There are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up. —Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court justice
In a 2-1 vote, a panel of judges from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down California’s Proposition 8 and its prohibition of gay marriage. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing the ruling opinion, argued that not allowing gay marriage lessens the status of gay persons, reclassifies their union as inferior, stigmatizes them and is a form of government-sponsored discrimination.
As a remedy, the judges held that under the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the government has a constitutional duty to allow gay marriage. The equal-protection clause is a general restraint to prevent the abridgement of rights. Under all three levels of scrutiny to which the equal protection clause has been applied — strict, intermediate and rational basis — traditional marriage clearly constitutes a compelling government interest. It is nothing less than the bedrock of civil society. Yet the ruling turns a blind eye to this in order to promote an alternatively preferred policy. The equal-protection clause has simply been commandeered as a malleable instrument to further a political agenda. What the judges should have done is refer this constitutionally silent issue back to lawmakers and the general public. Instead, they disavowed traditional marriage.
To witness unelected, unaccountable judges overturn the will of the people in the service of their desire to create a new right is a kind of tyranny that threatens to destroy liberty by degrees. If you believe in a so-called living Constitution, where are the limits of interpretation? Where does judicial activism and the consequent diminishment of a representative process end? The answer is that it doesn’t. In the end, you subscribe to a view that has no real boundaries and simply shadows the moral relativism of popular culture. The Constitution becomes a document from which an unending series of unenumerated rights lie fallow until such time as we want them. Based on loose constructionism, the judiciary has an unlimited role and the Constitution can be stretched to transparency. The concept of unbounded interpretation is precisely what is unconstitutional.
Former circuit judge Robert Bork once observed, when judges depart from an original understanding of the Constitution, “they lack any guidance other than their own attempts at moral philosophy, a task for which they have not even minimal skills.”
The Constitution is primarily a guarantor of negative liberties. It tells us what the federal and state governments are not allowed to do. To our horror, judges now depart from the Constitution in order to recast the culture and values of the nation. They are gradually turning the Constitution into a charter of positive liberties through the invention of new rights. And all of this is done without the consent of the governed.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas put it succinctly, “There are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up. No matter how ingenious, imaginative or artfully put, unless interpretive methodologies are tied to the original intent of the framers, they have no more basis in the Constitution than the latest football scores.”
I can’t help but read Federalist No. 78 by Alexander Hamilton with increasing alarm. According to Hamilton, the judiciary was the “weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks.” Surely the man who in his day was a loose constructionist would turn over in his grave to see “the natural feebleness of the judiciary” turned into a predatory institution that creates laws on topics for which the Constitution is completely silent.
Powerful ideological and political forces are arrayed against traditional marriage. Through daring and irresponsible activism, federal judges have attempted to cast aside a traditional concept of marriage. It seems inevitable at this point that the highest court in the land will have to rule on the issue. When they do, I hope it will be a time for strict interpretation of the Constitution rather than a time for imagination and innovation. In the Constitution, there is no hostility for traditional marriage, and there is no concealed or imbedded right to define the institution any other way.
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.