The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law
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An analysis of how Constitutional law can be changed by principled and committed people who work outside the system rather than within it.

In her youth, Marion Hammer hunted rabbits and squirrels and become a champion shooter. After the Gun Control Act of 1968, she also became a gun rights activist. By the mid-1970s, she was a full-time lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and became its first female president in 1995. “Hammer is the leading edge of the NRA’s state strategy,” writes Cole (Law and Public Policy/Georgetown Univ. Law Center; Justice at War: The Men and Ideas that Shaped America's War on Terror, 2008, etc.), focusing on three primary policy areas: marriage equality, the right to bear arms, and human rights in the war on terror. The author’s argument—that change pivots on the actions of citizen activists—is undermined by examples like Hammer. They are unsurprising crusaders, people supported by powerful groups or organizations (e.g., the NRA, Harvard University) that eventually funnel their causes to lawyers, who eventually argue in front of the Supreme Court. The author’s best advice, and the more important point, emerges from his mantra that change is “a marathon, not a sprint.” Like Hammer, begin your campaign in a sympathetic state, gain support there, and convince the courts one state at a time. It’s also helpful if the advocates of a cause are likable and connected. Cole acknowledges that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that political, cultural, and social contexts can buoy or destroy a cause, as can judges in lower courts. He argues that normal citizens can be drivers, not just bystanders, but it requires decades of perseverance and, if possible, the backing of an influential lobbyist group or institutional organization.

Cole’s book is compelling, especially in today’s climate of gridlock following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. While the title of the book proposes a how-to for the average person, however, the precept becomes fuzzy when these champions are NRA presidents, Harvard lawyers, and other highly visible proponents.

Pub Date: March 29th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-465-06090-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Basic
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