Between the breathless whispers that Judge Neil Gorsuch intends to impose either medieval Catholicism or, worse, Oxford sensibilities from the bench through the mechanism of natural law and the fear that he might otherwise glide into the legal positivism of which Justice Scalia was unreasonably accused lies another possibility: The Constitution can neither be interpreted through natural law nor reduced to positive law. It is more profitably understood as fundamental law.
Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the Tradition Project run by Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami of St. John’s Law School. The subject of this year’s conference was tradition in law and politics. One of the high points for me was the opportunity to read Harry Jaffa. He turned out to be a very interesting thinker. But I found that his famous claim that the Declaration of Independence has a constitutional status weakly defended. In particular, he fails to distinguish between positive constitutional law and constitutive traditions—a distinction that I think central to political life in a constitutional republic.
The Declaration of Independence is not positive law. It is instead a declaration of the reasons that the colonies were breaking with Great Britain. Courts do not enforce it as law. While other officials reference the Declaration on occasion, they do not generally do so in a way that suggests that it represents a binding legal obligation. It would be hard to make it so, because while the Declaration announces general truths of politics, it does not impose specific legal norms. And, unlike the Constitution, it was not ratified by the people and is not the product of a process that Mike Rappaport and I have described elsewhere as conducive to good constitutions.
While it does not create positive law, the Declaration of Independence is an important source—the most importance source— of our constitutive traditions.