Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What Is the "Living Constitution"?

Dahlia Lithwick of Slate inveighs against opponents of the "Living Constitution" without explaining it. Here's Dahlia:
To hear Tom DeLay and his cronies tell it, the only alternative to the interpretive theory of "Originalism" or "strict construction" is to have judges swinging like monkeys from the constitutional chandeliers, making up whatever they want, whenever they want. Here's Jonah Goldberg on the allure of a dead Constitution: "A 'living Constitution' denies us our voice in this regard because it basically holds that whatever decisions we make—including the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—can be thrown out by any five dyspeptic justices on the Supreme Court. In other words, the justices who claim the Constitution is a wild card didn't take their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution in good faith because they couldn't know what they were swearing to."

Goldberg goes on to quote Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in the recent Ten Commandments cases: "What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority, is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle. That is what prevents judges from ruling now this way, now that—thumbs up or thumbs down—as their personal preferences dictate."

And here is Todd Gaziano from the Heritage Foundation: "If judges can essentially do whatever they want in the guise of updating the [C]onstitution … making it real for today or choosing whatever silly phrase you want, then we might as well have a completely unwritten Constitution." . . .

A Nexis search for the words "living Constitution" turns up literally dozens of stories by conservatives bashing the premise into a hopeless pulp. But it's hard to find a creditable recent defense of the Constitution as something greater than the span of its own four corners. And I wonder why.

Is it because the words "living Constitution," like the words "feminist" or "liberal," have become wholly appropriated by the Rush Limbaughs of the world? Or is it something deeper—a sense on the part of serious liberal thinkers that Roe v. Wade, with its kabbalistic talk of constitutional penumbras and emanations, really is indefensible? Is it, as I have argued before, that we are all secretly afraid that Scalia is right? That a living Constitution is nothing more than a bunch of monkeys on chandeliers?

Scalia is right. But let's hear it directly from the Justice:

Well, let me first tell you how we got to the “Living Constitution.” You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand it. The road is not that complicated. Initially, the Court began giving terms in the text of the Constitution a meaning they didn’t have when they were adopted. For example, the First Amendment, which forbids Congress to abridge the freedom of speech. What does the freedom of speech mean? Well, it clearly did not mean that Congress or government could not impose any restrictions upon speech. Libel laws, for example, were clearly constitutional. Nobody thought the First Amendment was carte blanche to libel someone. But in the famous case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court said, “But the First Amendment does prevent you from suing for libel if you are a public figure and if the libel was not malicious” — that is, the person, a member of the press or otherwise, thought that what the person said was true. Well, that had never been the law. I mean, it might be a good law. And some states could amend their libel law. . . .

. . . There is no text in the Constitution that you could reinterpret to create a right to abortion. . . . So you need something else. The something else is called the doctrine of “Substantive Due Process.” Only lawyers can walk around talking about substantive process, in as much as it’s a contradiction in terms. . . .

What substantive due process is is quite simple — the Constitution has a Due Process Clause, which says that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Now, what does this guarantee? Does it guarantee life, liberty or property? No, indeed! All three can be taken away. You can be fined, you can be incarcerated, you can even be executed, but not without due process of law. It’s a procedural guarantee. . . . [I]n fact the first case to do it was Dred Scott. But it became more popular in the 1920s. The Court said there are some liberties that are so important, that no process will suffice to take them away. Hence, substantive due process.

Now, what liberties are they? The Court will tell you. Be patient. When the doctrine of substantive due process was initially announced, it was limited in this way, the Court said it embraces only those liberties that are fundamental to a democratic society and rooted in the traditions of the American people.

Then . . . that limitation is eliminated. Within the last 20 years, we have found to be covered by due process the right to abortion, which was so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that it was criminal for 200 years; the right to homosexual sodomy, which was so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that it was criminal for 200 years. So it is literally true, and I don’t think this is an exaggeration, that the Court has essentially liberated itself from the text of the Constitution, from the text and even from the traditions of the American people. It is up to the Court to say what is covered by substantive due process.

What are the arguments usually made in favor of the Living Constitution? . . . The major argument is the Constitution is a living organism, it has to grow with the society that it governs or it will become brittle and snap.

This is . . . an anthropomorphism equivalent to what you hear from your stockbroker, when he tells you that the stock market is resting for an assault on the 11,000 level. The stock market panting at some base camp. The stock market is not a mountain climber and the Constitution is not a living organism for Pete’s sake; it’s a legal document, and like all legal documents, it says some things, and it doesn’t say other things. And if you think that the aficionados of the Living Constitution want to bring you flexibility, think again.

My Constitution is a very flexible Constitution. You think the death penalty is a good idea — persuade your fellow citizens and adopt it. You think it’s a bad idea — persuade them the other way and eliminate it. You want a right to abortion — create it the way most rights are created in a democratic society, persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and enact it. You want the opposite — persuade them the other way. That’s flexibility. . . .

Some people are in favor of the Living Constitution because they think it always leads to greater freedom — there’s just nothing to lose, the evolving Constitution will always provide greater and greater freedom, more and more rights. Why would you think that? It’s a two-way street. And indeed, under the aegis of the Living Constitution, some freedoms have been taken away.

Recently, last term, we reversed a 15-year-old decision of the Court, which had held that the Confrontation Clause — which couldn’t be clearer, it says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witness against him.” But a Living Constitution Court held that all that was necessary to comply with the Confrontation Clause was that the hearsay evidence which is introduced — hearsay evidence means you can’t cross-examine the person who said it because he’s not in the court — the hearsay evidence has to bear indicia of reliability. I’m happy to say that we reversed it last term with the votes of the two originalists on the Court. And the opinion said that the only indicium of reliability that the Confrontation Clause acknowledges is confrontation. You bring the witness in to testify and to be cross-examined. That’s just one example, there are others, of eliminating liberties.

So, I think another example is the right to jury trial. In a series of cases, the Court had seemingly acknowledged that you didn’t have to have trial by jury of the facts that increase your sentence. You can make the increased sentence a “sentencing factor” — you get 30 years for burglary, but if the burglary is committed with a gun, as a sentencing factor the judge can give you another 10 years. And the judge will decide whether you used a gun. And he will decide it, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether it’s more likely than not. Well, we held recently, I’m happy to say, that this violates the right to a trial by jury. The Living Constitution would not have produced that result. The Living Constitution, like the legislatures that enacted these laws would have allowed sentencing factors to be determined by the judge because all the Living Constitution assures you is that what will happen is what the majority wants to happen. And that’s not the purpose of constitutional guarantees.

Well, I’ve talked about some of the false virtues of the Living Constitution, let me tell you what I consider its principle vices are. Surely the greatest — you should always begin with principle — its greatest vice is its illegitimacy. The only reason federal courts sit in judgment of the constitutionality of federal legislation is not because they are explicitly authorized to do so in the Constitution. Some modern constitutions give the constitutional court explicit authority to review German legislation or French legislation for its constitutionality, our Constitution doesn’t say anything like that. But John Marshall says in Marbury v. Madison: Look, this is lawyers’ work. What you have here is an apparent conflict between the Constitution and the statute. And, all the time, lawyers and judges have to reconcile these conflicts — they try to read the two to comport with each other. If they can’t, it’s judges’ work to decide which ones prevail. When there are two statutes, the more recent one prevails. It implicitly repeals the older one. But when the Constitution is at issue, the Constitution prevails because it is a “superstatute.” I mean, that’s what Marshall says: It’s judges’ work. . . .

. . . If you don’t believe in originalism, then you need some other principle of interpretation. Being a non-originalist is not enough. You see, I have my rules that confine me. I know what I’m looking for. When I find it — the original meaning of the Constitution — I am handcuffed. If I believe that the First Amendment meant when it was adopted that you are entitled to burn the American flag, I have to come out that way even though I don’t like to come out that way. When I find that the original meaning of the jury trial guarantee is that any additional time you spend in prison which depends upon a fact must depend upon a fact found by a jury — once I find that’s what the jury trial guarantee means, I am handcuffed. Though I’m a law-and-order type, I cannot do all the mean conservative things I would like to do to this society. You got me.

Now, if you’re not going to control your judges that way, what other criterion are you going to place before them? What is the criterion that governs the Living Constitutional judge? What can you possibly use, besides original meaning? Think about that. Natural law? We all agree on that, don’t we? The philosophy of John Rawls? That’s easy. There really is nothing else. You either tell your judges, “Look, this is a law, like all laws, give it the meaning it had when it was adopted.” Or, you tell your judges, “Govern us. You tell us whether people under 18, who committed their crimes when they were under 18, should be executed. You tell us whether there ought to be an unlimited right to abortion or a partial right to abortion. You make these decisions for us.” I have put this question — you know I speak at law schools with some frequency just to make trouble — and I put this question to the faculty all the time, or incite the students to ask their Living Constitutional professors: “Okay professor, you are not an originalist, what is your criterion?” There is none other.

. . . What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean? There is no such thing as a moderate interpretation of the text. Would you ask a lawyer, “Draw me a moderate contract?” The only way the word has any meaning is if you are looking for someone to write a law, to write a constitution, rather than to interpret one. The moderate judge is the one who will devise the new constitution that most people would approve of. So, for example, we had a suicide case some terms ago, and the Court refused to hold that there is a constitutional right to assisted suicide. We said, “We’re not yet ready to say that. Stay tuned, in a few years, the time may come, but we’re not yet ready.” And that was a moderate decision, because I think most people would not want — if we had gone, looked into that and created a national right to assisted suicide, that would have been an immoderate and extremist decision.

[W]here we have arrived — [is] at the point of selecting [judges] to write a constitution, rather than [judges] to give us the fair meaning of one that has been democratically adopted. And when that happens, when the Senate interrogates nominees to the Supreme Court, or to the lower courts — you know, “Judge so-and-so, do you think there is a right to this in the Constitution? You don’t? Well, my constituents think there ought to be, and I’m not going to appoint to the court someone who is not going to find that” — when we are in that mode, you realize, we have rendered the Constitution useless, because the Constitution will mean what the majority wants it to mean. The senators are representing the majority, and they will be selecting justices who will devise a constitution that the majority wants. And that, of course, deprives the Constitution of its principle utility. The Bill of Rights is devised to protect you and me against, who do you think? The majority. My most important function on the Supreme Court is to tell the majority to take a walk. And the notion that the justices ought to be selected because of the positions that they will take, that are favored by the majority, is a recipe for destruction of what we have had for 200 years.

Give 'em hell, Nino.

You can't always have all the rights you want; there's nothing "natural" about rights. Sometimes you must fight for the rights you want, which, in this post-Revolutionary era, means -- or should mean -- fighting to have the Constitution amended or fighting to have legislatures adopt constitutional laws. As Justice Scalia says so eloquently, the "Living Constitution" isn't about rights, it's about the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority, without going to the trouble of amending the Constitution or effecting constitutional legislation.