For Constitution Week, top legal scholar draws lessons for Senate from Constitutional framers

26 September 2013


 
Esteemed legal scholar Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University delivered the keynote speech in New York last week on the global influence of the US Constitution, to open an academic conference organized by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society.
 
Professor Amar, who was voted the top US academic legal thinker in a Legal Affairs poll, revealed the ideas behind his acclaimed recent book America’s Unwritten Constitution, in which he argues that America’s foundational document cannot be understood in textual isolation.
 
Speaking at the Jay Heritage Center in Rye, New York, he demonstrated how other factors including the precedents set by early presidents and Congresses, common practices of modern American citizens, and venerable judicial decisions all play a major part in the US constitution. And today’s politicians, he claims, can learn important lessons from the constitutional framers:
 
“The entrenched filibuster has made the current Senate a deeply dysfunctional body, yet some Senators seem to think that a supermajority-rule system has deep roots in Founding principles and practices.  These Senators are mistaken. The early Senate followed the principles of 1787-88, and the key principle that year in every single state ratifying convention was simple majority rule.  Everyone got to speak; and then votes ensued, and simple majorities prevailed.”

The entrenched filibuster has made the current Senate a deeply dysfunctional body, yet some Senators seem to think that a supermajority-rule system has deep roots in Founding principles and practices.  These Senators are mistaken. 

 
The speech, entitled On the Nature of Constitutions was delivered as part of Constitution Week, and served to open a conference on Populism and Constitutions that examined the effect of recent populist movements on republicanism. A roundtable of constitutional scholars debated whether the recent popular uprisings around the world constitute the first stirrings of a new constitutional paradigm in which representative ideas and institutions are discredited and the people are more directly involved. 
 
The event was held as part of the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society’s programme on The Social and Political Foundations of Constitutions, which examines the concept and practice of representation, the legislative process and the character of modern administrative government, and the role of the judiciary in shaping constitutional instruments such as bills of rights.    
 
Professor Amar is an expert on constitutional law and criminal procedure. Having been the Southmayd Professor of Law at Yale Law School, he was named the Sterling Professor of Law there in 2008. Amar clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer when he was a judge on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court has cited his work in over 20 cases, including the landmark 1998 decision in Clinton v. City of New York, which ruled the presidential line-item veto unconstitutional.
 
A video of the speech by Professor Amar will be available shortly, as well as podcasts from the workshop. To be notified when these become available and receive all our latest news and free resources, please subscribe to our e-newsletter by entering your email in the box at the top right of the page.