Restoring the Constitution Is Now a Liberal Issue

Justice Stevens proposes constitutional amendments to fix right-wing judicial over-reach.

Once upon a time, judicial activism was an issue that belonged to conservatives. Unelected liberal judges, they claimed, had re-interpreted the Constitution to mean things that neither the Founders nor any amending super-majority had ever intended, and so some plain-spoken constitutional amendments were necessary to put our legal house back in order: a Human Life Amendment to undo Roe v Wade, a School Prayer Amendment to undo Engel v Vitale and Abington School District v Schemppa Flag Desecration Amendment to undo Texas v Johnson, and so on. Occasionally conservatives would propose an amendment to fix an oversight of the Founders — why didn’t they insist on term limits or a balanced budget? — but mostly the theme was: The Founders had it right, we just need to restore the Constitution to what it originally meant before liberal activist judges twisted it out of shape.

Levin’s Eleven versus Stevens’ Six. Given that history, it’s interesting to look at the 11 amendments talk-radio host Mark Levin proposed in his recent popular-on-the-Right book The Liberty Amendments. His rhetoric is still about restoration. (The book’s subtitle is “Restoring the American Republic”, and the National Review review  — from which I get the list of amendments; I haven’t read the book — styles it as “how to restore the Founders’ original vision of government”.) But only one of the 11 proposed amendments (a much-restricted Commerce Clause) is even arguably fixing a judicial misinterpretation.

Two of the 11 alter the clear intent of previous constitutional amendments: One repeals the 17th Amendment; it takes election of senators away from the people and returns the choice to the state legislatures. The other limits the income tax to 15%. That changes the 16th Amendment, which left the specifics of the income tax up to Congress, and corresponds in general with the Founders’ belief that regular elections are sufficient to restrain excessive taxation*.

But the other eight “liberty amendments” fix what Levin seems to regard as the Founders’ mistakes: They didn’t foresee what future generations would do within their Constitution, and so they should have locked things down better. Levin’s Founder-correcting amendments include: term limits on Congress and the Supreme Court, allowing 3/5ths of Congress to overturn a Supreme Court decision**, allowing 3/5ths of the states to reverse an act of Congress, requiring an across-the-board 5% budget cut if Congress fails to enact a balanced budget (not exceeding 17.5% of GDP) by a deadline, requiring government compensation for regulations that affect property values, requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship to vote, requiring Congress to reauthorize each federal agency every three years, and allowing 2/3rds of the states to approve a constitutional amendment without Congress’ involvement.

Other than photo ID, these are all things the Founders could have written into the Constitution, but they didn’t. And that should tell you something: Levin’s book isn’t about restoring anybody’s “original vision”; it’s about radically reshaping the American government into something it never was and was never intended to be.

Contrast this with the proposals in retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ new book Six Amendments. Only one of Stevens’ amendments — adding a phrase to the Eighth Amendment to define the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment — would change what Stevens’ argues was the Founders’ original intent. (Hanging and the firing squad were common in the founding era.) He composed the other five to reverse the drift of wrong-headed judicial interpretation.

Anti-Commandeering and Sovereign Immunity. Two of Justice Stevens’ amendments address somewhat technical issues that are not widely debated by the general public. (So skip this section if you’re not interested.) In the Supremacy Clause (Article VI) the Constitution specifically says that federal laws outrank state laws and “the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” In the 1997 case Printz v United States, the Court interpreted this to mean that only judges are so bound, and that Congress is prohibited from (in Stevens’ words) “requiring state officials to perform federal duties”. Stevens points to the role state officials were assigned in the World War I draft as an example of “historical events in which the federal government relied on state officials to carry out federal programs” without lawsuits or other protests from the states.

The fact that throughout our history the federal government has required the states to play a critical role in providing the manpower to fight our wars demonstrates that the anti-commandeering rule was invented by the Printz majority.

Stevens’ amendment would change the Supremacy Clause’s “Judges” to “Judges and other public officials”.

Sovereign immunity is a principle we inherit from English common law, which said that the king could not be sued without his consent. After the Supreme Court ruled in Chisolm v Georgia in 1793 that the states did not have sovereign immunity, the Eleventh Amendment was passed:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Through Reconstruction, this amendment was interpreted to prevent federal courts from ordering states to pay their debts to citizens of other states. It did not begin to become a blanket sovereign immunity until the 1890 decision Hans v. Louisiana. Stevens thinks that (and subsequent decisions relying on it) was a mistake, and would fix it by this amendment:

Neither the Tenth Amendment , the Eleventh Amendment, nor any other provision of this Constitution, shall be construed to provide any state, state agency, or state officer with an immunity from liability for violating any act of Congress, or any provision of this Constitution.

Gerrymandering. Gerrymandering means drawing the boundaries of districts of representation in an attempt to pre-determine the results of elections. (The current Republican majority in the House is largely the result of gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans control 13 of the 18 congressional seats despite getting fewer total votes than Democrats.) Wisconsin Republican Congressman Reid Ribble described the situation like this:

I think the American people have a misperception of elections. We’re at a place now in this country where voters are not picking their representatives anymore. Representatives, through the gerrymandering process and redistricting, are picking their voters.

Current Supreme Court interpretation says that gerrymandering is illegal if its purpose is to disenfranchise a minority group — by, say, dividing up the black neighborhoods so that no city council district has a black majority — but that the courts can’t touch a gerrymander whose purpose is to gain advantage for one political party over another. In an era in which Republicans are increasingly becoming the “white man’s party“, it can be hard to tell the difference: Does Texas’ map under-represent Hispanic Democrats because they’re Hispanic, or because they’re Democrats?

That conundrum is an artifact of judicial interpretation rather than anything in the Constitution. Whether your right to choose your representatives is being undermined because of your ethnicity or your party, you’re still not getting the “equal protection of the laws” citizens are promised by the 14th Amendment, or the “Republican Form of Government” promised in Article IV, Section 4. In order to get back to the Founders’ one-man-one-vote vision, Stevens proposes:

Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political, or historic boundaries or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.

Campaign Finance. You can’t blame the Founders for not addressing campaign finance or corporate rights, because neither was a major part of their world***. But Congress passed and Teddy Roosevelt signed a ban on corporate campaign contributions back in 1907, and it wasn’t particularly controversial.

For decades thereafter, Congress, most state legislators, and members of the Supreme Court apparently assumed that it was both wise and constitutional to impose greater restrictions on corporate participation in elections than on individuals.

That position was supported by a unanimous Supreme Court decision in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee as recently as 1982. But then conservative justices started inventing the corporate right to free speech and discounting the corrupting effect of large contributions.

Such was the consensus that the first opinions written by any member of the Court arguing that corporate expenditures in election campaigns are entitled to the same constitutional protection as the activity of individual voters were not announced until 1990.

But that recent legal development is now the majority opinion on the Court. A similar evolution has happened with regard to large contributions from rich individuals. The Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions have moved towards a money-is-speech doctrine that has a perverse effect on democracy.

Unlimited expenditures by nonvoters in election campaigns —whether made by nonresidents in state elections or by Canadian citizens, by corporations, by unions, or by trade associations in federal elections —impairs the process of democratic self-government by making successful candidates more beholden to the nonvoters who supported them than to the voters who elected them.

Stevens focuses his free-speech concern on making sure that voters have access to all relevant information, not on the right of the rich to shout louder than everyone else. So while he worries that limits on campaign contributions might be set too low, he sees no problems with limits in general. He points to the limits the Court itself sets on the arguments it hears:

There are, however, situations in which rules limiting the quantity of speech are justified by the interest in giving adversaries an equal opportunity to persuade a decision maker to reach one conclusion rather than another. The most obvious example is an argument before the Supreme Court. Firm rules limit the quantity of both oral and written speech that the parties may present to the decision maker. Those rules assume that the total quantity permitted is sufficient to enable the Court to reach the right conclusion; they are adequately justified by interests in fairness and efficiency.

And so he proposes this amendment:

Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.

Gun control. The Second Amendment is often abbreviated as “the right to bear arms”. But that right is set in a context:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

In the era of the Founders, this had nothing to do with sovereign citizens arming themselves in case they need to overthrow the government, as gun-rights enthusiasts sometimes claim today, twisting Founder quotes about arms and tyranny out of their original context.

You need to remember the security situation at the time: The federal standing army was miniscule, while state and local governments faced numerous local threats — armed gangs and Indian raids on the frontier, pirates on the coast, and slave rebellions in the South. Those threats were handled by citizen militias who were authorized and organized by the state and local governments. They were not self-appointed gangs of armed vigilantes or revolutionaries, like those currently at the Bundy Ranch.

The Founders worried about the possibility that the federal government might disarm the militias and create a need for an internal standing army, which then might either become the enforcers of a federal tyranny or arbiters of local laws. (For example, an abolitionist president might drag his feet about putting down a slave revolt.) The purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state and local governments would maintain the right to their own law enforcement, rather than depending on a federal army.

The Second Amendment was understood that way for two centuries.

For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: first, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. … During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.

But then the NRA perpetrated what Chief Justice Burger called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” In the Heller decision of 2008, the Roberts Court signed on to that fraud. Out of thin air, it decided that the Second Amendment protects weapons “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes” from regulation by state and local governments. (Heller is an example of a Roberts-Court phenomenon I noted last month: the covert reversal. In practice, Heller reverses the Miller decision of 1939, but the Court never admits that it is doing so.)

As a result of the rulings in Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, which was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their power to ensure that their militias were “well regulated,” has given federal judges the ultimate power to determine the validity of state regulations of both civilian and militia-related uses of arms.

He fixes it by changing the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear Arms” to “right to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia”.

Summary. The role of Constitution-amender is so powerful that it’s easy to be corrupted by it. At least in fantasy, you are re-writing the supreme law of the land, so it’s tempting to get all your digs in. Bad amendments are targeted at specific current outcomes that get over-specified, like Levin’s 15% income tax or limiting government spending to 17.5% of GDP. (Who knows what “income” or “GDP” will even mean 100 years from now?)

With that in mind, I find Justice Stevens amendments not just well intentioned and well thought out, but elegantly written. They are not wordy, they don’t create arbitrary limits and rules, they don’t invent procedures that have no precedent in American history, and they leave future Congresses and judges the room to do their jobs. I think I could support all of them.

* The taxing clause in Article I Section 8 (“The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes”) is one of the most open-ended grants of power in the Constitution. Interestingly, the 16th Amendment was itself intended to overrule the Supreme Court’s limitation on that power. The first income tax was passed to finance the Civil War in 1861, but the Court found such a tax unconstitutional in the 1895 case Pollock v Farmers’ Loan and Trust, leading to the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1909 and its ratification in 1913.

** It’s widely believed on the Right that the Supreme Court’s power to declare a law unconstitutional was created out of thin air by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v Madison in 1803, and so represents a judicial usurpation that the Founders never foresaw. Consequently, allowing Congress to reverse a Supreme Court decision might be seen as restoring the Founders’ vision. This is all completely false. Federalist #78, written by Alexander Hamilton in 1788 while the Constitution was being ratified, says:

The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. … [W]henever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former.

Hamilton went on to explain why the Founders had rejected one of Levin’s other proposals, term limits for the Supreme Court:

If, then, the courts of justice are to be considered as the bulwarks of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments, this consideration will afford a strong argument for the permanent tenure of judicial offices, since nothing will contribute so much as this to that independent spirit in the judges which must be essential to the faithful performance of so arduous a duty.

*** But you should read Thom Hartman’s account of the Boston Tea Party as an anti-corporate (rather than anti-government) protest.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • MDavis  On May 11, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    “Justice Stevens proposes constitutional amendments to fix right-wing judicial over-reach.”

    You DO realize that what you call “right wing overreach” is literally your opinion right?

    • weeklysift  On May 12, 2014 at 7:11 am

      Actually it’s Justice Stevens’ opinion, and he backs it up pretty well in the book.


  • By The New Black | The Weekly Sift on May 5, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Restoring the Constitution is Now a Liberal Issue” and “No, Donald Sterling Isn’t the […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2014 | The Weekly Sift on December 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

    […] One book review that did get a lot of attention this year was of Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men. “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” was at least partially a review of Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Justice John Paul Stevens Six Amendments got reviewed in “Restoring the Constitution is Now a Liberal Issue“. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: