Souter: What Constitution? Just Listen To Us

June 18, 2010 at 08:27 (Constitution/Constitutional Issues, General Stupidity, Supreme Court)

How absolutely frightening.

Our perennial national debate over how to interpret the Constitution will soon be renewed, as the Senate considers the Supreme Court nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

In fact, former Justice David Souter set the discussion in motion last month in a Harvard commencement address— arguing that seeking to resolve difficult constitutional questions based on an honest effort to construe that document’s words (whether broadly or narrowly) “has only a tenuous connection to reality” and leads to bad decisions.

Souter’s candor is commendable but also genuinely troubling — the practical equivalent of a retired cardinal announcing that religion is an opiate for the masses. Even judges who quietly believe that the Constitution is an irredeemably reactionary document, which they must pull and push into the 21st century, are not generally so bold, preferring instead to cloak their innovations with references to the Constitution’s text.

Souter, however, argues that the Constitution is too full of ambiguous language and competing imperatives to sustain a textual approach to its interpretation. Like the people it serves — who throughout their history have demanded security and liberty, liberty and equality — the Constitution tries to have it both ways and is too often irreconcilable.

It is, therefore, the courts (and the Supreme Court especially), that Souter believes must “decide which of our approved desires has the better claim,” and this cannot be done simply by reading the Constitution’s words. Put differently, we all must trust in the judges to find our way through the morass, to make the right choices between competing constitutional imperatives, and we cannot accuse them of making up the law when they make choices we do not like. It is their job, not ours.

When judges rule

It would be difficult to articulate a decision-making model more antithetical to American democracy and the Constitution’s own design. It is often said — by the Supreme Court among others — that we have a “government of laws and not of men.” Judges are people, not the living embodiment of the law. When a judge makes the choices Souter suggests, without regard to the Constitution’s words and their original meaning, it is the judges who rule and not the law.

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