The Fatal Conceit

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“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”

The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.

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The Constitutional Mandate of 2014

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The political puritans who control most editorial boards will doubtless mourn the tragically short life of the ardently sought détente between the White House and the ascendant Republicans in Congress. The good-government words were trotted out the day after the election—cooperation; grease the Capitol’s rusted legislative skids; we can hold hands to pass legislation and sing folk songs while we do—only to collapse under the President’s threat of unilateral action on immigration. Good. The good-government shtick—let us, said the President, “explore where we can make progress”; Mitch McConnell chimed in that “maybe there are things we can agree on to make progress for the country”—was nonsense to begin with.

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A Constitutional Congress

In an exceptionally important article, Chris DeMuth addresses the deep pathologies of our politics. Chris has written extensively about the fateful drift into executive government, which (he cogently explains) is also a debt-ridden and lawless government (see his website here).  In this piece, he tackles a principal institutional cause of those tendencies: for Congress, legislation has become an unnatural act, to be performed only in extremis. Thus, a constitutional revival will require a cultural revival. Recovering Congress’s lost powers will require relearning legislative skills, redirecting legislators’ energies, and risking the ire of party constituencies who are unfamiliar with the obligations of…

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The Post-Constitutional Presidency Turns Inward

White House Wasghington DC view

The syllogism by which healthcare deadlines may be deferred against laws, recess appointments made without recesses, and international agreements negotiated sans treaties runs as follows: The national government is empowered to pursue the public interest. The power of the national government is vested in the person of the President.  Therefore, the President is empowered to pursue the public interest.

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The Very Definition of Tyranny

federalIt is a close contest which recent assertion of executive authority crowns the rest, but the Administration’s potential skirting of the Senate’s treaty power in negotiating an international agreement on climate change ranks high in the running. The Constitution’s explicit partnering of the Presidency and the Senate in binding the nation in global agreements, combined with the two-thirds majority needed in the upper chamber of Congress to affirm them, points to the unique dangers of cutting one institution out of the process. President Obama is not the first to do this.

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Toward a Practice of Bodycheck Constitutionalism

Routing a political dispute to the courts is the constitutional equivalent of appealing to one’s parents for relief from mistreatment by the bully on the block. How about throwing some weight instead?

Senator Ron Johnson’s fists are stuffed in his pockets as he runs across the Capitol Plaza to the pillared edifice where parental figures in black robes dispense constitutional wisdom evidently inaccessible to the rest of us. The Wisconsin Republican is suing President Obama over the administrative agreement that protects members of Congress and their staff from the legal requirement—which, by the way, was the product of asinine posturing, but which is also, you know, law, which you can tell because it bears the President’s signature—that they purchase insurance on the Obamacare exchanges.

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Obamacare, the NSA’s Metadata Collection Program, and the Separation of Powers

US-POLITICS-OBAMA-RETURNThe brilliant light that burst over the Northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital Thursday was not a sunrise. Illuminating the skies above the White House was the light bulb of discovery, in this case of an antiquated constitutional ideal: the separation of powers. The NSA metadata program having been authorized by Congress, the President announced plans to seek its reform by Congress. He is to be commended for involving the legislative branch of government in a decision involving, well, legislation.

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The Pen, the Phone—and the Constitution

President Obama and his advisors have told us that he can work around a purportedly obstructionist Congress by using what they claim is legitimate executive authority exercised by “pen and phone.” The phrase is meant to put across the idea that the president can get things done by signing off on various formal and informal executive initiatives, and cajoling Americans within government and without to act according to his vision. White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer, who is credited with inventing the phrase, recently explicated its meaning by observing that in an era of divided government, a Democratic president cannot easily get his way when Republicans control Congress. In order to “move the ball forward” on the president’s agenda, the deployment of “executive power” is required, according Pfeiffer.

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The “Law of the Land” Clause of Magna Carta, the Supremacy Clause, and Judicial Review

During a recent trip to the National Archives, I saw one of the earliest known copies of Magna Carta in existence. And I remembered one of my favorite parts of Magna Carta, the “Law of the Land” clause:

No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.

This pronouncement, that neither life, liberty, nor property can be taken except by the “judgment of his peers or by the law of the land,” is the constitutional predecessor of our Due Process Clause. This also served as a basis for some notion of judicial review. Some argue that this history provides for a substantive component of law, rather than a mere procedural aspect.

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The Disposition of Common Law: A Reply to Barry Shain and John McGinnis

If common law is judge-made law, as every law student these days is taught to think and as every political scientist who bothers to notice it presumes, then one easily enough understands why it is viewed by patriotic American citizens with suspicion. Everyone who reads the Constitution knows that the legislative power is vested in Congress, not the courts. Everyone who follows the courts knows that their constitutional decisions are treated in the press as judicial policy-making. And everyone who can connect the dots would conclude that common-law is the seductress leading judges away from their proper function of doing justice according to law in particular cases brought before them, and into the heady business of rewriting the Constitution when lobbied through the vehicle of a high-profile case.

Justice Scalia put this charge memorably in his book, A Matter of Interpretation, saying law students are taught in their common-law courses the art of “playing judge, which in turn consists of playing king—devising, out of the brilliance of one’s mind, those laws that are to govern mankind.”

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