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“Political Numeracy” by Michael Meyerson (W.W. Norton & Co., 221 pages, $24.95). Michael Meyerson of the University of Baltimore School of Law takes a refreshing new approach to the Constitution in “Political Numeracy.” His book makes a compelling case for the proposition that the application of mathematical concepts, including formal logic such as that taught in geometry, can add perspective to constitutional law. There is, of course, the threshold problem of the legal profession’s being math-challenged. Meyerson recalls his torts professor admonishing, “If you were any good in math, you’d all be in medical school.” But aside from the occasional and possibly unnecessary use of mathematical symbols, this is an easily readable book. Meyerson begins with a discussion of logic, pointing out that the Founding Fathers were well-schooled in Aristotelian logic and Euclidean geometry. Thus he sees the truths that Jefferson put in the Declaration of Independence — e.g., that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights — as “the political equivalent of Euclid’s axioms.” (An axiom is a statement that is assumed to be true without proof.) Meyerson finds additional support in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and the opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, which begin with axioms and march along with almost mathematical logic. Of course, as Meyerson admits, Chief Justice Roger Taney claimed refuge in axiom and logic, too, but he used it to support moral wrong. In what Meyerson calls “one of the most chilling paragraphs in U.S. law,” Taney found an “axiom” of racial inferiority to rule, in the Dred Scott case, that blacks could never be citizens. Most lawyers are vaguely aware of at least some of the arithmetic problems in the Constitution. Does constitutional reliance on the principle of majority rule prevent state legislatures from diluting the voting power of minority populations by gerrymandering election districts? To what extent did the Founding Fathers intend the system of checks and balances and the Bill of Rights to control tyranny of the majority? Can the president avoid the constitutional requirement that treaties be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate by entering into “executive agreements” with foreign governments? What does the Constitution say about how to count votes in presidential elections? And then there is the fraction that Meyerson calls the “ugliest number in the Constitution,” that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person. But “Political Numeracy” isn’t just about arithmetic. For example, according to Meyerson, mathematical proofs show there is no perfect way to pick the winner in a three-way race. His reasoning may be of comfort to supporters of Ralph Nader, whom some Democrats blame for handing George W. Bush the victory over Albert Gore in the 2000 presidential election. Meyerson delves into applications to constitutional law of more elegant mathematical concepts, such as game theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity, topology and G�del’s incompleteness theorem. Game theory, for example, says that individual states, left to their own devices, will pass protectionist laws to discriminate against commerce from other states. Thus the commerce clause of the Constitution can be viewed as being intended to prevent the states from playing such games while nonetheless allowing them to impose nondiscriminatory burdens on interstate commerce. (Those who liked the Oscar-winning film “A Beautiful Mind” will be interested to learn that its protagonist, mathematician John Nash, won his Nobel Prize for his contributions to the game theories that Meyerson discusses.) Meyerson’s application of the incompleteness theorem to constitutional law provides another useful perspective. The theorem addresses the dilemma of the barber in philosopher Bertrand Russell’s story. The barber announces, “I will shave anyone who does not shave himself, but I won’t shave anyone who does.” How, Russell asked, does the barber get shaved? G�del’s incompleteness theorem proved that the barber’s problem could never be solved because any system of logic must necessarily contain statements that cannot be solved within the system. By the same token, Meyerson says, there are certain constitutional principles not found in the Constitution. Chief Justice Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison is an example. Since there was nothing in the Constitution to indicate whether the Supreme Court or Congress had the power to decide if a law were constitutional, Marshall went outside the Constitution and — perhaps to no one’s surprise — concluded that the Court had the power. The most thought-provoking chapter in this short book is “Constitutional Chaos.” Meyerson looks at judicial interpretation of the Constitution as an exercise in chaos theory: “It certainly is plausible that constitutional jurisprudence, a discipline that considers whether rulings over time are consistent with ‘a line of cases’ or ‘a pattern of decisions,’ will benefit from asking whether we have something akin to a straight line or a fractal [an irregular geometric shape such as the branchings of a tree] and whether there is a chaotic or a predictable pattern.” Chaos theory may be used to describe situations where small and seemingly inconsequential changes in initial conditions have huge but unpredictable consequences later. (For those who have missed or forgotten the movie “Jurassic Park,” the actor Jeff Goldblum portrays a mathematician who harps incessantly about chaos theory to refer to the nutty experiments in cloning on a deserted island that produce a lawyer-devouring Tyrannosaurus Rex and a bevy of hungry velociraptors.) While many lawyers will agree that this sounds like constitutional law, Meyerson’s point is serious and sophisticated. The legal system in the United States is grounded in a Constitution that was written in 1787. The bulk of the document has remained largely untouched since then, although 10 amendments were added in 1791 and 17 more were added later. Thus, for the most part, constitutional law develops through precedent with current decisions relying and often building on past ones. Chaos theory would suggest that, like the clones in “Jurassic Park,” seminal constitutional principles from 1787 may evolve into very different forms by 2002. And so, Meyerson says, “A quantitative analysis of the Constitution is impossible to perform and meaningless to imagine. There is no mode to predict the next Supreme Court ruling or the outcome of the next election. Nonetheless, there is much that those studying the Constitution can learn from chaos.” To emphasize that he is not advocating mathematical perfection in the law, Meyerson concludes his book with a chapter entitled “The Limits of Mathematics.” Yet, such limits aside, “Political Numeracy” is more than just the sum of its parts. With this book, Meyerson adds two and two and gets five. For whether or not mathematics may be rigorously applied to constitutional law, it clearly provides intellectual exercises that lead to valuable new insights. Meyerson talks about this in his chapter on “Multidimensional Thinking.” A common illustration of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that of two riders on a moving train throwing a ball back and forth. To passengers on the train, the ball appears to move leisurely between them, just as though they were not on the train. But an observer who is standing along the tracks as the train whizzes by has a radically different perspective. He sees the ball racing past him at the same speed as the train. The law, like physics, says Meyerson, should recognize that the validity of principles depends on one’s perspective. Indeed, “Political Numeracy” as a whole is a subtle lesson in the need for multidimensional thinking about the Constitution. For example, merely by substituting the letters x, y and z for the names Bush, Gore and Nader, Meyerson gets the reader to think more objectively and more logically about the constitutional principles at issue in Bush v. Gore. Indeed, this approach leads to an interesting question, which Meyerson does not ask: Would the outcome of the case have been the same if the Supreme Court justices dealt with the 2000 election challenge as an abstract problem in legal logic and, therefore, did not know which political party would be favored by their decision? Or would Chief Justice Taney have come out the same way in the Dred Scott case were he asked to accept an axiom that his race was inferior? Michael Meyerson has produced an excellent little book that looks at constitutional principles from an interestingly different quasi-mathematical viewpoint. Yet he is well aware of the limits of math and logic in our political system — of the need sometimes to follow our hearts and consciences. He quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King’s explanation for why “justice too long delayed is justice denied” in a letter to eight clergymen: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim … when you find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Fortunately, despite admonitions from torts professors, there are lawyers such as Meyerson who are good at math and understand the role of law. Washington, D.C., lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor to Legal Times .

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