This post, first published September 15, 2010, is part of the ACSblog Constitution Week Symposium. The author, Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford Law School and co-director of the law school’s Supreme Court Clinic. The book she coauthored with Goodwin Liu and Christopher H. Schroeder, Keeping Faith with the Constitution, provides the framework for a new ACS webinar series, “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It.”
Keeping Faith with the Constitution wades into a long-running debate about how we should interpret our Constitution. This debate is an important part of public policy discussions on everything from judicial nominations to health care reform. For a long time, conservatives have framed this debate by portraying themselves as strict adherents to the text and original understanding of the Constitution, while claiming that liberals and progressives ignore the text and decide cases based on their own values or policy preferences.
That characterization is, of course, a caricature. In our book, we approach the topic through a different set of questions: How have judges, elected officials and citizens actually gone about the process of constitutional interpretation? What explains the enduring character of our Constitution in light of the profound economic, social and political changes that our nation has gone through? And how does this 220-year-old document retain its legitimacy, authority and relevance over time? Simply put, our thesis is that the Constitution has endured because judges, elected officials and citizens throughout our history have engaged in an ongoing process of interpretation. That interpretation reflects fidelity to our written Constitution. To be faithful to the Constitution is to interpret its words and to apply its principles in ways that sustain their vitality over time. Fidelity to the Constitution requires us to ask not how its text and principles would have been applied in 1789 or 1868, but rather how they should be applied today in light of the conditions and concerns of our society.