Book Review: The Odd Clauses

Jay Wexler is a very funny guy. Always was, which is particularly surprising given his tenure at the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, before going rogue and joining the faculty at Boston University School of Law.  Even when he blogged at PrawfsBlawg, he was funny. I bet Dan Markel will never let that happen again.

Aside: I once had a day dream of the Bush Administration’s request for an opinion on the legality of torture landing on Jay’s desk instead of John Yoo’s, and the years since being made safer by a drunken Bacchanalia with marines and Al Qaeda, ultimately ending with an agreement that both prefer blond virgins to underpants bombs.

Rejecting the path of least resistance, Jay’s written The Odd Clauses, Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions, published by Beacon Press.  He describes them as the “shrews, wombats and bat-eared foxes” of the Constitution, or the “yeti crab or platypus,” all to show his  facility with unloved creatures.  It’s unclear whether this is due to a personal sympathy with lesser known animals or his willingness to put anything in his mouth, but the image is clear.  This book is about the weird stuff.

And yet The Odd Clauses is anything but weird.  Chapter 3 is about a clause that no self-respecting lawprof would ever mention in Con Law, the recess appointments clause.  Come on, seriously?  It’s not as if President Obama would try to use a recess appointment to sneak Richard Cordray in as head of the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau, making this the hottest constitutional topic of the season.

Or maybe Chapter 5 about the Natural-Born Citizen clause, best read munching on pineapple.  Jay’s discussions, ranging from the history behind the clauses to their potential application now and in the future is pure Wexler.  While the big clauses are the subject of never-ending scrutiny and discussion, Jay doesn’t let us forget that even the ugly, ignored clauses are in there, and come into play when least expected.  We all scramble to figure out what they heck they say and mean when we’re sandbagged with the Title of Nobility Clauses, but Jay is way ahead of us.

Given our lawyerly love of both the Constitution and oddities, The Odd Clauses is just an enormously fun read and, in the process, exceptionally informative.  The problem is that you’re having such a good time reading Jay’s twisted humor that you don’t realize you’re learning. Damn that Wexler! 

If there is anything to criticize about it, it’s that he stops at ten clauses.  It might have been better had he gone to 15 and made the chapters a bit shorter, perhaps by leaving out the cold-blooded segments of the menagerie.  It’s really quite amazing to realize how much of our Constitution, a document we perceive as studied to death, goes unnoticed until some shrew hits the fan.

When my free review copy arrived, I happened to take a gander at the blank page up front, and found an inscription from Jay.

Dear Scott,

I think you will soon agree that this is the best book ever published.  Congratulations on getting to read it!

[Completely unreadable scrawled signature that appears to be “jarmulkar”]

If you can handle your Constitution with a sense of humor, you will love this book and curse Wexler for his obvious failure to finish the job he started.  Of course, there is always The Odd Clauses 2, The Reptilians.  A great book that isn’t merely a fun read, but one that has proven by recent events to be hardly about the yeti crab as much as a bear in hibernation.  The Odd Clauses may not be the subject of our daily debates, but when the next oddity in American politics occurs, you’ll be way ahead of the crowd.

3 comments on “Book Review: The Odd Clauses

  1. Catherine Mulcahey

    Put it at the top of that list. It really is incredibly well done and fun to read. I’m thinking of sending my copy to Scott for an autograph, since Wexler’s signature is unreadable.

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