Curvature of Constitutional Space – Spacious if not Specious

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Curvature of Spacetime

Here’s a juicy title for a thesis: “Curvature of Constitutional Space.” Is this thesis for a student of the law? Or Is it for a student of astrophysics? As I happen to be an amateur of astrophysics, the title certainly caught my attention.The full title of the 39-page article, authored by Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard, Laurence Tribe, was “Curvature of Constitutional Space. What lawyers can learn from modern physics.” With credits given to five people including Professor Gerard Holton of Harvard and four Research Assistants, the paper was published in Harvard Law Review 1 Volume #130 (1989). Obama was the editor-in-chief of the HLR and became president for volume #131. Obama was, of course, also one of the four RAs.

The fundamental premise of Tribe’s paper is apparently that the Constitution is impacted by the legal and social context in the same way that space and time is impacted and curved by objects. Having been able to find and read only the article’s first page on the net, it seems that the premise is reversible to the extent that decisions in the court house certainly have an impact on society and law…and that seems rather obvious. For starters, the law is to help bind and protect society. It all seems to be much ado about nothing as far I can understand. Much as I enjoy reading about quantum physics and do my best to keep up with the changes in law (as best a layman can), I do not see much relevancy in this paper. Personally, the idea that the Constitution should be a curving set of principles does not sit very well. Meanwhile, articles have been written attempting to understand better Obama’s sentiment about the Constitution and, based on this 1989 piece, are looking for insights as to how Obama might choose the next Supreme Court justice.

The impact of this 1989 paper, well prior (i.e. as of March 2007) to Obama’s Presidency, is cited in The Sun:

“Nearly 200 law review and periodicals have cited the article since its publication, including ones with titles such as “The Algebra of Pluralism: Subjective Experience as a Constitutional Variable” and another involving Asian American legal scholarship and “narrative space.” Four courts have cited the piece. The U.S. Appeals District court’s second circuit, in One was in a patent dispute over telemarketing equipment, where it was cited in discussing the uncertainty that results regarding how attorneys can influence expert opinions by deciding what to disclose to them about the case. The judge in Perkins v. Londonderry Basketball Club, a court of appeals case in the 1st Circuit, likewise cited the article. That case involved the question of whether the 14th Amendment was violated by barring a girl player from a basketball tournament.”

Here are some of the sources I read: Gary Shapiro of the NY Sun wrote this article (which I quoted above) in March 2007, “Obama’s view of the Constitution…” You can read some surrounding colour on the NY Sun story with PowerLineBlog (Mar 2007) and again the Faculty Lounge (Oct 2008). At the end of last year, a Tulane professor, Frank Tipler, wrote a counter paper, dismissing Tribe’s paper as “crackpot physics.” Also, a Frank Warner blog post (Sep 2008) that comments quite animatedly the debate.

Personally, I am glad that no one has dug up my university thesis (on the relative impact of time, religion and death as they relate to the success of revolutionary protagonists) to gauge how I will better sell a shampoo.

One Comment, RSS

  1. AME

    Of course you are an amateur astrophysicist, as am I. Sort of like learning Russian to read Dostoevsky in the original. But, re your post, I believe the curvature around objects (gravity) in the universe is the reason space and time exist. I would say our constitution was based on the cultural and social mores of the time, not the cause of them, and its genius is wiggle room to adapt to different mores.

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