With a pocket constitution in his hand and the words of the opening lines emblazoned on his tie, Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar LAW ’84 argued before a lecture hall last night that the Constitution is timeless.
The Lillian Goldman Law Library sponsored a book talk with Amar, a prominent constitutional scholar, about his newest book “The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of our Era.” Amar, whose work has been cited by Supreme Court justices across the political spectrum more than 30 times, is one of America’s most-cited legal scholars under 60.
His most recent book, which was voted as one of Time magazine’s top 10 nonfiction books of the year, is composed of a compilation of Amar’s op-eds written for publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the New Republic during the last 20 years. The essays are arranged by subject, including gay marriage, gun rights and campaign finance, and are accompanied by an introduction and further commentary which reflects on how his ideas about certain constitutional subjects have changed over time.
In his book, Amar claims that the constitution is both an important tool for tackling the political problems of today and a device for bringing the country together along partisan lines.
“It is what we have in common, red and blue, republican and democrat, coastal and heartland,” said Amar.
In his talk on Wednesday, Amar said many fields like the sciences and even some branches of law, like tax law and the law of economics, cannot simultaneously aim at a scholarly audience and a general audience. Amar argued that this is not the case in constitutional law. The Constitution, Amar said, was written by ordinary people such that ordinary people could read it with ease. Thus, Amar said “a generalist can make a claim related to constitutional law to a general audience.”
Amar’s inspiration came from the documents which formed the core foundations of the Constitution itself, the Federalist Papers, which were also a series of newspaper op-eds intended for the general population. He wanted to carry along this tradition of popular constitutionalism in his book.
“I’m trying to write pieces that simultaneously speak to my colleagues, to my law students, to undergraduates, but also to an even broader audience,” he said.
Amar also discussed the deep tension that lies at the heart of constitutional journalism.
Since Amar does not have a regular slot in print, he has to pitch to newspaper editors for each op-ed he intends to write, which often proves challenging, since the “journalistic gatekeepers” are often uninterested in his topics of choice.
“I want to talk about something enduring, and [the news publications] want to talk about what’s happening now,” Amar said. “The Constitution has a long time horizon.”
Amar’s interest in this tension between what is enduring and what is current caused him to focus his book’s overarching theme on the Constitution’s applications today, as seen in the book’s title.
In keeping with this theme, Amar referenced President-elect Donald Trump several times throughout his speech. Specifically, he questioned the honesty of Trump when he takes the oath of office on Friday.
“In order to preserve protect and defend the Constitution … you have to know it, and I don’t know how much he’s actually thought about it,” Amar added.
Amar’s argument that the Constitution balances conservative ideals with progressive, revolutionary ideals resonated with attendees of the talk, who said they found it both topical in today’s political landscape and reassuring in its non-partisan nature.
Robert Black LAW ’16, one of Amar’s former students, emphasized the importance of Amar’s message about popular constitutionalism and the “necessity to engage with the broader citizenry.”
Ashraf Ahmed LAW ’19 said it was heartening to see a law professor recognize the potential political role of legal scholars in a way that was not overtly partisan but rather tried to bridge gaps by emphasizing a shared image.
“This is a scholar who sincerely believes that we still have a shared way of talking about our political life and that it’s important to promote that literacy and cultivate it,” Ahmed said.
Amar’s book was published in September 2016.