No debating it: These teens' arguments are constitutional

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it "
-- Judge Learned Hand

In order to form a more perfect union, form a more perfect citizen.

That is the goal of the "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" program, which provides instructional material and teacher training related to the U.S. Constitution.

The course of instruction at the high school level culminates in a series of competitions in which students are judged by panels of lawyers, judges, educators and journalists on their knowledge, understanding and ability to apply constitutional principles to current events and issues.

The program is directed by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education as directed by an act of Congress.

When the national competition commences in Arlington, Va., in late April, students from Edward C. Reed High School in Sparks will be ably representing Nevada.

Reed outscored students from five other state schools -- two from each of the three congressional districts determined in a regional competition in December -- in competition at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse in downtown Las Vegas a week ago.

Second place went to Bishop Gorman High School and third to Reno High. Honorable mentions were awarded to College of Southern Nevada High School West, Boulder City High and Canyon Springs High.

Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison and I were again among the two dozen judges who gladly volunteered to grade the competition, which is likened to a congressional hearing with testimony and queries from a panel. Students from each school appeared before six panels probing various areas of constitutional history and present-day application.

My group of judges asked about the relationship between the Bill of Rights and natural law philosophy, promoting lots of references to and quotes from John Locke. But the intriguing and difficult part came with our queries about: "Under what circumstances, if any, should the rights of institutions and classes of individuals be given preference over individual rights? Why?"

This gave the judges an opportunity to ask about human rights related to the street protests in Egypt, about Fifth Amendment takings under eminent domain and even the ObamaCare mandate requiring everyone to purchase health insurance.

Reed High's answers were on point. Student Tyler Glider even quoted from the 10th Amendment and the Lopez decision, in which the Supreme Court rejected a Commerce Clause defense of a gun-free school zone law -- a decision prominently quoted by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in his opinion declaring ObamaCare unconstitutional.

Though Reed won overall, Bishop Gorman was deemed tops in the area I was judging.

Gorman's Kylie Shaw got points on natural law by quoting John F. Kennedy instead of Locke, when she noted "that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

Michael Mehocic scored constitutional, historical, legal and current events points by answering my question about the wisdom of Kelo -- the case in which private property was taken so a private company could build a facility that would pay more in taxes and provide jobs -- by pointing out the parallel with the eminent domain case only blocks away involving the Pappas family, whose land was taken for the Fremont Street Experience parking garage. He even opined that it was not fair. (None of the students could answer my follow-up question about what is on the Kelo property today. Answer: nothing.)

Mathew Shoemaker nailed the ObamaCare question about whether health care is a right by pointing out a right cannot possibly exist where someone else, a doctor, must provide the care. That would be a taking.

And there were other equally astute student responses. All of the students had reason to be proud of their performances.

But when the national, state-against-state competition occurs, I can't help but wonder whether one of the questions asked of the young constitutional scholars shouldn't be: Where in the entire body of the Constitution is there enumerated a power by which Congress may create a Department of Education?

Thomas Mitchell is senior opinion editor of the Review-Journal. He may be contacted at (702) 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ Read his blog at