Thursday, September 18, 2008

Structure, Shmucture

About a year ago, Justice Scalia spoke at a symposium on "Separation of Powers as a Safeguard of Federalism" at Notre Dame Law School. A copy of the published proceedings just crossed my desk. In addition to a number of interesting scholarly articles, the issue includes a very short introduction by Justice Scalia. It includes Justice Scalia's claim---which he has made in other settings---that the structural provisions of a constitution (things like federalism and separation of powers) are more important than rights provisions. Only half-jokingly, he says that when he was a law professor, he referred to structural constitutional law as "real" constitutional law.

There is a certain plausibility to this claim. For example, were it not for the structural provision of the Electoral College, Al Gore would have likely won the Presidency in 2000. I say "likely" rather than surely because the candidates would have campaigned differently if they knew that the winner of the popular vote would win the Presidency, and so in this counter-factual world, we couldn't say for sure that Gore would still have won the popular vote. But you get the point: The fact that Alaska has as much representation in the U.S. Senate as California tells us a great deal about what our national policies will look like, probably more than the wording of the First Amendment tells us.

Justice Scalia gives a nice example. He quotes two liberal provisions of the old Soviet Constituton, respectively forbidding persecution for criticizing the government, and protecting freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. He then goes on to say of these guarantees:

They were not worth the paper they were printed on, as are the human rights guarantees of a large number of still-extant countries governed by Presidents-for-Life. They are what the Framers of our Constitution called “parchment guarantees,” because the real constitutions of those countries--the provisions that establish the institutions of government--do not prevent the centralization of power in one man or one party, thus enabling the guarantees to be ignored. Structure is everything.


Justice Scalia is half-right here. Nice-sounding rights in a constitution do not ensure governmentla compliance. But Scalia is half-wrong as well, because we can say exactly the same thing about structure. Take the old Soviet Constitution. It contains structural provisions guaranteeing the freedom of Soviet Republics to secede (Article 72), that representatives to soviets of people's deputies shall be chosen on the basis of universal adult suffrage by secret ballot on a one-person, one-vote basis (Articles 95-97), and judicial independence (Article 155). These provisions also weren't worth the paper they were printed on.

Now it might be objected that matters like voting and judicial independence are not about structure but rights. Yet that seems plainly false; rights and structure intertwine. Consider two U.S. examples: 1) The Suspension Clause of Article I protects the right to habeas corpus and serves a separation-of-powers function. 2) If a state were to abolish the right to vote for state legislative officials, it would surely violate the structural provision guaranteeing to each state a republican form of government. But surely the Guarantee Clause (as it is known) is structural in ensuring a particular form of government. And yet both it and the Suspension Clause, like the entire Constitution, are ultimately mere parchment barriers.

Or if you want to stick with Russia, consider the fact that Russia's recent decline into autocracy is being accomplished in large part by intimidation of the independent media--i.e., by violating rights--so that Putin and Medvedev could ensure their election without rigging actual votes.

What distinguishes real from sham constitutions is not a distinction between structure and rights but a distinction between a culture that respects constitutional democracy and one that does not. Brezhnev knew he could ignore the Soviet Constitution because he knew that he would still command the loyalty of the Communist Party and the Soviet Army. American Presidents know that if they push too hard on the Constitution, the government, the People, and civil society will eventually push back. Or at least they're supposed to.

Posted by Mike Dorf

13 comments:

egarber said...

Two observations:

1. Couldn't you also say that structural and rights provisions reinforce each other? For instance, if the commerce clause is structural (maybe it's not?), it limits federal authority to those activities that have a nexus with interstate commerce. But, the constitutional right to privacy *further* limits that power -- in that I have a right to purchase contraception, for example. The point is that the existence of the right alters the scope of what the structural power would otherwise express.

2. I think it is true that at least one structural component must come first, if the rest of the constitution is to have teeth: strong and independent courts.Pakistan's experience is a clear reflection of this critical need. Without the courts, the existing structure can't even be enforced, let alone protection of rights.

Caleb said...

If it's the culture of democracy--something I would interpret as a self-perpetuating belief that the rules will be followed--that sustains democracy, how do we avoid the "political" equivalent of this week's market meltdown (which also seems to be negatively reinforcing itself).

Paul said...

This strikes close to judicial realism. If I gather what you are saying, the rights and structure are necessary but insufficient. It works in America because America wants it to work and will rebel against its failure (though apparently true only if we are not made to fear - something accomplished far more easily than I would have expected prior to these last six years).

It fails in Russia in spite of the rights and structure because the Russian people are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices (without regard or comment as to why that may be the case).

Frankly I suspect something different is at work - or at least something additional. At one point, the American people had the capability to enforce its collective will and push back against government abuses of power. That is no longer true. I feel the Bush administration was perilously close to affecting a permanent regime in America. I think had they not invaded Iraq they could possibly have succeeded. They have certainly done two thing to make such permanence more likely in the future. Firstly, they have demonstrated the ease with which Americans are willing to part ways with their freedoms. We are not as strong willed as we once were and safety - or the illusion of it - is far more important than freedom to the large majority of us. Secondly, they made structural changes to our instruments of freedom that will forever redefine where America's current toleration for autocracy rests. At some point in the future - when the next Bush-like administration wants to secure more power into itself - it will find it easier to do so.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Learned Hand said famously: "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it." (That's a quote from some website which may not be exactly accurate but that's the gist). The distressing point that Paul points out, and with which I agree, is that the Bush years have both exposed and furthered Americans' willingness to part with our core commitments.

Mortimer Brezny said...

The distressing point that Paul points out, and with which I agree, is that the Bush years have both exposed and furthered Americans' willingness to part with our core commitments.

Or maybe they weren't core commitments to begin with.

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