There is a lot of tough news out there these days, so I thought I would try a light-hearted post. I am an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy. Folks from Nebraska know what this means, but for the rest of you “admiral” is an honorific awarded by the Governor to folks who make a significant contribution to the state. (Mine was based on the fact that I wrote an article in the Nebraska Law Review.) You get a fancy certificate and my Admiralty students find it amusing.
Here’s my question. Is my title unconstitutional? The Constitution prohibits states from awarding titles of nobility. Why does this not apply to Nebraska or to Kentucky, which awards honorary colonel positions? The answer must be that “Admiral” or “Colonel” is not a title, but why is that?
One thought is that titles in the constitutional sense apply only to the ones awarded in Britain at the Founding. Thus, Nebraska could not make dukes or barons, but it can make admirals. Another thought is that a title refers only to something that confers legal benefits. While those sorts of titles would be invalid, this answer is not sufficient. If Nebraska awarded knighthoods that were just ceremonial, I think we would still conclude that was unconstitutional.
Accordingly, interpreting “titles of nobility” in the Constitution is partly an originalist task (What was a title in 1787?) and partly a functional one (Is a state doing something that is comparable in spirit to those in a harmful way?).