Most Americans know that July 4th is our nation's birthday. Surveys show that far fewer know that September 17th is the birthday of our system of government, the date in 1787 on which 39 of the 55 original delegates to the Philadelphia Convention completed and signed the U.S. Constitution. This year therefore marks the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.The Constitution embodies principles which inform our system of government and our relationship to it, including a commitment to the rule of law, the separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of government, federalism that marks the distinctive and cooperative authority of the federal government and the states, and the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice that undergird individual civil rights and liberties.In 2004, federal law designated every September 17th as Constitution Day. Any educational institution that receives federal funds is mandated to celebrate Constitution Day by offering an educational program on or around the holiday. Constitution Day encourages Americans to remember the significance of the Constitution in establishing our system of government, securing our individual civil rights and liberties, and providing the means to keep government accountable to the people in times of war and peace.
Constitution Day also is an opportunity to reflect on tribal governments' role in the American political system. The U.S. Constitution assigns authority to Congress to "regulate commerce . . . with the Indian tribes." This power has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court as exclusive to the federal government, meaning that there is no state role (unless, of course, Congress delegates authority to the states, as it did in IGRA through the tribal-state compact agreement).
The Supreme Court also has interpreted Congress's power under the so-called "Indian Commerce Clause" as plenary, or absolute and complete, and has upheld federal laws that have little to do with the regulation of commerce with the Indian tribes. As political scientist David Wilkins has asked, should our democratic system of government allow Congress to have unlimited, and perhaps absolute, power to regulate tribes? Or is there a better way to think about the federal government's relationship to tribes? There's certainly much to debate on Constitution Day. See, e.g., David Wilkins, American Indian Sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court (1997).
Labels: Tribal sovereignty