Interview With James Madison

 You hear a lot from conservatives these days about the "original meaning of the Constitution," which they claim to know. So I decided to ask the guy who knows more about the Constitution than anyone living or (in his case) dead, James Madison. Madison more than anyone is responsible for the final document. Our dialogue went something like this.

             -So Mr. Madison

-James please

-Okay James. Let me start by asking you about the Supreme Court decision from about 10 years ago, Citizens United. Congress put limits on the ability of corporations to give to political campaigns.

-Corporations? Giving money to political campaigns?

-Yeah. That’s a thing nowadays

-Do political campaigns really need a lot of money?

-Are you kidding? Money for TV advertising


-Microtargeted internet ads …

-Are you even speaking English?

-Look take my word for it. Politicians need boat loads of money these days. And corporations have a lot of money they’re willing to give to influence policy in their favor.

          -Well in my day, corporations were just state sanctioned monopolies that built roads and canals and stuff like that.

-Well today, corporations pretty much run the economy. They make cars, microchips, refrigerators.

-I have no idea what any of those things are.

-Never mind. Anyway some corporations are worth billions of dollars?

-Billions with the b?


-And they’re able to give money to candidates?

-Yeah. But Congress passed a law restricting their ability to do that, and Supreme Court struck it down.

-On what grounds?

-First Amendment. You know, freedom of speech

-I know what the First Amendment is. The court said corporations have First Amendment rights to give cash to politicians?

-Yeah, more or less.

-You’re joking right.

-Well, only five of the nine justices said that. Those were the justices who believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning.

-Now I know you’re joking.

-Okay. Then there is the whole problem of whether the First Amendment can deal with social media companies, where people use their platforms to spread disinformation, and how the social media algorithms amplify extremist and misleading content.

-I don’t think I understood a single word of what you just said. Maybe “the” and “with”.

-Ok. Forget that. Then there’s the issue of the Supreme Court saying that public employee unions can’t automatically deduct dues from employees pay checks, because that would violate the employees’ First Amendment rights? What do you think of that?

-What are unions?

-Ok. Never mind that either. What about the Second Amendment. Some people are wondering whether the right to bear arms includes the right to have semiautomatic weapons.

-Excuse me? What are semiautomatic weapons?

-Semiautomatic weapons with high capacity magazines can rapid fire 50 shots without reloading.



-In in my day, you know you’d have to reload your musket ball after every shot.

-Got it.

-Look. Let’s step back  a minute. What I want to say, generally, is that we, I’m talking about the people who wrote the Constitution, we didn’t really think about a lot of what you’re dealing with in the 21st century, over 200 years later. How could we? You have to use the light of your own reason to adapt the basic principles of the Constitution to your own modern situation. Don’t bother dead people like me with lots of questions.

-Well James, okay. But with a wishy washy answer like that, you would never have made it as a commentator on cable news.

-What’s cable news?

-You don’t want to know.


Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. 

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