Scott Young, Staff Reporter
September 17, 1787: the day our Union became more perfect. Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, to sign the United States Constitution, laying the foundation for our Republic and its enhanced system of government.
Students gathered in the Houston Cole Library to celebrate Constitution Day, marking the 231st anniversary of its signing. The film Gideon’s Trumpet (1980) was shown, which detail the events leading up to Gideon v. Wainwright, a monumental Supreme Court decision that set a precedent requiring every person in the United States to be provided legal counsel if charged with a crime.
“One of the JSU mission statements is that our students become engaged, informed, and competent global professionals, so I think it’s important for students to pay attention…to know they have a voice and that they can make change,” said Dr. Erin L. Rider, a sociology professor at JSU.
Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in the state of Florida for breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. When sent before a judge, Gideon appeared without a lawyer, as he could not afford one. The jury returned a guilty verdict. As he served time in a penitentiary, Gideon studied the law more thoroughly and sent a letter to the Supreme Court appealing his verdict, where the decision Gideon v. Wainwright was passed down unanimously by all nine justices.
After a resounding victory in the Supreme Court, Gideon appeared before the court again in an appeal to his specific felony charges—this time, with a lawyer. Fred Turner, Gideon’s lawyer, poked holes in the prosecution’s argument, exposed key contradictions, and revealed false testimony from an eye-witness. A jury acquitted him of his charges.
Constitution Day is about promoting the exercise of democracy and encouraging students that affecting change is an extraordinary journey but can make positive impacts on society for generations. A simple letter, such in Gideon’s case, is often times all it takes.
In a survey conducted by Pew Research, 51% of millennials turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election, the lowest amongst other generations, compared to 57% for Generation X, 69% for baby boomers, and 70% for the silent generation. Among many millennials, there is an observed disinterest in politics and growing sentiment that their vote doesn’t count.
“I can understand their sentiment. There is a segment of our society that feels like nobody, perhaps, is speaking for them,” said Dr. Lori Owens, a political science professor at JSU who organized the Constitution Day event. “People don’t always know if what they’re reading is accurate or not, and so in my classes one of the things that I caution them to do is look at what is an editorial and what is a factual story,” which infers that youth disengagement in politics may be correlated with skepticism of media.
Overshadowing Constitution Day were the developments during the vetting of President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, a process drawing controversy as of recently. The Senate, which is invested with responsibility of confirming judicial nominees, has morphed the Supreme Court into a game of political ping pong for whichever party is in control, particularly at times when elections are drawing nearer.
“Judicial activism can have liberal and conservative results,” said Dr. Owens, commenting on her evaluation of the Supreme Court’s evolution since the framers wrote the Constitution. “I think we’ve probably gotten away from what the Founding Fathers foresaw when they set up that process.”
Engagement in social, political, and cultural issues is what Constitution Day is all about. If leaders like Rosa Parks or Susan B. Anthony stayed on the sidelines, we wouldn’t be near as developed as a country as we are today. Students are encouraged to register to vote and cast their ballot in the Congressional midterms on November 6, 2018, regardless of political affiliation, so that everyone’s voice can be heard.