Obama: Constitution Is Living Document

This might be a good time to remember what Mr. Obama thinks about the Constitution.

From his second autobiography, The Audacity Of Hope, pp 52 –54:

So if we all believe in individual liberty and we all believe in these rules of democracy, what is the modern argument between conservatives and liberals really about? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that much of the time we are arguing about results—the actual decisions that the courts and the legislature make about the profound and difficult issues that help shape our lives. Should we let teachers lead our children in prayer and leave open the possibility that the minority faiths of some children are diminished? Or do we forbid such prayer and force parents of faith to hand over their children to a secular world eight hours a day? Is a university being fair by taking the history of racial discrimination and exclusion into account when filling a limited number of slots in its medical school? Or does fairness demand that universities treat every applicant in a color-blind fashion? More often than not, if a particular procedural rule—the right to filibuster, say, or the Supreme Court’s approach to constitutional interpretation—helps us win the argument and yields the outcome we want, then for that moment at least we think it’s a pretty good rule. If it doesn’t help us win, then we tend not to like it so much.

In that sense, my colleague in the Illinois legislature was right when he said that today’s constitutional arguments can’t be separated from politics. But there’s more than just outcomes at stake in our current debates about the Constitution and the proper role of the courts. We’re also arguing about how to argue—the means, in a big, crowded, noisy democracy, of settling our disputes peacefully. We want to get our way, but most of us also recognize the need for consistency, predictability, and coherence. We want the rules governing our democracy to be fair.

And so, when we get in a tussle about abortion or flag burning, we appeal to a higher authority—the Founding Fathers and the Constitution’s ratifiers—to give us more direction. Some, like Justice Scalia, conclude that the original understanding must be followed and that if we strictly obey this rule, then democracy is respected.

Others, like Justice Breyer, don’t dispute that the original meaning of constitutional provisions matters. But they insist that sometimes the original understanding can take you only so far—that on the truly hard cases, the truly big arguments, we have to take context, history, and the practical outcomes of a decision into account. According to this view, the Founding Fathers and original ratifiers have told us how to think but are no longer around to tell us what to think. We are on our own, and have only our own reason and our judgment to rely on.

Who’s right? I’m not unsympathetic to Justice Scalia’s position; after all, in many cases the language of the Constitution is perfectly clear and can be strictly applied. We don’t have to interpret how often elections are held, for example, or how old a president must be, and whenever possible judges should hew as closely as possible to the clear meaning of the text.

Moreover, I understand the strict constructionists’ reverence for the Founders; indeed, I’ve often wondered whether the Founders themselves recognized at the time the scope of their accomplishment. They didn’t simply design the Constitution in the wake of revolution; they wrote the Federalist Papers to support it, shepherded the document through ratification, and amended it with the Bill of Rights—all in the span of a few short years. As we read these documents, they seem so incredibly right that it’s easy to believe they are the result of natural law if not divine inspiration. So I appreciate the temptation on the part of Justice Scalia and others to assume our democracy should be treated as fixed and unwavering; the fundamentalist faith that if the original understanding of the Constitution is followed without question or deviation, and if we remain true to the rules that the Founders set forth, as they intended, then we will be rewarded and all good will flow.

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Justice Breyer’s view of the Constitution—that it is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world.

How could it be otherwise? The constitutional text provides us with the general principle that we aren’t subject to unreasonable searches by the government. It can’t tell us the Founders’ specific views on the reasonableness of an NSA computer data-mining operation. The constitutional text tells us that freedom of speech must be protected, but it doesn’t tell us what such freedom means in the context of the Internet.

Moreover, while much of the Constitution’s language is clear and can be strictly applied, our understanding of many of its most important provisions—like the due process clause and the equal protection clause—has evolved greatly over time. The original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, would certainly allow sex discrimination and might even allow racial segregation—an understanding of equality to which few of us would want to return.

Finally, anyone looking to resolve our modern constitutional dispute through strict construction has one more problem: The Founders and ratifiers themselves disagreed profoundly, vehemently, on the meaning of their masterpiece. Before the ink on the constitutional parchment was dry, arguments had erupted, not just about minor provisions but about first principles, not just between peripheral figures but within the Revolution’s very core. They argued about how much power the national government should have—to regulate the economy, to supersede state laws, to form a standing army, or to assume debt. They argued about the president’s role in establishing treaties with foreign powers, and about the Supreme Court’s role in determining the law. They argued about the meaning of such basic rights as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and on several occasions, when the fragile state seemed threatened, they were not averse to ignoring those rights altogether. Given what we know of this scrum, with all its shifting alliances and occasionally underhanded tactics, it is unrealistic to believe that a judge, two hundred years later, can somehow discern the original intent of the Founders or ratifiers.

So naturally he would not have a problem with judges making policy – and law – from the bench.


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