Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Another lost clause

It's a strange fact to behold, but it appears that contemporary liberalism has set its sights on erasing another clause from the Constitution.

The example is the legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Bush to give Terri Schiavo's parents, and only her parents, the standing to sue in federal court to further their effort to keep Terri alive. The response of the New York Times editorial "A Blow to the Rule of Law" was that "The new law tramples on the principle that this is a 'nation of laws, not of men,' and it guts the powers of the states." The editorial also expressed the fear that "the right to bring such claims in federal court is reserved for people with enough political pull to get a law passed that names them in the text."

The principle that the United States should be "a nation of laws, not of men" is, of course, a noble sentiment for a nation to apply to its government. We certainly expect everyone who holds a grant of government power to exercise it for the public good, not for their own good. But in the sense of the editorial, this principle seems to be applied to the individual citizen who should therefore have no right to expect Congress to pass a law solely for his or her individual benefit. Or in other words, the United States becomes a "nation of men" when Congress benefits only a single person through a use of its power that would otherwise be constitutional and legal when benefiting, at least in principle, a class of persons.

I think that extension of the principle is not quite correct. First of all, Senators and Representatives use their offices in ways that benefit the individual all the time; it's called constituent services. Secondly, I don't remember seeing liberals publically insisting that the "Robert C. Byrd turnpike" or the "USS Jimmy Carter" be renamed to avoid the United States becoming "a nation of men". But my main argument is that this principle of "a nation of laws, not of men", as expressed by the New York Times, seems to run headlong into the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Insofar as the First Amendment protects the right of an individual redress of grievances, the argument that Congress cannot act on behalf of an individual by otherwise constitutional legislation seems to be incorrect. In reality, it is only as a defense against the abuse of this right by an unscrupulous citizen or a corrupt action of Congress, and not as a prohibition of the exercise of this right or the granting of redress, that the principle of "a nation of laws" should properly be applied.

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