Questioning the Constitution

Documentary produced by Center for Politics wins Award of Excellence

Since its creation in 1787, the U.S. Constitution has been the subject of much praise for the way it lays the foundations of the U.S. government. Despite its many virtues, however, there has always been concern about how to properly interpret this document. A 2008 documentary "Questioning the Constitution," which was produced by the Center for Politics and the Community Idea Stations, explores the debate about interpreting the Constitution, looking in particular at issues of constitutional reform. Shortly after the end of the spring semester, the documentary won the prestigious Award of Excellence, the highest distinction given annually by the International Academy of Visual Arts.\nThe film seeks to educate citizens about the controversies surrounding constitutional reform and to generate interest in the Constitution.\n"The documentary ponders the power of the executive branch, the power of the states and the judicial branch's role," said Bruce A. Vlk, Center for Politics deputy director of programs.\nVlk said Politics Prof. Larry Sabato's book, "A More Perfect Constitution," was the initial inspiration for the documentary. Published in 2007, the book is a collection of 23 proposals to improve the Constitution. Sabato argues that political stagnation will continue unless the Constitution is amended to rid it of outmoded provisions and to reconnect citizens to the political process.\nThe one-hour documentary was directed by Mason Mills of the Community Idea Stations. In the film, Mills conducts interviews with historians and political leaders including Sabato, former Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, D-Kan., NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and ACLU President Nadine Strossen. Mills combines these interviews with archival material to create a comprehensive picture of the Constitution as it exists and functions today.\nMills noted that one of the film's strongest messages is how the Constitution applies to our lives and in our society.\n"We have this story in the film in which Martin Luther King talks about using the Constitution," he said. "The Constitution was used by Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement to really make a difference."\nSeveral scholars have noted that there is much about the Constitution that merits admiration and praise. Law and Public Affairs Prof. A.E. Dick Howard observed how the Constitution puts into place enduring principles, such as limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism, which have all stood the test of time. He also said he regards the framers' wisdoms in creating the Constitution as commendable.\n"The Constitution was drafted by men who understood human nature, who drew deeply on the teachings of history, who believed in government's having a popular basis, but who wanted to guard against uses of power in ways that would infringe personal liberties," Howard said. "Especially was this true of James Madison, who tempered his optimism for the future of American government with a realization that men are not, as he put it, 'angels.'"\nNevertheless, there remains a great deal of debate about its interpretation. The language of the Constitution could have a different interpretation today than it did Sept. 17, 1787, the day of its creation, Vlk said. For example, Vlk said, the preamble's, "We the People," originally referred to male property owners, but this phrase has evolved to include all people.\nHoward noted that one of the great battles about constitutional interpretation is between those who look to "originalism," such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and those who believe in a "living Constitution," such as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Originalism holds that the Constitution should be interpreted literally, as opposed to the viewpoint that the Constitution is a "living document" that should be flexible and adaptable to present times.\nWhether the Constitution should be reformed is a complicated matter, as evidenced by the controversial arguments for and against constitutional reform. One of the arguments against constitutional change is that the creation of the Constitution was a comprehensive process, Vlk said. There is a danger that the issues of the particular moment would overly influence the Constitutional Convention.\nHoward added that it is important for citizens to consider whether there are ways in which the Constitution does not respond to the needs of American society.\n"For all their insights, the founders realized that the Constitution they wrote was an experiment," he said.\nBecause of this, constitutional reform remains relevant to issues that are dominating the news today. Vlk noted such examples as the presidential war powers, the native-birth requirement for presidential candidates, the federal deficit and the Electoral College.\n"These topics are relevant because either the Constitution does not fully address them or many see room for improvement," Vlk said.\n"Questioning the Constitution" explores these concerns in visually stimulating and intellectually accessible manner.\n"The Center for Politics always aims to educate the masses, not just the academia," Vlk said.

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