December 15 is National Bill of Rights Day.
At the end of the 1776 Revolution, our first national government was formed under the Articles of Confederation of 1781. The weak confederation did not operate well, and in 1789 the US Constitution was ratified to allow a stronger central government.
A stronger central government was both necessary and feared. Several of the states pushed for protection of individual liberties via a Bill of Rights, which became the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution in 1791.
The Amendments still have strong behavioral and emotional impact, remaining relevant to modern society. They were revolutionary when enacted and are a basis of western society.
Texas, too, has adopted many bills of rights. We have an equal rights amendment to guarantee equality under the law regardless of a person’s race, sex, color, creed, or national origin. We have a bill of rights aimed at protecting medical patients, one protecting elders in nursing homes and assisted living, and others protecting landowners, wards in guardianship, consumers and parents. But the federal Bill of Rights sets the baseline.
The principles in the US Bill of Rights are foundational to American society. Sometimes large groups of Americans forget (or misunderstand) these rights, and think the rights can be infringed by majority rule or tradition. But the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect individuals, often those who take positions that are not, at that moment, supported by the vocal majority. These rights are not subject to vote or to majority rule.
The US Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the Amendments. In some cases, the court has made the old-fashioned language in the Bill of Rights clear to modern Americans, and in some cases the court has issued confusing and contradictory interpretations. Ultimately each Amendment must be understood in light of the court’s decisions.
The federal Bill of Rights says:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
- Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
- The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the 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.
Celebrate National Bill of Rights day by reading more about them. Here are some recommended sources:
Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney with offices in San Antonio and Seattle, handling Wills and Trusts, Probate, and Business Entity issues. View past legal columns or submit free questions on legal issues via www.TexasEstateandProbate.com or www.Premack.com.