Test Kitchen: the States

Issues can be of unquestionable national importance, but the best place to deal with them may not be the national seat of government - particularly if the sought-after means is an amendment to the national charter.

Take, for example, victims' rights. The movement to give crime victims greater access to courtrooms and greater voice in decisions on sentencing and parole is well established. These "rights" are recognized in at least 20 state constitutions and many state legal codes.

Efforts to push further and get victims' rights enshrined in the national Constitution are sure to surge in this session of Congress, gaining fresh energy from the Oklahoma City bombing trial. Politicians from President Clinton on down are lined up behind the proposed amendment. But it's a bad idea.

The US Constitution has built-in protections for defendants, for a very good reason: The framers were acutely aware of the overwhelming power of the state against an accused individual. Freedom from compelled self-incrimination and double jeopardy, the right to counsel and to a trial by jury - these safeguard everyone, accused and victims included.

Procedural rules should be installed in justice systems to ensure access and participation by victims of crime. But that job is already being done in the states. It doesn't warrant a constitutional amendment.

The same could be said for another highly popular issue - legislative term limits. The popularity of these measures, you'll recall, stopped abruptly at the doors of Congress. Most federal lawmakers couldn't see the need for a constitutional amendment limiting the right of their constituents to return them to office as often as they wanted. Political self-interest, no doubt. But correct nonetheless.

The states, however, have forged ahead with term limits, mainly through citizen-driven ballot initiatives. A few states, like Maine and California, are well into the experiment of seeing how a legislative chamber functions minus any experienced members. On the plus side, there's a lot of fresh energy and idealism. But relatively little is getting done so far. Depending on one's philosophical tilt, that can be either good or bad.

There are, clearly, policy areas that must be tackled at the federal level. The states got an early start on welfare reform, but Washington, the source of funds under our current system of taxation, had to get involved. On education reform, by contrast, Washington has little choice but to defer to local prerogatives.

Part of the genius of the American federalist system is its abundance of opportunities for testing new policy ideas. Coupled with that must be the wisdom to recognize where the test is best conducted.

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