A democratic demonstration
December 18, 2005
A few dozen Basalt High School juniors won mostly praise, with a bit of constructive criticism thrown in, from a panel of experts last week when the students took on the roles of witnesses testifying before Congress about prickly Constitutional issues.In three separate “hearings,” on Dec. 14 and 15, the students tackled a variety of topics, including the proper role and definition of “judicial review,” wherein the courts are called upon to interpret laws passed by the federal and state legislatures; the idea that the right to vote is a “fundamental” one in the U.S., even though it is not explicitly set out in the Constitution; and the “exclusionary rule” that prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials.Ben Bohmfalk, who teaches the required “Fundamentals of American Democracy” course, brought a panel of legal experts together to put the questions to the students.In the final hearing Thursday, the panel consisted of Aspen city council member J.E. DeVilbiss, a former 9th Judicial District judge; Richard Baca, regional director for the office of U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo.; and Aspen attorney Bart Johnson.Those in the gallery heard, among other things, that the Founding Fathers selected a republic as our form of government rather than a direct democracy because “people were not very educated” and would be better off electing representatives than endlessly debating the issues of the day in community forums, according to the testimony of Jimmy Corrigan.Corrigan’s teammate, Katy Mulcahy, noted that our elected representatives “do as well as they can to represent you,” but suggested that if a given issue has divided the national legislative bodies it might be better to put the issue to a national referendum than leave it in the hands of Congress.
When the students failed to respond to a question from Baca regarding whether any other form of government might be “more efficient” than ours, DeVilbiss suggested that in future classes the students might put a little more time into their preparations for the exercise. He also urged the students to strive for better eye contact with the panel of experts, because “it carries a lot of weight in terms of the persuasiveness of your arguments.”As to whether the Preamble, along with the “general welfare” and “necessary and proper” clauses, of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government too much leeway, the students generally indicated a faith in the separation of powers and checks and balances to keep power from becoming too concentrated in any one person or agency for the nation’s own good.For example, Rory Johnson said President Bill Clinton used his veto power to block congressional approval for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “So checks and balances are still pretty important today.”And student John Martinez, when asked whether he trusts government to look out for his interests, said he does, maintaining that government had not infringed on his rights that he knew of.Student Holly Hutton noted that the power of judicial review of legislative acts remains controversial because it is not specifically granted in the Constitution but implied in the third and sixth articles. She said judicial review is necessary as a way of protecting the rights of “the little guy.”Student Bryan Mason expressed the opinion that judicial review can be one way the separation of powers acts to protect minority rights and views, since legislators are elected by majority vote and thus cater to majority needs. In particular, Mason said, laws prohibiting flag-burning have been struck down as infringements on the freedom of speech.”If we didn’t have this in the Constitution,” Mason concluded, “our way of life would crumble.”
But Reto Luzi disagreed with that view, maintaining that judicial review is not true to the Democratic spirit of government and suggested that the use of judicial review undermines the electorate’s power and is an indication that “there’s something corrupt in our system.”Concerning the right to vote, all four of the students at the “witness” table held that it is implied in the Constitution and is the “cornerstone” of the U.S. system of governance, despite ever-diminishing voter turnout numbers.But, said Marissa Wall, low voter turnouts could be a reflection of disaffection among young voters toward what candidates are saying in their campaigns. For instance, she said, many politicians talk about health-care reform, which doesn’t register high in the priorities of the young.When DeVilbiss asked her what issues the young might care more about, Wall mentioned the increase in college tuition and the legal drinking age as two examples. She also said electoral participation could be boosted by either rewarding voters with money or making it mandatory to vote or face sanctions.And student Rosie Sullivan offered the opinion that voting laws should be loosened to allow legal immigrants, perhaps after a couple of years’ residency, to cast ballots on issues they care about.As to whether the “exclusionary rule” makes it too difficult for police to capture criminals, the student opinions were mixed.”I think it’s stupid to let someone go free … just because they [police] didn’t have a specific warrant,” Tucker Hinchcliffe declared.
And where the case involves terrorism, said Jenna Bontempos, there should be an exception to the exclusionary rule if the terrorism link can be “proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”When panelist Johnson pressed her about the idea that police must follow the law in enforcing it, Bontempos conceded that when police get evidence illegally and knowingly, “there has to be some [disciplinary] action taken, so he doesn’t think, ‘Hey, I got away with it once,’ ” and try it again on another case.At the end of the session, the panelists all complimented the students on their research and their presentation.”They were not just a bunch of vacant-eyed, slack-jawed kids going through the motions,” DeVilbiss said, while Baca said he was “really impressed by the way they prepared” and in their ability to “think outside the box” when confronted with complex problems.”It think it’s good for them,” concluded Johnson. “Hopefully, it’ll make them better citizens.”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org