Six Things you should know about Justice Stevens’ book: Six Amendments

"So lemme get this straight.  You wrote a book about performing CPR on the Constitution, brought it back to life, cut the parts you don't like and edited it?" said Justice Scalia.  " a boss," replied Justice Stevens.

“So lemme get this straight. You performed CPR on the Constitution, brought it back to life, cut the parts you didn’t like, and added text?” asked Justice Scalia. “Mmhmm… a boss.  YOLO, Tony,” replied Justice Stevens.

It’s on our summer book list too.  If it’s not on yours, or you get too busy to read it, here’s what you need to know about retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.

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1.  He does, in fact, want to change certain Constitutional amendments.  Which ones?  The ones pertaining to guns, equal protection, the first amendment as it applies to free speech in campaign contributions by corporations and foreign donors, the death penalty, and guns, again.

2.  Obviously a title such as the one chosen for this book is going to hit the political target of certain camps squarely between the eyes.  Textualists, originalists, and conservatives are going to enjoy hate-reading this book very much, but then anyone who’s read anything by the retired justice knows – JPS don’t care.  Whence they turn to the chapter on changing the text of the 2nd Amendment by adding “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, when serving in the militia, shall not be infringed” – commence head explosions.

3.  In a departure from an overall left-leaning tone, the chapter devoted to political gerrymandering is a critique of both liberals and conservatives and a challenge to voters to question their state legislators about the neutrality of district boundary lines.  If you’ve ever done a simple Google search of voting districts in your state then you’ve likely encountered shapes that hardly seem “compact” and  “contiguous,” which are how districts are supposed to be drawn.  If not, search districts in Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, or Maryland and you’ll understand the Justice’s concern.  Stevens finds both parties guilty of protecting incumbents by engineering district lines to gain control of Congressional seats, but sees this as impermanent and short-sighted.  The Justice predicts the benefits to voters of using impartial, non-partisan groups to redraw districts that aren’t neutral are higher quality candidates, which could improve constituent services and result in more moderate, less polarized elections.

4.  The 8th Amendment should have added to it a more definitive explanation of what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”  In short, capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, according to Stevens, and should be banned nationwide.  Why does Stevens, a justice considered a conservative for many of his years on the bench, feel this way?  He lamented the high volume of executions in which judges are asked to rule as time-consuming, unpleasant, and expensive.  So long as mistakes have been made in which innocent people have been executed, he doesn’t support the practice.  This chapter is timely given recent public debate on death penalty procedures in light of the botched execution in Oklahoma, which he spoke about in an interview with Jeffrey Rosen on C-SPAN.

5.  Stevens doesn’t see Congress or the Court doing much to end political gerrymandering or capital punishment, but Stevens sounds optimistic about the trajectory of such policies changing as people and states change local laws on such practices.  In time, he said, reason will compel citizens to come around.

6.  He’s still unhappy with the majority decision in Citizens United v. FEC, a case about campaign finance laws decided in his last term on the bench.  Stevens wants to see more cases that ask for reasonable limitations wind up in the courts and fewer cases about corruption, like in the McCutcheon case.  For the record, Stevens would not have ruled with the majority in McCutcheon.  Stevens supports limits on donations and uses myriad examples of historical efforts by presidents and politicians to quell campaign contributions.  He asks Congress, not the Court, to be more activist in designing reasonable limitations.

Read the book or watch the interview he gave to Jeffrey Rosen on C-SPAN’s BookTV for more details and that charming bow tie.

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