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Launching a Bicentennial Bill of Rights the Right Way

A DISCUSSION of justice in the United States usually results from the perpetration of some gross injustice. There is nothing wrong with responding to bad with good. The beauty of the system is that government, or any establishment, cannot for long keep social and moral indignities under wraps. It was only a matter of time before racial and gender discrimination were addressed and legislated and litigated against.

As this nation approaches the bicentennial of its Bill of Rights next year, bias and prejudice still exist. Religious bigotry continues to flare up. Unequal justice for the poor, minorities, and have-nots is rife in some places.

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Laws in the democratic context are generally just. A system of checks and balances helps ensure fairness. Higher courts reverse lower courts on affirmative action; gubernatorial vetoes strike down excessively restrictive state legislative measures on abortion; municipal ordinances that curb freedom of speech are often turned around by voter indignation.

The system works - but not always fast enough or well enough. People tend to give up too easily. There are many avenues of recourse to right wrongs. Among them are increasingly important legal alternatives, including mini-trials, neighborhood jurisdictions, arbitration, and informal negotiation. The forums of advocacy, including civil rights and constitutional rights groups, religious liberties organizations, and citizens' self-help outlets, provide the public a vehicle for protest against social wrongs.

Bill of Rights celebrations will include school programs and civic displays. United States industry is already immersed in planning events. Patriotic fanfare is not sufficient, however. A national commitment to addressing problems, great and small, is needed.

Some presidential or blue-ribbon commissions may be needed. Among them: a unit to address the causes of drug abuse and to offer practical solutions; a group to conduct an intensive study of capital punishment, assessing its morality as well as its deterrent value and the fairness of the state systems that administrate it; a national committee to review the Constitution's Free Exercise of Religion clause and to evaluate whether public policy fully protects the right-to-practice of all denominations and prayer groups.

These are not easy problems to resolve. Volatile issues, including abortion, affirmative action, and the death penalty, command no clear public consensus. The courts and legislatures often reflect public opinion even if they are not directed by it.

The confirmation hearings for Judge David Souter, President Bush's nominee to the US Supreme Court, will certainly indicate public concern with these questions. Judge Souter cannot be expected to reveal how he would vote on specific cases. He does have a responsibility, however, to spell out his general constitutional philosophy, including his interpretation of his relationship to and the relative authority of the branches of government.

The Souter hearings could be divisive. More usefully, they will be an example of constitutional government in action - a fitting way to launch a bicentennial focus on rights.

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