U.S. Justices’ Foreign Statements About the U.S. Constitution

Liberty Counsel points to these these excerpts of an interview with Justice Ginsburg on Egyptian television, and argues:

In a recent interview with Egyptian television, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg insulted the U.S. Constitution and advised Egypt to look somewhere else when drafting its own constitution. Justice Ginsburg was asked to give insight on this crucial topic for the post-Mubarak government but focused more on liberal human rights, rather than traditional American freedom.

When describing the nature of a constitution, Justice Ginsburg did appropriately recognize the importance of a constitution and the duty of the citizens to defend it. Justice Ginsburg did not, unfortunately, take her own advice. She undermined insight of its crafters and stated, “I would not look to the US Constitution if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012.” Instead, Justice Ginsburg referred to the constitutions of more supposedly progressive countries, like South Africa, Canada, and the European Convention on Human Rights. She stated, “I can’t speak about what the Egyptian experience should be, because I’m operating under a rather old constitution.” This directly refutes the U.S. Constitution’s relevance today.

For a United States Supreme Court Justice, entrusted with the duty to interpret the Constitution, this type of statement is unacceptable. Justice Ginsburg failed to respect the authority of the document that it is her duty to protect. When given the opportunity to promote American liberty abroad, Justice Ginsburg did just the opposite and pointed Egypt in the direction of progressivism and the liberal agenda.

Mathew Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, said, “For a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice to speak derisively about the Constitution she is sworn to uphold is distressing, to say the least. Justice Ginsburg’s comments about our Constitution undermine the Supreme Court as an institution dedicated to the rule of law, as well as our founding document.”

This criticism strikes me as quite misplaced. Justice Ginsburg swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and I suspect she thinks that the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. political practice, works pretty well in the U.S. But why should she (or we) think that the 1787 constitutional text, coupled with the 27 amendments that have come in fits and spurts since then, would necessarily work well for a completely different country today?

To be sure, our Constitution has the merit of having endured with only one really huge constitutional crisis — the Civil War — for a long time, and of having produced a very rich and free country; that’s good. But much of that, I suspect, comes not from the constitutional text, but from the constitutional traditions that have emerged since then, both in the courts and elsewhere; adopting the U.S. Constitution would not adopt those traditions.

And it might well be that Egypt might be well-served by a very different approach than the U.S. Constitutions — for instance, with regard to relations between the federal government and more local governments, with regard to whether to have a Presidential system or a parliamentary system, with regard to how hard the constitution would be to amend, with regard to how judges are selected and how long they serve, with regard to how the President is selected, with regard to the relationship between the two chambers of the legislature, with regard to whether all executive officials work for the President or whether some are independently elected or selected, with regard to just how to craft the criminal justice system, and so on. (And here I just speak of the big picture questions, and not more specific details.) Remember that even our own states’ constitutions differ in many respects, especially with regard to separation of powers and the selection and tenure of judges, from the U.S. Constitution. Again, that the constitutional text, coupled with a wide range of extratextual political and legal practices, has worked well for us over 200+ years doesn’t tell us that it would work well for Egypt for the coming years.

Nor do I think that there’s something disloyal or bad for American policy for an American Justice to make such statements to a foreign country. Rather, I think it’s just sensible and sensibly (not excessively or falsely) modest.

And, returning to my first point, none of this tells us whether Justice Ginsburg is committed to following the U.S. Constitution in the U.S. Maybe you think she is so committed and maybe you think she isn’t, but you’d have to figure that out from other sources than from the advice she gives to a different country about whether to adopt the constitutional text in a completely different political and legal requirement.