PHC's Federalist Society hosts discussion on Constitutional Interpretation Theory

Posted by Marlowe Carroll on 3/17/23 4:20 PM

Federalist Society Debate_Marlowe

A week ago, more than 70 people attended a discussion and extra-credit event between Dr. Jesse Merriam, Associate Professor of Government, and Professor Lee Strang of Toledo University, which was hosted by Patrick Henry College's Federalist Society and held in PHC’s Town Hall. The two law experts provided students with a working knowledge of Common Good Constitutionalism and explained their varying reasons for rejecting it as a stand-alone policy.

Seniors Jordan Armga and Giancarlo Mandato organized the event and had pizza, chips, and cookies for those watching to enjoy. PHC’s Town Hall was packed from one side to the other, and Mandato had to bring in extra folding chairs to fit students, faculty, and other observers.

Merriam opened the event by giving a quick definition of Common Good Constitutionalism. In short, it is a form of constitutional interpretation that points lawmakers and judges back to natural law rather than to the Constitution. Proponents of this method believe that it would be helpful to make more overarching value judgements rather than limited positive law because that will better support the common good. Both Merriam and Strang have serious problems with this philosophy, though they differ as to what the biggest issues are.

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After Merriam introduced the subject, Strang explained the history behind it and his personal opposition to Common Good Constitutionalism. The theory was first developed in 2020 by Adrian Vermeule who wrote both a popular article and a book about the subject. Merriam and Strang both presented this theory as a challenge to Originalism, a theory of constitutional interpretation that many PHCers hold to. Originalism says that we should consider the original meaning of the Constitution inside the historical context it was first written in. Strang said that Common Good Constitutionalism sounds good at first, but it actually more like a “siren song” that only hurts the user.

After the formal presentations, the professors had the chance to ask questions of each other while students came up with their own questions and handed them in on notecards to Armga and Mandato. Dr. Roberta Bayer, Associate Professor of Government, also had a question for the speakers and brought an informed perspective of historical natural law to the discussion. Both Merriam and Strang answered questions from the audience that Armga read off of notecards to keep everything organized.

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Mandato said afterwards that PHC is a good place to hold events like this because of the number of strong conservatives here and the ability the school has to train people of good legal quality. The discussion was largely theoretical—no one advocated for or against specific policies—but a strong theory of interpretation makes all the difference in practical cases. Merriam and Strang both talked about positive law to determine which constitutional theory actually supports the American legal system.

Discussions like this are always happening at PHC. Government students are given the opportunity to learn as much as they can about the heart behind our nation's laws so that they can uphold them with virtue and in the spirit of the Gospel. We are so blessed to have professors who invest their time after hours to share their wisdom with us, and we are so thankful to Professor Strang for joining us for this event!


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