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Panel and Lecture Mark Constitution Day

September 18, 2009 – Though delegates signed the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago, questions about its relevancy and its relationship with international law remain.

On Sept. 17, the day set aside by Congress in 2004 as Constitution Day, Georgetown celebrated the occasion with two events. The day began with a panel of distinguished legal scholars and practitioners at the Law Center and ended with an evening lecture from former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese on Main Campus.

Is the Constitution Relevant?

Meese, who served under President Reagan, questioned whether the Constitution is relevant today during Thursday night’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.

Ultimately yes, he answered, but said the idea of a “living constitution” always does not work for what the framers had in mind.

“[They] didn’t try to solve every problem,” he said. "They set forth two things – the structure of the government and basic principles for operation.”

Meese, now chair of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, said the amendment process is in place to allow for judicial restraint instead of judicial activism.

“We would no longer have the living constitution they talk about, but we would have a dead constitution because it will have been abandoned by those people who have the responsibility to keep it alive, namely the judges,” he said.

A Different Take at the Law Center

Law professor David Cole has a different perspective.

“We celebrate the drafting of the Constitution, but we do so in a very different world that the framers were acting in,” Cole said during the Law Center discussion panel.

Cole and the panel discussed the role international law plays in the constitutional system, particularly with respect to human rights.

David Stewart, a visiting law professor and a former assistant legal advisor for private international law at the State Department, noted that many in the United States find it constitutionally impermissible to refer to laws beyond those in the U.S. system.

For instance, the 2005 Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons received an objection from dissenting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the majority’s use of foreign law in a decision to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. But Cole, Stewart and panelist Patricia Wald -- a former chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit -- found nothing wrong with examining how courts of other lands have decided legal issues.

Aram Schvey, a supervising attorney and teaching fellow at the Law Center’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, noted that the questions discussed by the panel remain unresolved, hot-button issues in much of the legal community. As a result, he said, domestic constitutional interpretation and the United States’ standing in the world community are in limbo.

“Will we abide by our international commitments, or merely demand that others do so?” Schvey asked. “I thought this panel was a great opportunity to hear from a number of prominent legal luminaries in the academy.”

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