SPEAKER Sen. Clinton Examines Growth of Congress’ Power By ark Romaniw Special to The Hoya

Dan Gelfand/The Hoya Former First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) addresses students and faculty at Georgetown’s Law Center on Tuesday.

Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) addressed a capacity crowd in Georgetown Law Center’s auditorium on Tuesday on the growth of Congress’ legislative power and what she called “the dramatic revisions of constitutional law happening today.”

“What we have seen in recent years certainly gives me pause,” she said, recounting a series of court rulings that “have effectively worked to exclude the body politic from the ongoing search for constitutional meaning.”

She listed the Supreme Court’s invalidation of parts of several acts, including the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to Clinton, the Supreme Court alleged in these cases that Congress had exceeded either its power to regulate commerce or to enforce the 14th Amendment. One court decision warned that if the law were upheld the distinction between national and local legislative powers would be blurred.

“The recently invalidated statutes themselves provide compelling evidence that the American people are not the true wizards behind the courts’ velvet curtain,” she said.

She said the meaning of the Constitution cannot be completely discovered by simply reading the text.

“During our student years, we both bore witness to dramatic changes in constitutional law,” she said, comparing the question of racial equality to current debates over the extent of Congress’ power. She traced the way in which courts and Congress have interacted with the public in order to interpret and enforce the meaning of the Constitution. “It’s somewhat ironic that all these years after our founding, we are still debating what it all meant,” she said.

Clinton described the evolution of Congress’ legislative power to regulate worker safety, the minimum wage and the purchase and sale of stocks. She recalled a 1918 court decision which stated that if Congress were allowed to regulate child labor, “the power of the states over local matters would be eliminated and thus our system of government would be practically destroyed.”

“It is not as if the court back then went adrift simply by missing a word or two in the Constitution,” she said. “Instead, the meaning of the Constitution was being challenged and reshaped by powerful economic and social forces that the nation had never seen before.”

She also described “the idea that Congress can make, by statute, a constitutional principle more firmly law,” giving the example of the principles of the Brown v. Board of Education decision which were incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The civil rights question, she said, could not have been resolved by the courts alone. In 1968, a court upheld the Civil Rights Act, acknowledging that it was a proper exercise of Congress’ right to regulate interstate commerce; the court also held that Congress’ intent to address a “moral and social wrong” did not invalidate the act.

She also cited New Deal legislation in the 1930s as an example of Congress’ power to affirm constitutional principles.

During the speech, Clinton encouraged students toward activism. “It is a great pleasure to see so many students who are committed to the kind of open dialogue and efforts you are undertaking here,” she said, “to really figure out what they believe in and then go out and advocate for it.”

Clinton lauded ACS for standing up for traditional American values such as respect for human dignity, protection of individual rights, genuine equality and access to justice – all of which ACS aims to strengthen. “I appreciate what all of you are doing,” she said. “I believe that this society and meetings like this are among the most important ways any of you can contribute to the public debate over the pressing legal issues of our time.”

ACS was founded at the Georgetown University Law Center in 1999 as the Madison Society for Law and Policy. Motivated by the success of their initiative, the Madison Society became the founding chapter of a national organization – renamed ACS – in spring of 2001.

According to an ACS press release, the organization primarily seeks “to counter the narrow conservative vision that today dominates legal debate” through guest speakers, media programs and its student and lawyer chapters.

The Georgetown chapter has approximately 200 members and the organization is active on more than 45 campuses including Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Duke Universities.

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