Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Missing Unwritten Constitution

Gerard N. Magliocca

I have finished reading Akhil Amar's terrific new book on The Unwritten Constitution.  It's something that everyone who enjoys constitutional law or politics should buy.  You'll want to throw it across the room when you disagree with what he says, but five minutes you will run over and pick it up again.

Now I have a few nits to pick here and there, but my main criticism of the book is that I don't like Amar's definition of the unwritten Constitution.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that his working assumption seems to be that something violates the unwritten Constitution only if a court or the body charged with making the call (say, the Senate during an impeachment trial) would (or should) say the act is unconstitutional.  This, though, strikes me as incomplete.

Here's one example.  Amar claims that the current size of the Supreme Court--nine Justices--was not settled by the failure of Franklin Roosevelt's Court-packing plan in 1937.  He points out (correctly) that Congress can still change the size of the Court for some good-government reason.  The problem is that most lawyers would view such a change as deeply wrong no matter what the explanation is.  (Indeed, I would submit that this is far more settled than other constitutional rules that Amar defends in the book.)

Amar's approach would also deny unwritten constitutional status to various canonical statutes.  Nothing  in the Constitution mandates the existence of lower federal courts--the Judiciary Act of 1789 does that.  Nothing requires that various segments of American life be desegregated--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does that.  And so on.  Of course these statutes can be repealed, but doing so would be seen by a lot of people as "unconstitutional."  There are, in other words, unwritten political limitations on Congress.

In the end, Amar (patriotic American that he is), does not accept the British concept of unwritten law.  If I were writing a book about the British Constitution, I would not simply ask "What can't Parliament do?"  If I did, it would be a very short book.  Rather, I would ask, "What institutions or practices are so deeply woven into the law that it would be unthinkable for Parliament to change them?"

Perhaps this just means that Akhil needs write another book--"The Unwritten Unwritten Constitution."  


As an alternative to Gerard's closing suggestion, maybe there's a book in the wings for Gerard if he's not too busy:


This might give rise to a movement for a constitutional convention and an amendment making it clear that there is no unwritten constitution that's worth the paper it's not written on.

For those interested in Amar's new book, he is posting at VC, including responses to his postings by DB and Ilya, to which Amar responds (as well as comments from the "usual suspects" at VC). Looks like a "round-robin" constitutional brouhaha in the making.

Why would most lawyers view it as "deeply wrong" to change the number of seats on the Supreme Court (assuming, perhaps improbably, the change would have predictable impact on outcomes)?

No predictable impact

Imagine oral arguments with 17 Justices to ask questions and otherwise interrupt the attorneys, to write more books on judicial philosophy and how to interpret/construe the Constitution. Imagine also the additional confirmation time in the Senate.

I don't think nine (9) is a magic number, but what might the historical (hysterical?) accuracy of foresight tell us what to expect with either an increase or decrease in the number of Justices? I go along with mls' question, whether the impact would be predictable or unpredictable.

I can relate with the throwing the book ... the guy has some out there ideas. I agree as a whole he's a charm.

If you throw the book, you might get an impact.

For changing the number of Supremes, I think the word you're looking for is "effect".

Yours for saving the language.

"In the end, Amar (patriotic American that he is), does not accept the British concept of unwritten law."

It's his saving grace. From an American standpoint, the very idea of "law" implies "written", because the law consists of formal rules. If it isn't formal, written down, it isn't law. It is merely "custom".

Brett, that's not so much an American concept as a modern one. As JGA Pocock pointed out, the Medieval view was that custom was binding.

Mark, if that's the "modern" conception of the law, I'd say a lot of people, such as Gerard above, are trying to kill it off, on the basis that it's already dead outside the US, where custom is binding, and written law is, eh.

Unwritten constitutions are fine in their place, which is countries which lack written ones. But the primary point of writing down law, (And constitutions are law, or they are nothing.) is so that you know what the law is. And by extension, isn't.

I guess I can see "unwritten constitution" as a metaphor, though I think it's not a very good one. But I repeatedly get the impression it's meant to convey something more literal.

And that the point of elevating the unwritten, is to lower the written...

I don't think they're trying to kill it off so much as pointing out that long-standing custom acquires a force of its own even in situations where there's a formal law. This happens a lot outside the area of Constitutional law. It's part of the basis for stare decisis, for example, but custom and practice are recognized in many areas.


"If it isn't formal, written down, it isn't law. It is merely 'custom'."

may conflict with common law.

I don't think they're trying to kill it off so much as pointing out that long-standing custom acquires a force of its own even in situations where there's a formal law. This happens a lot outside the area of Constitutional law.Buy Windows 7 Key
Windows 7 professional Key
Windows 7 professional activation Key

Is there such a good book about the British constitution, either formulation, by the way? I think I'd like to read it.

dbomp should Google:

British Constitution

for links to free sources on the subject and perhaps a book on the subject. The free sources may be more than adequate for dbomp's purposes.

don't forget the "written" 9th Amendment and the human rights incorporated by reference therein. Human Rights and the Ninth Amendment: A New Form of Guarantee, Cornell L. Rev. (1975).

Lanvin Bag Fashion design,color clean and pure,add a delicate metal chain belts braided part highlights alternative style,perfect appearance to the nines.High quality leather will the whole bag to ascend to the higher level up.This is a charming bag.Lanvin Bag is fashionable personage love most,make public however not vulgar,the bag is very big,enough for you to go out necessities,aglet part of this process is very perfect,leather and metal union,fashion and comfortable.You should not miss this perfect bag it.

Thought of sentence which you can instruct your dog collar for the duration of house breaking. As soon as you take your pup out of doors, mention "go potty" in their mind so that they will internet affiliate the phrase through going to the bath room exterior.

You need to smart dog carrier decision puppie's brand commonly, to make sure he or she works that will partner this by means of bearing in mind a person. Utilize the designate often, specially while in the first of all years in the house; the puppy must relate his / her title having focusing on you will. Find a new puppy label that will appears specially dog leashes as compared to plain english your pet dog may perhaps perceive each day.

Thank you for another great article. Where else could anybody get that kind of info in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such info.
About HCG

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts