Back to the Constitution

Posted: Dec 08, 2005 12:05 AM

I had heard that the just-released Heritage Guide to the Constitution was going to be the book all conservatives would want on their bookshelves.  I guess I was skeptical, however, because upon seeing a real-life example of this expectation just a few weeks ago, I was floored.

As two Canadian-born health care experts walked into the office of my boss, one of them immediately noticed the big blue book on his desk, and his eyes began to gleam with interest. “Where can I get one of these?” he asked before grabbing the book and paging through it.  While I stood there wondering about the magnetism of this book, it occurred to me that the Guide is as indispensable for free-market Canadians as it is for free-market Americans.

In fact, the Guide is an essential reference book for anyone interested in our nation or in democracy in general.  I’m giving a copy to my liberal law student brother, and a copy is also on its way to my hard-core conservative brother in seminary.  If you’re stumped for a Christmas gift, the Guide is an easy pick for anyone halfway intelligent or curious about such matters.

What makes the Guide so special?  More than 100 of the top legal experts in the country – both liberal and conservative – have put their brains and expertise together to unveil what our Founding Fathers really meant when they wrote the Constitution more than 200 years ago.  Similar to what theologians do when performing exegesis of the Bible, the contributors have carefully researched the intent behind every little phrase of the most important legal document in our nation’s history.

In fact, the book’s editors, overseen by former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have broken up the Constitution into more than 200 sections and phrases and assigned each to an expert on the particular subject or issue of that piece.  The contributors are united in one common philosophy: originalism, or the belief that the Constitution should be interpreted the way the Founders intended.  Meese is a fitting choice to oversee the project, as he was the original champion of originalism in 1986 while still serving President Reagan.

Now, as a new generation of legal minds joins hands with Meese, there is no better time for the publication of a trustworthy constitutional guide.  Judicial activism runs rampant in our nation, and judges often believe that they have been appointed to create laws rather than interpret them.  The Supreme Court is at a particularly vulnerable point, as our nation holds its breath to see what kind of chief justice John Roberts will turn out to be and whether the Senate will confirm conservative nominee Samuel Alito. As Meese himself notes in the book’s introduction, “We have seen through our history that when the Supreme Court greatly misconstrues the Constitution, generations of mischief may follow.”

While all readers no doubt have their opinions about which acts of mischief-making have been the most damaging to our nation, Meese revealed his own pet peeves in a recent Washington Times interview:

Some things that are not in the Constitution, but have been invented over the years by the Supreme Court, acting in what I would consider an illegitimate manner, are such things as the exclusion of valid probative evidence from criminal proceedings because of technicalities, the so-called "right" to an abortion, and the imposition on the states of the requirement to apportion both houses of their legislatures on the basis of population.

In another interview, Meese notes, “The problem is not the Constitution itself, but when the courts depart from it and make it up on their own to satisfy some sort of a political agenda or personal or policy preference.”  Even so, when pressed, Meese admits that he doesn’t see the amendments to the Constitution as inerrant:

Of all the amendments, and all the provisions of the Constitution, there are only two that I regard as real mistakes. One was the 16th Amendment. Prior to 1930, two-thirds of every tax dollar that a person had to contribute went to local governments and one-third went to the federal government. Now that's reversed… that means the federal government now has a lot more power.

The other one is related in a sense to the allocation of power and that is the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators. Before, senators were elected by state legislatures, so they had much more allegiance to the state governments themselves. Now, the senators are elected just like the House members, and during their campaigns they both (talk about) how much pork they can bring back to the people of the district in terms of federal funds. In many ways it has distorted the allocation of power between the central government and the various states.

If you find this fascinating, just wait until you see the Guide up close.  Each section is an in-depth exploration of not only a constitutional clause’s original intent, but also how it has been interpreted through the years and how it is interpreted today.  For those of you who want even more information, each section also provides a list of relevant past court cases and suggestions for further research.

Yet, while this book is comprehensive at 475 pages, it is also extremely easy to navigate.  Its organization makes it both a helpful reference book and also an attractive addition to anyone’s personal library.

This season, treat yourself to a copy of The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, and treat those on your Christmas list to one as well.  If you order by Tuesday, you can get a 20% discount from the Townhall Book Service – and guaranteed Christmas delivery as well.