09.17.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Anniversary of the Constitutional Convention

Today, we celebrate the 228th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States.  Some elected officials talk about their love of “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights”.  That specific phrasing is interesting in that it somehow implies that the “Constitution” does not itself include the Bill of Rights, which of course it does.  But it contains much more than those original ten amendments.  Each year, I remind Americans that we must celebrate not just the original Constitution of Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and the Founding generation, but the whole Constitution, including its 27 Amendments.  This includes the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which many scholars have rightly described as our nation’s “Second Founding.”

The Senate commemorated the Sesquicentennial or the 150th anniversary of the “Second Founding” earlier this year when the Senate passed a resolution raising awareness about this series of amendments, which provided the country with a new birth of freedom.  Ratified by President Lincoln and his generation after the Civil War, these Second Founding Amendments transformed our original charter – most fundamentally – by elevating the principle of equality to a central place in our constitutional order.

This year, the Supreme Court once again upheld the Constitution’s promise of equality when it ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protects the right of each American to marry the person they love, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Because of that ruling, LGBT children all across America will grow up knowing that they can love without fear, and that they are equal citizens of this great Nation.

Although the Constitution provides us with the promise of equality, we must never forget that it is up to all of us to advance and protect that intrinsic American value of equality.  Each generation must do its part.  This is true whether it is racial equality, gender equality, or equality based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  We have come a long way in each of those areas, but we continue to have work to do.

On racial equality, too many of our citizens continue to face racial discrimination in voting.  As a result of the Supreme Court’s dreadful ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, Americans across the country are now vulnerable to racially discriminatory voting laws that restrict the franchise without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.  On this 50th anniversary year of the March in Selma and of the Voting Rights Act, we must do all we can to restore and enhance the protections of that landmark legislation.

On gender equality, we continue to see women being paid less than men for doing the same job.  We also continue to see partisan attacks on women’s health care choices.  From legislation blocking these choices to efforts defunding critical health services for women, we clearly have a long way to go to ensure gender equality.

And while LGBT Americans are now able to marry the person they love, they continue to experience discrimination in other aspects of their lives.  Achieving full equality means that LGBT individuals should be able to provide for their families without fear that they will be fired from their jobs or denied housing.  It means that a restaurant should not be able to refuse to serve an LGBT couple because the owner disapproves of that couple’s relationship.  New civil rights laws are needed to protect LGBT Americans so they can live their lives free from discrimination.

We must uphold this promise of equality for the vulnerable and the voiceless as well.  We are a nation of immigrants with a long, proud history of opening our doors and welcoming people from around the world.  After all, the Statue of Liberty has long proclaimed America’s welcome:  “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  That is what America has long stood for and what we should continue to represent.  Instead, I have seen ugly partisan rhetoric about changing the Fourteenth Amendment of our Constitution to remove birthright citizenship specifically to target immigrants.  We should be a nation that embraces and lifts our most vulnerable, not a nation that acts out of spite or malice.

We must also fight for the voices of all Americans and not just corporations or the wealthy few.  Our country has flourished because we have worked hard to ensure that more, not fewer, Americans can take part in the democratic process.  Instead, our campaign finance laws have been eviscerated by a Supreme Court that views money as speech and refuses to place any limits on the ability of the wealthy and special interests to drown out hardworking Americans.  The Court has also irrationally limited the definition of “corruption” in our campaign finance laws to just bribery.  But unlike a narrow majority of the Court, the public understands that corruption is not just bribery.  Rather, corruption is the idea that money buys access and influences our democracy for a wealthy few.  This cannot be allowed in our democracy.  The size of your bank account cannot and should not determine whether and how the government responds to your needs.  We must act to restore the First Amendment, and to preserve those protections to ensure that all voices can be heard in the democratic process.

Constitution Day is an occasion to celebrate our Founding Charter and the historic democracy it has caused and fostered.  It is also a time to reflect on what we are doing as citizens to uphold the promises that the Constitution has provided.  I encourage all Americans to mark this day by reading the whole Constitution and celebrating how it reflects the great progress we have made to become a more inclusive and stronger democracy. 

# # # # #

Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693