Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • September 17, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Gabriel J. Chin, Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    Americans know their history and want to change it. No ancient injustice is ever settled; Lenny Bruce and the Scottsboro Boys were pardoned long after their deaths.  There is a constant flow of high school and college diplomas awarded to elderly people who were denied them decades ago for illegitimate reasons, including University of California students of Japanese ancestry who were unable to finish because they were interned in World War II, high school students expelled for participating in civil rights marches,  excluded because of their race, or who could not graduate because the schools were shut down entirely rather than allow racial integration. My students and I are petitioning the California Supreme Court to posthumously admit Hong Yen Chang to the bar, over a century after they excluded him because of his race.  The examples go on and on.

    In this context, the popularity of the Constitution is remarkable. It is studded with oppressive, offensive measures. One would think that those who, say, protest the disgraceful name of the pro football team in Washington, would insist, independently of the substantive meaning of the Constitution, that the document be revised and restated to eliminate the parts protecting slavery or which are otherwise inconsistent with widely shared contemporary views of justice.

    Part of the reason the Constitution stays the same is because it is hard to amend. But there is more than that.  Women and men, people of all races, and others who were once outside the Constitution but are now part of it can live with it because they feel the meaning of the words can change over time.

    For example, people who support non-discrimination might nevertheless regard the Fourteenth Amendment as something of an embarrassment; in Section 2, it seems to grant constitutional approval of the denial of the vote to female citizens. Similarly, the Fugitive Slave Clause is still in force (and of course the Thirteenth Amendment permits slavery for those convicted of crime).

    Ultimately, arguably the most offensive part of the Constitution is one of the most popular, the preamble. The Constitution, it said, was ordained and established by “we the people of the United States” for “ourselves and our posterity.” The republic was white and male, by text, tradition, and canonical statutes (such as the Naturalization Act of 1790, passed by the first Congress and signed by George Washington, which limited the privilege of naturalization to “free white persons”). When the words were written, they unmistakably excluded African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and women, and they were intended to have that effect, evidently, for so long as the Framers’ posterity trod the earth. 

  • September 17, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    Constitution Day, Wednesday, September 17, is a national day to celebrate the Constitution, but it also should be an occasion for critically appraising it and the government that it created. On September 17, 1787, the drafters of the Constitution signed the document and it was then submitted to the states for ratification. There is much to celebrate about the Constitution.  

    For 227 years, there has been democratic rule. The Constitution is a document that had enough certainty to create a working government and enough flexibility that although written for an agrarian slave society, it still can be used for the technological world of the early 21st century. It is a document that both creates power and provides checks on that authority. It protects basic values like separation of powers and freedom and liberty and due process of law.

    Yet any celebration of the Constitution needs to be tempered by recognition of its failures too. For the first 78 years of its existence, the Constitution explicitly protected the rights of slave owners. For 58 years, it was interpreted to approve Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. The results are the enormous racial inequalities that exist today. According to the 2010 census, 27.22 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty level, compared with only 9.7 percent of whites. Thirty-five percent of all African-American children are in families below the poverty line.

    In a book to be published by Viking this month, The Case Against the Supreme Court, I argue that the Supreme Court deserves a good deal of the blame for the failure to deal with racial inequality throughout American history and today. In fact, my thesis is that the Supreme Court has largely failed throughout American history, especially at its most important tasks and at the most important times.

    The Supreme Court exists, above all, to enforce the Constitution against the will of the majority. The Court plays an especially important role in safeguarding the rights minorities of all types who should not have to rely on democratic majorities for protection. The Court also should be crucial in times of crisis in ensuring that the passions of the moment do not cause basic values to be compromised or lost.

    But the Court has had a dismal record of protecting minorities and has continually failed to stand up to majoritarian pressures in times of crisis. During World War I, individuals were imprisoned for speech that criticized the draft and the war without the slightest evidence that it had any adverse effect on military recruitment or the war effort. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their life long homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as concentration camps. During the McCarthy era, people were imprisoned simply for teaching works by Marx and Engels and Lenin. In all of these instances, the Court erred badly and failed to enforce the Constitution.

  • September 8, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    In Salon, Gabriel Arana assesses the problems with the White House’s new immigration announcement.

    Ari Berman explains in The Nation how cuts to early voting in Ohio violate the Voting Rights Act.

    Erwin Chemerinsky, Faculty Advisor for the UC Irvine School of Law ACS Student Chapter, writes for the ABA Journal on how three decisions about bankruptcy law show how the Supreme Court’s use of reasoning is inconsistent.

    Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that those who deny racism are also the most likely to smear the reputation of African American victims. 

    Howard Mintz in the San Jose Mercury News interviews ACS Board of Directors member Mariano-Florentino Cuellar about his new position as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of California. 

  • September 3, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Jeff ClementsThe writer is the Co-Founder and Board Chair of Free Speech For People and the author of the 2014 updated and expanded edition of Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy From Big Money and Global Corporations)

    In the November 2012 election, the same Montana voters who gave the State’s presidential electoral votes to Republican Mitt Romney by a wide margin also approved a ballot initiative that called for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Challenging the twin propositions on which that 5-4 decision precariously rests, the ballot question declared the policy of Montana as follows:

    (1)  Political spending may be regulated in order to defend the integrity of elections, prevent corruption, and to defend the political equality of all Americans; and

    (2)  corporations do not have the Constitutional rights of human beings but rather have the rights and obligations of state corporation laws. 

    Montana voters passed the ballot initiative by 75-25%, making Montana the 16th state to call for the 28th Amendment. 

    Some were surprised by the overwhelming margin. Clearly, many Montana conservatives and Republicans joined Democrats, progressives and independents in supporting the ballot initiative and the overturning of Citizens United. The landslide margin, however, followed similar results in virtually every region of the country when Americans have had a chance to vote on the question of Citizens United (as they did in Colorado and in hundreds of cities and towns that have enacted Constitutional amendment resolutions.)  Indeed, conservative opposition to special Constitutional rights for corporations and the protection of political privilege for an elite of large donors is not new. It is rooted in the traditional American concern about concentrations of power corrupting republican government.

  • July 25, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Justin Marceau and Alan K. Chen. Marceau is an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former public defender in Arizona. Chen is the William M. Beaney Memorial Research Chair and Professor of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a former staff attorney at the ACLU’s Chicago office.

    The State of Arizona’s recently botched execution of Joseph Wood is just the latest in a series of horrific events that have introduced the American public to a criminal justice problem that practitioners and legal scholars long have known about – lethal injections are an extremely troubling method for carrying out capital punishment.  Similar to the cases of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Wood reportedly endured extensive suffering during the hour and 52 minutes it took for the drugs administered by the state’s executioners to end his life.

    The Wood Litigation Seeking Access to Information about the Drugs and Executioners

    In the days preceding Wood’s execution, his attorneys mounted an impressive campaign to overturn a lower court order denying him access to basic information about the qualifications (but not the identity) of the executioners and the source of the drugs to be used. Wood argued that he had a qualified First Amendment right of access to such information. 

    On Monday of this week, things looked promising for Wood and his legal team. An erudite panel of the Ninth Circuit concluded that it was not too much to ask of Arizona to require it to turn over the information Wood sought, or to delay the execution. Behind such litigation is the reality that without such information, of course, it would be impossible to assess whether the execution might violate the Eighth Amendment and create too great a risk of cruel and unusual punishment.  In other words, in order to know whether their client had a colorable substantive claim that the execution would be cruel and unusual, the lawyers first had to gain access to the details of the execution procedures. The procedural claim at issue in the Ninth Circuit, then, was a necessary precursor to being able to litigate the substantive legality of Arizona’s execution system.

    The Ninth Circuit panel voted 2-1 that Wood had raised a serious First Amendment claim and would suffer irreparable harm if an injunction against his execution were not granted. To be clear, all the Ninth Circuit ordered was that Arizona either turn over the information and proceed to execution as planned on Wednesday, or delay the execution until full and fair litigation regarding the right to access this information was conducted. Instead, Arizona successfully petitioned the Supreme Court, which quickly overturned the stay of execution.

    Was this Just a Gimmick to Delay Litigation?

    Some might ask why, with a thirty year track record and tacit Supreme Court approval in 2008, lawyers were inquiring about lethal injection methods.  We hear about delays in executions – we even see California’s death penalty held unconstitutional, in part, because of delay. But the reason for the litigation is clear: lethal injection is not working. 

    With drug shortages for the previous three-drug execution cocktail of choice, states have begun to experiment with the doses and types of drugs, and the qualifications of executioners are not getting any better.  In a very perverse turn on Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous quote that states may “serve as a laboratory, and try novel . . . experiments” that the rest of the country might not, states are innovating in their execution methods.  In the rush to continue with executions, Arizona and other states are using their execution chambers as laboratories for human experimentation.  What combination will create the most aesthetically pleasing execution for public consumption is the question the Departments of Correction seek to answer.