Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School
Articles IV through VII of the Constitution are, even for many educated Americans, terra incognita. People may know about the first three articles, important as they are in defining the separation of powers at the national level among the three branches and in drawing basic divisions between the national government and the states. Despite their brevity, these often-overlooked articles play significant roles.
When the Constitution was adopted, the framers hoped, as the Preamble declares, to form a “more perfect Union.” They recognized (in part out of political calculation) that a union already existed under the Articles of Confederation. They wanted to tweak the system enough to place it on a sounder political and economic footing. Part of their plan was to give more independence to a revamped United States government, as the first three Articles demonstrate. But, given the size of the republic and the dispersion of its population, the national government was expected to remain a comparatively restrained political player. While the suspicion over “consolidation” was often in the open, the enumeration of formally limited powers and the practice of a part-time Congress were evidence of the expected state of affairs.
Quite naturally, then, much was left to the constitutional domain and the political discretion of the states. Inter-state collaboration and cooperation were practical necessities. Half of Article IV deals with that fact of political life. The “full faith and credit” clause of Section 1 and the “privileges and immunities,” “extradition,” and (now superseded) “fugitive slave” clauses of Section 2 are testaments to the Framers’ concerns about potential interstate frictions that might undermine union. All but the last were also in the Articles of Confederation, and the same continue to be significant today.
One area of potential constitutional conflict in the future is whether or not a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage is constitutionally obligated to give full faith and credit to a same-sex marriage granted in another state. Currently, the federal Defense of Marriage Act protects non-recognition of a same-sex marriage granted in another state. But that law itself may be unconstitutional under Article IV. It’s a close case, though there is some judicial precedent for the position that a state need not recognize an act of a sister state that is repugnant to its own public policy.
The other half of Article IV deals with obligations of the federal government to the states. In little more than 100 words, Section 3 sets forth Congress’s powers to create new states and to dispose of territory and property of the United States. That section was the source of critical federal policies during the great westward push under Manifest Destiny through which unorganized territory became organized and, eventually, advanced to statehood.
Section 4 obligates the United States to guarantee to each state a republican form of government, to protect each state against invasion, and to render assistance against domestic violence if asked. The state of Arizona may well ask whether the federal government has breached that second obligation in failing to protect the border against armed marauders, thereby necessitating the state to take stronger actions against illegal aliens. The last part of Section 4 is one explanation for why the federal military response to Hurricane Katrina was so “late.” The federal government was constitutionally obligated to wait for a request from the governor for assistance, a request slow in coming.
Article V may be the most important part of the Constitution, as it provides the formal means of amendment. This was an area of laborious compromise and reflects a combination of experience with the Articles of Confederation and the various state constitutions, and the development of American constitutional theories of popular sovereignty that broke with English constitutionalism.
There are two methods of proposing amendments and two methods for ratification. The method used for all amendments to the Constitution, though not for the drafting of the Constitution itself, is to have a vote by 2/3 of each house of Congress. Though the matter is constitutionally not free from doubt, by long-accepted practice, the president’s signature is not needed. Many framers feared, however, that the Congress would not advance amendments that might curtail federal power. Hence an alternative permits 2/3 of the states to petition Congress for a convention to propose amendments. Though this method has not been used, some proposals have come close. There are almost the needed number of states for a balanced-budget amendment, a matter that is taking on added urgency in view of trillion dollar deficits.
If an amendment is proposed, 3/4 of the states must approve, either by legislatures (a “republican” principle) or state conventions (a “quasi-democratic” principle), as Congress directs. All but the amendment to repeal prohibition have gone the legislative route. These supermajority requirements were a compromise between the English constitutional theory (also used in early state constitutions) that allowed constitutional change by simple majority vote of the legislature and the unanimity requirement for constitutional change under the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution, the Framers concluded, must be amendable, but not so freely as to promote instability. Note, though, that the Constitution does not have the “democratic” option of amendment by petition or vote of the people directly, as many states have.
Article VI contains a pillar of our federal structure, the “supremacy clause.” That clause makes the federal Constitution, treaties, and statutes superior to conflicting state laws. The clause is an enhanced version of a blander clause in the Articles of Confederation. It enshrines a principle central to the revised structure of the Constitution, that of a sovereign United States independent of, and—within its delegated functions—superior to, the states. From a political perspective, it is not an overstatement to say that, for better or worse, this is the most significant provision in the development of the current (im)balance that exists between the national government and the states.
Equally important, Article VI expressly binds the state courts to abide by the federal supreme law when there exists a conflict with state law. That provision recognizes that, since the Supreme Court is the only constitutionally required federal tribunal, state courts might operate as inferior federal courts. It also creates a judicial “branch” that straddles the divide between federal sovereignty and state sovereignty more than the political branches do.
Article VII provides for the process of ratification. There are many fascinating historical undercurrents at work in the Article. First, it encapsulates the revolutionary nature of the process that led to the Constitution. It must be recalled that the Articles of Confederation required that the Congress approve any amendment, which then also had to be approved by the legislature of each state. Also, the charge from the Confederation Congress to the Convention was “for the sole and express purpose” of reporting to Congress and the states proposed revisions that still had to be approved by Congress and the states, all in conformance with the existing structure.
The Framers, however, created a completely new structure to replace the Articles. In Article VII, they made it sufficient for initial ratification that only nine states approve. In the resolution to send a courtesy copy to the Confederation Congress, the Philadelphia Convention very pointedly required approval by the states but not the Congress. Moreover, the approval was to be by conventions in the states, not by the legislatures.
The non-unanimity requirement is significant because the Framers faced a practical problem. Rhode Island was so opposed to the project that they had not even sent delegates. They were, therefore, hardly likely to approve. Rhode Island’s non-attendance, by the way, is one reason why the Committee of Style changed the Preamble of the Constitution from “We, the people of [then listed the states]” to “We, the people of the United States.” Moreover, the Articles had taken four years to approve. The concern was that unanimous approval would encourage a similar delay. Delay works against constitutional change, as the supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment found out in the 1970s. The Framers gambled that adoption by nine states would create its own momentum for adoption by the other four. The gamble worked, but it turned out to be a close-run thing.
The requirement for conventions was both practical, in that the anti-Constitution forces were more likely entrenched among the political interests in the state legislatures than among more broadly selected conventions. Conventions also reflected better the emerging American political theory that, while legislatures made ordinary laws, constitutions were expressions of shared fundamental political values that went to the very purpose of government. Constitutions, then, were social contracts resting on more direct exercise of popular sovereignty. They were, in the words of George Washington, “explicit and authentic acts” of the people. Since the entire population of a state could not be brought together to deliberate and vote on the Constitution, a convention selected for that purpose from the people of the state was the next best alternative.
A final oddity in Article VII is that the signatories made a rather sterile declaration of witness. In the Articles of Confederation, the signatories declared that they fully ratify and confirm everything said therein and pledged their constituents’ support. In the Constitution, the signatories merely attest that the “States present” (i.e., no Rhode Island) unanimously approved the Convention’s actions. A number of delegates had left the convention because they personally disapproved of the result, as did some of those who remained to sign. In this manner of attesting, there was no personal commitment of support that could prove politically problematic back home. It is like being a witness to a will signing. The witnesses merely attest that the process, such as having the testator sign the document after declaring it to be his will, was completed properly. The witnesses are not declaring their support for the substance of the will. Therefore, if the testator disinherits his family and gives everything to his golf buddies, the witnesses are not morally implicated.
In the end, it was somewhat of a political miracle that the Constitution was adopted at all. It is not a perfect document, and, had the people then been able to see the political reality in which it operates today, they might well have preferred something else. But it endures for many as a symbol of what should be, not only what is—the idea of the Constitution as much as its function.
Monday, April 26th, 2010
Professor Joerg W. Knipprath
Southwestern Law School
Los Angeles, California
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.
Posted in Articles IV – VII of the United States Constitution, Constitutional Scholar Essays | Edit | 47 Comments »