It's Our Constitution, Mr. President

Published on
by
The Seattle Times

It's Our Constitution, Mr. President

by
Lance Dickie

Beyond the Iraq war and the national debt President Bush will leave behind, his most lasting and damaging legacy will be his arrogant expansion of executive powers.

His disregard for the checks and balances between branches of government laid out in the Constitution promises to slowly poison democracy for generations. Sadly, history will record he was aided and abetted by Congress. This week, the Senate blinked again as it failed to lift a ban that denies military detainees an opportunity to challenge their detention before a judge.

Forcing the government to bring prisoners into court and explain why they are being held is an ancient and elemental protection against abuses by the king. Otherwise, detainees can rot in jail unless our contemporary King George decides to bring them to trial. The administration's lame excuse is the courts would be overwhelmed. Liberty can be so messy.

This week's frustrating and disappointing development in Washington is offset by local events that represent a quiet revolution. All of us are obligated to be smarter about the Constitution. Our response has to be greater than simply turning up to vote. Education is key.

Toward that end, the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County hosted a Constitution Day seminar Monday night at Everett Community College. Political-science professor Steven Horn, Seattle attorney James Williams and retired Snohomish County Superior Court Judge John Rutter laid out imperatives and voiced concerns.

Informed, seasoned and passionate believers in the legal system worry about the erosion of individual rights and long-standing protections in place for those rights: warrantless searches and seizures and the brushing aside of the writ of habeas corpus.

This is not partisan discourse, but deeply held concerns about assaults on the Constitution, "the most sacred creation of our time," said Williams, a partner at Perkins Coie.

A large measure of credit for sounding an alarm about the Bush administration's focused intent to expand presidential authority goes to Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage. He spoke Tuesday to the Puget Sound Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society.

Savage won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with stories about Bush's claim of authority to disobey any law passed by Congress that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

The president declared he would not execute any laws he believes to be unconstitutional, Savage told a noontime audience. So far, the count tops 1,100 - the number of sections of bills the president said he will ignore.

He uses so-called signing statements - formal objections and interpretations - published in the Federal Register and, most importantly, circulated in the federal bureaucracy among the minions writing the rules and regulations. Further, the president believes it is within his right to withhold information from Congress and alter reports.

As commander in chief, Bush believes he cannot be challenged on military matters. "Clearly, this administration thinks it does not need the permission of Congress to attack Iran," said Savage.

The struggle to reclaim the Constitution and elect senators and representatives with the courage to uphold their duties and obligations falls on our shoulders. Those who would strip this nation of its rights are bold and clear-eyed. The rest of us have to be up to the fight.

Some, mercifully, have been fully engaged as the rest of us begin to understand the stakes. This morning, the Washington Coalition for Open Government is honoring two veterans of the good fight. Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and a former Washington prison inmate, who won a landmark open-records case, will receive the James Madison Award. Frank Garred, retired publisher of The Leader newspaper in Port Townsend, is also being honored for his work to promote open government.

Remember, the president has vetoed one bill in six years. He does not have to confront Congress if he has no intention of doing what it passes as law.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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