Mandatory National Service: Creating Generations of Civic Minded Citizens

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I. INTRODUCTION

While on the campaign trail in the fall of 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy addressed students at the University of Michigan, proposing a novel idea:

   How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend
   your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are
   willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives
   traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not
   merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your
   willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I
   think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I
   think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But
   the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.
   (1)

With this call to action, Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, (2) a federal program that continues to place thousands of Americans in service-work opportunities abroad. (3)

While Kennedy evoked higher principles to draw young Americans on college campuses to action, young Americans on the same college campuses--and elsewhere--were publicly raging against a public duty: the military draft. (4) As the war in Vietnam ramped up, and more and more young American males were conscripted into the armed services, people asked more and more questions about the legitimacy--both constitutionally and practically--of requiring military service. While many proposed eliminating the draft completely, others proposed a broader and more creative solution: expanding service to create an obligation for all Americans. (5) While the scope of such proposals varied, the intentions were the same. None of these suggestions gained much traction, however, and calls for an expanded national service program faded, especially as increased hostilities in Vietnam distracted America's leaders. (6)

In the late-1980s and early-1990s, the efforts of both Presidents George H. W. Bush (7) and Bill Clinton (8) led to the creation of AmeriCorps, a federal organization with goals similar to those of the Peace Corps, focused on domestic service. (9) AmeriCorps, and the many organizations under its umbrella, (10) have spiked in popularity, (11) attracting highly qualified young Americans and placing them in some of the most impoverished areas of the United States. (12)

Despite the popularity of such programs, some scholars, mainstream media members, and politicians argue this is not enough, calling on the government to broadly expand the national service programs. (13) Many modest expansions of existing programs are met with little controversy. (14) However, a few have advocated for sweeping changes in the form of mandatory national service. (15) Merely mentioning mandatory national service can invoke calls of socialism and slavery, sparking pointed criticism regarding the merits and the constitutionality of such a program. (16)

This Note will focus on the constitutionality of such a compulsory national service program in hypothetical form. While debate in the media has focused on the socio-economic and vocational benefits of a broad national service program, legal scholars have said little on the issue of whether such a program would even withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. Although no court has addressed the issue, legal scholars in the 1980s briefly engaged in a dialogue regarding the validity of mandatory service. (17) This dialogue will serve as a good starting point, with a set of circuit opinions providing an additional analytical framework for what remains an open issue. This Note will argue that such a scheme, though unprecedented in scope and impact, would withstand constitutional scrutiny. Politicians, scholars, and--ultimately--voters must decide whether or not a program similar to that proposed by this paper should move beyond the hypothetical and become reality; such a normative argument, however, is beyond the scope of this Note. …