Op-Ed: Still Relevant Today – The U.S. Constitution
In an age of cell phone cameras, handheld computers and instant messaging—technologies that make last year seem like last century—why should we still care about a document written on parchment with ink drawn from a feather quill?
That document is the U.S. Constitution. Drafted at a time when America’s young democracy was in danger of splintering, it not only saved the nation then, but also has helped us survive the Civil War, Depression, school desegregation and even our nation’s efforts to recover from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. With only limited changes, the Constitution has overseen our growth from weak and scattered colonies and taken us safely through crises that might have broken other nations.
Understanding the Constitution is of such vital importance that the U.S. Congress is asking Americans to spend one day a year reflecting on it. Under a new federal law, schools, federal agencies and other entities receiving government funding will formally honor Constitution Day, Sept. 17, with educational discussions and programs.
Undoubtedly many employers, and perhaps some schools, will be caught by surprise. One imagines awkward discussions over coffee about the Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable searches) or the Sixth (the right to a speedy trial by jury). Some office workers will probably duck out altogether.
But before you shrug it off, think again. This is one moment of reflection every American should take. To help, the American Bar Association created a new Web site, www.abaconstitution.org. On the site, you can test your historical knowledge and, during the month of September, request your own copy of a pocket-sized Constitution.
For students, consider the Fourth amendment – not as some musty document but as what protects against an unreasonable search of your backpack at school. Or the First Amendment – can your classmates put on a controversial play even if the principal objects?
In workplaces, discussions might revolve around your right to get uncensored information every day from a free press. Or your right to disagree with someone, even if that someone holds a certain government position or has a large bankroll. These First Amendment rights may seem obvious to us today, but had it not been for the “miracle,” as George Washington and James Madison called the Constitution, we might not have those freedoms at all.
As you begin your own rediscovery of the greatest governing document in history, you will likely realize something new as you scan the daily headlines. Whether the news is about recovering from Hurricane Katrina or approving new Supreme Court justices, the Constitution, though rarely mentioned by name, is always at work.
For instance, states play a central role in public safety, but in times of true national disasters, the federal government takes the lead. The Constitution’s authors debated how to balance the rights of states with the needs of a strong national government. Their blueprint remains in effect today as we recover from Katrina.
And when the U.S. Senate debates the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, you are seeing the Separation of Powers doctrine in action. One branch, the Executive, is nominating an officer of a second branch, the Judiciary, and submitting it for a vote by the Senate—a body in the third branch, Congress.
Because, as designed by the Founders, each branch has a limited role, Americans are safer from an abuse of power; but unfortunately, a recent poll showed that fewer than half of all Americans understand the phrase “Separation of Powers.”
To promote understanding of this important idea, the ABA has established a Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers, whose honorary co-chairs are Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. It will seek ways to help all Americans become better informed about our government and our rights.
Just as it did 200 years ago, the Constitution is what makes us a free people today. Keeping the Constitution alive, and understanding and protecting it, depends on all of us: When people don’t understand and value their rights, it is easy for others to take them away.