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Itís Alive! Why the Constitution should remain dead.
NRO ^ | 7/8/03 | Jonah Goldberg

Posted on 07/08/2003 8:58:03 AM PDT by William McKinley

Sandra Day O'Connor was almost squished last weekend in Philadelphia. At an event celebrating our living Constitution or some such nonsense, a giant beam from the stage almost fell on her. It was a scary moment. For a brief blinking instant it appeared as if Sandra Day O'Connor was headed to meet her Maker. And, if that happened, the Constitution as we know it would have died.

As Charles Krauthammer and others have noted, Sandy Baby (as John Riggins once dubbed her) is the Constitution of the United States of America. If she wants the text to mean free speech for everybody, then free speech for everybody it is. If she wants it to mean censorship for everybody, well shut my mouth!

This would annoy me less if she at least made more facial expressions when she rearranged the meaning of the ink particles on that old piece of parchment. Wouldn't it be much cooler if she at least blinked like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie every time she pulled a new emanating penumbra from the Constitution?

And maybe for the really hard cases she could make that super-sweaty constipated face the skull-bursting telepaths in Scanners made. Not only would this show how she's in the business of brainwashing the public, Justice Scalia's head might actually explode the next time the Supreme Court declares that the Constitution demands that America must be a Very Nice Country as defined by New York Times editorial writers and various college administrators.

As it is now, poor Nino Scalia is already fast becoming the judicial equivalent of John Belushi in one of his old Saturday Night Live news rants about the Irish or whatnot. Whenever Justice Kennedy starts explaining that the Founding Fathers intended for each and every American citizen to be able to don his own constitutional Dr. Strange cloak and fly around the astral plane in search of his own personal definition of "me," Scalia starts herking-and-jerking like Belushi until he rhetorically flings himself to the floor. The Scanners thing would simply add a nice Monty Pythonesque "boom-splat!" to fully punctuate Justice Scalia's cranial dissent.

Now, of course, I don't actually want any harm to befall Justice O'Connor and I would be truly dismayed if Justice Scalia's head exploded. And, yes, I'm exaggerating when I say Justice O'Connor can single-handedly (single-mindedly) make the American charter mean whatever she wants, but we really do need something dramatic to signal to the public that the Supreme Court is pretty much making stuff up as it goes.

OUR "LIVING CONSTITUTION"
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the concept of a "living Constitution" because most of the people who care about such issues already know what the term means and implies. But just in case you're not up to speed, I'll be brief. A "living" Constitution grows and changes with the times. Generally speaking, liberals want a living Constitution and conservatives don't. Justice Scalia has summed up the Right's basic position succinctly. "The Constitution is not an organism. It is a legal document." Equally succinct, George W. Bush explained during the 2000 campaign that he likes judges like Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Meanwhile Al Gore also explained what kind of justices he'd like on the Court: "I would look for justices of the Supreme Court who understand that our Constitution is a living and breathing document, that it was intended by our Founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people."

I have three problems with the concept of a "living Constitution." The first is literal. It's simply not true that the thing is alive. The Constitution meets none of the criteria put forward by biologists as indicating life. This may seem like a stupid point, indeed it is a stupid point, except insofar as it underscores the fact that "the living Constitution" is a metaphor and in our society we don't question our metaphors nearly enough, but we can save that diatribe for another column.

Then there's the most commonly voiced objection. A Constitution which changes with the times will inevitably mean that the Constitution only means whatever a handful of "robed masters" say it means at any given time. Not only is this dangerous, for all the obvious reasons, it's not even honest. Indeed, the fundamental deception of the liberal campaign to breathe new life into the Constitution with every generation is the implied suggestion that these changes are democratic in some vague way. The idea seems to be that if the text changes with the generations it must reflect the attitudes of those generations. Unfortunately, that's not really true. The fact is that the Court rarely reflects popular opinion so much as elite opinion. And it almost never reflects popular opinion when the pro-"living Constitution" crowd calls the justices "heroic." For example, the Court recently upheld racial preferences even though a large majority of Americans consistently oppose them. The Court based its ruling not on what Americans want but on what it thinks Americans need: Diversity is good for whites; preferences are good for blacks; it's all-good for America.

And, once you realize that the Court is not changing with the generations so much as changing with whatever is fashionable in elite society in Washington and New York, it becomes clear that the people who celebrate the idea of a "living Constitution" don't really want the Court to follow the people, they want it to lead or, if need be, command the people. As Judge Robert Bork noted in The Tempting of America, "The abandonment of original understanding in modern times means the transportation into the Constitution of the principles of a liberal culture that cannot achieve those results democratically."

THE CONSTITUTION MUST DIE
So if you don't want a living Constitution, you can almost hear Phil Donahue asking, do you want a dead Constitution instead? And the answer is, yes, of course, I want a dead Constitution.

Now I certainly don't mean dead in merely the biological, i.e. literal, sense. And while I agree entirely with the complaints from the likes of Judge Bork and Justice Scalia, I don't mean dead in the sense of "not living." Indeed, Justice Scalia has expressly rejected the phrase "dead Constitution" preferring — perhaps for public-relations reasons — the more felicitous phrase "enduring Constitution."

But I prefer a dead Constitution.

The largest political constituency with the smallest number of advocates are not the unborn, or blacks, or Indians, or the mentally handicapped. It is not Christian white men or lesbian brown women. It's not even the "future generations" who, we are constantly told, will have to pay for our deficits or for the retirement of the baby boomers. No, the group whose priorities are given the least attention are those of the dead.

This isn't Swiftian sarcasm or winking irony. I'm quite serious about this. Chesterton's defense of the power of tradition is probably the most famous take on this idea (though, it should be noted, he's rewriting Burke's ideas). "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." He continued, "Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father."

I love that stuff. But if you think it's a bit too airy, there's a more concrete argument for not merely listening to the wisdom of our ancestors, but actually following their rules. Imagine trying to play baseball if the players could change the rules during the game. The umps or the players or the coaches or the fans or some combination of them could simply decide — nay vote! — that the batter doesn't have to hit the ball before running to first base. And another vote determines that running to first base at all is no longer required of players. The might decide that the whole concept of "players" is needlessly restrictive. Suddenly, the Yankees could put 300 people on the field at any time. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even George Steinbrenner to understand that if the rules aren't agreed to beforehand, the freedom to play the game won't exist because the game itself will cease to exist.

Stephen Holmes makes this point in his brilliant book Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (which I just started reading). Holmes examines the paradox of what he calls "precommitment." As with the agreed-upon rules for baseball, democracies like ours deny our citizens and our elected leaders the ability to make certain decisions. When the system is working properly no branch of government can willingly violate the Constitution.

Now, if you're one of these democracy fanatics who thinks it's always better to be ruled by a democratic majority of devils rather than an authoritarian minority of angels — never mind dead angels — this sort of thing should drive you nuts. They ask, Why should a bunch of dead men decide what the living can or cannot do?

The answer is that pre-committing to a bunch of rules generations ahead of time doesn't limit democracy, it makes democracy possible. "Precommitment is justified," says Holmes, "because it does not enslave but rather enfranchises future generations." If we left every rule of the game up to the living, the living could throw the rules out in a fit of passion or a bout of dull stupidity. We have freedom of worship today not because we put it up to a vote, but because our forefathers agreed that this was the way the game would be played. There have been plenty of times when rights to free worship, free speech, and free assembly could have been voted out of existence if we left such questions up to the people or their representatives. As Alan Wolfe put it in his review of Holmes's book a few years ago, "Constitutional rules are like grammatical rules; they circumscribe, to be sure, but in so doing they make it possible for a people to express themselves."

This illuminates two political points worth making: First, we hear a great deal about how conservatives are now advocates of "judicial activism." Sometimes this is fair criticism, but it is also often less hypocritical than liberals believe. One can be a judicial activist and still be opposed to a living Constitution. If you believe the country has walked too far down the wrong road, it's not activism to turn around and walk back to the fork in the road to find the right path.

Second, it reveals why amending the Constitution is so much less pernicious than redefining the existing words. Amending the Constitution is hard because the Founders rightly wanted it that way. Making it a slow and difficult process — often taking years or even generations — not only guaranteed that only the most important changes would be considered as binding precommitments for future generations. It ensured that any proposed changes would be debated and argued over by just about everyone over a sufficient period of time so as to make certain that everyone thought about the lasting repercussions for generations to come. In other words, the Founders designed the amendment process to make us all wear the hat of a Founding Father. But when the Court simply redefines the existing words to mean whatever the majority wants, the Constitution is not longer about precommitting future generations to agreed-upon rules, it's about rank power in the here and now. You may not weep over the fact that this nullifies our ancestors efforts to set the rules of the game. But I hope it bothers you that the rules of the game are still being changed and you have almost no say in what kind of Constitution your descendents will live under. That is unless your name is Sandra Day O'Connor. In that case, you deserve to be congratulated because you're the Founding Mother of my child's Constitution.


TOPICS: Editorial; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: constitution; grutter; jonahgoldberg; lawrence; oconnor; scotus
It has been a while since I enjoyed a G-file this much.
1 posted on 07/08/2003 8:58:03 AM PDT by William McKinley
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2 posted on 07/08/2003 8:58:30 AM PDT by Support Free Republic (Your support keeps Free Republic going strong!)
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To: William McKinley
The simple fact is that the Constitution was designed by the framers to be a "living" document, but that phrase has been usurped by the leftists, who don't believe in "playing by the rules." The framers knew that there would have to be changes over time, so they built that capability into the Constitution: But they designed the method in such a way that the winds of popular opinion would not be able to change things radically. Just like their idea that the Senate was to be a check against the House of Representatives, and the will of the masses... Of course that was shot to hell...

No, the Constitution is meant to change, but not through judicial fiat, but the legislative process, known as amending the constitution. Of course, that process, as well as the concept of a Constitutional Republic is pretty much ignored by nearly all the politicians, and the public simply doesn't know the form of government we're supposed to be living under... Ask anyone on the street what sort of government we live under, and they'll tell you "a democracy." That would have the founders of the USA spinning in their graves.

Mark
3 posted on 07/08/2003 9:08:44 AM PDT by MarkL (OK, I'm going to crawl back under my rock now!)
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To: William McKinley
bump
4 posted on 07/08/2003 9:09:49 AM PDT by foreverfree
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To: Support Free Republic
I am an unabashed proponent of tradition. Its not just American. Jews who look at the Torah note how its written in the present tense which implies the past is a guide to the future and those not alive yet, owe a debt to those long gone for the rules and precepts they live under. In Judaism this is reinforced in a long tradition of religious ritual as well as in teachings of The Sages. At no point is it suggested tradition is to be devalued and the teachings themselves changed in the light of the conditions whatever time people happen to live. Tradition just is. The U.S Constitution has a similar view towards the future and for a long time the Supreme Court interpreted it as it was written. Tradition commanded it be enforced exactly as it was written. Liberals despise the past and the teachings of ancestors. They view it as an unbearable restraint upon the new, the exciting, and the provocative impulses of life. And increasingly the courts have agreed with this view. But if the Constitution is not a repository of tradition and the wisdom of The Founders and if it be malleable with the times, it cannot be certain guide either to good government, to social morals, or to the conduct of society. Without tradition, as Tevye of Anatevka was wont to lament, "our lives become as shaky as the fiddler on the roof." For all of the aforegoing reasons stated by bias and the operation of my own prejudice is clear. I am in favor of a dead Constitution.
5 posted on 07/08/2003 9:15:18 AM PDT by goldstategop (In Memory Of A Dearly Beloved Friend Who Lives On In My Heart Forever)
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To: MarkL
"No, the Constitution is meant to change, but not through judicial fiat, but the legislative process, known as amending the constitution."

Sadly, no news reporters or analysts (not even conservative columnists) seem to know this important fact that used to be commonly taught in high school civics courses.
6 posted on 07/08/2003 9:23:39 AM PDT by Atlas Sneezed
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To: x; BlackElk; KC Burke; beckett; cornelis
I am not sure if Jonah is your cup of tea, but I found this essay to be quite good.
7 posted on 07/08/2003 9:40:02 AM PDT by William McKinley (Free Kobe!)
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To: William McKinley
I prefer to think of it as "sand" versus "rock" rather than "living" versus "dead".
8 posted on 07/08/2003 9:40:32 AM PDT by Arkinsaw
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To: Arkinsaw
I like it, especially since it plays to the liberal hippie strumming a guitar singing "the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind" as the sandy remnants of the Constitution blow away.
9 posted on 07/08/2003 9:42:54 AM PDT by William McKinley (Free Kobe!)
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To: William McKinley
The conservative Right has a plethora of wise and witty writers and Jonah is right(pun intended) up there with the best of them. The screeds from the Left are usually ignorant, ad hominem, and as boring as a biography by Hillary.
10 posted on 07/08/2003 10:13:41 AM PDT by Malesherbes
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To: William McKinley
Jonah is 100% spot on.

Someone, I don't remember who, once said the reason more countries have not adopted a version of the U.S. Constitution (very few have) is that they would have to adopt the hundreds of volumes of the Supreme Court Reporter along with it.

11 posted on 07/08/2003 10:31:17 AM PDT by colorado tanker
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To: William McKinley
I have three problems with the concept of a "living Constitution." The first is literal. It's simply not true that the thing is alive. The Constitution meets none of the criteria put forward by biologists as indicating life.

Thanks so much for this post, William McKinley!

I disagree with Jonah Goldberg's above observation. That is, I do believe the Constitution is "alive," but not in the sense that the "living document" crowd avers. (If it were dead, America as we know it would also be dead.)

And I do believe that biologists have put forward criteria indicating life which, to me, clearly pertain to the Constitution. Perhaps the most important one is that any living entity is capable of making sensitive adjustments to changes in the environment (internal and external) in which it lives, while at the same time maintaining its own integrity and its identity.

When the Left says "living document," what they really mean is they want a document that can change into something else. Which is not what a living entity does at all: It wants to preserve itself.

FWIW

12 posted on 07/08/2003 10:51:12 AM PDT by betty boop (We can have either human dignity or unfettered liberty, but not both. -- Dean Clancy)
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To: William McKinley
Liberals want a "living Constitution" as a blank check with which to write themselves policy victories which they cannot obtain democratically. And once allegiance to the doctrine of "original intent" is abandoned, there is literally no limit to what the Supreme Court can do. What liberals want is a crypto-dictatorship in which the Supreme Court answers to nothing except itself.
13 posted on 07/08/2003 10:54:25 AM PDT by Steve_Seattle
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To: William McKinley
way 2 go, Jonah!!! excellent post!
14 posted on 07/08/2003 11:04:43 AM PDT by CGVet58 (I still miss my ex-wife... but my aim is improving!)
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To: goldstategop; MarkL
Great replies, both. I reckon there are two sides to a coin.
15 posted on 07/08/2003 11:07:48 AM PDT by cornelis
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To: William McKinley
Jonah's always a very bumpy read, but he does make two excellent points that merit consideration and discussion.

The fact is that the Court rarely reflects popular opinion so much as elite opinion. And it almost never reflects popular opinion when the pro-"living Constitution" crowd calls the justices "heroic." For example, the Court recently upheld racial preferences even though a large majority of Americans consistently oppose them. The Court based its ruling not on what Americans want but on what it thinks Americans need: Diversity is good for whites; preferences are good for blacks; it's all-good for America.

And, once you realize that the Court is not changing with the generations so much as changing with whatever is fashionable in elite society in Washington and New York, it becomes clear that the people who celebrate the idea of a "living Constitution" don't really want the Court to follow the people, they want it to lead or, if need be, command the people. As Judge Robert Bork noted in The Tempting of America"The abandonment of original understanding in modern times means the transportation into the Constitution of the principles of a liberal culture that cannot achieve those results democratically."

...

Second, it reveals why amending the Constitution is so much less pernicious than redefining the existing words. Amending the Constitution is hard because the Founders rightly wanted it that way. Making it a slow and difficult process — often taking years or even generations — not only guaranteed that only the most important changes would be considered as binding precommitments for future generations. It ensured that any proposed changes would be debated and argued over by just about everyone over a sufficient period of time so as to make certain that everyone thought about the lasting repercussions for generations to come. In other words, the Founders designed the amendment process to make us all wear the hat of a Founding Father. But when the Court simply redefines the existing words to mean whatever the majority wants, the Constitution is not longer about precommitting future generations to agreed-upon rules, it's about rank power in the here and now. You may not weep over the fact that this nullifies our ancestors efforts to set the rules of the game. But I hope it bothers you that the rules of the game are still being changed and you have almost no say in what kind of Constitution your descendents will live under.

If the amendment process were more active, we would have a truly "living" Constitution. But apparently neither elites nor the public really want that. A Constitution too frequently amended doesn't inspire awe. It starts to look like state constitutions, which can have hundreds of amendments and even be replaced at crucial intervals. We tend to want an abstract, general Constitution that offers vague guidelines and absolute rights, and inspires reverence by its distance and untouchability. Thus, we leave it up to the courts to fill in the details and get judge-made laws.

We could probably get the problem under control, if we made more use of the amendment process. It might not only right the wrongs the Court makes, but dissuade future justices from making more usurpations. But the amendment process is so daunting, and the pressure not to "clutter" the Constitution with more practical amendments usually makes the Court's critics back down.

16 posted on 07/08/2003 11:18:05 AM PDT by x
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To: MarkL
the Constitution is meant to change, but not through judicial fiat, but the legislative process, known as amending the constitution

This is what led Willmoore Kendall, to call the Constitution as a "procedural" document.

17 posted on 07/08/2003 11:20:33 AM PDT by cornelis
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To: x
We could probably get the problem under control, if we made more use of the amendment process

I'm in favor of a human life amendment; it would be proportionate to the 2nd. But given the present predisposition to short-cuts to the court by both citizen and statesman it may be that only frivolous amendments have a chance. 1776 was run by more mature minds informed by a decent and humane respect for the past.

18 posted on 07/08/2003 11:32:46 AM PDT by cornelis
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To: William McKinley
The constitution is of course a living document meaning it can and should change. Testifyied to the fact of the amendment process provided. However, the framers did this knowing full well it could be abused. They also made room for revoultion to be legal(2nd amendment). What they did not count on was a people that had no balls. A balless people would be afraid to revolt makeing for some spagetti western searios to play out. With a gang handing out supreme "justice". Better than whiney cowardice pontificateing about "lost rights" that others payed blood to gain.

Maybe they(founders) figured if the people became that disfigured, dictatorship would be better than democracy, and of course they would be right..

19 posted on 07/08/2003 12:32:59 PM PDT by hosepipe
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To: betty boop
The 64 dollar question, though, is this: If the government defacto expunges the constitution, (one may well argue we're well on our way) can we as citizens claim, or reclaim, as it were, the original constitution for ourselves? What would the framers say? I tend to think they would answer in the affirmative.
20 posted on 07/08/2003 1:31:10 PM PDT by Freedom4US
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To: Freedom4US
I tend to think they would answer in the affirmative.

I think so, too, without a doubt. Even Hamilton, great "centralizer" that he was, acknowledged as much in The Federalist.

A government that de facto expunges the Constitution is illegitimate on its face; for it is usurping the sovereignty of the people, which is the ultimate foundation of the Constitution, and the political order premised on it.

Should the government so exceed its warrant from the people (and their posterity, of and for whom We the People so clearly spoke in the Preamble) as to do such a thing, the question then becomes a rather thorny one: The government has the de facto AND de jure monopoly of force (except that teeny little bit of it preserved to the people by the Second Amendment).

Before anyone opens that can of worms, I think we ought to get some justices impeached first.

21 posted on 07/08/2003 1:42:31 PM PDT by betty boop (We can have either human dignity or unfettered liberty, but not both. -- Dean Clancy)
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To: William McKinley; x; cornelis; betty boop
It is interesting that virtually all of the arguements made in this column along with the supporting citations from Chesterton, The Tempting of America and others (with the exception of S. Holmes) have been previously made on this forum. I know because I've made some of them or been on the thread where it has been done.

The cutting edge is here and in similar places, not in the main stream media. All that being said, I'm glad Jonah does such a workman-like job.

Any chance FR can sue the mainstream for using the work done here, in poor imitation, in advancing conservatism elsewhere, LOL? Kind of like the WP/LAT in reverse.

22 posted on 07/08/2003 1:43:08 PM PDT by KC Burke
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To: betty boop
BINGO, Betty Boop!

A government that de facto expunges the Constitution is illegitimate on its face; for it is usurping the sovereignty of the people, which is the ultimate foundation of the Constitution, and the political order premised on it. ....Betty Boop

23 posted on 07/08/2003 5:34:34 PM PDT by XHogPilot
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To: William McKinley
Whether the Constitution is a living document or not is a moot point since the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is - and therein lies the problem.

There's discussion here about what O'Conner will or won't do, but one day she'll be gone and another, UNelected, justice will take her place and this whole arguement will begin again.

The REAL problem is why justices have no electorial accountability to The People. In other words - how do you fire them?

If you owned a business and the person you hired to run the place ran the business into the ground, wouldn't you fire him?

If you owned a sports team and you had a manager who lost game after game, wouldn't you fire him?

So, how is it that we have a Judiciary that is running the Constitution into the gound, on a yearly basis, and we have no way of firing the people responsible?

Justices are APPOINTED for life and are accountable to one one. The Legislature has the authority to regulate the court, but doesn't. What we have then is a rogue court with an aristocratic mentality.

We're not talking about just one ruling. The high court has consistently passed down rulings that alter the social fabric of this nation without any input from The People.

That is LEGISLATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION, and it must be remedied.

The Founding Fathers installed a mechanism within the Constitution to remedy such power grabs. An Amendment to to directly elect the Judiciary is the only way to put the brakes on what has become a runaway court.

24 posted on 07/08/2003 5:45:13 PM PDT by Noachian (Legislation without Representation has no place in a free Republic)
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To: cornelis
"1776 was run by more mature minds informed by a decent and humane respect for the past."

I agree wholeheartedly but was immediately struck with the irony of that statement in that we have all heard of the youth of the founders, wasn't the average age something like 26? It is amazing that so many of the current crop of "leaders" are capable of acting like infants until long past normal retirement age.

25 posted on 07/08/2003 5:46:12 PM PDT by RipSawyer (Mercy on a pore boy lemme have a dollar bill!)
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To: Noachian
Any direct democracy addition to the Constitution is a mistake. It was a mistake to make Senators be directly elected, and it would be worse to have SCOTUS justices be.
26 posted on 07/08/2003 5:48:50 PM PDT by William McKinley (Free Kobe!)
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To: William McKinley
I say yes to a constitution that lives by the rules enshrined in it and is interpeted in accordance to such rules. Not a piece of paper deemed open to wild interpretation by fiat, to whomever finds parts of it inconvenient.



27 posted on 07/08/2003 6:01:18 PM PDT by Cacique
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To: William McKinley
Then you want to just sit back and let unelected justices with no accountability to anyone be our law-makers?

You want to hope and pray that they "do the right thing"? What if they don't? What if this consistent pattern of social rulings leads us down the path of Socialism and on to tyranny? What then?

You may be willing to let others define the way you live your life, but I prefer to have some say in the matter.

I love a representational Republic, and I don't want to change how Senators, or Congressmen, or Justices do their jobs. But, I DO insist on being able to fire them if they break the rules.

You wrote about RULES and the TRADITIONS of the dead. Yet, you're willing to do nothing when those rules and traditions are being whittled away little by little each year. Face facts. The Constitution is being changed each year by judicial fiat, while The People have no way of stopping it.

The Founding Fathers gave us a tool to use to stop such usurpation of power - it's the Amendment process. They didn't add it to the Constitution to take up space - they meant for it to be used.

I for one think it's time to use it.
28 posted on 07/08/2003 6:09:32 PM PDT by Noachian (Legislation without Representation has no place in a free Republic)
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To: Noachian
Non sequitor.

I believe in voting out of power those who prevent strict constructionists from being appointed.

I believe in voting in those who take the Constitution seriously.

29 posted on 07/08/2003 6:27:06 PM PDT by William McKinley (Free Kobe!)
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