What can Descartes tell us
about the U.S. Constitution,
America’s founding charter of
government? At a basic level of
abstraction, the text of the
Constitution is an array of
words set forth in consecutively numbered articles that move
from left to right across the
page. But how does its meaning actually come to life?
Where does its spirit reside?
How does it speak to the future? How do we know we’ve got it right?
Over the course of America’s history, and especially to the trained
eyes of lawyers and judges, we have always taken it as a given that,
like any legal document (albeit one loftier in scale and purpose), the
Constitution can be understood through a process of rigorous deduction, inference and rational thought. If one engages in that methodology, then the parchment rights, duties and meaning expressed therein should be self-evident … then again, maybe not. Like a metaphor
used to describe Cartesian dualism, perhaps we too are in search of a
ghost in the machine.
In his most recent book, Professor Laurence Tribe, with co-author
Joshua Matz, offers up an insightful look into the Roberts Court in
particular and an intriguing perspective on the meaning of the U.S.
Constitution in general. Ultimately, the title is most accurate: The
blueprint for social justice is not laid out by the Constitution, and perhaps the sooner America can grasp the significance of that reality, the
sooner she can attain the ideal set forth in words above the entrance
to the Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law.
First and foremost, Professor Tribe’s style and blend of factual
background with the conceptual architecture that is constitutional law
provide a book that is well written and informative. Just as significant,
the reader is given insights and legal analysis from someone whose
students included both a sitting Chief Justice and a President of the
Second, as the authors note in their prologue, their approach is not
to evaluate the Court from the viewpoint of “left” and “right” or “
liberal” and “conservative.” Those labels misstate the justices’ positions
on particular issues and fail to explain the emergence of the Court’s
plurality decisions. Instead, they describe the justices’ biographies and
their career paths, and they provide overviews of their individual judicial styles and philosophies.
The book’s structure is straightforward. Nine areas of law that have
now become prominent in the Roberts era are explored thematically
and in historical context, including equal protection, free speech, religious freedom, privacy, voting rights, campaign financing and criminal
As mentioned, the authors’ inclusion of background detail in their
overall presentation adds
to the quality of the
book. In Shelby County
v. Holder, for example,
HON. GEORGE T. ANAGNOST is the presiding
judge for the Peoria Municipal Court.
René Decartes by Frans Hals (1649)
Being called the founder
of analytic geometry may not
be entirely accurate. The prior
fundamentals of surveying
and navigation also suggested
the idea of coordinate location. Undoubtedly, however,
Descartes would have intuited that, when the fly
took to the air, the added z-axis would accurately
represent a three-dimensional world.
In poor health at birth, Descartes was named
Renatus, “reborn” when he survived into childhood. His father was a successful magistrate who
wanted his son to be a lawyer, but after obtaining
a law degree, Descartes pursued other studies.
We are in search of a ghost in the machine.