Is the Constitution Obstructing American Democracy?

More from our inbox:

  • Let’s Get Books to Prisoners
  • The ‘Bold Courage’ of Parkland Activists
  • Thank You, Philip Galanes

Credit…Illustration by Daniel Zender; Photography via National Archives

To the Editor:

Re “Liberals Need to Change the Rules,” by Ryan D. Doerfler and Samuel Moyn (Opinion guest essay, Aug. 21):

Mr. Doerfler and Mr. Moyn are right that we need to change the structure of Congress to remove the right-wing bias that infects it in order to make it fairly represent the American people. Their suggestion that Congress is itself the institution that might implement that change, through a “Congress Act,” however, is puzzling. Exactly the structural flaws that must be removed also make any such legislation a nonstarter.

To make Congress democratic — as well as to eliminate the Electoral College — we must appeal to the people directly, through a national referendum. Congress will not change itself.

David Gold
New York
The writer is a lawyer and executive director of Democratism, a nonprofit that promotes the abolition of the Electoral College and proportional representation in Congress.

To the Editor:

The problem is not that the Constitution is broken, but rather that the Supreme Court has been allowed to usurp powers not granted to it by the Constitution. Nowhere does the Constitution provide a method for the judicial branch to overturn decisions made by the other two branches. That power was assumed through the decision of the Supreme Court written by Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of Marbury v. Madison.

The legislative and executive branches could agree upon a method to review significant Supreme Court decisions that overturn laws passed by them and offer an evaluation of the court’s reasoning that either agrees or disagrees with the court’s decision. This would ensure that all critical constitutional issues would be resolved by agreement between at least two of the three equal branches of government.

J. Raby
San Ramon, Calif.

To the Editor:

Not to take issue with Harvard and Yale faculty, but were the filibuster (a Senate rule, not a constitutional provision) to be trash-binned and politically motivated gerrymandering declared a 14th Amendment violation, the Constitution, as is, would permit outcomes that reflect majority opinion and our evolving sense of what is just.

The framers made amending the Constitution difficult precisely so that shifting winds of political opinion, or the rise of a demagogue — e.g., Donald Trump — would not upend the democratic process. We have subverted that objective by requiring 60 votes in the Senate to pass most legislation, and permitting state legislatures to tip the scale to their preferred political party by redrawing district lines.

The applicable adage in defense of the Constitution is not “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but rather, “You break it, you own it.” We, not Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, made this mess, and it is up to us to fix it.

Rita C. Tobin
Chappaqua, N.Y.

Let’s Get Books to Prisoners

Credit…Ben Denzer

To the Editor:

Re “Reading Books in Prison Saved Me. Why Ban Them?,” by Christopher Blackwell (Opinion guest essay, Aug. 18):

One of the biggest surprises when I became a bookstore owner in 2015 was the number of books we wanted to donate (slightly damaged ones we couldn’t sell, books that could no longer be returned, and more) and the lack of places that would accept donations.

Locally we have a few places we work with, but prisons seemed important places to donate books to. Finding ones that accepted them was complex, and none were local. Once we’ve weeded out what’s not allowed (romance, true crime, among others), packed all in boxes and paid for shipping, there was never a way to know if the books made it to the incarcerated. Based on Mr. Blackwell’s essay, I fear not.

Bookstore owners are a powerful group. We would love to partner with institutions to get books in the hands of those who might not have access or funds. Let this be a call for the powers that be (start with a task force?) to begin working together. We can start with donations and move toward group reads and other worthy book-based experiences.

Kira Wizner
Millbrook, N.Y.

To the Editor:

Christopher Blackwell is correct that prison officials impose arbitrary restrictions on what books may be read behind bars. He is also correct that these restrictions — which keep incarcerated individuals from accessing materials they need for education and personal growth — conflict with the purported rehabilitative aims of our prison system.

Another barrier to access is money. Books are expensive, and many incarcerated people are indigent. In prison, even unbanned books can be hard to come by. (The prison “library” is sometimes just a pushcart with paperback fiction.)

Readers should be aware of the many books-to-prisoners organizations, staffed by volunteers, that accept letter requests from incarcerated people and send them free books by mail. These nonprofit groups are invariably underfunded, and they are constantly overwhelmed with demand from a population that is heartbreakingly desperate for access to information.

While we should fight bans that keep books out of prisons, we should also support the organizations that are trying hard to get books in.

Ben A. Schatz
The writer, a public defender, is a co-founder of Books Beyond Bars.

The ‘Bold Courage’ of Parkland Activists

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School cheered onstage at the end of the first March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., in 2018.Credit…Erin Schaff for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re: “4 Years Later, Parkland Survivors Still Speaking Out” (news article, Aug. 18):

I must respectfully disagree with Ryan Petty, the grieving Parkland parent, who criticized the strident tactics of the young March for Our Lives organizers — particularly for their “barging into lawmakers offices and demanding an assault weapons ban.”

As the founder of the Million Mom March — the largest protest against gun violence in U.S. history until the March for Our Lives held 18 years later — I regret that we adults did not encourage more “barging into lawmakers offices” to demand reforms. I am proud that many of us mothers from the 2000 march returned to Capitol Hill in 2004 to beg Congress to extend the 10-year ban on assault weapons. But begging was not enough to save the ban or the life of Mr. Petty’s daughter.

If only more adults had the bold courage of the student activists from March for Our Lives, perhaps the slaughtered children and educators in Newtown, Parkland and Uvalde might still be alive today.

Donna Dees-Thomases
New Orleans
The writer is the author of“Looking for a Few Good Moms: How One Mother Rallied a Million Others Against the Gun Lobby.”

Thank You, Philip Galanes

To the Editor:

Re “An Advice Writer in a Shifting World” (Inside the Times, Aug. 21):

Your tribute to Philip Galanes reminds me of a rewarding conversation I once had. Flying home in a middle seat, I found myself with a seatmate who was indifferent, at best, and annoyed, more likely, to have me sitting next to her. Undeterred, I opened my Sunday New York Times to my favorite column and proceeded to ask my fellow traveler each of that week’s four questions. It wasn’t Passover, but each question led to a lively discussion that helped us painlessly pass our flight time.

As we were landing, my still unnamed companion said to me that this was the most enjoyable flight she’d ever had. Philip Galanes makes my every Sunday wiser and more enjoyable.

(Rabbi) Jonathan H. Gerard
Durham, N.C.

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