Off the Bench | Constitution still has everyday impact

Off the Bench | Constitution still has everyday impact

How did you spend Monday, Sept. 17, 2018? That may seem an odd question. That day was the 231st anniversary of the United States Constitution. The day is now referred to as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. While I think the parades and celebrations were few, judges were encouraged to note the importance of the day in remarks from the bench and otherwise. Some courts conducted naturalization ceremonies to welcome new citizens and note the significance of citizenship.

Bob Carlson, president of the American Bar Association, issued a statement regarding the day, noting "Constitution Day provides an opportunity to think about and discuss the Constitution, the foundation for the federal system of government and framework for our cherished rights and liberties."

I found his recorded statement on YouTube, which has its own significance to me. Specifically, this document, which was originally prepared on parchment, is still serving its original purpose in the age of the internet, social media and YouTube.

In the days preceding the American Revolution, the king of England was the sovereign. The colonists were his subjects. If they had been treated like the loyal subjects they were, perhaps there would never have been a revolution. But, as I recall, the colonists were not treated in the same manner as their fellow subjects residing across the Atlantic.

Stamp Acts, Tea Acts, Townsend Acts and the quartering of troops in private residences proved too much. Something had to change, and a new country was born.

As noted by Carlson, the Constitution establishes the structure of our national government. Previous columns have dealt with the three branches and the separation of powers that keep power from being consolidated in one entity. It is clear that the Founders did not want to be governed by any authority resembling a monarch. The tension between the three branches may be frustrating from time to time, but I believe that tension was intended by those who created our form of government.

Carlson also made reference to "our cherished rights and liberties." While the document adopted in 1787 dealt more with the establishment of the government, various amendments, particularly those known as The Bill of Rights, deal with those rights and liberties we hold dear.

Freedom of religion, speech and the press are not just traditions. The Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures may have had its roots in the interaction between colonists and British troops but remains a vital controlling principle governing the relationship between citizens and law enforcement. All of these and others not specifically mentioned here are worth taking time to ponder.

Here is a radical suggestion. For one day, let us pause from arguing about Cubs and Cardinals, Bears and Packers or even rival political parties. Take the time and energy spent on those pursuits and devote it to thinking about the Constitution.

There is a lot to consider. If you are not sure where to start, why not begin with the preamble. While it does not refer to the details of the government or establish rights that can be enforced in court, it does serve to introduce the Constitution and provide a statement of its purpose.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Many of us had to memorize these significant words, but have we thoughtfully considered them?

Here are a few observations that might launch some thought and even conversation. The first seven words make clear that the people are the sovereign. Being a subject of the crown was a thing of the past.

Further, the hope for a "more perfect union" can spark some discussion. The union was fragile at the time and was put to the test a few decades later in the Civil War. While the union has been preserved, it sometimes appears that the populace is deeply divided over many issues.

The last conversation starter might be the most challenging. Is the stated purpose of securing the "Blessings of Liberty" consistent with the existence of the deplorable institution of slavery? There is much to consider in that preamble.

The Constitution adopted 231 years ago and amended over time still serves us. It impacts us all every day, whether we realize it or not. It is surely worth reflecting upon from time to time and not just on Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is

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