Constitution honored on anniversary of signing

Frederick Lawrence, dean of the GW Law School, built a career on the rock-solid foundation of the Constitution, and he was enthusiastic about observing Constitution Day during a lecture at the Law School Monday.

“It falls to us each year on Sept. 17 to spend some time considering this document,” Lawrence said in his opening remarks about the day when Americans celebrate the anniversary of the document’s signing.

This year’s Sept. 17 was no exception to tradition as faculty, students and members of the community gathered in the Jacob Burns Moot Court room to hear political science professors Paul Wahlbeck and Forrest Maltzman speak about the importance of oral argument in the Supreme Court.

“(The Constitution is) the most extraordinary document word-for-word ever written,” Lawrence said.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) introduced federal legislation about Constitution Day in 2004. Today, all education institutions receive federal funding they are required to use for Constitution Day programming.

Maltzman joked in his address to Constitution Day participants that requirement to celebrate the holiday “raises the question whether (requiring the recognition) in and of itself is constitutional.”

Wahlbeck argued that the opportunity for 30 minutes of oral argument before the Supreme Court justices is an important part of the judicial process.

“Some argue that oral arguments are not an open window to the Supreme Court, but rather a mere window dressing,” he said. “Justices speak to the attorney but also through the attorney to one another. They take comments made during oral argument as a set of cues as to where the others stand (on an issue).”

As proof for his conclusion, Wahlbeck cited data found in former Justice Harry Blackmun’s notes, including an intricate grading system for attorneys who argued before the court.

Maltzman praised Wahlbeck’s research and conclusions.

“Political scientists assume that justices act according to preference,” he explained. Although Maltzman admitted that justices may be more inclined to make decisions according to political ideology on some pressing issues, he added that “judges are open-minded” with respect to significant judicial concerns.

Maltzman said others could expand upon Wahlbeck’s research by setting up a controlled experiment rather than relying solely on Blackmun’s notes.

Not all the attendees supported Wahlbeck’s research like Maltzman.

“I thought it was a good argument,” Kelly Okinawa said. “But my one issue was that he only used Blackmun to validate his point.”

Tuesday marked the third time that the Law School has celebrated Constitution Day. In 2005, it presented a colloquium on constitutional law, and in 2006. Walter Isaacson, author of “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” was invited to speak.

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