The Constitution of the United States: The Bill of Rights

The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are known as The Bill of Rights and were ratified on December 15, 1791.

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights:

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on
Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution

I didn’t even know The Bill of Rights had a preamble.

Amendment I:

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.

No national religion allowed and no laws preventing your ability to practice your religion. Free speech and press are not to be taken away. Folks can get together in groups and also have the right to appeal to the government for problems. No doubt entire books have been written on the subject of the first amendment. I’m still in awe how less than 50 words has been the basis for so many texts, arguments and law suits.

Amendment II:

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.

Until I read the actual text I didn’t realize how potentially confusing the ‘right to bear arms’ could be. A few places have tried to out right ban gun ownership, to my knowledge none of them have successfully held up in court. That said the courts have certainly allowed restrictions on gun owners.

Amendment III:

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 wonder when the last time this came into play. I don’t recall the last time a soldier attempted to stay in a private residence, presumably by force.

Amendment IV:

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.

This is an area that has had trouble as technology goes forward. Is my email part of my ‘papers, and effects’? What about my DNA? When spying on Internet traffic how do we ensure that only the ‘persons or things to be seized’ are looked at?

Amendment V:

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 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.

‘I take the fifth’ is a well known phrase, which comes from the ‘nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself’ clause of this amendment. Interesting that to note that it doesn’t say under what conditions private property can be taken, only that it must be donw in the ‘due process of law’ and with ‘just compensation’.

Amendment VI:

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 defence.

Modern communication technology has made getting an ‘impartial jury’ a bit harder. With the tremendous amount of news coverage available today it can be hard not to be tainted in one way or another about high profile cases.

Amendment VII:

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.

Interesting that they pin and exact amount here. With inflation over the decades pretty much every issue would involve an amount greater than $20.

Amendment VIII:

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

I confess to not fully understanding how bail works beyond simply being a way for you to not sit in jail while your trial is pending. In the area of ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ I suspect entire books have been written. It does seem to imply that we try to be decent people even when dealing with those who have done horrible things.

Amendment IX:

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

This looks like an attempt to create a default condition for laws and rights. Just because it’s not specifically mentioned as a right in the Constitution should not be seen as being illegal.

Amendment X:

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 takes the previous amendment on step further. States essentially get to be semi-sovereign in establishing their own rights/laws as long as they don’t try to supersede the Constitution.

Other Constitution posts.

3 replies on “The Constitution of the United States: The Bill of Rights”

Regarding bail…

We have a presumption of innocence until you’re proven guilty (or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work). Since you’re innocent until proven otherwise, you shouldn’t be forced to be incarcerated until trial, right? What if you’re acquitted? The state has unreasonably taken your liberty.

But we need some way to compel you to show up at your trial, rather than having you just run off. Bail is a surrender of personal assets (temporarily) until you can be tried. It’s a guarantee (in tangible assets) that you’ll show up – and in fact it’s lost entirely if you skip bail (in addition to you being hunted down and tried anyway).

The prohibition on excessive bail was to ensure that judges wouldn’t set a bail amount that was so high defendants couldn’t make bail, just to force them to sit in jail. While bail amounts are determined based on the severity of the crime and your likelihood to flee, most of them are set by statute, to ensure fair application.

It’s really a remarkable system. We do what we can to free even those who will later be found guilty in order to ensure that those who are innocent are not unfairly held.

The potential to abuse the bail process would certainly be high. Taking a step back it’s an interesting concept, allowing someone to still have a high degree of freedom while trying to convict them.

Most definitely. But the beauty of the system is that we presume your innocence to such a degree that we free you from custody for all but the most heinous crimes. It really says a lot about our system of justice.

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