We must do better balancing individual liberty and social accountability

Pennsylvania is the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution in more ways than one. Not only did we physically host the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Quaker-inspired Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges formed the philosophical framework for our nation’s Supreme Law of the Land. In 1701, the Charter read, “no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences …” This document was where freedom of religion and many other civil liberties found their first foothold in the American spirit. Our own state constitution mirrors the federal one and has a history of being amended only when the issue is serious, and the final change is well considered.

Now, we, who have followed William Penn, Ben Franklin, and other early legislators, have a responsibility to uphold that spirit, protecting the balance of individual liberty and social accountability. I fear that we are not doing that in the current climate, where constitutional amendments are now being produced like popcorn in a movie theater. We cannot fix a leaky faucet by tearing down the whole house. In the past few years, we have passed amendments to fundamentally change criminal law and to limit the governor’s emergency powers. The governor is the executive, duly elected to be the primary decisionmaker for Pennsylvania. He must have the ability to make those decisions, and sometimes needs to make them quickly and independently. We can disagree with details of emergency decisions after the fact, but those disagreements are often nothing more than Monday morning quarterbacking.  We have become engrossed in this momentary disagreement and have stripped away an important part of the checks and balances of our constitutional Republic.

The issue is not the wisdom of the policies, it is that the solution to the conflict is to change the fabric of our social contracts with each other. The movement to simply change the constitution when one party does not get its way through the governor’s office or through the courts bypasses the three-legged stool of checks and balances, which is a cornerstone of our government. The central fact remains that in times of crisis, we cannot have the governor coming hat in hand to the legislature. We in the General Assembly are more like engineers and planners. Our work must involve slow, (sometimes glacial) consideration of broader policies. We should not be sticking our collective nose into day-to-day operations. That is not what we were elected to do.

Another part of our government that needs to maintain its independence is the courts. Judges need to be able and empowered to judge. They do not need limits on their responsibility to discern and decide what is fair and just. We know that the constitution is a living and evolving document. It loses the ability to grow if we in the legislature pass too many amendments restricting that growth and pre-judging issues that might come before the courts. Courts are also where the civil liberties of the people who live on the margins are determined. They are the places where we protect those whom a majority might discriminate against, simply because they are not like the majority. William Penn and the people who drafted the original Charter of Privileges knew that persecuted religious minorities, the criminally accused, and people often seen as the least deserving were those who deserved the most protection.

Courts are the places where we cannot have a majority rule because, as Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

The constitution is the place where fundamental rights are housed because we recognize that they are fundamental to everyone. There are current proposals to change the constitution even further, to restrict women’s agency over their own bodies and privatizing our liquor control system. The strategy to change the constitution is dangerous and reckless.

I will always defend the constitutional rights of people who disagree with me. In fact, that is the most important time to do so, because if no one stands up for people with unpopular opinions, we will all end up on the wrong end of that stick someday. Changing those fundamental rights so that we limit the flexibility of our courts or limit the necessary power of the governor to address emergencies is a bad idea.

These amendments are rolling through the legislature because a single party has control there but does not control the governor or the courts. They are a desperate grab at absolute power. I am asking the final decisionmakers, our voters, to place themselves in the shoes of the accused criminal defendant, the disabled, the pregnant teenager. Recognize that in an instant, we could just as easily be on the outside looking in, and vote to maintain the system that protects everyone, not just a select few. I plan to vote against any unneeded constitutional amendment measures.