The University Law School held its annual Constitution Day Commemoration yesterday, quietly celebrating the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.
The ceremony, held in a packed Hutchins Hall in the Law Quadrangle, included a panel discussion mediated by Law Prof. Richard Friedman. The panel made up of five University law professors examined recent developments in constitutional law in the context of decisions made by the Supreme Court.
Second-year law student Phillip Hurst, who attended the event, said the University’s participation in the federal observance was a wonderful opportunity to learn about different facets of law as they are practiced today.
“It was great that they brought in several different perspectives and four different areas of case law that evolved in the last year,” he said.
Law Prof. Richard Primus examined the Second Amendment with the audience, which included approximately 160 Law students and members of the larger Ann Arbor community.
Primus told his audience that the Second Amendment was originally intended to give states the right to protect themselves against the federal government, and only in recent years has it been used to give individuals the right to bear arms.
Primus said the contemporary interpretation reflects the “changing and stable” nature of constitutional law.
“If the text doesn’t say exactly what you want it to say, you have to do a lot more heavy lifting to convince people that it’s fundamental,” Primus said. “You have to tell heroic tales from American history. You don’t build it out of nothing; you build it out of what people want.”
Another member of the panel discussion, Law Prof. Nicholas Bagley offered his thoughts on the tenure of former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
“The court has lost the only justice who knew how to tie a bowtie without a mirror,” Bagley said jokingly in reference to a New York Times article about the former justice.
Bagley, who previously worked for Stevens and knew him personally, said Stevens focused on common law and did not allow the legislature or the text of the Constitution to limit his decisions.
“At the end of the day, it was a lot harder to fool Justice Stevens; he was a lot more nimble on his feet…he distrusted consensus for the sake of consensus,” Bagley said.
Transitioning from Supreme Court politics, Law Prof. Madeline Kochen, another panel member, discussed the issue of same-sex marriage.
“Legislature creates classifications all the time, and the courts aren’t supposed to challenge this,” Kochen said. “People needed to amend the state constitution again to say that it (was violating personal freedoms), so now we end up in the federal courts again.”
“Every presidential election from now on will be determined by this issue,” Friedman added at the end of Kochen’s discussion.
Law Prof. Don Herzog concluded the event with a discussion of free speech laws in regard to the Citizens United case, a recent court decision that loosened the rules on campaign financing by corporations.
“There are oceans of controversial regulations to free speech…the First Amendment doctrine is extremely hostile to (statements that attack) people based on who they are,” Herzog said.