Speaker said document not fully ‘living’
Photo: Luke Nankivell
A Georgetown University professor celebrated Constitution Day on campus. Sept. 20 marked the lecture for Mike Seidman, professor of constitutional law. He spoke in Cartwright Hall and took questions afterward.
“I chose professor Seidman to give the lecture because he is one of the nation’s most prominent and talented constitutional law professors and theorists,” said professor Mark Kende, director of the Drake University Constitutional Law Center. “At the same time, he can convey complicated messages to audiences in ways that they can understand.”
Seidman teaches a variety of courses on constitutional and criminal law and has worked on many books and articles as well. One of his books is used at the Drake Law School as a class text.
Seidman took an approach to constitutional law that was unfamiliar to the audience. Most of the listeners were current law students, and had experience studying the Constitution. Seidman opened the event with a warning.
“This is going to be a rather strange event,” Seidman said.
True to his word, he surprised many audience members with the argument he proposed. Constitution Day is often a celebration of the American Constitution. This event, however, was not.
“We should give up on the idea that we have an obligation to obey the Constitution of the United States,” Seidman said.
Seidman defended his thesis to the audience with several key points. He postulated that no one claims every aspect of the Constitution can be considered living. Some of the language and ideas in the constitution are commonly thought to be outdated; yet the United States still operates based according to this document.
Seidman responded to the common objections to his thesis. He used the United Kingdom and Australia as examples of legal systems that operate without a constitution. He asserted they had at least as equal records to the United States, if not better records, when it comes to preserving and advancing civil liberties. He went on to explain why the Constitution often does little to protect civil liberties.
Seidman referenced cases where the Supreme Court upheld what we now perceive to be violations of civil liberties, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws which discriminate based on race, the Espionage Act, laws which discriminate based on sexual orientation and laws pertaining to abortion.
Seidman also alleged that the Constitution prevents beneficial discussions from taking place in the United States. On issues such as gun control, health care and abortion, the debate in the political arena centers around whether or not a law is constitutional, not on whether or not a law is right for the country or moral.
“We need to be clear about exactly what it means to obey a text. The only circumstance in which obedience takes hold is when, but for the Constitution, we would do something else, and only because of the Constitution we would do something that we would not otherwise do,” Seidman said.
Seidman said on multiple occasions that he was not necessarily opposed to the principles of the Constitution, but the idea that the Constitution would be used to determine the right answer, rather than encourage open debate and honest discussion. He opposes the Constitution, in part, because of how difficult it is to alter. This makes the text increasingly dated and less capable of relating to the modern world. He left audience members thinking about the Constitution and its relation to civil liberties.
“Obedience and obligation are the natural enemies of (civil liberties),” Seidman said. “Our civil liberties will never be safe as long as they depend on the mechanism of repression which they are meant to combat.”
Some students took a less literal perspective on what Seidman suggested.
“I take his (Seidman’s) whole opinion as a challenge for the country to engage in a more meaningful discourse than they do now. To this extent, it’s good,” said Thomas Bullock, a second-year law student at Drake.
The purpose of the day was to have students consider a new perspective on constitutional law.
“My goal with these lectures is to hopefully have the audience hear perspectives that challenge their own views or that take provocative positions on issues. My sense is that he did a good job of making the audience think about whether constitutional obedience actually is logically required or not. I suspect some people had never thought about that before, or had always assumed the answer was yes,” Kende said. “We also had a good turn-out in terms of numbers and a nice combination of students, faculty, local lawyers and other members of the public.”
Whether or not students agreed with the argument presented, many appreciated the opportunity to hear Seidman speak. This was one lecture in a series that is provided by the Drake Constitutional Law Center.
“I feel like the Drake Law School’s Center for Constitutional Law presents students and professionals in the Drake community with a great opportunity to discuss these insightful perspectives,” said third-year law student Michelle Moss.