Countering the Right Wing’s Take on the Constitution: Journal Provides a Discussion Among Progressives on the Best Way To Do So

June 15, 2011

More than at any time in recent memory a public debate on the meaning of the Constitution and how to interpret it has been engaged by many, attracting some significant attention from news media that are more readily drawn to far less weighty matters.

Tea Party activists have played a fairly large, if not misguided, role in heightening this discussion, but progressives have heartily joined the debate with a largely unified voice. There is, however, a vigorous discussion among progressives on how best to explain their understanding of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation.

These competing visions over messaging of progressives’ vision of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation can be found in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. The Democracy editors describe the parameters of the discussion here.

Distinguished law school professors Geoffrey Stone, chair of the ACS Board, and William Marshall, a former ACS Board member, write in their article “The Framers’ Constitution,” that it is a time for an era of “principled constitutionalism,” in which constitutional interpretation is not seen as a “mechanical enterprise,” instead calling for judges to “exercise judgment.” To enter this era, the professors note that the right-wing method of interpreting the constitution, known as “originalism,” must be exposed as a flawed method, one that advances right-wing political concerns and has effectively convinced lots of people that interpreting the Constitution is as simple as staring for long periods of time at the text of the document.

Doug Kendall, of the Constitutional Accountability Center, and University of Virginia law professor Jim Ryan, offer “new textualism,” as the progressives’ answer.   

Stone (pictured), a law professor at the University of Chicago, and Marshall, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, write that the Framers of the Constitution created a founding charter “to endure,” by establishing “foundational principles that would sustain and guide the new nation into an uncertain future.”

Stone and Marshall write:

The text of the Constitution reflects this vision. It defines our most fundamental freedoms in general terms: “freedom of speech,” “due process of law,” “free exercise” of religion, “equal protection of the laws,” “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Constitution sets forth governmental powers in similarly general terms: Congress may regulate “commerce…among the several states,” the president will “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the courts are authorized to decide “cases” and “controversies.”

Stone and Marshall continue that the Framers “understood that they were entrusting to the future generations the responsibility to draw upon their intelligence, judgment, and experience to give concrete meaning to these broad principles over time. As Chief Justice John Marshall observed almost two centuries ago, ‘we must never forget it is a Constitution we are expounding … intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

The professors then elaborate on how a right-wing legal movement has tirelessly worked to  undermine the Framers’ vision of enduring foundational values by successfully pushing the theory of “originalism,” which “presumes that courts should exercise judicial restraint unless the ‘original meaning’ of the text clearly mandates a more activist approach. Under this theory, for example, it is appropriate for courts to invoke the Equal Protection Clause to invalidate laws that deny African Americans the right to serve on juries, but not to invalidate laws that deny women the same right, because that not he ‘original meaning’ of the clause.”

And Stone and Marshall detail how originalism is “fundamentally flawed.”   

Kendall and Ryan argue in their article, “The Case for New Textualism,” that a theory akin to originalism should be promoted as the progressives’ answer. They also assert that right-wing activists have dominated the discourse on the Constitution and constitutional interpretation for far too long, causing progressives to run from the Constitution.

But Stone and Marshall say it is not a matter of being pinned in, maneuvered or chased away from the debate over the Constitution.

Instead, they say, progressives must bring reason to the debate, including providing a sharp rebuke of the right wing’s flawed understandings of the Constitution and how its foundational values should be applied. Interpreting the Constitution and applying its enduring values in today’s society is not as mechanical as the Right has declared. Judging, the professors write, is in no way similar to the work of baseball umpires.

Stone and Marshall in this response write, “Kendall and Ryan argue that the best way for liberals to win the public debate about the judiciary is to claim that liberals adhere to a ‘textualist’ understanding of constitutional interpretation that is akin to the conservatives’ ‘originalist’ theory. Such an approach, they suggest, will appeal to the public because of its seeming clarity and neutrality. They add that the ‘new textualism,’ properly applied, will lead to liberal results.”

They conclude that “the better way for progressives to articulate a genuinely principled theory of constitutionalism and win an informed public debate is to embrace the jurisprudence of John Marshall rather than the methodology of Antonin Scalia. We believe that our understanding of the Framers’ Constitution presents a more honest account of how constitutional interpretation operates in the real world, and is truer to the Framers’ understanding than a mechanical invocation of either originalism or textualism.”