Shortly before he took the U.S. citizenship exam in 1947, eccentric Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel sat down to read the Constitution.
A pioneer in the use of logic in higher math, Gödel grew agitated when he saw what he considered a flaw in the document, which would allow the U.S. to become a dictatorship, according to several biographers.
On the day of the exam, Gödel’s friend Albert Einstein had to help keep him from expounding his new theory to the judge and hurting his chances of becoming a citizen.
To this day, it remains a mystery what Gödel saw that upset him, but constitutional scholars say he’s not alone in finding a few flaws in the framers’ work.
“There are imperfections,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “The framers viewed this as an imperfect process. They were fully aware that the Constitution was a product of compromise and urgency.”
Turley and other scholars say the framers got most things right: separation of powers between three equal branches, protection of basic civil rights and an amendment process that would allow the country to fix any mistakes down the road.
But they also say there are a few quirks the framers didn’t catch — small oversights of how the new government would function that could have very real consequences.
Some are minor and haven’t caused much trouble. Others have already been addressed by constitutional amendments. And one nearly tore the country apart.
Below are a few bugs that scholars have found:
There is no way to remove a Supreme Court justice who has become disabled. In 1878, Associate Justice Ward Hunt suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed.
Though he could no longer attend oral arguments or deliver opinions, Hunt refused to step down.
The reason: He had not been in office long enough to receive a pension.
He’s not the only one, Turley notes. There have been Supreme Court justices with severe mental illnesses, crippling drug addictions and age-related physical impairments who did not step down.
“The Constitution is silent on this problem,” Turley said.
Article III, which outlines the structure of the Supreme Court, lists no qualifications. (Justices are not even required to be lawyers, even though all have been so far.)
It says only that justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior” and that impeachment can only happen for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” — but not for disability.
In the case of Hunt, Congress eventually voted to give him a special pension if he would retire within a month. He took the deal.
Inflation has massively expanded the scope of the Seventh Amendment. The Seventh Amendment is short and to the point: Americans have a right to a jury trial in most civil cases.
The only exception is for cases where the amount in dispute is less than $20.
It’s not easy to say how much 20 bucks in the 1790s would be worth today, but to put that in context: $20 in 1913, when the Consumer Price Index was started, is worth about $454 today.
That means the threshold for a jury trial is now radically lower than it was in the framers’ day.