By Jennifer Krisch
Today, America celebrates Constitution Day, an observance intended to encourage the study and celebration of the U.S. Constitution in public schools. Here, Kathleen Sullivan, an Ohio University assistant professor of political science and author of the book "Constitutional Context," shares her perspective on why the Constitution is as important today as the day it was signed.
Why is it important -- in 2008 -- to celebrate Constitution Day?
I'll respond to that with words from Sen. Robert Byrd, who initiated Constitution Day:
"The limits that the Constitution places on how political power is exercised have ensured our freedom for more than two centuries. Without our adherence to and defense of this remarkable document, there is no guarantee that we and future generations of Americans will remain free.
To preserve the Constitution, we must be willing to make it work, to make it an active part of our lives. Each generation is charged with protecting and defending the Constitution at home and abroad, in peace and in war ...
Without constant study and renewal of our knowledge of the Constitution and its history, we are in peril of allowing our freedoms to erode."
Sept. 17, 1787, was the day that the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention signed the Constitution.
Sen. Byrd added a clause to a 2004 appropriations act requiring all schools receiving federal aid to teach students about the U.S. Constitution on or about September 17 each year. There are also provisions for federal employees to commemorate Constitution Day.
In your opinion, what should be the goal of Constitution Day?
I see the goal as fostering good citizenship in a constitutional order. If power derives from the people, then the people should vigilantly guard against abuse of the power they have given to government.
I doubt we'll ever have a Fourth of July-style parade or fireworks to celebrate the Constitution; the last real formal celebrations were in 1788. Today, setting aside a few hours for education is probably more useful.
There's a certain irony, though, in compelling schools to teach the Constitution. Some critics complain that Constitution Day is unconstitutional because it does not grant Congress the power over education. Constitution Day, in this formulation, is a requirement that Congress had no authority to issue.
I think that's great; if people research the powers of Congress and voice their opinion, then they're engaging in constitutional debate, which is healthy for our constitutional order.
How is the Constitution relevant to today's America?
The powers of the three branches of the federal government are found in the Constitution. If we want to guard against abuse of authority, then we'd best know what's in the Constitution and make sure our public officials do their job to guard against abuse of authority by other public officials.
One branch of government can guard against abuse of authority by another branch by challenging its action. For example, in 2006, eight U.S. attorneys were fired. Investigation by Congress suggested that the Department of Justice was being used for partisan purposes. By using its oversight power, Congress can send a signal to the executive branch that it is watching.
Do you think that the Constitution is given enough emphasis in our country's schools?
We do a fair job of teaching civics but not as good a job of demonstrating that fighting over the powers conferred by the Constitution is part of a healthy constitutional order.
I have been involved with the Center for Civic Education, which is doing a great job of teaching the understanding that it is necessary to fight over these powers and is educating teachers to bring it into the classrooms.
Here in Ohio, the Ohio Center for Law Related Education hosts annual "We the People" competitions. Through these, students come to the Ohio Statehouse to face panels of judges who test them on their understanding of constitutional provisions. Students prepare with their teachers, but they have to think on their feet in the hearings. It's quite inspiring.
What are some of the most common misinterpretations of the Constitution?
That it's just the Bill of Rights and that the Supreme Court is the only interpreter of the Constitution.
How can our country best honor the legacy of those who signed the Constitution in our modern world?
Get into some healthy constitutional conflicts.
What high-profile issues of today really require the Constitution to come into play?
The first things that come to mind relate to the war in Iraq and the treatment of detainees. Which branch has the constitutional authority to make war? Is Congress doing its part to challenge expansion of executive authority? Do executive officials or military contractors have the authority to torture? Do detainees have the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus?