Friday, October 31, 2014

SMITH: Constitution still at crossroads

By MICHAEL A. SMITH, Insight Kansas | 9/20/2013

Fifth is wooden, 25th is silver, 50th is gold, but what do you get for a 226th anniversary?

Tuesday marked the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing in 1787. At Emporia State University, we had our largest-ever Constitution Day celebration. Middle and high school students from across Kansas listened as keynote speaker Kevin Anderson opened the event. In his spirited talk, he discussed how Americans see and use freedom, equality and other political values in our daily lives. Anderson emphasized the Civil Rights Movement’s lessons and its ongoing struggles. During that movement’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the Constitution lay at the center of the fight for citizens’ rights, while its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court resolved federal-state conflicts. Today, these struggles continue over the Constitution’s meaning, the rights of citizens, and the roles of the federal government and states, respectively.

Fifth is wooden, 25th is silver, 50th is gold, but what do you get for a 226th anniversary?

Tuesday marked the anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing in 1787. At Emporia State University, we had our largest-ever Constitution Day celebration. Middle and high school students from across Kansas listened as keynote speaker Kevin Anderson opened the event. In his spirited talk, he discussed how Americans see and use freedom, equality and other political values in our daily lives. Anderson emphasized the Civil Rights Movement’s lessons and its ongoing struggles. During that movement’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the Constitution lay at the center of the fight for citizens’ rights, while its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court resolved federal-state conflicts. Today, these struggles continue over the Constitution’s meaning, the rights of citizens, and the roles of the federal government and states, respectively.

Just this past week, Kansas Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan announced that Kansans will not be required to show a birth certificate to renew drivers’ licenses after all. Federal officials have delayed that requirement of the “Real ID” law. However, by planning to require the birth certificates for license renewal, Kansas was going to provide one-stop shopping, adding an extra step for drivers but making it easy to follow the federal “motor voter” law. That 1993 law allows citizens to register to vote when obtaining or renewing driver’s licenses. Yet a new Kansas law also requires first-time voter registrants to show a birth certificate. That was ostensibly passed to cut down on voter fraud, but documented cases of fraud are minimal.

Kansas might now run into trouble, because a similar Arizona law requiring birth certificates for voter registration was ruled unconstitutional this summer in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach argues the Kansas and Arizona laws have enough differences that the court’s ruling does not apply here, but federal courts might disagree.

Another example of constitutional re-interpretation happened earlier this year, when the Kansas Legislature leapt into the gap provided by NFIB v. Sebelius (2012). In that case, the court majority narrowed Congress’ ability to pass laws using the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. Kansas legislators responded with a law stating that guns that are both manufactured and sold in Kansas are not part of interstate commerce, and therefore cannot be regulated by Congress. From the late 1930s until recently, such a narrow interpretation of interstate commerce would be unthinkable. After all, these guns would surely be made with materials imported from out of state, could end up being used out of state, and would load ammunition made out of state. Today, however, the court is narrowing the definition of interstate commerce, therefore narrowing the U.S. Congress’ power to regulate. Will the new Kansas law pass muster? Federal courts might have to decide.

Each time the Constitution is re-interpreted, citizens’ and states’ rights change, too. Through it all, America’s most important founding document endures. Happy 226th birthday, Constitution!

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor in the political science department at Emporia State University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group. Kevin Anderson, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, co-authored today’s column.

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