The Ninth Amendment: (all unallocated) power to the people!

Posted on July 30, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

In part ten of our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights, we land on the Ninth Amendment, which is a harbinger of the Tenth and final amendment in that it is a portmanteau amendment: a short sentence packed with meaning.

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

That is, any right not listed in the previous eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights, or in the Constitution, is granted to the people. A right has to be explicitly withheld by the Constitution for it to be unlawful. You can see why this was necessary to state: all the rights citizens have can’t be listed in any document; it could get to a thousand pages and still be incomplete. The Ninth Amendment is sort of like “innocent until proven guilty”: an action is protected until it is specifically outlawed in the Constitution. It keeps the federal government from getting tyrannical and withholding rights just because they are not specifically protected in the Constitution. The main, big, fundamental rights are all in there; the many smaller rights are not, but they are indeed our rights until legislation and/or judicial decision makes them unconstitutional.

This puts a burden on the courts, of course, to decide cases where it’s not certain whether something should be made unconstitutional. But that’s how our system is supposed to work, through trial and error and case-by-case precedent and reinterpretation of precedent. Usually the Ninth Amendment is called into play to expand an existing Amendment right: for example, 1973’s Roe v Wade decision said that the right to choose to have an abortion is protected under the right to privacy: “the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

When it’s not assisting interpretation of other amendments, the Ninth Amendment is sometimes called into fundamental question. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe has stated that “The ninth amendment is not a source of rights as such; it is simply a rule about how to read the Constitution.”

That seems to be logical, but then again, a) it’s  important to know how to read the Constitution, and b), it’s even more important to remember that a democracy must assume that rights outnumber prohibitions. If citizens have to prove they are not breaking the law at every turn, if they are “guilty until proven innocent”, the power of the law is not with them. This idea will be reinforced by our next, and final, amendment.

Next time: the end of the road

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