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Monday, September 18, 2006

The country celebrates Constitution Day; yesterday was the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 by the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but this year Sept. 17 fell on a Sunday.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr . reflected on his views of the Constitution in an interview last month with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

LAMB : If you had to define it in 200 words or less -- a simple explanation of what our Constitution says, what would you say?

ROBERTS : Well, these are the rules by which we govern ourselves. You know, like if you're going to play any game, you've got to know what the rules are. And governing, of course, is not a game, it's more important but it's the same principle, you have to know what the rules are.

And governments in world history have so often abused the power they have and people have suffered because of it. And the framers decided they were going to lay down some rules to try to keep that from happening, that's what the Constitution is.

LAMB : Is there a particularly interesting part of it that you have always liked?

ROBERTS : I think people tend to focus because the cases tend to be more high profile on the Bill of Rights. . . .

But the really interesting part of it and I think what the framers were most interested in is the structure of the whole thing, the decision to take the powers of the government and divide them up into three separate branches and to try to make sure that each branch stayed within its own sphere; the structure saying . . . this is the presidency, this is the president's power, this is the legislature, this is what they can do, here's the judiciary. . . . That's really where the main protection of our liberty resides. That is their way of preventing the government from becoming too powerful, and I think that's the part that is, at least for me anyway, very interesting.

LAMB : If you were just starting out to study the Constitution, how would you go about it based on what you know now?

ROBERTS : You know the one thing people don't do, and by that I mean law professors, judges, law students, not just normal everyday citizens who are engaged in other occupations, nobody reads it. We talk about it a lot. We have cases about it. But to actually sit down and read it doesn't happen that often and that is a very rewarding exercise.

You know, of all the major written constitutions in history it's the shortest. It's not an elaborate code. They were laying down basic principles that they wanted to endure, and it's timeless. There are parts of it that don't seem to make much sense today, and we wonder why they are worried about quartering soldiers and things like that, but they were important then. But most of it still resonates, and you can see what they were trying to do just by sitting down and reading it.

LAMB : When was the last time you read the Constitution?

ROBERTS : It was a few weeks ago. Just in kind of commemoration of the end of the term, you know, we spent the last term issuing a lot of decisions on what the Constitution means, and I thought I ought to at least pause for an hour or so and read the original document again to see how closely I think we got to what the framers wrote.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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