We are about to be inundated with expert opinions about the U.S.
Constitution. With the announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice John
Paul Stevens and the inevitable fight over whoever President Obama
nominates to replace him, terms like activist judge and strict
constructionist will be in the news.
Cable talk shows will be awash with folks who pretend to not only know
who the president will appoint but how that nominee will judge a wide
variety of social and legal issues. They are playing a game of
political posturing and they will, for the most part, be full of crap.
The people who claim to have some inherent knowledge of what is and
what is not constitutional have always been something of a mystery.
Real constitutional experts know its a fools game to try and handicap
what our courts will strike down or uphold as constitutional.
Thats really the point. The constitution itself spells out who gets
to decide federal appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. The
random opinions of the rest of us dont really matter. That doesnt
stop us from endlessly debating specific issues; but in the end those
debates are moot. We never know for sure how any new justice will rule
Earl Warren was the Republican governor of California, appointed by
Dwight Eisenhower as a centrist. Justice Stevens was also a
Republican, appointed by Gerald Ford. Neither turned out to be what
they were assumed to be.
None of this will stop us from speculating, of course. Republicans
will decry the appointment of what they will call an activist judge,
someone they claim will make new laws from the bench absent any
Constitutional foundation. They will demand the appointment of a
constructionist who will follow the original intent of the framers of
Whether or not the decision of some federal judge plows new ground and
creates new law is open to interpretation and robust debate. Thats
only fair. But the notion that we can find some obscure quote from one
of the Constitutions authors in some dusty file, take it out of
context and declare it to be proof of original intent is peculiar at
best. Its considerably easier to simply read the Constitution.
Intent is pretty much spelled out, in black and white, for all of us to
see. We need not guess.
Given the specifics of the Constitution first ratified and yet to be
amended, we can presume the so-called constructionists dont really
want to revert to the framers original intent.
Slavery, for example, was perfectly legal. For the purposes of
taxation and the apportionment of Representatives, a slave was counted
as three-fifths of a person. This was clearly their original intent
since they spelled it out right there in Article 1, Section 2. Slavery
was not abolished until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, long
after the original authors and their intent were dead. Freed slaves
and African-Americans who were never enslaved werent allowed to vote
until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870.
Women were not allowed to vote in the original document, so we have to
assume our Founders did not want them to. The long fight for womens
suffrage did not bear fruit until the 19th amendment was ratified in
The original intent of the Constitution was that we shouldnt vote for
our U.S. Senators, either. Senators were appointed by state
legislatures until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.
Nor did the original document include any of the Bill of Rights no
freedom of speech or the press or religion or the right to peacefully
assemble or to be free from self-incrimination or free from unreasonable
searches and seizures or any of the rest of what we now take for
granted. Our first Congress, in their wisdom and foresight, offered the
Bill of Rights, which went into force in 1791. But none of it was part
of the original Constitution.
Part of the genius of this document, unlike anything that had ever been
created by any country previously, was the understanding that it could
not be etched in stone and stay forever unchanged. They understood our
country would grow and change and the Constitution by which we are
governed would have to do likewise. Part of the brilliance of the
framers was the understanding this was a living document not welded to
their original intent. They also made sure changing it could not
happen frivolously so creating amendments is difficult, to avoid the
whims of political movements du jour. That explains why weve only
seen fit to make changes 27 times in 223 years.
The United States Constitution was unique when first drafted and has
been, over the course of more than two centuries, molded into a
document that is still the standard for free people everywhere. That
there are those who misrepresent it for their own political gain, who
claim knowledge they cannot possess and who impugn the character of
members of our judiciary with whom they dont agree, dishonor our
Constitution with a cynicism it does not deserve. And, surely, that
was not the original intent of the authors.
Stephen Tuttle is a political consultant who formerly wrote for the