Carrying a pocket Constitution

By Dr. Ralph Maughan

So what about people who carry a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and tell us things like, “I can’t find it in my Constitution so it must be unconstitutional?” They might also say “I reach for my copy every day.” “I carry it with me at all times.” “When I have a political argument, I just pull it out and settle things.”

You can get a pocket Constitution for a dollar or up to $30 if you want nice leather, “cream-white acid-free paper with gilt edges,” and a ribbon like with some Bibles. Most people though probably get the dollar version for free from a political activist or rally.

Some pocket Constitutions include additional documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Reading the Articles could be important for some people — those who think the U. S. government possesses only those powers specifically named in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution. This is because the Articles specifically said its confederate government had only the powers specifically listed. On the other hand, the Constitution says the federal government has both powers specifically listed and also powers that are “necessary and proper.” The lack of a government with “necessary and proper” (implied) powers was one of the reasons the Articles were replaced.

Some of these pocketbooks have quotes from historic figures, and some also from people of much less fame and who push agendas that many, perhaps most Americans, do not agree with.

I have noticed in the news more and more references to folks carrying these pocketbooks around and spouting non-standard views about what the Constitution means. “Non-standard?” I should say more accurately, views that are both extreme and flat out wrong. A well known current example is Cliven Bundy. He says he uses his pocket Constitution daily. I wonder if he has it in his jail cell?

His incorrect views aside, does daily reading of the Constitution do a person a lot of good? More importantly is it good for the country? I’d think not so much. You can memorize every word of the Constitution and still know very little about what it means, how the government works, what your rights are, how the President is elected, or the limits of government power.

Studying about the Constitution is a good thing, but it requires a lot more than knowing just the bare text of the document. The Constitution means much more than its written words. You have to know how its words have been interpreted by the courts and defined by political custom.

Take, for example, the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). The United States Congress shall have power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Is the meaning of that clear so that Congress always knows when it can or can’t regulate something with a new law?

Here are some real problems that have come up. What exactly is or isn’t commerce? Is manufacturing, commerce? Is navigation on a river, commerce? Is manufacturing, commerce “among the states?” If so, is it all manufacturing or just certain kinds? What does “to regulate” mean? It goes on and on. As a result of questions like these, there have been dozens of Supreme Court cases defining what the Commerce clause means. A person really doesn’t know anything about the Constitution and commerce even if all they can do is recite the clause from memory.

Almost every clause in the Constitution is similar to the Commerce Clause. The meaning of each has been litigated. There are precedents to learn. The study of these is called “constitutional law.” Bundy and his kind need to learn constitutional law.

Why would people want a ribbon marker and gilt edges for a pocketbook with the Constitution? These ribbons and gilt edges are traditional for religious scripture. Is the Constitution scripture? Like Protestant belief on the Bible, is the meaning of its clauses (verses?) for every person to decide? Do some people pray, for example, for guidance to understand sections like the three-fifths compromise on counting slaves as a fraction of a whole person?

No, it is not like Scripture. In the short run, the Constitution means what the courts say it means, especially the Supreme Court. Do judges have some miraculous ability to interpret? No, but they do know the cases and precedents, and they have the power to decide.

I think some of the Supreme Court decisions are ridiculous or full of political bias, such as the Citizen’s United case on campaign finance. Other folks would agree with me, but they might have their own list of bad decisions. None of this matters unless we can get a constitutional amendment or a new set of justices or judges in the courts. This can be done. It’s not easy, and other people will probably want a different batch of new jurists in the courts, or oppose our constitutional amendment.

The Constitution is a critically important document. Citizens should learn a lot about it. The way to do it is to read about its provisions from a neutral website such as Wikipedia or a book about constitutional law. Reading the bare text of it alone is not productive.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.