In my post last week, I suggested that we be skeptical of those who proclaim a method of interpreting the Constitution that insures judicial neutrality and guarantees that personal values of a judge will not enter into judicial decisions. This cannot be done. The Constitution itself makes it impossible. That document often uses broad or vague words, terms, or phrases, and not all reasonable people will agree on their meaning when applied to a particular circumstance. For example, Congress has the constitutional power “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states . . . (what is often called the Interstate Commerce Clause). Under this provision, can Congress regulate commerce between just two states, or does “among” require the involvement of multiple states? Does the term “commerce” require a commercial transaction? For example, if I take a pleasure trip from Brooklyn through New Jersey to Pennsylvania, has there been “commerce” that Congress can regulate? (Did I really just use “pleasure” and “New Jersey” is the same sentence?) Relying on the Interstate Commerce Clause, Congress prohibits the growing of marijuana, but does the power to “regulate” mean the power to “prohibit”? If I grow wheat and consume it myself, I will no doubt buy less grain from the national market for wheat. Can Congress regulate my personal garden because my wheat cultivation affects interstate commerce? The Supreme Court has addressed questions like these many times, and the answers could not have come from a judicial automaton. They could come only from justices exercising judgments, and those judgments may be influenced by personal values.
The Constitution is filled with terms that are even more open-ended than the Commerce Clause. Article I enumerates congressional powers and then goes on to state that Congress has the power to enact laws that are “necessary and proper” for carrying out the enumerated powers. Article II states that the “executive power” is vested in the President. Not all will agree in a particular circumstances as to what is “necessary and proper” or what is an “executive power.” Today we might ask whether “emolument” is a term so clear that we can’t expect different interpretations of it. And so on; and so on; and so on. The Constitution cannot just be read and applied. Constitutional decisions require contemporary interpretations of the words and phrases, and in spite of what some conservatives say, that will always permit personal values to affect the outcome.
We can hope that a judge will select a reasonable method for interpreting the Constitution, but no method will eliminate the opportunity for personal values to affect the outcome. Moreover, no method is mandated by the Constitution itself. That document is silent on how it should be interpreted. Those who framed it in the constitutional convention and those who adopted it in the states were also silent about the “proper” method, if any, for later generations’ constitutional interpretations.
It is noteworthy, however, that one of the earliest Supreme Court pronouncements about how the charter should be interpreted did not proclaim it as a document with a meaning fixed in the eighteenth century. Having been present at its creation, Chief Justice John Marshall knew as well as anyone how the framers and adopters wanted the Constitution interpreted. When the Constitution was proposed, he advocated its adoption, and as a delegate to the Virginia convention, he voted in favor of it. When he was on the Supreme Court, Marshall gave his view on how the Constitution should be interpreted. He said it was a document “intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the crises of human affairs.” (Emphasis added.) Constitutional provisions do limit constitutional interpretations, but Marshall recognized that the document has many generalities and interstices that must be refined and filled in by judges. Constitutional meaning was not rigidly fixed in 1787. Rather, that meaning needs to adapt and evolve in light of “the crises of human affairs” if that document is to endure.
The originators did not tell us how to interpret the Constitution. Each generation must decide for itself what method or methods are to be used. This generation of conservatives has concocted a method that supposedly gives our fundamental law a meaning fixed from generations ago and removes a judge’s values from constitutional interpretation. This method is not constitutionally required, and its goals cannot be met. When a judge tells us that he acts merely as an umpire having removed his values from his decisions, he is either delusionally naïve or disingenuous.