My college adviser only really ever “advised” one thing: take a Meiklejohn course.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

Donald Meiklejohn, a living legend in the fields of governance and education, was only at my college part of the year, fall and spring trimesters. The rest of the year he taught at Syracuse University, so you had to grab a course when the moment presented itself. That term, the course available to me was “Philosophy of the Constitution.”

I’d been skeptical, but my adviser had been correct. That course changed my life. I went on to take every course Meiklejohn taught, and then to create independent studies with him as well, but that first day in my freshman year, that was when I fell in love with our constitution.

Now, obviously, our constitution is not a perfect document. It was written by a bunch of men in a different age and with different perspectives on the totality of humanity. We can’t ignore the reality that the same men who wrote so eloquently about freedom and equality owned slaves. It is also important to note that while we are often taught it is based upon the Greek system of government, in truth much of it is taken, in some cases taken directly, from the governing documents of the Iroquois Confederacy – all while denying rights to the Iroquois and other indigenous communities. So clearly, “not perfect” is an understatement.

However, what our founding document lacks in perfection, it makes up for in aspiration. The constitution is a framework for what a good government should be. It lays out a system of procedural operations to establish the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. The constitution lays out the rules. It also, critically, acknowledges its own shortcoming and provides for a way to address them: amendments.

Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the constitution establishes a system of checks and balances. It aspired to ensure that never would our government become a monarchy or a dictatorship, that no one person could control the nation. It created instead a system with three separate and equal branches: the executive, the legislative and an independent judiciary.

The Supreme Court was established to operate outside of popular politics. That is part of the reason behind the lifetime appointment: judges would be free to rule based upon their scholarly interpretation of the law, regardless of popular opinion.

I don’t know if, truthfully, the court has ever actually lived up to that optimistic ideal. I mean, after all, they are appointed, so political alignment surely sneaks in there and we have certainly seen evidence of this before. Still, much like the constitution it interprets, the court was, if not perfect, aspirational. Even before that fateful Meiklejohn course, I had an ingrained sense that the Supreme Court was special, above reproach.

This week, our nation lost one of the finest legal minds to ever sit on the bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A thoughtful, intelligent and well-read scholar, her opinions were noted for their clarity of thought, precision of speech and adherence to the constitution and rule of law. Even those who were in disagreement with her held her opinions in the highest regard. Her death is a great loss to the nation. What is more, her death brings with it a great threat to the system she served.

It is vital to us all, regardless of party affiliation, that the judicial system remains a strong, independent, co-equal part of our government. This issue is larger than party; it is for the sake of our nation.

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