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What would a “living Constitution” mean if the right wing “gave it life”, as it were? Your answer ought to reveal a truth you’ve probably overlooked if you’re a “living constitutionalist”.

The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individuals against the coercive power of the state. It offers a thorough bulwark against that power not only by enumerating certain rights, such as the rights to free speech and free association, but also by recognizing the existence and sanctity of a complementary set of unenumerated rights. The Ninth Amendment states:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” 

The nearly 250 years since the nation’s founding have seen a debate in judicial case law about whether the Constitution should be interpreted based on its original language, or whether modern social and technological realities should change the way it is interpreted. This pits constitutional “originalists” against advocates of a so-called “living Constitution”.

Antiquated? Or Inconvenient?

For example, there is disagreement about whether the Second Amendment right to bear arms is broad, or limited to certain very small arms, or whether it should permit no private ownership of arms at all. Another example: do modern sensitivities men that constitutionally unprotected “fighting words” now encompass opinions that are merely controversial? Do expressions of support for such policies as flexible wages really fall under the rubric of racism, “hate speech”, or fighting words? Here’s one more: does the (unenumerated) right to life allow the state (and so the law) to claim a greater interest in protecting the contentment of a healthy, but reluctant, prospective mother than in the life of her unborn child?

Three years ago, Randy Barnett asked a question about the living constitution amid the debate over the confirmation of Justice Neal Gorsuch, an avowed originalist. Barnett asked:

Why would you possibly want a nonoriginalist ‘living constitutionalist’ conservative judge or justice who can bend the meaning of the text to make it evolve to conform to conservative political principles and ends? However much you disagree with it, wouldn’t you rather a conservative justice consider himself constrained by the text of the Constitution like, say, the Emoluments Clause?”

That question was followed-up recently by Glenn Reynolds: his thought experiment asks how a right-wing majority might fashion a “living Constitution”, an exercise that should chasten “living constitutionalists” on the Left. He first notes that efforts to fight terrorism can become a real threat to civil liberties. As such, they represent a form of living constitutionalism. Will your on-line behavior and your phone calls be closely monitored, perhaps searching for various keywords? Will formerly unreasonable searches and seizures be sanctioned by an anti-terror, living Constitution? We haven’t gone very far in that direction, even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but it’s easy to imagine a wave of support for such a revision under certain circumstances.

We’ve certainly witnessed erosions of civil liberties under the so-called “War on Drugs”. The courts have not always stood in the way of extra-Constitutional actions by law enforcement. A right-wing living Constitution might sanction certain searches, seizures, and confiscation of private property, to say nothing of the intrusion into the choices of individuals to use drugs privately. The same is true of the “War on Prostitution”.

Imagine a right-wing judiciary interpreting various forms of audio, video, and virtual reality content as violations of standards of “decency”. Imagine a case involving a restrictive FCC ruling of this nature, and the Court finding the FCC’s censorship constitutional at the federal level, not merely at a community’s level.

Imagine state legislation that forces the Court to weigh-in on whether federalism and states’ rights outlined in the Tenth Amendment outweigh the federal regulatory powers conferred by Article I’s Interstate Commerce Clause. Crazy? Maybe, but a conservative Court could decide that such an interpretation could permit state taxes, pollutants, or other restrictions on residents or businesses domiciled in other states.

Originalism? Or “Stretch” Originalism?

Reynolds mentions a few other possibilities, but without more detail, some of these examples seem muddled because the hypothetical interpretations could, conceivably, represent sound originalism, as opposed to conservative distortions of original intent. But perhaps these are all matters of degree, rather than kind. This includes the possibility of a conservative Court rolling back New Deal Court decisions related to price supports, wage supports, labor practices, and Social Security.

The same ambiguity applies to Reynolds’ brief discussion “one-man, one-vote” decisions of the 1960s, which leaned upon the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to effectively prohibit states from apportioning either congressional districts or state legislative districts in any way other than proportional representation. This can result in discrimination against certain interests in states having diverse geographies with dissimilar economies or cultures. A conservative court might well chip away at the one-man, one-vote principle out of deference to original intent. This might not be an unreasonable interpretation of the unenumerated powers of states contemplated by the Tenth Amendment.

Then there are so-called reproductive rights. The pro-abortion Left would be aghast, but not surprised, to see a conservative court reverse key decisions that have been made in their favor. The rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are mentioned explicitly in the Declaration of Independence, but not the Constitution. Nevertheless, they are presumed to be among those unenumerated rights recognized by the Ninth Amendment. Thus, with respect to abortion, the dividing line between original intent and living-constitutional overreach by a conservative Court is somewhat muddy. But in the view of the Left, a conservative Court might well reach radical decisions regarding the right to life.


The Constitution exists as a set of governing principles, but the founders’ intent was to  shield rights from fickle waves of majoritarianism, or even would-be despots. You might despise conservatism or statism, but this recognition should serve as a warning to heed the original text and its intent, not to view it as a mere nuisance to the interests of one’s agenda and fellow travelers.

I’ll close with Reynolds’ admonition to “living constitutionalists” of the Left:

“All of these [decisions] would be catastrophic for the left, and I’m sure I could come up with many more examples given time and space. Fortunately for the left, Judge Gorsuch appears to be devoted to interpreting the Constitution as it was understood by the Framers (in terms of its ‘original public meaning,’ to use the law professor definition), and not to embracing a living Constitution. … But my advice to those on the left attacking originalist approaches is this: Be careful what you ask for, because you won’t like it if you get it.”