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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION edited by Leonard W. Levy, Kenneth L. Karst and Dennis J. Mahoney (Macmillan: $320; 4 volumes, 2,196 pp.)

January 25, 1987|Lee Dembart | Dembart is a Times editorial writer and book reviewer.

Whatever else it is, the law represents society's collective effort over centuries to devise rules under which people can live together more or less harmoniously and with a sense of fair play.

It is chauvinistic to say it but nonetheless true that this effort has reached its highest achievement in the English-speaking world, particularly in America, where the British legal tradition going back to Magna Charta found extremely fertile soil and flourished.

From Colonial times to the present day, the commitment of the American experience to pragmatism, openness and merit has created a society of unparalleled freedom, wealth and well-being. These values have also nurtured the development of the law (and, incidentally, given us more lawyers than we know what to do with).

More than any other people in the world, Americans have good reason to believe that the law will treat them fairly. We do not always get the outcome we desire, and mistakes can and do occur, but most of us believe that the system itself--the process--is essentially fair.

Two hundred years ago this summer, a group of extraordinary men met in Philadelphia and wrote the Constitution of the United States, Article III of which defines and creates the federal judiciary, topped by the Supreme Court. In the intervening years, the court has been called on to interpret the Constitution and the laws passed under it and apply them to the endless panoply of human affairs, each with a different shade of nuance that makes no two cases identical.

Strip away the trappings and the legal arguments from each case and the central questions before the court remain the same: What's fair? What's right? Where does justice lie?

As a result, a course in constitutional law is a course in American history told not as the usual story of wars, elections and economic events but from the perspective of ordinary people involved in disputes whose resolution has advanced our collective answers to these frequently complex and difficult questions.

The answers that the court has given have not always been right. Dred Scott, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Lochner vs. New York (which struck down a law limiting bakers to 60 hours' work a week) and Korematsu vs. United States (upholding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II) are all black marks in the history of the court.

But none of them is still good law. That is, the court has changed its mind, as society has. In general, and with notable exceptions--last year's ruling upholding Georgia's sodomy law, for example--for 200 years, the Constitution and the court have advanced civilization's upward march.

This historical and social approach to Constitutional law is embodied in the "Encyclopedia of the American Constitution," a wonderful and most-welcome collection of about 2,100 articles by 262 legal scholars and other experts on all manner of topics related to the basic document of American government.

If it is fair to say of an encyclopedia, "I couldn't put it down," that is an accurate description of this one. The articles range from as short as 50 words on a minor case or point of law to 6,000 words on major topics, themes or historical periods.

This is not just a reference book to be consulted when you've forgotten, say, the facts of Yick Wo vs. Hopkins or the holding in Fullilove vs. Klutznick, though it will serve that purpose. Many of the articles are trenchant, engaging, well-written syntheses of important legal and social issues not just for lawyers but for anyone interested in the application of reason to the organization of society.

The roster of contributors is a list of the country's most distinguished constitutional scholars. In fact, it's hard for book review editors to find reviewers for the encyclopedia because practically anybody who's anybody has contributed to it.

Start browsing in the encyclopedia and you will be drawn in. There are historical articles, social articles, articles that demonstrate the development of ideas. Have you forgotten what McCulloch vs. Maryland was about and why it is important? The article by Leonard W. Levy of the Claremont Graduate School, who is the encyclopedia'a editor in chief, will set you straight. In this 1819 case, which Levy argues is second in importance only to the Constitution itself, Chief Justice John Marshall upheld the right of Congress to charter a national bank and denied Maryland the right to tax it. This gave broad powers to Congress not specified in the Constitution and established the supremacy of the federal government over the states.

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