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O'Donnell Takes on Coons, Constitution in Courtroom Debate

Trying to demonstrate her grasp of constitutional law after recently blanking on examples of Supreme Court rulings she opposes, Delaware Republican U.S. Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell on Tuesday found herself chided by a debate panelist – in front of a roomful of legal scholars – for not memorizing the U.S. Constitution.

O’Donnell and her Democratic opponent Chris Coons were facing off in their third debate in six days when panelist Chad Livengood of The Wilmington News Journal asked whether she would repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Those amendments call for enumerating citizenship rights, authorizing Congress to collect income taxes and direct election of U.S. senators, respectively.

O'Donnell expressed her support for the 17th Amendment, but she tripped on the 14th and 16th Amendments.

"I'm sorry, I didn't bring my Constitution with me," O'Donnell chuckled. "Fortunately, senators don't have to memorize the Constitution. Can you remind me of what the other ones are?"

"The 14th Amendment defines citizenship, and the 16th Amendment, I think you should know," Livengood responded in front of the audience of students, faculty, and staff at Widener University Law School’s moot courtroom.

Coons was quick to rejoin.

"A senator...has to understand the Constitution, be able to interpret it and apply it, and vote on Supreme Court justices. I absolutely oppose the widespread proposals by Tea Party candidates for us to repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments."

The candidates also sparred over Coons' assertion that teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools would violate the 1st Amendment.

"Wow, you've proven how little you know not just about constitutional law, but about the theory of evolution," O'Donnell told Coons. O'Donnell was then met with an audible gasp from the audience, followed by laughter, when she asked Coons, "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?"

"No it's an excellent point," Coons nervously replied as laughter echoed through the courtroom. "I also think you've just heard in the answers from my opponent, and in her attempt at saying ‘where is the separation of church and state?' in the Constitution, reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is, how it is amended, and how it evolves."

Seemingly unfazed by the audience response, O'Donnell continued to press Coons to expound on the 1st Amendment throughout the debate.

"Can I ask you a question, Chris?" she said. "Can you name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment?"

Coons would only respond, "I think the very first provision of the First Amendment is that a government shall make no establishment of religion, and before we get into a further debate about exactly which of us knows the Constitution better, how about we get the panel asking our questions today?"

O'Donnell and Coons also traded barbs over evolution and the Bush tax cuts, as O’Donnell also tried to clean up her response from an Oct. 13 debate in which she stumbled when asked to name recent Supreme Court rulings with which she disagrees.

"To clarify the remarks that were taken out of context in our CNN debate," O'Donnell said, referring back to her high court hiccough, "There have been very few recent Supreme Court decisions with which I've disagreed. So I would say that I think that this court is on the right track."

Coons is leading O'Donnell by 17.6 points in the latest RealClearPolitics poll average.