WASHINGTON — Forgive the schmaltz, but every year around this time my hope for our nation is renewed. I may despair that Oklahoma just set the cause of women's bodily autonomy back 40 years and Arizona has made brown skin a basis for police interrogation, but then I judge the annual "We the People: The Citizen and The Constitution" competition, and my hope springs up like daffodils in the sun. I come away from watching throngs of high school students demonstrate their knowledge of the Bill of Rights and American system of government almost giddy with optimism for a brighter (as in smarter) future.
The competition is the culmination of an amazing program by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education. The center's curriculum has now been taught to 30 million students in public and private school social studies classes since 1987. Some teachers then prepare their full class (that's the rule, you just can't pick out the best students) to compete in a contest that plumbs the depths of their civic understanding. If they win at a congressional district level, it's on to the statewide competition and then to the nationals in Washington, where I'm often a judge.
The competition is so stiff that the students routinely demonstrate a better grasp of how our government operates — its history, philosophical underpinnings, elasticity and modern challenges — than college government majors or law school graduates.
These young people have spent months in their off hours reading Alexis de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, John Locke, historic Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and absorbing the founders' principles of separation of powers so fully that they can cogently discuss every power enumerated in the Constitution, why it's there and how it's checked by another branch.
If only the tea baggers who like to declare their support for upholding the Constitution had a tenth of these students' understanding of what the Constitution actually says and means, they might be worth listening to.
One day's topic for the hearings I judged was James Madison's Federalist 51, in which he insisted that the "partition of power" among the branches of government is a necessity that must be maintained, and the way to do so is to give each branch the power to keep the other in its proper place.
The students, sometimes three, sometimes as many as six, sit across from a panel of three judges (who often include state supreme court justices, federal court judges, law professors and bar presidents). The students start with prepared remarks discussing how our system was designed to divide power with shared responsibilities; such as how the president may veto a bill but Congress can override it; how the president makes appointments but the Senate must confirm them, etc. They cite cases where the courts have policed overreaches of power by the other branches, and wax poetic on Madison's referential use of Montesquieu's thinking in setting up our system. Then the questions from the judges start flying.
I asked state teams whether the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to set aside the line-item veto passed by Congress in 1996 was correctly decided and if so whether presidential signing statements are also constitutionally suspect.
Many teams, without benefit of notes, instantly cited Clinton vs. City of New York, the case to which I obliquely referred. They extemporaneously explored the danger to our checks and balances in allowing the president to legislate by amending statutes and how it would distort Madison's vision.
Teams knew about the modern controversy over signing statements and grappled with whether this was a form of legislating through the back door. Some thought the president's only constitutional option was to veto a bill he believed trenched on his executive authority. Others were not bothered by a president's declaration of opinion that parts of a bill were unenforceable, since signing statements have no force of law. Either way, most were able to rationally defend their views.
The students from Arcadia High School in Arcadia, Calif., won this year's competition, beating out about 1,200 others. They were dazzlingly prepared. These future leaders understand that America's greatness is not about waving the flag but the power of its founding ideas. It can't help but give one hope.