Category Archives: Constitution

Originalism

Definitions are important.

For example, I’m perfectly willing to say I believe in God–if God is defined as “the moral impulse.” I really do believe that most people (not Donald Trump, but most people) have an innate sense of fair play (of justice, if you will), and if we dub the moral guidance provided by that sense of justice as “God”– well then, I’m a believer. (If God is a white guy on a throne with a long white beard who watches to see whether I’m naughty or nice, ala Santa, not so much…)

In constitutional argumentation, originalism is a lot like God.

I mentioned in a prior post that I’ve been reading Erwin Chemerinsky’s We the People: a Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century. it’s a really great book, and I recommend it highly; it’s accessible, readable, and (seeing as how it’s from Erwin Chemerinsky) erudite.

Chemerinsky doesn’t have much use for originalism as defined by Scalia et al. I particularly enjoyed his reference to an oral argument in a case involving a California law prohibiting sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Scalia was pressing California’s attorney about whether the the law could be reconciled with the “original understanding” of the First Amendment. After a confusing back-and-forth, Justice Alito interrupted, saying “I think what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games.”

The reason I loved this anecdote is that it is so close to the way I introduce “original intent” in my classes of non-law-school undergraduate students. I ask them what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet. (These days, I’m just happy when the respondent knows who James Madison was…but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Obviously, Madison never contemplated either technology–that of video games or the Internet. But I would argue that’s not the end of the analysis, nor is it reason to declare the irrelevance of originalism properly defined.

James Madison may not have contemplated an Internet (and who knows what porn looked like in his day), but he did have firm convictions about the importance of free expression and the deleterious effects of government censorship. Original intent, properly understood, requires the courts to protect the principle that government ought not be able to decide which ideas may be communicated.

If, as Chemerinsky demonstrates, it is impossible to define original intent as the Scalia faction would do— as reliance on and limited to what was in the minds of the Founders at the time they drafted the Constitution– and if it is equally if not more unsatisfactory to say that the Constitution simply means what nine people in black robes say it means at any particular point in the nation’s history, then the only reasonable definition of originalism is protection of the principles and values that the Founders were intent upon protecting.

The value of free expression. The value of religious liberty. The importance of separating Church from State. The value of individual autonomy (aka privacy), and one’s right to be “secure” in one’s papers and effects. The values of due process and equal protection.

The principles and values that the Founders protected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are pretty clear, even if their application in many situations is less so. The only approach to Originalism that makes any sense is an approach that protects those values–an approach that serves as an anchor of continuity in a world where “facts on the ground” are always shifting and technology is constantly reshaping the issues with which courts must contend.

Does slapping a GPS device on a suspect’s car require a warrant? Is use of a new technology that lets police see whether you’re growing pot in your basement from across the street a search for purposes of the 4th Amendment? Do Congressional efforts to censor the Internet run afoul of the First Amendment?

What would our quarreling and philosophically differing Founders (there were a lot of them, remember) “intend” about these and hundreds of similar questions?

We can only answer these questions and others like them in a consistent and principled way by considering the limits the Founders placed on government and the values those limits were intended to protect.

It’s the only workable Originalism.

 

 

As Long As I’m Revisiting The Constitution

A couple of days ago, I suggested investing the Electoral College with some of that “original intent” conservative jurists love to apply to our anything -but-original problems. Today, I’m revisiting–or to be more accurate, actually visiting for the first time–another part of the Constitution.

I’m going to file this under “you learn something new every day.” Or perhaps under “Well, this is certainly interesting.” (Or even more likely, “I must be missing something!”)

I don’t know why I haven’t ever focused on the language of Section 2 of the incredibly important Fourteenth Amendment. That section reads:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State. (emphasis supplied)

Later Constitutional amendments extending the franchise would obviously mandate a somewhat different and more expansive reading of Section 2, but the language certainly would seem to provide a possible remedy to the rampant vote suppression being documented in several states.

This is not a subject I have previously researched, so I’d be grateful to any election lawyers–or other knowledgable folks– out there reading this who might answer the following questions:

  • Has there ever been litigation on the basis of this Section?( If so, please cite; if not, I assume the difficulty in establishing evidence of the percentage of votes suppressed would account for the lack.)
  • Who would have standing to bring a lawsuit? (It would seem to me that anyone improperly prevented from voting in a state would have standing, but the Court has narrowed standing doctrine in several ways–unfortunate ways, in my opinion–so perhaps not.)
  • What would count as probative evidence of the percentage of legitimate votes suppressed, the efficacy and intentional nature of suppression tactics, and how would a plaintiff acquire and verify such evidence? (Would the evidence compiled in Stacy Abrams’ new lawsuit suffice?)

If the evidentiary problems could be surmounted, wouldn’t this section provide a fitting remedy for the games currently being played by the GOP?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, for example, Georgia lost a couple of Congressional seats as a result of Brian Kemp’s egregious voter suppression tactics?

If lawsuits based on Section 2 are tenable, I would think simply bringing those suits–even if they were ultimately unsuccessful–would have a salutary effect. Perhaps the threat of losing representation would make some of those Republicans who are enthusiastically engaging in anti-democratic efforts to keep “some people” from voting (yes, Mississippi, we’re looking at you) might have second thoughts…..

I’m obviously missing something, but I’m not sure what. That said, I’m sure one of my more erudite readers can supply the answer.

 

If We Have To Keep The Electoral College…

Discussions of Constitutional originalism tend to illuminate the very different meanings that different people ascribe to that term.

I’m currently reading “We the People” by Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of Berkeley’s law school, and I will return to the subject of “original intent” and his (and my) take on it once I’ve finished the book. But today, I want to propose an “originalism” experiment for those of us who are critical of the current, undemocratic operation of the Electoral College.

Democracy, of course, wasn’t the point of the College. But then, neither was its use as a partisan tool advantaging a reactionary political party, which is what it has become.

There’s a pretty robust consensus that a constitutional amendment simply getting rid of the Electoral College is unlikely to succeed, at least for the foreseeable future. And since some of the College’s most ardent defenders are also proponents of “originalism a la Scalia” (a legal approach so flawed that even Scalia couldn’t consistently apply it), I think we should begin a movement to make the College operate as originally intended.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution provided the original plan by which the electors voted for president. (Electors did not originally vote for vice president. The President would be the person who received a majority of votes from the electors, and the person receiving the second most votes would become vice president. That changed with the emergence of political parties, a phenomenon necessitating the 12th Amendment.)

Individual electors were supposed to be selected by a vote of citizens on a district-by-district basis, and were supposed to exercise their independent judgment when casting their votes for President. Wikipedia shares the following quote from Alexander Hamilton, describing the Founding Fathers’ “original intent” with respect to the electors:

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks].

Over the years, the “original intent” of the Electoral College has been ignored.

Rather than electors who have been chosen by their neighbors to exercise their informed judgment on behalf of the citizens who chose them (and presumably knew who they were, either personally or by reputation), we now have slates of faceless elector candidates pledged to vote for their parties’ respective candidates. Most states also have passed laws prohibiting so-called “faithless electors”–that is, electors who exercise independent judgment and opt to vote for a candidate who did not win that state’s popular vote.

Does anyone believe that a majority of electors possessing “information and discernment” and exercising “independent judgment” would have cast their votes for Donald Trump? (Or for that matter, that such electors would have confirmed Florida’s “hanging chad” results?)

So here’s my proposal: If we must keep the Electoral College, by all means let’s start a movement to assure that it operates in a manner that is consistent with the Founders’ “original intent.”

Limiting Power

Credit where credit is due: not only has the Trump administration rekindled civic engagement (scholars tell us that the number of people on the streets protesting exceeds the number who protested the Vietnam War), but his accidental ascension to the Presidency has highlighted the need to revisit constitutional provisions that no longer serve their intended purposes.

The problem, of course, is that We the People are too divided and too historically and civically illiterate to be trusted with the task of constitutional revision.

When–and if–the time ever comes that we are capable of making careful revisions to our foundational document, there are a number of issues to consider. The most obvious, of course, is the Electoral College, but there are also several aspects of federalism that should be reconsidered in light of contemporary technology and transportation. For example, there is no reason elections should continue to be administered by the states. A national, nonpartisan agency could maintain a national registration database, ensure standardized procedures and hours, and dramatically curtail partisan game-playing of the sort we’ve seen in Georgia and the incompetence Hoosiers experienced in Porter County, Indiana.

There is an even more significant assumption that we  need to re-think.

The American Constitution limits the power of the state. It was written at a time when governments were the entities wielding the most power, and focusing on the state made sense because constraining power was the whole point. The protection of personal autonomy–our individual right to direct our own lives, so long as we don’t harm the person or property of others and so long as we are willing to let others do the same–was the goal, and it required restraints on power.

I thought about that when I read this article from Common Dreams. Today, many governments are less powerful than multi-national corporations.

As corporations in the United States and around the world continue to reap record profits thanks to enormous tax cuts, widespread tax avoidance schemes, and business-friendly trade and investment policies, an analysis by Global Justice Now (GJN) published Wednesday found that the world’s most profitable companies are raking in revenue “far in excess of most governments,” giving them unprecedented power to influence policy in their favor and skirt accountability.

Measured by 2017 revenue, 69 of the top 100 economic entities in the world are corporations, GJN found in its report, which was released as part of an effort to pressure the U.K. government to advance a binding United Nations treaty that would hold transnational corporations to account for human rights violations.

“When it comes to the top 200 entities, the gap between corporations and governments gets even more pronounced: 157 are corporations,” GJN notes. “Walmart, Apple, and Shell all accrued more wealth than even fairly rich countries like Russia, Belgium, Sweden.”

As difficult as it can be to subject governments to the rule of law, constitutions and legal systems do provide mechanisms to hold them accountable.  By contrast, it is incredibly difficult for citizens to hold powerful corporations to account.  Increasingly, as the article notes, trade and investment deals allow corporations to demand that governments do their bidding rather than the other way around.

“From a coal mine in Bangladesh that threatens to destroy one of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems to hundreds of people at risk of displacement from a mega-sugar plantation in Sri Lanka, corporations and big business are often implicated in human rights abuses across Asia” and the world, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific noted in a blog post on Wednesday, describing the U.N. treaty as a potential “game-changer.”

“Companies are able to evade responsibility by operating between different national jurisdictions and taking advantage of corruption in local legal systems, not to mention the fact that many corporations are richer and more powerful than the states that seek to regulate them,” Friends of the Earth concluded. “We must right this wrong.”

The question, of course, is how?

It is becoming increasingly clear that massive reforms to global law and governance will be required if human liberty is to survive the changes that increasingly confront us. Given the numbers of people who have an overwhelming fear of change and who respond by embracing tribalism and autocracy, the odds of a successful “reboot” look pretty daunting.

People Without Power

I’m old enough to remember the 60s slogan “Power to the People!”  And I’ve lived long enough to see “the people”–at least the people who vote– overpowered.

I’ve written periodically about the various ways in which America’s systems have become undemocratic–about gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College–but Ezra Klein puts it all together in a truly chilling essay for Vox. 

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by an unpopular president who won 3 million fewer votes than the runner-up. He was confirmed by a Senate majority that represents a minority of the country. He was confirmed despite most Americans telling pollster after pollster they did not want him seated on the Supreme Court.

As Klein points out, a constitutional system built in America’s founding era, structured to address the issues of that era, is currently making the country both less democratic and less Democratic.

Since 2000, fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. Republicans control the US Senate despite winning fewer votes than Democrats, and it’s understood that House Democrats need to beat Republicans by as much as 7 or 8 points in the popular vote to hold a majority in the chamber. Next year, it’s possible that Republicans will control the presidency and both chambers of Congress despite having received fewer votes for the White House in 2016 and for the House and Senate in 2018.

Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office, and where the 5-4 conservative majority owes its existence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary decision to deny Merrick Garland a hearing. This Court will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, union dues, campaign finance, Obamacare, and more; that is to say, they will rule on cases that will shape who holds, and who can effectively wield, political power in the future.

When it is all put together, it amounts to a bloodless coup. (“Bloodless” in the sense that the GOP has taken power without force of arms. Not so bloodless if you think of people who are dying for lack of access to medical care although majorities favor Medicare-for-All, or consider the rising suicide rate being attributed to despair, or factor in the deaths that will occur as a consequence of ignoring climate change.)

Sandy Levenson teaches Constitutional law at the University of Texas, and has been warning about waning democracy and American government’s lack of legitimacy for several years. The article quotes him warning “At some point, people will get so angry that they will either talk about secession or start engaging in more direct measures, whether it takes the form of rioting or violence.”

Klein’s article goes into some detail about the original reasons for our unrepresentative systems–the compromises that were “baked into” the Constitution in order to get it ratified. As he points out, any free political system must determine how to ensure that different interests can engage in balanced competition. The problem in our system is that what we balanced for–large and small states– is no longer what’s competing.

The compromises made to calm the divisions between places is exacerbating the divisions between the parties, as Republicans dominate rural areas while Democrats cluster in urban centers.

By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.

It is not difficult to imagine an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned, and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering and pro-corporate campaign finance laws and strict voter ID requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.

For those inclined to dismiss this analysis as overheated, Klein says

If this seems outlandish, well, it simply describes the world we live in now, and assumes it continues forward. Look at North Carolina, where Republican legislators are trying to change the state Constitution to gain power over both elections and courts. Look at Wisconsin, where state Republicans gerrymandered the seats to make Democratic control a near impossibility. Look at Citizens United, which research finds gave Republicans a 5 percentage point boost in elections for state legislators. Look at Georgia, where the GOP candidate for governor currently serves as secretary of state and is executing a voter purge designed to help him win office.

Klein references a number of changes that are being proposed, but whatever we might think of those changes, they won’t even be considered unless Democrats can overcome the odds and win control of both the House and Senate.

Pundits are always insisting that whatever election is imminent is “the most important of our lifetime.”

This one is.