Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading the Bill of Rights

When I work in the kitchen or drive somewhere I usually listen to the news on the radio.  Quinn, if he's helping me out or along for a ride, listens too.  We used to play a game on the drive to Latin where before I would turn on the news we would each guess what the topic might be and see who got closer.  But now it's all Trump all the time, so that game has lost its appeal.

Usually when we listen to the news Quinn has questions.  Some of them are obvious, many are not, and too often I can't answer them as well as I'd like.  (That's where Google comes in handy.)

The other day during a particular news story they kept talking about first amendment rights and Quinn asked what that meant.  I explained that the first ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States are referred to as the Bill of Rights, and the first one guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, and assembly.  We had an interesting discussion about what the exceptions were.  We talked about different ways people have found to confront speech they didn't like.

In any case, the thing that surprised me as I had this conversation with my son in the kitchen as I was chopping vegetables, was that I realized as I was talking to him that I couldn't name all ten amendments.  I can name all ten commandments from the bible even though it's not my thing.  I apparently use the Jewish numbering which I didn't realize until I looked it up to explain to Quinn that different religions using those same commandments actually number then differently.  (This is something I wonder about when people put up ten commandment monuments since however they get numbered is a nod to a particular sect, not just to Judeo-Christian culture in general, but whatever.)  The average person I run into who claims to construct their life around those commandments can't actually name them, which I find either amusing or irritating depending upon the day.

But then I claim to hold up the Constitution as central to the choices I have available to me as a citizen of this country, and yet I wouldn't be able to tell someone what was in the entire Bill of Rights.

I had Quinn Google it and read me each amendment aloud.  I was sort of stunned by how much of it was unfamiliar.  So for anyone else on this American holiday who wants a refresher course on the Bill of Rights, here they are along with a few notes about what Quinn and I discussed as we read through them:

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.

[I had forgotten the specific mention of our right to petition the government for the redress of grievances, so that was interesting.  I told Quinn the first amendment is the one people on the left seem to care most about.  We talked about the case of Neo-Nazis wanting to march in a neighborhood full of Holocaust survivors in Skokie and whether that was akin to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater or not.  We talked about the ways in which the freedom of assembly has come under attack in recent years.  I explained the difference between libel and slander.  We agreed it's a good time to have protections if we want to express negative speech about our current leader.  We talked about why a specific ban on Muslims entering the country is at odds with this amendment.]

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.

[I told Quinn this is the amendment the right seems to care more about.  I asked him what he thought it meant just based on the words, and he said that people can have guns, but he didn't know what a militia was.  We talked a bit about the conditions at the time this amendment was written, and about how different the weapons were.  I reminded him of the conversation I had with all the kids recently about the story of Philando Castille and how unevenly the standards about gun rights can be applied in this country.]

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.

[Maybe this amendment will have its moment, but currently it's the one we find kind of hilarious.  Quinn read it out loud and then laughed and said, "What?"  Again, I explained how people had suffered under the British in order that this amendment be necessary, but it's hard to relate to now.  When we called my cousin the lawyer to have him help clarify a few things for us, he mentioned that this amendment has never been challenged in court because violating it would be too obvious to all involved.]

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.

[I told Quinn this one gets referred to as "search and seizure" as it applies to homes and people, but I'd forgotten about the specific words "papers, and effects."  We talked about court cases to clarify when this applies to someone's car, and how there are current questions about accessing cell phone information without a warrant.  I'm fascinated that this amendment applies to things that could never have been imagined at the time it was conceived.]

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 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.

[This one kind of blew my mind when Quinn read it to me because it just goes on and on longer than I remembered.  I told him most people know of it from when people in court don't want to testify about themselves and they just keep repeating "I plead the fifth," but that usually it makes those people look guilty.  I had it in my head that this amendment was also where not being forced to testify against your spouse was found, but apparently not.  I'd also forgotten this was the amendment about double jeopardy and compensation for property taken by the government.  I told Quinn with the number of investigations underway in congress right now that he might hear many people on the news pleading the fifth at some point in the near future.]

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 defense.

[I could have told you that the right to a speedy trial by jury was enshrined in the Constitution, but I couldn't have told you where.  I'll try to remember it's the 6th amendment.  Quinn and I talked a little about how finding true justice is complicated when people are so flawed, so this can cut either way.  Again, the Philando Castille case made for an interesting discussion, because as a country we are stuck with a decision by a jury that many of us don't understand, and yet on the surface a trial by jury should have seemed the fairest way to deal with the aftermath of that tragedy.]

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 reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

[This one made me laugh out loud because I had no memory of it, and the idea of citing an amount as specific as $20 in a document that is over 250 years old was just weird.  We had to set this amendment aside until we could call my cousin and ask what it was about.  He said it's essentially the same as the previous amendment guaranteeing you your time in court, but this was the civil version instead of the criminal one.  He also said it seldom comes up since the expense usually isn't justified in a small case, but it is a constitutional right and it does happen.  He said in his courthouse he's only seen a jury assembled for a civil case once.]

Amendment VIII

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

[I remembered "cruel and unusual punishment" and told Quinn this comes up in death penalty cases quite often.  I did not remember the part about excessive bail and fines and wonder why this doesn't come up more.  Probably because the people these violations harm the most are poor and therefore less equipped to stage a long legal battle.]

Amendment IX

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

[What the?!  Quinn and I were both left saying "What is this?" and no matter how many times we read it we didn't know what it meant.  This was the main reason we called my cousin after reading through the Bill of Rights, and he said it's kind of a catch-all for other rights not mentioned.  Maybe this is where we put ideas about separation of church and state, or maybe right to privacy?  I'm not sure.  But there it is.  I think of it now as our constitutional right to have rights.]

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.

[I told Quinn this is the one referred to as "states' rights" and how some things make more sense to do by state but then can turn into national issues.  We talked about how it made sense to some that gay marriage should be a state by state issue since it was controversial, but that in practical terms that gets messy and unfair because you should be able to move and still be considered married in a different state, so it ended up being a national issue.  Some ideas are local enough to experiment with within a state, but others are big enough we need to create consistency across those borders.  Where those lines are remains an interesting debate.]

Most of the Constitution is pretty dry reading because it's a legal document, and stripping our passion from situations in order to clarify the rights that surround them makes them seem dull.  But I reminded Quinn it's kind of like reading the rules of a game.  We love a good round of Settlers of Catan in our house, but is there anything more tedious than first going through those rules?  And occasionally there is a dispute that requires we pull out the box and read through some part of those rules again to know who is right and to keep things fair.

I think this holiday is a good time to pull out the box again.

I plan to read through all the amendments this week, because it's a good reminder of how spectacularly wrong we have been as a country, and what remarkable capacity we have for correcting wrongs relatively quickly when we have a mind to.  To see human beings referred to as only 3/5 of a person in a document we regard as almost holy is sobering.  To realize we added to this great document a provision about alcohol use is laughable, and then that later we essentially wrote "never mind" is equally so.  That we needed an amendment to give women the right to vote is upsetting, but that we got it is inspiring.  What else will I find when I pull out that box?  Looking forward to reviewing the rules.


  1. Great post. The New York Times included a reprint of the Constitution and Bill or Rights this Sunday, annotated by various lawmakers, authors, etc. I read some of it, but I really enjoyed reading about your discussions with Quinn. It really is a fascinating document, isnt it. It should be required reading in high schools (and/or middle schools).

  2. I love this post! Quinn is learning so much from these conversations... what a lucky kid. I have to add that the Fifth Amendment must be highlighted as the amended that preserves due process. That the government can't take away life, liberty (put you in jail), or property (this applies to a range of government benefits as well as personal property), without "due process." Though it reads as a dry procedural requirement, it is a powerful and fundamental tool that has come to the rescue many, many times to protect American citizens :)