“My words were taken out of context.” These are the famous words of every politician in the modern era who makes a gaffe, saying something offensive, bigoted or, in many cases, simply embarrassing. Seldom, however, are the words of these politicians any less offensive, bigoted or embarrassing in the proper context.
But what happens when the Constitution, the foundation on which many of our laws are based, is taken out of context and used to justify the goals of politicians in the modern era? For that matter, what is the proper context?
Dr. Michael Frank sought to answer this question on Thursday, Feb. 25, at a brown bag lunch lecture held in the library. The topic of this particular luncheon was the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, the context in which it was written, and the vision that the founding fathers had in mind when writing it.
Considering that Frank states that James Madison is one of his personal heroes, it seems no one at AU is more qualified to discuss what he and the other founders of the United States may have originally intended.
Given the current political landscape, and the debate over whether or not a president in his last six months in office should be able to nominate a judge for a seat on the Supreme Court, this is an important time as ever to discuss what the Constitution says not only about this particular issue, but about the structure of the very government of the United States.
Whether or not the founding fathers thought of the Constitution as an unchangeable document or a living one seems irrelevant, according to Frank. Within the first few years of its existence, the Constitution changed dramatically. Within the first few decades, the country itself changed so dramatically that it was unrecognizable.
Frank points out that the Declaration of Independence established the United States to simply be an alliance between thirteen separate, sovereign nations, and that the actions of the fledgling United States government reflect that viewpoint. Later laws and amendments to the Constitution changed that irrevocably into an approximation of the system in place today: one nation, indivisible.
Frank went on to explain the system of checks and balances that the United States established, describing some changes that were later made, such as the adoption of the Australian ballot, which helped deter voter fraud by making voting anonymous, as well as the staggered election cycle that prevents a quick overturn of the government from one party to the next. Originally, the President himself was not elected by popular vote, but strictly by what we today refer to as the Electoral College.
The goal of this checks and balances system, as Frank noted, is to prevent tyranny by either the minority or the majority. Staggered elections prevent quick overturn, and an overwhelming control by the majority. At the same time, the idea of the popular vote itself is a deterrent against minority control.
Another big takeaway from the lecture is that the idea of a heavily politicized Supreme Court nomination is a new phenomenon, relegated to the past 40 years or so. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have tried to prevent the current president from nominating a judge in their last few months of office, in order to prevent a sway in the political makeup of the Supreme Court.
These parties have invoked the so-called Thurmond Rule, a Senate tradition that states that no President should nominate for the Supreme Court in their last six months of office. However, as Dr. Frank was quick to point out in his lecture, there is no language in the Constitution establishing any sort of precedent for this idea. The Constitution states, quite simply, that a president shall nominate a judge, with the Senate vetting and confirming the nominee, thus establishing their place on the Supreme Court.