Analysis & Comment

Opinion | How Liberals Lost the Constitution — And How to Win It Back

The legal scholar Larry Kramer on why the left’s embrace of judicial supremacy was a mistake.












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Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

For decades now, the conservative legal movement has been on a mission to remake this nation’s laws from the bench. And it’s working. On Friday we released an episode with the legal scholar Kate Shaw that walked through case after case showing how conservative Supreme Court majorities have lurched this country’s laws to the right on guns, voting, gerrymandering, regulatory authority, unions, campaign finance and more in the past 20 years. And if the Dobbs majority is any indication, this rightward shift is just getting started.

But this conservative legal revolution is only half of the story. The other half is just as important: the collapse of liberal constitutional thinking. Liberals have “lost anything that would animate a positive theory of what the Constitution should be,” says the legal scholar Larry Kramer. “And so they’ve been left with a kind of potpourri of leftover things from the periods when liberals were ascendant in the ’60s and ’70s.”

[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

Kramer is a former dean of Stanford Law School, the current president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the author of“The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review.” And according to him, it hasn’t always been this way. For most of American history, politicians, from Jefferson to Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, believed that constitutional interpretation was inextricable from politics. And they put forward distinct visions of what the Constitution meant and the kind of country it was written to build. But then, in response to the progressive victories of the Warren court, liberals began to embrace the doctrine of judicial supremacy: the view that the final authority on the Constitution rests with the courts. This has resulted in both the conservative legal victories of the past few decades and liberals’ muddled, weak response.

So this is a conversation about the collapse of liberal constitutional politics: why it happened, what we can learn from it and what a renewed, progressive vision of the Constitution could look like. We also discuss why the founders weren’t actually originalists at all, whether liberal constitutional thinking has been captured by the legal profession, what a liberal alternative to originalism could consist of, why changing the size of the court (despite its controversies) has been an important tool for staving off constitutional crisis, the case for an “anti-oligarchy Constitution,” the merits of imposing supermajority requirements on court decisions and nominations, why Kramer views Roosevelt’s infamous court-packing effort as a major success and more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker, Kate Sinclair, Rollin Hu and Irene Noguchi; original music and mixing by Isaac Jones; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

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