Constitutional Interpretation (back when some things still mattered): Princeton MOOC

Course: Constitutional Interpretation
Length: 7 weeks, 2-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: Robert P. George
Quote:

Though the Constitution is widely credited for the success of the United States’ republican democracy, people often disagree about how it should be interpreted. What does the Constitution mean? What does it require, and what does it forbid? In this course, we will examine competing theories of, and approaches to, constitutional interpretation.
More specifically, we ask:
• Should the provisions of the U.S. Constitution be read to give effect to the intent of their framers and ratifiers? If so, what counts as their “intent,” and how is it to be discerned?
• If “original intent” is not the touchstone of interpretation, how is the constitutional interpreter to avoid simply reading his or her own moral beliefs or political ideology into the Constitution?
• Who, by the Constitution’s own terms, has the power of judicial review, that is, to authoritatively interpret the Constitution and give effect to its principles and norms?
• If we accept the principle of judicial review, does that mean that judges always have the final say in disputed questions of what the Constitution means and requires?

One of the main points of this course was that some what we would consider fundamentals of the American constitution aren’t in the Constitution at all, but were established by court rulings. Like the idea of judicial supremacy, for instance: nine judges (at the current time), none of whom were elected, get to decide if laws passed by elected officials are legal or not. How’d that happen? It was hotly contested back in the earliest days of the 19th century, in fact, but somehow it’s managed to survive, even though Lincoln himself took a few whacks at it.

Interesting course, huh. And, in the present moment, kind of depressing, scary. So much rides on these decisions, and everything depends on the red wheelbarrow of precedent and the power of law which doesn’t feel very secure right now. In fact this course finished a couple of months ago, but I didn’t write it up because it felt so frustrating. Time to get up off the mat.

Each week looks at a different aspect, and shows what cases and decisions were crucial in forming what we more or less take for granted now. It’s all very accessible; even the cases are available in full legalistic glory, or in for-the-rest-of-us form. Though it’s large-class lecture, there’s some interaction, which always makes a course more interesting.

After six weeks of general material, five special-topic sessions are offered, of which two are required. It’s hard to pick since they’re all interesting: religious freedom, political speech, equal protection, property/contract (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds), and bodily integrity/family/reproductive law.

Each lecture started with a welcome that included online students and “community auditors”. I was curious about that, so I went looking: it seems that, for $200, pretty much anyone can sit in on most Princeton lectures in person, as long as they sit in the back and don’t say anything unless expressly invited (keep out of the way of the “real” students, so to speak). And then there are moocers, who get much the same deal for free. While edX has upped the pressure to pay – audit courses are no longer available indefinitely, and graded materials aren’t available – Princeton says, screw that, and somehow carved out its own deal. Grades were calculated, the course is available in archive, and they even email a Certificate to everyone who passes. Now that’s open.

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