New Film From U.Va.'s Center for Politics and PBS Prompts Youth to Ponder Constitutional Reform

September 18, 2008

September 18, 2008 — More than 200 local middle and high school students, joined by 138 eighth-graders who traveled three hours from Martinsville, Va., filled the Charlottesville Pavilion Wednesday for a Constitution Day screening of a new PBS documentary, "Questioning the Constitution."

The hour-long film, produced by local PBS stations in partnership with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, draws heavily from the issues raised in Center for Politics director Larry Sabato's latest book, "A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country."

Sabato, U.Va.'s Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics, is a prominent speaker in the film, which reviews the development of the Constitution, how it has been interpreted over the years and explores the arguments for and against Constitutional reform.

The film raises issues that some observers see as evidence that the Constitution is far from perfect, including the government's treatment of American Indians. U.Va. history professor and NAACP chairman Julian Bond discusses the lingering harms caused by slavery. The Electoral College worked fine for the first few elections, but "today is hard to explain or justify," says U.Va. law professor A.E. Dick Howard who directed the commission that rewrote Virginia's constitution in 1971.

Issues like these prompt several commentators to argue that the Constitution needs some improvements.

"Our Constitution goes off the rails much more than people realize because they have been taught that it's perfect. And God knows it isn't that," says Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

In contrast, U.S. Sen. John Warner smiles as he recalls the "magnificent instrument, which I often think it was almost by divine providence that these men gathered together at that hot Constitutional Convention and worked on."

In the film and the book, Sabato's suggested improvements to the Constitution include establishing a process for legislators to make a vote of no-confidence in the president to hasten the departure of an ineffective chief executive.

Noting the divisive 2000 presidential election, several speakers in the film discuss the benefits of a president elected directly by popular vote, rather than by the Electoral College system, and of ending gerrymandering with some type of objective redistricting process for Congressional districts.

Sabato laments the anti-democratic nature of the Senate, composed of two senators from each state. As one consequence, the largest state has 70 times as many people per representative as the smallest state does, but both have equal representation. This means that the 17 percent of Americans living in the states with the smallest populations currently elect a majority of the Senate, Sabato explains.

This "tyranny of the small minority," he says, constantly stymies the will of the great majority of citizens who live in the most populous states.

All 17 amendments added after the original Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791 were created through a difficult process that requires passage by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states — meaning "the United States has the most difficult-to-amend constitution in the world," Epps said.

The long list of failed amendments includes a line-item veto over individual budget items, statehood for Washington, D.C., abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

However, the Constitution also outlines an easier method to amend it, Sabato notes. Two-thirds of all states  — 34 — may convene a constitutional convention. The relative ease of this process draws wary comments from several speakers in the film, including former Sen. Bob Dole and Warner.

Any amendments passed by a constitutional convention would still have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, a substantial hurdle for any reforms, Sabato says.

"Much of the fear that people have about a runaway convention is just insane," he argues. "It is our fear of the future and it has become our fear of one another."

The Founding Fathers intended for there to be regular conventions to update the Constitution, says Sabato, who suggests having a convention in the first decade of every new century. Even if a convention did not ultimately produce any amendments, simply convening one would be "a marvelous opportunity for civic education."

Until that happens, opportunities for civic education will look more like this event. "It was a great opportunity to come here and learn different things about the Constitution," Martinsville eighth-grader Khadija Tarpley said .

Angie Weinerth, a teacher at Martinsville Middle School, explained the importance of bringing her students, more than half of whom qualify for subsidized school lunches, to see this screening. Many of her students have a hard time relating to the big concepts taught in their civics classes.

"We try to make them realize that these things they study are part of their world," Weinerth said.

— By Brevy Cannon