martes, 11 de abril de 2006

The Living Constitution

Daniel Franco

Government 2301-2460

Dr. Eileen Lynch

February 2006

3. The Living Constitution

Although written more than two hundred years ago, the U. S. Constitution is still referred to as a “living document”. Explain what this term “living document” means in your essay.

A popular truism in our modern time seems to indicate that, if you put it down in writing, you are committed to it. The connotation is that, once it has been written down, there is no turning back, no do-overs, no last minute changes. Clearly, this has not been the case with the Constitution of the United States of America.

In the video lesson David O’Brien tells us that the Constitution is a “living document” and that it is “really a prescription for political struggle”. He goes on to describe how the Constitution sets up the arena of checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the federal government and also between the federal government itself and the state and the local governments, and how none of these institutions remains unchanged in the present, not even compared to itself fifty, one hundred, or certainly two hundred years ago. In addition, the best intimation in the textbook as to the intent of the authors of the Constitution comes from Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. He wrote, “The Constitution belongs to the living and not to the dead”. From the explication that followed, I gathered that he believed that there could be no one who knew everything so that his wisdom should persist unchallenged, and that a document like the Constitution should not become fossilized under layers of useless reverence and kowtowing. With new discoveries, new re-interpretations of the law should emerge about how it pertains. The laws and the institutions should embrace that change and persist along by adapting to the progress.

I am a Spanish medical interpreter and translator by profession and my job consists of helping the medical staff to communicate with Limited English Proficiency patients and their families. My job not only consists of knowing the equivalence of each word in each of the source and target languages. Additionally, and even more importantly, my job consists of knowing how the information from the source language is relevant in the target language. For example, when a doctor tells the parents of a patient, “The tests indicate that your child might have a serious illness, but further testing is necessary”, the doctor is trying to share as much information as he has at the moment without alarming the parents unduly. But for people of a different cultural background that statement might appear to indicate that the doctor does not have enough knowledge or training to know for sure what illness might be present. This confusion arises from different cultural expectations.

So when I consider that Latin Americans and Americans have more in common in the present than what Americans of the twenty-first century would have in common with the Americans of the eighteenth century, it becomes clear that the Constitution clearly has been kept alive throughout these last two hundred years by the constant re-interpretation provided by the Constitution itself, since it created the means and processes necessary to achieve this end precisely.

Both the text and the video lesson explain how the Supreme Court has installed itself as the interpreter and translator of the intent of the Constitution when it must have a point of application. With a process called judicial review, the courts decide if the laws passed by Congress or the actions taken by a President are in accordance with the spirit or intent of the Constitution, and emit their opinion accordingly. Surprisingly, nowhere in the Constitution is this process expressly indicated. Because many of the issues were so divisive at the time of its inception, the Constitution avoided going into specifics and adhered to outlining general principles and concepts of what the people of the United States would need in order to establish a more peaceful and ordered country.

Perhaps, the most precise comment about the role that the Supreme Court has played in keeping the Constitution a living document comes from President Woodrow Wilson, when he called the Supreme Court “a kind of Constitutional Convention in continuous session”.

Sources:

Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson Wadsworth, © 2005

United States and Texas government I. Programs 1-26 [video recording], Presented by Dallas TeleLearning DCCCD, © 2005

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