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The Constitution’s Vanishing Act

For decades, Supreme Court justices have been rewriting key parts of our governing document.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Richard A. Epstein writes:  The United States Constitution is at its core a classical liberal document. But over the last hundred years, much of it has turned into a progressive text thanks in large part to Supreme Court justices who interpret it creatively, thereby skirting the laborious amendment process of Article V. Here, I address one major, if underappreciated, cause of the problem—the fine art of making its critical words and letters just disappear through the Court’s imaginative application of its power of judicial review. This constitutional disappearing act does not take sides in the longstanding debate over judicial restraint and activism. In some cases, it unduly expands judicial power; in other cases, it wrongly contracts it.

The two best illustrations of how this process works are found in the Eighth Amendment and in Article 1, which sets out the federal government’s taxing power.Cruel and Unusual PunishmentsThe Eighth Amendment reads in full: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Its use of the passive voice creates an interpretive ambiguity. Does the amendment bind only the federal government or does it bind the states as well? Using the word “excessive” twice in one 16-word sentence is not a model of clarity.

But for these purposes, the most critical word is “punishments.” The letter “s” has disappeared during the arduous process of constitutional interpretation. Just Google the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment,” and 1,740,000 entries come up. Add the “s” and that number drops by 80 percent to 330,000 entries, most of which refer to punishments without the “s.”

The importance of the slip is evident from the 2012 Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama, which struck down a mandatory lifetime sentence for a fourteen year-old guilty of murder. In writing her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan included the “s” in quoting the clause. But during the analysis, that “s” disappears, thereby transforming the constitutional text:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.” That right, we have explained, “flows from the basic ‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ ” to both the offender and the offense.

Justice Kagan faithfully references earlier cases that take her position. But the wealth of precedent does not conceal the major shift in constitutional focus. The prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” conjures up a list of punishments that should be rejected because they are cruel, no matter what the offense. The issue of proportionality never arises.

That interpretation makes sense because this clause is lifted word for word from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, after it accuses the deposed King James II of inflicting “illegal and cruel punishments.” The clause outlaws the rack, the thumb-screw, drawing and quartering, and other fiendish activities. In no sense did it outlaw the death penalty. Nor could that reading be sensibly made of our own Constitution, whose Fifth Amendment contains references to the death penalty in connection with due process, grand jury presentments, and double jeopardy.

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Analysis: Federalists vs. Technocrats

Today, we treat politics as a sport, but it’s really a conflict of ideologies between federalists and technocrats…

Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Bruce S. Thornton writes: The media and pundits treat politics like a sport. The significance of the recent agreement to postpone the debt crisis until January, for instance, is really about which party won and which lost, which party’s tactics are liable to be more successful in the next election, and which politician is a winner and which a loser. But politics rightly understood is not about the contest of policies or politicians. It’s about the philosophical principles and ideas that create one policy rather than another—that’s what it should be about, at least.

From that point of view, the conflict between Democrats and Republicans concerns the size and role of the federal government, which is no surprise to anyone who even casually follows politics. But more important are the ideas that ground arguments for or against limited government. These ideas include our notions of human nature, and what motivates citizens when they make political decisions. Our political conflicts today reflect the two major ways Americans have answered these questions.

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