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When we think of constitutional law, we invariably think of the Supreme Court and the federal court system. Yet much of our constitutional law is not made at the federal level. In 51 Imperfect Solutions, U.S. Federal Appellate Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton argues that American Constitutional Law should account for the role of the state courts and state constitutions, together with the federal courts and the federal constitution, in protecting our individual liberties.
The book tells four stories that arise in four different areas of constitutional law: equal protection; criminal procedure; privacy; and free speech and free exercise of religion. Traditional accounts of these bedrock debates about the relationship of the individual to the state focus on decisions of the United States Supreme Court. But these accounts tell just part of the story. The book corrects this omission by looking at each issue (and some others as well) through the lens of many constitutions, not one constitution, of many courts, not one court, of all American judges, not federal or state judges. Taken together, the stories reveal a remarkably complex, nuanced, ever-changing federalist system, one that ought to make lawyers and litigants pause before reflexively assuming that the United States Supreme Court alone has all of the answers to our vexing constitutional questions.
If there is a central conviction of the book, it's that an underappreciation of state constitutional law has hurt state and federal law and has undermined the appropriate balance between state and federal courts in protecting individual liberty. In trying to correct this imbalance, the book also offers several ideas for reform.