Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 10/28/2005 [Archive]

Inside the Constitution with Ed Meese

Inside the Constitution with Ed Meese

Interviewed by Bill Steigerwald

Alert your favorite member of Congress.

The Heritage Foundation is coming out Nov. 7 with something a lot of our lawmakers desperately need to bone up on -- 'The Heritage Guide to the Constitution.'

A clause-by-clause analysis of the original and contemporary meaning of 200 clauses of the U.S. Constitution, the 430 page-plus reference book is being billed as 'the ultimate guide to conservative thought' on a document that, in spite of much bipartisan abuse, still holds up pretty well after more than 200 years.

I recently talked by phone with former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, the Washington think tank's Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow, who supervised the project.

Q: Can you briefly describe the guide and tell us who its audience is supposed to be?

A: "The Heritage Guide to the Constitution" is designed to provide an authoritative research device for people who want to know what the Constitution says, what the history of the various provisions are and also have references in terms of the court cases and legal articles that explain in more detail the particular provision involved. It's intended for lawmakers. It's intended for judges. It's intended for law students and for anyone who is interested in understanding what the Constitution actually says.

Q: Who needs the guide more, Democrats or Republicans?

A: I think they both need it: The Republicans to shore up their constitutional fidelity and the Democrats so they'll pay attention to what the Constitution actually says.

Q: Why is it so important to find out the Framers' original intent 200 years after the fact?

A: It's important to find out what the words were understood to mean by the people who adopted them -- the original participants in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the various Congresses and state legislatures since that time that have adopted the amendments. It's important, just like any legal document, to see what the understood meaning of the document was when it was adopted by representatives of the people. If you are not faithful to the meaning of the words as they were understood then, in effect you have unelected judges making up what the meaning is.

Q: How is the Constitution holding up?

A: I think basically it is holding up very well. Occasionally, the majority of the Supreme Court is not as faithful to the Constitution as we might like. But the Constitution itself has proved now over two centuries to be the most effective guide, the most effective statement of principles and structure of government of any document ever designed.

Q: Is there any part of the Constitution you feel is weak and in need of being shored up?

A: Well, I think that basically the Constitution is pretty clear as it is. The problem is not the Constitution itself, but when the courts depart from it and it make it up on their own to satisfy some sort of a political agenda or personal or policy preference. That's when we have the problems.

Q: What about the 16th Amendment, the income tax amendment?

A: Of all the amendments, and all the provisions of the Constitution, there are only two that I regard as real mistakes. One was the 16th Amendment. Prior to 1930, two-thirds of every tax dollar that a person had to contribute went to local governments and one-third went to the federal government. Now that's reversed: Two thirds of all the tax money goes to the feds and only a third to the state and local governments, so that means the federal government now has a lot more power.

The other one is related in a sense to the allocation of power and that is the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators. Before, senators were elected by state legislatures, so they had much more allegiance to the state governments themselves. Now, the senators are elected just like the House members, and during their campaigns they both (talk about) how much pork they can bring back to the people of the district in terms of federal funds. In many ways it has distorted the allocation of power between the central government and the various states.

Q: Is there any clause of the 200 the guide looks at that is totally out of whack today with what the Framers originally intended?

A: I think there are some. By court decisions, for example, they have vastly expanded or changed the Fifth Amendment, because I don't think the Founders ever would have gone along with excluding valid probative evidence simply because the police made a technical mistake. That has to do with both the Fourth and Fifth amendments.

Q: Civil libertarians would argue that the Patriot Act violates the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Are you any more or less worried about the Patriot Act today than you were two years ago?

A: I'm less worried about it because the more experience we've had with it the more it's been proved that there are no abuses of it. The Patriot Act actually increases rather than decreases the protection of constitutional rights, because it has more requirements for judges to issue warrants or subpoenas, so there is more inter-positioning of judicial authority than there was before the Patriot Act.

Q: Can the Constitution continue to protect our individual liberties even as the federal government's power to tax, regulate and outlaw things like drug use continues to grow and grow? Is it strong enough?

A: I think the Constitution itself is strong enough. The problem is not the Constitution but some of the judges who've interpreted it. I think what we need is to have judges appointed, at all levels, who are committed to and faithful to the Constitution.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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