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Carter: Constitution Day

Every September we mark Constitution Day at Vermont Law School with a panel discussion on pending constitutional cases currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. And, while most of us probably don’t break out the BBQ and celebrate, there are many reasons why maybe we should. On issues of social justice, the environment, human rights and equality, Vermont often leads the nation. We should be proud of this fact and continue to strive for a better world every day. However, we sometimes forget just how fundamental our state and national constitutions are when it comes to progress on these important issues. Despite the fact that we’ve made very few changes to the constitution since its initial adoption more than 200 years ago, it’s arguably been the most important instrument of change our country has ever known. In fact, I can’t think of one major political, social or environmental movement in our history that hasn’t, at its core, been driven by the power of our constitution to make change.

The 19th Amendment and the Supreme Court decision, Leser v. Garnett in 1922 guaranteed universal sufferage and protected womens’ right to vote. We achieved a key victory in the civil rights movement and the battle for educational equality when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education, that under the constitution, separate is not equal. In our efforts to achieve equality regardless of sexual orientation, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges mandates that the constitution protect the fundamental right of same sex couples to marry the person that they love. Throughout the environmental movement, court decisions grounded in constitutional principles of standing to file a law suit, have given non-profit organizations the ability to challenge environmentally catastrophic decisions by the government. From farmworkers' rights to democratic ideals, the constancy of the Constitution has been one of the biggest engines of progress.

To be sure, the constitution has also been a force of harm in our nation’s history. Admittedly, it’s had a checkered past. But if we believe as Martin Luther King did, that “the arc of the moral universe” ultimately “bends towards justice,” then it’s impossible not to appreciate the power of the law and the constitution in which it’s grounded. While there may be set backs and false starts along our winding path to justice, I believe that the constitution is fundamental to ensuring a better tomorrow.

Jared Carter teaches legal activism, legal writing and appellate advocacy at Vermont Law School. He also directs the Vermont Community Law Center, a non-profit legal services organization focused on social justice, constitutional rights and consumer protection.
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