The Constitution Is Not A First Draft
By Roberta Cooper Ramo
President, American Bar Association
It is no accident that our Founders, in the preamble to the U.S.
Constitution, listed "to establish justice" as the first specific function of the new
government. Justice is not simply another government entitlement, but the
historic mandate of a free society. The pursuit of justice is one of the primary
reasons those in any society organize themselves into a government.
Alarmingly, we seem to be in an age when a large portion of our
populace will happily turn a blind eye to justice, when our society is becoming
cold and compassionless, and when even our most basic tenet -- justice -- has
become the stuff of political fodder.
How has this happened? What makes the Congress think that it can
eviscerate the Legal Services Corporation, the only federal program that brings
the dignity of justice to poor Americans? What makes them think the 200-year-
old Constitution and Bill of Rights are suddenly simply "first drafts," needing (at
last count) 118 amendments?
I'm afraid that we have become a nation of constitutional illiterates, easily
swayed by slogans and assailed by half-truths into believing that there are
simple solutions to any or all political dilemmas. We have allowed ourselves
and our children to accept the benefits of American citizenship with no
understanding of the part our Constitution plays in making ours the world's
greatest economic engine and civilization's most amazing success in promoting
human potential through freedom. And that negligence has created a Congress
that loses sight of the Constitution and Bill of Rights as our nation's lode star
and our soul.
Funding for legal services for the civil needs of the poor is in grave
jeopardy, because some see it as a cost-saving device instead of as the
keystone in a justice system that understands there is no justice without access.
Each of us has all the rights guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
As surely as we celebrate the First Amendment when we read a newspaper or
enter a church or testify before a congressional committee, we celebrate the
Fourth Amendment when we retire at night in our dwellings, when we exchange
confidences on untapped telephones, and when we are not subject to a search
on a street simply because of our appearance or accent. But those rights do
not exist in a vacuum. Without the ability to enforce our rights against those
who would deny them, the promise is but a cruel joke.
In their ardor to balance the books, Congress must not ignore the very
costly consequences -- the undermining of a cornerstone of our democracy,
equal justice for all, and the rending of the social fabric which must follow.
I look at this rush to limit and rewrite the Constitution, and at the attacks
on the Legal Services Corporation, and am reminded of how tenuous every
civilization is, how easily destroyed no matter how painfully built. We as a
nation must recommit ourselves to freedom, to providing dignity and
compassion to others, and to keeping justice as our first priority.