Wednesday, May 14, 2014

About that Constitution thing...

So now that same-sex marriage is legal in Arkansas (and Idaho...Idaho!) at least temporarily, I write today to address a horrible travesty that this state of affairs has exposed:  The woeful state of general knowledge about the basic operating conditions of the Constitution.

And we have no one to blame but ourselves.  Poor understanding of science can be blamed on religious leaders and oil company lobbyists.  Math illiteracy (innumeracy?) can be blamed on the fact that math is really hard, and do you really need to balance your checkbook to the penny or be able to calculate the cosecant of 3(pi)/2? Poor English skills can be blamed on the fact that we're not English.  But if there is one thing we ought to be good at, it's civics.  After all, everybody has opinions about politics, and we sure get a lot of practice talking about them, no matter how nonsensical those opinions can be.

Take Republican David Sterling, who's running for Arkansas attorney general.  Now, I assume Sterling is an attorney, which means he went to law school (unless he's 140 years old and got in under the old apprenticeship rules) and probably took a course in constitutional law.  Speaking to a GOP gathering in Hot Springs, Sterling said that "what really offends me is the fact that he [Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza] found that the constitutional provision was unconstitutional."  Get it?  How can a constitutional provision be unconstitutional?  That just sounds dumb.

The source of the confusion is that we call the U.S. Constitution a "constitution" and the Arkansas Constitution a "constitution," which makes you think that maybe they are the same thing, and maybe even the same document, when in fact they aren't.  One way that I think the framers missed out is in allowing this to happen.  It would be much easier to understand if we called one of them "constitution" and the other one something else, like "rutabaga."  And since Jamie Madison called "dibs" back in 1787, the edge goes to the feds on that one.

So what Sterling is complaining about becomes a lot more reasonable with the substitution:  "The rutabagal provision was unconstitutional."  Of course.

And if we ever get hungry, we have a nice root vegetable to make into a stew, instead of a dusty old "constitution," which sounds like something you force kids to eat as a punishment.

Speaking of definitions, one commenter asked, "If a judge calls an apple an orange, does that make an apple an orange?"  This sounds like a trick question, or maybe some Zen mind exercise, so I am wary.  But it might have been rhetorical, because the commenter then proceeded to say that a judge calling a homosexual relationship a marriage doesn't make it a marriage.  I'm not sure how he came down on the apple-orange question.  I will, however, point out that watermelon does not--in my opinion--taste anything like watermelon candy, which tells me that calling that fruit "watermelon" is probably an un-rutabagal misnomer.  Maybe I should ask a judge to resolve that question.

One nicely dressed gentlemen appeared yesterday on local television to protest the ruling, claiming that marriage equality is the first step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which we will find people marrying their pets or possibly their computers.  "Bestiality!" he whispered, horrified.  If you didn't know what that word meant and weren't married to a computer, you might be inclined to think that it was something good, because it starts with "best."  I'm not sure how he thinks folks will be able to get consent from their pets to the marriage contract.  I once asked my lab to marry me, but she just looked at me.  I know that look. It means, "When are you going to feed me?" and my lab wears it on her face 98% of the time.  But imagine the horror if county clerks had to include space on the marriage license for hoofprints, as this gentleman suggested.  (I'm not sure how a computer would sign.  Maybe with a QR code?)

To get back to the point of this post, though, one of the more ridiculous points I've seen made is that one judge shouldn't be overturn the will of 75% of the people.  After all, we--and by "we," I mean "you," because I wasn't living here and didn't vote in that election--voted to make marriage a purely heterosexual burden.  How can the opinion of one judge thwart the will of the people?

It's not that simple.  Consider this:  The people also voted to put that judge in office.  So, was it also the will of the people that the judge be empowered to make that decision?  Did I just blow your mind?

But think about it this way:  A family of four--mother, father, and two kids, just so you can't say it was rigged--takes a vote on what to eat for dinner.  The father and the kids all vote for pizza, while the mother votes for rutabaga stew.  What is that family going to have for dinner?

Rutabaga stew, of course.  Because you can't have pizza every night just because you want to.  What's popular isn't always what's best.  Mom knows what's best even if it's not popular.  And let's face it:  Rutabaga stew is never going to win the popular vote in an election in which pizza is a candidate.

Listen, despite all the tongue-in-cheek comments, there's a serious lesson here.  Yes, it's true that 75% of Arkansas voters in 2004 voted to amend the Arkansas Rutabaga to define marriage so as to exclude include* homosexuals out of it.  But in 1866, two-thirds of each house of Congress passed what would become the Fourteenth Amendment, and by 1868, and three quarters of the states--including Arkansas--voted to ratify it.  If we are going on voting alone, the Fourteenth Amendment has Amendment 83 beat by a country mile.  And that was six years before the current Arkansas Rutabaga was adopted.

* - I apologize for misquoting Samuel Goldwyn.  In my defense, Goldwyn is better known for the saying, "An oral constitution isn't worth the rutabaga it's written on."

We don't go on voting alone, of course.  But if we did...

Yesterday I commented on Facebook that a "judicial opinion is a device for converting high school graduates into constitutional scholars."  Having thought about it, I've decided that's a bit unfair.  After all, there are plenty of people who stopped their formal education at high school and who understand this stuff.  There are lots of people who went to college and--as it turns out, as shown above--law school that don't get it.  It's not a question of intelligence.  It's mostly a question of expectations.  We expect that the law will agree with us, regardless of how much we actually know about it.  When the law disagrees with us, it must be because of stupid, corrupt judges or agenda-driven interest groups.

I'm not sure how we fix that, but getting a better understanding of the law into the general public would lead to more informed voters, which would theoretically lead to better officeholders, better laws, and hopefully more freedom.

Until that day comes, we're going to have to rely on good judges to protect us from ourselves.  And from our rutabagas.

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