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'If it's the law it's the law...'

By Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz

October 20, 2002

What is the final safeguard of our rights and freedoms?

The Founders carefully divided our government into discrete levels and branches, counting on the natural jealousy of those entrusted with one set of powers to act as a check on the rest -- states using the 10th Amendment and their power to name senators to resist usurpations by Washington; Congress refusing to allocate funds for presidents overreaching their delegated powers, etc.

That has largely failed. Instead of jealously guarding their prerogatives, the states now run to Washington with their hands out for a share of the tax loot, while federal bureaucrats raid California marijuana plantations in blatant violation of the will of the voters, and of the Ninth and 10th amendments.

No, the "checks and balances" turn out to have been little more than a stopgap.

Instead, the final guarantor of our liberties is, in fact, a population taught from childhood that ours is a government of sharply limited powers -- limited to those specifically listed in writing -- established to protect the almost limitless rights and freedoms of the people.

In guarantee of which, each public officeholder is then required to swear a sacred oath to "protect and defend the Constitution."

But increasingly, we find ourselves surrounded by two generations of fellow Americans taught by their schoolmarms that the government can do anything it wishes, so long as it's presented as being for "the general welfare."

This is absurd. If that were the case, the Constitution need contain only 25 words: "The central government may do anything which the majority of both houses decide is in the interest of 'the general welfare'; have a nice day."

Instead, the document drones on for pages, stipulating that Congress has only those powers specifically delegated -- just as our state constitutions and the 14th amendment also place sharp limits on the areas where state government can meddle.

Yet as office-seekers come trooping through our offices every two years, angling for endorsements, do any of them take their upcoming oaths of office seriously enough to vow they will enforce no unconstitutional enactment?

Just the opposite. Candidates for attorney general, district attorney and sheriff are particularly assertive in insisting they will enforce every statute enacted, blithely assuming "some higher court" will serve as their conscience, telling them later if something they've been enforcing turns out to violate the clear language of the Constitution.

Asked why he would enforce a state law against anonymous political leafletting even though it clearly violates the First Amendment, for instance -- heck, the Federalist Papers were originally published as anonymous leaflets -- Republican attorney general candidate Brian Sandoval explained the AG is obligated to enforce any enactment of the Legislature, no matter how unconstitutional.

"Come on, " I demanded, "you're saying that if the Legislature passed a law requiring all Jews to wear yellow stars of David sewn on the outside of their clothing, you'd enforce it?"

"It's my job to enforce it," Mr. Sandoval replied.

Two months later, as this season of endorsement interviews was winding to a close, GOP Assembly candidate Kevin Child came in for a similar endorsement interview. Mr. Child said he's personally going to vote "yes" on Question 2, to place a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution, "because I'm a Christian ... even though I don't think it's something the government should be involved in."

This struck me and fellow interviewer Steve Sebelius as curious. If Mr. Child doesn't think the government should be involved, why would he vote to make permanent in the constitution just such a government prohibition?

Mr. Child explained once a measure comes up for a vote, the voters have a right to OK it, and lawmakers must then obey the will of the voters.

Again, I found myself driven to ask, "Come on. What if a majority of voters OK'd a law that required all Jews to wear yellow Stars of David sewn on the outside of their clothing?"

"If it's the law it's the law," Mr. Child replied. "Whoever made these laws, if they're passed, you have to abide by them."

Are the gentlemen anti-Semites, who really want racial minorities to be "marked" for later round-up and removal, as practiced under Germany's Third Reich? I seriously doubt it. I think they merely wanted to demonstrate consistency in defending an initial wrong premise -- that a nation once proud of our tradition of breaking bad laws by throwing the tea in Boston harbor, or acquitting John Peter Zenger of libel, or by defying the Fugitive Slave Act, is now a land of dutiful little drones, enforcing and obeying any edict of the central state.

It's also worth noting that Mr. Sandoval and Mr. Child are hardly alone in embracing the underlying premise; few of the candidates we interview -- including the opponents of the two men in question -- any longer harbor a true understanding of a "government of limited powers."

In the end, what's most disturbing here is not the pair of individual answers, but the fact that these two are only the tip of an iceberg of ignorance -- ignorance of our own founding principles -- on which our ship of state is now bearing down at full speed.

Nowadays, I'm considered a "dangerous radical" because I insist I can't find in the Second or 14th amendments any language that says "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, except that any number of 'reasonable restrictions' can be enacted to make the soccer moms feel safe by preventing anyone from walking down the street with a bazooka.' "

Well, radical I am and mean to be -- because "radical," from the Latin stem for "root," merely means we get to the heart of the matter.

But who is the more dangerous radical? Those who would use their jealously protected arms to defend to the death the right of minorities to refuse to sew yellow stars of David or pink triangles on their clothing? Or does the real danger to our liberties come from those who assert they would happily enforce such laws because, "If it's the law it's the law. Whoever made these laws, if they're passed you have to abide by them"?

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.




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