Appreciation for our constitution

Published on Winchester Sun, September 19, 2019

Did you know that this is Constitution Week in the U.S.?

Enacted by President Eisenhower in 1956, Constitution Week is an annual observance held September 17 through September 23.

Everyone knows the constitution is an essential American governing document, but in my experience, few of us understand why it is so important or exactly what purpose it serves.

Our nation’s founders did not invent democracy, a concept that was already over 2,000 years old by the 18th century. Nor did they create the idea of a federal system, a republic, or separate branches of government. All of these ideas were — or had been — in practice at the time when delegates representing 12 of the 13 British colonies gathered in Philadelphia to form a new country.

What was unique at the time was the idea of a founding document that was supreme and enduring as the basis for all law. In Britain, which was ruled by a sort of hybrid monarchy and a representative parliamentary government, there was no supreme law. New laws could be readily enacted at any time which could take away some rights of its citizens or make other sweeping changes.

With the American system, all laws must align with constitutional principles. If Congress and the President decided next week that they wanted to close down all newspapers, they could not do that. Such a law would be in clear violation of the first amendment to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press.

No one can change that on a whim, even if one political faction controls all branches of government. But can the constitution ever be changed?

The document itself lays out the requirements for making changes — amendments — to the constitution, and those requirements are strict enough that in nearly 250 years, only 27 such amendments have passed.

What the constitution does is bind the hands of current and future leaders, effectively applying a restraining force on the “tyranny of the majority.”

This is good. What isn’t so good is that societies change and evolve. This fact is recognized by those who see the constitution as a “living document,” open to re-interpretation in light of changes in societal norms.

Standing in opposition are the “strict constructionists,” who believe that the constitution must be applied precisely as written.

I tend to agree more with the living document crowd, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “judicial activists.”

It seems evident that we must change with the times. One perfect example is the term “freedom of the press.” At the time that phrase was inserted into the first amendment, the only form of mass communication that existed was the printed word: newspapers and books.

To be absurdly legalistic about it, one could argue that the first amendment protection of “the press” only applies to printed material and not to broadcast or Internet media. But no one has any serious doubt that the founders intended to protect mass communication in any form.

This is how we can use an ancient document — written long before the modern world emerged — and make it applicable to modern life. We try to see contemporary issues through the lens of the constitution and apply its principles, rather than just the text itself, to those issues.

Our constitution is a remarkable institution unto itself, one that has stood the test of time. But we must be ever vigilant against those who would seek to weaken its protections. Just this week, the President said birthright citizenship as granted by the constitution “has to end and will be done using an executive order.”

That is a bold and unprecedented claim. The 14th amendment clearly grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” I can see no possible wiggle room or new interpretation of this explicit statement.

If the President is sincere in his intention to do what he said he would do — which is honestly never a sure bet — then he is either ignorant of how our government works or doesn’t care.

And lest you think I’m just picking on the current POTUS, I freely admit that other presidents, of both parties, have attempted to evade the constitution on occasion. My point is that we must never allow that to happen.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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