Michael A. Smith: Constitution still at a crossroads

09/22/2013 12:00 AM

09/20/2013 4:53 PM

Tuesday marked the 226th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing in 1787. At Emporia State University, we had our largest-ever Constitution Day celebration.

Middle and high school students from around Kansas listened as keynote speaker Kevin Anderson, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, opened the event. In his spirited talk, he discussed how Americans see and use freedom, equality and other political values in our daily lives.

Anderson emphasized the civil rights movement’s lessons and its ongoing struggles. During that movement’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the Constitution lay at the center of the fight for citizens’ rights, while its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court resolved federal-state conflicts.

Today these struggles continue over the Constitution’s meaning, the rights of citizens, and the roles of the federal government and states, respectively.

Just last week, Kansas Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan announced that Kansas will not require a birth certificate to renew a driver’s license. Federal officials have delayed that requirement of the “Real ID” law. However, by planning to require the birth certificates for license renewal, Kansas was going to provide one-stop shopping, adding an extra step for drivers but making it easy to follow the federal “motor voter” law.

That 1993 law allows citizens to register to vote when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. Yet a new Kansas law also requires first-time voter registrants to show a birth certificate. That was ostensibly passed to cut down on voter fraud, but documented cases of fraud are minimal.

Kansas may now run into trouble, because a similar Arizona law requiring birth certificates for voter registration was ruled unconstitutional this summer. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach argues the Kansas and Arizona laws have enough differences that the court’s ruling does not apply here, but federal courts may disagree.

Another example of constitutional reinterpretation happened earlier this year, when the Legislature leaped into the gap provided by National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. In that case, the Supreme Court majority narrowed Congress’ ability to pass laws using the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. Kansas legislators responded with a law stating that guns that are both manufactured and sold in Kansas are not part of interstate commerce and, therefore, cannot be regulated by Congress.

From the late 1930s until recently, such a narrow interpretation of interstate commerce would have been unthinkable. After all, these guns would surely be made with materials imported from out of state, could end up being used out of state, and would load ammunition made out of state. Today, though, the court is narrowing the definition of interstate commerce, therefore narrowing Congress’ power to regulate.

Will the new Kansas law pass muster? Federal courts may have to decide.

Each time the Constitution is reinterpreted, citizens’ and states’ rights change, too. But through it all, America’s most important founding document endures.

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