What were the founding fathers thinking when they drafted the U.S. Constitution?
In some cases, it’s too hard to tell because much of the 1789 document is vague, according to two law students who spoke about constitutional law Sunday afternoon at Hutchins Street Square.
The people who wrote the Constitution have been dead for about two centuries, so you can’t ask them what they meant when they wrote certain portions of the Constitution, said Courtney Martin and William Whaley, students at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law.
Some of the Constitution is easy to interpret — an obvious provision is that you have to be at least 35 years old to be president of the United States.
On the other hand, what does “cruel and unusual punishment” mean, Martin said.
That question is not addressed at all in the Constitution, so it’s up to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine what it means, Martin said.
Martin and Whaley discussed what today’s justices face when interpreting law. Here are some of the vague items that are subject to interpretation:
- What is considered “cruel and inhuman punishment?”
- What do the terms “equal protection” and “due process” mean?
- Does “discrimination,” as defined in the 14th Amendment when it was adopted in 1868, mean only black people? That was the interpretation at the time, Whaley said. Women and minorities other than blacks were excluded. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Supreme Court added women as protected as much as black men.
One question that the Supreme Court hasn’t addressed is homosexuality.
Martin said that voters should decide or legislation enacted when it comes to gay marriage because it allows people a greater voice. Court decisions are sometimes made quickly without citizens knowing they’re being considered ahead of time, she said.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court overruled state law when states enacted particular legislation, Whaley said. Here are some examples he cited:
- One state prohibited everyone except immediate family members to live in the same house or apartment. Legislators claimed that allowing aunts, uncles or friends from moving it would cause overcrowded parking. The Supreme Court struck down the law because it individuals are allowed to enjoy their own privacy.
- In Connecticut, married couples were barred from using contraceptives. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1965 because married couples have the right to privacy in their own bedroom..
- In Texas, the legislature prohibited homosexual sodomy. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck it down because justices said it violated the right to privacy.
Martin contends that the Constitution was written to give states more power to enact laws, but since that time, the federal government has taken that power, which she says is wrong.
“I thought it was wonderful, but I was disappointed so few people came,” said Lodi resident Suga Moriwoki after the presentation ended.
Not counting the speakers or officials from the Lodi Public Library, which sponsored the two-part series on the Constitution, only 10 people showed up Sunday.
The presentation was moved to Hutchins Street Square because Sunday’s Lodi Street Faire prevented people from parking at the library, said Library Director Nancy Martinez.
“I’m surprised about the amount of interpretation (of the Constitution) that is necessary,” Woodbridge resident Fred Paulsen said.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.