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Constitution Day Debate at Historic Site Focuses on Constitutional Revisions

Jeffery Tulis, left, and Julie Suk, right, enjoy a round of applause following their debate.

A large audience filled the East Lawn of Old Main September 20 as Knox College hosted a debate to celebrate Constitution Day. 

The debate, titled Does the United States Need a New Constitution?, featured Julie Suk, professor of law at the Fordham University School of Law, and Jeffrey Tulis, professor of government, law, and communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, discussing the intricacies and complications associated with the state of the U.S. Constitution.

Knox College President C. Andrew McGadney opened the debate, reminding the audience of the significance of the venue. Old Main serves as the only remaining original building from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. McGadney said that healthy debate was part of the College’s mission to develop great minds and creating global citizens.

Over the course of the evening, Suk and Tulis exchanged viewpoints on the question—discussing problems with the current structures of power within the country and the goals that a new constitution should aim to accomplish. Tulis opened his remarks by noting that the event was less of a debate than a discussion: “What we’re called about here is not to decide something, but to think about things,” Tulis said. “This is more like a conversation than a debate.” Ultimately, both speakers agreed that there are significant problems with the Constitution today, though they differed in their analysis of the problems. 

Suk’s presentation focused on the undemocratic features of the Constitution, such as the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate, the Electoral College, and the difficulty of a constitutional amendment through the Article 5 provision of the Constitution. Suk argued that these features of the Constitution make it hard for democratic majorities to enact their will. The difficulty of amending the Constitution, Suk argued, has given an outsized role to the Supreme Court in constitutional interpretation, and she pointed to the court’s rulings on abortion both in Dobbs and Roe as examples. 

“Our Constitution’s amendment rule, Article 5, makes it very difficult to amend the Constitution in general and impossible to change the design of the Senate,” Suk said. 

While echoing many points made by Suk, Tulis emphasized that the Constitution should allow a democracy to be a democracy. Tulis argued that the problem with many constitutional reformers is that they attempt to write new constitutions that entrench preferred policy views of a segment of the population and give them constitutional status, which undermines the democratic purposes of a constitution. Rather, Tulis argued, general welfare provisions of a constitution should foster politics while allowing important partisan debates to take place so long as the partisan arguments on either side of an issue are rooted in concerns for the common good. 

The remarks were followed by a conversation between the two and moderator Thomas Bell, assistant professor of political science. Bell later turned the microphone over to the audience, allowing them to guide the conversation through a question-and-answer opportunity. 

Provost and Dean of the College Mike Schneider closed the debate stating that questions such as the debate’s title open a door to engagement at Knox.

The event was made possible by a generous grant from the Jack Miller Center.

The full stream of the debate can be viewed here:

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Printed on Saturday, June 22, 2024