Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Some political and moral dimensions in motivating a constitutional amendment

Our politics is so poisonous and our constitutional law so contentious that one might be surprised to learn that mixing the two deliberately may benefit both. The mixture I have in mind is a constitutional politics aimed at amending the Constitution. 

Whether originating in Congress (by two-thirds vote of each house) or in a convention of the states (upon a call by two-thirds of the states), a proposed amendment must be ratified in 3/4 of the states (whether by legislature or convention) in order to become law. Some have argued the process is too difficult. They're probably right. But this difficulty presents an opportunity for a particular kind of politics---one aimed at identifying and advancing changes in the law attractive enough to garner such widespread support. 

Changes of such a sort must exist. Surely we don't have a perfect constitution. And some of the imperfections are obvious if we only stop to think about them. Wouldn't it be politically useful if a politician could become identified as a champion of an amendment to fix an obvious imperfection in our constitutional order? Such a politician would get credit not only for substance but also for style. People are yearning for a politics of this kind.

The proposed amendment cannot be too obvious, or else there would be little credit to be had for identifying and championing it. But it cannot be too obscure or trivial, either, or else there would be little expected gain from an investment of one's political capital in advancing it. The proposed amendment must be of a sort that does not have overwhelming support already, but that would and could merit such support if advanced effectively enough. 

To satisfy these conditions, it is helpful to have a conception about what is good for our constitutional order that is not reducible to what people presently think is good for our constitutional order. Such a gap between what is really good and what is presently perceived to be good would morally justify the investment of political capital to close the gap.  

What does this way of approaching political and moral dimensions of motivating a constitutional amendment have to do with Catholic legal theory? I am here reminded of Adrian Vermeule's contention that "[t]he claims of lawmaking in the service of overall public utility themselves have unimpeachable natural law credentials." When we make welfare economics arguments of a certain kind, we are not doing something different from making natural law arguments but rather making a kind of natural law argument. 

Vermeule identifies the Pareto principle as one example of a principle that "natural reason suggests ... is almost necessarily correct" (at least with respect to normal central cases in which it is deployed). This is the principle that identifies a change as an improvement upon the status quo if and only if it makes one or more persons better off and no one worse off. This formulation raises obvious questions about what we mean by "better off" and "worse off," to be sure. But holding the Pareto principle in mind as a guide, might we identify any proposed constitutional amendments that satisfy it? If so, then we might also have a politically popular proposal on our hands, at least if is handled correctly.

I have one candidate that I'm setting up for a future post. But there must be more than one, right? If so, then there are more than one possible constitutional amendments in which good constitutional law holds the promise of promoting good constitutional politics.     





Walsh, Kevin | Permalink