exclusive union within which to have and raise children that motivates state marriage laws.”

  • March 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Suja A. Thomas, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law; author of The Other Branch: Restoring the Jury’s Role in the American Constitution (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).  This post is based on her essay, Text-Bound Originalism (and Why Originalism Does Not Strictly Govern Same Sex Marriage).

    Many assume originalism has an important place in the debate about whether states can prohibit same sex marriage.  As the argument goes, the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause was the protection of African-Americans, so there is no constitutional barrier to states' prohibition of same sex marriage.  In deciding that states could prohibit same sex marriage, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recognized the relevance of this originalist interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause along with other arguments for permitting the prohibition of same sex marriage—all of which the Supreme Court will soon consider.

    But does originalism have a significant place in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause and thus in the same sex marriage decision?  Those advocating the use of originalism believe that originalism must strictly govern the interpretation of the Constitution.  Thus far in arguing for this originalist methodology, however, they have not acknowledged that the text of the Constitution explicitly requires the application of originalism for the interpretation of one provision in the Constitution—the Seventh Amendment.  In ignoring this textual inclusion of originalism and corresponding textual exclusion of originalism elsewhere, originalists have not shown why originalism should strictly govern other parts of the Constitution.

  • March 12, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    The Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  This statement may seem simple enough, but U.S. Senator David Vitter is once again pushing legislation to upend the Constitution’s provision of birthright citizenship.

    According to Vitter, the 14th Amendment is misunderstood and contains a loophole that needs to be closed to prevent an influx of “birth tourists.”  Constitutional law experts say the Amendment is straight forward, and Vitter and his cohorts are trying to destroy a constitutional right.

    This is not a new debate.  The faulty arguments behind Vitter’s legislation were addressed and discredited years ago by scholars including Garrett Epps of the University of Baltimore School of Law and Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who authored an Issue Brief on the subject.  Take a look at the resources below for a thorough explanation of why new attempts to take away birthright citizenship are still wrong.

    Born in the USA?: The Historical and Constitutional Underpinnings of Birthright Citizenship (video)

    Born Under the Constitution: Why Recent Attacks on Birthright Citizenship Are Unfounded, Elizabeth Wydra (Issue Brief)

    Epps on “Da Vinci Code Originalism” and the Citizenship Clause (ACSblog)

    Here We Go Again: At Republican Debate, Pawlenty Denies Constitutional Text and History Establishing Birthright Citizenship, Elizabeth Wydra (ACSblog)

  • January 22, 2015
    BookTalk
    Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment
    By: 
    Burt Neuborne

    by Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties, NYU Law, and Founding Legal Director, Brennan Center for Justice

    We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights.  We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson’s indispensable political lieutenant.  We applaud him as the nation’s fourth president.  But we will never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet.

    Not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, or a prophet-poet like Abraham Lincoln, or even a peoples’ poet like Ronald Reagan.  Madison’s poetic genius was structural – a mastery of the interplay between democracy and individual liberty.  His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, 31 ideas, and 10 amendments – each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole – that is the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.

    Today, we hear only broken fragments of Madison’s music.  Madison’s poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it.  Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the Bill of Rights, the current Supreme Court majority reads the Bill of Rights as a set of self-contained commands, as if each clause – and at times, each word of each clause – existed in splendid isolation from the body of the constitutional text.  Consider the fate of the 45 words in Madison’s remarkable First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  • January 8, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Steve Sanders, Associate Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law, Indiana University Bloomington.

    * This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

    The Supreme Court has been reluctant to jump into the question of same-sex marriage, preferring to let the issue percolate through state-by-state litigation in the lower federal courts.  But the time has come for the justices to come out of hiding.  The denial of marriage equality is a national problem, not a state-level problem, and it requires a national resolution that only our nation’s constitutional court can provide.

    At the moment, 35 states allow marriage equality, while 15 forbid it.  The anti-equality states not only refuse to allow same-sex marriages to be licensed and celebrated; 14 of them also refuse to recognize marriages from sister states where such unions are perfectly legal.  Petitions from cases in four of those states – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee – will be considered by the justices at their next private conference this coming Friday.

    One reason marriage equality is a national issue is that our current patchwork of marriage laws imposes unreasonable, indeed absurd, burdens on same-sex couples’ security in their marriages and their freedom to move from state to state.  A married gay couple from a pro-equality state can relocate for job, education or family reasons to an anti-equality state – as long as they’re willing to give up their marriage, and perhaps even their property and parental rights.  A rational legal regime cannot tolerate this state of affairs.

    In a 2012 article in the Michigan Law Review, I first proposed that the Constitution provides not only a right to get married, but a right to remain married.  Multiple federal court decisionsincluding one from the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appealsinvolving Utah’s marriage laws, have since endorsed this principle.  There is also an argument to be made that denial of interstate marriage recognition offends the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause.