Constitutional Entrenchment

"Constitutional entrenchment" refers to situations in which a constitution or provision thereof cannot be amended or repealed at all, or cannot be amended or repealed except with some sort of super-majority. Such entrenchment raises issues of generational sovereignty insofar as the constitution in question, enacted by an earlier generation, operates to limit the political freedom of later generations.

The United States Constitution includes several entrenching provisions. The most obvious is Article V, which prevents amendment of the Constitution without approval of 2/3 majorities of both houses of Congress and agreement from 3/4 of the States. Because of this provision, whenever a conflict over the fundamental law of the U.S. arises between the enacted preferences of the 1788 framers and a present majority of the United States public (that cannot muster the required supermajorities), the preferences of the framers control.

A more notorious entrenching provision is the equal suffrage clause of Article V. That clause provides, categorically, that "no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of it's equal Suffrage in the Senate." The rule of equal senatorial suffrage is profoundly anti-democratic, allowing the citizens of less populous states to have many times the political representation in Congress of citizens from more populous states. The arrangement violates the basic one man - one vote principle that has been recognized elsewhere in American jurisprudence. If any state in the United States attempted to enact its own version of the equal suffrage clause by granting equal representation in its state senate to every county within the state, the effort would be struck down by the Supreme Court. (See Reynolds v. Sims (1964)). The political justifications for the provision arguably expired many generations ago. If the constitutional clause is given continuing force and effect, it has the potential to entrench unequal representation at the highest levels of United States government into perpetuity.

The legitimacy of constitutional entrenchment was most famously challenged by Thomas Jefferson in a series of letters, the best known of which is his September 6, 1789 letter to James Madison. In the course of exploring a wide range of generational sovereignty issues, Jefferson asserted:

"We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another."

"[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. . . . The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being."

"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the tend of 19 years [the period by which Jefferson computed that the majority of the voting public is replaced, by the natural processes of birth and death, with a new majority]. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.”

More recently, Jefferson's arguments against constitutional entrenchment have been championed by Michael Otsuka, in his work Libertarianism without Inequality.

Similar generational sovereignty concerns arise in regards to legislative entrenchment -- the situation in which an earlier legislature purports to enact substantive or procedural rules that cannot be repealed by later legislatures without a supermajority, or at all.

Submitted by John Davidson. Last modified August 20, 2010.

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