The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document. Let’s take a look at what it is, why it is so enduring, and how we can preserve it.
Historically, it is unprecedented. When it was created, in the late 18th century, nothing like it existed. A group of men, equal in rank in society (i.e., there were no aristocrats, no royals), got together and discussed what would be the basic law of the land. All agreed that the country would be established under the rule of law, and not the rule of a man or men. At its time in history, this alone was amazing. And then, rather than declaring it in effect, they went to the citizens of this new land and sought their approving vote to ratify and accept its premises.
What, in fact, is the Constitution? It is many things, but above all, it is a law about how the laws of the nation will be made, how they will be enforced, and how future actions will be judged to be in conformity with it. Fearing the rise of tyrants or dictators, the writers set up three branches of the government—the Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary—with a balance of power, and means and procedures by which each branch can serve as a check on the others. Although this sometimes makes changes come slowly, it has served us well, and protected our nation from suffering coups, wars over succession, and instability caused by politicians attempting to seize power beyond that granted in the Constitution.
The document is not perfect; it was written by humans, and filled with compromises that were necessary at the time of drafting, but may seem wrong when viewed through a contemporary lens. Clearly the 3/5 compromise, acknowledging human slavery and therefore condoning it, was not only wrong, but morally bankrupt. But the Constitution had an overarching principal, which showed the great wisdom of those who drafted it. It has a law, recognizing that things change over time, which specifies clear procedures for changing the Constitution by way of Amendment. In fact, there have been 27 such Amendments, the most recent of which was passed in 1992, just 25 years ago.
One of the well -known provisions led to the establishment of a Supreme Court of the United States, a body which rules on the constitutionality of various laws and legal cases brought to trial under those laws. The Court consists of nine Justices, each of whom is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and serves for life. Increasingly, the two political parties, under the influence of their extreme and ideological wings, fight desperately for someone of their ideological persuasion to be the confirmed replacement when a vacancy occurs. The Republicans want a strict Constitutionalist who views the law as never in need of changing, and Democrats want a progressive, who wants to change the law to meet current thinking when Congress cannot get a law passed which will respond to that thinking. Clearly times change and laws need to reflect it—in the late 18th century there were no cellphones, no Facebook, no PhotoShop, no genetic engineering, to name a few. But just as clearly, the Constitution has survived because it does give each branch of government exclusive areas of control, and has an Amendment mechanism requiring broad approval for a change in its provisions.
Why do I bring this up? It gives one more reason that we need a powerful, centrist force in the country. The fights over Supreme Court nominees have become an ongoing battle between the two parties. That hurts the chances of getting a Court that balances the need of rule by law without arbitrary change, with an understanding that times do change.