Book Review: “Six Amendments” by John Paul Stevens

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution is the latest scholarly work from former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. The book is as spare and strictly to-the-point as its title: discounting an index, a few pages of acknowledgements, a few more pages of glossy colour photographs, and an appendix with a complete transcription of the United States Constitution (as amended), Stevens makes his case for six distinct constitutional amendments in just 133 pages. As a retired Justice, it isn’t surprising that the selection and emphasis of many of the proposals underscore Steven’s frustration with often recently decided jurisprudence and are targeted to undermine or reverse certain decisions. The no-nonsense prose, coloured with Stevens’s famed wit, makes for an engaging and insightful read.

No proposed amendment is immune to critique, and some are less immune than others. But a majority of them clearly address pressing contemporary issues that likely need profound and dramatic legal changes to adequately remedy. The biggest challenge to Stevens’s proposed remedies is one he himself addresses in a short prologue: namely that the amendment process has been very infrequently used, and never more infrequently since the Civil War than in the last forty years. But, by suggesting remarkably simple yet concrete changes we could actually act upon, Stevens makes a powerful case that there are ways we can effect change more more decisively than what the slow and piecemeal legislative process may afford and less unexpectedly than ‘law from the bench’ often provides. I’ll discuss each proposal in turn.

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important week for SCOTUS, health law, administration

Nina Totenberg and others reported in NPR’s health blog Sunday that the Supreme Court is very soon to hand down its decision in the controversial case of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, it appears the decision has been scheduled to be given on Thursday. At issue are four distinct questions. The first was whether the suit, brought by 20 states against the federal government, can even be decided now by the Court since an 1867 law regarding taxes might be prohibitive. It appears to be the case that the justices feel that they can. The second, and most interesting to me and it seems most other people, is whether the so-called “individual mandate” provision to purchase health insurance or be assessed a fine is allowed by Congress’s broad powers to regulate interstate commerce. The third concerns whether a vast expansion of Medicaid mandated by the law is impermissably coercive on the states, who bear the responsibility of that program’s administration. Finally, the fourth is the resulting question of severability: if any part of the law should be found to be unconstitutional, how much of the rest of the law can be permitted to stand?

I wrote much earlier this year, among other things, about how this decision will be both interesting and significant. At first I thought I would wait until the ruling to talk about the case in any detail, but instead I’ll now attempt to predict how the Court will rule on this question and analyze a few other significant rulings handed down this week.

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