Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz has recently published a very interesting, and dare I assert important, paper in The Stanford Law Review. He opens his paper with this very interesting idea:
"Two centuries after Marbury v. Madison, there remains a deep confusion about quite what a court is reviewing when it engages in judicial review. Conventional wisdom has it that judicial review is the review of certain legal objects: statutes, regulations. But strictly speaking, this is not quite right. The Constitution prohibits not objects but actions. Judicial review is the review of such actions. And actions require actors: verbs require subjects. So before judicial review focuses on verbs, let alone objects, it should begin at the beginning, with subjects. Every constitutional inquiry should begin with a basic question that has been almost universally overlooked. The fundamental question, from which all else follows, is the who question: who has violated the Constitution?"
Perhaps because I come to study the constitution from the conceptual view of an economist this idea makes perfect sense to me. After all, I recognize that, like Mises, I study human action. Like the neoclassical economist, I study the choices made by an individual.  So, it seems to be in my nature to understand that if the Court declares a statute unconstitutional, the Court is really saying that Congress took an action it did not have the constitutional power to take.  Still, I have to agree with Mr. Rosenkranz that it does seem to be the case that Court opinions, law school faculty, politicians and voters tend to say that it is the statute in question that has some fault.

Is it really important to emphasize who violated the Constitution? I think it probably is very important. Surely it is a good idea for voters to think about the actions of the people they vote for and against. Personally, I can read the Constitution, and when I hear my representative argue publicly that he or she has a power I do not see enumerated in the Constitution I usually vow to vote against that representative in the future.  It seems to me, after all, that when a member of Congress votes to use the power of government in a way that is unconstitutional, that member of Congress is abusing the power of his or her office. 

I think our republican form of government would be improved if our representatives believed it was their personal responsibility to act in a constitutional way.  It seems to me it is possible to hide from this attitude if you are a member of Congress that thinks: "Bummer man, the Court said that law I voted for was unconstitutional."

Consider also that Article VI requires an oath of office for members of Congress. The Oath of Office which is taken by both members of the House and Senate is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
It seems to me that a member of Congress cannot defend, nor bear true faith and witness to the Constitution if they think it is the statute that is unconstitutional and not their action that is unconstitutional. It is the obligation of each member of the House and the Senate to read the Constitution they take an Oath to defend and be faithful to, and then to act within the bounds of the specific, and enumerated, Constitutional powers granted to their office.  In other words, it seems to me the oath of office makes it the responsibility of each member of Congress not to abuse the power of the office by voting in support of legislation that is inconsistent with the Constitution.

The President also takes a similar oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."  It is not just members of Congress who can act unconstitutionally.  A President that signs a law which is inconsistent with the Constitution is not only violating the constitutional oath of office but is abusing the constitutional power of the office.  I've even read that James Madison believed Presidents would see it their duty to veto Congressional measures that were unconstitutional.  Of course, that doesn't happen today because vetoes are about politics and not about the Constitution.  But why should vetoes be about the Constitution, since it is the job of the Supreme Court to decide which laws, or which parts of laws, are unconstitutional.

It seems to me that by thinking a law is unconstitutional, rather than thinking government is acting to use power in ways that are unconstitutional, we have all come to take the questions of constitutionality too lightly.  Saying "unconstitutional" really should be saying that someone in government, or perhaps many someones, has chosen to abuse the constitutional power of his or her office.

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