A Constitution Set in Stone, or the Beating of a Dead Horse

The historian Jill Lepore has a long article in The New Yorker entitled:

The United States’ Unamendable Constitution: How our inability to change America’s most important document is deforming our politics and government.

It deals with topics, mainly the Constitution and the Supreme Court and the anti-democratic features thereof, that have come up here many, many times. I read the whole thing anyway. This is a lot of it:

It’s always been hard to amend the Constitution. But, in the past half century, it’s become much harder—so hard that people barely bother trying anymore. Between 1789 and 1804—fifteen years—the Constitution was amended twelve times. Between 1805 and 2022—two hundred and seventeen years—it’s been amended only fifteen times, and since 1971 only once.

The Framers did not anticipate two developments that have made the double supermajority required by Article V [2/3 of both houses of Congress and ¾ of the states] almost impossible to achieve: the emergence of the first political parties, which happened in the seventeen-nineties, and the establishment of a stable two-party system, in place by the eighteen-twenties. As John Adams complained, in 1808, “the Principle Seems to be established on both Sides that the Nation is never to be governed by the Nation: but the whole is to be exclusively governed by a Party.” This state of affairs raised the bar for amending the Constitution. The current era of party polarization, which began in the early nineteen-seventies, has raised the bar much, much higher.

How high? Political scientists talk about the “amendment rate”—the number of amendments to any given constitution, per year. Divide twenty-seven ratified amendments by two hundred and thirty-three years and you get 0.12, the U.S. amendment rate. It is one of the lowest rates in the world…..

An unamendable constitution is not an American tradition. U.S. state constitutions are much easier to amend than the federal Constitution. The average amendment rate of a U.S. state is 1.23; Alabama’s constitution has an amendment rate of 8.07. A high amendment rate is generally not a sign of political well-being, though, since it comes at the cost of stability. Also, it can be disastrous in states where constitutions can be amended by a popular referendum: research suggests that the language of ballot initiatives is so mealy-mouthed that many voters, confused or misled, end up casting votes that go against their actual preferences….You don’t want your constitution to be too hard to amend, but you don’t want it to be too easy, either.

Making the Constitution easier to amend would itself require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s not going to happen.….

“Nothing new can be put into the Constitution except through the amendatory process,” Justice Felix Frankfurter declared, in 1956, and “nothing old can be taken out without the same process.” That’s not strictly true. The Constitution has become unamendable, but it has not become unchangeable. Its meaning can be altered by the nine people who serve on the Supreme Court [actually, by merely five of them]. They can’t rewrite it, but they can reread it.

The Framers did not design or even anticipate this method of altering the Constitution. They didn’t plan for judicial review (the power exercised by the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of legislation), and they thought they’d protected against the possibility of judicial supremacy (the inability of any other branch of government to check the Court’s power).

As with the filibuster, whether you like judicial supremacy generally depends on whether your party’s in power or out. The Court is the least democratic branch of government. But it also has the ability to protect the rights of minorities against a majority. In the nineteen-fifties, because Jim Crow laws meant that Blacks in the South could not vote, it proved impossible to end segregation through electoral politics or a constitutional amendment; instead, the N.A.A.C.P. sought to end it by bringing Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court.

Since then, the Court has implemented all sorts of constitutional changes: it has secured the rights of criminal defendants; established rights to contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage; declared corporate campaign donations to be free speech; and interpreted the Second Amendment as restricting the government’s ability to regulate firearms. Which of these you believe to be bad decisions and which good depends on your position on all manner of things. But, unlike a constitutional amendment, every decision the Court makes it can reverse, the way that, this year, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it overturned Roe v. Wade, from 1973. (You can reverse a constitutional amendment, but only with another one: that’s how Prohibition ended.)…

Reversing Roe v. Wade did not require a constitutional amendment (even though many were proposed). Instead, it required something even more extraordinary: a wholly new mode of constitutional interpretation. Roe built on a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which protected access to contraception under a right to privacy. After Griswold, conservative critics of the Court began to devise an approach to constitutional interpretation custom-built to defeat it: the jurisprudence of originalism. Robert Bork first proposed its framework in 1971, in an essay in which he argued against Griswold. Originalism undergirds one of the most radical constitutional reversals in recent American history: the reinterpretation of the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to bear arms, as opposed to the right of the people to form militias. (Bork himself disagreed with this reinterpretation, which has been advanced by the N.R.A.) This spring, in the Bruen case, the Court reinforced its N.R.A.-informed interpretation of the Second Amendment.

All sorts of ideas are floating around for how to shake things loose. Constitutional populists [i.e. right-wingers] have rallied around a proposal to revise the Constitution by way of a provision in Article V that’s never been used, and which holds that the country, “on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments.” Nineteen state legislatures have made some version of that application; thirty-four are required. Since 2013, this effort has been headed by the Convention of States project, funded in part by the Koch brothers [But we should note that any amendment adopted by a constitutional convention would have to be approved by ¾ of the states (38), meaning it could be defeated by 13 states]….

Americans aren’t going to amend Article V anytime soon because we’re not going to amend any part of the Constitution anytime soon. In the end, the really interesting question isn’t what would happen if the people could amend the Constitution by popular vote but what actually happened, in the first place, to cripple Article V, and give the Supreme Court superpowers.

The Constitution became effectively unamendable in the early nineteen-seventies, just when originalism began its slow, steady rise. The Twenty-sixth Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 and lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, an antiwar-movement objective, turned out to be the only amendment that constitutionalized an aim of one of the political revolutions of the sixties—the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, and the environmental-rights movement. People did not see that coming: they expected those movements to result in amendments.

In 1970, the civil-rights activist, constitutional theorist, and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the passage of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, barring discrimination on the basis of sex, was essential … to inaugurating a new and better era in the history of the nation’s constitutional democracy:

The adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment and its ratification by the several States could well usher in an unprecedented Golden Age of human relations in our national life and help our country to become an example of the practical ideal that the sole purpose of governments is to create the conditions under which the uniqueness of each individual is cherished and is encouraged to fulfill his or her highest creative potential.

That, of course, did not come to pass. No golden age ever does. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states, where most observers expected that it would secure quick ratification. But, in 1973, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roe v. Wade. And conservatives began a decades-long campaign to advance originalism, reverse Roe, and defeat the E.R.A. by arguing … that “the E.R.A. means abortion.” Every significant amendment attempted since has failed. And, although efforts are ongoing to revive the E.R.A., so far they haven’t succeeded, either.

Polarization weakened Article V. But the Constitution really snapped when it became too brittle to guarantee equal rights to women. Liberals gave up on constitutional amendment; conservatives abandoned it in favor of advancing originalism. Still, nothing’s broken that can’t be mended. It’s a question, now, of how.


It’s also a question of how bad things will get if, as it seems now, nothing is done about it.