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Politics & Power

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Reforming America: Understanding Our Past (Part VII – The Bill of Rights)

Perhaps the greatest achievement of our Founding Fathers was the creation of the United States Constitution but it was not a perfect document. Between 1787 and today the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. Each time an overwhelming majority of the elected officials in Washington DC and the States has agreed that part of our Constitution was outdated or did not suit the needs of the nation an amendment has been made. Because the Constitution requires such an overwhelming majority it is not easy to amend the Constitution. That was by design and is widely considered to be a good thing. In 1791 the first ten amendments also known as The Bill of Rights were adopted to address fundamental freedoms not included in the original Constitution:

Amendment 1 - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression.

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.

Most constitutional scholars consider this to be the most important amendment to the Constitution. The guarantee of free speech and a free press is at the core of a well-functioning democracy. One of the tools of oppression used by dictatorial governments is the control of information to manipulate the populace. The First Amendment says that is not allowed in America. Our government is not allowed to seize control of the press or tell them what to report. Our people are allowed to criticize the government without fear of punishment.

Beyond the freedom of speech the First Amendment gave us the freedom of religion and forbids the government from passing laws based on religion. That is more relevant today than many know and is key to many challenges of the “Defense of Marriage Act”. The argument being that defining marriage as exclusively being between a man and a woman is applying a religious definition under the law which makes it unconstitutional.

The First Amendment is also one of the most commonly cited reasons for laws or actions of the government being unconstitutional when they are challenged in the courts. Recently conservatives won a First Amendment victory in the Citizens United v. The Federal Elections Commission ruling by the Supreme Court that gave corporations the same free speech rights as individuals. This ruling brought much praise from conservatives and much criticism by liberals. In this case from a historical perspective the liberals more closely reflected the views of the Founding Fathers about corporations and their place in America.

While the First Amendment has often sparked furious debate, the Second Amendment is perhaps the most divisive of all:

Amendment 2 - 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.

The point of contention with this amendment between gun rights advocates and gun control advocates hangs on the first four words and their effect on the words that follow. On the gun control side of the argument “A well-regulated Militia” is interpreted as the only body in need of firearms under the Second Amendment. By their definition, if the National Guard is armed then the provision of the Second Amendment is satisfied. By that definition nobody other than people in a regulated militia should need to own a gun. Gun rights advocates focus on the second half of the sentence that states “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That broader view of the Second Amendment takes the position that everyone has a right to bear arms. To this point the Supreme Court has mostly taken the broader interpretive view.

Amendment 3 - Quartering of Soldiers.

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.

This Amendment basically says the government can’t seize our homes for housing soldiers. This kind of protection keeps the American government from simply moving into someone’s home and taking over without due process.

Amendment 4 - 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.

Unreasonable search and seizure violations have led to numerous overturned criminal convictions and lawsuits against law enforcement. This Amendment protects Americans from simply being picked up and taken away for no reason. It also requires law enforcement to have a reasonable cause to enter our homes and affords us the right to privacy.

Amendment 5 - Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings.

No person shall be held to answer for a 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 offense 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.

The Fifth Amendment is perhaps the most often used amendment in our criminal court system. Unlike a totalitarian regime, the American government is not allowed to force or coerce a person to confess to having committed any crime. For that reason criminals and non-criminals alike have often cited the Fifth Amendment when refusing to testify in court. Also the so-called “double jeopardy” provision makes it illegal for someone to be tried for a crime after they have been acquitted of it.

Amendment 6 - Right to Speedy Trial, Confrontation of Witnesses.

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 wherein 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.

The right to face one’s accuser is a fundamental right to our judicial system. Having the right to challenge evidence and testimony in front of a jury of impartial people was intended to keep people from being jailed without just cause or held without trial indefinitely. The Sixth Amendment is one reason that some say the government has not moved the Guantanamo prisoners into the United States. They argue that once the detainees are inside our borders they could be considered protected by our Constitution and therefore would have to be tried in court or released.

Amendment 7 - 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.

The right of a trial by jury in civil cases allows people to have their disputes settled by a jury of their peers as they would in a criminal case.

Amendment 8 - Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

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

This Amendment has come into play several times in the death penalty debate. Several forms of capital punishment have been banned in the United States because they have been determined by the courts to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Amendment 9 - Construction of Constitution.

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

This amendment essentially says that the rights outlined in the Constitution were not intended to be the only rights of the people or the States and that the federal government cannot deny rights to the people simply because those rights were not afforded to them by the Constitution.

Amendment 10 - Powers of the 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.

This Amendment says that the people and the States are essentially granted the rights not reserved for the federal government by the Constitution. It more clearly defines a level of autonomy for the States while recognizing the overriding authority of the federal government as outlined in the Constitution and subsequent amendments.

The Bill of Rights all but completed the work of the original framers of the Constitution. While future amendments would follow and more will follow still, this set of amendments laid the foundation for many of the freedoms we take for granted. The important thing we need to remember is that we have these rights because people fought for them. They have to be protected at all costs and they are worth fighting for, even if that fight is against our own government.

As Congress and the White House continue to more and more broadly interpret the powers of government granted under the Constitution we have to be watchful of the things they do. We need to constantly let our elected officials know that we are watching them and that we understand what they are and are not allowed to do in our name. We have the right to petition government so we need to exercise it. If we want to keep America free we need to do the work to keep our leaders honest. We need to call them on their mistakes and hold them accountable for their decisions. Our rights don’t do us any good if we don’t take advantage of them when the time comes to do so.

Troy Wilson-Ripsom | Staff Writer | E-mail Comments on this column. | Click icon to Digg this article

Get Involved

Do you sit and yell at the TV when politicians come on? Do you shake your head sadly whenever you see a homeless veteran? Is that all you tend to do?

It's time to put up or shut up America. We all love to talk about how we could do things better or how we would do it if we were in charge. Well, it's time to put your money where your mouth is. If you can think of it, you can write it down. If you can write it down, you can type it. If you can type it, you can e-mail it and if you can e-mail it, you can send it here.

We at Reform America are committed to giving voice to anyone who wants to put their ideas out there to make our nation a better place. As the readership grows, we are able to take those views to a wider and wider audience. Grassroots campaigns begin with voices speaking out. You have opinions. Voice them. We aren't about conservative or liberal. We aren't about pro-this or anti-that. We're about Americans and the First Amendment. Reform America is about politics by, for and of the people. You are the people. You only need to speak up. America is listening. Send your article to:

Have You Been Downsized Due to Outsourcing?

For several years now we have listened to some within the business community tell us that America can't compete on a global scale unless they send our jobs overseas where they can be done cheaper. The question becomes, if we don't have good paying jobs here, how can we sustain our own economy? We want to hear from you. Have you lost your job? Have you been forced into a lower wage job due to outsourcing? Has outsourcing been a success for you? Did you end up in a better job?

Tell us your story so we can make sure the politicians see how outsourcing really impacts the workers who are backbone of America. Send your story to

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