Constitutional Controversies Essay

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Law Is a Reflection of the Morality of the Time:

The evolving judicial interpretation of the Constitution

Constitution has become such a respected document and holds such an important place in American life it is often conceptualized as a transcendent, ahistorical work of literature. However, the ways in which has been interpreted over the years have been profoundly influenced by cultural values and morality. These ideas can be highly specific to the age when various Supreme Court decisions are written. Perhaps the best example of this is desegregation, whereby the 19th century Supreme Court allowed states to enforce the separation of the races by virtue of its Plessy v. Ferguson precedent. Plessy was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education, in deference to changing ideas about race. As the case was argued, the most common legal contention "was that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal" in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment ("History of Brown v. Board of Education," U.S. Courts). The implication was that in actual practice, the notion of 'separate but equal' was an oxymoron. The lawyers that brought suit in favor of Brown also used sociological as well as legal evidence for their case. "Relying on sociological tests, such as the one performed by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other data, he[Thurgood Marshall] also argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible" ("History of Brown v. Board of Education," U.S. Courts).

Other highly subjective notions are concepts such as 'cruel and unusual punishment.' What constitutes cruel and unusual has changed over time, based upon the perceptions of both the public and the justices. The death penalty continues to be permitted in the United States even though there have been a number of challenges to it over the years, not simply on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual but also because it is asserted that it is enforced in a discriminatory fashion, penalizing minorities excessively. For example, in Furman v. Georgia (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as it was enforced in the U.S. On the grounds that defendants "were being condemned to death capriciously and arbitrarily. Under the procedures before the Court in that case, sentencing authorities were not directed to give attention to the nature or circumstances of the crime committed or to the character or record of the defendant. Left unguided, juries imposed the death sentence in a way that could only be called freakish" ("Major Death Penalty Cases," Pro-Con). However, when new sentencing guidelines were written as expressed in the decision regarding Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Court affirmed the constitutionality of the state's death penalty. "The new Georgia sentencing procedures, by contrast, focus the jury's attention on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant" ("Major Death Penalty Cases," Pro-Con).

Gun control is an example of a highly contentious issue which remains context-specific in terms of how the issue is interpreted. The Second Amendment was written during an age in which weapons were very different than they are today and when the way in which the U.S. defended itself from outside aggressors was likewise quite distinct from the contemporary, modern technological environment. A number of recent challenges to gun control legislation have been mounted before the U.S. Supreme Court, in defiance of those who would interpret the Second Amendment not as permitting unrestricted access to gun control but rather merely reflecting the full wording of the Amendment. The Second Amendment reads: "a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" ("Second Amendment," Cornell University Law School.). Proponents of unfettered access to firearms have emphasized the right to bear arms of all citizens enshrined in the document; proponents of gun control stress the words 'well-regulated' and note that the original apparent intention was to arm the citizen's militia that existed at the time, not every day, ordinary citizens. "In spite of extensive recent discussion and much legislative action with respect to regulation of the purchase, possession, and transportation of firearms, as well as proposals to substantially curtail ownership of firearms, there is no definitive resolution by the courts of just what right the Second Amendment protects" ("Bearing arms: Second Amendment," Annotated Constitution).

In some cases, the overall judgment of the Court has seemed to have tipped the balance in favor of the 'militia' definition. For example, United States v. Miller (1939), concerning the regulation of sawed-off shotguns, the Court ruled that in the original interpretation of the Amendment, " the significance of the militia…was that it was composed of 'civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion… comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense…when called for service . . . were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time'" ("Bearing arms: Second Amendment," Annotated Constitution). Given that shotguns were not deemed to be feasibly used by such a well-regulated militia, the Court deemed it within the scope of the states to regulate such firearms. In other words, the Court recognized that the circumstances during which the Founding Fathers had authored the Second Amendment had changed. They also recognized that changes in technology had created a very different environment for guns than had existed when the Constitution was first ratified.

However, not all regulations passed by the states regarding gun control have been equally well-received throughout the Court's history. For example, in the recent D.C. v. Heller (2007), after the District of Columbia passed legislation barring the registration of handguns, requiring licenses for all pistols, and mandating that all legal firearms must be kept unloaded and disassembled or trigger locked, a group of private gun-owners brought suit claiming the laws violated their Second Amendment right to bear arms" (D.C. v. Heller, 2007). The Court declared the D.C. law unconstitutional, indicating its willingness to 'push back' against more restrictive laws against weapons.

The Court has trod a delicate balance between allowing for some types of regulation and prohibiting others. Another contentious case involving the Second Amendment was United States vs. Lopez (1994). Texas is noteworthy for having some of the least restrictive gun use laws in the country. Texans are permitted to carry concealed firearms on occasions that would be unacceptable in many other states of the union. However, in this specific case, "Alfonzo Lopez, a 12th grade high school student, carried a concealed weapon into his San Antonio, Texas high school. He was charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises" (United States vs. Lopez, 1994). Texas still outlaws guns on school property when carried by students. Additionally, under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, Lopez was also charged and later found guilty. The act forbids "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] a school zone" (United States vs. Lopez, 1994). After a number of highly publicized school shootings, even Texas was more sensitive to the issue. Lopez appealed his conviction under the argument it was a violation of his Second Amendment rights as well as the Constitution's interstate commerce clause. Instead, the Court ruled "the possession of a gun in a local school zone is not an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The law is a criminal statute that has nothing to do with 'commerce' or any sort of economic activity" (United States vs. Lopez, 1994).

Thus, the issue of gun control indicates how the Court's interpretation of the Constitution is in a continual state of dialogue with public attitudes as well as precedent. Concerns about issues such as violence at schools affect public support for different laws and while the Court rules whether such laws are indeed constitutional social mores can affect the court. It should be noted that Lopez is not the only time that the interstate commerce clause has had a major impact upon a decision in the field of criminal law. For example, in the United States v. Morrison (1994), Christine Brzonkala who was raped at Virginia Tech sued her two alleged abusers and the school after the men were not punished for the crime. "Brzonkala then sued Morrison, Crawford, and Virginia Tech in Federal District Court, alleging that Morrison's and Crawford's attack violated 42 USC section 13981, part of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which provides a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence" (United States v. Morrison, 1994). Morrison and Crawford (the assailants) appealed to the Court to dismiss the suit, alleging it was unconstitutional. The Court agreed, stating "Congress lacked the authority to enact a statute under the Commerce Clause or the Fourteenth Amendment since the statute did not regulate an activity…[continue]

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