Category Archives: Law: Reading the Constitution

Is Obama Too Young to Be President?

Steven Calebresi has a pretty persuasive argument that if you interpret the Constitution dynamically, Obama is Too young for the No. 1 job.

Good thing Calabresi doesn't have standing to raise it in court!

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Guns and Senatorial Privilege

The news that one of Senator Webb's aides has been arrested for (inadvertently?) carrying the Senator's gun into a Senate office building raises a fun question. It seems Sen. Webb gave the aide the gun which the Senator usually carries because the Senator was getting on a plane and couldn't take it on board.

It made me wonder if gun control laws of this sort, when applied to Senators and representatives in any way infringe Art. I, sec. 6, paragraph 1 of the Constitution which states,

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the treasury of the United States. They shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place.

My suspicion that the answer is “no” and that it is proper to apply speed limits, DUI, and other rules of general public safety to Senators and Representatives appears after superficial research to be correct, but not quite for the reason I imagined, at least according to LII's annotated Constitution,

Privilege From Arrest

This clause is practically obsolete. It applies only to arrests in civil suits, which were still common in this country at the time the Constitution was adopted. 376 It does not apply to service of process in either civil 377 or criminal cases. 378 Nor does it apply to arrest in any criminal case. The phrase ''treason, felony or breach of the peace'' is interpreted to withdraw all criminal offenses from the operation of the privilege. 379.

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Why the Air Force Is Not Unconstitutional

I forget sometimes just how diverse the readers of this blog are, although one need only to look at the readers’ self-descriptions from those kind and generous enough to leave one to be reminded of this fact. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how many people — mostly non-lawyers — asked, in one form or another, for me to not just post the questions but also the answers to my Constitutional Law Scavenger Hunt. (Lawyers, and especially law students, probably knew better than to expect a law professor to actually answer a question.)

Although this may risk turning my hobby into something that more closely resembles my job, I’m going to give it a shot for a while and see how it goes. My vague goal will be to do at least one a week, aimed primarily at the non-legal reader or first-year law student (I hope that specialists reading these will take the time to correct my errors, but I won’t be presuming in this series of posts to try to tell you anything you don’t already know). Along the way I hope also to address a few of the classic chestnuts I left out of my original list such as “who presides at the impeachment trial of a Vice President?”.

I’ve created a new category for these posts to collect them in a handy form for those who come in late. Who know, maybe I’ll even publish the lot on a dead tree some day.

So, by popular demand, here’s the first one.

Q1: What clause, if any, of the Constitution permits Congress to establish an air force?

A: Article I, § 8, provides that Congress may “raise and support Armies,” and “provide and maintain a Navy,” and make “Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” The Air Force is “comprehended in the constitutional term ‘armies.’” Laird v. Tatum 408 U.S. 1 (1972) (Douglas, J., dissenting).

The question illustrates the dangers of adopting an overly literal “strict construction” or “clause-bound interpretivist” approach to the Constitution as opposed to, say, a more expansive Marshellian approach (“it is a Constitution we are expounding here”). If we were to read the “Armies” and “a Navy”, and the “land and naval” forces language literally, it would be tempting to read it as excluding an Air Force. It also shows the power (and perhaps virtue) of a structural or holistic approach to constitutional interpretation. “Land and naval forces” was, after all, all the armed forces known at the time of the Framing. Why not read that text to mean “armed forces”? Surely, after all, that is what was intended. (There is a third, wimpish, approach to this issue, which is to note that the Air Force was initially part of the Army, and thus to argue that it is just another Army, one that happens to fly.)

“A Constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would probably never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves. That this idea was entertained by the framers of the American Constitution is not only to be inferred from the nature of the instrument, but from the language. Why else were some of the limitations found in the 9th section of the 1st article introduced? It is also in some degree warranted by their having omitted to use any restrictive term which might prevent its receiving a fair and just interpretation. In considering this question, then, we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.”

–Marshall, CJ, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 407 (1819).

As far as I can tell, no judge has ever seriously suggested that the Air Force is unconstitutional. Indeed, Justice Douglas’s dictum (in dissent) may be the only discussion of this issue by a federal appellate court in the law reports.

On the one hand, this may reinforce our faith in the fundamental sanity of legal discourse. On the other hand, this absence might be traced to modern standing doctrine (the doctrine that unless at least one plaintiff has a unique and personal interest in the outcome of the case, courts should not hear it at all), which creates few opportunities for the issue to arise. Few, but not none at all, as demonstrated by the creative lawyering before the U.S. Air Force Board of Review in U.S. v. Naar, 951 WL 2298 (AFBR), 2 C.M.R. 739 (1952). There, appellant, an Air Force officer, argued unsuccessfully that he had been prosecuted unlawfully because the Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces” and the Air Force was neither. The tribunal made short work of that argument.

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A Constitutional Law Scavenger Hunt With A Serious Purpose

Around the country, law students who study Constitutional Law in the Fall sone will be studying for their finals; not long afterwards, those who study it in Spring will start up their course. So it’s as good a time as any to list the questions that, back in the days I used teach Constitutional Law I, I used to ask my students during the first week of class.

Some of these questions are very easy (although even in those cases, the answers may surprise you); some only appear to be. Others are inspired by real and difficult cases; a few illustrate doctrines of constitutional interpretation, some more controversial than others. And perhaps one or two don’t have answers, or at least not answers that everyone agrees to. Which is remarkably odd given the simplicity of most of these questions….

Read The US Constitution, and the Amendments then take the quiz…

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Posted in Law: Constitutional Law, Law: Reading the Constitution | 18 Comments