Sunday, April 03, 2005

Post by Lisa Brown

What values and principles does our Nation stand for? What kind of society do we want for ourselves and our children? Will our Constitution continue to stand as the leading model for its embodiment of a constitutional democracy with a genuine balance of powers and a commitment to liberty, equality, justice and the rule of law? And, as a growing number of constitutional democracies join us in addressing the economic, social and political challenges of this new century, can we revitalize our own centuries-old constitutional traditions by learning from those who are shaping their own, sometimes very new, constitutional orders? The answers to those questions are at the heart of the Constitution in 2020 conference and the larger American Constitution Society project, The Constitution in the 21st Century, of which it is a part.

We live increasingly in a legal landscape imagined largely by conservatives. Conservatives have captured the intellectual initiative in popular and even much elite discourse. Their success in framing and communicating fundamental conservative principles has contributed to real legal and political change over the last two decades. Will we allow narrow and sterile conservative interpretations of our Constitution’s vital principles and protections to reshape our national character and control our daily lives?

Our answer, on this weekend and on every day of the coming years, is a resounding “No.” It is time to reclaim our Constitution. The Constitution in the 21st Century is a multi-year initiative to advance our nation’s commitment to a constitutional democracy that safeguards individual rights and liberties, genuine equality and access to justice. Our task is to do the deep, careful thinking necessary to formulate and advance a progressive constitutional vision that is intellectually sound, practically relevant, and faithful to our constitutional values and heritage. This effort will need to proceed on a number of fronts: we need to develop and disseminate progressive interpretations on a wide range of issues; debunk constitutional rationales that use misleading or disingenuous interpretations to mask conservative policy objectives; and communicate our ideas and values in language that is relevant to people’s daily lives. Our work must be focused on both the short-term and the long-term – using the tools we have today to move forward where we can and visualizing where we want to be in twenty years and how to get there.

This effort has a deeply intellectual component. We must think boldly and creatively, and establish objectives that might seem to many today to be unreachable. And we must think rigorously and debate fully to plan the path to our objectives. Such thinking will require that we understand fully the history that led us to this point and that we have a keen and accurate appreciation of where we are.

While this effort will be an intellectual undertaking, it must always remain focused on the practicalities of life, the issues facing lawyers in the courtroom, parents in the workplace, families at worship, young people seeking education, and unfortunately – but for the foreseeable future, inevitably – soldiers on the battlefield. We must think in concrete terms about issues that will shape the broad nature of our society, our communities and our lives on the most personal level. If we succeed, we will win hearts and minds -- of lawyers, policymakers, judges, and “we the people” -- and thereby reshape the present legal and constitutional order, in some cases restoring what once was, in others achieving that which it long seemed never could be, and as a result making our nation more true to the promise of liberty and justice for all upon which it was founded.

We hope that the Constitution in 2020 conference will be the start of an exciting enterprise that will energize moderates and progressives and reshape the law. Through The Constitution in the 21st Century’s issue groups, conferences, publications, website, clearinghouse of accessible materials and blog, we want to engage each of you in this vital dialogue.

The challenge before us is undoubtedly immense. Yes, part of our challenge is political, in the sense that any important and lasting progressive legal or constitutional advances must ultimately either grow out of or come to be supported by millions of people who will never file a motion, publish an article or perhaps even read a newspaper. But we will win that political battle if we are able to articulate our ideas and values in ways that are grounded in our Constitution and resonate with the public. The challenge is here for each of us --– academics, practitioners, advocates and policymakers --– to take up. If each of us joins the effort, we can and will together reframe the terms of the debate and recapture the initiative in defining our fundamental and guiding values. We cannot be daunted by the difficulties of our task. Too much is at stake: our Constitutional heritage, our Nation’s future and the quality of our lives will depend upon our success. So I hope to work with each of you to revitalize our nation’s commitment to liberty, equality and justice, to an inclusive society with genuine opportunities for all and respect for each other, and to a better future.

-- Lisa Brown