Constitutional Lessons, Old and New, on Display

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The National Constitution Center has something for everyone: life-size statues of the document's framers, slave shackles beside the Dred Scott display and a copy of the 1962 petition from Clarence Earl Gideon, the Florida drifter whose legal battle won every accused criminal the right to a lawyer. Late last month, one of the museum's chief boosters walked through, looking weak from Hodgkin's disease but showing no signs at age 75 of waning tenacity. His blue suit crisp, his few hairs white, he proceeded to an exhibit on the separation of powers, where models of the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court sit in precarious balance. Then the visitor, Senator Arlen Specter, declared that in real life things were out of whack.

"The balance of power is not being maintained in America today," said Mr. Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania. "The Supreme Court is interpreting the Constitution in derogation of Congressional authority."

The clash between a headstrong chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an assertive bench is just the kind of moment the museum might explore. Outside its walls, constitutional fissures are deep, growing and bound for public view as the Senate convenes its first hearings in 11 years on a Supreme Court nominee. And standing among the exhibits on fissures past, Mr. Specter announced a plan to make the hearings "a forum to, in effect, take on the court."

Agreeing to a reporter's request for a tour, Mr. Specter, who helped get $65 million in federal financing for the museum and whose wife, Joan, now works as a fund-raiser there, rang various constitutional alarms, including the treatment of foreign prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the jailing of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter he recently visited in Virginia, where she is serving a sentence for refusing to reveal a confidential source to a grand jury.

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