U-M Law marks Constitution Day with a talk by U.S. Representative Justin Amash

By Kristy Demas
U-M Law

Congressman Justin Amash, who represents Michigan’s third congressional district, returned to his alma mater on September 16 to present the University of Michigan's Constitution Day address.

Amash, who was the lone Republican member of Congress calling for President Trump's impeachment and is now an independent, said he was delighted to discuss the Constitution, as it is a subject dear to his heart.

In introducing his former student, Richard Primus, the Theodore J. St. Antoine Collegiate Professor of Law, said that while he and Amash disagree on most policy decisions, no other member of Congress is more dedicated to upholding the Constitution.

“I know I am talking to someone who has a deep commitment to be principled in the conversation and to act upon the principles that he arrives at—someone who is willing to privilege his best good faith understanding of the Constitution and our Constitutional system over politics and policy.”

As a student, Amash’s favorite class was Constitutional Law. “I credit that in no small part to Richard Primus, who knew how to frighten us, excite us, and inspire us all at the same time.”(The course inspired him so much that Amash placed the winning bid on Primus’s seating chart when it was auctioned. It now hangs in his congressional office.)

Amash says his deep commitment to the Constitution is something people can discern within 30 seconds of meeting him.

“Prior to my calling the President’s conduct impeachable and, separately, becoming an independent, my dedication to the Constitution was probably what I was best known for.”

Amash’s rigorous defense of the Constitution has often put him at odds with his congressional peers. His vote on the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, for instance, raised the ire of Republicans in Congress and the NRA. Theoretically, Amash approved of the bill’s policy outcome but he couldn't support it as written, calling it unconstitutional. That vote—and others—did little to endear him to members of his party at the time.

“Party leadership controls the legislative process, and they essentially cut you out of it,” he said, referring to his ideological and personal losses resulting from those controversial votes. Outweighing the losses, however, is Amash’s overarching belief that “violating any part of the Constitution puts our rights at risk.” Those rights, Amash says, are natural and not granted by government.

“We have them because we are individual human beings. Government exists because men are not angels—we depend on a central authority to protect us from each other. But this raises a problem, which is that the government itself is made up of men.”

Amash’s more than eight years in Congress have further informed his politics. He believes that Congress and the executive branch have strayed from their respective roles—with the executive branch overreaching and Congress allowing it. When asked how substantive legislation can be passed in the current political climate, Amash said change must come first from citizens who care about the rule of law and its processes before focusing on individual issues.

“I think it starts at home, that you have to get charged up about it,” he said.

“You have to start to care about it more than any of the substantive issues. If we at home can care about it, then the other things will start to work again in Congress.”

U-M’s annual commemoration of Constitution Day—which marks the 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution and recognizes all American citizens, by birth or naturalization—is co-hosted by the Office of the Provost and organized by Michigan Law Professor Richard Friedman.