Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito spoke to St. Mary's graduates and had some wise things to say about the essential and the merely important:
The U.S. Constitution is relatively short -- about 4,500 words, Alito noted. That compares to a recently proposed European constitution that runs more than 160,000 words.
The U.S. Constitution is brief because it separates matters that are essential and fundamental from matters that are simply important, Alito said. If the framers of the Constitution had taken a different approach, the document might not still be in effect today, he said.
That approach serves as a good example of what we should do in our lives, Alito told the graduates. It involves keeping constantly in mind what is essential and most permanent, he said.
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The U.S. Constitution also is hard to forget and hard to change, Alito said. In more than 200 years, it has been amended only 27 times, although more than 10,000 amendments have been considered, he said.
The framers knew that when troubled times arose, people might be tempted to meddle with the fundamentals, and they didn't want that to happen, Alito said.
That provides a personal lesson, too, he said. "If we do not have fixed and clear principles, we can very easily go astray," he said.
Many people, including about half the Supreme Court, seem not to comprehend the "bedrock principles" concept, insisting that the Constitution be a "living document" that can be creatively interpreted by caring courts attuned to the shifting nuances of ambient conditions. But that's what laws are for. If we try to make such accommodations through the Constitution, we risk destroying the values the country is based on, or at least so muddling them that they become meaningless. Then those laws, which are the only thing we have to guide our day-do-day interactions with each other, will be based not on our common understanding of shared principles but on the whim of the moment.
So it is in our personal lives, as Alito touched on, and that offers a cautionary note when it comes to presidential candidates and whether they are "flip-flopping" on this or that issue. As the candidates try to appeal to the partisan bases, then adopt a more moderate stance in the general election, it will be clearer and clearer that they are very comfortable seeming to, well, be on more than one side of an issue. I think it's important to disinguish the political dissembling from the outright lie. We can and should change our opinions frequently, based on our honest assessment of accumulated information, just as we change laws based on the empiric evidence. But if a "change of heart" seems to violate the candidate's core values (insofar as we know them), that's a far more serious matter.