We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century

We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century

by Erwin Chemerinsky


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"This work will become the defining text on progressive constitutionalism — a parallel to Thomas Picketty’s contribution but for all who care deeply about constitutional law. Beautifully written and powerfully argued, this is a masterpiece." --Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law School, and author of Free Culture

Worried about what a super conservative majority on the Supreme Court means for the future of civil liberties? From gun control to reproductive health, a conservative court will reshape the lives of all Americans for decades to come. The time to develop and defend a progressive vision of the U.S. Constitution that protects the rights of all people is now.

University of California Berkeley Dean and respected legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky expertly exposes how conservatives are using the Constitution to advance their own agenda that favors business over consumers and employees, and government power over individual rights.

But exposure is not enough. Progressives have spent too much of the last forty-five years trying to preserve the legacy of the Warren Court’s most important rulings and reacting to the Republican-dominated Supreme Courts by criticizing their erosion of rights—but have not yet developed a progressive vision for the Constitution itself. Yet, if we just look to the promise of the Preamble—liberty and justice for all—and take seriously its vision, a progressive reading of the Constitution can lead us forward as we continue our fight ensuring democratic rule, effective government, justice, liberty, and equality.

Includes the Complete Constitution and Amendments of the United States of America

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250166005
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 146,964
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His books include The Conservative Assault on the Constitution and The Case Against the Supreme Court, among many others. In January 2017, National Jurist magazine again named him the most influential person in legal education in the United States.

Read an Excerpt




Everything changed in the Supreme Court on Saturday, February 13, 2016, when Justice Antonin Scalia died. From 1971, when President Nixon had his third and fourth nominees confirmed for the Court, until February 13, 2016, there were always at least five justices, and at times as many as eight justices, who had been appointed by a Republican president. For forty-five years, whenever the Court was ideologically divided, more often than not there were five votes for a conservative result.

But with the death of Antonin Scalia, there were suddenly only four justices appointed by Republican presidents: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. And there were an equal number appointed by Democratic presidents: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Although there have been times in American history where justices' ideology did not correspond to the political party of the appointing president, that is not true today.

Roberts, Thomas, and Alito are very conservative. Many have a misleading impression of Roberts because he joined the liberal justices to uphold the Affordable Care Act (2010). But overall Roberts virtually always votes with his conservative colleagues, especially in the high-profile areas such as abortion rights, affirmative action, rights for criminal defendants, gay and lesbian rights, gun rights, voting rights, and religious freedom. At the same time, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan consistently vote in a liberal direction.

Kennedy has been the swing justice, by far the justice who votes most often in the majority. In 2016–2017, officially known as October Term 2016, he was in the majority in 97 percent of all the decisions. The year before, he was in the majority in 98 percent of the cases. He has been the fifth vote with the four liberal justices to strike down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, restricting access to abortion, and challenging affirmative action programs. But overall, he votes with the conservatives about 75 percent of the time in ideologically divided 5– rulings. For example, he was the key fifth vote to strike down gun control laws for the first time in American history, to reject constitutional challenges to the death penalty, to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in election campaigns, and to allow business owners to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees based on the owners' religious beliefs.

In the past, there have been ideological surprises on the Supreme Court. Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter were appointed by Republican presidents (Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, respectively), but by the end of their tenure on the Court they were consistently with the liberal bloc. Justice Byron White was appointed by President John F. Kennedy, but he voted much more often with the conservative justices, for example, rejecting a constitutional right to abortion and dissenting in cases expanding rights for criminal defendants. Earlier, Justice Felix Frankfurter was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt and expected to be liberal, but he turned out to be a very conservative justice.

Such ideological surprises are much less likely today. Some of that is because the country is more divided along ideological lines than at many earlier times, and this is reflected in the justices who are picked. For instance, President Dwight Eisenhower was a Republican, but he was not particularly ideologically defined; there was uncertainty as to whether he was going to run for president as a Democrat or a Republican. He appointed two liberals to the Court: Earl Warren and William Brennan, a Democrat. It is impossible to imagine a president today appointing someone from the other political party.

There is also far more vetting today to make sure of a nominee's ideology. Republicans want to be sure that there are no more David Souters. Souter, a former justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court and briefly a federal court of appeals judge, was picked for the Court by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. Presidential adviser John Sununu and Senator Warren Rudman assured President Bush that Souter would be a "home run" in his conservatism. Once on the Court, however, he more often voted with the liberal justices: he was the fifth vote to reaffirm Roe v. Wade (1973) and limit prayer in public schools. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have learned from this and now do a much more thorough vetting of the ideology of prospective nominees. The last picks for the Supreme Court — Roberts, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch — have all been exactly what the party of their nominating president have wanted.

The death of Justice Scalia and the resulting 4– split on the Court offered the possibility of a majority of justices appointed by a Democratic president for the first time since 1971. This is important because major ideological shifts on the Supreme Court are rare. The Court became very conservative by the 1880s and remained that way until 1936, striking down over two hundred progressive laws, such as those limiting child labor and imposing minimum wages and maximum hours in the workplace.

This changed in 1937, and soon after, President Franklin Roosevelt was able to fill the Court with Democrats committed to upholding New Deal programs. From the late 1930s through 1971, the majority of the justices had been appointed by Democratic presidents. Especially under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court was famously liberal, striking down laws requiring racial segregation, applying the Bill of Rights to state and local governments, significantly increasing the rights of criminal defendants, and greatly expanding voting rights.

President Richard Nixon was able to select four Supreme Court justices between 1969 and 1971: Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. There has been a solid Republican-appointed majority on the Court ever since. Replacing Justice Scalia with a Democrat would have dramatically shifted the Court's ideological balance for the first time since then. That is why Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings or a vote on President Barack Obama's nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Unquestionably, Garland was superbly qualified. He had the perfect résumé for the position: a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he clerked on the Supreme Court, was a federal prosecutor and a partner at a law firm before becoming a federal court of appeals judge. He served longer as a federal appellate judge than any Supreme Court nominee in history. By all accounts, he is a moderate, which is perhaps why President Obama picked him, hoping that would get him confirmed even in a presidential election year.

But from the day of Justice Scalia's death, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, made clear that the Senate Republicans would not consider Garland's nomination because it was the last year of Obama's presidency. This was unprecedented. Supreme Court vacancies had occurred twenty-four times before during the last year of a president's term. The Senate had confirmed in twenty-one of those cases and refused to approve in the other three. But this time, the Senate did absolutely nothing, and there wasn't a thing that President Obama or Senate Democrats could do about it.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, she might have renominated Garland or perhaps picked someone younger and more liberal, but with the election of Donald Trump, the Republican strategy of blocking Garland paid off. President Trump replaced Scalia with a staunch conservative: Neil Gorsuch. In his first months on the Court, Gorsuch voted together with Clarence Thomas — as conservative as any justice in recent memory — 100 percent of the time. In his first full year on the Court, he was with the conservative justices in virtually every case. Gorsuch was a very conservative federal court of appeals judge and was known for his conservative views when serving in the Department of Justice during the George W. Bush administration. No one, liberal or conservative, has any doubts that Neil Gorsuch will be exactly what the Republicans hoped for: a justice who will be at least as conservative as the jurist he replaced, Antonin Scalia.


The ideological balance on the Court remains the same as before Justice Scalia's death. The major progressive shift that would have occurred with Clinton's election obviously did not happen and will not happen for a long time, with President Trump replacing Anthony Kennedy. Keeping this ideological balance has real consequences. Consider these examples.


Few issues so closely correspond to ideology and political party affiliation as the meaning of the Second Amendment. From 1791 until 2008, the Supreme Court had never invalidated any law as violating the Second Amendment. The Court always ruled that the Second Amendment was about a right to have guns for the purpose of militia service. But in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Court, 5–4, struck down a thirty-two-year-old District of Columbia ordinance that prohibited private ownership or possession of handguns. Justice Scalia wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. Two years later, in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the same five justices were the majority in a 5–4 decision holding that the Second Amendment is a fundamental right that applies to state and local governments. These are the only cases in all of American history to invalidate laws as violating the Second Amendment.

Without Scalia, the Court was split 4–4 on the meaning of the Second Amendment. Merrick Garland or a Clinton nominee would have meant a Court that was unlikely to extend gun rights and very well might have overruled Heller and McDonald. Replacing Scalia with a conservative, Gorsuch, means a Court likely to strike down many other laws regulating firearms.


In June 2018, the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to unions by holding that nonunion members cannot be required to pay the share of the union dues that support the collective bargaining activities of the union. In 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that no one can be forced to join a public employees union. The Court, though, held that nonunion members can be required to pay the share of the union dues that go to support the collective bargaining activities of the union. The Court explained that nonunion members benefit from collective bargaining in their wages, their hours, and their working conditions. They should not be able to be free riders. The Court said, though, that nonunion members cannot be required to pay the share of the union dues that go to support the political activities of the unions; that would be impermissible compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment.

In two recent cases, in 2011 and 2014, the five conservative justices then on the Court — Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito — strongly indicated a desire to overrule Abood and prevent public employees from being required to pay their "fair share" of the union dues that go to support collective bargaining.

A case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (2016), was filed to provide that vehicle. Rebecca Friedrichs, an elementary-school teacher at a charter school in Orange County, California, objected to having to pay the share of the union dues that go to support collective bargaining. Hers was to be the test case to give the Court the vehicle to overrule Abood.

The case was argued on Monday, January 11, 2016, and there seemed little doubt that the Court was poised to overrule Abood. Not one of the five conservative justices asked a single question or made a single comment that left doubt about how he was going to vote. This would be devastating in California and twenty-one other states that do not have so-called right-to-work laws; there would be a substantial decrease in union revenues, union membership, and union political influence.

Justice Scalia died before the Court issued its decision on Friedrichs, so the justices announced that they were deadlocked 4–4, which means that the case was dismissed without decision by the Supreme Court. Abood remains the law. But with the appointment of Justice Gorsuch, the overruling of Abood seemed a certainty. Indeed, on June 27, 2018, in Janus v. American Federation, the Court did the expected and overruled Abood. This will be a very significant blow to unions and their political influence.

Separation of church and state

Views on the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from enacting any law "respecting an establishment of religion," very much track political party ideology. Conservatives interpret this provision narrowly as only prohibiting the government from establishing a church or coercing religious participation. Liberals see the establishment clause as, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, creating a wall separating church and state. Prior to Justice Scalia's death, the Court was split 5–4 between these two views, with the conservative position having the majority to allow much more government support for religion and much more religious involvement in government activities.

Replacing Scalia with Garland or a Clinton nominee would have meant five justices in favor of enforcing the separation of church and state. But with Trump's appointment of Gorsuch, there again is a majority to allow much more in the way of prayer in public schools and other government events, religious symbols on government property, and government aid to parochial schools for religious instruction.

Access to the courts

In a series of ideologically divided 5–4 decisions, with Justice Scalia in the majority, the Supreme Court in recent years has greatly protected businesses at the expense of injured consumers and employees. This has occurred especially in interpreting federal statutes and rules of procedure. The Court, for example, has ruled that clauses requiring arbitration in form contracts must be enforced and can be used to keep those with valid claims from suing in court. Similarly, the Court has significantly restricted the ability of those hurt to sue in class action suits. Especially when a large number of people each suffer a small injury, the only remedy is often a class action or nothing.

Replacing Scalia with a Democratic appointee would have shifted this balance. The Roberts Court has been the most probusiness Court since the mid-1930s, virtually always in 5–4 rulings, with the majority composed of Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. Gorsuch replacing Scalia means that this will continue, and new limits on access to the courts, especially to sue businesses, will likely be imposed.

Campaign finance

For forty years, the Supreme Court has held that people have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money in election campaigns. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in 2010, extended this to hold that corporations can spend unlimited sums from their corporate treasuries to get candidates elected or defeated. Large expenditures by rich individuals and corporations on behalf of candidates always raise the appearance of government officials beholden to those who spent the money to get them elected. Political races sometimes are decided by the money given, especially those of lower visibility where large expenditures can make a real difference. A progressive Court could have not only overruled Citizens United but also reconsidered the earlier holdings that equate money with speech and allow unlimited expenditures by the rich in election campaigns. In her campaign, Hillary Clinton said that she wanted to appoint justices who would overrule Citizens United, and it is very likely that she would have done so.


Since 1960, seventy-eight years old is the average age at which a Supreme Court justice has left the bench. At the time of Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was eighty-three, Anthony Kennedy was eighty, and Stephen Breyer was seventy-eight. No one should have been surprised when Anthony Kennedy announced his resignation on June 27, 2018.


Excerpted from "We the People"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Erwin Chemerinsky.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Future of the Supreme Court and the Constitution
2. The Conservatives' False Claim of Value-Neutral Judging

3. The Values of the Constitution: Rediscovering the Preamble
4. Ensuring Democratic Government
5. Providing Effective Governance
6. Establishing Justice
7. Securing Liberty
8. Achieving Equality

Conclusion: Going Forward

Complete Text of the U.S. Constitution


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