A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Monday, July 2, 2012

I'm No Constitutional Lawyer, but I Play One on the Internet

It's that time of year when we all get a super-duper dose of patriotism, in all its glory. I was thinking about the Supreme Court and the Constitution this week. Before the healthcare decision was handed down, I was thinking how interesting the Supreme Court is as an institution - it has endured a lot in over 200 years! Before I heard what the decision was, I was thinking how grateful I am to live in a country where the Supreme Court does actually have a say. The Supreme Court has enormous influence in how the American justice system works, what laws we pass, and what our rights mean (I promise I was thinking this BEFORE the court handed down the decision I happen to agree with). With very few exceptions, the decisions of the Supreme Court have been respected by our political elites and enforced by the other arms of government.

Generally I don't get worked up in a frenzy about what the original intent of the constitutional framers was. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, they themselves argued about the constitution's meaning during their lifetimes. If they couldn't agree on their own original intent, what hope do we have? Too often, the originalists are forced to choose sides among founders - which simply degenerates into an argument akin to a poker game - "I see your John Adams, and raise you one James Madison." They pick the founder that agrees with their viewpoint and then throw out any contradictory evidence, sense of nuance, or any idea that the political problems and viewpoints of the late 18th century were slightly different than our own.

Also, if the Founders had their way I wouldn't have a vote or be able to run for political office - nor would our current president or many people reading this blog. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution simply didn't envision universal suffrage, civil rights for people of color, or the nuclear bomb.  They were smart men, but they were limited by the parameters of thinking of their age.

What the Founders DID do is set up a series of principles that have become the parameters of our arguments. I think in a very real way it is American to argue about these principles and how they are applied to today's real world. You may disagree or agree with the Supreme Court decision this week on heathcare, but it's American to constantly debate how these broad principles are used and understood.  I choose to believe that these arguments, carried on in the proper spirit, are what the Founders meant for us to be doing 200+ years after they committed quill to parchment.  When carried on in good faith, these battles about broad ideas can lead us to the right answer for our time.  The brilliance of these documents, then, lies not in their static meaning, but in the flexibility they give us to understand challenges that the Founders never could have dreamed of.

 The Bill of Rights is one of the bedrocks of American constitutional theory, but if you've ever had trouble remembering which amendments are which, this song's for you:

No comments:

Post a Comment