Searching for Negative Space in the Constitution

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Category: Constitutional Interpretation, Federalism, Judges & Judicial Process, Legal History, U.S. Supreme Court

Escher011Some people dislike the game of soccer.  They observe the players running around on the field and it all seems like random chaos.  Soccer aficionados, however, are not focusing on the players.  They are watching the spaces in between the players.  These empty spaces ebb and flow, like waves in the ocean, creating momentary opportunities for the attacking side.

Some people dislike jazz.  To them, the melody of the song gets lost in a blizzard of noise.  Jazz aficionados hear something different.  They are listening to what the musicians do in the spaces in between the notes of the melody.

The United States Constitution creates a positive space for government.  The federal government is delegated specific powers.  The governments of the states retain those powers not delegated to the federal government or otherwise retained by the people.

However, the United States Constitution also creates negative space for government.  What happens when a changing world, changing social values, or new technologies cause the public to demand an expansion of government into spaces that fall in neither the delegated powers of the federal government nor the traditional realm of the states?  Typically in our nation’s history, this has occurred in response to a crisis that implicates a national economic interest or a national security interest, making reliance on the individual state governments for solutions inadequate.  Examples would include the Great Depression and the response to the September 11 attacks.  In these situations, the federal government rushes in to fill the negative space, despite the fact that a strict reading of the Constitution does not provide for the federal authority to do so.

In the controversy surrounding the chartering of the Bank of the United States, shortly after the Constitution was ratified, two of the Framers grappled with this dilemma.  The fact that they came to different conclusions continues to influence the debate over federal power today.   James Madison and Alexander Hamilton agreed that the delegated powers of the federal government should be interpreted broadly, but they differed in their view of whether the Constitution left any negative space for the federal government to expand beyond those powers expressly delegated to it.

Madison felt that the outer limits of federal government power were set by the understanding of the people at the time that the Constitution was ratified.  Those boundaries could not be expanded short of a constitutional amendment.  In contrast, Hamilton seems to have believed that these limits could be loosened or lifted through precipitous action by the federal government, explained and defended to the public, so long as the public demonstrated their approval of the new boundaries.  Hamilton’s conception of sovereignty allowed for the possibility that later generations of Americans might approve of a stronger national government than was originally envisioned, if they were persuaded that the extra authority was merited.

 Hamilton’s proposal to charter a national bank, and his adoption of the principle that even a federal government limited in its ends could employ tremendous discretion to achieve those ends, flowed naturally from his view that the Constitution left the federal government room to grow when acting in response to a truly national need.  Madison believed that the proposed bank was inconsistent with the original assumptions concerning the proper ends for which the newly created federal power would be used.  Madison thought it had been settled at the time of ratification that the federal government lacked the power to charter a national bank.  As a result, Madison came to align himself with the Ant-Federalists in opposition to the bank, and he would eventually articulate the States Rights political philosophy that continues to resonate with many Americans. 

In our constitutional system, the Supreme Court serves as the ultimate arbiter of whether an attempt by the federal government to expand into negative space is permitted.  In his recent book, Packing the Court, historian James MacGregor Burns paints a picture of a Supreme Court that has exercised this role in a reactionary fashion.  That the Court is able to play this role at all is solely the result of the bedrock doctrine of judicial review laid down in Marbury v. Madison.  Burns’ thesis is that this seminal case was wrongly decided.

Burns’ view of American history is sympathetic towards presidents who engage in the type of “transforming leadership” necessary to adapt the nation to new challenges and changing environments.  He criticizes the Supreme Court over the course of our nation’s history for often frustrating presidential attempts at transformative leadership through the illegitimate (in his eyes) vehicle of judicial review.  His book is an indictment of a Supreme Court that serves to further reactionary elements in our society rather than to respond to popular movements for reform (with the exception of the Warren Court, which Burns praises – inconsistently – for exercising judicial review in order to expand the scope of individual rights).

Although Burns views history through the traditional dichotomy of liberalism versus conservatism, we should recognize that the search for negative space is not an ideological issue.  The doctrine of the unitary executive, espoused by many of the leading lawyers in the Bush Administration as the justification for broad executive branch power after September 11, and still embraced by many leading conservative thinkers, is nothing if not a declaration that the Constitution leaves a great deal of negative space for the President to operate in in matters of national security.  In its cases dealing with the Guantanamo Bay detainees thus far, the Supreme Court has not foreclosed the possible existence of an expansive executive power so much as insisted that any unprecedented movement of executive power into spaces left open by the Constitution must come with the assent of congress.

Burns is correct that the Supreme Court has often used judicial review to deny attempts by the federal government to expand beyond the bounds that Madison thought were settled in 1789.  Early in the nineteenth century, Chief Justice John Marshall interpreted the federal sphere quite broadly.  However, later in the Court’s history the justices would rely upon doctrines of federalism to promote a political philosophy where state governments received first claim on the ability to expand into any negative spaces.  As our national economy grew larger and more intertwined, and as the role of the United States as a global superpower required a stronger federal hand in dealing with foreign nations, it became more difficult to argue that state governments could successfully occupy all of these open spaces.  The Great Depression, and two Wolrd Wars, forced the Court to recognize this reality.

In more recent years, the Supreme Court has relied upon theories of interpretation, most notably textualism, as the vehicle for denying the federal government the ability to expand its role beyond delegated bounds.  These theories have the benefit of applying without regard to whether state governments are capable of meeting the same demands that the federal government is seeking to satisfy, and therefore these theories have been more successful than federalism as a means of policing the expansion of the federal sphere in the modern economy.  However, the subjective way in which interpretive theory is inevitably applied has become apparent to all observers of the Court, with the consequence that the Supreme Court’s use of textualism has only served to increase public awareness of the Court’s growing institutional power and also of the ideology of its members.  Persons across the ideological spectrum share a discomfort with these developments.

There are early hints that persons seeking to deny the federal government the negative space in which to grow will next turn to moral philosophy, such as the theory of subsidiarity in the Catholic faith, as a vehicle for policing the federal government.  Whether or not these early efforts will mature into a coherent mode of constitutional interpretation remains to be seen.  If this effort fails, there will doubtless be other arguments advanced by those who seek to deny the existence of negative space in our Constitution.

What is undeniable is that the Constitution of 1789 was not written for a United States that had a complex and integrated national economy and that was a global superpower.  As the President and the Congress seek to navigate in such a world (and indeed, as the general public demands that they do so), some people will see only chaos and a lack of legitimate authority.  Other people will see an attempt to create something out of open spaces.

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3 Responses to “Searching for Negative Space in the Constitution”

  1. Rick Sankovitz Says:

    Excellent, illuminating, crystalizing post, Ed. You really define the problem well.

    Now figure out the field theory that dictates who governs the negative spaces and when, and people will forget all about Hamilton and Madison and they’ll be reading the Fallone Papers instead. Good luck!

  2. Rick Sankovitz Says:

    P.S. The Escher print is a perfectly allegorical illustration of how express powers metamorphose.

  3. Dean Strang Says:

    Ed — I agree with Rick: you posted a really thoughtful short essay. It seems to me, just as a matter of musing further, that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have a great deal to say about the negative space and who may claim it.

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