Not So Super Majorities

We all want to live under good constitutions… whatever good really means. But how do we make sure that our constitution is, in fact, good? In a post at the Volokh Conspiracy (part of a series discussing their book on originalism), John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport argue that that “stringent supe[r]majority rules provide the best way to make a national constitution.” A constitution, they say, should be enacted by a super-majority and placed beyond the reach of amendment, except again by supermajority. I do not think that they succeed in demonstrating this claim.

First, it is important to distinguish two questions which professors McGinnis and Rappaport seem to run together. One concerns the best way to enact a new constitution; the other concerns the best way to amend an existing one. To be sure, this distinction is somewhat artificial and can be difficult to make; at some point an amendment might be so fundamental as to be equivalent to the making of a new constitution. Nevertheless, there seems nothing wrong with the idea that, say, the unanimous agreement of formerly independent states is required to create a new federal constitution uniting them, which will subsequently be amendable without their unanimous consent. The opposite move ― the creation of a constitution with lower support than would be required to amend it ― might seem sneaky, but I’m not sure that it is actually wrong in all circumstances. In Canada, the Constitution Act, 1982, was entrenched with the support of nine provinces, yet it requires the agreement of all ten for some types of constitutional amendment. I am not aware of anyone having criticized it for that reason.

Be that as it may, professors McGinnis and Rappaport seem to think that both the initial creation of a good constitution and the making of good amendments thereto require supermajority agreement. They make four arguments in support of this view. First, [“s]upermajority rules … screen norms for substantial consensus and bipartisan support,” which, in turn, “creates legitimacy and allegiance as citizens come to regard the Constitution as part of their common bond.” Second, “supermajority rules … encourag[e] richer deliberation about the Constitution.” Third, supermajority requirements ensure that citizens know that they might not be able to change the constitutional rules when they apply to them, and hence are more likely to settle on rules that are fair to all and express the public interest rather than partisan advantage. And fourth, “[s]upermajority rules also generate constitutions that are more likely to protect minorities,” since minorities are able to block the enactment of rules that do not protect them.

I do not think that any of these arguments proves that supermajority rules are either necessary or sufficient to make good constitutions. To keep this post from being much too long, I will mostly focus on the first claim ― that supermajority agreement on the contents of a constitution makes it more legitimate. However, here some quick thoughts about the other ones. Supermajority rules can, indeed, encourage richer deliberation, but they can just as well encourage unprincipled compromise, such as the “trading of fish for rights” that preceded the enactment of the Constitution Act, 1982 ― or, say, the compromise that preserved slavery and even give slave-owning states disproportionate political power under the U.S. Constitution as originally enacted. For the same reason, supermajority rules do not guarantee that a constitution will respect the public interest ― they might simply encourage horse-trading between partisan factions instead. And while supermajority rules can protect minorities, they can also give them the power to extract disproportionate advantages or protections that are larger than necessary and unduly impede collective action.

To return now to the claim that the legitimacy of and citizens’ loyalty to a constitution depend on the breadth of the consensus on its contents, it seems to me that it leads to absurd consequences. Most obviously, it means no only that supermajority is better than simple majority, but also that unanimity is better than any other supermajority. Yet professors McGinnis and Rappaport are not arguing for unanimity. Perhaps that is merely because it would be impractical. Perhaps also there is, in fact, a diminishing return on additional support, at least past a certain threshold. Yet it is not clear where that threshold lies, and whether it does in fact lie in supermajority territory. For some purposes―including elections in the Canada as well as in the U.S. ―we accept a plurality, not even a simple majority as sufficient for the win. Indeed, it is possible for a party or a candidate to win such elections without even a plurality of the national popular vote. It is reasonable to demand that a constitution, expected to endure for decades and even centuries, enjoy higher support than a politician elected to hold office for four or five years, but it is by no means clear just how much higher.

However, there is an even more fundamental problem with the argument that constitutions are best enacted and amended by supermajorities because their legitimacy is a function of the consensus they generate. If a constitution (however enacted) can only be amended by a supermajority, then it is quite possible for a constitutional provision to remain in force even though a majority of the people come to think that it is a rotten one. The more stringent the supermajority requirement, the wider consensus the can be on the need for constitutional amendment without the amendment being realized. From the standpoint of a consensus on the substance of constitutional provisions, the constitution is in such circumstances quite illegitimate, and thus supermajority requirements make illegitimate constitutions more, rather than less, likely.

I am inclined to think that what makes a constitution ― or, for that matter, a government ― legitimate is not the breadth of substantive agreement with it, but agreement on the procedures that led to its creation. This is what explains the continuing legitimacy of constitutional provisions with which a majority of citizens ― but one not sufficient to overcome a supermajority requirement ― disagree with. The focus on the contents of constitutional rules imposes too high a threshold for their legitimacy.

What I have said so far means that supermajority rules are not sufficient to make a good constitution. They are also not necessary. It is, surely, possible to arrive at good rules (whether by this we mean rules that generate broad agreement, or are conducive to the public interest, or protect minorities) by other procedures too, whether simple majority, through the development of constitutional conventions, or through adjudication. (On this last point, professors McGinnis and Rappaport recognize, in a subsequent post, that in some cases, judicial “precedent now enjoys such strong support that it is comparable to that necessary to pass a constitutional amendment.”)

The question of what procedure, if any, is the best for making a good constitution is clearly a difficult one. I have not attempted to answer it in this post. I do think, however, that professors McGinnis and Rappaport have not succeeded in demonstrating that supermajority enactment and amendment is that procedure. Supermajority requirements have some benefits, but also considerable flaws.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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