Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How Should One Interpret The Constitution?

Today was the third day of class, and I fell as if I am beginning to get into the flow of things. While the Constitutional Law course may be less rigorous than the Presidential Powers course, the Constitutional Law course is by no means a joke. Unlike many students I have talked to, our instructors require that we do homework daily which is to read Supreme Court majority opinions, concurring opinions, and dissenting opinions, analyze how the justices came to a decision, and weigh in whether or not we agree with them. Ultimately, the homework is what makes the class interesting because the instructors don't need to use time during the morning session for us to read the opinion. Instead we briefly discuss the historical period of the case and dive into a discussion about what influenced the verdict.

One of the most intresting discussions we have had in class regards one of the most fundamental aspects of being a Supreme Court justice: how to interpret the Constitution. Yesterday in the afternoon, we watched a movie about a question and answer session with justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer. Scalia labeled himself as an originalist, one who determines whether a matter such as the death penalty is constitutional based on explicit definition in the Constitution. If the definition isn't clearly written, the associate justice Scalia determines if the matter is Constitutional or not based on the time period in which the Constitution was first written. Let's take the death penalty for example. The eighth amendment states that a citizen cannot be subject to "cruel and unusual punishment". But because the term "cruel and unusual" is really vague, Scalia would argue that capitol punishment is constitutional because in the 18th century, punishment of a citizen younger than 18 by hanging wasn't considered cruel or unusual. However, associate justice Breyer, a developmentalist, believes that one should interpret the vague areas of the Constitution, such as the eighth amendment by asking, "In America today, is it considered cruel and unusual to punish a minor for a crime by death?" His answer would be no, and thus he believes that applying capitol punishment to a citizen who is a minor is unconstitutional.

I believe that justices should interpret the Constitution from the devolopmentalist approach in comparison to the originalist approach. Today's society and values are much different than the values of the people from the 18th century. Because of this, it is my belief that a justice should weigh the social and economic situation before making a decision. When Breyer brought up this arguement, Scalia countered that the Constitution should be interpreted in it's original context because if the people wish it to be interpreted with a modern context, they should amend the constitution. While this may be valid, is it really plausible to pass amendments over and over to keep up with changing society? No. That is why I do not agree with justice Scalia's approach.

This is just one example of the discussions we have in class I am honored to be a part of. Had it not been for the gracious support from the Ivy League Connection's sponsors I would have never been exposed to anything remotely intellectually stimulating as the Constitutional Law course. For that, I am eternally grateful

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