To honor the 227th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s signing, Adam Liptak, U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, spoke Wednesday afternoon about the Roberts court and the Constitution’s role in public policy today.

In front of a crowd of about 100 people, consisting mostly of students and Ann Arbor residents, Liptak discussed some of the unique aspects of the Constitution, focusing on its longevity — since the average constitution lasts 19 years — and the short length of the document, which leaves room for ambiguity.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, Liptak said, because of the argument forwarded by many of the federalist Founding Fathers that it is unnecessary and dangerous. Some argue its existence proves that a few select rights need to be protected, without detailing how they should be enforced and excluding other considered rights.

“It’s the Bill of Rights rather than the Constitution’s structural provisions that really capture your imagination,” Liptak said.

Liptak said a strong focus of Chief Justice John Roberts’ court is First Amendment protection.

“And it has, without question, ruled for free speech in hard cases,” he said.

However, Liptak noted while many view the Roberts court as favoring freedom of speech to the extreme, the court has heard fewer cases than the previous three courts. Recent First Amendment cases focus on laws regarding campaign funds.

For example, Justice Antonin Scalia respects the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, Liptak said, defending it even when it conflicts with his own ideologies.

“(Justice Scalia) likes to tell the story of how much it pained him when he voted to strike down a law making flag-burning a crime,” Liptak said. “Here is what he said: ‘If it was up to me, if I were king, I would take the scruffy, bearded, sandal-wearing idiots burning the flag and I would put them in jail.’ They come to the bench not with an agenda, but with a sense of neutral and dispassionate frame of law.”

Liptak also noted that this viewpoint is often an outlier, and politics do make their way into the court.

“With the exception of Justice (Stephen) Breyer, who’s really pretty much 50-50, all of the justices were more likely to favor (their party line); the liberal justices were more likely to favor liberal speakers, and conservative justices conservative speakers,” Liptak said.

He said while the Roberts court is generally straying away from sweeping rulings on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights and affirmative action, Liptak said Zivotofsky v. Kerry, a case the court is currently hearing that deals with the stance on listing Jerusalem versus listing Israel as one’s birthplace on U.S. passports, stands to impact U.S. foreign policy.

“Whatever the Supreme Court decides, in the matter of American Constitutional law, the Middle Eastern press will report on it in a kind of shorthand, and the Supreme Court decision itself may have an impact on their foreign policy,” Liptak said.

Liptak said the court will also address whether someone can be prosecuted for issuing threats on Facebook that are quotes from rap lyrics.

At the reception, when asked about his opinion of the Constitution’s effectiveness, Liptak said he is behind the document as a legal device.

“It’s a work of genius,” Liptak said. “It’s endured for a long time, and we are lucky to have it.”

Public Policy junior Julie Sarne said she came to the event because of her interest in the constitution, and how the current Court interprets it.

“I think this event provided a great forum for that because it was more about how we report on the court and how the court has evolved and how that reflects the Constitution today,” she said.

Public policy junior Nick Rinehart said he was interested in a reporter’s take on the court.

“It was interesting to hear from his unique perspective,” Rinehart said. “He gave pretty candid comments and that’s something you don’t usually get from a reporter.”

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