Those pesky constitutions

Posted by: Brenda Holmes  | Thursday, September 22, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                            Sept. 22, 2016

Recently, I had the pleasure of guest lecturing senior government classes at Princeton Community High School. When it came time for Q&A, there were several interesting ideas raised that seemed to have some support. However, I think it surprised some of the students when I informed them that while it’s my job to serve our district’s interests, my first consideration must be to honor my oath to uphold our Constitution. In other words, what I tried to convey to these students is that the United States is really not a democracy but rather a constitutional republic.

Sure, we elect our representatives through popular vote. But the current will of the population is still subject to deeper principles that we hold dear: the principles of our Declaration of Independence as put into play in our national Constitution and its Bill of Rights and in our State Constitution.

From a practical perspective, what this means to a legislator like myself who takes an oath to uphold our constitutions is that the very first thing I must do is answer the question: Is what I am being asked to vote on in line with our constitutions?

The answer to this question is complex. It would be easier if I could simply defer to the courts and say, “Well, the Supreme Court has said it is constitutional, so I guess it is.” But that is not what my oath says. All three branches have an obligation to analyze the policy. While it is appropriate to give due consideration to what our courts have said, they are not infallible. Indeed, if President Abraham Lincoln had yielded to the Supreme Court, he would have been bound by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which would have curtailed much of his agenda to end slavery.

Fortunately, most of the everyday issues we face as a state do not involve deep constitutional principles. But sometimes they do. In these instances, as elected officials, we must defer to the ratified documents and not take action when it can impede on the civil rights of any group – majority or minority.

This issue is probably most problematic at the federal level. Our U.S. Constitution puts many limitations on the action of the federal government. Article I, Sec., 8, lists them out. The Bill of Rights likewise puts many issues off limits. However, for the sake of political expedience — getting yourself re-elected — it is far too common for the legislative branch to punt the constitutional issues and just do what the people appear to want at the moment.

It takes real courage to say, “I’m sorry, I understand what you are asking me to do or support. It even makes some sense. However, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution. This document is the basis of governing for our country. If we no longer like it, we have ways of changing it. But until it is changed, we must abide by it. It is what binds us together as Americans. It is why people have flocked from around the world for hundreds of years to live here. It is what hundreds of thousands of soldiers have died defending.”  


Rep. Tom Washburne (R-Darmstadt) serves has chairman of the Courts and Criminal Code Committee. He represents Gibson County and portions of Knox, Pike, Vanderburgh and Posey counties.

A high-resolution photo of Washburne can be downloaded by clicking here.