A Living Document
03/01/2007 - Last month, I discussed my desire to help the readers of Our Town Casper Magazine to understand the rules (laws) of our society and how to use that knowledge to enrich their lives. There is only one proper place to begin learning about the laws which govern us. To understand and begin to use the laws of our society to your benefit, you have to be aware of and have an understanding of the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Wyoming. These two constitutions are the foundation underlying the authority of our federal, state and local governments to initiate the actions that govern us.
Let me first explain what I mean by the Federal and State Constitutions being foundations. To put it in a nut shell, no law or administrative policy can exist that does not meet the constraints which the constitution sets on government action. I think an example would help. Let's say that the local sheriff wants to set up a roadblock on Center Street at 2:00pm in the afternoon every Monday to search people randomly for drugs. Can the sheriff use his police powers to do this? I think most of us would agree that the sheriff would be out of line making these stops and searching us and our cars for no reason other than the possibility of finding drugs. The interesting question is, "Would this be an illegal act by the sheriff?". The sheriff's act of setting up a road block and stopping everyone on Center Street would probably be illegal because his actions are outside the "frame work" or rules set forth in the Constitution. In the Fourth Amendment of the Federal Constitution, the Government of the United States has made an agreement with the citizens of the United States. That amendment promises that the citizens (you and I) will have a right to be secure from warrantless searches and seizures. In order to understand this agreement, some basic ideas about Constitutions are important to remember.
First, a constitution is a contract between the people of a society and their government. The people are basically saying, "I will allow you to have authority over me to tax me and to control certain aspects of my life, but you as a government have to honor certain rules in consideration for what we as citizens are giving up." When the sheriff stops people on Center Street without a good enough reason, he has breached the contract set out in the Constitution and his act has no authority and is an illegal act.
Second, these contracts (constitutions) are in constant flux. Based on the social, economic or political environment in which these contracts between the people and their government exist, the construction, or meaning, of the contracts can change. Don't worry if that doesn't make sense, I have been trying to figure it out for 20 years and i'm still struggling with this concept. To help you understand, let's go back to the sheriff's road block on Center Street. Would this always be an illegal government act? I believe the answer to that question has to be, "NO". This action by the sheriff will not always be a breach of the contract because the Fourth Amendment, which is the part of our contract with the United States of America that deals with privacy and the right of the citizens to lead a private life, states in part:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,...
At some point, a combination of social unrest or lawlessness may create an environment in this country when the search of every car and person on Center Street at 2:00pm may be "reasonable" in order for the government to fulfill its obligation to protect the people.
Legal scholars have describe constitutions as "living documents" because the language is open enough to allow these unique contracts to adapt to the changes in our social environment.
For this article I'm out of time, but let me leave you with some food for thought. Can you imagine how much fun a bunch of lawyers, judges and politicians could have arguing over what the word "unreasonable" means? I believe that argument is the life blood that keeps the "living constitution" alive and kicking.