Our Constitutional Foundation

My preferred perspective about Memorial Day is that it is not simply a day to remember those who have given “the last full measure of devotion” but also a day to reflect on what it is they were protecting. To do that we must look to the foundation of our country. In that mindset I have been reviewing the Constitution.

Our federal government is comprised of three branches. First, the Legislative branch which is composed of a Senate, with representation by state, and the House of Representatives with representation by population. The legislative branch is where laws are made. Second, the Executive branch which is responsible for commanding the military and, with the consent of the Senate, making treaties and appointing other officers of government as necessary. This power is wielded by the President. Third, the Judicial branch which consists of the Supreme Court and other courts as designated by Congress. The courts officiate in law suits, criminal and civil. The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction in all cases and original jurisdiction where federal official or a state is a party to the suit.

Each state is required to accept “the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” In addition, the United States is to guarantee that each state has a republican form of government. Two thirds of each house of congress, or two thirds of the state legislatures are required to propose amendments. Three fourths of the state legislatures are required to ratify an amendment. Nine of thirteen (virtually three fourths) of states were required to ratify the constitution to make it effective.

The first amendment prohibits congress from making laws to establish religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion. This applies to our attempts to prohibit the exercise of religious belief by Iraqis in establishing their government. We should not prohibit their free exercise. This also applies to the Church of Secular Purity. This amendment also protects our rights to peaceably assemble and say/write what we think.

The second amendment rules that citizens have the right to keep and bear arms, but it does not specify that they may own any kind of arms without limitation, or that they can take those arms any place without restriction. There is a fair amount of discretion still available there. Connected to that, the third amendment states that citizens cannot be forced to house soldiers in times of peace. The fourth amendment declares that citizens and their property shall be protected from unreasonable search or seizure.

The fifth amendment provides that we may be spared repeated trials for a single crime and that we need not witness against ourselves. It also provides that citizens shall be compensated when private property is taken for public purpose. The sixth amendment guarantees that we have access in criminal cases to a public trial by an impartial jury in the place where we are accused of committing a crime. It also stipulates that the accused must be allowed counsel and the opportunity “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The seventh amendment stipulates that in civil cases involving more than $20 the right to trial by jury stands. The eighth amendment prohibits cruel or unusual punishments.

The ninth amendment specifies that just because a right is not listed in the constitution is not sufficient proof that such right does not exist. The tenth amendment specifies that any power not specified as the jurisdiction of the federal government shall be reserved to the state governments. (I wonder why that seems not to have been applied.)

The eleventh amendment prevents a citizen from suing a state in federal court.

The twelfth amendment separates the presidential and vice-presidential votes rather than awarding the vice-presidency to the second highest vote-getter among presidential candidates. The twentieth amendment specifies the time for changes of president. The twenty-second amendment specifies a limit of two terms per president. (Some kind of term limits should be placed on Senators and Representatives as well.) The twenty-third amendment grants an electoral vote to the District of Columbia. The twenty-fifth amendment specifies that the vice-president becomes president if a president dies in office.

The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery. The fourteenth amendment alters apportionment and other issues left from the abolishment of slavery.

The fifteenth amendment specifies that race cannot be used to discriminate in a citizen’s right to vote. The nineteenth amendment later gave voting rights without regard to gender. The twenty-fourth amendment would later clarify that defaulting on taxes could not be used as an excuse to deny voting rights to a citizen. The twenty-sixth amendment lowered the age for voting from 21 to 18.

The sixteenth amendment allows for income tax.

The seventeenth amendment changes the way senators are chosen from being chosen by state legislatures to being chosen by direct, popular vote.

The eighteenth amendment makes it illegal to produce or distribute liquor. The twenty-first amendment repealed this almost fifteen years later.

The twenty-seventh amendment specifies that congressional pay increases do not go into effect until after a new congressional election. (This would be more useful if we had term limits or pay increases were only active for the successors of those who voted for the increase.)

If we understand our foundation we might recognize the limits of the society that we can build. We can also know how and when to alter the foundation if we do not like the society that it is producing.