Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley urged a Clark audience to keep close watch on the debates surrounding the constitutionality of several major issues, paying particular heed to how those issues will be decided legally and how those decisions will reverberate in the public.
Coakley delivered a lunchtime Constitution Day address before a crowd of more than 150 students, faculty and administrators, in Tilton Hall in the Higgins University Center on Thursday, Sept. 8.
Coakley began her speech by sharing a bit of information about her background, divulging that as a young girl she watched a lot of “Perry Mason” and read many Nancy Drew books. She noted her interest in high school debate, and that she always “loved a good argument.”
She recalled fondly her years at Williams College and stressed that at Clark students will develop critical thinking, writing, and advocacy skills.
“You have the great opportunity in a place like Clark to take advantage of your faculty, your administration, but also each other. That is the treasure you will take from the time you spend here: what you learn from each other,” she said.
Using the Defense of Marriage Act and health care as examples, Coakley spoke about the complexities of constitutional interpretation. She said both topics will have some impact on students’ lives; they illustrate how public and social policy is made, and the role that the Legislature and courts play in creating those policies.
Coakley spent several minutes formulating the argument for challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, explaining how the act affects same-sex couples and allows for discrimination. She advised the audience to monitor the debate on the issue, particularly as it’s presented in traditional and online media, and to pay attention to the actions taken by legislators, the courts and the public.
Coakley then turned her attention to the “huge issue” of health care reform.
She described how the fee-for-service system works and stressed the importance of finding a way to get people preventative and responsive healthcare.
While the decision to require Massachusetts residents to buy insurance — known as the individual mandate — was not challenged as a constitutional violation, Coakley said the law has divided attorneys general across the nation. While half believe the individual mandate is supportable at the federal level, she said, the other half do not.
Coakley said the future of health care — particularly the individual mandate — ultimately will rest with the Supreme Court, and could be decided by a single justice representing the swing vote.
“We think of the Supreme Court as a body that sits in the abstract, reads the Constitution, and, by reading it, defines what the law is,” she said. “But it’s much more complicated than that, and it’s also much more driven by precedent, by people’s feelings about where we are socially, and what rights are protected and what aren’t.
“I say that not to discourage you, but only to challenge you along the idea of ‘this is important stuff.’ And it does get influenced by what people say to their legislators.
“These are important decisions and it’s not so easy to say what the answer is, but they are all questions that I think we need to get educated about and ask ourselves about. We will be a better state — a better country — if we all call upon ourselves to do that.”
Coakley said it’s essential to recognize that the Constitution is a larger “umbrella of rights” than even the Founding Fathers envisioned, and should only be expanded in a way that “makes us stronger.”
Coakley’s lecture was sponsored by the Pre-Law Society, Political Science Department, Law & Society program, Epstein Pre-Law Fund, and the Office of Career Services.