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The New York Times CyberTimes

[Editor's note: this column appeared in the August 14, 1997 edition of the New York Times CyberTimes online news source. The original is still archived here. This local copy is maintained just in case the original ever disappears from the Web.]

August 14, 1997
One Man's Passion for 'Living' Constitutions
By CARL S. KAPLAN

Last February, after the Vermont Supreme Court set off a legal earthquake by declaring that the state's school financing system violated the state constitution, shocked citizens could calm themselves by reading news articles and editorials about the matter in The Rutland Herald, The (Barre) Times Argus and other newspapers that serve the small and independent-minded state.

But for the hardy few who wanted to examine the actual portion of the constitution involved in the case — Section 68, to be exact — or to view the common-sense, just-us-folks comments of a Vermont-based amateur constitutional scholar, the place to visit was Steve Mount's Vermont Constitution Web site.

There, for all free thinkers, is a complete 20-page hypertext version of the Vermont Constitution, plus some home-brewed analysis.

"The court ruled that all Vermont children have a right to an education, and that the education must be equal across all towns," Mount wrote, adding that the decision was "morally right."

Mount, 28, of Williston, Vt., is not a professor of law or even a lawyer. A tall and laconic computer programmer with a gentle face, he is a young man who likes to spend his leisure time in his spare room reading, thinking and writing about constitutions. For him, a constitution is not a sacred text to be worshipped. It is a living document meant to be understood and debated by ordinary citizens.

Indeed, Mount has another, larger Web site containing a hypertext version of the United States Constitution, which he regards as a marvel of flexibility, understatement and terseness.

"The First Amendment has, what — 50 words?" he says, touching the clause's flickering words on his monitor. "But the amount of freedom that is guaranteed to the people in that sentence is amazing."

The Steve Mount U.S. Constitution site features a glossary defining a few out-of-date words, such as "emolument" (a fee or salary from employment) and links to several state and foreign constitutions. It also contains the Mount's quirky personal notes linked to certain parts of the document. There are a few paragraphs on the meaning of treason, for example — quite narrowly defined by the founders — and run-downs on amendments 1, 2, 3, 10, 14 and 25. Visitors to the site can leave comments in a guest book, which is open to browsers.

Mount says he first became fascinated with constitutions when he was a political science student at the University of Vermont. After settling into a marriage, a job at IDX Systems Corp. in Burlington and starting a family, he says, he decided in 1995 the time was ripe to begin building a Web page project that would contribute something to the nation and be personally interesting.

He owned a CD-ROM that contained the United States Constitution and some other historical political charters. He exported the text of the Constitution to a file and chopped it up, linking various parts of the document for easy navigation, then posted it on his personal Web page.

Shortly after launching his U.S. Constitution site, Mount started getting e- mail from school children. One asked whether a woman's right to vote (The 19th Amendment granting universal suffrage, ratified in 1920) was due to expire in 2008. Mount wrote back, assuring the child that there are no expiration dates in the Constitution.

But the query got him thinking: Do other young children even know what the word "suffrage" means? So he decided to add the glossary to his site.

The next step, beginning last year, was to add his comments to the United States Constitution. To prepare for a note, Mount says he studies the text of the Constitution, then consults textbooks, encyclopedias and legal cases.

Mount's most controversial commentary, judging from some harsh e-mail responses, is on the Second Amendment. Mount's view is that the right to bear arms is "over-stretched" and a little "out-dated." While he believes that the Constitution protects a citizen's right to own certain types of weapons for the purpose of self-defense and defense of the nation, ownership of an assault rifle might be going too far.

One Second Amendment partisan who flamed Mount called him "misleading and narrow-minded." Another called him "a whole lot liberal" — fighting words in some parts of the country — and added, "Please don't add your interpretation to our Constitution, just read what it says, because the only Constitutional experts I know of died about 200 years ago." Mount wrote back tartly and true: "Come on, the Constitution is ours to interpret."

The Sage of Williston is the first to admit he is not an expert on constitutional matters. He says he is learning new things all the time. E-mail from children doing homework, immigrants studying for citizenship tests and curious, just plain folks keep him motivated, he says. Some of the more interesting missives to Mount regarding constitutional questions — and his answers — are included on his site. He is currently planning to add commentary on the prohibition madness that resulted in the 18th Amendment (repealed in 1933), a subject that has always interested him, he says.

The United States Constitution is available online in many places. The Government Printing Office posts a massive annotated version, for example. And the Vermont Constitution is available on the Web site of the Vermont Legislature. But by putting the documents on his own Web pages, Mount says, "I know they are correct. And I can comment on them to my heart's content."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company



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