In this article, we defend the traditional rule that legislative entrenchment, the practice by which a legislature insulates ordinary statutes from repeal by a subsequent legislature, is both unconstitutional and normatively undesirable. A recent essay by Professors Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule disputes this rule against legislative entrenchment and provides the occasion for our review of the issue. First, we argue that legislative entrenchment is unconstitutional, offering the first comprehensive defense of the proposition that the original meaning of the Constitution prohibits legislative entrenchments. We show that a combination of textual, historical, and structural arguments make a very compelling case against the constitutionality of legislative entrenchment. In particular, the Framers incorporated into the Constitution the traditional Anglo-American practice against legislative entrenchment, as evidenced by early comments by James Madison - comments that have not been previously discussed in this context. Moreover, legislative entrenchment essentially would allow Congress to use majority rule to pass constitutional amendments. On the normative issue, we offer a new theory of the appropriate scope of entrenchment: the theory of symmetric entrenchment. Under our theory, there is a strong presumption that only symmetric entrenchments - entrenchments that are enacted under the same supermajority rule that is needed to repeal them - are desirable. The presumption helps to distinguish desirable entrenchments that would improve upon government decisions from undesirable ones that simply involve legislatures protecting their existing preferences against future repeal. To be desirable entrenchments must generally be symmetric, because the supermajority rule that is applied to the enactment of entrenched measures would improve the quality of these measures and therefore compensate for the additional dangers that entrenchments pose. This theory steers a middle path between a strict majoritarian position, which would prohibit all legislative entrenchments, and a position that would allow legislative majorities to entrench measures.

Date of this Version

June 2003