Free constitutional seminars
By David Adler
The U.S. Constitution is all-Broadway, all the time. Americans may not realize its center stage presence in the life of the nation, but it governs our daily lives, often sight unseen.
There are other junctures, however, when disputes about constitutional principles and provisions are unavoidable, in full display on television and capturing page one headlines in the nation’s newspapers. This is one of those times.
The Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, carried live by various networks, brings the Constitution into our living rooms, much as television made up-close and personal the 1986 Iran-Contra Hearings, the 1987 judicial confirmation hearings for Judge Robert Bork and the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
For those citizens eager to learn more about the Constitution, these various hearings constitute a free Seminar on Constitutional Law. They remind us that education about the law of the land is an ongoing process, one accessible to citizens everywhere.
The historic impeachment trial of President Trump, like that of President Clinton two decades ago, introduces viewers to the fundamentals of the Impeachment Clause. Tune in and you will catch a glimpse, and often much more, about the reasoning and application of impeachable offenses — treason, bribery and high crimes and misdemeanors. Listen to the House managers and defense attorneys for contending interpretations of what constitutes an “incitement to insurrection.” Follow the arguments — pro and con — for conviction of Trump and potential disqualification from holding office in the future.
A presidential impeachment trial is rare. In all of American history, only three presidents — Andrew Johnson, Clinton and Trump — have been impeached. As a concerned citizen, in the comfort of your home, it’s in your interest to learn a bit about impeachment, what the framers characterized as “the grand inquest of the nation.” The price is right.
In 1986, the Iran-Contra hearings illuminated for the citizenry the scope of presidential and congressional powers over the conduct of American foreign policy. For many viewers, the hearings were an eye-opener. They learned that although a president has no authority to violate the law, that, indeed, President Ronald Reagan had violated several statutes that prohibited U.S. assistance to a group of insurgents — the Sandinistas — attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government. They learned, moreover, that the assistance was funded by the illegal sale of arms to Iran.
The seminar in foreign relations law helped Americans understand that Congress, not the president, enjoys the lion’s share of foreign policy powers, as any reading of Article I and II of the Constitution makes clear. At that point, viewers grasped the fact that the president, whether acting in the realm of domestic or foreign affairs, is subject to the restraints imposed by the Constitution.
In 1987, the Senate defeated the nomination of Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court. Bork, then a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals, and a prolific author, was rejected, largely because his views of the Constitution were considered antiquated. He believed, for example, that Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark ruling that separate but equal is inherently unequal, was decided incorrectly. He told Senators that the Constitution did not protect a right to privacy.
The Bork Hearings were instructive for Americans interested in learning about the process of confirming nominees to the Supreme Court. They were fascinating for the rich debate about constitutional interpretation inspired by Senators’ questions and Bork’s answers. The Bork Hearings provided a first-rate constitutional seminar. They, too, were free.
The hearings were intense, far beyond any that had been held, probably since the 1916 hearings for the nomination of Louis Brandeis to the court. Brandeis, the first Jewish citizen nominated to the court, was the target of virulent anti-semitism, but he was nonetheless confirmed and became, by scholarly consensus, one of the greatest justices in our history.
These historic moments in American history have opened a window onto our vast constitutional landscape. The founders of our nation believed that our republic required well-informed and engaged citizens. A better grounding for the citizenry in the fundamentals of our Constitution cannot but help to foster better dialogue about constitutional disputes. Let’s take advantage of these constitutional seminars and enrich our public debate on key issues affecting the future of the nation.