Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • September 16, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

    *This post is part of the ACSblog symposium: Constitution Day 2016

    Happy Constitutions Day!

    No, that is not a typo. I know that tomorrow, September 17, is officially “Constitution Day,” marking the date in 1787 when the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. And I know there is only one document called the Constitution of the United States, not multiple different ones. Yet given how much the Constitution has changed, how different our perceptions of its requirements and the many other constitutions in American lives, perhaps we should nonetheless refer to it as “Constitutions Day.”

    Of course the original version of the Constitution is of vital importance to American history, culture and law. We must remember, however, that the states found that document wanting because it lacked a clear specification of individual rights. Several states conditioned their ratification of the Constitution on the adoption of significant amendments. Their objections to the Constitution led to the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Four years after the first Constitution was proposed, we end up with a new one, revised and improved.

    Since then, we have added another 17 amendments to the Constitution. Some, like the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, & 15th) are of tremendous significance, radically reshaping the Constitution once again. The effect on American life and government from these amendments, which overhauled the relationship between the federal government and the states, was profound. Other amendments, like the 27th, which deals with congressional salaries, are relatively minor. Yet all of them have one thing in common: they each created a new Constitution. The Constitution today is different than the Constitution Americans lived with 50 years ago, which is different from the one 50 years before that.

  • September 14, 2016

    By Kevin Battersby Witenoff

    Lawyers representing Detroit schoolchildren filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Gov. Rick Snyder and state officials in what they are calling the country's first federal case that pushes for literacy as a right under the U.S. Constitution, reports Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press.

    As Constitution Day approaches, Elizabeth Wydra in The Washington Times underscores the importance of the duties enumerated within it that will shape our country over the next eight years.

    According to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday. Georgia's voter registration process violates the Voting Rights Act and has prevented tens of thousands of residents, mostly minorities, from registering to vote, reports Kate Brumback of the Associated Press.

    Ann E. Marimow of The Washington Post reports that nearly a decade after the Supreme Court struck down the District’s long-standing ban on handguns, the city is again at the forefront of a legal battle over the Second Amendment.

  • September 13, 2016
     
    On Friday the Supreme Court refused to revive a Michigan law that barred straight-ticket voting, reports Adam Liptak of The New York Times.
     
    Sen. Bob Casey posted an editorial to Medium in which he calls for an end to the senatorial obstruction leaving judicial vacancies unattended on federal courts.
     
    Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar is featured on an episode of the Diane Rehm Show during which he describes how to interpret the pressing issues Americans face today through the lens of the constitution.
     
    University of Texas at Austin Law Professor Stephen Vladek stresses the importance of trusting existing institutions. In an op-ed for Star-Telegram, Vladek asserts that civilian courts, not expensive military commissions, are the best places to bring justice to enemies of the United States.
  • March 1, 2016
    BookTalk
    An Argument Open to All
    Reading "The Federalist" in the 21st Century
    By: 
    Sanford Levinson

    by Sanford Levinson, W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair and Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin School of Law

    Early in my new book, An Argument Open to All: Reading "The Federalist" in the 21st Century, I refer to the set of essays published in 1787-1788 as “the best known, most widely read and analyzed extended work of American political thought.” I now believe, from talking to many colleagues and students, that the reference to “widely read” is almost certainly wrong. Many people have no doubt read Federalists No. 10, 47, 51, and 78, but there are 81 additional essays, most of which languish in obscurity.

    So the central question is whether there is good reason for a 21st century reader in fact to read The Federalist beyond the few “greatest hits.” It is obvious why someone interested in the formation of the Constitution would be interested in the entire corpus. Interestingly, it is less obvious why anyone with a particular interest in interpreting the Constitution would have to read it; very few of the 85 essays actually relate to the controversies that come before the judiciary or other constitutional interpreters in the 21st century. Most of them are devoted to explaining why the system established by the Articles of Confederation was “imbecilic;” why unifying behind a new constitution was essential to defense against what we would today call threats to our national security; and broad discussions of the institutions that comprise our political system (and which, being “hard wired,” are almost never the subjects of litigation).

    My book consists of 85 separate essays, each one corresponding to the respective original essay. They offer not so much an exegesis of the original as an inquiry whether it still has anything to tell us about constitutionalism in the 21st century. Underscoring the “presentism” of the essays is the fact that I refer exclusively to Publius, the notional author, and not to the actual historical authors Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, or James Madison. One of the consequences of adopting that approach is that I don’t have to concern myself with the question of the authors’ “sincerity” or genuine belief in their own arguments, shaped to elicit the votes of ratifiers at the state ratification conventions in 1788. My audience is persons interested in the Constitution in 2016 (or in 2020). Should they (you) make time at least to read my book and perhaps even return to The Federalist itself? To a degree that genuinely surprises even me, given my own doubts when I embarked on this project, I think the answer is yes.

  • February 22, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Joseph Thai, Watson Centennial Chair in Law and Presidential Professor, University of Oklahoma College of Law

    Even in death, Justice Antonin Scalia is larger than life. Praise upon his passing has been outsized from both friends and foes of his jurisprudence—ranking him at least as “one of the country’s most influential jurists” if not “the most important justice in American history.” Time will tell whether these extraordinary assessments are prescient or premature.

    What is clear today is that the theory of constitutional interpretation that Justice Scalia championed—originalism—is one justice away from extinction on the Supreme Court. The only other avowed originalist in the history of the Court is Justice Clarence Thomas. This stark fact runs counter to the false dichotomy often peddled to the public that conservative jurists are faithful to the Constitution because they stick to its original or “dead” meaning (to quote Justice Scalia), while liberal jurists play fast and loose with constitutional text in favor of an updated or “living” meaning (again, Justice Scalia) that matches their own contemporary values.

    In fact, the most cutting critic of originalism on the current Court is also one of its most conservative members, Justice Samuel Alito. For example, at oral argument in a case assessing the constitutionality of a ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, Justice Alito mocked Justice Scalia’s questioning about the original meaning of the First Amendment and its application to the case by boiling down his inquiries thus: “Well I think what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games. Did he enjoy them?”

    And in a Fourth Amendment case involving surreptitious GPS tracking of a car over the course of a month, Justice Alito poked fun at Justice Scalia’s originalist methodology. He refused to join Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court even though he agreed with the result, for rather than applying modern Fourth Amendment principles to “a 21st-century surveillance technique,” the Court “[i]ronically . . . has chosen to decide this case based on 18th-century tort law.” What is more, Justice Alito noted, “The Court suggests that something like this might have occurred in 1791” with a constable hiding in a coach, “but this would have required either a gigantic coach, a very tiny constable, or both—not to mention a constable with incredible fortitude and patience.”