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What It Takes To Have A Constitutional Crisis | Ron’s Office Hours | NPR

October 8, 2019


Just what does it take to have a constitutional crisis? “This could precipitate a constitutional crisis.” “… prompting a constitutional crisis.” “… a major constitutional crisis.” “Constitutional crisis” “Constitutional crisis” You could say that the Constitution is something
of an owners manual for taxpayers. And like a lot of owners manuals, it can lead
to a lot of frustration. Among the things the Constitution doesn’t
have is a precise legal definition of constitutional crisis. And so the phrase constitutional crisis is
meant to mean a moment when the Constitution is not enough to resolve a question or a conflict or a confrontation or an uncertainty. And this can happen for several reasons. One — The Constitution is silent
on a given subject. For example, the original Constitution didn’t
say how many times a president could be re-elected. But after FDR had been elected to a fourth
term, the Constitution was amended to say “twice is enough.” Two — If the Constitution is ambiguous, it leaves open a question, like the original Constitution left open the questions of slavery
and secession. That’s how we got the Civil War. Three — There can be lively disagreement about what the Constitution’s language actually means. The disagreement can be between different
branches of the government — say, between Congress and the courts, or between one of
those two and the president. We saw a dramatic example of this in the Watergate
era, when President Nixon fired a special prosecutor who was looking into his re-election
campaign. He could do that because the special prosecutor
was working in the Justice Department’s authority, and that department is part of the executive
branch. But then the judicial branch, the court system,
stepped in when a judge ruled that the firing of the special prosecutor was illegal. That could have been a constitutional crisis,
but the courts persisted, upheld the original ruling all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Congress sided with the courts and began impeachment proceedings. When a confrontation finally arose over the
tapes that had been made in the president’s Oval Office, the Supreme Court ruled he had
to turn them over, and shortly thereafter President Nixon resigned. Crisis averted. Calming the storm of a constitutional crisis
has often required the willingness of the combatants to negotiate peace. The ultimate constitutional crisis would come if one side or the other were unwilling to budge. For now, at NPR, I’m Ron Elving. Thanks for coming to my office hours.

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