K. Sabeel Rahman-
Part Two: The Structural Constitution
The Basic Structure
- Federalist 10, 51
- Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)
- McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819)
- Mark Tushnet, Constitutional Hardball, 37 J. Marshall L. Rev. 523, 523-26, 528-29, 535-36, 538-43 (2004)
- Jack Balkin & Sanford Levinson, Constitutional Crises, 157 U. Penn. L. Rev. 707, 708-9, 711-15, 720-22, 728-32, 736-39 (2009)
One of the central functions of the Constitution is to structure the core institutions of government. In our constitutional system, this means the allocation of power between federal and state governments (“federalism”), and the division of powers between the federal branches: legislative, executive, and judicial (“separation of powers”). Taken together, federalism and the separation of powers comprise our basic constitutional structure.
For starters, the Federalist Papers offer a distillation of the political theory animating this basic structure. Pay close attention to how Madison describes the dynamics of power, ambition, and the purposes of institutional design. This is not a government designed to rely on or even encourage civic virtue; rather what we see here is an emphasis on politics as conflict and contestation. The task of institutional design is to contain and channel that contestation into productive ends. This idea of productive contestation is central to a particular strand of republican political thought, and a key to the basic structure. Through contestation, faction can check faction, corruption can be prevented, and ultimately government can be harnessed for the common good. We also see here a deep concern with concentrated power. A key part of the design is to diffuse political power, preventing domination by distributing power across different governmental bodies.
As Madison suggests, however, these institutional designs do not come into being simply from being put on paper. The Marshall court’s foundational rulings in Marbury and McCulloch were arguably nearly as crucial to the founding of the Constitution as the drafting itself. As the Levinson, Balkin, and Tushnet readings highlight, these foundational cases were decided not just on the basis of deep principle and reasoning, but also in the heat of the political moment, with very real partisan and power-politics debates at play. These historical backstories are vital reminders that the Founding was not some era of “pure virtuous” politics, and that constitutional law is often forged in the fires of partisan and political conflict. Indeed, this reality is one reason why Marshall’s reasoning in both of these cases are so deeply “structural”; note how Marshall’s approach to constitutional reasoning combines text, and history but focuses on the structural and long-term institutional implications of potential rulings. Marshall (like Madison) sought not only to assure checks and balances, but also to assure an effective government. That meant in turn assuring that the federal government has basic capacities to act.
This basic tension—between assuring checks and balances and accountability against arbitrary political power on the one hand, and assuring a powerful and efficacious government on the other—runs through the first half of most Con Law courses, encompassing units on the Commerce Power, federalism, and the separation of Powers. The next few sections extend these themes in context of traditional Con Law reading assignments.