Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery 

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR) recently has been criticizing The 1619 Project ‘of the New York Times. The Project, he said, was “a racially divisive, revisionist account . . . that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” although slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”[1] The latter comment was made by the Senator in a recent interview by Tucker Carlson of FoxNews, in which Cotton claimed to draw support from prominent American historians, one of whom was Sean Wilentz of Princeton University.

Wilentz’ Response to Cotton[2]

Although four other American historians and I have “fundamental publicized objections to the project, . . . these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.”

“Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery ‘was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.”

“None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a ‘necessary evil.’ Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would ‘never concur in upholding domestic slavery,’ that ‘nefarious institution’ based on ‘the most cruel bondages’—’the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.’ The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.”

“James Madison, the most influential delegate at the convention, explicitly repudiated the idea of building the union on slavery, stating that it would be ‘wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’ Though himself a slaveholder, Madison wanted to guarantee that the Constitution, while it might tolerate slavery in the states where it existed, would neither enshrine human bondage in national law nor recognize it as legitimate.”

“A minority of the Framers, from the lower South, disagreed, but they believed slavery was no evil at all. ‘If slavery be wrong,’ Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared, ‘it is justified by the example of all the world.’ Far from a necessary evil, Pinckney thought slavery was a necessary good, as it had been for time immemorial. ‘In all ages,’ he claimed, ‘one half of mankind have been slaves.’”

“There was, to be sure, one delegate who resembled Senator Cotton’s description: Pinckney’s cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, also from South Carolina. At one point in the convention debates, a perturbed Cotesworth Pinckney registered a complaint, seeming to desire, Madison noted, ‘that some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.’ That would have based the Union firmly on the constitutional right of slavery. And Cotesworth Pinckney did come close to calling slavery a necessary evil, noting that without it the Carolina economy could not survive (which was technically correct). But the convention majority, far from agreeing with anything he said, dismissed his objection out of hand.”

“The Constitution was hardly an antislavery document. Through fierce debates and by means of backroom deals, the lower South slaveholders managed to win compromises that offered some protection to slavery in the states: the notorious three-fifths clause giving an allotment of House seats and Electoral College votes based on a partial counting of enslaved persons; a twenty-year delay in authorizing Congress to abolish the nation’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; and a fugitive slave clause. Most importantly, the Constitution by implication barred the new federal government from directly interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed.”

“But neither did the Constitution, as Senator Cotton wrongly claims, establish slavery as necessary to the Union. It’s true that a few proslavery delegates threatened that their states would refuse to join the Union unless their demands were met. This occurred with particular force with regard to the Atlantic slave trade. A majority of convention delegates wanted to empower the national government to abolish the horrific trade, striking the first blow against it anywhere in the Atlantic world in the name of a sovereign state. Appalled, the lower South delegates, led by South Carolina’s oligarchs, threatened to bolt if the convention touched the slave trade in any way, but the majority called their bluff.”

“In the end, the proslavery delegates carved out the compromise that prevented abolishing the trade until 1808, salvaging a significant concession, though there could be little doubt that the trade was doomed. Even with this compromise, the leading Pennsylvania abolitionist Benjamin Rush hailed the slave trade clause as ‘a great point obtained from the Southern States.’ His fellow Pennsylvanian and a delegate to convention, James Wilson, went so far as to say that the Constitution laid ‘the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.’”

“History, of course, proved Wilson wrong—but not completely wrong. With the rise of the cotton economy, based on the invention of the cotton gin, which Wilson could not have foreseen, American slavery was far from stymied, but grew to become the mightiest and most expansive slavery regime on earth, engulfing further territories—including Cotton’s own Arkansas.”

“The Framers’ compromises over slavery had little to do with it, however. The problem was not primarily constitutional but political: so long as a substantial number of Northerners remained either complacent about slavery’s future, indifferent to the institution’s oppression, or complicit in the growth of the new cotton kingdom, the Constitution would permit the spread of human bondage.”

“Even so, in fact, the Constitution contained powerful antislavery potential. By refusing to recognize slavery in national law, the Framers gave the national government the power to regulate or ban slavery in areas under its purview, notably the national territories not yet constituted as separate states. The same year that the Framers met, the existing Congress banned slavery from the existing territories north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance, a measure reflected in the Constitution, which the new Congress quickly affirmed when it met in 1789. Later antislavery champions, including Abraham Lincoln, always considered the Northwest Ordinance to be organic to the Constitution; proslavery advocates came to regard it as an illegitimate nullity.”

“In time, as antislavery sentiment built in the North, the condition of slavery in the territories and in connection with the admission of new states became the major flashpoint of conflict, from the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821 to the guerrilla warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ Proslavery champions like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina invented an argument that denied the Congress any power over slavery in the territories; Lincoln and his fellow Republicans refuted that argument. And upon Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, this constitutional issue was enough to spark the secession that led to the Civil War and Emancipation.”

Senator Cotton has some mistaken things to say about that history, too. The Framers, he asserts, built the Constitution ‘in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.’ This absurdly imputes to the Framers powers of clairvoyance. Although Lincoln sometimes suggested that the Framers had purposefully designed slavery’s abolition—even Lincoln could wishfully exaggerate—the Constitution hardly ensured slavery’s doom. It took Lincoln’s and the antislavery Republicans’ concerted political efforts to vindicate the Constitution’s antislavery elements that set the stage for what Lincoln in his ‘House Divided’ speech of 1858 called ‘ultimate extinction.’”

“Far from establishing a Union based on what Senator Cotton calls the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery, the Founders fought bitterly over human enslavement, producing a document that gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise. The slaveholders, unable to abide that power, eventually seceded in an effort to form a new slaveholders’ republic, with a new Constitution built entirely on slavery: its cornerstone, as the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaimed, was ‘the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.’”

“As far as a Union founded on the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery is concerned, Cotton appears unaware of how profoundly the Constitution of the United States of America differed from that of the Confederate States of America.”

Wilentz’ Longer Account of the U.S. History of Slavery[3]

In November 2019, Wilentz, delivering the fourth annual Lecture in honor of Philip Roth, drew upon the novelist’s insight that history was “the relentless unfolding of the unforeseen” or “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page [of history] as inevitable.” For “the centrality of slavery to American history,” Wilentz says, “the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”

This was so even though “the ideals that propelled the American Revolution shared crucial origins with the ideals that propelled antislavery. Yet American slavery did not die out as most expected” with “revolutionary America” as a “hotbed of antislavery politics.” In fact, slavery “expanded, turning the American South into the most dynamic and ambitious slavery regime in the world” with “slaveowners [stiffening ] their resolve to affirm their property rights in human beings” and coming “perilously close to establishing an American empire of slavery.”

Conclusion

These ideas of Wilentz help us understand why he and the other four prominent American historians dissented from at least one of the major premises of The Project of 1619, which will be discussed in a future post.[4]

Although I was a history major many years ago at Grinnell College, I do not have the intimate knowledge of the slavery and antislavery conflicts that are discussed by Professor Welentz. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he is overreacting to Senator Cotton’s comment.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia convened in 1787 to consider whether and how to amend the existing Articles of Confederation after Alexander Hamilton’s report on the  unsuccessful attempt to do so at the Annapolis Conference of 1786 coupled with his forceful criticism of those Articles and recommendation of the calling of a convention to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”[5]

For the first two months or so of the Constitutional Convention there were debates between delegates from large and small states, between those favoring states-rights and those wanting a strong national government. “By the end of June the convention seemed in danger of dissolving, with nothing accomplished.” That, however, was prevented when the Convention accepted a proposal by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut (“the Great Compromise”) for equal representation of the states in the Senate and proportional representation by population in the House. Thereafter other compromises were reached, including counting three-fifths of the slaves for representation in the House.[6]

In other words, many compromises were necessary in order to obtain agreement on the new Constitution before it could be submitted to the states for ratification. Some of those compromises accommodated slavery while others did not. As Wilentz said, the Constitution “gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise.” In short, compromises with the evil of slavery were necessary in order to create the new Constitution.

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[1] Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020);  Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of The 1619 Project, dwkcommenataries.com (Aug. 10, 2020).

[2] Wilentz, What Tom Cotton Gets So Wrong About Slavery and the Constitution, N.Y. Review of Books (Aug. 3, 2020).

[3] Wilentz, American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,’ N.Y. Review of Books (Nov. 19, 2019).

[4]  See Historian Wilentz and New York Times Editor Exchange Views About The 1619 Project, dwkcommentaries.com (forthcoming Aug. –, 2020).

[5] Williams, Current & Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], pp. 170-72  (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1959.) (This is my book from college and comments from others with more detailed knowledge of the Constitutional Convention are solicited.)

[6] Id. at 172-77.

Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? 

Any country that claims to be a democracy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be taking steps to encourage maximum voter participation while protecting voters from risking their health. Such steps would include facilitating voter registration and maximizing the use of voting by mail. That seems self-evident. Yet it is not happening throughout the U.S., and, as is usual in our complex federal system, the rules governing this November’s U.S. election are complicated.[1]

Introduction

While every presidential election year brings an increase in voting rights litigation, the current pandemic has multiplied the number of lawsuits filed in the past 3½ months. Democrats and voting rights advocates are pursuing cases to make it easier to vote by mail, filing more than 60 lawsuits in 25 states.

These lawsuits “are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests.” However, “conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who supervises its voting litigation, says, “I think it’s clear we have a potential disaster on our hands on Election Day if we can’t process as many votes as possible beforehand. The alarm bells are going off. It’s not just some sort of hypothetical as a problem — we’ve seen it as a problem multiple times. It will repeat in November. The question is how much and in how many places and how badly.”

A Democratic elections attorney, Marc Elias, agrees. “When the political branches fail to protect voting rights, it is left to the courts to do that. If the political branches were functioning the way they’re supposed to, you would have Republicans and Democrats agreeing to increase access to absentee voting. You’d be putting in place safeguards to make sure every eligible voter who casts a ballot has that ballot counted. . . . Unfortunately, the Republican Party is taking its cues from Donald Trump.”

Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, Sylvia Albert, said decisions about how to handle voting during a pandemic are not easy but “have to be made.” She added,“There is no waiting it out,” noting that as more time passes, the shorter the window for educating voters about any changes becomes. “As a state legislator, as a secretary of state, as a governor, you are responsible for ensuring that voters can access the ballot. By not moving ahead, they’re really abdicating their responsibility to the voters.”

President Trump’s Opposition to Mail Voting

The principal cause of the problem of this election is President Trump, who has made it clear that he is determined to curtail access to mail ballots, claiming without evidence that their use leads to widespread fraud. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” the president said in June in an interview with Politico. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits . . . I think it puts the election at risk.” As a result, the GOP is pushing to limit the expansion of voting by mail, backed by a $20 million Republican National Committee effort and help from conservative groups.

However, there is no evidence that mail voting leads to the kind of massive fraud Trump has described. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that cases of potential fraud have been exceedingly rare in states that conduct voting exclusively by mail.

Nevertheless, with “Republican governors under pressure from President Trump not to expand voting by mail and many legislatures adjourned for the year or deadlocked along party lines, changes in the coming months are likely to come through court decisions.” As a result, this blogger fears that the Trump Administration will do anything and everything to try to steal this year’s presidential election.

Fortunately former Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, has come out against Trump on this (and other) issues. He says,“absentee voting has been around since the Civil War and . . ., increasingly, states both red and blue are not just allowing but also encouraging citizens to vote by mail.”[2]

Indeed, Weld says, “Public support for voting-by-mail was in place long before the novel coronavirus came along. In the past week, Colorado and Utah conducted successful, smooth primary elections almost entirely by mail, with strong turnouts and no need for voters to stand in unhealthy lines. For a highly contested June 23 primary, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to make absentee voting less cumbersome. It worked, and turnout was at near-record levels. . . . The only problems Kentucky encountered resulted from the covid-19-driven consolidation of in-person, Election Day polling places.”

Weld also notes that public opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of voters support giving all voters the option of voting in person or voting absentee. That includes a majority of Republicans — the president’s paranoia notwithstanding.”[3]

Therefore, Weld concludes, “To my fellow Republicans, I plead with you to not follow Trump off this cliff. A political party that brands itself as the party of exclusion, disregard for citizens’ safety and thinly veiled vote suppression is not a party with a future.”

 State Developments on Mail Voting

Here is an attempted analysis of where at least some of the states stand on rules for the November 3, 2020 election.

Alabama. Because of the virus, Alabama officials are allowing any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming election without having to cite a valid reason. In  a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups citing coronavirus dangers, Birmingham-based U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 struke down a requirement for absentee voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to have their ballots signed off by two witnesses or a notary public as well as lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting at polling places. The judge said he would permit willing counties to allow drive-up voting, but he stopped short of requiring such an accommodation. This order was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,  reversed that order for the July 14 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate between Jeff Sesssions and Tommy Tuberville.[4]

California, Nebraska (counties < 10,000) and North Dakota provide counties the option to conduct all voting by mail. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dem.) ordered election officials to proactively send absentee ballots to all active registered voters in the state for the general election. This move drew fierce opposition from the right, including a lawsuit from the Republican National Committee, but the change subsequently was authorized by a new state law.[5]

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington authorize all voting by mail. “For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”[6]

District of Columbia. It will send absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Georgia. The GOP Secretary of State mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters for the June 9 primaries. The Republican House Speaker, however, warned that expanded absentee voting could lead to fraud, and a state House committee approved a measure that would bar the mailing of absentee request forms for the fall, but the bill failed to pass before the legislature adjourned. The Georgia Secretary of State, however, already had said his office lacked funds to send ballot request applications for the general election, even though,

“By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19.”

Illinois and Michigan. This year these states will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rep.) signed a bill into law that will require the secretary of state to seek legislative approval to send absentee ballot request forms to voters before November. This was seen as a rebuke to Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State, who mailed the forms to voters for the primary last month, resulting in a new turnout record for a June primary in the state.

Massachusetts. For the rest of this year this commonwealth has chosen to abandon its requirement for an excuse for an absentee ballot.

Missouri. As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the Missouri Legislature adopted a statute expanding voting by mail during the pandemic, while retaining the statutory requirement for a notarization of the ballot with the legitimacy of that requirement still being litigated under a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.[7]

Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign recently sued to stop voters from using drop boxes to return completed absentee ballots and block ballots from being counted if they do not arrive inside the provided secrecy envelope. The Complaint alleged that mail voting “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” The Democratic Party obviously is opposing this lawsuit

Tennessee. Last month a Nashville judge ruled that any eligible voter who is concerned about contracting covid-19 at a polling place may cast an absentee ballot this fall, even though state law would typically require that voter to qualify using an excuse. The state Supreme Court declined last week to stay that decision after a request from Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Texas. The Texas Democratic Party and several voters sued in federal court to allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail, at least during the coronavirus pandemic, on the ground that the state’s over-65 age limitation for such voting allegedly was unconstitutional, which contention was upheld by a trial court’s injunction, but reversed by the appellate court with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th rejecting an emergency appeal by the plaintiffs and remanding the case to the appellate court. (Justice Sotomayor urged the appellate court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election”).[8]

Wisconsin. On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that after more than three years, Wisconsin must reinstate several Republican-backed voting restrictions, including limits on early voting. The original GOP policies were struck down in 2016 for discriminating against minority voters, a conclusion the appellate panel rejected this week.[9]

Guarding Legitimacy of this Year’s Presidential Election

Great concern over the integrity of this presidential election has been expressed by William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a Wall Street Journal columnist.  He said, “After a quarter-century of toxic division, our democracy is imperiled. A contested election could tip the U.S. into a devastating crisis of legitimacy, a prospect that every patriot must regard with dismay.”[10]

Therefore, Galston suggested four ways to minimize the risks in this upcoming election.

First, “To reduce pressure on the mail-in option, localities must provide the fullest possible opportunity to vote in person, as New York University law professor Richard A. Pildes has argued. This means increasing the number of polling places while expanding opportunities for early voting. Many elderly poll workers will be reluctant to do the job this year; large numbers of younger Americans should be recruited and trained to replace them. Schools should continue to serve as polling places, as they have for decades, and Election Day should be a school holiday.”

Second, “states should do what they can to facilitate the fastest possible count of mail-in ballots. Mr. Pildes recommends processing the mail-in ballots that arrive before Election Day so that they can be tallied in time for the results to be included in the count soon after the polls close, a procedure that California now employs. Other states—including Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—would have to change their laws to permit this, and they should.”

Third, “As Nathaniel Persily, a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project points out, the media have a crucial role to play as well. Reporters should educate themselves and the public about the all but certain delay in the vote count that the flood of mail-in ballots will entail. Above all, media organizations should resist the urge to call the election ahead of their competitors and instead wait until enough ballots have been tallied to know the result with confidence. In the past, ill-judged early calls of key states have sown confusion. This year, the consequences could be far worse.”

Fourth, “America’s elder statesmen must do all they can to ensure election integrity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush should spearhead the formation of a bipartisan committee including respected figures such as former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, along with lawyers and election experts from both parties who have served in previous presidential campaigns. Committee staff should be ready to investigate charges of fraud as soon as they arise and observe the counting of mail-in ballots if asked. Committee leaders should announce their findings as quickly as accuracy permits and stand united in their defense.”

Such a committee’s “most important tasks would be meetings soon after Labor Day with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These leaders should be asked for a public pledge to stand together against unsubstantiated claims that the election has been stolen and to do their utmost to persuade elected officials in their respective parties to stand with them.”

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above litigation, the Supreme Court still has to resolve two cases about so-called “faithless” electors in the Electoral College that actually elects the President. Presumably decisions in those two cases will come down this coming week and will be discussed in a future post.[11]

Another future post will examine ways to create stronger voting rights from Richard L. Hasen, Professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Comments to this post for corrections and supplementation for new developments are earnestly solicited.

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[1] See generally Viebeck, Voting rules changed quickly for the primaries. But the battle over how Americans will cast ballots in the fall is just heating up, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020).

[2] Weld, Please, Republicans don’t join Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020). See also Strauss, ‘We’ve got to do something’: Republican rebels come together to take on Trump, Guardian (July 2, 2020).

[3] See also Brennan Center for Justice, Americans of All Stripes Want a Mail Ballot Option.

[4] Liptak, Splitting 5-4, Supreme Court Grants Alabama’s Request to Restore Voting Restrictions, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020); Gerstein, Supreme Court blocks judge’s order loosening Alabama voting requirements due to virus, Politico (July 2, 2020).

[5] National Conf. State Legislatures, All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).

[6] Ibid.

[7] ACLU, Press Release: Court Rules Lawsuit To Allow All Missourians to Vote By Mail Without a Notary During Covid-19 Can Proceed (June 23, 2020).

[8] Liptak, Supreme Court Turns down Request to Allow All Texans to Vote by Mail, N.Y.Times (June 26, 2020); Assoc. Press, Supreme Court doesn’t wade into mail-in voting battle, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020); Barnes, Supreme Court won’t force Texans to allow absentee ballots for all voters, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020).

[9] Earlier this year there was federal court litigation over the Wisconsin primary election that lead to counting of ballots that had been mailed no later than election day. (See these posts and comments to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin Primary Election (April 10, 2020); Comment: More Criticism of Republican Strategy of Limiting Voting (April 12, 2020; Comment: More Comments on Wisconsin Election (April 13, 2020); Comment: Surprising Results in Wisconsin Election (April 14, 2020); Commnet: George F. Will’s Opinion on Voting By Mail (VBM) (April 15, 2020); Comment: Emerging Battles Over Changing State Election Laws (April 15, 2020); Comment: New York Times Editorial on Wisconsin Election (April 20, 2020; Comment: Thousands of Wisconsin Absentee Ballots Counted After Election Day (May 3, 2020).

[10] Galston, How to Prevent an Electoral Crisis, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020).

[11] Liptak, Supreme Court Seems Ready to Curb ‘Faithless Electors,’ N.Y. Times (May 13, 2020); Wegman, The Electoral College Is a Confusing Mess, N.Y.Times (May 13, 2020).

 

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 20): Oprah Winfrey’s Challenge to the Pandemic Classes of 2020   

On May 15, Oprah Winfrey gave an inspiring online commencement address to all graduating high school and college members of the classes of 2020, the pandemic classes. Here is what she said.[1]

“[N]ever has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope.”

“Every one of us is now being called to graduate, to step toward something, even though we don’t know what. Every one of us is likewise now being called to temper the parts of ourselves that must fall away, to refine who we are, how we define success and what is genuinely meaningful. And you, the real graduates on this day, you will lead us.”

“It’s vital that you learn, and we all learn, to be at peace with the discomfort of stepping into the unknown. It’s really OK to not have all the answers. The answers will come for sure, if you can accept not knowing long enough to get still and stay still long enough for new thoughts to take root in your more quiet, deeper, truer self. The noise of the world drowns out the sound of you. You have to get still to listen.”

“Can you, the class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again, but how to create a new and more evolved normal, a world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole? We need you to do this, because the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long. For poor communities without adequate access to health care, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For immigrant communities forced to hide in the shadows, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For incarcerated people, with no ability to social distance, inequality is a pre-existing condition. For every person burdened by bias and bigotry, for every black man and woman living in their American skin, fearful to even go for a jog, inequality is a pre-existing condition.”

“You have the power to stand for, to fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society. This moment is your invitation to use your education to begin to heal our afflictions by applying the best of what you’ve learned in your head, and felt in your heart. This moment has shown us what Dr. King tried to tell us. Decades ago, he understood that ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.’”

“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. If humanity is a global body, every soul is a cell in that body, and we are being challenged like never before to keep the global body healthy by keeping ourselves healthy in mind and body and spirit. As all the traditions affirm, the deepest self-care is at once caring for the human family.”

We “see this so clearly with essential workers. Look who turns out to be essential: teachers — your teachers, health care workers, of course, the people stocking grocery shelves, the cashiers, the truck drivers, food providers, those who are caring for your grandparents, those who clean the places where we work and shop and carry out our daily lives. We are all here because they, at great and profound risk, are still providing their essential service.”

“What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community and the world?”

Comments

I concur that “the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many for too long.”

It also has illuminated the many antiquated aspects of the American government that need to be eliminated or substantially reformed—the Electoral College, the U.S. Senate in which every state has two senators regardless of population, the Senate’s filibuster rule, the needlessly complex structure for voting that allows some states to suppress voting by minorities or citizens who favor the other political party from those in charge. The more specific need this year is prevent the re-election of Donald Trump and any attempt by him and his allies to subvert the election.

So too there are many aspects of the American economy that need to be substantially reformed, such as the immense differences in compensation of corporate CEO’s and the essential hourly employees. For example, the CEO of Target Corporation had total compensation of $21.6 million for fiscal 2019-20 while “essential” employees in its stores in April 2019 had their hourly wage boosted to $13 with the goal of reaching $15 by the end of 2020 and on March 22, 2020, were advised that they would receive an additional $2 per hour through at least May 2. [2]

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[1] Winfrey, Virtual Commencement Address, Facebook (May 15, 2020); Bogei-Burroughs, Oprah to Class of 2020: ‘What Will Your Essential Service Be?’, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2020).

[2] Kennedy, CEO Pay Watch: Target’s Brian Cornell made $21.6 million last fiscal year, StarTribune (April 23, 2020); Reagan, Target raises its minimum wage to $13 per hour, with goal of reaching $15 by end of 2020, CNBC (April 4, 2019); Wilson, Target gives raises, bonuses to employees during coronavirus pandemic, WTHR 13 (Mar. 24, 2020).

 

 

Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

===========================

[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

Senator Chuck Grassley’s Outrageous Conduct Regarding the Supreme Court Nomination of Merrick Garland 

 

Iowa Senator Charles (“Chuck”) Grassley, the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is following the dictates of the Senate Majority Leader and his fellow Republican, Mitch McConnell, to not do anything with respect to President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Grassley’s conduct with respect to this nomination stands in sharp contrast to the rational argument for the nomination recently offered by President Obama as discussed in a prior post and in the White House’s website for the nomination.

Grassley started out this “do-nothingism” on what was a high note for him. Immediately after the announcement of the Garland nomination Grassley said “Article II, Section 2 [of the Constitution grants] the power to nominate an individual to the Supreme Court . . . to the President and authority is given to the Senate to provide advice and consent.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it describe how the Senate should either provide its consent or withhold its consent.” In addition, according to the Senator, “A majority of the Senate [the Republicans] has decided to fulfill its constitutional role of advice and consent by withholding support for the nomination during a presidential election year.”[1]

Grassley, therefore, has not submitted any questionnaire to the nominee, has refused to schedule any hearing on the nomination and has promised not to submit the nomination for a vote by the entire Senate. In addition, Grassley initially even refused to extend the courtesy of meeting with Judge Garland. Subsequently, however, Grassley said he would meet with Garland to tell him why Grassley was not supporting the nomination.[2]

Grassley Speech on Senate Floor

On April 5, Grassley escalated his obstructionism by an intemperate speech on the Senate floor criticizing Chief Justice Roberts for saying, 10 days before the death of Associate Justice Scalia and thus before the controversy over the Garland nomination: “When you have a sharply divided political divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms.  You know if the Democrats and Republicans have been fighting so fiercely about whether you’re going to be confirmed, it’s natural for some members of the public to think, well, you must be identified in a particular way as a result of that process.” [3]

According to Grassley, “the Chief Justice has it exactly backwards.  The confirmation process doesn’t make the Justices appear political.  The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the court has drifted from the constitutional text, and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences. In short, the Justices themselves have gotten political.  And because the Justices’ decisions are often political and transgress their constitutional role, the process becomes more political.”

“In fact, many of my constituents believe, with all due respect, that the Chief Justice is part of this problem,” added Grassley. “And contrary to what the Chief Justice suggested, a major reason the confirmation process has become more divisive is that some of the Justices are voting too often based on politics and not on law.   If they’re going to be political actors after they’re confirmed, then the confirmation process necessarily will reflect that dynamic.”

This Grassley speech also criticized Roberts for trying to counter the perception by some Americans that the Court has become politicized. Said the Senator, “I think he is concerned with the wrong problem. He would be well served to address the reality, not perception, that too often there is little difference between the actions of the court and the actions of the political branches. So, physician, heal thyself.”

Reacting to this speech, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, said this speech “was close to breathtaking in its intemperate incoherence.” It included an “extended attack on Chief Justice John Roberts, who had recently expressed the unexceptional view that the Court should stay out of politics as much as possible.” According to Grassley, “The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the Court has drifted from the constitutional text and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences.” Presumably Grassley was referring to two cases upholding the Affordable Care Act that were written by Roberts.

An editorial in the Baltimore Sun had similar words of condemnation. It said that Grassley’s argument was “infantile” and “allows Mr. Grassley or any other self-appointed expert on constitutional law to make a similar claim every time a justice interprets the law in a manner that is not lock-step with the critic’s own. . . . Shame on Senator Grassley for suggesting that Justice Roberts has somehow betrayed the institution when it is the judiciary chairman who seems to be bent on rewriting the Constitution — not only to limit President Barack Obama’s authority to fill a court vacancy but now to imply that the chief justice has somehow sabotaged the court. . . . Iowa voters, take note: Your six-term senator deserves to be put out to pasture, if only for sheer soft-headedness.”[4]

Grassley Op-Ed in Des Moines Register

On April 10, in reaction to a Des Moines Register editorial objecting to the Senate’s obstruction of the nomination and probably to Iowa voters objecting to his “do-nothingism,” Grassley published an op-ed in that newspaper” to defend his position.[5]

He asserted that it was absurd to argue that somehow “the federal judiciary is debilitated without a ninth Supreme Court justice for a brief period of time.  As the [changing] numbers [of the Justices over time] make clear, the size of the court as Congress designed it over the years has frequently changed, and hasn’t left the court in disarray.” He continued, “The temporary impact of a split decision pales in comparison to the damage an election-year political brawl would cause the court and the country . . . . A nomination considered during this heated campaign season would be all about politics, not the Constitution.”

Grassley-Garland Breakfast Meeting

The Grassley-Garland meeting did happen over breakfast in the Senate Dining Room on April 12. After the one-hour breakfast, Grassley tweeted that the meeting has been “pleasant” as he explained to Judge Garland why the Senate would not be moving forward with his nomination. Later the Senator’s staff released a statement: “The meeting was cordial and pleasant. As he indicated last week, Grassley explained why the Senate won’t be moving forward during this hyper-partisan election year. Grassley thanked Judge Garland for his service.” [6]

Grassley ‘s Reaction to President Obama’s Statement About the Nomination

Later that same day, April 12, the Senator released a statement to be made on the Senate floor in response to President Obama’s comments at the University of Chicago Law School that were discussed in an earlier post.[7]

“[U]nlike the President, I think it’s a bad thing that there’s politics in judicial decision-making these days. Politics in judicial rulings means that something other than law forms the basis of those decisions. It means the judge is reading his or her own views into the Constitution.  Unlike the President, I believe the biggest threat to public confidence in the court is the justices’ willingness to permit their own personal politics to influence their decisions. “

According to Grassley and contrary to the President, “what’s in a judge’s ‘heart,” or their personal “perspective [and] ethics’ have no place in judicial decision-making” and ‘is totally at odds with our constitutional system.   We are a government of laws and not a government of judges.”

Said Grassley, “Politics belongs to us—it’s between the people and their elected representatives.  It’s important that judges don’t get involved in politics. That’s because, unlike senators, lifetime-appointed federal judges aren’t accountable to the people in elections.  It’s also because when nine unelected justices make decisions based on their own policy preferences, rather than constitutional text, they rob from the American people the ability to govern themselves.”

Conclusion

A negative assessment of the obstructions to the Garland nomination by Chairman Grassley and other Republican Senators has been provided by 15 former presidents of the American Bar Association (ABA) and by this blogger.

The ABA leaders asserted in a letter to Senate leaders that “there is no election-year exception” to the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities in the Constitution, that Chief Judge Merrick Garland is “one of the most outstanding judges in the country” and that leaving the seat vacant “injects a degree of politics into the judicial branch that materially hampers the effective operation of our nation’s highest court.” Therefore, say the bar leaders, “The president has fulfilled his constitutional duty, and it is time for the members of the United States Senate to fulfill theirs by holding a fair hearing and timely vote.”[8]

Grassley’s previously cited op-ed made what, in this blogger’s opinion, is an absurd argument. He contended that with a vacancy on the Court this election year, “the American people have a unique opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about the meaning of our Constitution and the way justices read it.” So far there has not been any such serious discussion of this or any other issue and it is unrealistic to expect that there will be any difference during the remaining six-plus months of this election.

Moreover, Grassley who is not an attorney and who, to my knowledge, has never studied constitutional law, proceeds from an over-simplistic view of how cases present constitutional questions and how courts resolve them. He also ignores the Senate’s own interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions by its consistent practice of holding hearings and votes on nominations even in election years. Finally Grassley errs in suggesting that issues of constitutional law should be submitted to the average voter, similarly unversed in constitutional law. Instead the constitutional system submits selection of judges to the President and the Senate, neither of which originally was elected directly by the people.[9] This system of judicial selection is one way to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Although I now live and vote in Minnesota, I am a native Iowan who obtained education in the public schools of the Iowa town of Perry and at the state’s Grinnell College. I, therefore, wrote to Senator Grassley on March 20, 2016. After reciting my Iowa background, I stated:

  • “I have long believed that most Iowans were reasonable, fair-minded people and that their elected representatives reflected this admirable trait.”
  • “You, however, disappointingly have dispelled this belief by your enlistment in the Republican Senate leadership campaign to deny a hearing and a Senate vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate on advising and consenting to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court.”
  • “In so doing, you ignore that in 2012 President Obama won reelection for a term of office that does not end until January 20, 2017 with a popular vote of 65.9 million, which was nearly 5.0 million more votes than those received by the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. You also ignore that under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution the President has the power and the duty to “nominate . . . Judges of the supreme Court” and that the Senate has the power and duty to provide its “Advice and Consent” to such nominations.”
  • “Remember this is the Senate Judiciary Committee, not the Republican Judiciary Committee nor “your” Judiciary Committee.”
  • “I hope during this Senate recess that your Iowa constituents will voice similar views to you and that you change your position on this important issue and authorize the Judiciary Committee to proceed with its consideration of this nomination.”

To date I have not received any response to this letter from the Senator.

====================================

[1] Grassley, Grassley Statement on the President’s Nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court (Mar. 16, 2016)

[2] Reuters, Senator Grassley to Meet Garland Despite Opposition to Nominee, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016); Shear, Meeting Merritt Garland to Tell Him Why G.O.P. Won’t Hold Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016).

[3] Grassley, Grassley Floor Statement on the Public Perception of the Supreme Court (April 5, 2016); Assoc. Press, Capitol Hill Buzz: Grassley Takes on Chief Justice Roberts, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2016); Toobin, The Supreme Court Extremism of Clarence Thomas and Chuck Grassley, New Yorker (April 8, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Grassley v. Roberts, Baltimore Sun (April 10, 2016).

[5] Grassley: Grassley: Sky won’t fall with one less justice, Des Moines Register (April 10, 2016).

[6] Herszenhorn, Senator Grassley and Judge Garland Meet, and Rehash the Obvious, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016);Reuters, Senate Judiciary Chairman Grassley Tells Garland No Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016); Assoc. Press, Senate Judiciary Chair Grassley Has Breakfast with Garland, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016).

[7] Grassley, The Supreme Court and the Remarks of President Barack Obama at the University of Chicago (April 12, 2016).

[8] Assoc. Press, Ex-American Bar Association Chiefs Push for a Vote on Garland, N/Y. Times (April 11, 2016); Mascaro, Top GOP senator meets Obama’s Supreme court pick to tell him there will be no vote, Chic. Tribune (April 12, 2016).

[9]  U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote of the people until 1913 with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring such method of election. (U.S. Senate, Direct Election of Senators.) The President and Vice President, originally and still true today, are not elected by popular vote, but instead by electors in the Electoral College. And the first time there was a popular vote for electors was in 1824 with the procedure for the Electoral College established by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted in 1804.

 

 

 

Proposals for Changing the U.S. Constitution

The New York Times in its “Room for Debate” feature invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss news events and other timely issues. The feature also solicits comments on the topic from readers.

The feature’s July 9th topic is suggestions for amending the U.S. Constitution. Ten professors of history and law started the conversation with their suggested constitutional changes.

Contributors’ Comments

Direct Election of President. Article II, Section 2 provides for election of the president by an electoral college. Alexander Keyssar, the Stirling professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, suggests abolishing the electoral college and having the president (and vice president) directly elected by the national popular vote.

He says the “concerns that prompted the Founding Fathers to adopt [the current] . . .  system — a distrust of popular elections, worry that the people would be unfamiliar with national candidates, a desire to reinforce the great constitutional compromises between large states and small states, slave states and free states” are no longer valid.

In addition, Keyssar points out that we have learned about “shortcomings in the framers’ design: the person who wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily become president; the adoption of “winner take all” rules (permitted but not mandated by the Constitution) produces election campaigns that ignore most of the country and contribute to low turnout; the legislature of any state can decide to choose electors by itself and decline to hold an election at all; and the complex procedure for dealing with an election in which no candidate wins a clear majority of the electoral vote is fraught with peril.”

As indicated below, I support this proposal.

Qualifications for Office of President. The Constitution’s Article II, Section 4 establishes the following qualifications for the presidency: “a natural born citizen,” at least 35 years old and a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years. Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, proposes this be changed to make eligible “those American citizens who happen to have been born abroad to non-American parents — and who later choose to become ‘naturalized’ American citizens.” This would be consistent with the overall historical trend of increasing equality and with the current practice in the 50 states.

I am indifferent on this proposal.

Federal Judges Tenure. The Constitution in Article III, Section 1 now provides that federal judges hold office during “good behavior,” which in practice has meant for life absent voluntary retirement. Jamal Greene, a professor of law at Columbia Law School and a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, says “In a democracy, no one person should wield so much power for so long.” To solve this problem, Greene endorses a proposal by Professors Steven Calabresi and James Lindgren for Supreme Court appointments with non-renewable 18-years terms, with one new justice every odd-numbered year.

As indicated below, I support this proposal.

Re-emphasize that Treaties Are Part of the Supreme Law of the Land. Under Article VI, Section 2 of the Constitution, “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be [part of] the supreme law of the land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution of laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” However, as pointed out by Jenny S. Martinez, the Warren Christopher professor in the practice of international law and diplomacy at Stanford Law Schoolthe U.S. Supreme Court has held that certain treaties were not enforceable against the states. Therefore, she suggests that this provision be re-emphasized in some way.

I agree that treaties under the existing Constitution are part of the supreme law of the land and that they should bind states. There, however, is no specific proposed amendment to react to.

Changing the Process for Amending the Constitution. Article V of the Constitution provides two methods of amending the Constitution: (i) specific proposed amendments adopted by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress plus ratification by three-fourths or 38 of the states; or (ii) a call for a constitutional convention by two-thirds or 34 of the states, whose proposed amendments are ratified by three-fourths or 38 of the states. The latter method (constitutional convention), has never been used, and Michael Rappaport, the Darling Foundation professor of law at the University of San Diego and the director of its Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism, believes that this non-use “means that Congress has a veto on all amendments and therefore no amendment that Congress opposes, including necessary reforms of Congress’s power, can be enacted.”

Therefore, Rappaport proposes that the Constitution be changed “to eliminate the possibility of a runaway convention.” The best way, he says is dispensing with “a constitutional convention and instead have the state legislatures agree to propose a specific amendment. But any method that allows for a working alternative to Congress’s amendment monopoly would be an enormous improvement.”

Rappaport has a valid objection to the present constitutional scheme, and I could accept a proposal that would allow three-fourths of the states to propose specific amendments, but would still require a two-thirds vote by each house of the Congress to adopt an amendment.

Emphasize the 10th Amendment’s Limits on Federal Government’s Powers. Under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the federal government has certain specified powers, and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

According to Elizabeth Price Foley, the holder of the Institute for Justice Chair in constitutional litigation at Florida International University College of Law, these principles are important for liberty. As the Supreme Court unanimously stated in Bond v. United States (2011), “By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all the concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power. When government acts in excess of its lawful powers, that liberty is at stake.”

She believes that the existing Constitution is sufficient on this point so long as it is followed by the courts, but is open to amendment to restore certain powers to the state and like Michael Rappaport endorses the suggestion that the states have the right to propose federal constitutional amendments.

Although as just stated, I support giving the states a right to propose specific amendments, I do not favor any amendments that seek to diminish the power of the federal government. In this age of globalization, it is unwise to emphasize states over the federal government.

Narrow Congress’  Power Over  Interstate Commerce Power. As discussed in prior posts before and after the June 28, 2012, Supreme Court decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, the power of Congress under Article I, Section 8(3) to “regulate commerce . . . among the several States” has been interpreted by the Court to encompass intrastate commerce that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

Consistent with the views of Professor Foley, Randy E. Barnett, the Carmack Waterhouse professor of legal theory at Georgetown Law Center and one of the attorneys challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court, has proposed the following amendment that he says essentially returns the clause to its original meaning:

  • “The power of Congress to make all laws that are necessary and proper to regulate commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations, shall not be construed to include the power to regulate or prohibit any activity that is confined within a single state regardless of its effects outside the state, whether it employs instrumentalities therefrom, or whether its regulation or prohibition is part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme; but Congress shall have power to regulate harmful emissions between one state and another, and to define and provide for punishment of offenses constituting acts of war or violent insurrection against the United States.”
I oppose this suggestion for the reasons stated in my prior posts.

Revising the First Amendment. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .” Pauline Maier, the William Rand Kenan Jr. professor of American history at M.I.T, says that this language was a revision of a more expansive version prepared by James Madison. She, therefore, suggests returning to the following Madisonian version:

  • “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed. The people shall not be deprived of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

This wording, like most of the first eight amendments, Msier believes, affirms basic rights in general terms, not as restrictions on the federal government. It also would undermine the Supreme Court’s decision about corporate speech in the Citizens United case.

I support this proposed amendment.

Delete the Second Amendment’s Right To Bear Arms. The Second Amendment to the Constitution provides that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Melynda Price, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, proposes the deletion of this right because of the amount of gun violence in the U.S.

I like the spirit of this proposal, but would have to evaluate specific language for such a change.

Clarify the Eighth Amendment’s Ban on “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution states, “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” Rachel E. Barkow, the Segal Family professor of regulatory law and policy and the faculty director at the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University, suggests this be clarified to “specifically state that excessive terms of incarceration are prohibited, just as it bans excessive [bail and] fines.” In addition, she says , it “should expressly prohibit mandatory sentences so that every case gets the benefit of individualized attention by a judge” and “insist that legislatures create a record showing that they considered empirical evidence about the law’s likely impact.”

I support this proposal.

Readers’ Comments

Readers are invited to add their comments, and I made the following suggested constitutional changes.

1. Outlaw Senate Filibuster. To require 60% of the Senators to agree in order to do almost anything is outrageous. It should only be 51% for most issues. Earlier I called the filibuster part of the abominable rules of the Senate; another post discussed revisions to the rule; and yet another post talked about additional attacks on the filibuster.

2. Change Weight of Senate Votes. Based on population, each Senator from Wyoming would have 1 vote, for example, but each Senator from California would have 66 votes. This approach would produce a total Senate vote of 1,094 based on the total U.S. population in 2010. The weightings would be changed every 10 years with the new census.

3. Change Term of House Representatives. Change the term from two years to four years to coincide with the presidential election.

4. Direct Election of President and Vice President. I agree with Professor Keyssar that the U.S. should institute direct election of the U.S. President by the national popular vote and abolish the electoral college.

5. Eliminate Life Tenure for Federal Judges. Impose a term limit on all federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices. One solution, perhaps by statute, would be to amend the current statute on judicial retirement (28 U.S.C. § 371) to make such retirement mandatory on reaching the current age and service requirements. I essentially concur in the comments of Professor Greene.

Many years ago I made other suggestions for constitutional changes in a virtual constitutional convention. More recently I have discussed what I regard as our antiquated or imbecilic Constitution.

“Our Imbecilic Constitution”

In the late 18th century debate over ratification of the new U.S. Constitution, the authors of “The Federalist Papers” mocked the “imbecility” of the weak central government created by the Articles of Confederation.

Now in the early 21st century we the People of the U.S. need to recognize that our federal Constitution is “imbecilic.” This is the contention of Sanford Levinson, Professor of Law and Government at the University of Texas, Austin, in a post entitled “Our Imbecilic Constitution” that was published in the May 29th issue of the New York Times.

Levinson argues that the U.S. Constitution plays a major role in generating the current dysfunctional U.S. governmental system. He begins his critique “with the Senate and its assignment of equal voting power to California and Wyoming; Vermont and Texas; New York and North Dakota. Consider that, although a majority of Americans since World War II have registered opposition to the Electoral College, we will participate this year in yet another election that ‘battleground states’ will dominate while the three largest states will be largely ignored.”

Levinson also recommends making it easier to amend the U.S. Constitution. This could include a debate on allowing amendments by voters at the ballot box.

Other possible topics for debate, he says, include (a) allowing a newly elected president to appoint 50 members of the House of Representatives and 10 to the Senate; (b) requiring a super-majority (say seven of nine) of the Supreme Court Justices to invalidate national legislation; and (c) changing the way in which federal judges are selected.

This article strikes some of the same criticisms of the U.S. Constitution as one of my posts.