Constitutional Values Beyond the Courts

John Edwards*

There is an urgent need to formulate new ideas for the future and bring them to our courts, legislatures and communities. The American Constitution Society and the Harvard Law & Policy Review are central to this important work.

Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have looked to the courts to guarantee the rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution. They have sought protection from abuses of government power, enforcement of equality, and restraint of corporate power.

Last July, on the eve of the nomination hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, I spoke to the American Constitution Society about the historical role of the courts in securing the rights of all Americans. One year and two Supreme Court appointments later, it is clear that the courts can only go so far in ensuring that every American has the same opportunity to lead a fulfilling life.

We are in the midst of a right wing movement to stifle the ability of ordinary people to obtain justice through the courts. This movement advances what I call “protect the powerful” jurisprudence, because that is what it is designed to do: maximize the constitutional protection for corporations and property rights, minimize the constitutional commitment to equality, and restrict the power of the federal government to solve the country’s problems.

Progressive legal scholars have a critical role to play in restoring balance and ensuring that ordinary Americans have a judiciary that protects their fundamental rights. This isn’t a fight about abstract legal principles, but about the lives of ordinary people and whether they will have a fair chance in our legal system.

But while justice often begins in the courts, it does not end there. The courts alone cannot provide every child with a good education, nor ensure that we leave future generations with an inhabitable and sustainable planet. The courts alone cannot defend America against enemies foreign and domestic, nor guarantee that our workforce will retain the skills and innovativeness necessary to lead the world. The courts alone cannot achieve a goal that is of critical importance to me: the complete elimination of poverty in America over the next 30 years.

There is an urgent need to formulate new ideas for the future and bring them to our courts, legislatures and communities. The American Constitution Society and the Harvard Law & Policy Review are central to this important work. The centuries-old promise of the Constitution will not be fully achieved until every American can claim equal access to its pages. I wish the editors of the Harvard Law & Policy Review well in this essential task.

*John Edwards represented North Carolina in the United States Senate and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Vice President in 2004. He currently serves as the Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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