Monday, December 15, 2008

Happy birthday to the Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution became the law of the land on December 15th, 1791, when ratification by the Virginia legislature meant approval by the states had cleared the three-quarters constitutional requirement.

And they remained the law of the land right up to the point that the Bush/Cheney administration, aided and abetted by a supine Democratic congressional minority and a sycophantic national press, decided they were incompatible with their theory of executive power.

Those ten amendments (there were two more that weren't approved) were introduced to Congress by James Madison as a check on the limits of federal power. They guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press, the right to due process, and . . .

What the hell--there's only ten (at least on paper there are still ten); let's just list them. For fun, see how many you can name before reading down.

Not counting the Preamble, they are:

First Amendment – Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause; freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; right to petition

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.

Second Amendment – Right to keep and bear arms.

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.

Third Amendment – Protection from quartering of troops.

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.

Fourth Amendment – Protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

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.

Fifth Amendment – due process, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, eminent domain.

No person shall be held to answer for any 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 offence 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.

Sixth Amendment – Trial by jury and rights of the accused; Confrontation Clause, speedy trial, public trial, right to counsel

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 where in 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.

Seventh Amendment – Civil trial by jury.

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.

Eighth Amendment – Prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

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

Ninth Amendment – Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

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

Tenth Amendment – Powers of states and people.

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.

Good stuff, isn't it? "Shall make no law;" "shall not be violated;" "shall not be infringed;" "shall enjoy the right." That was back in the day when the writers of laws knew how to put some Old Testament oomph into their bills. (Too bad about that grammatical mare's nest in #2, but what are you gonna do?)

The thing about Bills of Rights, and the reason that even enlightened administrations find them occasionally irksome (and unenlightened ones find them an affront to their ambitions, to be gotten around by whatever means), is that at the end of the day the possession--to say nothing of the exercise--of our basic rights by some is often just a damned nuisance to others. And sometimes, however much they cherish their own rights, those others might welcome the removal of a nuisance (or protection from a boogeyman) even more.

Here's a case in point. (There are others.)

In 35 days we get to find out if a former constitutional law professor can be as safely be trusted with our rights as a couple of clown college alumni.

1 comment:

Chuck Butcher said...

It is a good idea to remember that the 2nd and 4th have both been under legal assault for quite some time. Both are inconvenient. The big problems for the 4th go to RICO and as for the 2nd Bobby K's killing pretty much dates that particular paper burning.

GWB has simply taken us farther along the trail we tolerated some time ago in the name of fear and the disposal of the rights of a despised minority.