Constitutional Relevancy

July 20, 2012

I’ve received a nice letter from Deborah Meister who teaches at the Fellowship Baptist Academy in Carson City. Her students are writing essays on the question of “Is the Constitution Still Relevant?” This is part of a program run by the Veterans of Foreign Wars which awards scholarships to the participating schools. She’s asked for my views on the issue, so here they are…..

Our Constitution is a marvelous document. It sets out the organization and rules for a limited government different from anything in existence at the time it was written at the end of the 18th Century. It was written in a way that has allowed it to stay “relevant” for over 200 years. Of course relevant may not be the right word to apply to a historical document. It’s not capable of precise definition. In the Law of Evidence, “relevant evidence” is evidence that tends to prove or disprove some fact at issue. Applied to a governmental document like the Constitution it probably means ‘does this document address current problems or issues faced by government and does it solve or provide guidance leading to the solving of those problems or the resolution of those issues?” At least that’s the application I’d use.

Whether the Constitution is relevant depends on how you want it to be used. Many Conservatives want it to be a rule book where government can only do things specifically set out in the document. The problem with that is that the problems of the late 1700s aren’t the problems of the 21st Century. The Constitution is really a pretty small document to be a rule book. The rules of Monopoly are about the same length. We haven’t outgrown the principals of the Constitution, but we have outgrown its context. It’s nice to know that the federal government can’t quarter troops in our houses, but in 21st Century America that really isn’t an issue. In that instance, the Constitution lacks contextual relevancy. To avoid sliding into irrelevancy, the Constitution constantly adapts itself to the present.

Liberals see the Constitution as a foundation that Courts constantly expand.

In the last month we’ve seen an argument over whether the Constitutional grant of Federal authority to “regulate” interstate commerce includes the power to compel people to buy something. An issue carefully dodged by Chief Justice Roberts.

Much of the Constitutions content has had to be interpreted and expanded for it to stay relevant. Free speech in 1780 was pretty clearly understood. There were spoken words, and printed words. That understanding doesn’t tell us much about symbolic speech like donating to a political campaign, or regulating television programs. Courts have had to build on that foundation of free speech to make it apply to current means of communication.

In the same way, the Constitutions language isn’t self explanatory. We can keep and bare “arms,” but what are arms? Nuclear? Poison gas? Machine guns? Courts have to tell us. just like they have to tell us what an “unreasonable” search is. For that matter they have to tell us what constitutes a “search.” Does it include an infrared sensor on a helicopter that can detect human movement inside a building? And if so, is it “unreasonable?” Courts have to tell us. The Constitution doesn’t.

The glory of our Constitution is that it goes on century after century doing what it was designed to do: regulate and guide American government. It isn’t a cookbook and it doesn’t tell us how to govern ourselves. It leaves that to Legislatures and the Executive. It does provide the solid, unchanging, principals upon which the great experiment called America was established.


I’d certainly call that relevant.

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