The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

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[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

Other Approaches to Interpreting the U.S. Constitution Regarding Economic Regulation

A prior post examined the large body of existing U.S. Supreme Court cases interpreting the Constitution regarding economic regulation and sustaining the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. That post also examined the  strong views of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia on interpreting the U.S. Constitution (and other legal texts) and the vituperative pleadings of George Will and two appellate court judges for changing the interpretation of the Constitution regarding economic regulation.

Those views, however, are not universally accepted. Now we look at the equally strong views regarding such interpretation from Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and a  group of legal scholars known as “the New Textualists.” Those scholars also confirm the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act now pending in the Supreme Court.

Justice Stephen Breyer

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

In his 2005 book, Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, Breyer urges judges to interpret legal provisions (of the Constitution or of statutes) in light of the purpose of the text and how well the consequences of specific rulings will fit those purposes. He argues that the constitutional authors sought to establish a democratic government involving the maximum liberty for its citizens. “Modern liberty” for Breyer is freedom from government coercion. In addition, Breyer asserts, there is “active liberty” or the freedom to participate in government.

Both kinds of liberty should be protected by the courts, according to Breyer, who believes the guiding theme in constitutional interpretation, whether in upholding statutes or enforcing rights, should be enabling democracy — “a form of government in which all citizens share the government’s authority, participating in the creation of public policy.”

Therefore, in his opinion, courts should behave modestly—if not deferentially—when striking down legislation. Courts should acknowledge that the greater number of people involved in legislatures makes them more likely to be circumspect than the considerably fewer people sitting as judges on any court. Unless the legislature has perpetrated an egregious violation of rights, such deference in and of itself promotes the Constitution’s democratic objective by allowing the process of representative government to play out.  Finally, he believes, promoting active liberty simply produces better law.

Moreover, Breyer believes courts should use legislative history to determine the intent of constitution-makers and legislatures when the texts are ambiguous.  In a book on that very subject and in other writings he has identified five primary situations in which judges should use legislative history: (1) to avoid an absurd result; (2) to correct drafting errors; (3) to identify specialized meanings; (4) to identify the purposes of the statute; and (5) to choose among reasonable interpretations of a politically controversial provision.

Justice Breyer also claims that using legislative history is preferable to relying more heavily on canons of interpretation or construction as advocated by Justice Scalia. First, for every canon there exists an equal and opposite canon of construction. The sources of many interpretive canons are old and obscure. Breyer questions what validity a canon created in the nineteenth century has on statutes  in the twenty-first century. Breyer also questions the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s adopting new canons of interpretation or construction. Finally, Justice Breyer doubts that using canons actually helps those who either write or are affected by legislation.

The “New Textualists”

A different perspective on interpreting the U.S. Constitution is provided by Jeffrey Rosen, Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and Legal Director of The New Republic magazine. In an article in that magazine entitled “Constitution Avenue–Liberals discover a theory to crush conservative jurisprudence,” Rosen summarizes some of the work of three of the so-called New Textualists: Professor Akhil Reed Amar of the Yale Law School; Professor Einer Elhauge of the Harvard Law School; and Professor Jack Belkin of the Yale Law School.

Akhil Amar

Amar in his book, America’s Constitution: A Biography,  emphasizes the original public meaning of the constitutional text. But the text is more than the original Constitution; it includes all of the amendments too. He points out that the Constitution has been far more democratic than is conventionally understood. Even though the document was drafted by white landholders, a remarkably large number of citizens (by the standards of 1787) were allowed to vote up or down on it, and the document’s later amendments eventually extended the vote to virtually all Americans.

According to Amar, the Affordable Care Act is constitutional under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce clause as that has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. He said:

  • “What Congress does has to be in the enumerated powers [granted by the Constitution].. One of those powers is the Interstate Commerce Clause. What are the limits on that power? It only applies to regulations that are interstate and commercial. So Congress has to be actually trying to address a commercial problem that spills over state lines. And that’s clearly true here.”
  • “At any given nanosecond, millions of Americans are out of state. Most of my students at Yale are out of state. Three days a week, I am out of my home state. And if I or my students or any of these Americans fall sick, we go to a local ER. That’s an interstate issue. Similarly, if we don’t cover preexisting conditions, we have a lock-in for labor mobility — many workers will be unable to take better jobs out-of-state and thereby contribute more to their families and to the economy. And that’s what the Interstate Commerce Clause was all about: Getting rid of the impediments to genuine interstate commerce, to the free movement of goods and labor.”
Einer Elhauge
Einer Elhauge has addressed the constitutionality issue of the Affordable Care Act by pointing out that in the early years of our Republic, Congress  passed several laws mandating that individuals and companies buy certain things and that most of the constitutional framers supported these measures and none objected on constitutional grounds. These measures were the following:
  • “In 1790, the very first Congress—which incidentally included 20 framers—passed a law that included a mandate: namely, a requirement that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. This law was then signed by another framer: President George Washington.”
  • “In 1792, a Congress with 17 framers passed another statute that required all able-bodied men to buy firearms. . . . Four framers voted against this bill, but the others did not, and it was also signed by [President] Washington.”
  • In “1798, Congress addressed the problem that the employer mandate to buy medical insurance for seamen covered drugs and physician services but not hospital stays. . . . [T]his Congress, with five framers serving in it, . . . enacted a federal law requiring the seamen to buy hospital insurance for themselves.”

Moreover, Elhauge has responded to a criticism of the relevance of these statutes to the constitutional argument.

Jack Balkin

Professor Belkin in his book, Living Originalism, concludes that the best versions of originalism and living constitutionalism are not in conflict, but are compatible. It shows why modern conceptions of civil rights and civil liberties, and the modern state’s protection of national security, health, safety, and the environment, are fully consistent with the Constitution’s original meaning. And it explains how both liberals and conservatives, working through political parties and social movements, play important roles in the ongoing project of constitutional construction.

Belkin concludes that the Affordable Health Care Act is constitutional under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution permitting Congress to “lay and collect taxes.” The Act, he says, does not actually require all (or certain classes of) individuals to purchase health insurance. Instead, it is a tax that people would not have to pay if they purchased health insurance.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court now has only five days next week in which to announce its momentous decisions in the cases involving the Affordable Care Act and the Arizona immigration law.

I again invite comments supplementing, correcting or challenging the assertions in this post.