Friday, August 25, 2006

Pluto and Constitutional Theory

Mark Graber

The New York Times reports that Pluto has been reclassified as one of three dwarf planets in the solar system, ending a controversy among astronomers over that sphere's status. Pluto was not reclassified, as I understand the Times story, because scientists discovered some fact about Pluto that was inconsistent with existing definitions of "planet." Rather, discoveries over the past generation have raised problems with existing definitions of "planet," requiring astronomers to adjust general understandings of what constitutes a planet before determining whether Pluto should be considered a planet.

The reclassification of the solar system and Pluto raise some questions about any variation of original meaning, whether we focus on specific expectations or general principles. Imagine that astronomers had discovered that, contrary to previous knowledge, Pluto did not actually revolve around the sun. In which case, Pluto could have been reclassified consistent with the original meaning of "planet." That the persons responsible for the original meaning of planet (or the most recent authoritative definition) thought Pluto met the conditions for being a planet is of no relevance to whether Pluto is a planet, if new evidence reveals that Pluto does not meet the general conditions for being a planet. Similarly, whether the persons responsible for the Fourteenth Amendment thought the equal protection clause protects abortion rights is of no relevance to whether the Fourteenth Amendment protects abortion rights if, on reflection, we come to believe that abortion rights are consistent with the general conditions for being an equal protection rights or, more accurately, the general principles underlying equal protection. This, I think, is the attraction of the new improved originalism.

The problem, in the case of Pluto, is that what astronomers discovered was that the existing principles of astronomy did not adequately describe astronomic phenomenon. Their discoveries meant that they could determine whether Pluto was a planet only by adjusting the broader principles determining what constituted a planet. The same phenomenon is likely to occur in constitutional societies. Constitutional developments do not simply create conditions under which practices originally classified as constitutional must be reclassified as unconstitutional (and vice versa), new conditions also challenge the capacity of existing constitutional principles to provide adequate criteria for classifying practices as constitutional or unconstitutional. For example, constitutional principles that insist we protect speech but not property do not resolve issues of campaign finance, where the question is whether the regulation is of speech or property. Unless we decide the framers were committed to such abstractions as equality, liberty or human dignity, abstractions that might justify any policy, we are likely to discover that principles the framers in 1789 or 1868 thought would be sufficient to classify practices as unconstitutional or constitutional no longer do so, that as was the case with Pluto, when determining whether abortion is an equal protection right, we will have to adjust general principles as well as specific applications.

Let me be clear on one point. My argument is not that the proponents of abortion cannot rely on the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. My claim is that no one can because the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, understood even in terms of general principles, cannot fully resolve modern problems. Constitutional theory, Pluto suggests, needs a theory of political development which cannot simply be a theory that relies on improved understandings of the general principles underlying constitutional norms.


Dr. Graber,

As a big fan of Kuhn's "Theory of Scientific Revolution", I really enjoyed this post. I just want to make sure that I'm reading the concluding sentence properly. You write "Constitutional theory, Pluto suggests, needs a theory of political development which cannot simply be a theory that relies on improved understandings of the general principles underlying constitutional norms." I take it that SIMPLY is the key word.

More generally, the argument is that there are "paradigm crises" that appear in constittuional design when issues appear that the old values and methods don't have an answer for, and in these particular cases, understanding the "general principles underlying constitutional norms" is not going to get the job done. Is that a correct reading?

For Pluto... it's been decades in the making, and there's been decades of data to support the change.
If it were only true that law was inclined to bow to empirical data.

What this Constitution needs is a Pope!

Someone to sit ex Cathedra (or would that be ex Domus Niveus?) and rule, once and for all, and clear up all this muddled business.

What do I care what some dead person thought about the 14th amendment, or what you think about it? I need someone infallible to tell me!

Erasure of doubt = Tranquility and Unity.

Of course, I nominate His Excellency, George Walker Bush, who almost is doing the job already (for free).

Hereafter to be called Pontifex Americanus et Liberator Mundus, George the *ss.

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