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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 Âľ 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.

We Have a Millstone Around Our National Neck

It’s good to have a constitution, but not every constitution is good. Charles Blow of The New York Times evaluates ours:

… I have been thinking about what I would say to Biden about the threats to American democracy. The most acute threat, it’s true, comes from election deniers and the authoritarian mass movement led by the previous president….. But the long-term threat is less an imposition from bad actors and more a constitutive part of our political system. It is, in fact, the Constitution. Specifically, it is a set of fundamental problems with the structure of our government that flow directly from the Constitution as it currently exists.

We tend to equate American democracy with the Constitution as if the two were synonymous with each other. To defend one is to protect the other and vice versa. But our history makes clear that the two are in tension with each other — and always have been. The Constitution, as I’ve written before, was as much a reaction to the populist enthusiasms and democratic experimentation of the 1780s as it was to the failures of the Articles of Confederation.

The framers meant to force national majorities through an overlapping system of fractured authority; they meant to mediate, and even stymie, the popular will as much as possible and force the government to act with as much consensus as possible.

Unfortunately for the framers, this plan did not work as well as they hoped. With the advent of political parties in the first decade of the new Republic — which the framers failed to anticipate in their design — Americans had essentially circumvented the careful balance of institutions and divided power. Parties could campaign to control each branch of government, and with the advent of the mass party in the 1820s, they could claim to represent “the people” themselves in all their glory.

Americans, in short, had forced the Constitution to accommodate their democratic impulses, as would be the case again and again, up to the present. The question, today, is whether there’s any room left to build a truly democratic political system within the present limits of our constitutional order.

In his new book “Two Cheers for Politics: Why Democracy is Flawed, Frightening — and Our Best Hope,” the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy says the answer is, essentially, no. “Our mainstream political language still lacks ways of saying, with unapologetic conviction and even patriotically, that the Constitution may be the enemy of the democracy it supposedly sustains,” Purdy writes.

This is true in two ways. The first (and obvious) one is that the Constitution has enabled the democratic backsliding of the past six years. Founding-era warnings against demagogues — used often to justify our indirect system of choosing a president — run headfirst into the fact that [the last one] was selected constitutionally, not elected democratically….

And consider this: In the 2020 presidential election, a clear majority of Americans voted against [the incumbent] in the highest turnout election of the 21st century so far. But with a few tens of thousands of additional votes in a few states, [he] would have won a second term under the Constitution. “A mechanism for selecting a chief executive among propertied elites in the late eighteenth century persists into the twenty-first,” Purdy writes, “now as a key choke point in a mass democracy.”

The Constitution subverts democracy in a second, more subtle way. As Purdy notes, the counter-majoritarian structure of the American system inhibits lawmaking and slows down politics, “making meaningful initiatives hard to undertake”…..

Even if you keep MAGA Republicans out of office (including [their leader]), you’re still left with a system the basic structure of which fuels dysfunction and undermines American democracy….

What makes this all the worse is that it has become virtually impossible to amend the Constitution and revise the basics of the American political system. The preamble to the Constitution may begin with “We the People,” but as Purdy writes, “A constitution like the American one deserves democratic authority only if it is realistically open to amendment.” It is only then that we can “know that what has not changed in the old text still commands consent.” Silence can have meaning, he points out, “but only when it is the silence of those free to speak.”

There is much more to say about the ways that our political system has inhibited democratic life and even enabled forms of tyranny. For now, it suffices to say that a constitution that subverts majority rule, fuels authoritarian movements and renders popular sovereignty inert is not a constitution that can be said to protect, secure or even enable American democracy.

In a speech in Philadelphia last month, Biden did speak publicly on the threats to American democracy. He focused, as almost any president would, on the Constitution. “This is a nation that honors our Constitution. We do not reject it. This is a nation that believes in the rule of law. We do not repudiate it. This is a nation that respects free and fair elections. We honor the will of the people. We do not deny it.”

The problem, and what this country must confront if it ever hopes to turn its deepest democratic aspirations into reality, is that we don’t actually honor the will of the people. We deny it. And it’s this denial that sits at the root of our troubles.

How Democracy May Survive the Constitution

Among our democracy’s enemies, foreign or domestic, is a document ratified in 1789: the United States Constitution. The power the Constitution gives to the states, its provisions that favor minority rule, and the difficulty of amending it may allow the Republican Party to institute authoritarian, one-party rule, all the while claiming to respect “the supreme law of the land”. 

Two law professors, Ryan Doerfler and Samuel Moyn, argue that it’s time to do something about our broken Constitution: 

When liberals lose in the Supreme Court — as they increasingly have over the past half-century — they usually say that the justices got the Constitution wrong. But struggling over the Constitution has proved a dead end. The real need is not to reclaim the Constitution, as many would have it, but instead to reclaim America from constitutionalism.

The idea of constitutionalism is that there needs to be some higher law that is more difficult to change than the rest of the legal order. Having a constitution is about setting more sacrosanct rules than the ones the legislature can pass day to day. Our Constitution’s guarantee of two senators to each state is an example. And ever since the American founders were forced to add a Bill of Rights to get their handiwork passed, national constitutions have been associated with some set of basic freedoms and values that transient majorities might otherwise trample.

But constitutions — especially the broken one we have now — inevitably orient us to the past and misdirect the present into a dispute over what people agreed on once upon a time, not on what the present and future demand for and from those who live now. This aids the right, which insists on sticking with what it claims to be the original meaning of the past.

Arming for war over the Constitution concedes in advance that the left must translate its politics into something consistent with the past. But liberals have been attempting to reclaim the Constitution for 50 years — with agonizingly little to show for it. It’s time for them to radically alter the basic rules of the game.

In making calls to regain ownership of our founding charter, progressives have disagreed about strategy and tactics more than about this crucial goal. Proposals to increase the number of justices, strip the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to invalidate federal law or otherwise soften the blow of judicial review frequently come together with the assurance that the problem is not the Constitution; only the Supreme Court’s hijacking of it is. And even when progressives concede that the Constitution is at the root of our situation, typically the call is for some new constitutionalism.

Since the Supreme Court began to drift right in the 1970s, liberals have proposed better ways of reading the Constitution. [Meanwhile,] the conservative Federalist Society engaged in a successful attempt to remake constitutional law by brainstorming ideas, creating networks of potential judges and eventually helping to guide the selection of President D____ T____’s nominees…. With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the consolidation of right-wing control of constitutional law and the overturning of Roe and other disasters this term — the damage has only worsened.

One reason for these woeful outcomes is that our current Constitution is inadequate, which is why it serves reactionaries so well. Starting with a text that is famously undemocratic, progressives are forced to navigate hard-wired features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, designed as impediments to redistributive change while drawing on much vaguer and more malleable resources like commitments to due process and equal protection — resources that a conservative Supreme Court has used over the years to invalidate things like abortion rights and child labor laws and might use in the coming term to prohibit affirmative action.

Sometimes reclaiming the Constitution is presented as a much-needed step toward empowering the people and their elected representatives. In a new book, the law professors Joseph Fishkin and William Forbath urge progressives to stop treating constitutional law as an “autonomous” domain, “separate from politics.” In contrast with earlier efforts among liberals, which, as Jedediah Purdy put it in a 2018 Times guest essay, put forward a “vivid picture of what judges should do with the power of the courts,” such exercises in progressive constitutionalism call on Congress and other nonjudicial actors to claim some amount of authority to interpret the Constitution for themselves

It is a breath of fresh air to witness progressives offering bold new proposals to reform courts and shift power to elected officials. But even such proposals raise the question: Why justify our politics by the Constitution or by calls for some renovated constitutional tradition? It has exacted a terrible price in distortion and distraction to transform our national life into a contest over reinterpreting our founding charter consistently with what majorities believe now.

No matter how openly political it may purport to be, reclaiming the Constitution remains a kind of anti-politics. It requires the substitution of claims about the best reading of some centuries-old text or about promises said to be already in our traditions for direct arguments about what fairness or justice demands.

It’s difficult to find a constitutional basis for abortion or labor unions in a document written by largely affluent men more than two centuries ago. It would be far better if liberal legislators could simply make a case for abortion and labor rights on their own merits without having to bother with the Constitution.

By leaving democracy hostage to constraints that are harder to change than the rest of the legal order, constitutionalism of any sort demands extraordinary consensus for meaningful progress. It conditions democracy in which majority rule always must matter most on surviving vetoes from powerful minorities that invoke the constitutional past to obstruct a new future.

After failing to get the Constitution interpreted in an egalitarian way for so long, the way to seek real freedom will be to use procedures consistent with popular rule. It will not be easy, but a new way of fighting within American democracy must start with a more open politics of altering our fundamental law, perhaps in the first place by making the Constitution more amendable than it is now.

In a second stage, though, Americans could learn simply to do politics through ordinary statute rather than staging constant wars over who controls the heavy weaponry of constitutional law from the past. If legislatures just passed rules and protected values majorities believe in, the distinction between “higher law” and everyday politics effectively disappears.

One way to get to this more democratic world is to pack the Union with new states. Doing so would allow Americans to then use the formal amendment process to alter the basic rules of the politics and break the false deadlock that the Constitution imposes through the Electoral College and Senate on the country, in which substantial majorities are foiled on issue after issue.

More aggressively, Congress could simply pass a Congress Act, reorganizing our legislature in ways that are more fairly representative of where people actually live and vote, and perhaps even reducing the Senate to a mere “council of revision” (a term Jamelle Bouie used to describe the Canadian Senate), without the power to obstruct laws.

In so doing, Congress would be pretty openly defying the Constitution to get to a more democratic order — and for that reason would need to insulate the law from judicial review. Fundamental values like racial equality or environmental justice would be protected not by law that stands apart from politics but — as they typically are — by ordinary expressions of popular will. And the basic structure of government, like whether to elect the president by majority vote or to limit judges to fixed terms, would be decided by the present electorate, as opposed to one from some foggy past.

A politics of the American future like this would make clear our ability to engage in the constant reinvention of our society under our own power, without the illusion that the past stands in the way.

A Footnote to “How To Fix a Lawless Supreme Court”

Two of the three law professors I quoted in this earlier post believe the Constitution wouldn’t permit legislators to overrule a state’s voters and select their own slate of electors for the Electoral College, after the voters had already voted for president (or possibly without allowing the voters to vote at all). Leah Litman and Katherine Shaw briefly but forcefully argue this in a law journal article, “Textualism, Judicial Supremacy and the Independent State Legislature Theory” [p. 4].

The Independent State Legislature Theory (ISLT) is a fanciful idea being pushed by some Republicans that would give state legislatures total control over their state’s Electoral College votes. Even some members of the Supreme Court seem to like the idea, since it would allow gerrymandered legislatures in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina to help elect Republican presidents, regardless of who won the presidential election in their state. This is what Litman and Shaw say about it:

We do not offer a direct critique of a potential scenario in which a state legislature, relying on Article II [of the Constitution], seeks to assign to itself the power to directly appoint presidential electors, including after voters have cast their votes. That would, without doubt, represent one of the most high-stakes, antidemocratic, and lawless contexts in which a version—to be sure, a fringe version—of the ISLT might be deployed.

But, as far as we understand the rationales for such a move—which was reportedly considered and urged by a number of T____ advisors and supporters, including Ginni Thomas, in the aftermath of the 2020 election—they do not entail claims that state entities have misinterpreted state laws. They rest instead on the distinct claim that state legislatures’ authority to prescribe the method of appointing presidential electors is plenary and unconstrained by basic notions of due process, democracy, or constitutional protections of the franchise. As profoundly misguided as such a claim is, debunking it is not our project here. Our focus is the independent state legislature theory, not its warped variant, the anti-democratic state legislature theory—which might be better described as the state-legislature-as-the-end-of-democracy theory.

I hope the Supreme Court Six agree with the professors (and the rest of the sane legal community) when the justices rule on Moore v. Harper in their next term. Given their recent track record, there’s no guarantee that they will.

How To Fix a Lawless Supreme Court

The Judiciary Act of 1869 “provided that the Supreme Court of the United States would consist of the chief justice of the United States and eight associate justices [and] established separate judgeships for the U.S. circuit courts”.

There were nine circuit or appellate courts in 1869. The US population was around 38 million. Now there are thirteen circuits. The population is 338 million. We’ve also got a lot more laws and lawyers. A simple act of Congress, signed into law by the president, could add four justices to the Supreme Court, one for each circuit. Given the Court’s additional workload, simple arithmetic and common sense support adding four Supreme Court justices.

An added benefit would be that the president could nominate and the Senate could approve four justices who respect the Constitution and legal precedents; who don’t want to promote Christianity, patriarchy, white supremacy, plutocracy and the gun culture; and who don’t want to give corporations license to destroy the environment. In other words, seven honorable justices vs. the six dishonorable ones we have now.

I think that’s the best way to fix a lawless Supreme Court, although there are other possibilities (all, of course, assuming a Democratic House of Representatives and at least fifty Democratic senators go along).

Paul Waldman explains how states like California and New York are already working on new licensing requirements and the wide-ranging designation of what the Republican majority called “sensitive places” where guns can be prohibited:

[When you say] “the Supreme Court says I have the right to carry around this lethal instrument giving me the ability to murder anyone I encounter in an instant”, the rest of us are more than justified in responding: “Yes, that’s what the Supreme Court says. But we will take steps to protect ourselves from the danger you and other gun owners pose”….You’ll be able to get your guns, but just as you have to show you can operate a motor vehicle safely before getting a driver’s license, you’ll have to satisfy some requirements before getting a gun permit.

And just like you can’t drive your car on sidewalks or in grocery stores, you can’t take your gun anywhere you want. No doubt the Supreme Court Six will rule in favor of insanity, but, as Mr. Waldman says, some laws will survive, the legal process could take years and, meanwhile, lives will be saved.

Jamelle Bouie has written two columns on the same subject this week. From his second:

[Article 3, section 2 of] the Constitution tells us that the court’s appellate jurisdiction is subject to “such Exceptions” and “under such Regulations” as “the Congress shall make.” [But] the court’s appellate jurisdiction accounts for virtually everything it touches. And the Constitution says that Congress can regulate the nature of that jurisdiction. Congress can strip the court of its ability to hear certain cases, or it can mandate new rules for how the court decides cases where it has appellate jurisdiction.… It can even tell the court that it needs a supermajority of justices to declare a federal law or previous decision unconstitutional.

He then discusses the “Guarantee Clause” (Article 4, section 4″, which says that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”. A republic is generally considered to be a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, not by a monarch. Interestingly, courts have been reluctant to specify exactly what a republican form of government is, leaving that decision to Congress. Mr. Bouie continues:

[But we do have] Justice John Marshall Harlan’s famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which he condemns “sinister legislation” passed to “interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom, to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, … and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community.”

This, he writes, “is inconsistent with the guarantee given by the Constitution to each State of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land.”

A Congress that wanted to could, in theory, use the Guarantee Clause to defend the basic rights of citizens against overbearing and tyrannical state governments. It’s been done before. After the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress found their constitutional power to reconstruct the South chiefly in the Guarantee Clause, which they used to protect the rights of Black Americans from revanchist state governments.

 As Mr. Bouie says in his first column:

The Supreme Court does not exist above the constitutional system… In the face of a reckless, reactionary and power-hungry court, Congress has options….The power to check the Supreme Court is there, in the Constitution. The task now is to seize it.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the 50 Democrats in today’s Senate all having the courage and understanding to seize the moment and reform the Supreme Court (one of them who’s against reforming the filibuster is rumored to have killed a proposed surtax on incomes over 10 million dollars, I suppose because of her support for the working class).

But it looks like a terrible crisis may be approaching. Three law professors write in today’s Washington Post about a case the Court has agreed to hear later this year, Moore v. Harper:

Just three years ago, a 5-to-4 Supreme Court prohibited federal courts from addressing whether extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution. But don’t worry, the court said, state courts can curb the practice if they conclude it violates state constitutions.

Harper invites the Supreme Court to go back on that promise. This invitation is based on an unsupportable legal claim known as the independent state legislature theory (ISLT). The theory would disable state courts from protecting voting rights in federal elections.

In theory (and given the recklessness of the Republican majority), the Court might rule that state legislatures have absolute authority to determine how their states vote for president. State legislators could ignore the voters and appoint whoever they wanted to represent their state in the Electoral College.

The outcome in 2024 is a virtual clone of the 2020 election: Biden carries the same states he did that year and DeSantis gets [the rest]. Biden is going to the White House for another four years.

Until the announcement comes out of Georgia. Although Biden won the popular vote in Georgia, their legislature decided it can overrule the popular vote and just awarded the state’s 16 electoral votes to DeSantis.

We then hear from five other states with Republican-controlled legislatures where Biden won the majority of the vote: North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

CNN announces that DeSantis has won the election…. 

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