Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Souter's Adults Only Constitution

"[B]ehind most dreams of a simpler Constitution there lies a basic human hunger for ... certainty and control ... And who has not felt that same hunger? Is there any one of us who has not lived though moments, or years, of longing for a world without ambiguity, and for the stability of something unchageable in human institutions?"

The words are those of Justice David Souter, now retired from the United States Supreme Court. He spoke them at this year's Harvard commencement. There is a stark elegance to his address that makes it worth sharing. I think that we sometimes forget that the Constitution is really quite simple. It is not a sacred text answering all life's riddles. Rather, it is a starting point, framing discussions about conflicting values. The act of interpreting it necessarily requires making choices. Judges make those choices. Souter's speech.

Souter promised the audience a view of what it is like to decide Constitutional cases. His address was not a law review article filled with doctrinal quibbles. It was not a scholarly treatise of the various methods and means of teasing results from a case or controversy. The address was a simple, almost Thoreau-like, assessment of the Constitution in action. Souter's Constitution neither lives nor expresses occult original meaning. It is a simple craftsman's tool.

The justice took aim at the "fair reading" model of Constitutional interpretation, which holds that there is a correct solution to every constitutional issue. This jack-in-the-box theory of justice holds that once facts are presented to the court, whatever facts may mean, judges applying a fair reading of the Constitution should all arrive at the same solution. Reading the Constitution fairly, it turns out, is really simply an implicit article of faith. "The answers are all there, trust me," such a reader says. "[T]he fair reading model has only a tenuous connection to reality," Souter notes. How many of our constitutional scholars smell the wick rather than blood, sweat and tears?

Souter took aim at a notion I hold dear: the Constitution as contract. "[T]he Constitution is no simple contract, not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsamn would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other can never be realized, all together, and at once." This is adult realism at its best, and it shames me into re-thinking an often knee-jerk reaction to anything impinging upon what I regard as liberty, the paramount of all values in my pantheon.

Because values conflict, judges must balance them. This is not legislating. Rather it is making judgments, the quintessential judicial task. "[T]he explicit terms of the Constitution, in other words, can create a conflict of approved values, and the explicit terms of the Constitution do not resolve that conflict when it arises.... A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well." One hears the voice of a loving parent here, explaining to the tempestuous child that she can do all she wants, she simply cannot do everything all at once: Choices must be made, priorities set.

This is the language of intelligent common sense. It illustrates why life experience is so important for a judge. The task of finding meaning and weighing competing values is not akin to gathering seashells at the seashore.
"[J]udicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own. Meaning comes from the capacity to see what is not in some simple, objective sense there on the printed page."

I cannot improve upon what Souter said. It is simply a beautiful statement of an intellect honestly confronting the task of making life-defining judgments. Souter stands well within the tradition of such writers as Isaiah Berlin, whose "Two Concepts of Liberty," initially given 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, remains required reading for all who care about how to tease simple meaning from words.

If you are weary of the law's ever-present struggle and your head aches from the pounding of conflict rights, duties and obligations, read Souter for a simple re-orientation to why the law remains one of the most intellectually challenging professions. This essay enlightens and brightens my dark temperament. Souter's Constitution is a decidedly adult pleasure.