On the eve of “National Constitution Day,” a constitutional law expert debated one of the United States’ most accomplished legislators about lessons from the Founders.
The debate, which was held in a packed Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, pitted Yale Law professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 against former GOP Speaker of the House and 2012 presidential contender Newt Gingrich. At the discussion, the two participants addressed issues such as gun control and voting rights.
“How do we limit the government’s power? How do we protect the people?” Gingrich asked.
Gingrich, who served in Congress for two decades and helped the Republican Party gain a majority in the House during the 1994 midterm elections, said the Constitution is an attempt by the Founders to establish order while avoiding dictatorship. The Constitution’s authors aimed to craft a government with enough checks — and inefficiencies — to avoid giving too much power to any single person or group, he said. Gingrich added that the checks are accomplished through separation of powers and corresponding limitations, which he thinks have been diminished in recent decades by “elite” federal judges.
Amar, who teaches the popular undergraduate course “Constitutional Law,” said he thinks the Constitution is adaptable to different generations and is an “inter-generational project” that fosters a “national, liberal, egalitarian government.”
“You want inefficiency, stick with the Articles of Confederation,” Amar said. “And a lot of traditionalists did. But not George Washington.”
He said he disagrees with what he thinks is an assault by the Republican Party on minority voting rights. Amar pointed to June’s five-to-four Supreme Court decision striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as a slew of recent legislation in Republican-controlled state governments to limit early voting and require government-issued photo identification to vote as examples of the trend.
Amar called on Gingrich to “reclaim your party and set it right again” in the image of the Republican Party of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. But Gingrich said Amar’s point of view represents an “assault” on the fairness of voting.
“This is not 1965,” Gingrich said. “It is a new world with new problems.”
Both speakers agreed on issues such as judicial restraint, the individual right to bear arms and the description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “thug.”
In an interview with the News, Gingrich said he thinks Amar is a “very unusual professor” for the breadth of historical knowledge he applies to his constitutional thinking and said he enjoyed debating such a formidable opponent.
Jeremy Hutton ’15 said he was glad to see an attempt to reach consensus between people with significantly differing opinions.
“I think that there is much more common ground between schools of Constitutional thought than there would be between schools of political thought,” Hutton said.
Kelsey Miller ’16 said she was intrigued by the discussion between “an expert and an active participant” in the United States’ political sphere.
Gingrich was the first speaker of the House to hold a Ph.D., which he received in education from Tulane in 1971.