Searching for Negative Space in the Constitution

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.

Continue ReadingSearching for Negative Space in the Constitution

A Republican Form of Government

King-George-III-xx-Allan-RamsayOn September 17, I participated in the Constitution Day program at the Law School.  All of the presenters were asked to discuss one part of the United States Constitution that is often overlooked.  My choice was the “republican form of government” clause, Article IV Section 4, which reads as follows: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a Republican Form of Government . . .  .”   

To call this clause of the Constitution “overlooked” is an understatement.  The authors of the Federalist Papers spent little or no time discussing the meaning of this clause.  The Supreme Court, when asked to interpret this clause, has generally admitted that it doesn’t have the slightest idea what it means—with the consequence that the Court has rendered the clause irrelevant and left it devoid of meaning.  This is a shame because, properly understood, I believe that this clause is one of the most important in the Constitution.

The federal government guarantees every state a Republican form of government.  What does the word “republican” mean?   It certainly does not refer to a specific political party.  Political parties did not even exist in 1789.

Today’s school children are generally taught that the clause is intended to guarantee that state governments use the mechanics of representative democracy over the mechanics of direct democracy.  This interpretation is incorrect.  While the Framers often wrote of the benefits of a political system whereby voters elected representatives who would make important decisions on their behalf, especially in instances where the geographic territory to be governed was large, the Framers never expressed the opinion that the direct exercise of democracy by the people should be prohibited.

Indeed, this incorrect interpretation of the clause is dangerous because it has led some observers to question the constitutionality of state-wide voter initiatives altogether, such as the ones that regularly go before the voters in California.  These types of initiatives may be unwise as a means of using direct democracy to determine the policies of state government.  But the use of state-wide initiatives of this type is certainly constitutional.

So if the “Republican form of government” clause does not prohibit the use of direct democracy as a means of state government, what is its purpose?  Simply stated, the clause prohibits the people of any state in the Union from amending their state constitution in order to adopt a monarchy or an aristocracy.

Continue ReadingA Republican Form of Government

Constitution Day

imagesSome portions of the Constitution are the subject of frequent discussion. Concepts like “due process,” “equal protection,” “freedom of speech,” and the like are headline-grabbers. Phrases like “Commerce … among the several States” do not resonate quite as much with the general public, but are certainly familiar to lawyers.

A glance at the Constitution reveals that there is much more to the document, some of it mysterious. There is, for example, talk of “Emoluments,” “Letters of Marque and Reprisal,” and “Corruption of Blood.” Indeed, large portions of the Constitution make at best infrequent appearances in public discourse. There is, one might say, an Overlooked Constitution.

Continue ReadingConstitution Day