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Commentary: Constitutional confusion

Political scientists generally agree that the United States Constitution is one of the most amazing documents in history.

It was written 225 years ago, to provide a framework for the government of a small, not very wealthy agricultural nation of less than four million people.

Today, it still seems to function brilliantly as the fundamental document of a highly technological empire of more than 300-million people. Why does it still work so well?

Opinions differ, but there is remarkable unanimity on this: The Constitution works because it sets forth a system of government and some guiding principles, and most of all, for two reasons: It is elastic enough to accommodate change, and has an official body -- the Supreme Court-- to interpret its meaning.

People who call themselves strict constructionists are often upset that the high court saw fit to use the Constitution to proclaim that a woman has the right to end a pregnancy.

They say, with some justice, that this is something those who wrote the Constitution never imagined. That’s probably true. But they certainly never imagined telecommunications, nuclear power or space travel either, and yet the courts have ruled on laws affecting all these areas in light of the United States Constitution.

Nationally, we, or at least our courts, seem to understand what the Constitution is and what it is for. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Michigan, which is why we will face a ridiculous five proposed state constitutional amendments when we vote next moth

Here’s the problem: In the more than two centuries since the original amendments making up the Bill of Rights, the US Constitution has only been amended 17 times.

Michigan’s Constitution is less than 50 years old, and already has been amended more than 30 times. Most of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution addressed fundamental principles, such as those abolishing slavery, providing for presidential succession or changing the minimum voting age.

We’ve never junked up the Constitution by amending it to set rules for the use of agricultural land in Connecticut, say, or auto worker union negotiations.

But exactly the opposite has happened in Michigan, where we seem to want to use the state constitution as a Christmas tree to guarantee all of us specific presents. This year’s Proposal Four, for example, would create a registry of home health care workers, and set up a system to allow them to bargain collectively.

Well, it seems to me that both things are potentially good ideas. But why would we want to fossilize rules involving an ever-changing industry in our state’s fundamental document?

This particular proposed amendment is also poorly written, doesn’t address people who take care of their relatives, and says patients should be compensated to pay for their care, but doesn’t say how.

In any event, health care registry rules should be addressed by a simple law, not by a fundamental guiding document. If we continue going at this rate, Michigan’s constitution will soon be an unworkable joke. America’s Constitution has survived in large part because it is pretty difficult to amend. If we want our state constitution to have any meaning, we need to fix the amendment process very soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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