All of this suggests a fourth lesson to be gleaned from our constitutional history: interpreting the Constitution is a game best not played alone. The Constitution’s words and structure do not set up one single, authoritative interpreter of the Constitution — contrary to the myth that has grown up around the often misunderstood case of Marbury v. Madison. The Constitution does not establish judicial supremacy, but constitutional supremacy: the supremacy of the document itself. And the Constitution’s system of separation of powers and even federalism set up a framework in which multiple actors — presidents, legislators, juries, and voters, as well as judges — each have a legitimate role to play in giving the Constitution practical effect and in checking the errors of the others. No one branch or institution has the sole power of constitutional interpretation. The Supreme Court did not write the Constitution, does not own the Constitution, and has not always correctly interpreted the Constitution. Our constitutional system has worked best when each and every government official and citizen has taken a full, active, faithful role in interpreting the Constitution. Plessy v. Ferguson may have been overruled by the Court itself, sixty years later, in Brown v. Board of Education. But Dred Scott was overruled by political resistance, by Lincoln’s resolution, and ultimately by civil war and constitutional amendment by the people — not by the Supreme Court.
Fifth, and finally, it seems that the system has worked best when those interpreting the Constitution — the courts and others — have adhered most faithfully to the text and not launched out on departures or policy inventions of their own, in the name of the Constitution. Rare indeed is the judicial decision that is condemned for its strict, faithful interpretation of the document. The truly awful cases of the Court’s constitutional history — and those that remain bitterly controversial today — are generally ones in which the Court has abandoned the words and original meaning of the Constitution’s text and struck out on its own path. Nor are political officials often condemned for their faithful adherence to the words of the Constitution; more often they have been criticized for twisting or disregarding its meaning and spirit in order to justify their actions. The Constitution remains our standard of conduct for all government officials. Those who depart from it, or who act unfaithfully in its name, have been the antagonists, not the heroes, of our nation’s constitutional history.
These observations — themselves subject to debate in some of the conclusions they reach — surely do not exhaust those that could be drawn from the Constitution and its history. “We the People of the United States,” the owners of the Constitution, have not finished its story or finished arguing over the Constitution’s proper interpretation. Our book thus ends incomplete. The next chapters are in the hands of the people whose Constitution it is — in the hands of “ourselves and our Posterity.”