The phrase “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, has been used by countless Americans since 1800. Calls to protect the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution remain urgently relevant in 2023, when extremists have taken control of the Republican Party — via attempts to overthrow the results of a free and fair election, suppress the votes of qualified American citizens, incite violence against political opponents and spread conspiracy theories and lies.
More than a few Republican politicians, judges and voters, however, continue to oppose departures from democratic values. Along with the Republicans who denounced claims of election fraud and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, they deserve a shout-out.
In May, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature created a Prosecuting Attorneys Statewide Qualifications Commission (PASQC). The bill authorized a five-member panel to remove district attorneys who committed misconduct, failed to carry out their duties, or were convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. When he signed the legislation, Gov. Brian Kemp predicted it would hold prosecutors accountable for giving “dangerous criminals a get-out-of-jail free card.”
In testimony before Georgia’s Senate Judiciary Committee, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis maintained that “it is dangerous to undo the voters, because you don’t like someone, and you don’t like their policies.” Willis emphasized that prosecutors always consider resources and community standards, among other factors, before deciding to indict. Adultery, she pointed out, remained illegal in Georgia, but adulterers were virtually never prosecuted.
Willis also confronted the elephant in the room. “I take my oath seriously,” Willis emphasized. “I look at each and every case.”
“Well, that’s not what we’re reading in the papers that you’re prosecuting,” State Sen. Bill Cowsert exclaimed.
State Sen. Clint Dixon subsequently acknowledged that the pending indictment of former President Trump was “one of the reasons” Republicans established the PASQC. State Sen. Colton Moore called on the governor to call a special session of the legislature to defund Willis’s office and impeach her.
Noting that he had rejected a special session to overturn the results of the 2020 election “because such an action would have been unconstitutional,” Kemp then asserted, “I have not seen any evidence that DA Willis’ actions or lack thereof warrant action by the prosecuting attorney oversight commission. As long as I’m governor, we are going to follow the law and the Constitution — regardless of who it helps politically.”
“Over the years,” Kemp added, “some inside and outside this building may have forgotten that. But I assure you I have not.”
A special session is not going to happen. But when the PASQC opens for business on Oct. 1, the commissioners may or may not heed Kemp’s admonitions.
In GOP-controlled Ohio, the legislature’s ban on virtually all special elections held in August took effect in April 2023. On May 10, however, Republican lawmakers scheduled a vote in August raising the threshold to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 60 percent, and requiring petitions of support from at least 5 percent of voters in all 88 counties, instead of 44 of them. The referendum, Secretary of State Frank LaRosa initially claimed, was designed to diminish the influence of out-of-state special interests. The real reason, LaRosa subsequently acknowledged, was “100 percent about” defeating what he deemed a “radical pro-abortion” constitutional amendment in November.
In August, citizens of Ohio, which supported Donald Trump by an 8 percent margin in 2020, turned out in huge numbers to defeat the measure, 57-43. “No” votes came from Republican strongholds as well as from Democrats and Independents.
An attempt to subvert the will of the majority was thwarted. At least for now.
In January 2022, three federal district court judges, two of whom were appointed by President Trump, threw out congressional redistricting maps drawn by Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature. The plan, they declared, violated the Voting Rights Act by giving Blacks less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice.
After postponing a decision until after the 2022 election was held, the Supreme Court agreed that Blacks, who comprise about 27 percent of the state’s population, should have more than one congressional district in which they constitute a majority. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberals in a 5-4 vote.
When the Alabama lawmakers submitted a “new” plan, Judge Terry Moore, one of the Trump appointees, wondered if they had “deliberately disregarded” the court’s instructions. On September 5, the three district court judges declared they were “deeply troubled” that the legislature “did not even nurture the ambition to provide the required remedy” and threw out the map.
The case, which may well return to the Supreme Court, is likely to set a precedent imperiling the GOP’s slim majority in the House of Representatives. As one Republican National Committee member put it, Louisiana is “next in line” and likely to be hit “right between the eyes.”
Racial gerrymandering has been declared unconstitutional. At least for now.
And in August, the Maricopa County, Arizona GOP proposed opting out of the state’s 2024 government-run presidential primary, and paying for, staffing and conducting a one-day contest, limited to paper ballots, counted by hand, “in solidarity with President Donald J. Trump, who was persecuted, arrested and indicted for taking the same position.”
The chair of the state’s Republican Party rejected the proposal as too expensive, too difficult to administer and likely to disenfranchise some of the 1.4 million eligible voters.
As he left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had created. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” These days, keeping it requires, at least as much as it did in 1787, eternal vigilance; civic and civil engagement from Democrats, Independents, and Republicans; and a respect for democratic ideas, ideals and institutions that, alas, seems to be in short supply.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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