Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

September 19, 2017

230 Years Later, Cornell Community Questions Constitution

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Two hundred thirty years after the initial signing of the Constitution, some Cornell professors, students and Ithaca community members called it into question.

The forum — aptly titled “Are We in a Constitutional Crisis?” — was hosted by the University’s American Studies program the day after Constitution Day, the day in which the founding fathers first signed the document in 1787.

Two speakers from Cornell Law School, Prof. Aziz Rana and Prof. Gerald Torres, joined Prof. Scott Peters, developmental sociology, for the discussion. Free copies of the Constitution were provided.

The speakers took questions from the audience from students and community members, including Austin Morgan ’19.

“I attended because I saw the headline on Facebook,” Morgan said. “I do think we’re in a constitutional crisis.”

Conversation shifted between the necessity of the constitution as a static document and its impact on the charged political atmosphere of today, as well as what actions can be taken by the individual and the state moving into the future.

“This is a moment to be exploring these fundamentalist things and to be asking the bigger questions about the constitution, about the bigger structures and trends and dynamics,” Peters said. “That’s the fundamental question: what should we do?”

Also discussed was the static quality of a major part of the Constitution: the country’s legislative body.

“The problem is paralysis of the legislative branch,” Rana said. “The biggest effect is that it places pressure on other institutions to engage in continuous social policy-making that is actually inappropriate for those institutions.”

Another topic of debate was the constitution’s life beyond the page as a living body of policy.

“The title that came to mind was not ‘are we in a constitutional crisis’ but ‘whose constitution is it?’” Torres said. “When you ask the question of whose constitution it is … we learn the process of constituting ourselves is something that’s constant and ongoing.”

And with this subjectivity, the panel consented, comes the development of individual ideas of what it means to be an American.

“I see this in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky,” Peters said, discussing his research. “Folks don’t want to be told by the academics in the institutions — or their politicians — what they should think.”

The panel left attendees with new material to reflect on referring to the Constitution and legislation’s power in society.

“I think one of the main takeaways was how we can consider the constitution from different lenses,” said Alexander Miller ’19. “Comparing it as something to aspire to rather than something that’s grounded in flaws.”