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Fixing the Constitution

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There’s only been one president from Michigan, and I’d guess you know his name: Gerald Ford. But can you name the only justice he appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court?

That would be John Paul Stevens, who ended up being one of the longest-serving justices in American history.

He stepped down from the court less than five years ago, after nearly thirty-five years on the job. Thought to be a conventional conservative when appointed, his views gradually evolved as he grappled with the complexities of the Constitution.

Today, facing his ninety-fifth birthday, he is still mentally agile, and last year wrote a short and brilliant book called

“Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”

For many years I’ve thought that if I could have dinner and a long conversation with one person, Stevens would be the one.

For one thing, he wrote some of the most important and brilliantly crafted decisions, concurring opinions and dissents in the court’s modern history.

Plus, he’s had a fascinating life. He knew Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. He was in the stands at the World Series when Babe Ruth hit a home run exactly where he pointed and said he would, back in 1932.

And Justice Stevens always kept an open mind, and always remained civil, even when he deeply disagreed. Justices are supposed to interpret laws based on the Constitution, not radically depart from it.

Stevens, indeed, always tried to do that, but after years of grappling with our most sacred national document, came to realize that the framers, like all writers, sometimes could have benefitted from an editor.

His six amendments would seek to do just that. They’ve been described by one reviewer as “terse, surgical fixes” that fit the Constitution’s style of saying a lot with a few words.

Probably his most controversial suggestion would be to add five words to the Second Amendment, making it read this way:

“the right of the people to keep and bear arms WHEN SERVING IN THE MILITIA shall not be infringed.”

That’s actually what scholars and the Supreme Court itself – prior to 2010 -- believe the framers meant.

Were that amendment in place, there would be no barriers to reasonable gun control. Some of Justice Stevens’ other amendments would make the death penalty an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, outlaw today’s insane gerrymandering, and allow government to impose “reasonable limits” on campaign spending.

He would also make it easier to sue governments for violating the law. By the way, judicial decisions in general are supposed to be based on past precedent, and Justice Stevens doesn’t depart from that here. He explains the background and reasoning behind each of his proposals.

I found his arguments and amendments overwhelmingly persuasive, and designed to make this, indeed, a more perfect union. Nor does Justice Stevens see them as science fiction.

He wrote,

“as time passes, I am confident that the soundness of each of my proposals will become more and more evident, and ultimately each will be adopted.”

Today, in most of these cases, that would seem politically impossible. As impossible, that is, as the court ending school desegregation once did, less than a decade before that occurred.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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