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Jewish World Review August 12, 2002 / 4 Elul, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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The Congressman from the Constitution | On Aug. 10, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, former Congressman Don Edwards -- whose dedication to the Bill of Rights is sorely missed in Congress -- received the American Bar Association Thurgood Marshall Award for his "unswerving devotion to the Constitution and its values throughout his career."

Edwards served in the House from 1962 to 1995. During those years, I covered Congress for a number of publications, including columns in The Village Voice and The Washington Post. I often referred to him as "The Congressman from the Constitution."

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Edwards, a former FBI agent, set standards for FBI oversight that the current Congressional leadership of both parties have allowed to lapse. This is at a time when Attorney General John Ashcroft, with the president's approval, is persistently diluting the rule of law -- including the Bill of Rights -- through legislation and unilateral executive actions that limit judicial supervision. Accordingly, the separation of powers at the core of the Constitution is being weakened even as we fight to preserve our liberties against worldwide terrorism.

It will take a book, which I hope some historian will write, to adequately illuminate Edwards' leadership in combating those who, often with good intentions, were determined to constrict our individual liberties.

In 1974, Edwards' hearings -- along with Frank Church's in the Senate -- were instrumental in exposing the FBI's serial abuses of civil liberties in J. Edgar Hoover's COINTEL PRO (counterintelligence program). And Edwards worked with then-Attorney General Edward Levi to develop FBI investigative guidelines, which the present attorney general summarily has discarded.

Throughout his career, Edwards did not adhere to any party's line, holding himself responsible to the Constitution. Nor was he an enemy of the FBI. He supported pay increases for its agents and funding for research at the FBI's crime laboratory -- with the important provision that, for the first time, the laboratory be open to outside inspection. In the 1960s, Edwards was floor leader of the Omnibus Civil Rights Act and of the Voting Rights Act, and he led the fight on the floor for the Equal Rights Amendment. Co-sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he also continually worked to expand employment and equal education rights.

Before Gov. George Ryan of Illinois ordered a moratorium on the death penalty, and before the prominence of DNA, Edwards issued through his committee an influential report in 1993, "Innocence and the Death Penalty -- Assessing the Danger of Mistaken Executions."

A credo of this defender of our liberties was "Leave the Bill of Rights alone." And so, in 1990, he led the floor fight to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that, for the first time in our history, would have placed a footnote to the First Amendment by punishing those who desecrate the American flag -- the very symbol of our freedom to dissent.

Edwards has been one of my mentors not only on constitutional matters, but also as a man who will not allow himself to be categorized as "liberal" or "conservative," let alone "politically correct." Like Henry David Thoreau, he listens to his own drum.

Recently, I asked him his reaction to the current state of the health of the Constitution. "Locking people up, citizens or non-citizens, without a charge and without access to a lawyer," he began, "is wrong under our system of justice. You must have a lawyer if you're imprisoned. And, with regard to other abuses of our liberties, Congress is not exercising its oversight powers. It should be hauling in before its committees people in the Justice Department to justify what they're doing."

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has said, "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or it's not going to last."

In the history of Congress, few members have come close to equaling Edwards' determination to keep the Constitution fully alive. His record should be an inspiration to members of the current Congress. That, alas, is a dream, although a few -- like Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.) -- include the Bill of Rights as their constituency.

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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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