Category Archives: Constitution

The Fourteenth Amendment

Can you all stand another diatribe about our misunderstood Constitution and its history?

Yale Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has repeatedly made an important–and largely unrecognized–point about the 14th Amendment. That Amendment, which we now consider part of the Bill of Rights, actually revised–or as he says,”reconstructed”–the original Constitution and Bill of Rights.

When I was teaching, I became acutely aware of how few students understood the impact of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Few came to class knowing, for example, that prior to the passage of the 14th Amendment (and the subsequent Supreme Court cases applying its terms) the provisions of the Bill of Rights had restrained only the federal government. (State governments could–and did–“establish” religions, for example. Massachusetts didn’t “de-establish” religion until 1833.)

Jonathan Bingham, a Republican (how times have changed!)and “one of America’s forgotten second Founders” who sponsored the 14th Amendment, constantly pointed to the Supreme Court ruling that first eight amendments did not “extend to the states.” In his book The Bill of Rights, Amar quotes Bingham saying “These eight articles I have shown never were limitations upon the power of the states until made so by the 14th Amendment.”

Heather Cox Richardson recently provided historical context for the passage of the 14th Amendment.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had prohibited slavery on the basis of race, but it did not prevent the establishment of a system in which Black Americans continued to be unequal. Backed by President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over the presidency after an actor had murdered President Abraham Lincoln, white southern Democrats had done their best to push their Black neighbors back into subservience. So long as southern states had abolished enslavement, repudiated Confederate debts, and nullified the ordinances of secession, Johnson was happy to readmit them to full standing in the Union, still led by the very men who had organized the Confederacy and made war on the United States.

Northern Republican lawmakers refused. There was no way they were going to rebuild southern society on the same blueprint as existed before the Civil War, especially since the upcoming 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole persons for the first time in the nation’s history, giving southern states more power in Congress and the Electoral College after the war than they had had before it. Having just fought a war to destroy the South’s ideology, they were not going to let it regrow in peacetime.

Richardson reminds us that, despite passage of the 13th Amendment, emancipated Black Americans in southern states could not vote, testify in court or sit on a jury.

In part, the Fourteenth Amendment was a response to the Dred Scott decision, which had declared that Black men “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens.” The Fourteenth Amendment rejected that ruling, with specific language stating that  “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

But the Amendment did more than clarify that Black people were citizens.

The amendment also addressed the Dred Scott decision in another profound way. In 1857, southerners and Democrats who were adamantly opposed to federal power controlled the Supreme Court. They backed states’ rights. So the Dred Scott decision did more than read Black Americans out of our history; it dramatically circumscribed Congress’s power.

This was the crux of the “states rights” argument. Under the pre-14th Amendment Constitution, “democracy” was defined by the state–or, as Richardson notes, by those people in a state who were allowed to vote. In other words, white men.

The Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals from state legislative discrimination. It changed the locus of governmental authority in a number of ways, and as we are seeing–as red states send National Guard troops to the border, try to limit federal vaccine efforts, sue repeatedly to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and engage in numerous efforts to circumscribe the ability of the federal government to guarantee equal rights–  that change is still being resisted.

For far too many politicians and jurists, respect for “originalism” is very selective. It stops with ratification of the “original” Constitution in 1788–and ignores everything that has come after, no matter how profoundly what came after altered, limited and/or enlarged what had come before.

 

Politics And The Courts

I hate sports analogies, but sometimes, they just fit.

For those of you who are sports fans (I am not one of you), here’s a question: how much would you enjoy watching a game if you knew that the umpire or referee had been bribed, or even just recruited from a group of rabid fans of one of the teams on the field?

The decisions America’s founders incorporated in our constitution haven’t all stood the test of time–exhibit one, the Electoral College–but one that has was their determination that  the judiciary should be protected from political pressure to the extent possible.

There are sound reasons that federal judges are not elected–not “answerable” to the public in the same way that members of the legislative and executive branches are.

When we discussed judicial independence in my classes, I didn’t use the sports analogy; instead, I would pose a different hypothetical: let’s say you live in a small town where you are a party to a lawsuit. Trial is in the local court, where the judge has been elected. What if the lawyer representing the other guy was one of the biggest donors to that judge’s campaign, and is a regular at the judge’s Wednesday night poker get-together? If the judge ruled against you, how likely would you be to believe you’d been judged fairly and impartially?

Or let’s assume a judge is presiding over a high-profile case in which a majority of local folks are emotionally invested. Assume too that controlling law is on the side of the publicly disfavored position–and further assume that the judge is facing re-election. She’s a widow with a mortgage and a couple of kids in college, and she knows that following the law means losing the election.

You get the picture. Even if every judge in these hypotheticals is a paragon of virtue who ignores personal considerations and “calls them like s/he sees them,” public trust in the process would be hard to maintain.

Separation of powers was the division of our government into three branches. Two of those branches were intended to be answerable to public opinion, even public passion. The third was tasked with being an impartial arbiter, insulated from electoral pressure. When judges are wrong–and there are plenty of times they will be–we want them to be wrong because they misread the law, not because they were in thrall to donors or interest groups.

That’s why the constitution requires an appointed judiciary in the federal courts, a decision that has slowed–but certainly not stopped–efforts to politicize America’s court system.

It is admittedly impossible to keep politics completely out of the judicial selection process–especially selections for the Supreme Court. But the problem is far worse in the large number of states that continue to elect their judges. A recent report from Governing Magazine shows just how far state-level politicians (mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans) will go to game the court system.

Last Monday, Republicans in the Louisiana House tried to pass a proposed constitutional amendment to redraw election districts for the state Supreme Court, while adding two seats to it. The effort came up short, but it was just the latest move by a state legislature to try to change how high court justices are elected. Just three days earlier, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed a bill that redraws election districts for his state’s Supreme Court, a move observers believe is aimed at maintaining his party’s 4-3 majority in next year’s elections. And Republicans in Montana and Pennsylvania passed bills in the past year to create districts for their high courts, both of which currently have progressive majorities and whose members are now elected statewide.

The article focused on what it termed “judicial gerrymandering,” and like all gerrymandering, the goal is unearned power. In states across the country, politicians are redrawing their state’s high court election districts in ways that favor their party’s candidates.

Admittedly, there is no way to entirely insulate courts from political pressures. Here in Indiana, where a judicial nominating committee considers candidates for the State Supreme Court and sends three names to the Governor, it’s a given that the ultimate choice will be someone from the Governor’s political party. For that matter, the committee members will be impressed (or repelled) by the identities and politics of the people “lobbying” for particular candidates.

Nevertheless, Indiana’s process significantly attenuates the role played by partisanship. It recognizes that when the umpire is effectively a member of one of the teams on the field, the teams and their fans are all losers.

 

The GOP Ditches Property Rights

For those of us who used to belong to a very, VERY different Republican Party, the most bewildering–and infuriating–feature of the cult that has replaced it is its blatant hypocrisy. A political party that used to favor free trade, fiscal prudence, individual liberty and property rights has cheerfully abandoned its devotion to those–or for that matter, any– principled approaches to civil liberties.

Granted, rational folks in both parties understood that your liberties aren’t absolute, and that concern for the public good–public health, national security and other social requirements– will necessarily constrain your ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. But once upon a time, the arguments between serious folks tended to be about specifics: when is it legitimate for government to limit certain liberties?

Thanks to the devolution of the Republican Party, virtually all of its once-sacrosanct principles have become disposable.

Free trade? When Donald Trump decided to impose tariffs–long considered unthinkable by the Grand Old Party–the cult jettisoned its prior beliefs and embraced them.

Fiscal prudence? These days, fiscal responsibility–not necessarily balancing the budget (the preference of a fringe unwilling to understand why such a constraint could be dangerous) but a commitment to imposing taxes to pay for government programs is long gone. The party that recoiled from Democrats’ perceived willingness to “tax and spend” became the party opposed to any and all taxes, especially on those most able to pay them. If the government really has to “do stuff,” today’s GOP favors”borrow and spend”–put it on the national credit card and let the next generation pay for it.

Individual liberty? That principle has been rewritten too. Now, it’s highly selective. Republicans are all for your “liberty” to act in ways with which they agree. They believe you should have the “liberty” to ignore public health mandates and decide for yourself whether to wear a mask (i.e., the “liberty” to infect your neighbor), but they remain adamantly opposed to a woman’s liberty to control her own body. They support your liberty to communicate racist sentiments, but not your liberty to voice your disapproval of those sentiments–that’s “cancel culture.”

And of course, they support the liberty of anyone and everyone to “pack heat,” but oppose even the most reasonable constraints to protect public safety.

And what about property rights? The GOP long defended property rights, arguing (I believe properly) that the government that can confiscate your property poses a danger to other civil liberties. After all, if the government can infringe your property rights in retaliation for the exercise of  your right to freedom of speech or religion, how likely are you to exercise those rights?

Apparently, property rights are also old school. As an article from The Week put it, the GOP no longer believes a man’s cruise ship is his castle.

“Texas is open 100 percent,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a Twitter video Monday, “and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want without limits.” To that end, Abbott said, he signed a law banning any business or government entity in the state from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination or recovery for entry (commonly called vaccine passports).

Abbott cast the legislation as a bold strike for freedom, but it’s nothing of the sort — not in the sense the American right has traditionally understood the term, anyway. Though it may be said to enhance consumer choice, it is a betrayal of private property rights, which have long been core to visions of small government in the United States.

The article quotes James Madison’s 1829 address, in which the father of our Constitution explained “that the rights of persons, and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.”

Abbott begs to differ. Evidently, Texan business owners have no right to determine what happens on their property. Abbott isn’t the only Republican governor to  ignore property rights. Florida’s Ron DeSantis has banned vaccine passports, including those required by cruise ships departing from Florida.

Ironically, as the article notes, reliance on property rights allowed  the right to win many battles purportedly over religious liberty.

On questions like whether Catholic employers should be made to pay for employees’ birth control, whether conservative bakers should be forced to bake for a gay wedding, or whether Christian adoption agencies should be required to place children with same-sex couples, the right’s religious liberty position has long been buttressed by property rights: If you own the business, the argument goes, you should be able to make these calls as your conscience directs.

These days, however, only when your conscience points you in a GOP-approved direction.

Constitutions And The Future

One of the academic listservs in which I used to participate was devoted to law and courts-both in the U.S. and internationally. Discussions contained a healthy dose of constitutionalism. I say I “participated,” but I mostly lurked–reading the commentary posted by notable scholars in the field, and learning a lot.

One fascinating exchange a year or so ago was triggered by discussion of a case brought by a group of  American children who claimed that government’s inadequate measures to combat climate change deprived them of their implied constitutional right to a livable environment. The case was thrown out by the liberal Ninth Circuit in January of 2020, and someone posted a question to the listserv, asking whether there were any constitutions around the world that would have been more protective of what the questioner termed “inter-generational equity.”

It turned out that more than 50 constitutions have such “inter-generational equity” clauses. Responses also linked to several “protection of the environment” clauses among the 166 currently-in-force constitutions that say something about that topic. 

As if to emphasize the salience of the issue, it was during the listserv discussion that the German Federal Constitutional Court decided a case in which it rejected the then-current plans of the German government to meet climate targets. The decision obligated the German government to rework its plans, and commence planned measures sooner, if not immediately, so as to avoid putting the burden of meeting environmental targets on future generations.

The press release of the Court (in English) is here.

As one scholar opined:

The decision invoked the duty to protect positive rights as part of the obligation to protect negative rights. Or, less abstractly, the decision argues that the only way to protect a negative right (the right to life, toward which the state has the obligation to refrain from interference) is to also protect positive rights (the right to health and the positive side of the right to life, both of which oblige the state to engage in affirmative protection). Other courts have understood the protection of positive rights as necessary for the protection of negative rights like this – particularly courts in the global south like India, Colombia and South Africa – but it has not been so common for global North courts to make this link. This is a huge leap for Germany.
The decision explicitly engages in the intertemporal assessment of rights protection. It weighs the burden on the liberty of people in the future when tough climate goals will kick in against the liberty of those in the present who give themselves a break by putting hard decisions off. And the Court finds that the current government assesses this balance wrongly by not leveling out the burden across generations. The Court therefore defends the intertemporal protection of liberty. Again, a first.

Lest you think that the German Federal Constitutional Court has taken a great leap off into judicial activism in defending against climate change, however, it’s important to note the language of the Basic Law with which they are working. Article 20A of the constitution says the following:

“Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the state shall protect the natural bases of life by legislation and, in accordance with law and justice, by executive and judicial action, all within the framework of the constitutional order.”

In short, the German constitution explicitly requires the state to engage in intertemporal assessment (“mindful of future generations”) and also that the state has an affirmative duty to protect the “natural bases of life.” The Federal Constitutional Court was giving life, so to speak, to this provision and not inventing a right to environmental justice out of thin air. That said, the reasoning of the Court is nonetheless remarkable, especially if the two principles I mentioned above are going to become basic principles of interpretation with regard to other rights as well.

How would American constitutional interpretation change if our courts were required to take intergenerational justice into consideration?

Somehow, I find it hard to believe that our so-called “right to life” Justices would recognize such measures as a necessary consequence of their piously declared “reverence for life,” a reverence that apparently terminates at birth. 

 

Democracy? Or Liberal Democracy?

Back in the Ice Age, when I was a high-school English teacher, I spent some time in my classes discussing the sometimes subtle differences between the definitions and connotations of words.

America’s political discussions would benefit from a similar focus.

What brought this to mind was a “guest essay” in the New York Times, discussing the importance of distinguishing between actual democracies and states that have edged–albeit through popular vote–into autocracy. Here is the crux of the essay:

In a report published in March, the Swedish research organization V Dem posits that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to the levels last found around 1990.” In V Dem’s judgment, the elected autocracy — a political regime in which democracy is reduced to the unconstrained power of a majority — is today’s most common regime type. India, Turkey and Hungary are exemplars. These new authoritarians are very different from their Cold War-era relatives, which were often military regimes. They cross the borders between democracy and authoritarianism almost as frequently as smugglers cross state borders.

Many of today’s new non-democracies are in fact former democracies. And in many of these countries, citizens voted for authoritarian populists specifically in the hope of making democracy work for them. The government’s supporters in electoral autocracies like India and Hungary or electoral democracies like Poland, countries that organizations like V Dem and its American counterpart Freedom House countenance as democratic backsliders, will insist that they live in democracies. As of January, the percentage of Indians who trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far higher than the number of Americans or Europeans who trusted their leaders. (To be fair, Mr. Modi’s popularity has taken a serious hit over the past month as Covid-19 has raged across India in large part because of what many describe as the starkest failure of governance since the country’s independence.)

There are a number of implications–and warnings– that might be drawn from this analysis, but what it triggered in my mind was definitional. When we use the term “democracy,” most of us think simply of majority rule. And as the described slide into autocracy illustrates, majorities can endorse very repressive measures and elect very unqualified and/or evil people.

A while back, I read a book by Fareed Zakaria (the title now escapes me) in which he drew a very important–even profound–distinction between “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.

These constraints–and the reasons for them–are widely misunderstood, but they protect our individual liberties.

The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state. Your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or Unitarian, they cannot send government censors to your local library, and they cannot deny equal civil rights to populations they might wish to marginalize or oppress. In effect, the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the nature of decisions that government can make, even when a majority of citizens would like for government to impose those decisions on everyone.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” When most Americans hear “democracy,” however, the connotation is really “liberal democracy”–majority rule with constraints that safeguard individual freedom.

Unfortunately, that assumption elides a very important distinction between “pure” democracy and limited/liberal democracy, and that distinction matters. A lot.