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Review of a Review of a Review: On Barnett and Amar on Amar and “America’s Unwritten Constitution”

September 30, 2012 3 comments

Professor Randy Barnett is a right-libertarian constitutional scholar who unsuccessfully argued Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) on behalf of medical marijuana users and unsuccessfully argued Nat’l Fed’n of Indep. Bus. v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ (2012) on behalf of the healthcare law challengers,  and who has appeared in these pages before. See here; see also here. Akhil Reed Amar is a leading progressive constitutional scholar who recently published an extensive book entitled America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By. Earlier this month, Barnett published a review of Amar’s book in the Wall Street Journal. A few days later, Amar responded at length to Barnett’s review.

As illuminated in the review and the review of the review, the difference between these two hinges on what Barnett sees as Amar’s particular conception of the “living Constitution.” Barnett writes:

Now, it makes some sense to call the meaning that is implicit in the text the “unwritten Constitution.” After all, the implicit meaning is conveyed by what the text expressly says. But by including the judicially created implementing rules under this rubric, Mr. Amar suggests this doctrine is in some way the equivalent of the original, written one, and that this law of the judges can equal if not trump the law of the Founders. This is what living constitutionalism has always been about.

Mr. Amar acknowledges the problem. “Those who venture beyond the written Constitution must understand not only where to start, but also when to stop, and why,” he warns. “The unwritten Constitution should never contradict the plain meaning and central purpose . . . of an express and basic element of the written Constitution.” He adds: “The written Constitution deserves judicial fidelity, both because it is law and because, for all its flaws, it has usually been more just than the justices.” For the same reasons, he agrees that judicial precedent should not be allowed to trump or supersede the original meaning of the text. Where courts have gotten it wrong about the meaning of the text, the meaning—not the precedent—should govern. “A prior erroneous Court ruling does not properly amend the Constitution.” No matter how entrenched Jim Crow laws became after the Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, it was right to reverse that decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

This is all good and welcome. But Mr. Amar goes on to advocate an exception that is big enough to drive a living constitution through. “An erroneous precedent that improperly deviates from the written Constitution may in some circumstances stand,” he tells us, “if the precedent is later championed not merely by the court, but also by the people.” “When the citizenry has widely and enthusiastically embraced an erroneous precedent,” the courts may “view this precedent as sufficiently ratified by the American people so as to insulate it from judicial overruling.” When this happens, according to Mr. Amar, the erroneous precedent becomes part of America’s unwritten Constitution.

In other words, if what the judiciary is doing is popular enough, the unwritten Constitution promulgated by judges takes precedence over the written one. Despite the concession made to the written Constitution, this is really no more than a variation of living constitutionalism, one taken even further in the parts of the book where Mr. Amar contends that the unwritten Constitution also consists of numerous historical documents—like the Northwest Ordinance and the Gettysburg Address—along with institutional practices of Congress and the White House.

Amar sets out to refute this charge:

You wrongly suggest that this is my view: “If what the judiciary is doing is popular enough, the unwritten Constitution promulgated by judges takes precedence [according to Amar] over the written one.” I actually say something quite different, and far more nuanced: In the domain of unenumerated rights, popularity counts. Here is one key passage: “While a wave of new legislation would not ordinarily suffice to trump a precise and inflexible textual right, we must keep in mind that in this chapter we have been dealing with various rights that have not been specified in this way in the written Constitution. If the original judicial reason for deeming these rights to be full-fledged constitutional entitlements derived from the fact that American lawmakers generally respected these rights in practice, then such rights should lose their constitutional status if the legislative pattern changes dramatically. In this particular pocket of unwritten constitutionalism [my emphasis] what should ideally emerge is a genuine dialogue among judges, legislators, and ordinary citizens.” And here is another passage: “Thus, if the Court at time T1 gets the Constitution’s text and original understanding wrong and proclaims a right that does not in fact properly exist at time T1, and if the vast majority of Americans come to rejoice in this right, the Court at time T2 should affirm the originally erroneous precedent. The case, though wrong when decided, has become right thanks to an intervening change of fact — broad and deep popular endorsement — that the Constitution’s own text, via the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, endows with special significance. Note one key asymmetry: A case that construes a textual constitutional right too narrowly is different from one that construes the right too broadly. Even if both cases come to be widely embraced by the citizenry, only the rights-expanding case interacts with the text of the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments so as to specially immunize it from subsequent reversal.”

Intelligent, thoughtful scholars like Amar and Barnett bring out the best in each other, or close to it, because they are willing to engage with each other and have an exchange that both sharpens the distinctions between the two and draws each to develop and defend his views. In this case, Amar has advanced an intriguing and creative constitutional notion. Barnett challenged it, and Amar’s response further defined the concept.

Perhaps it ultimately is too simplistic, but even high-minded conservative constitutional defenders like Barnett seem to forget a basic, mechanical objection to expansive constitutional approaches like Amar’s: they are undemocratic. Functionally, what the host of progressive, “living Constitution,” dynamic, “unwritten Constitution,” etc. approaches seek is a shortcut to or a circumvention of the constitutionally prescribed amendment process, the dangers of which should be self-evident. There probably is a reason that scholars in Barnett’s position do not rely on this fundamental objection– to which Amar’s vague appeal to the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments looks like a grasping rejoinder– but it escapes me, especially because there does not seem to be an equally compelling response available to those in Amar’s position. (Note also that Amar’s qualification, that only those extra-Constitutional interpretations that expand rights are authoritative, is irrelevant in the face of a Federalist approach to liberty under the Constitution, in addition to being non-responsive to the fundamental, mechanical objection mentioned in this paragraph.)

Categories: Books, Discourse, Language, Legal