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Lee Edwards of Oakland joins a small grassroots group of protestor at the end of Broadway in Jack London Square, Oakland, Calif. to protest the increase in taxes on tax day, Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

As the U.S. Constitution marks its 222nd birthday, two stalwart admirers, Cynthia Papermaster and Mimi Steel, praise the document and vigorously defend it against perceived attacks.

Though they differ greatly on who's staging the attacks.

Papermaster directs the National Accountability Action Network, a progressive coalition urging the prosecution of former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials for what they call constitutional and statutory violations mainly undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism.

Papermaster, also a CodePink activist, is a driving force behind ongoing protests against UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who as a Justice Department attorney drafted legal memos justifying what many believe to be constitutional violations such as warrantless wiretapping, "enhanced interrogation" methods seen by many as torture, and denial of basic legal rights to detainees.

"Every single citizen of the United States should have a copy of the Constitution and should read it. I think we all should know what's in it," said Papermaster, 63, of Berkeley. "We should uphold the Constitution because it is the highest law of our country and it's clear and self-admitted that Cheney and others broke the law, they've repeatedly said the Constitution is just a piece of paper, or quaint."


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Steel, 60, of Castro Valley, is an organizer for the San Francisco-Bay Area chapter of the "We Surround Them" network launched by conservative commentator Glenn Beck.

She says the Obama administration's health care reform effort "would put a structure in place that essentially is going to kill capitalism "... and unless you have free markets, you don't really have freedom."

Steel, a former U.S. Air Force officer, said, "I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Steel cites the Obama administration's "nationalization" of the banking and automobile industries, and said she's worried about the government's expanding access to private data.

"The Constitution is hanging by a thread. There is a clear and present danger to the Republic. "... I fear there are a lot of domestic enemies within the fabric of our government that are trying to fundamentally transform the United States of America," she said. "The big thing is: Are we getting down a path that everything is going to be so controlled and so centralized that there's no way of getting back to individual liberty and small government?"

Who's right?

That's for everyone to debate, and, eventually, it's for the courts to decide.

"I think that great dangers to the Constitution are very much in the eyes of the beholder. When an administration is in power that people don't like, they often find that what that administration does is threatening to our basic values," said Jesse Choper, Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

But the Constitution's health is indicated by the fact that quarrels about it tend to be about its interpretation, not the underlying text itself, he said: "We have great respect for law in this country, even if a lot of people don't think so."

And for all the rhetoric cavalierly cast about over what is and isn't constitutional, Choper said, few people truly understand what the Constitution actually does and doesn't say.

"Do people know a lot about it? No. They also don't know a lot about candidates either. They get some issue that catches their attention and, boom, there they go," he said, adding that too many people treat detailed constitutional knowledge as a "luxury," a sort of cultural study akin to literature or music. "That doesn't mean we can't try harder."

Former Republican congressman and 2008 Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr agreed the Constitution "is going to work only if we have a citizenry that understands these issues, understands what our government is, understands what our Constitution is."

Barr believes some Obama administration initiatives, if enacted, "would take us to a new level of government power, but all it's doing is building on what the Republican Bush administration did before it" such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit or 2008's Wall Street bailout.

"It is true that the Obama administration is taking that several steps further, but it's simply a continuation of what should've been stopped in the last administration and the one before it and so on," Barr said.

"The process of significant encroachment of federal power over individual liberties and state powers began and has not stopped since the progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt," he said. "We are, in that sense, much worse off now than 100 years ago. "... We have moved far away from what the Constitution was supposed to do in terms of limiting government power. But the document itself is still a magnificent bulwark against tyrannical government."

Yet using that bulwark "has to be a lot more learned than just shouting out the word 'unconstitutional' at a town hall meeting," Barr said. "The problem is we're not teaching it, we're not using it either as a legitimate tool with which to implement public policy or with which to stop improper policy."

Eras of evolution

Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, co-author of the recently published "Keeping Faith with the Constitution," doesn't see the past century as a departure from the Constitution, but rather as the evolution — both through amendments and through the judiciary's interpretation — intended by the Founding Fathers.

"There have always been debates over what the scope of constitutional protections are and how much protection the Constitution does and doesn't give," she said. "We've been through lots of periods in American history where there's been quite heated debate over what the Constitution means, and this is one of those times."

The Progressive Era, the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal meant "times had shifted in important ways that required us to interpret the document to respond to events," she said, just as "the rise of the national security state" has forced us to reconcile the Constitution with threats posed by terrorism.

"Our Constitution was always meant to take into account that this was going to be a country of changes and growth. The broad principles of the Constitution are capable of being adapted to the situations in which we find ourselves."

Precedent is key

Choper noted the Bush administration cited World War II-era Supreme Court case law among justifications for anti-terror programs; Karlan noted people now raising constitutional challenges to health care reform are at odds with Supreme Court case law dating to the 1930s.

"But this isn't a paleological evolution in which things go only in one direction," Karlan added, citing eras in which free-speech rights, notions of egalitarianism and other constitutional principles have waxed and waned. "It's not as if constitutional interpretations have always been moving in one direction, it's a little less unidimensional than that."

Occasionally there's common ground.

"I think government often goes outside of the Constitution regardless of who's in power, be it Republicans or Democrats," Papermaster said.

"It's not one administration or another, it's not one party or another, it's the whole system," Steel said.

But agreement is fleeting. Steel accuses socialist activists of trying to overwhelm capitalism with social welfare programs: "They're out there to agitate the system and to try to bring the system down."

And Papermaster, while respecting "anyone who believes in upholding the Constitution no matter where they stand on the political spectrum," charges "there are some people on the right who are misconstruing, mischaracterizing, misunderstanding and misinforming what the Constitution says on certain issues; I hate to say it, but I think they're telling lies, and I can't respect that."

Read the Political Blotter at www.ibabuzz.com/politics.

The U.S. Constitution
  • WHEN: Adopted September 17, 1787
  • WHERE: Philadelphia
  • WHO: Key author, James Madison