Although Akhil Reed Amar is a constitutional originalist, he recognizes that change will happen.
Amar will talk about the future of a major aspect of the Constitution — the Bill of Rights — at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater as part of Week Five’s morning lecture theme, “The Supreme Court: At a Tipping Point?” Amar, who is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, is one of the United States’ five most-cited legal scholars under the age of 60.
“The Bill of Rights stands as the high temple of our constitutional order — America’s Parthenon — and yet we lack a clear view of it,” Amar wrote in his book The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction.
As an originalist, Amar believes that constitutional interpreters should build on the Constitution as it was originally understood when drafted and ratified, he wrote in a March 18 article in The New York Times.
His book recognizes, though, that the modern understanding of the Bill of Rights was really created in the 1860s during Reconstruction. He will explore how the set of amendments might be interpreted for the modern era during his lecture Thursday.
Amar has repeatedly said that Americans are not as familiar with the Constitution as they should be. In an Aug. 25, 2016, interview with Time magazine, he said the average American doesn’t understand the Constitution “at all,” which is “a shame” because it was meant to be read by the people.
Despite this negative outlook, Amar hasn’t stopped trying to help people understand the Constitution. He teaches an extremely popular undergraduate course on constitutional law at Yale, and can frequently be found with multiple copies of the Constitution in his pocket so he can give them away.
This passion and effort have led to a significant body of scholarly work — including seven books — and recognition for Amar. Supreme Court justices of varying ideologies have also favorably cited his ideas in more than 30 cases.
Amar’s work hasn’t escaped the notice of Chautauqua Institution. Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said her department knew they wanted to book Amar as soon as they decided they wanted to address the Bill of Rights because he knows it best. He also delivered the Robert H. Jackson Lecture on the Supreme Court of the United States in 2014.
The department, in partnership with the National Constitution Center, chose to address the Bill of Rights because it is set to be heavily debated in the coming years, Babcock said. She added that they asked Amar and the other speakers to talk about these challenges in the short term because the Supreme Court is at a tipping point right now due to the death of Antonin Scalia and the potential retirement of a few other justices.
Babcock said Amar is squeezing in his lecture between classes at Yale this summer. She said he is driving from New Haven, Connecticut, immediately following a class and will drive back for another right after his lecture Thursday.
“He’s really making the effort to be here and we’re just thrilled because he was our No. 1 choice for this topic,” Babcock said.