Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • 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.

  • September 19, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law, @atibaellis. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    On September 17, 1787, the framers signed the U.S. Constitution. The document they approved 227 years ago is a work of genius as it provided a democratic republic that has endured economic turmoil, mass insurrection, and disasters of various sorts -- forces that have toppled other democracies.  The U.S. Constitution, the oldest enduring written constitution in the world today, has endured and preserved democracy based upon rule of law.

    Although one might point to the advantages and disadvantages of federalism, the dynamics of enumerated powers, or the political compromises that undergird separation of powers as powerful tactics the Constitution deploys, it is not in any of these mechanisms where the genius of the Constitution lies. Its true genius is its mechanism to allow we the people to reinvent our democracy as our times and ethics demand. It is this power of reinvention that has allowed our constitution to endure and matter to the world. 

    This power of democratic transition is best illustrated in the way our Constitution has been reinvented, over time, from a document that enshrined inequality to one that strives for equality. The Constitution of 1787 reflected and implemented a social theory we would not recognize or sanction today. The Constitution endorsed states’ rights (though this name would not be invented until a century later to protect slavery) and left it to the states to structure the social relations of the nation. Thus, despite a Bill of Rights that protected the rights of citizens, the Constitution allowed the chattel slavery of Africans to endure in the United States when it was being abolished in other parts of the world. The Constitution allowed women to be treated as property. Despite our hymns to constitutional genius, the lived experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was rooted in inequality.

    To focus merely on the genius of the original document (and as a consequence, elevate those times and those founders) is to fixate on an originalism that suffered subordination and endorsed a hierarchy. And, as our experience with the Civil War illustrates, the country came within a hair’s breath of being dismantled by faction and racism due to an unwillingness to recreate the United States.

    Yet our Constitution endures because it has embedded within it mechanisms by which our evolving notions of equality and justice may receive constitutional protection from the tyranny of caste and status. Though volumes have been written on this topic, it is worth remembering in our celebration of the Constitution that the amendment process and the wisdom of legislators and judges who sought to make manifest the idea of equality helped to preserve the Union at its most imperiled points. One needs only recount the work of Reconstruction, the long march from segregation to Civil Rights, the movement towards women’s equality, and our modern day same-sex marriage cases to see how the long arc of equality has progressed. And all of these changes have been enabled through an American constitutionalism that, in the words of Harper v. Virginia, is not shackled to the political theory of a particular era.

  • September 18, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor Law, UCLA School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    In 1961, Yale Law School professor Alexander Bickel wrote a law review article extolling what he called the “passive virtues” of judicial decision-making. By this, Bickel meant that the Supreme Court might achieve better, more enduring results if instead of boldly asserting a constitutional vision the justices took small, narrow steps. He didn’t mean that the Court should stay away from controversial issues so much as lead the nation in a dialogue, venturing in on occasion to articulate important principles but allowing issues to percolate over time.

    In an era where the Supreme Court is known for its aggressive assertions of power, most notoriously in deciding a presidential election in Bush v. Gore, it may be hard to take seriously any notion of a passive or tentative Court. In recent years, some liberal scholars such as Cass Sunstein have promoted judicial minimalism, though mostly one suspects because of the conservative makeup of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. Yet if there is one area where the Court has seemed to follow Bickel’s lead, it is LGBT rights and, in particular, marriage equality.

    Consider that the Court has ruled on the constitutionality of laws discriminating or harming LGBT people in three major cases over the past twenty years: Romer v. Evans, striking down Colorado’s statewide ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances; Lawrence v. Texas, voiding bans on same-sex sexual relationships; and United States v. Windsor, invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act. These cases have been celebrated for expanding the constitutional promise of equal citizenship to LGBT people. And the justices have been criticized, too, for not going far enough. Romer refused to say that sexual orientation was a suspect classification triggering heightened scrutiny. Lawrence refused even to say that same-sex sexual activity was a fundamental right. Windsor was decided the same day as Hollingsworth v. Perry, where the Court used procedural issues to avoid ruling directly on the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage. 

    Such criticism is certainly appropriate given that the Court’s half-steps leave LGBT people in limbo. After Romer and Lawrence, federal courts continued to uphold other laws discriminating against LGBT people, such as bans on adoption. Windsor and Hollingsworth literally left LGBT people in loving relationships at the altar, still unable to marry in the majority of states. This state of affairs must be changed and soon. For many, rights delayed are rights denied.