Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Unsung Hero of Holidays

“America did not invent human rights.
In a very real sense human rights invented America.
                                                                                                Jimmy Carter

      We’re in that time of year we call “The Holidays.”  Think of it and you’ll probably see images of crushing mall mobs, complete with parking lot door dings . . . lights – tiny and white if you live in one of the classier areas; big and multi-colored if you live in one of the trendier areas; pointedly blue if you live in one of the politically correct areas . . . looming credit card statements.  “The Holidays” brings any number of things to mind.

      But I’ll bet you didn’t think about the Bill of Rights, now did you?

      You should have.  December 15th is national Bill of Rights Day. 

      2010 marks the 219th anniversary of the ratification of that noble document, the first ten Amendments to the U. S. Constitution.  Our Bill of Rights sets us apart from most other nations on earth because it specifically designates and protects the individual rights of U.S. citizens.  We have always been a strong-minded, ruggedly stalwart (dare I say argumentative?) lot in this country.  So much so in fact, that these amendments almost didn’t get approved, nor did the Constitution they support.  It was not by any means a slam dunk.

      While the day of their final ratification is a national holiday (proclaimed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), there’s no official record of when we started taking them for granted.

      Just in case you can’t immediately bring all ten to mind, I looked them up.  Here’s the list . . .

1st Amendment:  Freedom of speech, press, and religion
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’re still debating that one, just ask the Wikileaks guy.  Or the folks who want to build that mosque near Ground Zero.  Or the aging neo-Nazis who marched through the streets of downtown Skokie, Illinois in 1978.  Debating the 1st Amendment it is not a bad thing.  It’s when we stop questioning it, pushing it, stretching its limits that we need to worry.

2nd Amendment:  The right to 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.
Buckle your seat belt.   This issue is so volatile that I even type gingerly when I record it.  You would think that after 219 years we’d have figured out what we mean by this one, but we truly don’t appear to know.  I will touch it and move on, noting briefly that five of the 11 states who ratified the original Bill of Rights, rejected this one.  If we had to vote on it again today we might be looking at Civil War II.

3rd Amendment:  Protection of homeowners from quartering troops, except during war
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.
I honestly haven’t given this much thought.  It never crossed my mind that I needed Constitutional protection to keep some sailor on liberty from commandeering my spare bedroom.  In the context of today’s society, I find this one a little bit ironic, especially since one of my dearest friends spends much of her time and considerable talent supporting a wonderful charity whose purpose is to provide housing for military personnel.   Go figure.

4th Amendment:  Rights and protections against 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.
I sadly fear that most Americans’ knowledge of the 4th Amendment comes from Law & Order reruns.  Who among us doesn’t remember a scene in which an outraged defense attorney slaps a paper down on Jack McCoy’s desks and explodes, “Ever heard of the 4th Amendment, counselor!”  I know I’m not the first citizen to ask, “How do you reckon the Patriot Act of 2001 figures in here?”

5th Amendment:  Rights of due process of law, protection against double jeopardy, self-incrimination
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.
Boy, this one covers a lot of territory.  I most often associate the Fifth Amendment with old news reels of mobsters conferring with their lawyers during the legendary Kefauver hearings on organized crime.  In high school I remember reading it and wondering why that last phrase didn’t apply to the Federal government when they took our entire front yard to widen their highway.  I still haven’t forgiven them for cutting down our oak tree.  In today’s pop culture, ‘taking the Fifth’ has become synonymous with an admission of guilt – at least that’s how it sounds on Law & Order.

6th Amendment:  Rights of a speedy trial by jury of peers and rights of accused
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.
My father, always the curmudgeon, insisted that our system ignores the “jury of peers” part of this language.  According to him, an accused ecological terrorist would have a jury comprised only of committed environmentalists, a 19-year-old male charged with drunk driving would face 19-year-old male members of AA.  He could go on for hours – and did.  And while I haven’t looked at a court calendar recently, I think “speedy” could be safely called a stretch.   All I know for sure is that, on advice from my only friend who is also a police officer, the first thing any of us should do if taken into custody is ask for a lawyer. 

7th Amendment:  Rights to trial by jury in civil cases
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.
How would the legal profession support itself without this one?  And, just for fun, does anyone know what $20 from 1789 would be worth today?  When it costs $25 to check a bag on an airplane, would we really convene a jury over a $20 dispute?  Apparently, it’s our Constitutional right. 

8th Amendment:  Protection from cruel and unusual punishment, excessive bail
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
What’s excessive for Martha Wharton might be very different from what’s excessive for Martha Stewart.  Or Oprah Winfrey.  And when it comes to what constitutes “cruel and unusual", may the conversation about the Patriot Act continue, please. 

9th Amendment:  Protection of rights not specified 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.
This wording was apparently not clear enough to avoid the need to protect some of those “other” rights with specific Amendments of their own.  Like the 14th.  And the 19th.

10th Amendment:  States rights, power of the states
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.
Some folks take this one hard.  The cemeteries at Gettysburg and Chickamauga attest to that.  In my home town the patriarch of one prominent family was named States Rights Johnson.  Really.  That was his name.  Nobody thought it was odd, or even humorous.  And nobody called him S.R. 

      There you have it.  Since December 15, 1789, we’ve added another 17 Amendments, one which (the 18th) prohibited alcohol, and another (the 21st) which repealed it.  So, not accounting for the thirst of the nation, an additional 15 Amendments in 219 years is not too bad.

      After we repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933, we pretty much left the Constitution alone until 1947, when, shortly following the death of FDR, we passed an Amendment limiting the President of the United States to two terms.  Point taken. 

      There was another quiet spell until 1961, when we entered sort of an amending frenzy in Constitutional terms (Constitutional Amendment time being a little faster, but not much, than geologic time).  In quick succession we admitted the District of Columbia to the electoral college (1960 – but they still don’t have Congressional representation, read their license plates); revoked poll taxes (1962 – that took awhile, didn’t it); codified the terms of Presidential succession (1965); and made 18 the legal voting age (1971 – but we still don’t have very good luck at getting voters of any age to cast a ballot). 

      After that, we grew quiet for another 21 years, until 1992 when we finally passed the 27th, preventing laws affecting Congressional salaries from taking effect until the beginning of the next session of Congress.  For the record, that one took just over two centuries to hit the books.  It was included in the original Bill of Rights, but never managed to pass go.  Proposed September 25, 1789 – passed May 7, 1992.  Let it never be said we’re quitters.

      With that in mind, here’s a little holiday entertainment for you, something to do when you can’t bear another sappy Christmas movie on the Hallmark channel.  Go back and read the original Bill of Rights, then go online (or, if you’re a troglodyte like me, open the newspaper) and read up on today’s news from Congress.  And then, I dare you, try to imagine what it would take to get those same ten Amendments ratified in today’s political environment. 

     If we depended on our current system to protect our Constitutional rights, we’d probably still be shooing sailors off the front steps with a broom.  Oh, wait . . . we do . . .

2 comments:

Tony & Debbie said...

Amazing that we ever got these handed down to us. Amazing that we live in a nation where "The Rule of Law" still means something. Look how other nations struggle with this concept and can't for the life of them figure out why a President or Senator can get in trouble for breaking the rules. I have always been skeptical of the notion of America's "Divine Exclusivism" but the fact that we have the Bill of Rights qualifies as a major miracle.

--Tony

Rory said...

Wonderful article, Martha. A refresher course in Civics is just the right thing to help me reboot and refocus on the positive things this country offers those who are willing to accept the challenge of living in an open society. And remind me that there are values that are worth defending.

The first amendment is my favorite. I couldn't imagine the horror of living in a country that didn't allow for the free expression of ideas, even if they are concepts that I don't agree with. With the opportunity for people to engage in discourse, I feel that all other things remain possible.