Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • 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.

  • December 12, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

    In his piece, “Torture Is Who We Are,” Peter Beinart rightly exposes the Pollyanish mindset that would describe the United States as “intrinsically moral” with torture that has occurred since 9/11 “represent[ing] an aberration.” Beinart is of course right to point out that post-9/11 waterboarding is hardly the first time in U.S. history that Americans have been guilty of torture -- he cites slavery, waterboarding of Filipino prisoners during the Spanish-American War and electric shocks delivered to the genitals of prisoners during the Vietnam War as some grotesque examples. There are others. Civilian law enforcement authorities used waterboarding and sleep deprivation on domestic criminal suspects decades before 9/11. A U.S. soldier waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner in 1968

    So Beinart is right in one sense -- torture is not something new in American history. It cannot be seen as an aberration from a previously morally upright, torture-free history. But there is one important difference that he misses, that makes his analysis more pessimistic than it need be.  Torture by Americans is not new. The idea that Americans can torture with impunity, however, is new. In each of the examples I listed, there were consequences for the torturers. A Texas sheriff and his deputies who waterboarded a criminal suspect were themselves convicted and sentenced to prison. The U.S. soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. When law enforcement authorities subjected a suspect to questioning for 36 hours without sleep, the Supreme Court threw out a conviction based on the coerced confession that had been extracted.  The same is true for one of Beinart’s examples.  A U.S. military officer who waterboarded Filipino prisoners was court-martialed, suspended from command for one month and fined $50.  Moreover, before 9/11, even when torture was not punished, no one proudly defended it or attempted to justify it -- instead, it was swept under the rug, as often happened during the Vietnam War. There is one essential exception to emphasize: slavery.  Slaveowners openly tortured slaves with impunity.  This is of course a central fact of American history, not truly an “exception”, except in the limited sense that it varies from the other examples I have given where torture before 9/11 was either punished or else covered up.  What has changed since 9/11 as compared with most of the examples noted is that there are now people willing, even proud, to defiantly defend torture

    Beinart is correct that “America has tortured throughout its history.” Before 9/11, however, there were usually consequences for torture: torturers faced prosecution and punishment in the criminal justice system. This is part of what it means to be true to the rule of law: when the law is violated, offenders are punished. No country can guarantee that all of its law enforcement officials, soldiers, or government officials, will refrain from torture. But countries that uphold the rule of law can guarantee that torturers will be prosecuted. 

  • November 11, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Timothy S. Jost, Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University School of Law

    It is arguable that defenders of the Affordable Care Act lost the Supreme Court in 2012 on the Commerce Clause issue in NFIB v. Sebelius when the media accepted the plaintiffs’ meme that the case was really about whether the government could make Americans eat broccoli rather than about protecting insurance markets from adverse selection and providers from free riders.  With another ACA case before the Supreme Court, the challengers are once again aggressively marketing their narrative to the media.  It is important that the media approach their claims skeptically, or at least intelligently, so that the American public, and the Court, understand what the case is really about—and what it is not about.  So let’s get this much straight:

    Congress knew that not all states would operate exchanges and intended the federally facilitated as well as the state operated exchanges to offer premium tax credits. 

    As is amply documented in the briefs filed in these cases by the members of Congress who drafted the ACA, Congress understood that a federal fallback exchange was not only necessary for constitutional reasons because Congress could not force the states to operate exchanges, but also for practical reasons because some would not.  The challengers have made up a narrative about Congress limiting premium tax credits to state exchanges to bludgeon them into setting up their own exchanges, but there is absolutely no support for this in the legislative record.

    If the Court chooses to ignore Congressional intent, it cannot ignore the text of the statute.

    Although congressional intent is clear, it is not essential for the Court to look at the legislative history, or even to consider Congress’ clear purpose to extend coverage to all Americans, to reach the right result.  If the Court looks only at the text of the ACA—but looks at the entire text and doesn’t merely cherry pick one phrase—this is an easy case.  Sure, the words “established by the State” are found in the ACA, but the ACA also provides that federally facilitated exchanges have all of the powers of state operated exchanges; federally facilitated exchange effectively and by definition becomes the “Exchange established by the State”: and HHS must ensure that “residents of each State may apply for enrollment in, receive a determination of eligibility for participation in, and continue participation in” the premium tax credit program.  Legitimate textualism requires attention to the entire text.  Literally dozens of provisions of the ACA become incongruous if a court focuses only on the “established by the State” phrase without understanding its context. 

  • September 25, 2014
    BookTalk
    The Case Against the Supreme Court
    By: 
    Erwin Chemerinsky

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

    How should we assess the Supreme Court’s performance over the course of American history? That is the central question of my new book, The Case Against the Supreme Court. My conclusion is that the Supreme Court often has failed at its most important tasks and at the most important times. Recognizing this is important in order to focus on how to improve the institution and make it much more likely to succeed in the future.

    Obviously the evaluation of any institution requires criteria by which it can be assessed.   In the introductory chapter, I posit that the Court exists, above all, to enforce the Constitution. The Constitution exists to limit what government and thus the democratic process can do. As Marbury v. Madison said long ago, the limits contained in the Constitution are meaningless unless enforced and that is the “province and duty” of the courts. The judiciary is particularly important in protecting the rights of minorities (of all sorts) who cannot rely on, and should not have to rely on, the democratic majority. Also, the courts need to play a special role in times of crisis to ensure that society’s short-term passions do not cause it to lose sight of its long-term values.

    I believe that all, liberal and conservative, can agree that these are fair criteria by which to assess the Supreme Court. I also think that liberals and conservatives can agree that the Court very often has failed. Part I of the book looks at the Court historically. Chapter one looks at the Court’s dismal record over the course of American history with regard to race. For the first 78 years of American history, from 1787 until 1865, the Court aggressively protected the rights of slave owners and upheld the institution of slavery.  For 58 years, from 1896 until 1954, the Court approved and enforced the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The Court’s failure with regard to race continues to this day, as evidenced by the decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which declared unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is the first time since the 19th century that the Court has invalidated a federal civil rights law to protect racial minorities.