Saturday, December 15, 2007

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

December 15th, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were ratified, and became known as the Bill of Rights. Today, we celebrate the 216th anniversary of that event, which served to provide additional clarification on the extact purpose of, and further limitation on the power of, the Federal Government. Sadly, many of those restrictions are routinely ignored by those in power, and the Bill of Rights is simply a historical curiosity written on a piece of paper. But on a day like today, one can hope that people might pause to reflect on the meaning of these amendments, what the Founding Father were attempting to establish, and how we honor that vision (or not).

Which is your favorite amendment? Would it be the one that prohibits government meddling in religious affairs? Perhaps you value the ability to own the weapon of your choice to protect yourself against violence? How about the one that mandates an open, speedy and public trial by a jury of ones peers? All of them are great, I admit.

My favorites are the 9th and 10th amendments. These two amendments are probably the least appreciated of them all. In fact, I would bet most people couldn't even tell you what they say. But, in my opinion, they are the most critical parts of the Constitution. What do they say?
Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

The purpose of the 9th amendment was to clarify that just because some rights have been listed out here, that doesn't mean that other rights not explicitly named don't exist. During the debates over the Constitution, one objection to the inclusion of a Bill of Rights was that as all of the rights that exist are virtually limitless, trying to spell out all of the various rights of individuals might provide ground for trampling other rights that may have been overlooked. We see this today when we hear people like Supreme Cort Justice Scalia say, "there is no right to privacy in the Constitution". What Scalia, and others, think is that the ONLY rights people have are the ones that are listed out. The 9th Amendment makes it clear that Scalia is wrong.

The 10th Amendment clarifies that it is the powers of the Federal government that are limited and clearly identified. Unless the Constitution authorizes the Feds to do something, they aren't allowed. That means no federal involvement in health care, education, the arts, scientific research, the economy, the environment, and so on and so forth. We see this today when we hear somebody trying his best to be witty say, in response to the claim, "the Constitution doesn't authorize the Feds to do (fill in the blank)", in a Teddy Roosevelt-like response, "well...where does it say they can't?" As a matter of fact, Virginia, the 10th Amendment.

So there you have it. My favorite two Amendments. Which is yours?

Here is the Bill of Rights in its entirety:

The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added, and as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution;

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two-thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States; all or any of which articles, when ratified by three-fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the said Constitution, namely:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.


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