The Purpose of a Constitution

The primary goals of American criminal law are, in an order most severely an exercise of state power and authority: (1) revenge, (2) retribution, (3) deterrence, (4) restitution and (5) rehabilitation. One must, thus, conclude that our country imposes a “moral law” upon all within its boundaries which sets forth absolute proscriptions and imposes certain duties and obligations. (Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, Preface.) Yet, these specific purposes and principles underlying American criminal law are not literally found in either the constitution of any state or of our nation. Rather, these constitutions set forth many more abstract principles and purposes, to establish a rule of, and by, law in behest of general good government, justice and the common weal.

This November election, a proposed amendment of the Ohio constitution, which dates, in its present form, from as early as 1851, would provide credit for time served if an inmate agrees to participate in rehabilitation and guidance. Only those convicted for possession and or use and not sale of a controlled substance would be eligible.  This amendment would also revise the Ohio constitution to prohibit the criminalization of mere possession and or use at a level of severity accorded the treat of felony crimes, and, instead, deem mere possession and or use within the classification of misdemeanor.

The purpose of this and other specific provisions requested in the amendment would constitutionalize the governing principle that mere possession and use of illegal drugs, without the intent to sell, is a crime only against oneself and without the motive to profit from the criminal acts and self-flagellation of others. The premise is that the public good and public interest do not benefit from strict penal treatment based upon public motives of revenge or retribution. Rather, the public good is better served when those found only in use or possession are guided toward rehabilitative reform and a form of social inclusion not premised upon drug use.

One would deem these thoughts to be the moral philosophy or moral principles of the amendment, Issue 1 in Ohio on November 6th. But, should such specific purposes and principles rise to the level of a part of a state constitution?

Some suggest that the proper drafting and interpretation of a constitution should remain derived from the meaning of its original text at the time of adoption.  Some suggest that the interpretation and amendment should view the original text in our current era; that, the three branches of government should serve the public good by empirically revising a constitution’s text and principles to reflect subsequent human facts and events. An empirical view distinguishes from the a priori view of originalists.  Both views utilize wisdom and judgment.

Our nation upon its founding, and later the State of Ohio, constituted a democratic republic. Yet, constitutional amendments, state and federal, have made America more representative and more democratic. America once resembled the world of the Lords, Barons, landed gentry and serfs of Europe, when inheritance determined one’s whispering in the ear of the divine right monarch. On November 6, 2018, one need not own an interest, in any form, in real property in order to cast a ballot.

Then, should our view of state constitutions change? Our representatives are still our representatives. Yet, they are no longer per se, by virtue of social and economic class alone, the only ones among us with sufficient access to education and information to properly effectuate the duties and responsibilities of an elected official in our three branches of state government.

Should and must state constitutions provide greater and more specific guidance to our state legislators, should the constitutions “pull on the reins?” In modern times, not all state legislatures are comprised by America’s natural aristocracy, as the founding principle of American government envisioned and still required by Sir Edmund Burke. The great distribution of residents and commerce over the breadth of the American states and territories is so great that there are not enough formally educated natural aristocrats to go around. State Representatives are diverse, and their districts are more self-governing and self-sustaining than in the times of land baron dominance. They are no longer elected from rural areas without academic resources needed for participation in state government.  

Consequently, our complex society requires that even the most educated among us must look to theories of specialization and expertise. Our three branches of government, state and federal, rely upon career legal counsel and formal substantive divisions in each branch.

In returning to Issue one, should the Ohio constitution be more responsive to the changes in our society since its founding? Are the proposed revisions of Ohio law needed to guide a state legislature whose members will forever be less well versed than practitioners?  Or, with greater funding to provide additional legal counsel and substantive personnel, could the Ohio General Assembly readily delineate a similar program, itself, with fair review by its diverse representatives as provided in a democratic republic? In modern times, what is the purpose of a democratic constitution and what should it contain?

Lori Gayle Nuckolls, Esq.

 

 

 

 

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