July 17, 2014

JEFF JACOBY: The way to alter the Constitution is by amendment, not interpretation.

To say that the Constitution isn’t easy to amend is an understatement. More than 10,000 amendments have been proposed by members of Congress over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries. Just 27 of them were eventually ratified. But to say that the Constitution is impossible to amend is obviously an overstatement. It can be done, but only with time, persistence, and public support that is both wide and deep. The process was designed to be difficult. For all the talk about a “living Constitution,” it is the nation’s legal bedrock; it isn’t supposed to change except under extraordinary circumstances, and only after following the deliberately convoluted, hurdle-filled course set out in Article V.

Judicial review gives us a way to adapt constitutional writ to modern applications. “For the most part, we the people have generally regarded that as legitimate,” says Samford University law professor Brannon Denning, “even as we disagree about specific decisions.” But a fundamental altering of the Constitution’s meaning — a tectonic shift in the bedrock — should come not from judges but from the people, through the affirmative democratic act of amending the Framers’ text.

For most of our history, this was taken for granted. Americans committed to achieving female suffrage didn’t insist that women’s right to vote was already in the Constitution, waiting to be discovered by a judge in the penumbra of the Bill of Rights. They fought for a 19th Amendment that would make that right unambiguous. Likewise, Americans who wanted an end to poll taxes secured it through the 24th Amendment.

Americans may disagree vehemently on just where the Constitution needs fixing. But hats off to those who propose to “fix” it the way the Framers prescribed: by amendment, not lawsuit. Much harder that way. Much more legitimate.

We may wind up doing it via convention.