What Does This Mean?

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will recall that I take a lot of interest in oaths; especially, but not exclusively, citizenship oaths. A paper of mine arguing that the Canadian citizenship oath is unconstitutional as an unjustified infringement of the freedom of conscience came out in the last issue of the National Journal of Constitutional Law. The key move in my argument is to say that, since oaths generally implicate the conscience of the persons who take them, their subjective interpretations of the obligations oaths impose on them are determinative, in the same way as religious believers’ interpretations of the requirements of their faith are, and courts are not entitled to tell them that they simply mistaken about the duties they subscribe by swearing the oath. You will also recall that Canadian courts have not seen it fit to embrace that viewpoint. Both Ontario’s Superior Court and its Court of Appeal (as well as, once upon a time, the then-Appellate Division of the Federal Court) have found that the citizenship oath is constitutional, holding that the anti-monarchists who objected to taking it were wrong to understand it as preventing them from holding their beliefs or engaging in pro-republican activities.

So of course I found Orin Kerr’s recent post over at the Volokh Conspiracy about the meaning of an oath, required of U.S. federal employees, to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies … and … bear true faith and allegiance” to it very interesting. Interesting, but also, to me, unsatisfying.

Prof. Kerr notes that

[o]n its face, it’s not totally clear what it means to “defend the Constitution” and “bear true faith” to it. For example, some people support a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United, which would cut back on First Amendment protections. If you took the oath, are you obligated to oppose that amendment in order to faithfully defend the Constitution? Or imagine you work in a federal building and there’s a Christmas display that you think violates the Establishment Clause. Does your oath obligate you to take steps to stop the violation, and if so, what steps?

The first of these questions, especially, mirrors the dilemma faced by republicans asked to swear allegiance to the “Queen of Canada,” who must ask themselves whether this allegiance prevents them from holding on to and working to promote their reformist views.

But prof. Kerr accepts, unquestioningly so far as I can tell, that there is a truth of the matter about these questions; and, further, that this truth can be established by reference to history. Now this history is very interesting. The current wording of the oath, prof. Kerr explains, goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when the oath in that form was only required of former Confederate soldiers. Others could swear a more general ― though no less vague ― oath to “support” the Constitution. This seems to provide evidence for Liav Orgad’s claim, made in his excellent paper on loyalty oaths, that “the history of the oath is a history of fear,” specifically a fear of disloyalty ― a claim that I endorse and develop in my article. Only later was the obligation to take the oath to defend the Constitution extended to other federal employees, though prof. Kerr does not explain why.

Prof. Kerr concludes that this “historical context suggests” that the oath does not require federal employees

to oppose constitutional amendments or to take down questionable Christmas displays … [It] is probably best understood in its historical context as a promise to oppose political reforms outside the Constitution. You have to stay loyal to the government that is based on the Constitution, and you can’t support a rebellion or overthrow of that government.

This is more or less what the Canadian courts have concluded regarding the meaning of our citizenship oath. But, as I explain in greater detail in my other posts, and in my paper, this approach ignores the distinctive character of an oath. An oath is not a statutory command (though it is of course prescribed by statute). It is an imposition of vague obligations, whose precise significance the oath-taker has to work out for him- or herself, as a matter of conscience. Statutes can and must be authoritatively interpreted by courts, possibly with reference to the historical context in which they were enacted. But no court, in a free society, can tell a person what his or her conscientious duty is, for conscience is an internal tribunal, not answerable to any external one. If a person wants to look to history, or to law, or to anything else, in working out the meaning, to him or her of the oath ― that is to say, his or her conscientious duties ― good and well. But that’s his or her choice, and not, in Lord Acton’s words, the “sublime prerogative assigned to states, or nations, or majorities” ― or to judges.

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