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Panel celebrates the Constitution, then and now

"Today we live during a period where across the political spectrum from the right to the left, from the Tea Party, from the folks who are protesting as part of Occupy Wall Street, there's a commitment to the Constitution," said Aziz Rana, a Cornell associate professor of law, as part of a Constitution Day panel discussion, "Revisiting the Founding," Sept. 17 at the Cornell Law School.

The discussion began with a focus on the theory of "originalism." Panelist Jamal Greene, a Columbia University law professor, said the theory concerns understanding the Constitution today as it would have been construed when it was created some 225 years ago. He drew a distinction between "original meaning" originalism - how people at the time would have understood the Constitution, and "original intent" originalism - what the drafters of the Constitution probably meant. Original intent was the better philosophy, he said, because the "greatest legacy our framers left to us is not the answers to some set of questions but a culture of argument."

But panelist Bernadette Meyler, a Cornell professor law and of English, wasn't so quick to leave the idea of "original meaning" originalism by the wayside. She admitted that the Constitution has contested meanings and different interpretations. However, like Greene, she said that the best way to understand the Constitution isn't to look for one single meaning. The better approach is to accept the meanings in the Constitution that we disagree about, because the Constitution was something that "meant different things to different people even at the time of ratification."

Rana steered the conversation toward why we celebrate the past of the Constitution in this day and age. Celebrations such as this one, he said, are a relatively recent phenomenon. "Throughout most American history there were really vibrant traditions of constitutional skepticism and indeed outright opposition," he said. Constitution Day didn't begin until the 1910s with a group called the National Security League that sought to "defend what they view as 100 percent American from all the different sources of threat."

Threats according to National Security League leaders didn't just include Bolshevism and Communism spreading in Europe, he said, but groups in America like the League of Women Voters, immigrant organizations and labor groups. Such groups used the language and idea of Constitution as a means to defend their own interests, he said. Rana noted a parallel between some of these groups and the modern day Tea Party movement.

Respondent Elizabeth Anker, Cornell assistant professor of English and adjunct professor of law, concluded the discussion by noting that she saw strong devotion to the Constitution, even, as Rana noted, among members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which reflects the political climate of the times. She asked whether this Constitutional devotion has popped up now because, she said, we are at a time when "the Constitution is about 'we the people' and collective decision making increasingly seems to us like a sham."

Earlier in the day, another panel, "Foundings," included a discussion at the Cornell Law School among Eric Slauter of the University of Chicago; Jason Frank, associate professor of government at Cornell; Simon Gilhooley, a graduate student in the field of government at Cornell; and Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania.

Law student Steven Mark is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz