Congress has mandated the date of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, Sept. 17, 1787, be commemorated. Celebrations are impossible this year, because COVID-19 has forced so many of our public institutions to operate under severe constraints.
Despite the pandemic, we should not forego the celebration of Constitution Day, as the Constitution and our democracy are much to celebrate. Thomas Jefferson often wrote about the importance of an informed citizenry to the proper functioning of our democracy — that self-government, as envisioned in the Constitution, would not be possible unless the people were sufficiently educated to exercise proper oversight of the government.
Learning about the Constitution is essential to exercising that oversight. The wisdom of its framers paves the way as we work through the adjustments our society is making in the wake of COVID-19. The president, governors of the various states, Congress and state legislatures, and other federal and state officials have claimed emergency powers to close businesses, churches and schools; issue stay at-home orders; limit travel; mandate face mask wearing; close government offices; and cease government services to limit the spread of the disease.
Many of these orders have prompted citizens to mount challenges that a government entity overstepped or abused its authority. For the most part, these challenges have been peacefully resolved through the federal judiciary.
One of the strengths of our democracy is the public’s confidence in that judiciary. And the design of the Constitution paves the way to resolution.
Let’s examine some of the ways the Constitution and courts provide a framework through which to address these issues.
* First Amendment: free exercise of religion. Congregants and religious organizations have brought cases based on forced closures or limitations on attendees. Freedom of speech. Citizens have sued over the right to public speech and to address legislators regarding emergency orders and police brutality. Freedom of the press. Members of the press have claimed the right to stay in areas of unrest after authorities declared riots or disorders. Freedom to peaceably assemble/petition the government for redress of grievances. Citizens have exercised the right to assemble on streets and in other public places. They have brought petitions on such issues as mask mandates, gun rights, and police brutality, and further exercised their petition rights by demanding resignations of public officials.
* Fifth Amendment: The right to due process of law by the federal government. Citizens have challenged some of the restrictions imposed by the government, such as those limiting travel across state and national borders.
* Sixth and Seventh amendments: The right to speedy and public trials in criminal cases, and the right to a jury trial in civil cases. The virus forced the federal judiciary to severely limit its operations and postpone trials for some criminal defendants and civil litigants, but the amendments provide rights that must ultimately be honored and a framework through which to seek relief.
* Eighth Amendment: The right not to have excessive bail. One of the complaints of those protesting the criminal justice system is that people are unnecessarily held in jail solely because of their inability to post bond.
Other amendments provide additional framework.
We are living in difficult times. Despite that — or because of it — we should celebrate how the Constitution gives us self-government and provides a pathway to resolving disputes, whether between citizens or between citizens and governments. So, on this Constitution Day, let us celebrate the Constitution and the enduring pathways its framers paved for us.
Curtis L. Collier is a U.S. District judge and chairman, Eastern District of Tennessee Civics and Outreach Committee; Carrie Brown Stefaniak is a law clerk to Judge Collier and president, Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association; and Eliza L. Taylor is a law clerk to Judge Collier.