U.S. Constitution

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!

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A Nation of refugees

Posted on November 17, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

The wars in what we grew up calling “the Middle East”, from the Syrian civil war to the battles against the so-called Islamic State, are doing what all wars do: creating millions of refugees. This is not new in human history. Why is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? In large part because millions of people fled war in Europe during the 19th century. From the revolutions of 1848 to the wars that created Germany to the people who fled Europe after WWII, war has always grown our population in the U.S.

But that last one in the list, WWII, is actually an anomaly. It was after WWII that the U.S. began adopting policies that limited immigration, even for people claiming refugee status. There were multiple reasons for this; anti-immigration policies had begun to multiply in the 1920s and 30s, and affected people’s ability to leave Europe for America before the Second World War. These policies led to the refusal of the St. Louis in May 1939,  because it carried 937 Jewish Europeans seeking refugee status in Cuba; Cuba would not take them, and according to the Immigration Act of 1924 that cut immigration from southeastern Europe sharply, neither would the U.S. (The Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe where they fell victim to Nazism.) After WWII, the Cold War encouraged U.S. officials to restrict European and Asian immigration as we became a fortress closed against Communism.

So we actually became less welcoming to Refugees from Foreign Wars, as they used to be called, during WWII. Famously, it took an emotional visit by First Lady Rosalyn Carter to starving and dying Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War to change our policy and allow them to enter the U.S.

In the 1920s, the U.S. banned immigration based on religion and race: “undesirable” Catholics, Jews, and people who were not considered white at that time like Italians and Czechs and Russians all had their quotas lowered. Since the 1950s, immigration has been viewed through the lens of politics and religion: Catholic Latinos in the 1970s-90s, and now Muslim Middle-Easterners are the new bogeymen. In the late 19th century and to the 1930s, southeastern European Jews and Catholics were decried  loudly by panicking white Protestants: their mission from the Pope or whoever controlled them was to destroy the U.S. government and our white nation. Today, the nativists panic as they claim… the exact same thing.

Muslims can’t understand democracy. They can’t participate in it. They won’t learn English. They hate our free society. They’ll bring their religious laws here and try to enforce them. They’ll destroy our government. They’ll commit acts of terrorism.

All of these hate-panic claims were once made about Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Catholic immigrants. Somehow none of them came true.

Yet some of our political leaders are clearly nostalgic for the bad old days. Rick Santorum thinks all Syrian refugees should go back home and fight ISIS. Somehow they will succeed where Russian air strikes have not. Carly Fiorina wants all refugees screened for terrorism before they can come here. Rand Paul has a blanket “no” when it comes to Muslim refugees. Bobby Jindal thinks all refugees should be constantly monitored in the U.S., ankle-bracelet style. And Mike Huckabee thinks it’s “crazy” to take poor people from the “desert”, “who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a [sic] same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter”.

Luckily none of these people are running the country. Our president faced this front of ignorance by reminding us of who we are:

When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful, that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests (for) our compassion.

This is a much-needed counter-attack against those who insist that instituting the religious tests that our Constitution absolutely outlaws and deplores as undemocratic will keep our democracy safe. Suspecting people who have fled for their lives in a war of being warmongers whose only goal is to destroy any nation that takes them in and offers them hope is beyond ignorant. And it’s beyond American.

Whenever anti-immigrant, hate laws were passed in our history, there were Americans who stood up against them. There are always Americans who fight for justice for all. That’s our true identity. That’s American. Let’s remember that. Let’s remember who we are and how we got here, always aspiring to greatest-nation-on-Earth status, because the old saw is true: if we destroy everything we stand for in the name of security, the terrorists win.

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Court decisions are not “democracy”?

Posted on November 13, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

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.

I 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. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

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.

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Black Votes Matter… but not in Alabama

Posted on October 21, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Back in June 2013, we posted about the Supreme Court decision that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You can read that here; in this post, we focus on the inevitable evil that is beginning to come of that decision.

Basically, the SC decision removed a restriction that had been placed on states with the worst records of preventing black Americans from voting: that restriction said that if one of those states wanted to change anything about its voting laws, those changes had to be approved by the federal government. This stopped states from passing new laws that kept black Americans from voting.

And now we see the first fruit of removing that restriction: Alabama first made a government-issued ID mandatory for voting, and has now shut down 31 DMV locations—in majority-black counties.

As the report in The Nation says,

The state is shuttering DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of black voters. Selma will still have a DMV office but virtually all of the surrounding Black Belt counties will not. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” writes John Archibald of the Birmingham News. “The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.”

Alabama describes the closings as a cost-saving measure, but the impact has clear racial and political overtones. Writes Archibald:

“Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.

“Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.

“Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight—again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery—had their offices closed.”

This is the very type of voting change–one that disproportionately burdens African-American voters–that would have been challenged under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court rendered inoperative. “The voices of our most vulnerable citizens have been silenced by a decision to close 31 license facilities in Alabama. #RestoreTheVOTE,” tweeted Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma.

Congresswoman Sewell is calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate, but what can it do? Its power to suspend any violation of Americans’ constitutional right to vote has been stripped away by the Shelby decision.

As John Archibald (quoted above) says in an op-ed,

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

But Alabama Secy of State John Merrill says there’s no problem:

Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s chief election official, said late Wednesday that the state’s closing of 31 county driver’s license offices won’t leave residents without a place to get the required I.D. card to vote.

…Merrill said state election officials “will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on our own” at county Board of Registrars offices. “Every county has a Board of Registrars,” he said.

…Merrill said his office will have brought its mobile I.D. van to every county in Alabama by Oct. 31. He said the van will return to counties when requested. “If they can’t go to the board of registrars, we’ll bring a mobile crew down there,” Merrill said.

…One must ask why Alabama should have to use mobile vans to register people when it already had DMVs in place to do so? Mobilizing a fleet of “mobile ID vans” to replace the DMVs you shut down is like breaking your car window so you can tape a plastic garbage bag over it and then vaunt your great “fix”.

It seems clear that this is a bold, open blow against civil rights in Alabama, and like attacks on immigrants, these moves tend to spread from state to state; we fear Alabama will not be the last to decide it doesn’t have to let black citizens vote. Keep an eye on your own state, and if you like, protest the Alabama move at #RestoretheVOTE.

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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.

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Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate

Posted on September 11, 2015. Filed under: Civil War, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.

Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:

…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.

There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.

If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.

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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.

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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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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

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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

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