“Man, the Constitution is Cool”

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.