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Popular Constitutionalism's Hard When You're Not Very Popular: Why the ACLU Turned to Courts

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Through a case study of the early American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this article examines the empirical ramifications of constitutional scholars' recent exhortations to “take the Constitution away from the courts” in order to promote democratic deliberation about constitutional meaning. While it is now one of the most prominent examples of a litigation-based interest group, the ACLU began its existence demonstrating a commitment to constitutionalism outside the courts. Through coding a decade's worth of meeting minutes and examining archival sources, I demonstrate that the ACLU's mounting unpopularity rendered extrajudicial politics impossible, precipitating the ACLU's shift toward litigation. The ACLU's move toward litigation, despite its early devotion to political activism outside the courts, suggests that it is not always possible for political actors to make constitutional arguments without courts. Furthermore, the ACLU's use of courts to publicize and dramatize its constitutional arguments demonstrates that litigation may actually promote popular deliberation about constitutional meaning. These political realities both highlight and contradict two empirical assumptions underlying arguments about the normative desirability of restricting courts' involvement in constitutional politics. First, the state is not a neutral arena in which all political actors are equally free to pursue their constitutional visions through majoritarian processes. Second, courts may facilitate (rather than hinder) popular deliberation about constitutional questions.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Princeton University

Publication date: 2008-06-01

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