Constitution Week

  • September 21, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Rebecca Smith, Coordinator, Immigrant Worker Justice Project, National Employment Law Project


    For more than two centuries, especially in times of national political and economic upheaval, disenfranchised populations have taken to the streets and sidewalks to find jobs and to demand change. During that same period, it has been those most marginalized who have defended the bedrock right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. So it is fitting that day labor groups have achieved a reaffirmation of this Constitutional and human right in a recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

    Every day, some 200,000 workers search for day labor jobs or work as day laborers across the country. Just like the residents of Hoovervilles in the Great Depression, day laborers have become a symbol of much that is wrong with our society and economy – a national trend of reliance on a “just-in-time” workforce, where jobs are subcontracted out to the lowest bidder who pay rock-bottom (and often sub minimum) wages, and a reflection of a broken immigration system that excoriates those who are its victims. In today’s economic and political climate, day laborers are the quintessential example of jobless members of our society who most need the sidewalks to communicate.

    For prospective employers, day laborers fill a niche labor market for which there is huge demand – as landscapers, household workers and home repair experts for urban and suburban families and businesses. For the workers themselves, day labor presents a daily opportunity to avoid destitution and a potential to make the transition to a more stable job.

    Just like the Wobblies of a century ago – who engaged in free speech struggles up and down the Pacific Coast as they organized hobo workers – day laborers have become targets for those who would suppress their presence and their speech. Along with many cities nationwide, the city of Redondo Beach, Calif. passed an ordinance broadly outlawing solicitation of employment, business or contributions on city streets and sidewalks, citing supposed concerns about traffic safety and traffic flow. In 2004, the city began the Day Labor Enforcement Project. Undercover officers arrested dozens of day laborers.

    But as we all know, the First Amendment protects speech regardless of the popularity of its content or its messenger. The workers sued to stop the arrests and uphold their right to search for work in public spaces. Last week, on the eve of Constitution Day, a full eleven-member panel of the Ninth Circuit held in the workers’ favor. In no uncertain terms, the Court said: “We agree with the day laborers that the Ordinance is a facially unconstitutional restriction on speech.” Guided by “well-established principles of First Amendment law,” the Court confirmed that day laborers have a Constitutional right to gather in public places and communicate their need for work.

  • September 16, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Supporting the U.S. Constitution “requires more than chanting slogans at a political rally,” Rep. Bruce I. Braley said in a statement recognizing Constitution Day.

    Emphasizing the document’s critical significance to American democracy, Braley urged those who wish to understand the Constitution to review “the whole document and what it means to our country,” rather than “just the portions that fit neatly with your personal political philosophy.”

    In a second statement on the House floor, Rep. Steve Cohen linked the Constitution’s rights and principles to critical moments in our history.

    “When I think of the Constitution, I think of Dr. Martin Luther King and the right to peacefully assemble, which is enshrined in the First Amendment,” he said. “That meant he could go to Selma, he could come to Washington and fight for civil rights and secure those rights for the people of this nation. I also think of women’s rights embodied in the Nineteenth Amendment when women were given the right to vote.”

    Tomorrow is the 224th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, but many are observing the Constitution Day holiday today.

    During Constitution Week, ACS has continued its tradition of teaching a new generation of students about our founding document through the Constitution in the Classroom program.

    But this year, ACS has also launched a series of webinars geared toward adults, “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It.” The second webinar in the series will feature University of North Carolina law professor Bill Marshall, discussing the ACS Issue Brief released this week, The Framers' Constitution: Toward a Theory of Principled Constitutionalism.

    For more Constitution Week reading, see ACSblog’s Constitution Week Symposium, and two columns by ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson, one in The Tennessean and another in The Huffington Post.

  • September 15, 2011
    Guest Post

    This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Week Symposium. By Doug Kendall, President, and Judith Schaeffer, Vice President, Constitutional Accountability Center  


    As ACS members know, our Constitution is under attack from tea partiers and other self-professed “constitutional conservatives” who have claimed the document as their own and distorted it to support their ideological agenda. Over the past two years, they have made increasingly extreme, and in some cases absurd, claims about our Nation’s charter. They started with calls to repeal a number of Amendments, including the part of the 14th Amendment that protects citizenship at birth. They progressed to claims that Social Security, Medicare, and portions of the Affordable Care Act are unconstitutional. It’s gotten to the point where it seems that many in the tea party believe the entire 20th Century was unconstitutional. Talk about a bridge to the 21st Century!  The tea party movement seems to want to build a bridge back to the colonial era and the Articles of Confederation.

    There is no greater threat to progressive values than this effort to make progress itself unconstitutional. This week, Constitutional Accountability Center and our partner organizations, including the Center for American Progress and People For the American Way Foundation, launched a coordinated effort  -- Constitutional Progressives -- to take our Constitution back and rebut the constitutional fairy tales being peddled by tea party leaders. Our greatest assets in doing so are the text and history of the Constitution itself.

    Constitutional Progressives celebratethe Framers for creating the best and most durable form of government in world history, but believe the Constitution today is better than the document ratified in 1789.  Generations of Americans have made our country and our Constitution “more perfect” by ratifying Amendments that have eliminated slavery, protected liberty and equality, expanded the powers of the federal government, and secured voting rights for every adult citizen in America.   

    This story of constitutional improvement should inspire all Americans, and we’re asking people across the political spectrum to join Constitutional Progressives by signing the “Whole Constitution Pledge” --  a pledge to support the entire Constitution, including the Amendments adopted over the last 220 years. The Pledge can be signed on line, here. More than 15,000 people across the country have already signed. We’ve made a similar call to all Members of Congress, urging them on Constitution Day to reaffirm their constitutional oath of office -- their pledge to support the whole Constitution, not just the parts they like or find ideologically convenient.

  • September 15, 2011
    Guest Post

    This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Week Symposium. By Martha F. Davis, Professor of Law, Northeastern University School of Law.


    The national Constitution is a singular document, but it is not unique. All fifty states of the U.S. and Puerto Rico have their own constitutions, some of which -- through text or interpretation -- stake out approaches that are very different from the federal document. It is worth thinking about the alternative paths that these state documents take, and the possibilities that they raise, as we celebrate and critique the national Constitution on this Constitution Day.

    This entry focuses on one area of significant difference between state and federal constitutions: their treatment of economic and social rights.

    The national Constitution addresses economic and social rights prominently but with little specificity. The Preamble states that an overriding purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to “promote the general welfare,” indicating that issues such as poverty, housing, food and other economic and social welfare issues facing the citizenry were of central concern to the framers. However, the Bill of Rights has been largely construed to provide procedural mechanisms for fair adjudication of those rights rather than carving out claims on the government to ensure that individuals actually have any social and economic assets to protect. Efforts to convince courts of alternate constitutional interpretations have generally failed. The Supreme Court has ruled, for example, that while the due process clause of the 14th amendment ensures fair processes for welfare recipients, there is no underlying constitutional right to a minimum standard of living. Similarly, the Supreme Court has not found a general right to education derived from the more explicit constitutional guarantees of political participation and equal protection that might be deemed to presuppose an educational baseline.

  • September 17, 2010

    The average lifespan of constitutions around the world since 1789 is 17 years, Stanford Law School professor and ACS Board member Pamela Karlan told an audience this week during a debate on constitutional interpretation, in celebration of the U.S. Constitution's 223rd anniversary.

    Our constitution has endured as long as it has because our interpretational methods are adaptable to changes in cultural norms, she explained during the event, which was centered on Keeping Faith with the Constitution, the book she coauthored with Goodwin Liu and Christopher Schroeder. Keeping Faith was first published by ACS last year and republished this summer by Oxford University Press with a new chapter on the First Amendment.

    Debating Karlan was Georgetown University law professor and Federalist Society member Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, who challenged Karlan's assertion that present understandings can help us interpret phrases and words in the Constitution.

    "The Constitution was not just made by courts interpreting the Constitution or by people changing the words in the Constitution by amendment, but also by people who gave the Constitution life," Karlan explained.

    Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick, who moderated the panel, said in re-reading Keeping Faith, she "came away with the stunning, chilling feeling that, man, the Constitution is cool."

    President Barack Obama thinks so, too. In a proclamation declaring Sept. 17, 2010 Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, he said, "In the United States, our Constitution is not simply words written on aging parchment, but a foundation of government, a protector of liberties, and a guarantee that we are all free to shape our own destiny. As we celebrate this document's profound impact on our everyday lives, may all Americans strive to uphold its vision of freedom and justice for all."

    During Constitution Week ACS has continued its tradition of teaching a new generation of students about our founding document through the Constitution in the Classroom program.

    But this year, ACS has also sought to raise the public's awareness about the danger that unfilled judicial vacancies on the federal bench pose to our constitutional form of government. In an op-ed in The Huffington Post, ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson wrote that the critical number of vacancies, and the Senate obstruction that has perpetuated those vacancies, "threatens the vitality of our founding document."

    Karlan also spoke earlier this year about the importance of a robust, qualified and independent judiciary to uphold our Constitution.

    View Karlan's remarks during the 2010 ACS National Convention here, and the Karlan/Rosenkranz debate here.