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The Subjects of the Constitution

Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz

Georgetown University Law Center

May 18, 2010

Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, 2010
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-25

Two centuries after Marbury v. Madison, there remains a deep confusion about quite what a court is reviewing when it engages in judicial review. Conventional wisdom has it that judicial review is the review of certain legal objects: statutes, regulations. But strictly speaking, this is not quite right. The Constitution prohibits not objects but actions. Judicial review is the review of such actions. And actions require actors: verbs require subjects. So before judicial review focuses on verbs, let alone objects, it should begin at the beginning, with subjects. Every constitutional inquiry should begin with a basic question that has been almost universally overlooked. The fundamental question, from which all else follows, is the who question: who has violated the Constitution?

As judicial review is practiced today, courts skip over this bedrock question to get to the more familiar question: how was the Constitution violated? But it makes no sense to ask how, until there is an answer to who. Indeed, in countless muddled lines of doctrine, puzzlement about the predicates of constitutional violation follows directly from more fundamental confusion about the subjects.

Confusion about the who (and, relatedly, the when) of constitutional violation has been the root cause of many of the deepest puzzles of federal jurisdiction - puzzles of ripeness, of standing, of severability, of “facial” and “as-applied” challenges. Simply by focusing attention on this crucial constitutional feature, the subjects of the Constitution, these puzzles may be solved once and for all. And as they are solved, it becomes clear that this approach constitutes a new model of judicial review.

But the implications of this new paradigm are not limited to federal jurisdiction. It turns out that confusion over the deep puzzles of federal jurisdiction has had subtle but profound feedback effects on substantive constitutional doctrine as well. Once these jurisdictional puzzles are solved, the scope of constitutional rights and powers comes into new focus as well. These implications ripple through the most important and controversial doctrines of constitutional law, from the scope of the Commerce Clause to the reach of the First Amendment, from the meaning of equal protection to the content of privileges and immunities, from the nature of due process to the shape of abortion rights.

And all of it derives from nothing more complicated than asking the right first question: who has violated the Constitution?

Number of Pages in PDF File: 85

Keywords: Judicial Review, Facial and As-Applied Challenges, Constitutional Interpretation

JEL Classification: K00, K40, K41

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Date posted: May 18, 2010 ; Last revised: May 25, 2011

Suggested Citation

Rosenkranz, Nicholas Quinn, The Subjects of the Constitution (May 18, 2010). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 5, 2010; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 10-25. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1611210

Contact Information

Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
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