THE CONSTITUTION of the United States has its passionate votaries—none more so than Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School—as does
the Bible. But both sets of worshippers face the embarrassment of having to treat an old, and therefore dated, document as authoritative. Neither set’s members are willing to say that because it is old, and therefore dated, it is not authoritative. Some say it is old but not dated; they are the constitutional and Biblical literalists. But most of the worshippers admit, though not always out loud, that their holy book is dated and must therefore be updated (without altering the text) so as to preserve its authority. They use various techniques for updating. One is misinterpretation. Another is loose interpretation, which can be thought a form of realism. Amar, who is merely dismissive of conservative textualists and originalists, is harshly and unfairly critical of realist judges such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and realist professors such as David Strauss, lest he be confused with them.
Amar’s method of updating, which is also the one the
CatholicChurch applies to the Bible, is supplementation from equally authoritative sources. The Church believes that a Pope receives divine inspirations that enable him to proclaim dogmas that are infallible and thus have equal authority with the Bible. Jesus Christ’s mother does not play a prominent role in the New Testament, but she became a focus of Catholic veneration, and in 1854 the Pope proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception (that is, that she had been born without original sin). This and other extra-Biblical Catholic dogmas, such as the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the consubstantiality of the Son and the Father, form a kind of parallel Bible, equal in authority to the written one, which reached its modern form in the third century C.E.
This is the line taken by Amar. Alongside the written Constitution is an unwritten constitution. They are consubstantial. The Constitution, like the teachings of the Catholic Church, is a composite of a founding document and a variety of supplementary practices and declarations (many of course in writing also). No matter how wild Amar’s constitutional views may seem, he claims that they are in this two-in-one constitution; that he did not put them there.
Actually, despite the book’s title, it is not two in one—it is twelve in one. There is not just one unwritten constitution, in Amar’s reckoning; there are eleven of them. There is an “implicit” constitution, a “lived” constitution, a “Warrented” constitution (the reference is to Earl Warren), a “doctrinal” constitution, a “symbolic” constitution, a “feminist” constitution, a “Georgian” constitution (the reference is to George Washington), an “institutional” constitution, a “partisan” constitution (the reference is to political parties, which are not mentioned in the written Constitution), a “conscientious” constitution (which, for example, permits judges and jurors to ignore
validlaw), and an “unfinished” constitution that Amar is busy finishing. All these unwritten constitutions, in Amar’s view, are authoritative. And miraculously, when correctly interpreted, they all cohere, both with each other and with the written Constitution. The sum of the twelve constitutions is the Constitution.
One is tempted to say that this is preposterous, and leave it at that. But it is an attempt to respond to the felt need of professors of constitutional law, and of judges who rule on constitutional cases (particularly Supreme Court justices), to find, or at least to assert, an objective basis for constitutional decisions. On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act—a time of liberal panic—Amar was quoted as saying that if the Court invalidated the act “then yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud. Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t. What mattered was politics, money, party, and party loyalty.” But the constitutional “law” that matters to Amar is not what other lawyers understand law to be. It is a palimpsest of twelve constitutions, only one of which is real.