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Constitutional Dead Letters

by Roger Roots

Historians of Soviet Russia occasionally note that the communist workers’ paradise was originally intended to adhere to a written constitution that expressly guaranteed freedoms such as speech, press and assembly. In practice, however, none of the freedoms guaranteed in the Soviet constitution were recognized in the country’s legal system, and millions of dissenters and suspected dissenters were imprisoned or killed for disagreeing with the commissars of the state.

The United States Constitution, by contrast, is thought to be in good standing. Yet there are numerous provisions of the U.S. Constitution that are never enforced. These provisions, analogous to "dead letters" in the U.S. Postal System, are either totally ignored by federal judges or given such a narrow construction that they might as well not exist. As columnist and curmudgeon Joseph Sobran has written, the Supreme Court has, in essence, exercised a "line-item veto" over the document, totally ignoring provisions that interfere with the justices’ national vision or social objectives.

When the Supreme Court switched to discretionary certiorari in 1925 (thus allowing the court to pick and choose its own docket), the Court paved the way for a highly selective treatment of the Constitution. While some constitutional provisions (e.g., the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment) are routinely accorded Supreme Court consideration, many others are almost completely ignored.

It can hardly be a coincidence that all of the dead letters happen to place limitations on the scope and power of government. In contrast, the few provisions of the Constitution granting powers to government have been interpreted expansively. The clause giving Congress power to regulate interstate commerce, for example, has been interpreted by the courts to allow Congress to imprison people for acts that can be linked to either commerce or interstate activities only by a tenuous series of conceptual inferences.

There are even provisions which were included in the Constitution to limit government but which have now been interpreted to empower government. The Takings Clause, which states that no person shall be deprived of property "without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation," was recently construed by the Supreme Court to give government at all levels near carte blanche power over all property. In a 2005 decision entitled Kelo v. City of New London, the Court reinterpreted the phrase "for public use" to mean for whatever use any government desires – including private use.

Similarly, the Fifth Amendment Grand Jury clause was placed in the Constitution in order to limit government but has now been interpreted in a way that empowers government. As the criminal law grew more complicated during the 1800s, courts began allowing public prosecutors to appear and discuss cases before grand juries (a practice strictly forbidden at the time of the Founding). This became embedded in grand jury practice by the 1900s. Today’s Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure state that prosecutors may be present before grand juries at all times and prohibit grand jurors from issuing independent presentments.


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