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Value in Constitution Debate Cited : Lucas Says Ongoing Dispute Over Intent Shows Its Vitality

May 12, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The debate over whether courts should strictly conform to the "original intent" of the framers of the Constitution shows the continued vitality of a "living document," Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas said Monday.

Without taking sides himself, Lucas said the dispute over the Constitution that has engaged U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and other legal authorities may yet have wide impact.

"What is being argued about is a 200-year-old piece of paper whose words still have the remarkable ability to stir fervored debates and even heated emotions," the new head of the state's judiciary said in a speech commemorating the constitutional bicentennial.

"And those debates may well have ramifications that will affect the rights and duties in our society."

Taken for Granted

Lucas, in remarks to be delivered before the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles, also lamented surveys reflecting public ignorance about the Constitution and told how a recent trip to China reminded him that "we often take our Constitution for granted."

The argument over interpreting the Constitution has split liberal and conservative legal scholars and has attracted widespread comment in recent months in governmental circles, ranging from Reagan Administration officials to members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meese has criticized the high court for rulings on religion and other issues that represent, in his view, "policy decisions" by the justices rather than the "original intent" of the authors of the Constitution.

Critical of Doctrine

The attorney general also has criticized--but not sought to overturn--the 60-year-old court doctrine under which the justices have required the states to abide by the Bill of Rights. Those first 10 amendments to the Constitution were intended to apply only to the national government, he said.

Justice William J. Brennan Jr., without mentioning Meese by name, attacked those advocating a return to "original intent" as showing "arrogance cloaked in humility." Brennan also defended judicial "activism," saying the court must adapt its rulings to changes in society.

In his speech, Lucas said that the debate "helps illuminate the vitality of our Constitution" and that the bicentennial should be a "celebration of a living document whose interpretation still can move and affect us all."

"One of our primary objectives," he said, should be "reminding the public that the Constitution is not an historical curiosity to be brought out only on July Fourth and studied only in civics classes."

Ignorant Public

He noted that public opinion research showed that "75% of the American people do not know the subject of the First Amendment," that part of the Bill of Rights that assures freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceable assembly and the right to petition government. One-fourth of the nation's high school seniors believe it is illegal to start a new political party, he added.

"These and similar statistics highlight the importance of educating the American people on the contents, role and importance of the Constitution," he said.

Lucas, who took over Feb. 5 as successor to Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, also described a trip he made late last year to China to lecture on patent law before an international conference. He was struck by "several contrasts" between the Chinese and American legal systems, he said.

China has implemented four constitutions since its revolution in 1949, each specifying a social and political system, he said.

Socialist State

That country's most recent constitution, adopted in 1982, states that China is "a socialist state under the people's democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants," he said.

The preamble to this country's Constitution does not specify the exact form of government the document seeks to preserve, he pointed out.

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