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12/31/2012

Louis Michael Seidman's Judicial Review without the Constitution
Michael Ramsey

In the New York Times, Louis Michael Seidman (Georgetown Law) has a provocative op-ed Let's Give Up on the Constitution.  From the introduction:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

As someone who has taught constitutional law for almost 40 years, I am ashamed it took me so long to see how bizarre all this is. Imagine that after careful study a government official — say, the president or one of the party leaders in Congress — reaches a considered judgment that a particular course of action is best for the country. Suddenly, someone bursts into the room with new information: a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves might have disagreed with this course of action. Is it even remotely rational that the official should change his or her mind because of this divination?

(Note: Professor Seidman's argument is expanded in his recently published book On Constitutional Disobedience, from Oxford University Press).

Jonathan Adler comments: Seidman: Let's Give Up on [Parts of] the Constitution.  In part:

Seidman suggests that liberal constitutional values such as the freedom of speech and religion, equal protection, and due process “are important, whether or not they are in the Constitution” and that “we should continue to follow those requirements out of respect, not obligation.” But our political history shows quite clearly that the political process is more than willing to trample such principles, often with substantial popular support even with a constitutional obligation to respect. Yet the whole point of a constitution is to prevent such abuses and constrain popular majorities.

Seidman writes that if we followed his advice: “The Supreme Court could stop pretending that its decisions protecting same-sex intimacy or limiting affirmative action were rooted in constitutional text.” So supreme court opinions would be nothing more than policy briefs and appeals to moral principle? It seems to me that is a recipe for undermining the legitimacy of judicial review and ultimately relegating all such questions to the political process — and producing quite a few results I doubt Seidman would much like (e.g. greater limits on expression, lesser protection of criminal defendants, and more expansive national security authority). There are reasonable arguments for constraining (or even eliminating) judicial review — I don’t agree with them, but I think they are reasonable — but I don’t take that to be Seidman’s argument. To the contrary, he seems to want to keep judicial review, but just for those constitutional provisions he likes, but that’s hardly the basis for a principled argument for “constitutional disobedience,” as such.