Forum discuss ‘cases of the century’

Panelists Barry McDonald (left) and Angela Sierra (far right) are joined by moderator Dave Milbrandt in discussing the “Cases of the Century.” ASCC hosted the event in celebration of Constitution Day and Citrus’ 100th anniversary. (Katie Jolgren/Clarion)

By Katie Jolgren | Staff Writer

Two Constitution rights experts discussed landmark Supreme Court cases in a public forum in observation of Constitution Day, Sept. 17.

The presenters, Barry McDonald and Angela Sierra, voiced their opinions on a variety of cases, approaching their interpretation from either a constructionist perspective or their view of the Constitution as a living document.

Constitution Day, Sept. 17, is the anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1789.

Beginning in 2004, this date has been used to educate all students in publicly funded schools on the history of the American Constitution. As part of Citrus’ educational programming, and in celebration of its 100th anniversary this fall, a public forum titled “Cases of the Century” was sponsored by the executive board of Associated Students of Citrus College.

Dave Milbrandt, Citrus College professor of political science, moderated the forum. McDonald, a professor of law at Pepperdine University, and Sierra are experts in  Constitutional rights.

McDonald teaches courses in Constitutional law and First Amendment law and has been interviewed and has written articles for “The CBS Evening News”, “Fox News”, the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

Sierra is a practicing lawyer for the Senior Assistant Attorney General for the state of California and also serves on the Civil Rights Enforcement Division for the California Department of Justice.

One of the fourteen cases discussed included the case of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that “provided for a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy but also establishes a right to privacy,” Milbrandt said.

Directing the debate toward Sierra, Milbrandt asked: “What areas do we think we have concerns about regarding privacy rights being violated today?”

“You’re continuing to see states enact laws that challenge a woman’s ability to access contraception or abortion services, so this will continue to be a very large issue for society,” Sierra said.

Other areas that may come under scrutiny for privacy rights include end of life decisions, McDonald added.

The Supreme Court has “created privacy rights out of thin air essentially,” he said. “It should not be expected to see extension of privacy rights until the liberal wing has control of the court.”

Moving the conversation forward, Milbrandt said that some of the new challenges are “due to technology that are changing the argument as far as what people put out there and what people can access as well as how we are using technology to survey people.”

Addressing the presenters Milbrandt went on to ask, “What should be the limits of free speech in a civil society?”

“I know the agreement that even unpopular speech is very important,” Sierra said. “You need to have the conversations that may be difficult or may make people angry, but that’s what sets us apart from other nations, that we have a robust protection of free speech.”

“It’s constantly balancing, but I think it’s important to recognize that uncomfortable speech is important in our society,” she said.

McDonald responded by citing Snyder v. Phelps, the 2011 free speech case in which the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment protected protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church at a military veteran’s funeral from accountability for deliberately inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased.

“I think the funeral protester case is a classic example of where the court got it wrong,” McDonald said.

“Here you have a father trying to bury his dead son and you have protestors showing up with signs saying ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’…we have gone over the top in not valuing this father’s privacy.”

“These protestors, who have gotten their views out, were using this father’s grief as a platform to get more of their hateful messages out,” McDonald said.

“When the court decided this father can’t maintain a court action for the psychological invasion of his privacy, the court is way off kilter.”

Additional cases included United States v. Windsor, a 2013 case that discusses the Defense of Marriage Act which defines the terms of marriage under federal law and deprives same-sex couples their Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection.

At the forum’s conclusion, Sierra articulated the common denominator between the two opposing sides, stating that, “At the end of the day we’re trying to ascertain the intent of our founders.

To some extent, this is a living document and that’s what makes Constitutional law very exciting.”