Should the U.S. Constitution be considered a “living, breathing” document?
There is a group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA. You may have heard of them. Last year PETA filed a lawsuit that, if successful, would have given new powers to the 13th Amendment that were never intended by its authors. They argued that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished the enslavement of human beings in the U.S., applies to animals as well. PETA’s argument was a gross misrepresentation of an important law. Their specific claim was that SeaWorld was in violation of the 13th Amendment because it was holding wild orca whales in captivity. PETA wanted to use the 13th Amendment to force SeaWorld to return the orcas back to their natural habitat.
Section one of the 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
What perceived flaw in the wording of the 13th Amendment encouraged PETA to file this lawsuit? Jeffrey Kerr, PETA’s lawyer, argued that the text of the 13th Amendment does not specify who or what is a slave. Although he is right about that, it is disingenuous for Kerr to deny that the authors and original supporters of the 13th Amendment understood it to apply to anything other than human beings.
When commenting about PETA’s lawsuit on TV Kerr argued that there are two equally valid ways to interpret the Constitution. The first way to interpret it is to assign to it the meaning its authors assigned to it. The second way to interpret the meaning of the Constitution, Kerr argued, is to give it the meaning that he desires to give to it. He is dead wrong on this second count. The consequence of viewing the law this way is that laws can be twisted to mean anything and thus will come to mean nothing.
Those like Kerr, who act on the claim that the Constitution is a “living” or “breathing” document are trying to undermine the rule of law. For them, the rule of law is flexible, it exists only so that it can be molded and shaped to fit their purposes. If those who share Kerr’s views, and they are numerous, are successful, it will eventually lead to chaos and anarchy in our society. So while PETA’s argument may seem silly and frivolous to us, the general idea behind it is dangerous. If we cherish the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy in this country, then we have our laws and our Constitution to thank. But when we allow those laws to be twisted to mean things they do not, we will begin to see the ruin of our nation.
Thankfully, this time, PETA’s lawsuit was thrown out of court. But this fight between those who believe that our laws and Constitution should be ignored or twisted to fit their agendas and those who do not will continue for a long time. For those of us who wish to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” we had better start teaching our children again about the meaning and importance of our founding documents and the ideas that made the founding of this great nation possible.
“To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion.” – Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.