Sunday, May 30, 2010

#23: The Living Constitution

I was first made aware of David A. Strauss' The Living Constitution via a Stanley Fish column on the New York Times web site. Titled "Why Bother With the Constitution?," Fish's blog post for May 10 dovetailed Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's impending confirmation process with the fundamental constitutional questions raised by Strauss in his 139-page book.

Professor Fish's reaction to The Living Constitution is best described as righteous indignation. To some of Strauss' statements he retorts, "This is simply wrong." To others, with considerable consternation, "This is an amazing statement." Towards the end he proclaims that "the incoherence of what Strauss is urging is spectacularly displayed in a single sentence. Given the importance of common ground, 'it makes sense,' he says, 'to adhere to the text even while disregarding the framers’ intentions.'"

So what exactly is going on here? Clearly something that Strauss is advocating, or even simply implying, is rather disagreeable to Mr. Fish. The former's thesis is described (on the book's front flap) as a defense of "the living Constitution...a common law approach to the Constitution, rooted in the written document but also based on precedent. Each generation has contributed precedents that guide and confine judicial rulings, yet allow us to meet the demands of today, not force us to follow the commands of the long-dead Founders." Or, as Stanley Fish would have it, "Why is Strauss trying to take the Constitution out of the constitutional interpretation loop? Because he wants to liberate us from it as a constraint."

Not exactly. I don't get the impression Strauss intended to relegate the written Constitution to window dressing. Nevertheless, Fish is correct in noting that the The Living Constitution makes some bold claims as to the document's role in contemporary jurisprudence. In large part, the book is a crusade against "originalism," the judicial philosophy espoused most visibly by Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. According to the originalist line of thinking as delineated by Strauss, "when we give meanings to the words of the Constitution, we should use the meanings that the people who adopted those constitutional provisions would have assigned...It is impermissible -- it's a kind of cheating, really -- to take the words of the Constitution and give those words a meaning that differs from the understandings of the people who were responsible for including those words in the Constitution in the first place."

The obvious counterpoint is, of course, the question of what to do in the majority of scenarios in which the Founding Fathers set forth no explicit guidelines (what exactly constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment?"), could not possibly have foreseen the issues (privacy on the Internet), or espoused views that are no longer acceptable in modern society (slavery). Acknowledging these obstacles, Strauss contends that they render originalism useless as a judicial philosophy. (In a section he headlined "The Originalists' America," Strauss remarks that "racial segregation of public schools would be constitutional," "the government would be free to discriminate against women," "the Bill of Rights would not apply to the states," and so on.)

In titling his book The Living Constitution, he follows a long (albeit controversial, like nearly everything else related to jurisprudence) tradition of adhering to a more flexible view of the Constitution. But then he takes matters a step further. "It is the unusual case," Strauss notes, "in which the original understandings get much attention." In Strauss' estimation, not only is the Constitution necessarily mutable to fit the needs of a dynamic society, in a way it is actually irrelevant to modern "constitutional" law itself. This is because of what he terms the "common law" approach: historically, "the law was a particular set of customs, and it emerged in the way that customs often emerge in a society...It can develop over time, not at a single moment; it can be the evolutionary product of many people, in many generations."

In contemporary American law, this series of ever-shifting customs takes the form of precedent. Past judges' rulings are considered the foundation upon which future verdicts are rendered; thus, Strauss claims, this methodology avoids both the impracticalities of originalism and the dangers of judicial overreach inherent to the dominant view of "living Constitutionalism," in which activist judges are free to bend the law to their liking at will.

In reality, however, what the author deems an alternative approach to mainstream modes of thought is not entirely groundbreaking. At its simplest, Strauss' thesis is simply a reassurance that living Constitutionalism works, that it does restrain judges from arbitrary decision-making. Where it differs, however, is in his attitude toward the actual text of the Constitution. To Strauss, the lip service that justices pay to the sacred text in their judicial opinions is just that: lip service. In actuality, he argues, current legal interpretation has so completely evolved and transformed over the years that the written Constitution itself has lost its germaneness to today's legal wrangling. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that "the earth the living," Strauss maintains that the Constitution, restrained as it is by the chains of centuries-old thinking, is an insufficient substitute for judicial precedent. And yet by forcing judges to formulate constitutional justifications for their every ruling -- however tenuous the connection may be -- living Constitutionalism, in most cases, prevents the worst variants of judicial activism. (Of course, depending on one's particular ideological affiliations and the results of any given trial, this may or may not always be readily apparent.)

Stanley Fish, meanwhile, is having none of this. "You don't interpret a text by looking for meanings people would find agreeable," he writes. "You interpret a text by determining, or at least trying to determine, what meanings the creator(s) had in mind; and the possibility that the meanings you settle on are not ones most people would want to hear is beside the interpretive point." He then angrily concludes: "If this is what the 'living Constitution' is — a Constitution produced and reproduced by serial acts of infidelity — I hereby cast a vote for the real one." That Fish and Strauss cannot even agree on what the "real" Constitution is provides a worthy bellwether of the political whirlwind that is sure to accompany Elena Kagan into her much-anticipated confirmation hearings.

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