Like Mark Pulliam, I think a lot about Robert Bork: anyone who teaches either antitrust law or constitutional law should, and I teach both. He was great scholar. In particular, he powerfully challenged the conventional views of living constitutionalism that dominated his time and begin to make the intellectual case for originalism. But it was only the beginning of the case and does not mark the best understanding of originalism today.
Today the Wall Street Journal published my review of Richard Epstein’s The Classical Liberal Constitution. I found much to like in the book, but believed that it did not succeed at its central claim—showing that Constitution is in essence applied classical liberalism. That claim is crucial to the ultimate persuasiveness of his book, because Epstein believes that classical liberalism should guide the interpretation of provisions that he finds ambiguous and tells us which precedents should be keep and which should be discarded. Thus, for Epstein even if a precedent did not capture the text of the Constitution, it should generally be honored if it advances classical liberalism.
I compared the book to the best book on constitutional theory of the twentieth century, Democracy and Distrust by John Hart Ely, for its ambition and relentlessness of argument. But it shares a similar flaw with that magisterial work. Ely argues that the constitutional interpretation should be focused on promoting and reinforcing democracy. But he never shows that democracy was the single sun around which the Constitution orbited. Similarly, Epstein fails to show that classical liberalism is the skeleton key that unlocks the meaning of the Constitution.
As I say in the review:
To be sure, the Framers were very much aware of Locke, and liberalism is central to the Constitution’s meaning. But Mr. Epstein never shows that Locke’s liberalism tracks his own or that it was the dominant influence on the Framers. Other influences included Montesquieu, who stressed a balance of powers, and some of the Framers adhered to the civic-republican tradition, whereby government was to cultivate virtue. What is more, the Constitution reflects the lived experience of Americans and their forebears. The Bill of Rights derives in part from quarrels among English religious sects and the abuses of the Star Chamber. The very wording of the Bill of Rights often expresses this long history.
As I have discussed in previous posts and a recent paper, public choice has freed originalism from the countermajoritarian difficulty by showing that it is an interpretative method well suited to enforce a constitution that is in its formation and essence anti-majoritarian. But many scholars are resistant to the truths of public choice and continue to be attracted to the essentially majoritarian paradigm of Progressivism. Their difficulty is that the modern Court has often invalidated the actions of majorities without any substantial support in the text of the Constitution. Thus, scholars have attempted to square the circle to preserve the Progressive paradigm by showing that the Court’s actions can meet some definition of majoritarianism and do not reflect judicial usurpation of the political process. Here is a thumbnail sketch (and critique) of three of the most prominent attempts.
John Hart Ely and Democracy and Distrust. In my view the strongest way of meeting the countermajoritarian difficulty is John Hart Ely’s Democracy and Distrust. Ely dismisses clause bound originalism but sees judicial review as justified when it reinforces and refines democratic outputs. Thus, anti-discrimination principles are to be enforced, because they prevent the political process from being distorted by racial and gender stereotypes. Similarly, free speech permits people to deliberate and thus reinforces democracy.
But Democracy and Distrust famously does not justify Griswold or Roe v. Wade, because it is difficult to see these decisions as reinforcing the democratic process rather than providing substantive rights. Thus progressives who today almost universally want to preserve a jurisprudence that expands what they consider to be core human rights need other theories to address the countermajoritarian difficulty.
The central question of constitutional law is the role of the Supreme Court in our system of government. Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By argues for a role even more expansive, if possible, than at present.
Constitutional law is the product of judicial review, the power of judges to invalidate policy choices made by other officials of government on the ground that they are prohibited by the Constitution. Although the power obviously creates the danger of making the judiciary — more specifically, the Supreme Court — superior to the legislature and the ultimate lawgiver, it is not explicably provided for in the Constitution. It was established and defended by Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison, however, on the ground that it is inherent in a written constitution. This was not correct in that other nations had and have written constitutions without judicial review. Limiting judicial review to enforcement of a written Constitution does, however, serve the purpose of making it a tool of constitutionalism rather than simply a transference of policymaking power to judges. America’s Unwritten Constitution rejects that limitation.
This post consists of two parts: (1) thoughts prompted by re-reading John Hart Ely’s Democracy and Distrust; and (2) something resembling a meditation on the Guaranty Clause. As the reader will see, I am not able to articulate the connection between the two topics in anything but the most general terms. I hope others may be able to do so.