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The Constitution Is Not A First Draft

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.