I was watching ESPN the other day when the announcer referred to the process underway to remove Donald Sterling as owner of the LA Clippers franchise as a “constitutional formality.” The more I think about this, the more it bothers me.
At first I was taken aback by the casual use of this term. The process required by the NBA’s constitution is not a formality. It lays out steps that ensure a fair process for everyone involved, at least to some extent.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CONSTITUTIONAL FORMALITY. ANYONE WHO DOESN’T SEE THE INHERENT CONTRADICTION IN THIS TERM DOESN’T APPRECIATE THE NEED FOR A CONSTITUTION IN THE FIRST PLACE.
So why does the NBA–or the United States for that matter–have a constitution? Why not just vote on issues as they arise and let the majority rule? Isn’t this democracy?
Constitutions are established to establish basic standards on how things must be done, standards that cannot be overturned with an emotional 51% vote or overruled by a tyrannical leader. Constitutions can change, but only through an established process that requires more than a fleeting majority. The US has a constitution to protect individual liberties and restrain government. The Constitution is not universally respected, however, so all of us must insist that it be upheld. When the US government violated the Constitution when FDR interned Japanese-Americans shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was up to other Americans and a court system to address this injustice.
We don’t live in a literal democracy because we don’t vote on every issue. Instead, we live in a representative democracy. We elect leaders to represent our views and vote on our behalf. These leaders are constrained by the Constitution, and the courts can step in when there are interpretational differences. It’s not a perfect system, but the checks and balances it provides are essential. A pure democracy without a strong Constitution would subject individuals to tyranny of the majority. Rights would be constantly negotiable, making them temporary privileges subject to the current whims of government leaders and public opinion at large.
Let’s return to the Sterling situation. The NBA’s constitution was designed to protect and balance the interests of the association and the individual owners. It does not allow the commissioner to remove an owner for making offensive comments. Instead, it lays out a process by which an owner can be removed. This process must be followed, and it cannot violate the US Constitution.
Constitutions are absolutely essential. Without established due process, justice is reduced to a lynch mob. Many who have commented on the Sterling situation don’t seem to get this point, ignoring issues such as the illegal recording of a private conversation and the rights of Donald Sterling’s wife. They only see the presence of mob rule when they disagree with the outcome. Perhaps this is why progressives cheered President Obama when he announced he would (unconstitutionally) bypass Congress when it did not take action he favored. Many of these individuals—including the President himself—constantly berated President Bush for alleged Constitutional discrepancies pertaining to issues such as the Iraq war, waterboarding, and Guantanamo.
Donald Sterling is ultimately responsible for his actions, but he has a right to established due process. Anything else is a travesty of justice.