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Constitution Day: Let's all celebrate

But while we're at it, let's compare and contrast the U.S. version and California's document.

September 14, 2012
(Tribune Media Services )

It may be the nation's most unknown and underappreciated holiday: Constitution Day, Sept. 17. No three-day weekend, no parties, no happy hour specials. Just you and, if the spirit moves you, a few quiet moments with an old but hardy document, a few words that are dead and dry — for instance, "No person held to service or labor in one state … escaping into another, shall … be discharged from such service or labor" — and many more that changed history and forever improved the prospects for humankind. For example, "We the people… "

Here in California, we have a mixed record with constitutions. We honor, observe and are guided by — and many of us revere — the nation's foundational document. Our local version, though, is a bit of a mess.

California's Constitution is long. It's pointless to name the number of pages or volumes, or the sheer weight of the paper required, because like everything else it's online. Although it's cumbersome, citizens can work their way through it. Its length is not its shortcoming but merely a symptom of it. Scholars behold the U.S. Constitution and its elegant brevity, which they note underscores the limits on federal power and the reservation of rights in the states and the people, and they turn in despair to the state document, which by its volume tells the story of people locked in perpetual combat with their government and with one other.

Are you not getting your way in California? Then amend the Constitution until you do. Amend it to fund schools, to cap taxes, to fill potholes, to direct medical research, to ban people of the same sex from marrying. In a few weeks, voters will be asked to amend it again, twice (in Propositions 30 and 31). Each amendment arguably cheapens the document's stature as an abiding monument to the people's core values and their view of government, and each redraws the battle lines between political interests that will respond, in two years' time, with yet another set of proposed amendments.

Imagine if state amendments were so scarce that they could be numbered and added on to the end of the Constitution, the way we do with the federal version.

Actually, we could do it that way. Why not? There's nothing in the state Constitution that prevents it, just as there is nothing in the federal Constitution that says amendments can't be inserted among the original articles in a place where lawyers decide they fit. That simple change in draftsmanship might affect our entire understanding of the document. For example, instead of something called the 13th Amendment, added after the main text, couldn't the post-Civil War drafters have just done it the California way, deleting the part about returning fugitive slaves from another state — the part quoted at the top of this editorial — and adding, right there, that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States? It would work. But custom and culture dictate that the U.S. Constitution be treated differently, with all of the words — even those that fall dead after amendment — preserved the way the framers wrote them.

At the beginning of the current congressional session, new conservative members of Congress organized a ritual reading of the Constitution on the House floor, and there was at first an awkward question. Do they actually read the whole thing, as it is generally printed in textbooks and pocket versions, with dead parts like the fugitive slave law and the ban on alcoholic beverages still in it? Members decided no, they would read the parts in effect today, and in so doing they omitted evidence of our foibles and failures.

Their decision also underscored the fact that the words of today's Constitution do not contain simply the thoughts and theories of a handful of men in 1787, but newer ideas, by framers in the 19th century and the 20th, along with virtual amendments in the form of sweeping reinterpretations and understandings of courts and citizens up to this very day. The U.S. Constitution cannot fit into a back pocket after all, because its full measure encompasses more than two centuries of argument, accord and argument again, recorded not just in its text but also in voluminous Supreme Court opinions, stump speeches and election results. In its own way, it is just as messy, just as rough and tumble — just as alive — as the California Constitution. Although, thankfully, a lot prettier.

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