All of us relish giving unsolicited advice to our elected representatives. Some of us do it with a cup of coffee in our hand as we read the day’s headlines. Others offer it with a ballot on Election Day. Still others offer advice on the pages of this newspaper.
Here is my advice to members of the Indiana General Assembly, and it is simple: Please remember your oath of office.
The Indiana Constitution requires every elected official to take an oath “to support the Constitution of this State, and of the United States ...”
That oath applies to every law that a member of the General Assembly proposes, debates and votes upon.
The U.S. Constitution is a document of genius. The U.S. Constitution has guided us to be a nation of liberty and prosperity. All the more reason that our elected officials heed its words. Granted, some of those words can be a bit unclear. But the United States Supreme Court interprets and clarifies ambiguities. That is the role of the courts in America’s system of checks and balances. The ACLU of Indiana can help, too. In fact, holding government accountable to the ideals of the Constitution is the only thing we do.
So, it is not all right to draft and submit a bill that you know to be unconstitutional. It is a violation of your oath of office. The U.S. Supreme Court has been quite clear, for example, that public schools may not direct that the school day start begin with the Lord’s Prayer. Legislators can do many things to foster and encourage a peaceful and prosperous society without violating the Constitution. Our laws may not prefer one religion over another, or discriminate against our neighbors, or infringe on our freedom of expression or deprive us of our right to fair and due process.
What can legislators do within the confines of the Constitution to prevent, for example, acts of violence such as the tragedy in Newtown? State Senator Mike Delph (R-Carmel) offered a suggestion on his website. “Our country must do more to address the topic of mental illness….Could similar instances be prevented if we take the right steps to ensuring those with mental health issues have the support and resources they need?” The ACLU of Indiana couldn’t agree more with Senator Delph in this instance.
The ACLU of Indiana began this new year winning a case on behalf of mentally ill prisoners in the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections. The U.S. District Court found that the isolation and lack of treatment of mentally ill prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Further, these prisoners will be released someday into our communities. Better for them — and us — if we improve their mental health.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly, keep the U.S. and Indiana Constitutions before you. Your oath to support the Constitution applies to the laws you draft and pass and to the resources you appropriate and allocate. Voters are watching. The ACLU of Indiana is watching, too. We stand ready, as stewards of constitutional rights and responsibilities, to offer advice and, when necessary, to fight for those rights on behalf of all Hoosiers.
Jane Henegar is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.