Politics & Policy

Better Off Dead

A conservative Constitution.

In Washington, conservatives and liberals are quietly loading up on drinking water, D batteries, and extra ammo, in preparation for the coming battle over judges. Ralph Neas himself has been seen by the campfire carving notches into the stock of his rifle, muttering, “Pain don’t hurt.” No one knows when the fight’s coming, but everyone knows it is. But while we’re digging fresh foxholes and listening to our Vera Lynn records, waiting for the blitzkrieg, it might be worth taking a step back to look at the big picture.

This is a battle between the forces of life and death, and, as inconvenient as it may be to the marketing efforts of abortion opponents, we are resolutely on the side of death. For we are those who believe the only good constitution is a dead constitution.

We’ve all heard about how great living constitutions are. The most extreme, but essentially representative, version of this “philosophy” can be found from the likes of Mary Frances Berry or the Los Angeles Times’s Robert Scheer. They matter-of-factly claim that without a “living” constitution, slavery and other such evils would still be constitutional. This is what leading constitutional legal theorists call “stupid.” The constitutionality of slavery, women’s suffrage and the like were decided by these things called the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Also, contra feminists, women got the vote not through a living constitution but by the mere expansion of the dead one–via the 19th Amendment.

This is not to say the “living constitution” is a myth. “It’s alive!” all right, as Dr. Frankenstein might say. Supreme Court justices have found the most interesting things swimming in the penumbras and emanations of the U.S. Constitution. The point is merely that it is batty to argue that constitutional change is impossible unless we view the Constitution as a completely viable life outside the womb of historical context and principled meaning.

The more reasonable arguments for a living constitution revolve around the view that society is changing too fast and the Constitution-as-written must grow to stay relevant. Al Gore said in 2000, “I would look for justices of the Supreme Court who understand that our Constitution is a living and breathing document, that it was intended by our founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people.”

And it’s obviously true that the Founders never envisioned a world of embryonic stem cells or retinal-scan cat doors (coming soon!). And there are good answers for what the Supreme Court should do when the Constitution is truly silent on an issue. For example: It should stay silent.

But the problem here is that these arguments are all on the opposition’s turf. Conservatives aren’t merely anti-living Constitution–we are pro-dead Constitution. In order for us to live in freedom, the Constitution must die (Faster, Federalist Society! Kill! Kill!).

The case for dead constitutions is simple. They bind us to a set of rules for everybody. Recall the recent debate about the filibuster. The most powerful argument the Democrats could muster was that if you get rid of the traditional right of the minority in the Senate to bollix up the works, the Democrats will deny that right to Republicans the next time they’re in the majority (shudder).

The Constitution works on a similar principle, as does the rule of law. Political scientists call this “precommitment.” Having a set of rules with a fixed (i.e., dead, unliving, etc.) meaning ensures that future generations will be protected from judges or politicians who’d like to rule arbitrarily. This is what Chesterton was getting at when he called tradition “democracy for the dead.” We all like to believe that we have some say about what this country will be like for our children and grandchildren. A “living Constitution” denies us our voice in this regard because it basically holds that whatever decisions we make–including the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments–can be thrown out by any five dyspeptic justices on the Supreme Court. In other words, the justices who claim the Constitution is a wild card didn’t take their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution in good faith because they couldn’t know what they were swearing to.

“What distinguishes the rule of law from the dictatorship of a shifting Supreme Court majority,” Justice Scalia wrote this week, “is the absolutely indispensable requirement that judicial opinions be grounded in consistently applied principle. That is what prevents judges from ruling now this way, now that–thumbs up or thumbs down–as their personal preferences dictate.”

The reference to “thumbs up or thumbs down” is apt. Caesars ruled in such ways. Liberal defenders of the living constitution say all of this is hysteria by right wingers. We don’t need radicals who want to “turn back the clock.” Men with a “moderate” or “judicial” temperament and a “humane vision” make the best justices.

Yeah, well they make the best Caesars, too. That’s not an argument for turning back the clock and being ruled by five of them.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


The Latest