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'A Lot Of Gray Area': A Legal Expert Explains 'How To Read The Constitution'

What is the president actually allowed to do under the U.S. Constitution?

It's a question that's comes up from time to time at NPR, and when it does, we've turned to experts such as Kim Wehle, now a law professor and CBS News legal commentator. Now, she's written a book about it. It's called How to Read the Constitution — and Why.

Wehle says that all the debates around the constitutionality of various Trump administration policies inspired her to write the book. She says she originally had a contract to write a book for an academic audience, but found herself writing for laypeople.

"I think it's really important for people to be educated about not only about their constitutional rights, which is one part of the Constitution, but the structure — the structure of our government," Wehle says. "And if we allow the government to consolidate power in one branch, one man, one party, then our individual rights break down. So it's that message that I think is often lost in the day-to-day discourse about whatever that latest tree that's on fire in the forest. I like to focus on the forest."

Interview Highlights

On how reading the Constitution is like reading a poem

I have a poem in the book. And we break down the poem and talk about different ways of interpreting the poem, and how your point of view — what you're trying to achieve in reading the poem — might affect how you read the poem. And I suggest the Constitution is the same way. Every time we see a Supreme Court nominee come on board, or even in a presidential election, we hear calls for strict reading of the Constitution, judges that aren't going to color outside the lines. And the point — one of the many takeaways from the book — is that the Constitution is rarely black and white. There are underlying themes, one of which is accountability; nobody's above the law, nobody is the boss of all the bosses in our government. But other than that, rarely, rarely can we have a plain-reading, obvious interpretation of the Constitution. ...

And I get this with my students a lot. They want answers. (You know, I teach law students.) And I tell them: If you could Wikipedia the answer to the question, no one's going to pay you to do your job as a lawyer. It's a lot of gray area. These days, a lot of the questions that are being posed by this administration and the current Congress are not answered anywhere in the law; the Supreme Court hasn't addressed these at all. And so we can hypothesize as to what the proper answer is. We can have debates about it. But there really isn't a thumbs up or thumbs down on a lot of this stuff.

On what the Constitution says about the president's duty to execute or enforce laws

I think most people are surprised: The Constitution doesn't say anything about separation of powers, or checks and balances, or even the separation of church and state. But the way it's broken down is, there are three vesting clauses of the Constitution. The legislative branch makes laws; the executive branch enforces those laws. That's what the Constitution says. That being said, there's a lot of squishiness in the Constitution. And this is where we have to be quite vigilant to make sure that each branch doesn't step over too far over the lines of what it's supposed to do, and that that branch, when it does, gets checked by the other two branches, and ultimately by the voting public. ...

We see it, I think, a lot with migrants at the border, with Trump making the announcement there's going to be widespread enforcement of immigration laws. That is a determination, again, that individual prosecutors leading up to the president get to make, and the American public can say: Listen, that's not what we want our government to do. And the response would be to, of course, vote a different person into office. But I think the bigger issue these days has to do with Congress being feckless, really, in enforcing its own prerogative of oversight of the executive branch. We've seen not just under the Trump administration, but for decades a steady accumulation of power in the presidency. So Congress has to itself be vigilant to ensure that it retains its authority through the public to make sure that we don't have a king in this country. 'Cause fundamentally, our Founding Fathers and mothers didn't fight and die in the revolution to make sure there was more power in the presidency.

On the fragility of the Constitution, or its susceptibility to erosion

Again, the framers of the Constitution understood this, that it's human nature to amass power. And that's why we have this three-headed monster of government; we don't have a single one. Because the idea is no one's above the law. If this president crosses a legal boundary, crosses a norm boundary (a historical norm of behavior), and there's not a consequence, all of a sudden, what I say in the book, that tool goes in the president's toolbox for utilization by a future president. It might be a Republican president, it might be a Democratic president; that president's going to have that much power. So if you're on team Trump, or if you're on anti-team-Trump, it's sort of irrelevant. You have to say to yourself: How comfortable am I with my worst-case scenario president having this amount of power in his or her toolbox?

If that gives you concern, then I think you're one of the many people who should join me in this concern about the structure of our government sort of falling apart right now and moving, slipping into something that is certainly not consistent with how this country was founded, which is small government, not big government; individual people have the power. Government power has to be constrained. It's not a political thing; it's not blue and red. It's right and wrong at this point, and right and wrong in terms of protecting freedoms for our children and our grandchildren.

Victoria Whitley-Berry and Eric McDaniel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.