Civics Lesson 

We live in a time when many of our elected representatives, including a prominent senator from our own state of Tennessee, suggest that other priorities -- poverty, health care, war and peace -- are subordinate to the need to emphasize civics classes in our educational system.

Fair enough. What a good time then for the elected spokesman for the nation's lawyers to arrive in our midst and give us a civics lesson. For that's just what Michael Greco, the president of the American Bar Association (ABA), provided when he addressed members of the downtown Rotary Club on Tuesday.

Greco began by viewing with alarm such phenomena as President Bush's curious substitution for his constitutional right to veto legislation. As Greco noted, the president has issued no vetoes but has appended "presidential signing statements" to no fewer than 770 bills. By means of such statements, Bush has served notice that he reserves the right not to abide by the spirit of the letter of the legislation duly passed by the Congress and submitted to him. A case in point mentioned by Greco was the congressional resolution opposing the use of torture in implementing national policy.

Among Greco's other revelations: A recent poll indicated that some 40 percent of Americans are unaware of the existence of the constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers. And fully 44 percent say they don't care about the doctrine when it is explained to them!

Fully aware that he was risking giving offense to someone in his audience, Greco proceeded to stoke some controversy. Asked about revelations of indefinite retention and possible mistreatment of "war on terror" prisoners at the American base at Guantanamo, Greco pronounced it indefensible and noted that in the immediate wake of 9/11, a special committee of the ABA had made the issue the second point of a nine-point emergency resolution. Point number one was a pledge of support to all necessary military action undertaken by the president. Point number two was to insist that prisoners incarcerated at Gitmo be properly charged and given due process or released.

As for the current debate over medical malpractice reform, Greco said that actions taken by various states to place caps on malpractice settlements are not working and have not reduced the number of suits in progress, frivolous or otherwise. "You don't solve problems by limiting people's rights," he said.

The American system of government ordained by our Constitution is vulnerable but always capable of being defended by the American people if they are properly informed, Greco said. "If they lose it, it's very difficult to get it back." The special needs of the present time require special vigilance, he said, lest anyone, "including our leaders," do harm to the Constitution.

Above all, he said, "let us not be co-conspirators" with those who mean our system harm -- foreign or domestic, in or out of government.

We can't speak for the other students, but we think the teacher in this class deserved an A.

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