Alito hearings

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(HOST)The confirmation hearings for Judge Samuel Alito reminded commentator Peter Gilbert of how important it is for all high school history students to learn about the Constitution and our democratic form of government.

(GILBERT) Some commentators have complained that the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court weren’t very exciting. A law professor called such hearings “boring.” It makes me worry that our definition of what is exciting or interesting may have changed. Are hearings only interesting when people lose their temper or make egregious faux pas – the civic equivalent of crash and burn? Are congressional hearings boring unless they resemble Jerry Springer, Hardball, or The McLaughlin Group?

In fact, I think the ideas discussed – if not the monotone voices and senatorial showboating – were enormously interesting. Some may have found them inspiring, others truly alarming. In either case, the hearings were a profound lesson in civics – in how American government operates, should operate, and may operate in the future. While I wish they had talked about key issues even more, important questions explicitly raised in the hearings included the following:

Is the Constitution a so-called “living document” that is interpreted over the centuries in light of the times, or is its meaning more fixed, going back to the time it was written?

Could it be that the Supreme Court does not have the last word on matters of constitutional interpretation?

Are the three branches of government – the executive, legislative, and judicial – equal, with checks and balances among the three?

What are the powers of the President, especially during wartime? What are the limits of those powers, and who defines the limits? Here we must remember that we’re talking not about the powers of the current president, but the powers of all presidents, whether we like them or not.

How much power should Congress have? What are the limits, if any, to Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce? If there are limits to that enormously broad power, how do we know what they are? If the Supreme Court struck down a law because Congress exceeded its constitutional authority, wouldn’t that be judicial activism?

How much power should the national government itself have, and how much power should be reserved to the states?

How much should the Court respect precedent – the decisions
that the Supreme Court has already made? Have certain deci-
sions been relied upon so much that they become “settled law” and shouldn’t be overturned, even if a justice disagrees with them?

Is there a right to privacy in the Constitution?

These issues are infinitely more important than partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. The hearings raised not just important issues, but bedrock issues. The hearings were a living civics lesson, not only for students in high school, but for all of us. And the biggest lesson we can learn from them is that the work of a democracy – even one with a written Constitution – is never done.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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