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Attorney analyzes application of Constitution

News Writer | Wednesday, September 18, 2013


To celebrate Constitution Day on Tuesday, Saint Mary’s welcomed attorney William Wilson to campus to discuss the notion of constitutionality.

The lecture, titled “The Modern Woman’s Guide to the U.S. Constitution,” commemorated the United States Constitution on its 226th anniversary and interpreted it in a modern-day legal context.  

Wilson, who works at the firm Anderson, Agostino and Keller, said he specializes in constitutional issues regarding the First Amendment, the Commerce Clause and the Due Process Clause. Many people are unsure what it means for a law to be constitutional or unconstitutional, and others call any legislation they don’t agree with unconstitutional, Wilson said.

“Frequently, what happens is you’ll see a news story that says ‘the Supreme Court or some other court has decided that a law or a policy of the government is unconstitutional,” Wilson said. “And great, but what does that mean? … Sometimes we use ‘that’s unconstitutional’ as kind of a derogatory jab at something that we don’t like, and that has nothing to do with law.”

Before discussing modern application of the Constitution, Wilson said it is important to recognize the importance of the document’s first three articles. These articles establish the three branches of the United States government and lie at the core of governmental structure.

Wilson used the Affordable Care Act to exemplify how to apply the Constitution to modern times. He said the Act is constitutional despite concerns about its effects.

Wilson said the Affordable Care Act “seems to fly in the face of what we’ve been brought up to believe,” and appears to “challenge our nation’s democratic values and freedoms.” But the Constitution gives Congress the power to impose taxes, which is what the Affordable Care Act essentially does.

“It says, if you don’t have health insurance, then you will pay a tax,” Wilson said.

Wilson cited Chief Justice John Roberts on the topic of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act.

“‘Our task is not to decide whether the Affordable Care Act represents wise policy. Our job is to decide whether it’s constitutional. … History will tell us whether it was wise,” Wilson said, quoting Roberts.

Wilson said it is important that citizens recognize the proper role of the courts and the real meaning of constitutionality.

“We, as citizens, need to remember that the federal courts and even the state courts are not places where we can just go and say ‘that’s such a lousy idea, you ought to strike it down, it’s unconstitutional,'” Wilson said. “There is no part of our Constitution that says ‘thou shall not pass stupid legislation.'”

Wilson also said a continual adherence to the Constitution has enabled our nation and government to remain stable. He said Syria, Egypt, Northern Ireland and other conflict-ridden regions exemplify the problems and instability the United States has avoided.

Even in times of controversy, such as the 2000 presidential election, the United States government has come out virtually unscathed, Wilson said. The Supreme Court’s deciding the election after ballot issues occurred in Florida could have spurred constitutional crisis.

“We could have had a real constitutional crisis if [then-presidential candidate] Al Gore had said ‘I don’t accept the Supreme Court ruling,'” Wilson said. “Al Gore said, ‘I disagree with the court’s decision, but it’s the court, and they’re the last word.'” 

Wilson said judges and the courts are vital because someone needs to have the final say on these matters, no matter how minor the particular case appears to be.

“Somebody needs to be the head referee on the field,” he said. “Our Constitution means something because we as a society have decided and accepted that sometimes we have to tolerate decisions that we don’t like.”