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REASON, THE COMMON LAW, AND THE LIVING CONSTITUTION

  • Matthew Steilen (a1)
Abstract

This article reviews David Strauss's recent book, The Living Constitution. The thesis of Strauss's book is that constitutional law is a kind of common law, based largely on judicial precedent and commonsense judgments about what works and what is fair. In defending this claim, Strauss argues that central constitutional prohibitions of discrimination and protections of free speech have a common-law basis and that the originalist should consequently reject them. The review disputes this contention. It examines Strauss's account of the common law and argues that it cannot support our First Amendment protections of subversive advocacy, as Strauss says it does. The review then offers an alternative account of the common law based on the “classical” common-law theory associated with Coke and Hale. The latter account does support our protections of subversive advocacy but is much less appealing to those distrustful of ambitious and large-scale judicial action.

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1. David A. Strauss, The Living Constitution (2010), at 35.

2. See, e.g., Strauss David A., The Common Law Genius of the Warren Court, 49 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 846 (2007); Strauss David A., Common Law, Common Ground, and Jefferson's Principle, 112 Yale L.J. 1717 (2003); Strauss David A., Common Law Constitutional Interpretation, 63 U. Chi. L. Rev. 877 (1996).

3. See, e.g., Stanley Fish, Why Bother with the Constitution?, N.Y. Times, May 10, 2010.

4. Strauss, supra note 1, at 1.

5. Id. at 34.

6. See Antonin Scalia, The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules, 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1175, 1180–1182 (1989).

7. Strauss, supra note 1, at 3.

8. See Schauer Fred, Is the Common Law Law?, 77 Cal. L. Rev. 455, 455–456 (1989) (reviewing Melvin Eisenberg, The Nature of the Common Law (1988)).

9. Strauss himself acknowledges this. See Strauss, supra note 1, at 29.

10. Id. at 10.

11. Id. at 7.

12. Id. at 10.

13. Id. at 19.

14. See Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1997), at 8–11.

15. Strauss, supra note 1, at 21.

16. See Larry Lessig, Fidelity in Translation, 71 Tex. L. Rev. 1165, 1174–1182 (1993).

17. See Sunstein Cass R., Five Theses on Originalism, 19 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 311, 311 (1995). These ideas also animate the apparent paradox surrounding constitutional change and Article V discussed above.

18. Strauss, supra note 1, at 36–37. The “command theory” is associated with the legal positivism of John Austin.

19. See, e.g., Fallon Richard H. Jr., Precedent-Based Constitutional Adjudication, Acceptance, and the Rule of Recognition, in The Rule of Recognition and the U.S. Constitution 5254 (Adler Matthew & Himma Kenneth Einar eds., 2009).

20. Hart H.L.A., The Concept of Law (Bulloch Penelope A. & Raz Joseph eds., 2d ed. 1994), at 7981.

21. Id. at 94–99.

22. See id. at 110.

23. See Fallon, supra note 19, at 52–54.

24. See also Brest Paul, The Misconceived Quest for Original Understanding, 60 B.U. L. Rev. 204, 231–234 (1980); Grey Tom, Do We Have an Unwritten Constitution?, 27 Stan. L. Rev. 703, 710–714 (1974).

25. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

26. 411 U.S. 677 (1973).

27. 347 U.S. 497 (1954).

28. 317 U.S. 111 (1942).

29. 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

30. 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

31. Strauss, supra note 1, at 12.

32. Id. at 3.

33. Id. at 38.

34. See, e.g., Larry Alexander, Legal Rules and Legal Reasoning (2000), at 211–226; Scott Brewer, Exemplary Reasoning: Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Rational Force of Legal Argument by Analogy, 109 Harv. L. Rev. 923, 934–936 (1996).

35. Strauss, supra note 1, at 3, 37.

36. Id. at 37.

37. Id.

38. See, e.g., Bentham Jeremy, Papers Relative to Codification and Public Instruction, in 4 The Works of Jeremy Bentham 459460, 498 (Bowring John ed., 1962) (1811).

39. Gerald Postema, Bentham and the Common Law Tradition (1989), at 63–65.

40. Strauss, supra note 1, at 38.

41. Burke Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in 3 The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke 346 (2008). The quotation appears on page 41 of Strauss, supra note 1.

42. Strauss, supra note 1, at 41.

43. See Goldsworthy Jeffrey, The Myth of the Common Law Constitution, in Common Law Theory 207229 (Edlin Douglas ed., 2007).

44. “Jefferson's Problem” is usually referred to as the problem of the dead hand.

45. Strauss, supra note 1, at 43–44.

46. Id. at 55.

47. The recent uproar over the Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), is an important exception.

48. Zechariah Chafee, Free Speech in the United States (1941), at 82.

49. 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927).

50. Harry Kalven, Jr., A Worthy Tradition 139 (1988).

51. Strauss, supra note 1, at 61.

52. Id. at 53–55.

53. Id. at 62.

54. Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).

55. 40 Stat. 217 (1917).

56. See Kalven, supra note 50, at 131.

57. Id.

58. Schenck, 249 U.S. at 52.

59. Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919).

60. Kalven, supra note 50, at 135.

61. Frohwerk v. United States, 249 U.S. 204 (1919). Both opinions do contain notions akin to “proximate cause,” which Justice Holmes may have understood to be equivalent to “clear and present danger.” See Sullivan Kathleen, First Amendment Law (2d ed. 2003), at 23.

62. Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919); 40 Stat. 553 (1918).

63. Kalven, supra note 50, at 139.

64. Abrams, 250 U.S. at 619–623.

65. See id. at 624–629.

66. Chafee, supra note 48, at 136.

67. Abrams, 250 U.S. at 630.

68. Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten, 244 F. 535 (S.D.N.Y. 1917).

69. Kalven, supra note 50, at 139.

70. Masses, 244 F. at 535.

71. Strauss, supra note 1, at 64.

72. Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

73. Id. at 658.

74. Id. at 669.

75. Holmes dissented from the Court's opinion and, as he had done in Abrams, cited the “clear and present danger” language from Schenck. Id. at 672–673. Justice Sanford avoided Schenck entirely by narrowing its application to statutes that did not criminalize speech as such, like the 1917 Espionage Act. Id. at 670–671.

76. Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

77. Id. at 363–366.

78. Id. at 356.

79. Id. at 375.

80. Id.

81. Id. at 376–377.

82. See, e.g., W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943); Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940); De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 364–365 (1937).

83. Barnette, 319 U.S. at 633–634.

84. I do not mean to imply that the 1940s were the end of the development of subversive-advocacy law. This, of course, is not true. The Brandenburg decision was still some thirty years off when Barnette was handed down, and the World War II period saw another wave of suppression-friendly cases in the high court. See Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951). Yet, just as Strauss notes, Brandenburg rejected this regression, and using different language, sought to recapture the principles articulated by Holmes and Brandeis.

85. See, e.g., Hale Matthew, The History of the Common Law of England: Divided into Twelve Chapters Written by a Learned Hand 26 (1713) (“The Common Law does determine what of those Customs are good and reasonable . . . and gives to those Customs that it adjudges reasonable, the Force and Efficacy of their Obligation.”); see Simpson A.W.B., The Common Law and Legal Theory, in Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence, Second Series 79 (Simpson A.W.B. ed., 1973) (“In the common law system no very clear distinction exists between saying that a particular solution to a problem is in accordance with the law, and saying that it is the rational, or fair, or just solution.”).

86. Postema Gerald, Classical Common Law Jurisprudence (Part II), 3 Oxford U. Commonwealth L.J. 1, 1 (2003).

87. Postema, Bentham, supra note 39, at 70–75.

88. See Postema, Classical Common Law, supra note 86, at 8–9.

89. See, e.g., Hale, supra note 85, at 24.

90. Strauss, supra note 1, at 38.

91. See Schauer Frederick, The Jurisprudence of Reasons, 85 Mich. L. Rev. 847, 850–860 (1987).

92. Cf. Strauss, supra note 1, at 112; Ronald Dworkin, Freedom's Law 2 (1997) (describing the “moral reading” of the Constitution).

93. The attitude toward judicial review (i.e., judicial “nullification” of an unconstitutional law) in the 1780s appears to have been mixed, but there is no question that the founding generation was familiar with the judicial role in developing common-law precedent. See Kramer Larry, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review 52 (2004).

94. See Levi Edward H., An Introduction to Legal Reasoning 5 (1949).

95. For an exploration of this idea, see Michelman Frank I., The Supreme Court, 1985 Term—Foreword: Traces of Self-Government, 100 Harv. L. Rev. 4, 73–76 (1985).

* I thank reviewer Michael Dorf for his helpful suggestions.

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Legal Theory
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