By Isaac Saidel-Goley*
In honor of Constitution Day, I reflect on what I have learned from countless pages of constitutional law cascading from a brief document that I have had the privilege to spend the past few years of my life studying.
I have learned that the Constitution is not, and has never been, perfect. Not even close. It was crafted by flawed framers and has been interpreted by imperfect jurists. It has enshrined slavery; condoned segregation; authorized the involuntary internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans; sanctioned the forced sterilization of the intellectually disabled; repeatedly denied liberty, equality, and dignity to racial and sexual minorities; invalidated progressive legislation enacted to protect vulnerable populations; and promoted white and male supremacy in countless ways throughout its history.
These immeasurable failures have tested my faith in the Constitution, just as they have tested my faith in humanity. But they have also taught me an important lesson; namely, that the true beauty of the Constitution, and the reason it has endured throughout the last two centuries, is that it lives. It adapts. It molds to “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and it allows for (and often spearheads) the gradual perfection of our Union. Despite its deeply imperfect history, the Constitution, like our nation, has consistently (if slowly) approached perfection. Over the past two centuries, it has abolished slavery; condemned segregation; enfranchised African Americans and women; protected interracial and same-sex marriage; promoted reproductive justice; secured our freedom of speech; preserved our freedom of (and from) religion; and advanced the equality, liberty, and dignity of historically vulnerable populations on countless occasions. It gives me great pride, and great hope, to know that these are just a few of the many triumphs of our living Constitution.
“And so,” as Justice Thurgood Marshall so eloquently observed, “we must be careful, when focusing on the events which took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective. . . . If we seek, instead, a sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history . . . [w]e will see that the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making, and a life embodying much good fortune that was not.”
*Isaac Saidel-Goley is a 3L at Harvard Law School.