Annual Lecture Examines the US Constitution’s “Dead Hand”

Why does a document that was written more than 200 years ago continue to bind us today? And what is the role of Constitutional interpretation in answering or avoiding that question? These questions occupied figures as famous as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and have continued to divide legal academics and judges in the present day.

Stanford Law School’s annual Constitution Day program commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. The annual lecture “is an expression of this country’s devotion to a continuing conversation on how we should govern ourselves,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean.

Harvard Law School Dean John Manning delivered this year’s lecture.

Manning, a renowned scholar of separation of powers, statutory interpretation, and administrative law, examined the dueling metaphors of a dead hand of the past “reaching up and holding us back” and the opposing idea “classic living constitutionalism:” the idea that the constitution grows and changes.

From Marbury v. Madison to the modern questions about the meaning of interstate commerce, Manning discussed competing ideas about the correct way to read the constitution and the fiery disagreements they have produced.

Debate is key to our form of government, though, noted Michael McConnell, the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, introducing the lecture. “It is through disagreement that a republic flourishes, not through some sort of contrived unanimity or consensus,” he said.

More About John F. Manning
John F. Manning is the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, whose faculty he joined in 2004. He was Bruce Bromley Professor of Law from 2007–2017 and Deputy Dean from 2013–2017. Prior to coming to Harvard, Manning was the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, where he began teaching in 1994. Manning teaches administrative law, federal courts, legislation and regulation, separation of powers, and statutory interpretation. His writing focuses on statutory interpretation and structural constitutional law. Manning is a co-editor of Hart & Wechsler’s Federal Courts and the Federal System (6th ed., 2009) (with Richard Fallon, Daniel Meltzer, and David Shapiro), and Legislation and Regulation (2d ed., 2013) (with Matthew Stephenson). Prior to entering teaching, Manning served as an assistant to the Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice (1991-94), an associate in the D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher (1989-91), and an attorney-advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice (1986-88). He served as a law clerk to Hon. Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court of the United States (1988-89) and to Hon. Robert H. Bork on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1985-86). Manning graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985 and Harvard College in 1982. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About the Stanford Constitutional Law Center
The Stanford Constitutional Law Center focuses particularly on the separation and scope of legislative, executive, and judicial powers; the structure of constitutional democracy; the freedoms of speech, press, and religion; and the right of privacy, including the privacy of personal data in a digital world. Founded in 2006 by former Dean Kathleen Sullivan, the Constitutional Law Center is currently led by Faculty Director Michael W. McConnell, Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law.

About Stanford Law School
Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a new model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.