Sen. Russ Feingold’s lecture yesterday did not go exactly as planned — in fact, he did not even make it to the lecture hall.
Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, argued before an audience of 150 at the Law School that the nation must repair what he called the “scar” left by the Bush administration on the rule of law in government. But due to a scheduling conflict — a role-call vote on the Senate floor to confirm Eric Holder as the next attorney general — Feingold spoke not from the podium, but from a video feed being projected at the front of the lecture hall.
Feingold expressed optimism that the new administration of President Barack Obama seems willing to abide by constitutional limitations that Feingold said the preceding administration bypassed.
“It is the beginning of change that is long overdue,” Feingold said. “We need to demonstrate that we still believe what our Founding Fathers understood … that our system of checks and balances are strong and resilient.”
For the past seven years, Feingold said, he has been participating in the legislative battle to curb practices such as “violations of privacy” and “secret law” perpetrated by the Bush administration. After Sept. 11, he said, the United States faced an “irrevocable loss” of not just life but also of security and faith in the U.S. government.
The Bush administration reached beyond its boundaries in the separation of powers, Feingold argued, adding that the system of checks and balances failed when Congress acquiesced to these oversteps.
While Abraham Lincoln provides a good example of a president who stepped outside of constitutional boundaries but sought Congress’ approval for his actions, not every president can or should emulate this model, Feingold said. The new administration must make a clean break with past practices, he said.
“That effort to restore security should be our top priority,” Feingold said, praising Obama for his inaugural commitment to the rule of law.
The fight for rights and liberties rests with not just the government but also the people, Feingold reminded the faculty and students assembled in the lecture hall.
After his speech, Feingold — looking out on the audience from a two-way videoconference set-up — responded to a handful of questions. When asked if he thought legal action should be taken against members of the Bush administration, Feingold said he thought that doing so could greatly help the nation to heal “if it’s done in the right way and at the right time.”
Law School visiting scholar Mary Davis LAW ’90 applauded Feingold for not holding back in his criticisms of the Bush administration.
“I like that fact that … he did bite the bullet,” she said.
Sophie Brill LAW ’11 added that she admired Feingold for taking principled stands on controversial issues.
Feingold plans to introduce a Constitutional amendment to require special elections in the case of Senate seat vacancies.