In the third volume of a series that assesses the Constitution from varying perspectives, a law professor approaches the document geographically, examining it through the prism of the states.
Constitutional law, as Amar (Law and Political Science/Yale Univ.; America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By, 2012, etc.) reminds us, is not merely the province of scholars and judges, but rather “a game that many can play…if they are smart and serious.” The geographical angle is itself a kind of game that, while not wholly successful, has the virtue of reminding us how much of our constitutional law is shaped by our federalism. Using 12 states from all regions of the country, Amar tells individual constitutional stories; all hold national implications, but each one is distinctively imprinted by the characteristics of a place or region. He deals first with personalities, influential constitutional decision-makers whose roots powerfully affected their thoughts on the nature of the Union (Illinois’ Lincoln), the applicability of the Bill of Rights to the states (Alabama’s Hugo Black) and the limits of presidential power (New York’s Robert Jackson). The author then turns to signal cases—e.g., Brown v. Board of Education, Tinker v. Des Moines and Bush v. Gore—where the histories of the states from which each arose have inflected our understanding of civil rights, free speech and presidential selection. Finally, Amar concludes with a discussion of some constitutional principles and provisions: presidential succession (Ohio and Texas), gun rights (Wyoming), search and seizure (Massachusetts), and federalism (New Jersey). Even those disinclined to accept his thesis of geographic determinism will delight in his smooth prose, his frank confessions of bias, his frequently sharp insights and the many sparkling nuggets he scatters throughout, whether about the location of the only national park site named after a Supreme Court case or how Camden, New Jersey, got its name.
A provocative, consistently interesting take on our constitutional history.