Recently I spoke with a class of high school girls. They asked me to talk about the Constitution and we agreed I’d talk about how we interpret it. I wasn’t advocating any particular method. In fact, I referred to the late Justice John Paul Stevens, adopting an observation by the then sitting president of the Israeli Supreme Court, that a judge does best who “’seek[s] guidance from every reliable source.’”[i]
While talking with the girls, I finally realized how to encapsulate what I wanted to say: The Constitution is a human document, written by human beings for use by human beings. It is not self-executing. There’s nothing automatic about checks and balances. They work when people believe in and use them. They don’t work when people in power care only about favoring themselves and their friends.
That’s not a flaw in the document. There are flaws in the document. It still bears the marks of slavery ̶ numerous clauses were designed to protect slave-owners even though the word slave does not appear. And it was written by men for men in 1787. But the men who wrote the Constitution referred to its prohibitions as “parchment barriers.” Parchment was an older form of fine paper, often used for formal documents. The Founders clearly understood that the document they wrote and ratified would prove as good as the people running it.
I didn’t draw conclusions for the girls, but I want to spell out some implications for you:
- When the president thinks he is an elected king and should control all the levers of government without being questioned or restrained and when a majority of Senators believe they should protect him, they’re simply making the Constitution irrelevant. The Constitution doesn’t protect the president or the senators; they do it for themselves.
- When the president is more intent on encouraging us to fight among ourselves over the color of our states and our skins than to work together for the good of the country, the Constitution hasn’t failed us. We’ve failed it.
- When the president turns us from leader of the free world to its laughing stock, the Constitution hasn’t failed us. He has.
- When the president encourages the most selfish among us to sacrifice the air, land, water and climate that sustain us, the Constitution hasn’t failed us. He has.
- When the president dithers for months after being warned of a coming health catastrophe, the Constitution hasn’t failed us. He has.
- In the days before we had antibiotics and other drugs, quarantines were the principle way that our governments tried to protect us from infectious diseases. When people carry weapons into the state Capital and threaten state governors over quarantines,[ii] the Constitution hasn’t failed us. They have.
The Constitution is a parchment barrier. We have to do more than protect the document. We have to use it wisely.
[i] Judicial Discretion 62 (Y. Kaufmann transl. 1989).@ BedRoc Ltd., LLC v. United States, 541 U.S. 176, 192 (2004) (Stevens, J., dissenting).
[ii] See https://www.businessinsider.com/michigan-open-carry-laws-legal-protesters-guns-at-state-capitol-2020-5 and https://www.newsweek.com/michigan-closes-down-capitol-face-death-threats-armed-protesters-against-gov-whitmer-1504241.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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