The Culture of the Constitution

The US Constitution is the longest living constitution that has provided an effective framework for self government for over two hundred years. It has served a country that began as thirteen relatively independent states that grew into a continental nation. Although there have been twenty-seven amendments, the document has remained largely intact. The longevity of the US Constitution is not just a consequence of its clever design. Indeed, is product of both considerable political genius as well as the compromises necessary to weld together the original disparate states.

Despite the genius of the US Constitution, it can not be simply adopted by any country with the same success. The functioning of the US Constitution also relies upon a deference to the disciplines of the US Constitution by government officials and the people. A president must rely on the Congress to pass legislation, Congress must grant latitude to the chief executive to manage the government, particularly in foreign relations. Both must respect the Constitutional limits adjudicated by the US Supreme Court. Because the Supreme Court is the least democratic branch of government, it must be reticent overrule the decisions of the other two branches.

Of course, the Civil War was the ultimate challenge to the Constitution and the Union, but there have been cases where the three branches of government have chafed up against one another. President Andrew Jackson largely ignored the US Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of Cherokee Indians over the depredations of the state of Georgia (Worcester v. Georgia). President Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices, when it ruled against hist initiatives. Congress has tried to constrain the discretion of the President with War Powers Act. And many have suggested that sometimes the Supreme Court has exceeded its authority, particularly the Warren Court.  Despite these and other important lapses, it is important to maintain the forms of respect, especially between the different branches of government.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the speech of corporations were protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, corporations and other associations of people could spend money on independent — uncoordinated with the candidates’ campaigns — efforts to persuade people to vote one way or another. There is some disagreement with the ruing both those who believe, as George Will explains, “Americans need to be swaddled in regulations of political speech.”

Despite the attendant controversy, it remains remains disconcerting for President Barack Obama to use his the latest State of the Union address to lecture Supreme Court to the applause of Congress for a decision he disagreed with.  Obama said:

“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. [Applause.] They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.”

Leave aside for the moment that the President’s remonstrance was based on false premises. The Court in its decision explicitly allowed restrictions of foreign expenditures in US campaigns. It was disrespectful and rude to argue with and criticize the justices, when they are in no position to respond. The remarks smacked of presidential imperialism and was beneath Obama who is supposed to be a Constitutional scholar. Obama knows better. He may come to regret undermining the Court when some time in the future  the Court must suffer under diminished authority and respect when issuing a ruling with which Obama is sympathetic.

One the other hand, Obama is to be congratulated when he met with the Republican caucus this week. The exchange was civil and benefited both the Republicans and the President. Obama should consider institutionalizing the meeting on perhaps a quarterly basis.

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