Blagg: I like Justice Stevens’ thinking
As you may remember, I’ve been advocating for some time for two amendments to the Constitution that I believe would go a long way toward helping our country get back on the democratic path envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
Undoing the terrible decisions by the Supreme Court that have made corporations “people” that should be protected by the First Amendment, and allowing term limits for Congress would, I think, help get us back on track — although neither is a panacea.
So, as you might imagine, I was thrilled to find out that former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, has written a book arguing for six amendments, including one that addresses the Citizens United mistake.
Stevens is the third longest-serving justice in history, so he knows what he’s talking about. Although the book (“Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” Little, Brown & Co.) is short, it is packed with cogent legal arguments that back his assertion that previous Supreme Courts have strayed off course and distorted the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.
Stevens was known as a “liberal” on the court, but his suggestions really can’t be neatly packaged as pushing that cause. Rather, he makes the case that some fairly recent decisions (like Citizens United) simply don’t have any basis in a traditional — and conservative — interpretation of the original language of our most important national document.
In brief, he suggests that:
∎ State governments be mandated to enforce federal law — something that is not true today, and which has hampered, for example, uniform application of federal gun laws;
∎ Political gerrymandering be made illegal, in the same way that racial gerrymandering has been for decades;
∎ The First Amendment cannot be used to prevent reasonable restrictions on campaign financing;
∎ The idea of Sovereign Immunity — the protection of state governments from prosecution and civil damages for violating federal law — be abolished;
∎ Capital punishment be abolished in the United States;
∎ The Second Amendment be amended to make it clear that the right to bear arms is not inviolable and that reasonable regulations are permitted.
It’s a breathtaking set of changes, and if they were enacted, the effect on the country would be profound.
Most importantly, to me, the Citizens United decision would be thrown out. That would open the door to restrictions on campaign financing, and at least a partial relief of the stranglehold Big Money has on Congress. Coincidentally, there is a vote this week in the Senate on this amendment, although Republican opposition makes it unlikely to pass. Still, I think momentum might be building for this important change.
Getting rid of the death penalty would bring a halt to the tragicomedy we are seeing in the hodgepodge of state laws and rich-versus-poor verdicts.
Stevens points out that up until the past few decades, nobody ever thought that it was a violation of the Second Amendment to put restrictions on firearms possession — just witness the National Firearms Act of 1934, which made sawed-off shotguns, automatic weapons, silencers and a host of other weapons illegal. Only the rise of the NRA and its lobby has extended the amendment to include private citizens, rather than members of a state militia.
Some of the changes recommended by Stevens stretch back to the bad old days of Jim Crow, when the southern states used various stratagems to keep black voters from having any say in government. It’s high time they were made.
And he makes a very interesting point about gerrymandering, which has kept incumbents of both parties in office despite changes in their local demographics by distorting representative districts. Doing that to keep minorities out of office has long been illegal, and has been struck down innumerable times by the courts, but doing it to keep a particular party in office has been ignored.
That, too, needs to be fixed to help make our representative democracy work better.
I heartily support Judge Stevens’ effort, and I hope you do, too.
Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.