By Dagmar Fors Karppi
As America struggles with how to deal with refugees coming from areas that support terrorism, we can look back to WWII and how we dealt with our Japanese-American citizens. Fear and paranoia in both cases is the determining factor. The Friends of Sagamore Hill invited author Kermit Roosevelt III, a great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt to speak on his recently published book, Allegiance, a historical novel based around the Supreme Court case resulting from the detention of 100,000 Japanese birthright citizens.
Roosevelt III was the first speaker in the annual Friends of Sagamore Hill 12th annual Dr. John A. Gable Lecture Series held Nov. 12 at Christ Church.
Roosevelt is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Washington, DC, he attended Harvard University and Yale Law School. Before joining the Penn faculty, he clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams and Supreme Court Justice David Souter and practiced law in Chicago. His experiences clerking and practicing law informed his first novel, the national campus bestseller In the Shadow of the Law, which won the Philadelphia Atheneum Annual Literary Award and was selected as a best book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor.
Roosevelt III’s talk illuminated the Supreme Court and how it interprets the American Constitution. He said that change is ultimately dictated by social movements, that in effect the court leads from the rear, changing things as the American people change their will. An example of that is the new marriage law that allows same sex marriage. Another is the Dred Scott decision, that said slaves are not citizens. Both decisions reflect the opinion of the social climate of its time.
Roosevelt III explained, “The court changes go in spurts.” The first period began in 1791 when the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments was ratified by the states. They were proposed on March 4, 1789, along with others still under consideration.
The next spurt came after the Civil War when the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were added. After TR came into office the country voted on the 16th, 17th and 19th. The 21st amendment got rid of prohibition, the 18th amendment, so the court is willing to change its decisions. Interestingly, the 27th amendment was proposed on Sept. 25, 1789 and was ratified on May 7, 1992, 202 years, seven months and 12 days after proposed.
“This is still the Roosevelt Era,” said Roosevelt III, for dealing with the Constitution.
Under Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Depression needed a national response, putting into place TR’s vision of what the constitution should do. TR’s view is that the people needed to have their rights insured by the federal government and not by the individual states. Then Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon once said that Theodore Roosevelt “had no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.” TR wanted broad rights to improve the life of the common man and woman. He wanted to enhance democracy, he supported women’s right to vote, and he wanted to lower voting barriers. He wanted U.S. Senators to be elected by the people and not to be appointed. He wanted to destroy “the invisible government,” the link between corrupt business people and corrupt politicians.
Under FDR, during WWII was the era when three Japanese Americans sued the court and lost in cases against their being taken from their homes, leaving prosperous businesses behind as they were put into detention camps. The book Allegiance focuses on the Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. United States and the Japanese-American internment.
Interestingly, the play now on Broadway, Allegiance by George Takei, concerns the same subject in a different way. Roosevelt III said he would appreciate a link on the play’s website to his book, to get the word out. That was his reason for writing a novel, as opposed to a nonfiction book on the issues involved: to reach a broader audience, as he told a person in the audience at Christ Church during the Q&A.
“The Q&A was the most interesting part of the evening for me,” said Roosevelt III.
The audience was well informed and had interesting questions. A woman asked if it was realistic to think there will be a future amendment to defeat Citizen’s United on campaign financing.
He said changing decisions is very complicated and depends on who is on the court. “Some people are more willing to be original in their views.”
Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence looks for precedence; Justice Antonin Scalia is willing to overrule the past; Justice John G. Roberts like stealth to overrule items, seeing change is done incrementally.
All in all, the evening was enlightening and entertaining. The next of the lecture series will take place in 2016. This was just a foretaste of what is to come.
Those interested in joining and supporting the mission of the Friends of Sagamore Hill should visit www.sagamore-hill.com, contact the Friends at 516-997-5346 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.