At the beginning of the movie Lincoln, the president is focused on amending the Constitution to bar slavery. That seems unnecessary to some. After all, he’s already issued an Emancipation Proclamation. But Abraham Lincoln takes the Constitution seriously. He wants major changes enacted through the proper amendment process, not by presidential fiat.
It’s an all-too-rare viewpoint, so it’s nice to see that at least one former Supreme Court justice seems to agree with it today.
John Paul Stevens sat on the highest court for 35 years before retiring in 2010. In a new book, he attempts to make the case for adding six amendments to the Constitution that he spent a lifetime interpreting.
He wants to change the Second Amendment to eliminate a citizen’s individual right to bear arms, for example. And he’s proposing altering the First Amendment to allow what he disingenuously calls “reasonable limits” on campaign spending. It’s that proposed change that’s likely to come up first. The U.S. Senate held hearings on it last month, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised a vote on a constitutional amendment this year.
These changes would be a big mistake.
One of the best features of the Bill of Rights is its simplicity. Americans can easily understand that we have the right to bear arms, to a speedy trial, to worship as we please. The Bill of Rights was intended to guard the liberty and freedom of Americans. What Schumer and Stevens seem to intend is to limit, restrict, and constrain that liberty and freedom.
“The First Amendment is not absolute. By making it absolute, you make it less sacred to most Americans,” Schumer explains. So he wants to lawyer it up a bit. Under his system, lawmakers would be able to restrict political speech and political activity by determining the amount of spending that’s “reasonable.” It would be a boost to lawyers and incumbent politicians nationwide, but would only hurt the interests of citizens in the long run and severely curtail the First Amendment. Amendments should protect rights (as Lincoln’s 13th did), not limit them.
Still, give these men some credit: at least they want to attempt the difficult task of getting two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House to pass their changes. Even if, like most of the 11,000-plus amendments proposed through the years, these amendments deserve to fail.
That’s a refreshing change for recent Congresses and this administration, which have been too willing to go around the Constitution when it seems to stand in their way. Including Schumer, who wanted to legislatively overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that restored First Amendment rights that had been taken away by prior congressional actions.
“It’s certainly not easy to get the Constitution amended,” Stevens tells USA Today. “[P]erhaps that’s one flaw in the Constitution that I don’t mention in the book.” In reality, Justice Stevens, it’s not a flaw; it’s another positive feature of our Constitution that has been a key to its power and the stability of our governmental structure. Let the debate begin, and the best side win.