My short essay ‘A Constitution Should Help A Country Govern, Not Hobble It‘ is up at Aeon Magazine. Comments welcome. (Many thanks to Sam Haselby, my editor at Aeon, for all his help.)
The short answer: the number of times the Supreme Court has ruled on a constitutional question. Every time the Supreme Court grants certiorari, allows a case to move ‘upwards’ from state and Federal courts to its chambers, and then proceeds to rule–keeping in mind the supposedly relevant precedents, and on the basis of a coherent theory of the interpretation of legal texts–it offers us an amended constitution. Every act of interpretation–sometimes plain literalist, sometimes originalist, sometimes purposive–adds meaning and texture to the text of the articles of the Constitution. Thus the content of the Fourth Amendment is not to be found in the Constitution; it is to be found in the cumulative history of all Supreme Court rulings on cases that have rested on contested interpretations of the Amendment. What does ‘unreasonable’ mean? What does ‘search’ mean? What does ‘seizure’ mean? What does ‘persons’ mean? What does ‘effects’ mean? What does ‘probable cause’ mean? To decipher this meaning, scattered over thousands and thousands of pages of Supreme Court rulings is an almost insuperable and intractable task; it is much easier, therefore, to fall back on the simplest formulation of all: ‘The Fourth Amendment says that…’. But the filling out of that particular that-clause will call for the expenditure of considerable ink, and in the end, it will appear that the protections of the Fourth Amendment are considerably more ambiguous–in several dimensions–than previously imagined, by both its detractors and proponents alike.
These considerations show that talk of ‘constitutional protections’ must always proceed hand in hand with talk of constitutional interpretation, with the history of actual supreme court rulings on the constitutional question under discussion. Such inclusion is especially necessary when giving someone legal advice; as Justice Holmes sagely pointed out many years ago, the law is what the judges say it is: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious.”
Our nation is entering a period of great legal uncertainty; there is much talk of taking cover under constitutional protections, of seeking refuge from an authoritarian government under the covering canopy of the Bill of Rights. But the text of the Bill of Rights is not sufficient to provide such protection; the Supreme Court rulings on Bill of Rights cases are far more germane. To look only to the Constitution is dangerously complacent; talk of legal rights without actual legal protections is hollow.
Many a patriot is disappointed and disillusioned to find out that in point of fact the Fourth Amendment is almost hollow in content; its protections systematically eviscerated over the years by repeated weakenings through selective, ideological, and politically motivated interpretation. Mass surveillance; warrantless searches; stop and frisk; the list goes on. Where is the Fourth Amendment?, the patriot asks. The answer is: not in a small booklet, but in that section of the law school’s library that deals with constitutional law.
Constitutional conventions, two-thirds majorities, ratifications by state legislatures–such is the machinery of the constitutional amendment by legislative fiat. Such convolutions are kludgy compared to the awesomely efficient method of Supreme Court rulings; there, in the foundry of the Supreme Court’s chambers, new meanings are forged every year, every Supreme Court season.
Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We The People Can Correct It) is a truly depressing book. As I read it last night and this morning–in preparation for a meeting today with this semester’s Wolfe Institute Faculty Discussion Group–I grew increasingly enraged, perplexed, and then, finally, even more convinced that the excessive veneration shown to the US Constitution is a scam, one perpetrated on this nation by a political class determined to ensure the US will never become a true democratic republic. (I am only up to Chapter Three as yet, and dread what awaits me in the remaining ones.)
Much of Levinson’s critique in Chapters Two (Our Undemocratic Legislative Process) and Three (The Legacy of Article II: Too-Powerful Presidents Chosen in an Indefensible Process, Who Cannot Be Displaced Even When They Are Manifestly Incompetent), was familiar to me in its bare outlines: the bicameral, or rather, tricameral legislature, with its multiplicity of ‘veto points’ that may stymie majoritarian legislation, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, (which without exaggeration may be termed as Levinson does, ‘illegitimate’), the misuse of presidential vetoes deployed on non-constitutional grounds, the all-too-frequent elections to the US House of Representatives, the idiotic Electoral College, the lame-duck Congresses, the delayed inauguration of the President. And so on. And on. But I don’t think I have ever had the Constitutions weaknesses and disastrous discordance with present-day realities laid out quite as infuriatingly well as Levinson does. (My familiarity with the outlines of Levinson’ critique should indicate part of the problem with the Constitution: most people, on being informed of its vagaries, are inclined to think it broke, and indeed scathing critique of the Constitution, given the dates on many of the commentaries and analyses cited by Levinson, is nothing new. But changing the Constitution is well-nigh impossible. We are, indeed, seemingly trapped in the ‘cage’ of its Articles and Clauses.)
A full reckoning of the Constitution’s problems as highlighted by Levinson requires a careful read of his book. Here is a tiny excerpt to get you started. Levinson cites Lynn A. Baker and Samuel H. Dinkin’s article ‘The Senate: An Institution Whose Time Has Gone?’ (Journal of Law and Politics, 1997) to offer a ‘terse summary of the practical consequences of the inequality of voting power in the Senate.’:
First, the Senate ensures that the Federal Government will systematically redistribute income from the large states to the small states. Second, it provides racial minorities a voice in the federal lawmaking process that is disproportionately small relative to their numbers. Third, it protects diversity among the states by making federal homogenizing legislation more difficult to pass.
In case all that sounds too abstract, here is a little number of particular interest to me:
Over the period 1963-1999, New York taxpayers paid out $252 billion more in taxes than were received back in federal payments or services.
This is a mere sampler; besides the extant difficulties caused for the republic by the Constitution’s provisions, there are many crises waiting to happen in times of national emergency or even tied elections. It’s a clunker and a lemon rolled into one. As Levinson notes, amending the Constitution is a near-intractable task, the difficulty of which may be gauged by revisiting John Roche’s paraphrasing of Lord Acton‘s sagacious remark: It is not so much power that corrupts as the prospect of losing power.