The tension was palpable in the U of C Law School courtroom as the final round of the Langfan Constitutional Debates concluded Wednesday evening. The debate, sponsored by the Chicago Debate Society (CDS), inspired a critical examination of the importance of the Constitution and how the United States’s courts implement the document in decisions. In the end, a 3-–0 decision awarded the team of strict constructionist first-years Noah Blaser and Harry Murphy the win over first-year living constitution advocates Patrick Diehl and Greg Nance.
“I think that particularly in an election year we see this as an issue that differentiates the Republicans and the Democrats,” said Galen Simmons, CDS president. “The Democrats tend to see that a living constitution is necessary to uphold justice, while the Republicans claim that they will appoint strict constructionist judges who will not legislate from the bench, basically a way of saying they support originalism.”
Adam Samaha, an assistant professor at the Law School, presented the keynote address before the debate. He introduced the topic of constitutionalism and presented the difference between the Constitution as a set of governing laws, constitutionalism as a study of the Constitution, and the Constitution as the physical, legal document of the United States. While he presented a number of ways to interpret the concept of constitution, ultimately he left the arguments about the living nature of the Constitution to the debaters.
The debaters considered whether a literal reading of the Constitution can account for modern scientific advancements, patent laws, and protection of civil liberties and property, as well as whether states have the ability to serve as an outlet for progressive legislation. The debaters also discussed whether the amendment system was a sufficient method of keeping the Constitution up-to-date, or whether it was too tedious a process to be effective.
This event marked the Langfan Constitutional Debate’s inaugural year. William Langfan, a lawyer and the father of two University of Chicago alumnae, donated $100,000 to the University’s endowment to sponsor an annual constitutional debate. Through an application process, the development office awarded the Chicago Debate Society the honor of hosting this annual event.
The competition required teams of two undergraduate students to research and prepare cases to answer affirmatively and negatively to the question, “Should the Constitution be living?” The debates were conducted in a modified parliamentary debate style with alternating seven minute constructive and rebuttal speeches.
Ten teams of University students competed in the preliminary rounds on Saturday, January 19. The top two teams after three preliminary rounds advanced on to the final round for the chance to win the first place prize of $3,000 or the second place prize of $1,000.