Amending the Constitution Without Amending the Constitution
Article V of the United States Constitution describes that the only lawful methods, of amendment, are by its keepers, the American people. While that may have been the Framers’ intent, an unlawful method of amending the Constitution, through judicial activism, for example, usurps the legislative process of the American people when the courts are used as a legislature. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “judicial activism” as a “philosophy of judicial decision-making whereby judges allow their personal views about public policy, among other factors, to guide their decisions.”
When the Supreme Court renders an opinion about a constitutional provision, that opinion–it is called an “opinion” and not a “law”–has traditionally assumed the status of the Constitution itself; since the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land (see Article VI), the American people and the federal government have given federal court opinions the same status: the law of the land. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires this, but that is the way America has operated as a people since the Constitution was ratified. Many distinguished men over the years have warned against this approach:
Thomas Jefferson: “[T]o consider the judges the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.”
Andrew Jackson: “The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges.”
Abraham Lincoln: “[I]f the policy of the government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court…the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”
Is the U.S. Constitution “Alive?”
President Woodrow Wilson is credited with originating the concept of a “Living Constitution,” the idea that the Constitution must constantly be updated to reflect changes in the culture and mores of an evolving society. Who best to guide the “evolution” of the Constitution but the legal “scientists” of the federal courts? Why go through the arduous process of amending the Constitution through Article V when the Supreme Court is willing to issue an opinion which will have the same effect as a desired amendment? The Supreme Court has often been viewed as the “legislature of last resort.” Policies which have failed to gain majority acceptance in the Legislative Branch, whether state or federal, are instead “enacted into law” by the Judiciary.
The Anti-federalist called “Brutus” warned: the “power in the judicial, will enable them to mould the government, into almost any shape they please.”
James Madison mentioned in Federalist 51 that the Constitution requires the government “to control itself.”
Congress last proposed an amendment to the Constitution fifty-two years ago, in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment. Scores of proposed amendments are introduced in Congress each session; a handful may make it out of committee; none have achieved a two-thirds vote on the floor in either chamber, or both chambers, since 1971.
Article V of the United States Constitution, on amending the Constitution, states that when two-thirds (34) of the state legislatures apply to Congress for an amendment convention, Congress shall convene one. Nothing in the Constitution describes how such a convention must operate, or the threshold within the convention for approving amendment proposals before they are transmitted for ratification, but there is ample historical evidence showing how such conventions of the states operated during the founding period and model rules for such a convention have already been composed and tested.
Consider next the alternatives to amending the Constitution through an Article V convention:
- Wait on the Supreme Court to correct past errant rulings?
- Wait on Congress to “start following the Constitution?” The 240 years of Supreme Court opinions and interpretations have removed most limitations on Congress’ authority.
- Wait for Congress to proffer needful amendments? How likely is it that Congress will propose term limits on themselves, propose a balanced budget amendment, narrow the interpretation of general welfare or interstate commerce, propose repealing the Sixteenth and/or Seventeenth Amendments, or propose any amendment which results in a reduction of their jurisdiction or power?
The “Article V Question” is indeed controversial. Some opponents insist it will do more damage than good. Still, with arguments on both sides, correctly amending the Constitution remains in maintaining the principle that “the United States Constitution prescribes within the document the only lawful methods of amendment, by its keepers, the American people.”
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook or Twitter @constitutionled.
 As quoted in “Takings Clause Jurisprudence: Muddled, Perhaps; Judicial Activism, No” DF O’Scannlain, Geo. JL & Pub. Pol’y, 2002.
 The identity of Brutus is unknown, but scholars have suggested he was either Melancton Smith of New York or John Williams of Massachusetts. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutus_(Antifederalist).
 James Madison, Federalist No. 51, 1788, read at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp.