Written and unwritten constitutions

Debate over whether New Zealand should establish a written constitution continues, with Hamilton lawyer Thomas Gibbons having a say in NZ Herald: Written constitution unwanted and unwarranted

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and a fellow lawyer, Andrew Butler, have proposed a single written constitution, arguing that almost every other nation has a single written constitution, and – more importantly for these purposes – that such a document would be more accessible and enhance the public’s understanding of constitutional matters.

On this ground, the proposal is disingenuous. Even nations with an established single document called a “constitution” have a broader edifice of constitutional law. US constitutional scholars have come to talk of their own “unwritten” constitution.

They talk of a “thin” and a “thick” constitution: the latter being the full document, the former the part the public understands, which includes the Bill of Rights, and sometimes the Declaration of Independence, which is not part of the US constitution at all.

The reality of a written constitution:

Over the past 50 years, the US Supreme Court has invoked the US constitution in ruling on the legitimacy of abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, political campaign donations, and various other matters.

They are not expressly covered by the constitution’s text. Rather, general constitutional provisions describing such matters of freedom of speech and cruel and unusual punishment are applied to specific situations. Constitutional questions are not resolved in an ether.

A constitution is a guide rather than a definition of everything.

If Palmer and Butler’s main goal is accessibility, and public understanding of the constitution, they could as usefully advocate for more teaching of civics in schools (something Palmer has suggested elsewhere, in law review articles), they could disseminate media on constitutional issues (something Palmer has done elsewhere, via National Radio), or they could publish a new book.

They have just published a book on establishing a written constitution, which has prompted this debate.

What they don’t need to do is promote a New Zealand Constitution in the sense of a single written document of four, 40, or 400 pages.

The can do that if they like. Promoting discussion on important issues is useful.

It won’t make our constitutional law more accessible. It might even expand the unwritten constitution, through cases interpreting this new document.

Some of us quite like a system that means issues like abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, political campaign donations, and yes, even gun rights, can be decided by an elected Parliament, not unelected judges.

Elected Members of parliament versus unelected judges is an important point, probably the most critical consideration.

There is a lot of contentious debate in the US about the appointment of Supreme Court judges who get to decide on issues of major importance to the country.

The irony is that in suggesting something that is unwanted and unwarranted, Palmer and Butler are drawing public attention to the benefits of our current constitutional arrangements.

They have drawn attention to the options, which is a good thing in an open democracy.

Our current constitutional arrangements aren’t ideal, especially for a supposedly independent nation still linked to the monarchy of another country. But despite it’s imperfections it works fairly well.

It will be difficult to get popular support for a change to a written constitution. We couldn’t even engage in a sensible and civil debate over a flag change.

The Treaty of Waitangi and a New Zealand constitution would have to be inextricably linked.

I think avoidance of that debate along with apathy will mean nothing much will change constitution-wise in the foreseeable future.