When news broke that Donald Trump had fired James Comey, who was in the midst of investigating possible collusion between the Russian government and the president's campaign, Brian Schatz knew just what to call it. “We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis,” the Democratic senator wrote on Twitter. A host of Democratic lawmakers have since echoed Schatz's dire warning.
Are they right? And how would Americans know if they were living through a constitutional crisis? In a 2009 paper defining the term, the legal scholars Sanford Levinson and Jack Balkin noted that Americans have long overused the phrase, which isn't surprising in a country tested to its core by a failed constitution (the Articles of Confederation), civil war, economic depression, and two world wars. In recent years, “constitutional crises” have been spotted in everything from the disputed 2000 presidential election to the failure of Congress to increase pay for federal judges. (For the record, Levinson and Balkin consider the 2000 election a “constitutional showdown” rather than a crisis, and the complaint about judicial salaries a “plaintive cry.”) Well before the firing of James Comey, Trump's business conflicts of interest and battle with the courts over his travel ban sparked chatter about a looming constitutional crisis.