“9” is not helpful.

“9 is not helpful” isn’t a terribly informative title, is it? How could you possibly figure out whatever this post is about from those cryptic words? If I had instead named this entry something like, “Titles should Convey Meaning”, wouldn’t the title have been a lot more, well, meaningful?

In the same way that titles can be more or less meaningful, section headings, e.g. titles of chapters within books, sections within chapters, can function as better or worse guides for the readers. The reason section headings exist is to provide readers with a quick way to locate themselves in the text, to clue in the readers to the subjects discussed in the pages, to act as a road map for the readers to easily find where certain ideas and phrases may be. A chapter that is titled “9” does none of these things very well.

To see an example where this guiding function is performed admirably, consider the slim volume Cosmic Constitutional Theory by J. Harvie Wilkinson III. The table of contents of his book looks thusly

Chapter One: Living Constitutionalism: Activism Unleashed
Chapter Two: Originalism: Activism Masquerading as Restraint
Chapter Three: Political Process Theory: A Third Way Down the Rabbit Hole
Chapter Four: Pragmatism: Activism through Antitheory
Chapter Five: The Failure of Cosmic Constitutional Theory

From the chapter headings alone, you already get some sense of Judge Wilkinson’s thesis, that cosmic constitutional theories, of which “living constitutionalism”, “originalism”, “political process theory”, and “pragmatism” are four strands, “give[] rise to nothing less than competing schools of . . . judicial activism”. If having read the book, you wish to consult it again for some detail or particular language, then such a table of content would be very useful in narrowing down the pages for your search since you’d have a good sense of what topics are discussed where, much more than if Judge Wilkinson had named his chapters “One”, “Two”, or led off with some exotic quotes that make sense only in context (e.g. One: ‘The Genius of the Constitution’, Two: ‘Capable of Supplying Neutrality’).

Kaleidoscoping down to the sections within chapters, Judge Wilkinson sticks with the textually helpful and eschews literary flourishes. Each chapter in his book is clearly divided into parts with meaningful names. For example, Chapter 1 is broken down thusly

  • A Primer on Living Constitutionalism
  • The Virtues of Living Constitutionalism
    • Promoting Stability in the Constitutional Corpus Juris
    • Helping the Elected Branches Advance Equality
    • Allowing Congress to Regulate Contemporary Commerce
  • The Vices of Living Constitutionalism
    • Disrespecting the Democratic Will
    • Ignoring Institutional Limitations
    • Overlooking Textual Constraints

Judge Wilkinson carries this structure into his other chapters as well, thus creating the neat effect of parallelism  so often extolled by English teachers. While you may object that such rigidity impairs the artistic flair of the book, I would challenge you to read such sentences the judge has written and still maintains that he lacks finesse about our language. These ones, for instance:

“I propose to scrutinize some of the leading constitutional theories to make my point. The labor is one of appreciation as much as criticism, even where the latter is pointed and sharp.” (p. 10)

“In the name of a constraining theory, originalism has cast aside restraint. Judges lifted high by the lofty promises of originalism are laid bare to the insidious temptations of personal preference”. (p. 57)

“As is so often the case with cosmic constitutional theory, easy cases have a tremendous ability to deceive.” (p. 72)

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