A Transformative Reflection
The late Justice William Brennan stated that “the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.” Justice Brennan holds a reputation for being one of the most liberal justices of the Supreme Court, and it is clear that he viewed the Constitution as a source of political advocacy and reform. Beyond structuring government, the Constitution plays a crucial role in establishing the values of American society and protecting the rights of individuals. When misalignments between the expectations created by the Constitution and societal realities become apparent, reform is necessary to realize the ideals set out by the Constitution.
A major purpose of the Constitution is to outline fundamental value choices within American society. The Constitution makes these values transcendent and beyond the power of any part of government. Examples of these fundamental values include the separation of powers, the freedom of speech, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, and the right to due process. The challenge in interpreting the Constitution lies in the ambiguity underlying the effort to apply these values to current situations such as the growth of executive power or the prosecution of suspected terrorists. Successive generations of Americans have accepted or modified the Founders’ interpretations of these values with respect to their own historical circumstances. The Constitution was not created to preserve an already existing system of governance but to make a new one which acknowledges values that the prior system failed to recognize. The Framers of the Constitution were responding aimed to correct the problems of the Articles of Confederation and the Reconstruction Amendments marked the end of slavery. The values established by the Constitution provide a reference point to evaluate present day constitutional issues such as the power of the Supreme Court, the election of the President, and the budget deficit.
The Constitution is primarily a structuring document, laying out the system of governance, the powers of government bodies, and the values that transcend the authority of these bodies. By defining the limits of government, the Constitution aims to protect individuals.The Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction Amendments enshrine the emphasis the Constitution places on liberty and justice for all individuals. The changes and amendments made government institutions and the Constitution reflect the evolution of social conditions and broader acknowledgement of individual rights through history. As long as citizens believe that the fundamental values of the Constitution can be redeemed from incorrect interpretations and adapted to the challenges that society faces, the Constitution remains legitimate. In this respect, regardless of how politicians view the Constitution, the Constitution acts beyond temporal political majorities.This emphasis on the individual rights has contributed to the longevity of the American Constitution as one of the oldest politically extant constitutions.
Constitutions are a ubiquitous feature of governments around the world. Beyond organizing government, governments around the world have chosen to create Constitutions to outline the values held commonly by all individuals. Participation from all major stakeholders ensured this inclusivity in South Africa, and the lack of inclusivity is the cause of the fatal flaws within Hungary’s recently proposed new constitution. The longevity and strength of a constitution is determined by the applicability of these values to all individuals in society. A constitution provides a normative framework in which individuals can judge the present status of society against the ideals which a society is meant to live up to. Through this reflection, individuals can advocate for reform to move one step closer to a realization of the ideals put forth by a constitution.
Neil Patel ’13 is the Covers Editor.
Photo Credit: Morristown Green