Category Archives: Constitution

Be Careful What You Wish For

Yesterday’s Star had a front page story about state lawmakers who want to call a new Constitutional Convention. Last Sunday, the following Op Ed ran in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. I wrote it in response to a request from that paper’s editorial board, and I suggest several reasons why convening such a Convention would be a mistake.

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Periodically, lawmakers who are frustrated by their inability to change government policies of which they disapprove will propose a shortcut: they’ll reform the system itself, by convening a Constitutional Convention.

Fortunately, these efforts rarely succeed.

Why do I say “fortunately”? Because—like poison gas—system change is only a great weapon until the wind shifts.

When activists clamor for wholesale changes or major revolutions in the status quo, they always assume that the changes that ultimately emerge will reflect their own preferences and worldviews.

History suggests that’s a dangerous assumption.

Indiana Senator David Long wants the states to convene a Constitutional Convention under provisions of Article V that authorize such actions. In response to people who warn that delegates could seize the opportunity to open the proverbial “can of worms” and drastically rewrite the national charter, he insists that the convention could be limited in scope. Even if he is correct in that assertion (and many constitutional scholars think otherwise) the “limited goal” he describes is anything but.

Long wants the convention to devise “a framework for reigning in overspending, overtaxing and over-regulating by the federal government and moving toward a less centralized federal government.” These are very general goals, susceptible to multiple interpretations and almost infinitely malleable.

Right now, for example, Wall Street bankers are protesting post-recession financial “overregulation” that seems eminently reasonable to most taxpayers, if polls are to be believed. Whose definition would prevail?

My definition of “overspending” might be the massive subsidies enjoyed by (very profitable) U.S. oil companies, while yours might be Medicare or Medicaid or farm subsidies. Many Americans think we spend too much on the military; others would target Pell grants or foreign aid.

“Less centralization” could justify virtually any limitation of federal government authority, from FDA regulation of food and drug quality to laws against discrimination.

In addition to genuine disagreements about such issues, well-financed special interests would undoubtedly see a Constitutional convention as a golden opportunity to influence the process.

But the risk isn’t simply that a Convention could rather easily be hijacked by people who disagree with the conveners about the nature and extent of needed changes. There is also a real danger in calling together a group of people and asking them to amend a document that few of them understand.

At the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, we focus on the causes and consequences of what we’ve come to call America’s civic deficit. The data is depressing. Only 36 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government. Only 21% of high school seniors can list two privileges that United States citizens have that noncitizens don’t. Fewer than a quarter of the nation’s 12th graders are proficient in civics. I could go on—and on.

I see evidence of our civic deficit in my Law and Policy classrooms. Even bright graduate students come with little or no knowledge of American history, episodic or intellectual. Most have never heard of the Enlightenment or John Locke. They certainly haven’t read Adam Smith.

A truly depressing percentage of undergraduates can’t explain what a government is, and they have no idea how ours operates. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? The counter-majoritarian purpose of the Bill of Rights? Blank stares.

To his credit, Senator Long is one of the few Indiana legislators who recognize the importance of civics education and who support efforts to remedy the deficit. His efforts in this area are truly praiseworthy, which is why I find his willingness to turn over the task of rewriting our Constitution to people who don’t understand the one we have so puzzling.

Actually, the existing Constitution provides We the People with a remedy for unsatisfactory governance: it’s called elections. If we aren’t angry enough to use the electoral process to throw the bums out, there’s little reason to believe we are ready or able to improve upon the Constitution—and many good reasons to refrain from trying.

 

 

 

 

 

The GOP’s Interesting Hierarchy of Rights

A recent posting to Facebook got me thinking about the language of rights that dominates our political discourse.

Responding to the over-the-top hysteria about 2d Amendment rights that greets even the most reasonable gun proposals–background checks, for example–the poster (a self-identified Republican) noted that the party’s concerns about constitutional rights have become very selective. Only when guns are involved does the party elevate a “constitutional right” over the right to life.

As he noted, Republican lawmakers defend government when it ignores basic human rights and the Geneva Convention, justifying such behaviors by saying the information so gathered may save lives.

The GOP is completely identified with the pro life movement, a crusade purporting to “save the lives of the unborn” by taking rights away from women. (A substantial number even wants to take away the right to birth control in order to “save lives” that have yet to even be conceived. )

In fact, he notes that the party is increasingly willing to ignore all manner of rights–except the right to own a weapon.

Citing the need to protect against a virtually non-existent in-person “voter fraud,” the GOP has spent the past several years trying to take away the right of poor and minority citizens to vote. The GOP  “fought like hell” to keep homosexuals from having the right to marry, and it fights “against any form of right, or laws both human and environmental that will hurt the bottom line of our campaign contributors.” The party refuses even to consider that healthcare might be a right, insisting that it is a privilege.… “Yet this one. This one right above all others we hold sacred. We refuse to bend.”

It’s an interesting–and accurate–perspective.

It’s also profoundly depressing.

 

He’s Baaack…

Sometimes, the only reason I see things is that former students send them to me. Unfortunately, the things they send tend to be infinitely depressing.

A few days ago, a former student sent me a link to a story about crazy Alabama Judge Roy Moore. You’ll remember Moore from his previous term as Chief Judge of the Alabama Supreme Court (note to self: never, ever move to Alabama), when he commissioned a five-ton stone engraved with the Ten Commandments and had it installed at the Courthouse door. It was removed after the Federal Courts ruled it a gross and obvious violation of the First Amendment religion clauses–something you’d expect a judge to know.

Moore subsequently ran unsuccessfully for President on a Christian-Theocrat ticket of some sort. Most recently, he ran for–and won–his old seat on Alabama’s high court. (Note to self: remember this example of why we should not elect judges).

So, like Jaws (only more scary), he’s baaack.

Speaking at the Pastors for Life Luncheon, which was sponsored by Pro-Life Mississippi, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment only applies to Christians because “Buddha didn’t create us, Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures” who created us.

Moore had more:

Discussing Thomas Jefferson’s use of “life” in the Declaration of Independence, he said that “when [Jefferson] put ‘life’ in there, it was in the womb — we know it begins at conception.”

He later said the “pursuit of happiness” meant following God’s law, because “you can’t be happy unless you follow God’s law, and if you follow God’s law, you can’t help but be happy.”

And I bet Roy Moore will be happy to explain exactly what God wants. Which just happens to be what Roy Moore–in his twisted little mind–wants.

(Note to self: uncurl from fetal position–it’s bad for the back.)

Chutzpah, Modern Edition

Chutzpah is a yiddish word meaning gall or nerve–but to the nth degree. Remember this oldie? “Question: what’s an example of chutzpah? Answer: a man kills his mother and father, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.”

The Kansas legislature has updated the concept.

After Kansas courts ordered the state legislature to provide more funding for K-12 education, the legislature passed and sent to the governor a bill (HB 2338) that provides as follows:

1)      It allocates $2 million additional funding for the Kansas judiciary for the upcoming fiscal year;

2)     It increases various court fees;

3)      It strips the Kansas Supreme Court of the power to control local court budgets, personnel systems, and manage other administrative costs;

4)      It strips the Kansas Supreme Court of its existing power to designate local Chief Judges;

5)      And–ta da!– the icing on the chutzpah cake: it provides that if the Court strikes down any of these provisions as unconstitutional, the entire bill fails (including and most especially the extra funding).

File under “we’ll show you!”

The Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court has pointed out that this bill is a direct assault on judicial independence–a major element of our constitutional system.

How much would you like to bet that the lawmakers who passed this measure carry small copies of the Constitution in their pockets, wear flag pins, and piously proclaim their devotion to “original intent”?

Assaulting separation of powers, the very basis of our constitutional architecture, while proclaiming your devotion to the nation’s charter–that’s chutzpah!

 

 

Libertarian/Civil Libertarian

Later today, I’ll be speaking to the state Libertarian convention about the ACLU. Here’s the speech I plan to deliver–another longer-than-average read, tendered with my apologies! (After this, I fully expect to return to my much shorter “regularly scheduled broadcasting”…)

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I think that one of the reasons I was asked to speak today is that—at one time or another—I have been a member of all three political parties: Republican, Libertarian and now Democratic. It really isn’t because I can’t make up my mind. I like to think it’s because I reject an approach to political identity that seems all too common among political partisans: pick a team (sort of like a sports team) and stay loyal to that team no matter what. Get your news exclusively from Fox or MSNBC, read only the blogs that pander to your “team,” ignore information that doesn’t fit nicely with your chosen identity, and of course, vote accordingly.

My changing affiliations do reflect some changes in my personal understanding of policy issues, but they are much more the result of dramatic changes in my original party—the Republican party—over my adult life. As I like to say, I didn’t leave the GOP—the party left me.

That said, no matter what my partisan affiliation, I have always been a civil libertarian—a card-carrying member of the ACLU—and I have always been an advocate of fiscally responsible government. Those positions used to be consistent with Republican philosophy and that was why I originally joined the GOP. I would argue that Republicans can no longer credibly argue that they stand for the principle of limited government.

In 1980, when I left my position as Corporation Counsel in the Hudnut Administration to run for Congress against Andy Jacobs, Jr., I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights (at least, as gay rights were understood back then), and I won a five-way Republican primary. When I lost the general election, most local pundits said I lost because I was much too conservative.

Think about that for a minute.

By 1992, when I became Executive Director of the Indiana  affiliate of the ACLU, the GOP had already undergone considerable change. That was the year that Bill Hudnut was booed on the floor of the Republican National Convention because he was prochoice—the same year Pat Buchanan made a convention speech that people quipped sounded better in the original German.

When the ACLU announced that it had hired me, NUVO, Indianapolis’ alternative newspaper, ran a huge red headline proclaiming “ICLU taken over by card-carrying Republican!” One member resigned: he said my political affiliation was inconsistent with civil liberties and the Board was insane to hire me.

I had been a “card-carrying” member of the ACLU since 1967 and a politically active Republican since 1964, and up to that point, I’d considered the two affiliations entirely consistent. In fact, I finally wrote a book because I got tired of people asking me “What’s a Republican doing at the ACLU?” It’s still in print, but today the title seems quaint: “What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”

Now, I should clarify that I was a Goldwater Republican.  Back then, Goldwater Republicans believed that government power is easily misused, and thus must be carefully monitored and limited. They weren’t anarchists; they recognized that government is a necessary mechanism through which citizens establish order and provide for the common welfare. But it was a recognition that concentrated power, even in the hands of the most benign and well-meaning functionaries (maybe especially in such hands) is a potential threat to individual freedom.

If liberty is something we actually value—rather than something to which we pay dutiful lip-service—prudence requires that we limit the ability of the state to interfere with our personal or economic behaviors—that we limit laws to those that are truly necessary.  People of good will can argue about what is necessary, where to impose those limits and where to draw those lines, but restraining the power of government to invade either one’s boardroom or bedroom used to be the Republican message.

Exactly the same logic impelled my membership in the ACLU. If free markets are good for our economic health, surely markets for ideas are equally desirable. Furthermore, liberty isn’t divisible—a government that can dictate my reading material or religious beliefs or my associations can just as easily deprive me of the use of my property, and vice versa. How secure are any of our rights—political or economic—against a government that can decide who gets rights and who doesn’t?’ The issue is the same: the power of the state.

I spent a substantial portion of my tenure at the ACLU explaining the organization to people who had a very distorted image of who we were, people who simply didn’t understand what we did.  In the process, I discovered that very few people–even politically active, aware people–know what civil liberties are. Fewer have read the Bill of Rights, let alone the Federalist and anti-Federalist arguments that accompanied its adoption. American ignorance of our own history and legal system is one of the unremarked scandals of our educational system, and it’s the reason I have recently established the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI.

During my six years at the ACLU, I found that there are three major misconceptions about the organization. The first involves what I call “endorsement confusion.” For some reason, people have a real problem separating the defense of someone’s rights from an endorsement of the way he or she is exercising those rights. So if we say the KKK has a right to use the public streets just like everyone else, we are accused of agreeing with the KKK.

That’s nuts. The ACLU can defend your right to choose the books you read without approving of the books you choose, or oppose police brutality without being pro-criminal.

The issue for civil libertarians is who decides? Not what decision is made, but who has the power to make it. In a free country, people will make lots of decisions I don’t like. Some of those decisions will be harmful, or even dangerous. But the alternative is to allow government to make them—which can be a far more dangerous proposition.

The second misunderstanding comes from those who believe that the Bill of Rights is some sort of free-floating protection against all unfairness in society. They don’t understand that the Bill of Rights restrains only government, and that no matter how obnoxious or evil Walmart or Chik-Fil-A may get, they aren’t violating your civil liberties. Only the government can do that.

The most troubling misunderstanding is also the most fundamental: people really do believe that the United States is a majoritarian democracy. When I spoke to high school classes, I would typically begin by saying “This is America, so the majority rules, right?” And virtually every time, all the hands would shoot up and all the heads would nod. Then I would ask  “So you can vote to make me an Episcopalian, right?” That would generate confusion; they knew enough to know that they couldn’t vote to make me join a particular church, but they really didn’t know why. The “why,” of course, is the Bill of Rights, which limits what government can do even if a majority authorizes it.  So we don’t take votes to decide what prayer you can say, what book you can read, what groups you will associate with.

The entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was to remove certain matters from the reach of popular opinion—what the founders called the “tyranny of the majority.” Of course, the majority generally doesn’t deny rights to attractive and popular people, so the ACLU ends up representing some fairly unpleasant people.

Contrary to popular opinion, very few ACLU staff are politically active Democrats. Virtually all of them celebrate the non-partisan nature of the organization. Most of them agree with the director of a western affiliate who began all his speeches by asserting that the ACLU is a conservative organization because its mission is to conserve the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

When I joined the GOP, back in the Ice Age, and for the 35 years I actively worked for the party, traditional Republicans (and I stress traditional) and core civil libertarians really agreed on most such issues, although neither seemed to recognize that.

Both believed in limiting the power that the state may exercise over the individual. Both supported the concept that majority rule must be subject to the restraints of law; that certain rights are too fundamental to be subject to the whims of voters, or to popular passions. And both believed that rights are individual; that is, that government has the obligation to treat each of us as an individual and not as a member of a group.

Over the years, the GOP abandoned those principles in favor of a majoritarian culture war, and I left the GOP. I made a brief stop with the Libertarian Party before deciding that I support a more robust role for government than you do.

When I was Executive Director of the Indiana ACLU, I often made a point that libertarians frequently make: the political spectrum is not a straight line, with “liberals” on the left and “conservatives” on the right. It’s a circle, where the far left and far right touch.  And the only thing extremists on both ends are arguing about is whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

We live in a complex and interdependent world, and I have come to understand that there often is no reasonable substitute for collective action. (My libertarianism has much more in common with Friedrich Hayek than it does with Ayn Rand.) Markets are wonderful, but there are areas in which markets do not and cannot work. There are things governments simply have to do.

But Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians should all be civil libertarians. Whatever one’s position about government’s role in the economy, whatever tax or economic policies you support, we should all agree about the importance of defending individual liberties. We should all resist government’s efforts to prescribe our beliefs, censor our speech or surveill our behaviors without probable cause.

We should all be card-carrying members of the ACLU.

Thank you.