Commentary Magazine


Topic: The Supreme Court Review

Pity the Constitution

To the century-old debate about whether the Constitution is “living” or static, we may now add yet another argument, an even more woeful assault on the founding document of our country. David Strauss — who claims to be an eminent constitutional-law scholar — views the Constitution as a mere Rorschach test for the collective psyche of the polis.

Writing in an unlikely forum, Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish subjects Strauss’s new book to a much-needed vivisection. He first boils down Strauss’s thesis:

The question is not, as Strauss would have it, is this proffered meaning in the Constitution? The question is, can a chain of inference be formed that links this meaning to something the framers can be said to have intended? …

[Strauss states that the] “written Constitution is valuable because it provides a common ground among the American people.” But as it turns out, common ground is provided not by the Constitution itself but by a survey of “widely acceptable” meanings, which are then attributed to the Constitution as if it were their source. The text, Strauss advises, “should be interpreted in the way best calculated to provide a point on which people can agree.” The way to do this, he adds, is to give the words of the Constitution “their ordinary current meaning — even in preference to the meaning the framers understood.” After all, “the original meaning might be obscure and controversial.”

Believe it or not, even the New York Times can’t stomach Strauss’s assertion:

This is an amazing statement. The Constitution becomes common ground when it becomes a vessel for meanings it does not contain. It acts as a binding agent as long as you don’t take it seriously but take care to pretend that you do. As long as an interpretation of the Constitution “can plausibly say that it honors the text, the text can continue to serve the common ground function.” … The incoherence of what Strauss is urging is spectacularly displayed in a single sentence. Given the importance of common ground, “it makes sense,” he says, “to adhere to the text even while disregarding the framers’ intentions.”

Fish concludes that “if this is what the ‘living Constitution’ is — a Constitution produced and reproduced by serial acts of infidelity — I hereby cast a vote for the real one.”

Theoretically, Strauss is one step further from what a “living Constitution” is. The concept’s original adherents, if they may be taken at their word, saw the “living Constitution” as a way to pull the text into the modern age, amplifying its meaning, not undermining it. Among angels, this may have worked. But Strauss shows what implementing a “living Constitution” looks like in the real world.

His conclusion is fiddlesticks but not for lack of logic. There’s a perfectly reasonable devolution from an established Constitution to a living Constitution to a populist legal system. The question becomes, if the Constitution is “living,” who’s breathing life into it? And with what intentions?

Strauss’s book reminds us that the debate about the Constitution is far from theoretical, and the stakes are high. In fact, Strauss has already held positions high enough to promote his thesis. He was special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was the assistant solicitor general. He has argued many times before the Supreme Court, and he edits the Supreme Court Review.

Furthermore, one might find it disconcerting to know that Strauss has been singing former colleague Elena Kagan’s praises across the media. He has said: “Elena is a resolutely non-ideological person. She is great at asking hard questions. She does not approach issues with preconceived views; she tries to figure things out. She is practical and tough-minded.”

Much has yet to be determined about what Elena Kagan thinks. But if she, like her colleague, believes in a living Constitution, are we prepared to accept the interpretation with which she animates it on our behalf?

To the century-old debate about whether the Constitution is “living” or static, we may now add yet another argument, an even more woeful assault on the founding document of our country. David Strauss — who claims to be an eminent constitutional-law scholar — views the Constitution as a mere Rorschach test for the collective psyche of the polis.

Writing in an unlikely forum, Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish subjects Strauss’s new book to a much-needed vivisection. He first boils down Strauss’s thesis:

The question is not, as Strauss would have it, is this proffered meaning in the Constitution? The question is, can a chain of inference be formed that links this meaning to something the framers can be said to have intended? …

[Strauss states that the] “written Constitution is valuable because it provides a common ground among the American people.” But as it turns out, common ground is provided not by the Constitution itself but by a survey of “widely acceptable” meanings, which are then attributed to the Constitution as if it were their source. The text, Strauss advises, “should be interpreted in the way best calculated to provide a point on which people can agree.” The way to do this, he adds, is to give the words of the Constitution “their ordinary current meaning — even in preference to the meaning the framers understood.” After all, “the original meaning might be obscure and controversial.”

Believe it or not, even the New York Times can’t stomach Strauss’s assertion:

This is an amazing statement. The Constitution becomes common ground when it becomes a vessel for meanings it does not contain. It acts as a binding agent as long as you don’t take it seriously but take care to pretend that you do. As long as an interpretation of the Constitution “can plausibly say that it honors the text, the text can continue to serve the common ground function.” … The incoherence of what Strauss is urging is spectacularly displayed in a single sentence. Given the importance of common ground, “it makes sense,” he says, “to adhere to the text even while disregarding the framers’ intentions.”

Fish concludes that “if this is what the ‘living Constitution’ is — a Constitution produced and reproduced by serial acts of infidelity — I hereby cast a vote for the real one.”

Theoretically, Strauss is one step further from what a “living Constitution” is. The concept’s original adherents, if they may be taken at their word, saw the “living Constitution” as a way to pull the text into the modern age, amplifying its meaning, not undermining it. Among angels, this may have worked. But Strauss shows what implementing a “living Constitution” looks like in the real world.

His conclusion is fiddlesticks but not for lack of logic. There’s a perfectly reasonable devolution from an established Constitution to a living Constitution to a populist legal system. The question becomes, if the Constitution is “living,” who’s breathing life into it? And with what intentions?

Strauss’s book reminds us that the debate about the Constitution is far from theoretical, and the stakes are high. In fact, Strauss has already held positions high enough to promote his thesis. He was special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was the assistant solicitor general. He has argued many times before the Supreme Court, and he edits the Supreme Court Review.

Furthermore, one might find it disconcerting to know that Strauss has been singing former colleague Elena Kagan’s praises across the media. He has said: “Elena is a resolutely non-ideological person. She is great at asking hard questions. She does not approach issues with preconceived views; she tries to figure things out. She is practical and tough-minded.”

Much has yet to be determined about what Elena Kagan thinks. But if she, like her colleague, believes in a living Constitution, are we prepared to accept the interpretation with which she animates it on our behalf?

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Elena Kagan — Stealth Nominee?

Elena Kagan is the prohibitive favorite for the Supreme Court. She has made it through one confirmation hearing for her current post as solicitor general and possesses academic credentials, a reputation for collegiality with conservatives, and a limited paper trail. Moreover, she is the closest we have to a stealth candidate among the front-runners. As Tom Goldstein notes, “I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”

Casual observers assume that a dean of Harvard Law School and a domestic-policy aide in the Clinton administration must have a sizable body of work reflecting her legal views. But not so. Paul Campos has read all there is to read — and it’s not much:

Yesterday, I read everything Elena Kagan has ever published. It didn’t take long: in the nearly 20 years since Kagan became a law professor, she’s published very little academic scholarship—three law review articles, along with a couple of shorter essays and two brief book reviews. Somehow, Kagan got tenure at Chicago in 1995 on the basis of a single article in The Supreme Court Review—a scholarly journal edited by Chicago’s own faculty—and a short essay in the school’s law review. She then worked in the Clinton administration for several years before joining Harvard as a visiting professor of law in 1999. While there she published two articles, but since receiving tenure from Harvard in 2001 (and becoming dean of the law school in 2003) she has published nothing. (While it’s true law school deans often do little scholarly writing during their terms, Kagan is remarkable both for how little she did in the dozen years prior to becoming Harvard’s dean, and for never having written anything intended for a more general audience, either before or after taking that position.)

Campos goes so far as to suggest that Kagan is a Harriet Miers type – minus the cronyism. He concludes:

Indeed, the most impressive thing about Kagan is that she seems to have a remarkable ability to ingratiate herself with influential people across the ideological spectrum. … As a private lawyer, Miers, after all, had a fairly good excuse for having no public views on the great legal issues of our day. For most of the past 20 years, Kagan’s job has been to both develop and publicize such views. That she has nevertheless managed to almost completely avoid doing so is rather extraordinary.

What to make of this? Well, if a Republican president were to select a person with such a skimpy written record, conservatives would be (and were with the Miers nomination) rightfully worried. But do the same concerns — ideological infidelity, intellectual mediocrity — really apply to Kagan? Let’s be honest, it works differently for liberals. Very few are tempted to moderate their views and slide rightward, while Republican-nominated jurists (David Souter, John Paul Stevens) have a history of “disappointing” their side. And while no one has claimed that Kagan has achieved greatness in legal scholarship, the assumption — rightly or not — is that the dean of one of the top law schools in the country must have some intellectual wattage. Nevertheless, liberal legal activists might have reason to be a bit nervous — after all, would a justice who lacks judicial chops be the best choice to sway Justice Kennedy on those all-important 5-to-4 decisions? Is she really the one who is going to go toe-to-toe with Justice Scalia? There is some risk there if Obama were to choose a lesser known quantity than an appellate judge such as Diane Wood.

Nevertheless, there are clues as to Kagan’s legal mindset. Indeed, one such clue is also her primary shortcoming. Stuart Taylor explains:

The one issue that could slow down Kagan’s confirmation is her impassioned effort as dean to bar military recruiting on campus to protest the law banning openly gay people from serving in the military, which she called “a moral injustice of the first order.”

Kagan carried this opposition to the point of joining a 2005 amicus brief whose strained interpretation of a law denying federal funding to institutions that discriminate against military recruiters would — the Supreme Court held in an 8-0 decision — have rendered the statute “largely meaningless.” This helps to explain the 31 Republican votes against confirming her as solicitor general.

Well, that might be enough to lose her a batch of GOP Senate votes, but would it derail her nomination? Probably not. And it might just give enough comfort to the left that Kagan is a “safe” pick for them.

Elena Kagan is the prohibitive favorite for the Supreme Court. She has made it through one confirmation hearing for her current post as solicitor general and possesses academic credentials, a reputation for collegiality with conservatives, and a limited paper trail. Moreover, she is the closest we have to a stealth candidate among the front-runners. As Tom Goldstein notes, “I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”

Casual observers assume that a dean of Harvard Law School and a domestic-policy aide in the Clinton administration must have a sizable body of work reflecting her legal views. But not so. Paul Campos has read all there is to read — and it’s not much:

Yesterday, I read everything Elena Kagan has ever published. It didn’t take long: in the nearly 20 years since Kagan became a law professor, she’s published very little academic scholarship—three law review articles, along with a couple of shorter essays and two brief book reviews. Somehow, Kagan got tenure at Chicago in 1995 on the basis of a single article in The Supreme Court Review—a scholarly journal edited by Chicago’s own faculty—and a short essay in the school’s law review. She then worked in the Clinton administration for several years before joining Harvard as a visiting professor of law in 1999. While there she published two articles, but since receiving tenure from Harvard in 2001 (and becoming dean of the law school in 2003) she has published nothing. (While it’s true law school deans often do little scholarly writing during their terms, Kagan is remarkable both for how little she did in the dozen years prior to becoming Harvard’s dean, and for never having written anything intended for a more general audience, either before or after taking that position.)

Campos goes so far as to suggest that Kagan is a Harriet Miers type – minus the cronyism. He concludes:

Indeed, the most impressive thing about Kagan is that she seems to have a remarkable ability to ingratiate herself with influential people across the ideological spectrum. … As a private lawyer, Miers, after all, had a fairly good excuse for having no public views on the great legal issues of our day. For most of the past 20 years, Kagan’s job has been to both develop and publicize such views. That she has nevertheless managed to almost completely avoid doing so is rather extraordinary.

What to make of this? Well, if a Republican president were to select a person with such a skimpy written record, conservatives would be (and were with the Miers nomination) rightfully worried. But do the same concerns — ideological infidelity, intellectual mediocrity — really apply to Kagan? Let’s be honest, it works differently for liberals. Very few are tempted to moderate their views and slide rightward, while Republican-nominated jurists (David Souter, John Paul Stevens) have a history of “disappointing” their side. And while no one has claimed that Kagan has achieved greatness in legal scholarship, the assumption — rightly or not — is that the dean of one of the top law schools in the country must have some intellectual wattage. Nevertheless, liberal legal activists might have reason to be a bit nervous — after all, would a justice who lacks judicial chops be the best choice to sway Justice Kennedy on those all-important 5-to-4 decisions? Is she really the one who is going to go toe-to-toe with Justice Scalia? There is some risk there if Obama were to choose a lesser known quantity than an appellate judge such as Diane Wood.

Nevertheless, there are clues as to Kagan’s legal mindset. Indeed, one such clue is also her primary shortcoming. Stuart Taylor explains:

The one issue that could slow down Kagan’s confirmation is her impassioned effort as dean to bar military recruiting on campus to protest the law banning openly gay people from serving in the military, which she called “a moral injustice of the first order.”

Kagan carried this opposition to the point of joining a 2005 amicus brief whose strained interpretation of a law denying federal funding to institutions that discriminate against military recruiters would — the Supreme Court held in an 8-0 decision — have rendered the statute “largely meaningless.” This helps to explain the 31 Republican votes against confirming her as solicitor general.

Well, that might be enough to lose her a batch of GOP Senate votes, but would it derail her nomination? Probably not. And it might just give enough comfort to the left that Kagan is a “safe” pick for them.

Read Less