The case for civics education (5/17/2015)

If nine members of the House Judiciary Committee better understood the U.S. Constitution, Monday’s special legislative session could have been avoided, writes David Adler.

By David Adler

A little constitutional history and civic education can go a long way. They could have spared Idahoans the angst and expense that accompany the special legislative session that will be convened on Monday to approve the critical mechanisms of the child support treaty negotiated at The Hague.

The nine members of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee that voted to kill the bill necessary to implement the treaty’s provisions for collecting child support payments might have voted differently if they had been presented with a constitutional history lesson.

James Madison declared that one of the driving forces behind the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was state interference in the conduct of American foreign policy, specifically through their practice of scuttling treaties.

Madison listed state interference with treaties as one of “principal vices of the political system” created by the Articles of Confederation, which exalted state power at the expense of the national government and, ultimately, persuaded voters to replace it with the Constitution.

The stakes for the young republic were high. Repeated violations of treaty obligations and expectations by obstructive states, bent on pursuing their own interests and ideological inclinations, had undermined the trustworthiness and reputation of the nation abroad.

As a result, foreign countries began closing their ports to American goods and damped their enthusiasm for new international arrangements and undertakings with the United States.

The obstructionist efforts strengthened the resolve of the framers of the Constitution to incorporate in Article VI, The Supremacy Clause, not merely for its benefits in domestic matters, but in the foreign relations realm as well.

As a consequence, the text provides that treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land. The Supremacy Clause, then, owes its origins to the recalcitrance of states, which sought to interfere with the formulation and management of the nation’s foreign policy.

In 1793, in Ware v. Hylton, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered an instructive seminar on the allocation of power and federalism, and established the fundamental principle that a state act may not violate a national treaty.

A treaty could not be the supreme law if any state act could stand in its way. A treaty and the Constitution, which was, Justice Samuel Chase wrote, the “creator” of the states, “prostrated” state laws that conflicted with them.

The decision’s imperishable principle of the supremacy of national treaties reaffirmed exclusive federal control of the nation’s foreign affairs and relegated memories of state interference in treaties to a receding past.

Surely the Idaho Legislature will rectify the grave error inflicted by the nine votes that threaten the collection of child support. With a wiser vote, one better informed by knowledge of constitutional history and some learning gathered from the teachings of Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the potential harm can be avoided.

But there is a deeper lesson in this disappointing episode. The case for a greater state commitment to civics education rarely has been stronger. And with it, a greater commitment to education as whole. This special session will cost taxpayers about $36,000, more than the salary of a beginning teacher.

But for the lack of respect for, and knowledge of, the U.S. Constitution, the special legislative session could have been avoided.