WASHINGTON, May 30, 2016 — Memorial Day honors the memory of those who died in active military service. Here is a select review of our nation’s frame, the Constitution, and of some of the rights set out in it for which these brave men and women served.
Our nation’s founding document begins: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…
We are not a perfect nation, nor are all of our laws. But, there is no place better.
The constitutional framers created a government system of “checks and balances.” They designed three separate branches of government that would balance each other, each being subject to the review of the others. Thus, Congress was designated to make the laws. The President carries out the laws. And the nation’s highest court, The Supreme Court, interprets those laws and rules on their constitutionality.
The Constitution was enacted on September 17, 1787. It established our nation’s government and fundamental laws. It also guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. In 1791, 10 Amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, were passed, guaranteeing numerous basic individual protections.
Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, thousands of amendments to the Constitution have been proposed. Only 17 were ratified, a process intentionally made difficult to accomplish. Ratification of an amendment requires the concurrence of three-fourths of the states; hence the reason for the sparse number that were actually passed. The most recent ratified Amendment, number 27, which dealt with congressional pay raises, was originally brought up in 1789, but was only ratified in 1992.
Today, the controversies we see on a daily basis involving matters of national concern seem to have reached a pitch unlike any could have possibly reached before. While that may not necessarily be a precise impression (read historical accounts of the abolition of slavery), in this century it is clear that the various sides on any given issue have truly dug in their heels and have drawn their lines in the sand. Matters such as abortion, immigration, and now even bathrooms seem to dominate our political conversation.
In this century, we are experiencing a temporary thwarting of the checks and balances plan with the refusal of a segment of Congress to move forward on the President’s nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. As the makeup of the current Supreme Court is ideologically split 4-4, that branch of government is unable to efficiently fulfill its function of delivering finality to disputes in many areas. Nonetheless, as the expression goes: this too shall pass.
Despite the well-intentioned disagreements about the meaning of the Constitution among us and those that have gone before us, this document is one that is truly amazing, having survived now for 229 years. It is still regarded as the legal backbone of our country.
Here is a summary of select provisions of the Constitution, with a few anecdotal thoughts applicable to today’s United States of America.
As noted, the U.S. Constitution has seven parts, or Articles, and 27 Amendments.
Article 1 established the Legislative Branch, known in the United States as the Congress. This article designated the Congress to make laws, and divided Congress into a Senate and a House or Representatives. Section 4 of this Article says each state may establish its own methods for electing members of the Congress. Thus, we now see variable requirements in each state, such as Voter ID laws.
Article 2 established the Executive Branch—headed by the President—to carry out the laws. Some Presidents have claimed and have acted on powers that they may or may not have had, and those actions have been challenged in the courts.
Article 3 established the Judicial Branch, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Justices decide if a law is allowable under the Constitution, or if it goes against it. (See opinions on Obamacare). They also decide differences of opinion between lower federal courts and cases on appeal from the highest courts of the states.
The Supreme Court is a critical arm of government, affecting such issues as discrimination (racial, sexual preference) and presidential elections, as with the Florida “hanging chads” controversy in the national election of 2000. Some Justices have attempted to “make law” with their rulings, only to have Congress and state efforts to reverse or change those rulings.
Article 4 discusses states’ rights, detailing that states must honor the laws of other states, that citizens of one state be treated equally and fairly in another, and allowing “extradition” (return) of an individual who, when accused of a crime in one state flees to another.
The 1st Amendment is perhaps the most important to all Americans, establishing the Freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and the right to petition.
The 2nd Amendment, essentially summarized as the “right” to bear arms, is perhaps the most hotly debated Amendment of our time. Many ask how many gun-related killings, massacres and random deaths must occur to motivate genuine change in the guns laws “supposedly” being justified by this Amendment. The words “right” and supposedly” used above are set out because their meaning in the Amendment have been interpreted in diametrically opposite fashions for decades, and we have seen many public officials, apparently for political expediency, who have actually changed their positions on the Amendment’s meaning.
The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, laying the foundation for countless court rulings on the federal level and with all of the states.
The 5th Amendment provides for due process of law in criminal proceedings, the right against self-incrimination (recall the famous Miranda court decision) and the double jeopardy rule, prohibiting a second prosecution for an alleged crime once previously determined.
The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial (claims of injustice abound for Guantanamo detainees, but, some argue they don’t get the benefit of our Constitution), the right to an impartial jury, the right to confront witnesses and the right to an attorney in criminal matters.
The 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, which language over the years has provided a great deal of debate on the death penalty and issues surrounding it.
The 14th Amendment (adopted in 1868) again discusses the right of due process of law, equal protection under the law (applications of this are seen reaching into college admission policies and even funding of school sports), and privileges of citizens.
The 15th Amendment (adopted in 1870) ensured that a person’s race could not be used as criteria for voting.
The 19th Amendment (adopted 1920) gave women the right to vote, specifically noting that an individual’s sex could not be used as a criteria for voting.
The 21st Amendment (adopted in 1933) repealed prohibition, the result of the 18th Amendment (adopted in 1919), which prohibited the sale or manufacture of alcohol in the United States. Now marijuana is legal in some states. Go figure.
The 22nd Amendment (adopted in 1951) set a limit on the number of times a President could be elected to two four-year terms. Virginia only allows a governor to serve one term. Again go figure.
The 23rd Amendment (adopted in 1961) gave Washington, D.C. residents the right to vote for President and Vice President. Finally, again, go figure. Efforts to give these citizens all of the rights of other citizens who live in the individual states are continually defeated (politics), and D.C. statehood remains only a dream.
Today, remember our country’s finest, those men and women,of all races andall persuasions who gave their lives so we could fight over what our Constitution means.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.