Robert J. Spitzer
21 June 2005
George W. Bush's presidency was the inspiration for this idea, according to Robert J. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science: that American law, and the Constitution, are more, not less, relevant to understanding the American presidency than ever. That idea contradicts the conventional wisdom that the president's formal, constitutional powers are of little importance when compared to the many political sources of power employed by modern presidents.
Yet it prompted Spitzer and a colleague to author a new book, published this past summer by Palgrave/Macmillan, titled The Presidency and the Constitution. In it, Spitzer and coauthor Michael Genovese, Director of Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in California, synthesize and analyze the arc of presidential power as it has been defined by over 200 years of court rulings. These court decisions show that the law is more, not less, important to modern presidential behavior, Spitzer and Genovese conclude. Their book also compiles, for the first time, a comprehensive digest of court decisions related to presidential powers, carefully edited to make them accessible to readers unfamiliar with the sometimes dense and arcane prose of judicial writing. Both Spitzer and his co-author are former presidents of the Presidency Research Group of the American Political Science Association, a 500-member international association of scholars who specialize in studying the American presidency.
One highlight in the book includes the three important Supreme Court cases from 2004 arising from constitutional challenges to Bush administration policies. Two of those cases stemmed from the war on terrorism, in which the Court rebuked the Bush administration and directed it to provide procedural rights to terrorist suspects interned since their capture. "These recent cases," said Spitzer, "underscore the continued relevance of the Court's past rulings on presidential powers in foreign affairs, because they provided the essential legal groundwork for the Court's verdicts. Most importantly, the Court reasserted its power by brushing aside the Bush administration's argument that the courts had no right to adjudicate such cases."
An abiding interest in law and its relationship to political institutions is one theme that unites Spitzer's interest in the presidency with his other primary scholarly specialty, gun control, a subject on which he has authored two books, and about which he is often quoted in the national media. The third edition of his book, The Politics of Gun Control, was published in 2004 by CQ Press. "Gun control has proven to be one of the most enduringly contentious, even acrimonious issues in American politics," Spitzer noted. "I set out to discover why. The result was this book." When first published in 1995, the book was the only comprehensive political analysis of the subject. Since then, numerous studies have built on Spitzer's analysis of the gun issue, which incorporates history, law, criminological consequences, and the issue's impact on our governing institutions, elections, and the interest group process. In his concluding chapter, Spitzer proposes that principles derived from international relations theory be applied to resolve the protracted political gridlock over the gun issue.
Partly as a consequence of his research on gun control, Spitzer is often contacted by media outlets here and abroad to offer commentary and analysis. In the aftermath of the tragic Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Spitzer appeared on NBC's "Today Show," ABC's "Good Morning America" and "Nightly News," PBS's "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," CNN, CNBC, National Public Radio, and in the 2003 PBS Documentary, "Guns and Mothers." He has been quoted in publications including the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others, and by international media including the BBC (Britain), CBC (Canada), NHK Television (Japan), CNN International, and Australian news outlets. "Other western nations are both fascinated and repelled by the American fixation with guns."
"One thing I have learned from discussions with reporters and others," Spitzer notes, "is the extent to which principles of political science are poorly understood by the press." That observation has prompted Spitzer to contribute nearly 30 op-ed articles to many newspapers around the country. His articles on gun control and other subjects have appeared on the editorial pages of such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, the Columbus Dispatch, the Des Moines Register, and the San Jose Mercury News. "Academics, and especially political scientists, should make a greater effort to engage in political discourse, and not limit their writings to small audiences of fellow professionals. " Spitzer is also a panelist on the weekly public affairs program, "The Ivory Tower Half Hour," broadcast every Friday night on WCNY-TV, Syracuse, in which five panelists from area universities discuss the week's news events. Broadcast since 2002, "The Ivory Tower" is among the most highly watched local programs in Central New York.
Spitzer's teaching areas parallel those of his writings. In addition to offering Introduction to American Government each semester, he regularly teaches the American Presidency ("my favorite course," he says), the Legislative Process, Media and Politics, and a new course, Gun Control: Crime, Law and Policy. "Scholarship and teaching are really two sides of the same coin. Each enhances the value of the other."
Spitzer is the author of eleven books, including four on the presidency, and over 200 scholarly articles, book chapters, reviews, papers, and essays, and is Series Editor for the Book Series on American Constitutionalism published by SUNY Press. He has testified before Congress, participated in meetings at the White House, and has had his work cited in federal court. In the 1980s, he served as a member of the New York State Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. Spitzer was elevated to the rank of Distinguished Service Professor in 1997, received the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarship in 2003, and Cortland's Outstanding Achievement in Research Award in 2005.