Looking Through the Proper Constitutional Lens

Most Americans believe a Supreme Court opinion automatically makes a given federal action constitutional, even though they have no clue about the actual constitutional issues involved.

They are looking through the wrong constitutional lens.

For most, it’s not even that they read the court’s opinion and agree with the reasoning. No, they just automatically assume the court must be right. “The Supreme Court said…” makes up the entirety of their argument. It all boils down to a creepy deference to perceived authority.

The other day, I was discussing the issue of federal lands with a guy named Jason. I made the case that most federal land management is unconstitutional. Jason responded with this typically lame appeal to authority. He insisted he was right because “the courts have proved you wrong multiple times over the last 100 years.” He said there was no reason listen to me when “people have…studied the issue in depth and came to the same conclusion [his]. Very conservative judges have ruled the same…You’re wrong, sorry, it happens in life.”

He went on to accuse me of interpreting the Constitution through a lens colored by some particular political bias.

Interpreting the constitution to fit an agenda does not mean you have found the proper meaning, it means you’ve interpreted’ it to fit your views.”

Jason remains entirely oblivious to the fact that his statement completely undermined his own argument. He fails to recognize that federal judges are political creatures, and they interpret the Constitution to fit their own political views.

This notion that Supreme Court justices somehow sit above the fray and nobly interpret the Constitution without a shred of bias or political motivation is, quite frankly, absurd. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps.”

Of course, we do have to interpret the Constitution through some kind of lens, and if you interpret it through the right glass, you will find the proper meaning.

In one sense, Jason is right. Reading the Constitution based on our own 21st century political points of view will not lead us to a proper understanding. Instead, we must consider what it means within the context of the political philosophy held by the founding generation. To properly understand the Constitution, we must view it through the eyes of those who originally agreed to it. This was James Madison’s view.

I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution.” [Emphasis added]

The founding generation embraced the idea of political decentralization. It recognized the danger of power, and sought to disperse it as widely a possible throughout the political system. It also believed the best government remained local – close to home. They understood that officials hundreds of miles away could not possibly understand local issues. Joseph Taylor of North Carolina spoke for many in the founding generation when he said in 1788, “We see plainly that men who come from New England are different from us. They are ignorant of our situation; they do not know the state of our country [North Carolina]. They cannot with safety legislate for us.”

New Englanders could say the same of those who come from the South.

In a letter to Gideon Granger, Thomas Jefferson expressed this same sentiment.

Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single [federal] government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens and…will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste.”

America’s political system rests on this fundamental belief in decentralization and local governance. The U.S. Constitution, as understood by those who ratified it, reflects these ideals. It severely limited the powers of the federal government, and left most authority and control to the state governments and the people themselves.

“What are the objects of our state legislatures? “ John Jay asked rhetorically during the New York ratifying convention. “Innumerable things of small moment occupy their attention; matters of a private nature, which require much minute and local information. The objects of the general (federal) government are not of this nature. They comprehend the interests of the states in relation to each other, and in relation to foreign nations.”

James Madison also differentiated the roles of the federal and state governments in Federalist #45, not only making the limited nature of the federal government clear, but also emphasizing that its powers were specific and defined.

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which the last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.”

The federal government was never intended to insert itself into local or state issues – such as the management of vast tracks of land within the borders of a state. The system was meant to remain decentralized. Of course, many feared it would not. Anti-federalists argued that the federal government would eventually overwhelm the states and begin inserting itself into purely state and local issues. Those favoring ratification won over the skeptics by emphatically promising this would not happen. They emphasized over and over the limited and defined nature of federal authority. In Federalist #32, Alexander Hamilton promised the Constitution was not creating an all-powerful national government, but a decentralized system with a general government limited in nature with specifically delegated powers.

An entire consolidation of the States into one complete national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts; and whatever powers might remain in them, would be altogether dependent on the general will. But the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has moved America closer and closer to the system of complete national sovereignty with an entire subordination of the part – the very thing Hamilton swore we wouldn’t never have.

But people like Jason are OK with this. After all, it furthers their political agenda.

And the Supreme Court said so.

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