When UH Law Professor Peter Linzer began planning topics for this year’s Houston Great Books Council Fourth of July Constitution Discussion, he definitely had no shortage of material.
The group could start off discussing just-decided Supreme Court cases such as Trump v. Hawaii, where justices upheld an executive order, also known as the “Muslim ban,” that restricted travel to the United States. There’s also Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the court reversed the decision of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission that said Masterpiece Cakeshop couldn’t refuse a wedding cake to a gay couple based on First Amendment grounds. Or they could get into the weeds on Carpenter v. United States—which strengthened digital privacy and required the government to obtain a warrant to access cell phone history.
A political-centric discussion like this could get heated, right? Wrong. The philosophy of Great Books, which began over 70 years ago in Chicago, is centered around respect. Connie Lewis, vice president of Houston Great Books, says a discussion isn’t about arguing and disagreeing, but rather listening and asking questions. That’s why Great Books practices what it calls the “shared inquiry method,” which focuses on interpretive questions with multiple plausible answers open to all political viewpoints. Linzer will moderate.
“The whole idea is to listen, to ask questions, to challenge, but not to talk over each other,” Lewis says. “It benefits everyone to understand the importance of listening.”
But before they debate the constitutional basis of recent Supreme Court decisions, the discussion—an annual tradition for more than a decade now—hopes to understand one of the country’s founding documents.
“I think many of our national holidays get diluted into a day that you go shopping, go swimming, or grill,” Lewis says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there should be some recognition of what the day is really about.”
“Understanding and being aware of our constitution, in general, is important,” Lewis adds. “That is the law of the land.”
In addition to recent Supreme Court decisions, Linzer says the most important part of the discussion will revolve around the implications of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and the forthcoming announcement of President Donald Trump's proposed replacement. This will be Trump's second nomination after appointing Neil Gorsuch to fill the seat of conservative firebrand Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia died in February 2016, with nearly a year left in President Barack Obama’s final term, and Republican lawmakers took extraordinary action in refusing to recognize Obama's nominee, the moderate jurist Merrick Garland.
“It’s so exciting right now with the changes going on,” Lewis says. “I think the discussion could be interesting, with a discussion about the ages of the justices, their political leanings, and how the court will be affected in the long-term. I think we’re in a long-term situation here with President Trump being able to nominate a younger person to the court.”
Great Books Fourth of July Constitution Discussion will be held on Wednesday, July 4, 1-3 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 7626 Westheimer Rd. More info at houstongreatbooks.net.