Bill of Rights

Obstruction or democracy?

Posted on March 27, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We keep hearing TV broadcasters asking Democratic members of Congress whether their attempts to rebut the Trump Administration’s platform isn’t just the same sort of obstructionism that Republicans were accused of during the Obama Administration.

In a discussion about whether Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation would be blocked by Democrats who a) were skeptical of his record and b) were protesting the Republicans’ refusal to give President Obama’s candidate Merrick Garland a hearing, a Democratic member of Congress was asked, “Isn’t that the same sort of obstruction of justice Democrats accused the Republicans of when they wouldn’t allow Merrick Garland a hearing?”

In interviews about blocking the Republican alternative to the American Health Care Act, Democrats are repeatedly asked whether their efforts aren’t just like the Republicans voting over and over to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act.

And discussions of the travel ban on seven Muslim nations have gone the same way: “aren’t you just obstructing anything the new president wants to do?”

The list goes on. We want to just step in to say no, it’s not obstructionist to stand up for democracy, liberty, and justice for all. Those Republicans who wanted to block expanded health care, a Democratic president’s Supreme Court Justice, and our Constitution’s ban on creating religious tests were all engaged in anti-American, anti-democratic harm. Those Democrats who are now trying to block reduced health care, the fantasy that the Constitution says a President can’t nominate a new Justice in an election year, and religious discrimination are engaged in pro-American, pro-democratic good.

It’s not just member of Congress of course; college students protesting the invitation of speakers to their campuses who promote discrimination and practice hate speech have also been accused of violating the First Amendment by denying those speakers their freedom of speech. But not all speech is protected, and hate speech is certainly not. Refusing to treat someone who promotes discrimination differently than someone who does not is not protecting fairness and equality, it’s protecting hate speech, and saying it’s no different than other speech in the guise of protecting, somehow, “diversity”.

As Kate Knibbs says, “The phrase ‘ideological diversity’ is a Trojan horse designed to help bring disparaged thought onto campuses, to the media, and into vogue. It is code for granting fringe right-wing thought more credence in communities that typically reject it, and nothing more.”

Let’s not let those who would violate our Constitution tell us that by standing up for it we are being obstructionist.

Next time: back–yes, back after all–to Obama’s farewell address.

Advertisements
Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Constitution does not protect freedom of religion

Posted on March 9, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

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.

We all recognize this as the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most of us put it into our own words as “the First Amendment protects freedom of religion.” But it does not. It protects freedom of worship, which is very different.

What the First Amendment does regarding religion is: first, it forbids our federal legislature from making any laws creating an official state religion; second, it forbids our federal legislature from preventing people from worshipping as they see fit. That’s what “free exercise” means—how you worship. Whether you go to a church, synagogue, mosque, or have a prayer room in your home, you are protected. If you wear a head covering like a yarmulke or turban as a form of worship, you are protected.

The First Amendment is all about physical forms of religious worship. It comes from a time when people would burn Catholic churches or refuse to let Jewish Americans build synagogues. It stops this, and stops schools from forbidding students to wear religious clothing.

It does not protect religion itself, or as we usually put it, religious belief. It does not protect anyone’s right to believe certain things. If one’s religion prohibits homosexuality or birth control, that is a belief, not a form of worship. Belief is not protected because belief is so amorphous. One could claim any crazy notion as a religious belief and demand that it be protected. We could say that our religion says women shouldn’t ride public transportation, or men should not be allowed to use public showers, or cats can’t be kept as pets, and we would have to be accommodated.

The Founders were wise enough not to get into religious belief. They just made a safe space for public and private physical worship.

We were glad to hear someone get this in a radio interview last week. The article starts badly, with the author saying

The question under current debate is what it means to “exercise” one’s religion.

If a football coach is not allowed to lead his team in a public prayer, or a high school valedictorian is not given permission to read a Bible passage for her graduation speech, or the owner of a private chapel is told he cannot refuse to accommodate a same-sex wedding, they might claim their religious freedom has been infringed.

The first two examples are clearly not worship. They are expressions of religious belief. Only the latter is worship, concerning what happens in a house of worship. The article continues:

One of the thorniest cases involves Catholic Charities, whose agencies long have provided adoption and foster care services to children in need, including orphans. Under Catholic doctrine, the sacrament of marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, and Catholic adoption agencies therefore have declined to place children with same-sex couples.

Again, doctrine is belief, not worship. Marriage being between a man and woman only is a belief, not a form of worship. Doctrine cannot be protected by our federal government. The article talks many times about “freedom of religion” clashing with “freedom from discrimination”, and that’s why: when you enforce belief, you enforce discrimination because belief can reach out beyond a religion to impact others while worship can’t. Put it this way: there’s no form of Catholic worship that impacts non-Catholics because non-Catholics aren’t in Catholic churches trying to worship. But there are forms of Catholic belief that impact non-Catholics, because non-Catholics will be impacted by them without ever setting foot in a church. Gay non-Catholics will be discriminated against by anti-gay Catholics if being anti-gay (a belief) is enshrined as a form of worship, and thus given protection by the First Amendment.

“Exercising” one’s religion means worship, plain and simple, and exclusively. It’s a literal word: you exercise (move)  yourself physically to do something to worship God.

So Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, is completely wrong to say “We may not like the claim of conscience, but you know, we don’t judge claims of conscience on whether we like the content of the claim. We are trying to protect the right of people to do what they feel they must do according to their God. That is a very high value.”

Americans may have a “right” to do “what they feel they must do according to their God”, but only when it comes to forms of worship. One political charter, like the Constitution, could not possibly protect all “values” and all “feelings” about what is right, because they will naturally conflict. And the Constitution does not deal in feelings, but in political rights.

Now here’s where the article gets good:

…Bishop Michael Curry, leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, said he has witnessed the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world and doesn’t see anything comparable in the United States.

“I’m not worried about my religious freedom,” Curry said. “I get up and go to church on Sunday morning, ain’t nobody stopping me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that’s not going to get taken away. I have been in places where that’s been infringed. That’s not what we’re talking about.”

Curry’s reference only to “freedom to worship,” however, missed the point, according to some religious freedom advocates. They say they want the freedom to exercise their faith every day of the week, wherever they are — even if it means occasionally challenging the principle of absolute equality for all.

“We can’t use equality to just wipe out one of the [First Amendment] rights,” Carlson-Thies says, “or say you can have the right, as long as you just exercise it in church, but not out in life.”

Bishop Curry gets it! He realizes that “worship”—getting up and going to church and not being stopped—is what is protected. “My freedom to worship is protected in this country”; that is correct. We were really gratified to hear him say this.

Then to have his opponents say that having “only” freedom of worship isn’t good enough is very telling, because they come right out and say they want freedom of belief—if only for themselves. They want to “exercise their faith every day of the week”? They have that right in the Constitution. What they really want is to “challenge the principle of absolute equality for all”; that is, they only want freedom of belief for themselves. Anyone whose beliefs clash with theirs should be shut down.

To say as Carlson-Thies does, that “equality wipes out rights” would be laughable if it weren’t so dire an example of double-speak destroying our democracy. Equality is “rights”. They are one thing. Our guaranteed equal rights give us… well, equality. How can guaranteeing everyone’s equal rights destroy equality?

His final statement tells us the truth: he wants to get rid of freedom of worship (“in church”) and put in freedom of belief (“in life”). But only for himself, and his beliefs. All others that clash with his would have to be discriminated against.

We need more Currys in this country, who understand that no democratic government committed to equality of opportunity can protect freedom of belief because that is the opposite of democracy. It is anarchy. Beliefs will always clash. The federal government cannot uphold any one set of beliefs over another. If equality feels like oppression to some people, we need to help them resolve that struggle. That’s the American way.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

“Money talks and BS walks”—corporate reaction to “religious freedom” bills in Georgia and North Carolina

Posted on March 30, 2016. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Fans of This is Spinal Tap will recognize that immortal line, spoken by Bobbi Flekman, AR tour de force for Polymer Records. When the band find their album is being banned “by both Sears and K-Mart stores” because of its sexist cover art, Bobbi overrides the band manager’s protests and justifications to say “money talks, and b*** walks”. It became an instant mantra in many industries. (See the clip here.)

And it’s proving true in the real world as well: corporations in Georgia and Atlanta have responded forcefully to the anti-American “bathroom bills” and “religious freedom” laws those states have passed or are about to vote on. In North Carolina, PayPal, Bank of America, and Dow Chemical, all headquartered in the state, have denounced the state-wide law requiring people to use the bathroom earmarked for their biological or “birth sex” (not a real term) that was conjured up to overturn a Charlotte, NC law that banned discrimination against LGBT citizens. The NBA has threatened to move the All-Star game from Charlotte.

In Georgia, HB 757, protects “religious liberty” by allowing anyone calling themselves religious to deny service in a public business to LGBT people. Disney and Unilever now threaten to pull business from the state, and the NFL says Atlanta will not host the Super Bowl if the bill is passed. Through the group Georgia Prospers, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines, and Marriott Hotels have all said they will reconsider investment in Georgia or move their operations if the bill passes.

You may recall that in 2014 the NFL successfully threatened to move the Super Bowl from Arizona if its governor signed a pro-discrimination “freedom” bill, and that pressure led Gov. Brewer to decline signing the bill.

In one way this is heartening: it’s good to see corporations, which usually bend most of their efforts to breaking the law and violating the Constitution, united behind the cause of justice.

But in another way, it’s depressing: voters, lawmakers, and elected officials in many states are kept from exercising tyranny of the majority not by their love of American principles of liberty and justice for all, but by their fear of losing money. Keeping Coke or NBA dollars in their state is more important than anything, even their supposedly deeply held “religious” beliefs.

Of course, the companies are motivated by money, too; they don’t want to alienate a portion of the population that is supposed to have a lot of money to spend (an enduring though fatally outdated corporate myth about gay people is that, since they don’t have children, they spend all their money on consumer goods. The “gay American” to most companies is a white man living in a city with his partner and more money than he knows what to do with).

We can’t rely on corporations to be the guardians of justice because they are very unreliable. They are motivated by profit, and if they ever sensed that not all LGBT Americans are rich and white, they would jump off the LGBT bandwagon pretty quickly. We all have to keep working in our cities and states to remind people that what makes America great is its commitment to liberty and justice and separation of church and state.

Remember: if you don’t want to serve gay or trans people, don’t open a public business. Once you open a public business, you are obliged to serve the public—no exceptions. There’s no difference between these anti-gay laws and the anti-black laws that kept black people from eating in restaurants with white people, going to movie theaters with white people, and riding city buses with white people. Anti-gay laws are discrimination, and America finally got rid of that curse through the hard work of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-70s. You can’t teach kids in school that Rosa Parks was a hero if you then vote for a law that says you can keep trans people off your bus or out of your bakery.

In an election year where people stumble over themselves to love America the most, one easy test of who really means it is whether they support anti-American discrimination laws.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Kim Davis, the Supreme Court, and tyranny of the majority

Posted on September 15, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

If you read the HP regularly, you know that in 2008 we ran our first post on gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority. That’s when California legalized gay marriage, and when we heard someone on the radio complain about the role of the California State Supreme Court in making that happen. We explain in the post how the judiciary was specifically created to overturn majority laws/votes that oppress minorities, and therefore court rulings overturning laws against gay marriage are not, as is so often claimed, unconstitutional. Here’s the bulk of the post:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

Over and over we reposted this article as new states approved or disallowed gay marriage. When on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges that gay marriage is constitutional—or, more pointedly, that denying it is unconstitutional—we happily reposted for the last time on that subject.

Being historians, however, we knew that the backlash would not be long in coming. The clamor for “religious rights” that has grown up suspiciously in synch with the campaign for equal marriage began to claim that upholding gay Americans’ rights was oppressing Christian Americans’ rights. This is based on a fundamental and perhaps willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which we post about here. The First Amendment protects freedom of worship, not belief: here’s the gist from our post:

Worship is generally defined as attending a religious service, but it can be extended to prayer, pilgrimage, wearing one’s hair a certain way, and dressing and eating a certain way.

What worship is not defined as is belief. This is the crucial misunderstanding so many Americans have. Worship is an outward manifestation of belief. But it is not belief itself. And that’s why the First Amendment says nothing about religious belief. Absolutely nothing at all. This is what makes separation of church and state possible: religious belief is not allowed to determine what services the state provides. This means people who have certain religious beliefs can’t be refused state services, and it means that people who have certain religious beliefs can’t refuse to provide state services to people their beliefs condemn.

That’s why all these “religious freedom” bills being passed are bogus. They enshrine beliefs as rights (this is nowhere in the Constitution) and then say the First Amendment protects those beliefs by allowing people to refuse to serve others because their religion says to. Beliefs are amorphous. They are not concrete activities like worship. Anyone can have any belief they want, and their right to express those beliefs is protected. But if that expression comes in the form of refusing state or federal government services, then they cross a line by saying the state or federal government must conform to their beliefs.

This is what’s happening when county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The clerks are saying their right to do so is protected, but it is not. If something is legal in this country, the government must provide it—end of story. If people feel they cannot do that, then they should resign their position (quit their job). You cannot refuse to uphold U.S. law on the basis of your religious beliefs. The First Amendment specifically says this by saying Congress shall establish no religion.

So when Kim Davis and her ilk say their religious rights are being trampled, they are wrong. There’s a right to freedom of worship in the U.S., but not to protection of religious belief.

Yet Davis and her fleet of lawyers and her opportunistic supporters are making the same complaint against the courts that were made throughout the marriage equality campaign: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in an NPR report that “People are tired of the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away, takes their basic fundamental constitutional rights and puts them in jeopardy.”

Ah, the scourge of “judicial tyranny”. It ruins everything for people who want to oppress others. It seems we will have to keep running our post on the judiciary and its role in stopping tyranny of the majority for as long as people misrepresent and contort the Constitution to serve their goal of restricting liberties, establishing a state religion, and claiming that offering liberty and justice to all is contrary to their Christian beliefs.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Tenth Amendment and a Bill of Rights wrap-up

Posted on August 6, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

It’s part the last of of our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights, and so of course we are discussing the Tenth Amendment. It’s the mirror image of the Ninth Amendment:

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.

Remember how the Ninth Amendment said that any right not listed in the previous eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights, or in the Constitution, is granted to the people? As we put it last time, 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 keeps the federal government from getting tyrannical and withholding rights just because they are not specifically protected in the Constitution.

In mirror fashion, the Tenth Amendment says the opposite: every power of the federal government is listed in the Constitution. If a power is not “delegated to the United States by the Constitution”, it’s because the U.S. (federal government) does not have that power. The phrase “nor prohibited by it to the States” means powers given expressly to the state governments cannot be assumed by the federal government.

This is clearly meant to keep the bulk of the political powers and civil rights in this country in the hands of local governments (more directly controlled by the people) and individual citizens. It would seem to work perfectly to limit the federal government, if not for the lack of one word: expressly.

Originally, the Tenth Amendment said “The powers not expressly delegated to the United States”. This would mean powers literally described in the Constitution. You can read the Constitution and find them written there. When you take out the qualifier “expressly”, then you allow for interpretation of the Constitution rather than literal reading only. One might interpret the Constitution loosely, extrapolating meaning to grant the federal government powers that are not literally listed in the document.

This means that the Tenth Amendment does not override the “necessary and proper clause” in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which says that

The Congress shall have Power … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

In other words, Congress (the federal government) can make any law it deems necessary to uphold and enforce the Constitution. There is a difference between a right and a law, of course: the NPC gives Congress the power to make any laws it sees fit, but not the right to violate the Constitution. Yet it is laws that more immediately impact individual citizens, and laws can violate our rights. Laws can be fought, but that can take many decades and sometimes many lives, and so the NPC has been held by some to negate the Tenth Amendment.

It’s a slightly hollow note to end our series on the Bill of Rights on, but it’s fitting that our final two posts sum up the fundamental, creational tension between local and federal rights that has shaped, damaged, and ennobled our government, depending on the case you examine.

Now that we have the entire Bill of Rights in hand, how would we sum it up? We see a mix of rights so well-expressed that we take them for granted (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury), rights that have been so loosely interpreted and re-interpreted as to lose all meaning (the right to bear arms, freedom of speech and religion), rights that have taken a beating from the modern world (the right against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to be free from quartering), and rights that are so flat-out violated at all times that it’s hard to believe no one cares (the right to a speedy trial, no excessive bail).

The important thing to remember, perhaps, is that the Bill of Rights is elastic in one sense, demanding re-interpretation as times change, but inelastic in another: it requires an educated public to uphold and enforce it.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Eighth Amendment: no tolerating cruel and unusual punishment

Posted on July 24, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to the ninth installment of our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights. Here we investigate the short and mighty Eighth Amendment:

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

That’s it! But what a portmanteau of rights is found in this short sentence. We’ve already covered the intrinsic injustice of having to post bail in our post on the Sixth Amendment; here the American people demand that bail set not be “excessive”. They realized, of course, that posting bail is a way to let people with money await trial at home while people without money await trial in jail—they are imprisoned without having been convicted of a crime simply because they don’t have the money to post bail.

Seeing that courts could begin to demand ever-higher bail simply to bring in extra money to the city, state, or federal government, or to keep people they disliked in jail before trial, Americans say here in the Eighth that “excessive” bail cannot be levied, but that word has proven dangerously flexible. We don’t tend to mind it when someone accused of an inhuman crime—child assault, mass murder—is given $5 million bail just to keep them in prison. But we tend not to know that for many people accused of crimes, even $500 is “excessive” bail they can never pay. They are out of the public eye and they fall through the cracks. Until we put a dollar amount on “excessive”, this part of the Eighth won’t ever be enforced.

The question of excessive fines, on the other hand, is constantly in the public eye. We think immediately of someone who has a minor accident and asks for $20 million for their “mental anguish”. In 2007 a man whose pants were lost by a dry cleaner sued them for $65 million; cases like these come to mind. But it doesn’t have to be that extreme. In 1909, the Supreme Court defined “excessive fines” as “so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law’. If you are fined so harshly that you lose everything you own, the fine was likely excessive.

The final clause is deeply embedded in our national culture: cruel and unusual punishment. This phrase was borrowed by the Founders from 1689 English Bill of Rights—in fact, the whole Eighth Amendment is a cut-and-paste of the end of sentence in the EBR: “…that excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was written into the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture also prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and shorthands this as torture.

So we see that this is clearly an idea that gained traction in the modern world and is almost universally recognized as just and expressive of a basic or natural human right. Sadly, few nations have upheld this ban on torture, including the U.S.

It’s not just about what the government or the army does—our Bill of Rights is meant to be upheld and practiced by all of us. If American citizens asked for these rights, we must want to enforce them, right? We want them because we want them to be put in practice in our small towns, big cities, etc.—wherever we live. But Americans, official, military, and civilian, have practiced cruel and unusual punishment on their black peers and fellow Americans. Immigrants have been treated this way. Gay Americans, people in police custody, and people in jail have been subject to cruel and unusual punishment. The mentally ill, orphans, and young people in state custody have all been subjected to it. Whether it’s physical torture, terrorism, beatings, or psychological torture, all are outlawed by our Constitution, and so it’s not just illegal but un-American to allow or commit any of them, against anyone.

We do well to go back to that short sentence that is the Eighth Amendment and remember that we can’t complain about “the government” failing to uphold its tenets: we the people asked for these rights, so we the people must be the first to defend them, not just for ourselves but for all Americans, and, if we want to truly lead the world, all people we deal with.

Next time: everything else

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Seventh Amendment: keeping federal justice democratic

Posted on July 17, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 8 in our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights. Today we look at the Seventh Amendment. It’s short and to the point:

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 re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

There are two rights expressed here: first, the right to a jury trial in civil cases tried in federal courts; second, the right not to have the facts of a case as determined by a jury overturned.

The first right guarantees that people facing civil trial in federal court will not get different treatment than people in state or local courts. If trial by jury is the gold standard, then every civilian court in the U.S. should offer it. This was meant to prevent the federal government from allowing one person (the judge) or a cabal of high officials to use their personal discretion to decide cases. It was also meant to keep federal courts public: they could not become places where no one knew what happened and no one got to witness the proceedings.

The second right is trickier, and some analyses of the amendment just skip it. It says that the facts of a case cannot be retried. That means that while a jury’s verdict may be overturned by an appeal and a new trial, the facts of the case cannot be retried. If a jury establishes certain facts, a new trial cannot ask that those facts be thrown into question again—unless the lawyers can prove that there was misconduct in the original trial, such as evidence being destroyed or suppressed, or witnesses committing perjury. Then a mistrial is called, new evidence can be introduced, and the facts re-examined.

Oddly, the Seventh Amendment has never been applied to the states. It addresses only federal court cases. But all the states have always voluntarily upheld it, providing jury trials for all civil cases.

Next time: the shortest amendment

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

« Previous Entries

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...