What Are Amendment Rights?
The adoption of a written acknowledgement by government of the rights of people to be free from the tyranny of their rulers is a concept dating back at least to the 13th century and the Magna Carta. In fact, the Bill of Rights, the name given to the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was "borrowed" from a document by the same name adopted by the British Parliament in 1628 to protect the individual rights and liberties of its citizens.
American efforts began with the states
A document containing the rights guaranteed to each citizen first appeared in the constitutions of each of the states following the Revolutionary War. When the founding fathers got together in Philadelphia in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, their primary focus was to empower a strong central or federal government while also accommodating the interests of the states to govern their citizens.
The Constitution as it was presented for ratification in the fall of 1787, contained vast improvements over the Articles of Confederation that had preceded it. Key provisions included the following:
- Creation of three branches of government, legislative, executive or judiciary, with a system of separation of powers and checks and balances to prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful.
- Defining the relationships between the states and the federal government between government and the citizens who are governed.
- Adoption of procedures for amending the Constitution involving ratification by three-fourths of the states.
- Reserved to the states any powers not expressly or implicitly granted to the federal government.
- Reserved to the national government the right to regulate interstate and international commerce.
Noticeably absent from the draft of the Constitution that emerged from Philadelphia in 1787 were anything close to what could be considered as a bill of rights protecting individual liberties. Limited protection of individuals can be found in the Article III, Section 2 with its granting the right to a jury trial for defendants in criminal cases and the prohibition against ex post facto laws in Article I, Section 9.
Adoption of the Bill of Rights
The distrust many people at the Constitutional Convention had for a powerful federal government stood in the way of the delegates putting together a document that would be acceptable to everyone. Those opposed to a strong central government wanted a bill of rights included to limit its power over the people. A compromise was reached allowing the Constitution to be approved with a promise to include protections for individual rights at a later date.
The ratification of 10 amendments to the Constitution in 1791 fulfilled the promise. The Bill of Rights includes the following:
- Amendment I: Prohibits Government from enacting laws establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religious beliefs. The First Amendment also prohibits limitations on the right of people to assemble and to petition the government for the resolution of grievances.
- Amendment II: The right to bear arms contained in the Second Amendment has been a much-discussed and debated issue in recent years.
- Amendment III: Prohibits government from forcing people to house members of the military during times of peace. This was a reaction to pre-Revolutionary War orders forcing people in the colonies to give shelter to members of the British army.
- Amendment IV: Protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures conducted without a warrant and probable cause.
- Amendment V: The Fifth Amendment guarantees a number of rights, including the right to due process of law, the right not to be forced to give testimony against your interests in a criminal case, the right to grand jury indictment in felony cases and the right against double jeopardy.
- Amendment VI: Guarantees to individuals charged with committing a crime the right to a speedy trial and to be represented by an attorney.
- Amendment VII: Protects the right of individuals in civil cases to a trial by jury. It also prohibits appellate courts from reviewing questions of fact decided by a jury.
- Amendment VIII: Prohibits excessive bail and fines in criminal cases. It also protects people against punishment that is cruel and unusual.
- Amendment IX: Rights specified within the Constitution and its amendments shall not be by way of limitation of rights people had before.
- Amendment X: Any powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or individuals.
The meaning behind amendment rights
The Bill of Rights as ratified in 1791 limited the powers of the federal government and individuals or agencies acting on its behalf. It did not, however, protect people from activities by or in the name of the states.
For example, the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures contained in the Fourth Amendment only applied to activities by and on behalf of the federal government. Deputy U.S. Marshalls conducting a search in the 1800s would have to comply with the Constitution, but the same rules would not apply to a local county sheriff in Maryland, Virginia or other state unless their state constitution offered protections similar to those contained in the Bill of Rights.
Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court over the years, particularly during the 1960s, have expanded the protection of the Bill of Rights to activities by or on behalf of the states. For instance, by the early 1960s the Court had extended the protection of the Fourth Amendment to include activities by local law enforcement agencies. However, some protections contained within the Bill of Rights have not been extended. The right to grand jury indictment before being tried a felony charge applies in the federal court system, but the Court has not extended it to activities at the state level.
Amendment rights are a work in progress
The history of the Constitution and, particularly, the Bill of Rights has been of one of change as court decisions on the state and federal levels interpret what was written more than two centuries ago. The language used to draft the documents allows for their interpretation to adapt to the times.