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The U.S. Constitution - Bill of Rights Overview

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An introduction to your American rights

Upon declaring freedom from the crippling grasp of Great Britain, the United States of America underwent a major overhaul after the Revolutionary War and made some beneficial additions. The first was the installation of its own unique government with its own unique set of laws. These laws were not an attack on its people, but more a means to create order and foster an environment where all men would be created equal. 

Our forefathers did this by creating several documents that spelled out how we were to govern ourselves. The first document was the Declaration of Independence. It was followed by the Constitution. Those documents, paired with a third, make up something we know today as the Charters of Freedom.

You may be asking yourself what this third document is. When the Constitution was written, it contained ten extremely important statements at the beginning. These statements, better defined as rights, were a blueprint on how citizens and the state were to be treated in relation to the government. The first ten rights are known as amendments. 

The document as a whole is called the Bill of Rights. Because some these amendments are being challenged today, it is important that we, as the people of America, fully grasp what they are, how they affect us, and their history. The purpose of this discussion is to highlight the Bill of Rights, both in their entirety and individually, and the gravity of their impact on the United States of America.

Thomas Jefferson 

Thomas Jefferson was the actual author of the Declaration of Independence. According to Bio.com, Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 in Virginia. He studied hard in school. In an unfortunate turn of events, his father passed away when Jefferson was fourteen years old. His inheritance was hefty, but he always strived to be the absolute best citizen he could be for his country despite being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Jefferson was lawyer by trade and ran headfirst into practice and politics. Jefferson accomplished many things in his life, both politically and personally. 

Founding fathers of the United States
(Clockwise): George Washington, 1st U.S. president; John Adams, 2nd U.S. president; Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. president; Alexander Hamilton, American statesman; Benjamin Franklin, American diplomat; James Madison, 4th U.S. president.
The founding fathers of the United States
  • Some facts about Thomas Jefferson, both pre-declaration and the duration of his political career include:
  • Served in the Virginia House of Burgesses
  • Author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America
  • Drew heavily from the work of George Mason
  • Worked on the Virginia Constitution
  • Was Governor of Virginia
  • Achievements in architecture, farming, and invention
  • Vice President of the United States of America
  • President of the United States of America
  • Responsible for the Louisiana Purchase (Bio.com)

The Declaration of Independence

In order to better understand the Bill of Rights, the other documents in the Charters of Freedom are important. It is virtually common knowledge to all American citizens that we fought long and hard as a country to gain our independence from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence represented why we wanted to separate from Great Britain. It also expressed how we wanted our country to be governed. 

It was signed by representatives from fifteen different states and was conceived, drafted, and appropriated by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was given the daunting task of writing the final draft. There were many revisions made to the initial draft, but on July 4, 1776 it was presented for a final time to Congress and signed.

The Declaration of Independence contained some of the following facts:

  • We were given such rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by our Creator.
  • If these rights are threatened we, the people, have a duty to intervene.
  • The King of Great Britain has prevented these rights from being attained.
  • We repeatedly put forth petitions to maintain our rights.
  • These petitions were ignored.
  • We want to be free from Great Britain and its abusive King.
  • We want to govern ourselves. (US)

With this document, this Declaration of Independence, we took control of our country and separated from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.

James Madison

James Madison is most famously known as the “Father of the Constitution”. Madison was born in 1751 in Orange County, Virginia like the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Madison and Jefferson had a close relationship, and Madison served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State during Jefferson’s term in the White House. 

Like most politicians of the Revolutionary era, Madison practiced law in his early years. His greatest achievement, aside from his term in office, was the framing of the Bill of Rights. Madison has already helped in the writing of the Constitution by creating the document that the Constitution so he furthered his reach into history by playing his part in the development of the Bill of Rights. (Whitehouse.gov)

The Constitution

After we separated from Great Britain, it was time to decide how the United States of America would be run. Unlike the French Revolution, in which the country didn’t want to redefine itself, The American Revolution was all about establishing government for a brand new nation, as the Constitution provided the framework upon which the federal government was formed. It provided an instruction book for the first leaders of the country and was meant to endure until the end of time.

It also gave Americans a way to hold their government leaders accountable with a predetermined set of rules, laws, and structures that provided something that the citizens of Great Britain were dangerously lacking when compared to the citizens of this brand-new country. The Constitution was written in 1789. The original document was comprised of twelve articles with various section. 

These articles in the Constitution included topics such as:

  • Structure of the government
  • Requirements to obtain the presidency
  • Rules for the judicial system
  • Rights of the individual state
  • Addition of amendments to the Constitution (US)

These amendments are what would later become known as the Bill of Rights.

What are, and why are the Bill of Rights so important?

Now that we know some of the history behind the Charters of Freedom, and their creators, let us get to the heart of the matter, which is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, on December 20, 1787, that:

"[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.”

What Jefferson was saying was that these amendments are closely tied to freedom and the rights we should be allowed as, not only Americans, but as humans as a whole. 

These rights include:

  • Freedom to exercise the religion of our individual choices
  • Freedom to express our individual opinions without fear of reprisal from the government
  • Freedom to be treated fairly in all things judicial
  • Freedom to have a certain amount of privacy

According to Bill of Rights Institute, there were initially seventeen amendments that were submitted to the House. The approved amendments would go through an arduous journey that would eliminate almost half before they were to be added to the Constitution. Senate eventually gave the go ahead for twelve of the seventeen original amendments. Only ten were approved in the end. These matters should not be taken lightly. They were serious matters then, and they remain serious matters now, and will be for the foreseeable future.

None of these amendments should ever be treated with deaf ears, but a few of them have caused quite the stir in recent times including:

  • Amendment #1: Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press
  • Amendment #2: The Right to Bear Arms
  • Amendment #4: Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizures
  • Amendment #5: Protection of Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property

Our forefathers envisioned a country that held the highest of high standards in integrity, fairness, and care for its citizens. This is why the Bill of Rights is so important. The duration of this discussion will involve examining the Bill of Rights

The following topics will be addressed:

  • Description of right
  • What it means for normal people
  • Important supreme court cases that upheld or restricted decisions based on it
  • Impact on businesses and corporations
  • Potential future and legacy of the right, highlighting what is happening in current events

Bill of Rights: Amendment #1: Freedom of religion, speech, and the press

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.

This first amendment address our freedoms of religion, speech, and the press. It was approved by Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791. In regards to religion, it means that we may practice the religion of our choosing and where we want to practice it without restriction by the government. This is better known to many as the “separation of church and state”. For example, this is the amendment cited by those who believe prayer has no place in public schools.

Considering the fact that we initially fled England to avoid religious persecution, it makes sense that this would the first amendment. Historically, most of the most powerful men of the era were not Christian. They did, however, have an understanding and vision of what the country might look like if religious reliefs were interfered with.

The second part of the amendment refers to our freedom of speech. The exact definition of freedom of speech has been under a tremendous amount of controversy since its introduction into the inception of the Constitution. There are many who believe that freedom of speech gives us the right to say or do whatever we want to, both inside and outside of the law. 

According to the website sponsored by United States Courts, this is clearly not the case. Freedom of speech does not allow for American citizens to say or do anything that does damage to others in any way, shape, or form. This includes, but is not limited to slander, obscenities, the advocating of anything illegal, disrespectful acts towards patriotism, and others that are not in the best interest of those around us.

Freedom of speech does, however, (referring again to the United States Courts website), state that there are many ways in which we can optimize this right. 

Some of the ways we can exercise our freedom of speech include:

  • Our right to either salute or decline to salute the American flag
  • To make contributions to political campaigns
  • To practice speech in un spoken manners
  • To express our opinions in any way we find suitable to relay our political opinions
  • To advertise for products and services

The freedom of the press is a very controversial realm of this amendment. In days of old, newspapers were the primary source of information on current affairs, domestic happenings, and foreign news. With the explosion of the Internet and technological advances, it is becoming more difficult for the press to maintain integrity, non-sensationalist reporting, and basic rights. Journalists are no longer the pencil-wielding, newsroom junkies, and trained professionals that they once were. 

This does, however, not mean that they still are not protected under the amendment just the same. Issues such as digital reporting, unethical information, censorship, and the journey for that perfect story are a challenge to this staple in our country.

These rights have been challenged and upheld on many occasions. They most directly impact churches, journalists, and activists. There have been wins and losses across the board. The following chart represents some of those cases and their verdicts.

The First Amendment in court
The following cases spanning 1879 through 2003 show how First Amendment rights have been challenged in court.
Ruling upheld Ruling overturned
Freedom of religion
Reynolds v. United States (1879)1
Polygamy is against the law.
McDaniel v. Paty (1978)2
Barring religious officials from political office is unconstitutional.
Freedom of speech
United States v. O'Brien (1968)3
Destroying draft cards is not protected under the 1st Amendment.
Virgina v. Black (2003)4
Burning crosses is allowed, unless used to intimidate.
Freedom of press
Hustler v. Falwell (1988)5
Public figures may not sue publications for the release of information except in cases of slander.
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)6
School newspapers can be censored due to being part of a school curriculum.
Source links:
1. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/98/145/
2. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/435/618/
3. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/391/367/
4. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/01-1107.ZS.html
5. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/485/46
6. https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/supreme-court-landmarks/hazelwood-v-kuhlmeier-podcast

Bill of Rights: Amendment #2: The right to bear arms

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.

Of all the amendments that we will be exploring, none are so controversial at the moment than the second. Everywhere we look there seems to be a constant barrage of media coverage of gun control issues. Everyone from the media to the presidential candidates have varying points of view on the subject. 

Those opinions range from those wanting guns to be removed from the public streets entirely to those who would fight until the death to make sure that their right to bear arms is not impeded with in any way. One of the heftiest of arguments with this topic is the fact that the amendment was put into play when the country was in a much different state. We lived without the aid of a police force and military. It was crucial that have the means to defend ourselves. That is basically what the amendment is stating.

A tricky situation for all

This amendment has a huge impact on just about all citizens. For those against the possession of firearms, it means living in fear of the dangers that firearms present. For those who support gun ownership, it means a constant battle to have their rights protected. 

Finally, for businesses and corporations who are in the business of firearm sales, manufacturing, and distribution it means a potential threat to their livelihoods. Curbing gun violence issues in this country without eviscerating the second amendment is an extremely delicate issue. The future of this amendment is up in the air at this point, but it is clear that it is a fight that will be fought for a very long time to come. 

Statue in Minute Man National Historical ParkSource: WC
A sculpture of a minuteman militia soldier stands in Minute Man National Historical Park on the first anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Minuteman sculpture by Henry Hudson Kitson stands in Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts.

Because of the constant contention surrounding this amendment, there have been monumental supreme court cases that have been upheld, as well as overturned. The table represents some of these cases and their rulings.

Cases challenging the Second Amendment
The following court cases challenged rights granted by the Second Amendment.
Ruling upheld Ruling rejected Ruling overturned
Weapons bans in public places
- District of Columbia v. Heller1
Regulations and restrictions are placed on firearms in public places.
Assault rifle ban
- The desire to ban assault rifles.2 -
Concealed carry
- - United States Court of Appeals3
Concealed carry is protected under the Second Amendment.
Open carry
McDonald v. Chicago4
Open carry is protected under the Second Amendment.
- -
Gun ownership
District of Columbia v. Heller5
The Second Amendment guarantees gun ownership rights.
- -
Table sources:
1. https://lawcenter.giffords.org/protecting-strong-gun-laws-the-supreme-court-leaves-lower-court-victories-untouched/
2. https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/20/politics/supreme-court-declines-consideration-of-law-banning-some-semi-automatic-assault-weapons/
3. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/10/us/second-amendment-concealed-carry.html?_r=0
4. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/08-1521
5. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/07-290.ZS.html

Bill of Rights: Amendment #3: The housing of soldiers

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.

This Third Amendment right was written during a time when the United States of America was a war-torn country. This amendment was adopted in 1792. This amendment was a result of how Great Britain dealt with the quartering of their soldiers during the Revolutionary War

Great Britain forced the American public to house their soldiers during the war, with or without the homeowner’s consent. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution tells us that this was a means of punishment to residents during the time period. This punishment was listed under the Intolerable Acts of 1774. The amendment does specify that forcing people to house soldiers is not okay during war or peace times.

This amendment is probably the least relevant of all the amendments to us today. It has never come under the scrutiny of the supreme court as of this year (2016). Because we now have a plethora of military bases around the country, as well as around the world, there really is no need to address the housing of troops in private residences.

It still remains a historical component of the Bill of Rights, thus will most likely not be removed. The amendment has, however, been cited in a few court cases. These have closely linked to the citizens right to privacy and government power. 

Court cases involving the Third Amendment include:

  • Engblom v. Carey
  • Griswold v. Connecticut
  • Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer

Though obscure and inapplicable, this amendment remains in the Bill of Rights.

Bill of Rights: Amendment #4: Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures

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.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is another that has caused quite a stir within the American public for the duration of its history. It is one of the most common amendments cited when Americans citizens have altercations with the law. The fourth amendment is often cited in disputes involving the Patriot Act in recent years. It protects our right to privacy and keeps the government from violating it. There are stipulations to this right, however. 

These stipulations almost always include:

  • Subpoenas: government issued documents granting permission to obtain information
  • Borderline: point when flight passengers exit the plane, but before they are cleared by TSA
  • Internet: public information and domain
  • National security: when the best interest of the country is at stake
  • Probable cause: when proof of malicious activities is present
  • Warrants: court issued documents for request of information

Due to the nature of this amendment and its relation to privacy and crime specifically, there have been numerous court cases where citizens have felt that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated. These cases, and their rulings are as follows:

Cases alleging a violation of the Fourth Amendment
Citizens who felt their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated brought their grievances to court in the following cases from 1914 through 2013.
Year Case Ruling
1914 Weeks v. United States
Search and seizure of private residence without a warrant
1968 Terry v. Ohio
Frisking during police stops
No violation
1973 United States v. Robinson
Search of persons in lawful custody by police
No violation
1985 New Jersey v. T.L.O.
Search of a student at school
No violation
1995 Vernonia School District v. Acton
Surprise testing for drugs in school athletes
No violation
2012 Florence v. County of Burlington
Citizens under arrest must undergo strip searches before being admitted to jail
No violation
2013 Missouri v. McNeely
Blood tests in DWI cases without a warrant
2013 Florida v. Jardines
The use of drugs dogs to search unwarranted private homes
Table sources:

There have been a few court cases in relation to this amendment that have created new procedures that have become a staple in the legal system. The most infamous of all is probably in regards to the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona. These proceedings paved the way to all criminal detainees being read their Miranda Rights (History.com). 

These rights are a set of instruction informing arrestees their rights as given by the law. It all started when an Arizona man was arrested for raping a woman and then being interrogated by police without legal counsel present. For those not familiar with the Miranda Rights, they read:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can, and will, be used against you in court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you.”

This amendment has the most impact on individual citizens, businesses, corporations, and virtually anyone else who comes under scrutiny of the law. This is often the most challenged of all the amendments and will most likely be challenged for eternity. It is also the amendment that has, and will, always be challenged by Americans and the judicial systems. It seems that there is a lot of room for error when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. Both citizens and law officials should take care to always do their homework when it comes to this controversial topic.

Bill of Rights: Amendment #5: Protection of rights to life, liberty, and property

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.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution directly pertains to crime, police procedures, and judicial processes. 

The Fifth Amendment addresses the following areas:

  • Right to a fair trial
  • Double jeopardy
  • Self-incrimination
  • Right to a jury
  • Seizure of private property by the government

This amendment is of the utmost importance to the American public because it lays the groundwork for how we are treated in the event that we must be judged by the court system. There are two rights listed in this amendment that may require a more in depth explanation. These are double jeopardy and self-incrimination.

Double Jeopardy refers to the prohibition of an individual being tried for the same crime more than once. One of the more recent court cases involving Double Jeopardy occurred in Dallas, Texas in 2013. According to The Dallas Morning News, Sharone Brown plead guilty and was convicted of assault on his girlfriend. The catch to this case was the fact that his girlfriend was already dead, but prosecutors did not know that. When Sherry Whitacre was found dead, Brown could not be tried in her murder because of the Double Jeopardy clause.

In regards to self-incrimination, this is referring to forcing an individual to testify against themselves. This not only extends to federal proceedings, but also state and local hearings as well. The American Association for Justice reveals that in order for an individual to show proof that this right has been violated, they only need to show that the intent for coercion was present. 

There are many court cases which have exemplified this right. 

The American Association for Justice lists some cases where the Fifth Amendment was upheld. They include:

  • Pennsylvania v. Muniz (1990)
  • Schmerber v. California (1966)
  • Estell v. Smith (1981)
  • United States v. Lacouture (1974)
  • Rogers v. United States (1950)

In regards to the clause of government seizure of property, this is better known as eminent domain. The government must have realized early on that they could take private property for public use, so this part of the amendment was addressed. 

One of the ways that the Fifth Amendment protects us is by giving us compensation for takings. This is most popularly seen in the building of roadways. An example of a case involving eminent domain can be found in Albany, Georgia with Julia Lemon. 

The woman lived at her residence for decades and experienced many tragedies, as well as blessings during her time in the home. A large hospital wished to buy the property, which was appraised at around $60,000, but were ordered to pay $200,000 according to NBC News

Eminent domain almost always is directly tied to businesses and corporations, but it is clear that it has a significant impact on individual Americans as well. As for Julia Lemon, the proof is in the pudding that just because the government has the power over people’s lives, there are actions that can be taken in regards to rights.

Julia LemonSource: NBC
Julia Lemon, 93, stands in front of the home she defended from eminent domain laws.
Julia Lemon stands outside home she defended from eminent domain laws.

Bill of Rights: Amendment #6: Rights of accused persons in criminal cases

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.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution most directly relates to criminal judicial proceedings. There are seven clauses within the amendment. What the amendment is stating is that individuals who are charged with crimes requiring judicial intervention have certain rights. 

Rights included in the Sixth Amendment: 

  • A speedy trial
  • A public trial
  • Adequate representation
  • An unbiased jury
  • To know who is charging them
  • To know what they are being tried for 
  • To call witnesses to testify in your defense

Unlike the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment only applies to criminal proceedings. If you are going under scrutiny for civil inquiries, traffic stops, or any other type of judicial happenings, this is not the amendment to refer to.

Liberty Network First tells us that this amendment was created as a response to the unequal treatment that Great Britain exercised when dealing with criminals. The founding fathers made a promise to the American people that they would always be tried fairly by ratifying this amendment. There would be much to fear if these rights had not been spelled out and structured the way that they had. The following chart highlights some possible scenarios and their outcomes, keeping the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution in mind.

Cases involving the Sixth Amendment
The following court cases from 1963 through 2005 ratified the Sixth Amendment clauses described below.
Speedy trial clause
Zedner v. United States(1996)1
A man charged with murder is placed in police custody in jail.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
Jail time could be drawn out for a long time before a judicial hearing. Most people have some sort of hearing within 24 to 72 hours after being detained.
Criminal defendants are also required to have a trail within 70 days of charges being made.
No. The defendant waived his right.
Public trial clause
Walter v. Georgia(1984)2
A man feels he is being falsely accused of a crime, and the D.A. and judge meet privately to cut a deal.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
People could have been judged and sentenced without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Everyone is entitled to a public trial, no matter what their offense. No. The nature of the case caused it to be closed to the public.
Adequate representation clause
Gideon v. Wainwright(1963)3
A person cannot afford an attorney.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
Without a lawyer, most people would not be informed enough to represent themselves. Public defenders are available for those who are unable to pay for their own counsel. Yes. The court heard the first case on mandatory court appointed lawyers in the event the defendant could not afford their own counsel.
Unbiased jury clause
Muhammad v. Commonwealth(2005)4
A man is on trial in his hometown.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
When people are familiar with a person, it can affect the outcome of their case. A change of venue is often ordered in cases where an adequate jury cannot be proved. There is also sequestering of juries to prevent them from being compelled by outside influences. Yes. A change of venue was ordered.
Accuser clause
Maryland v. Craig(1990)5
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
The defendant may never know who is suing her for the crime. Accusers are often required to attend judicial proceedings. No. The victim’s testimony was given via closed circuit television.
Charges clause
United States v. MacDonald(1982)6
A man is arrested by police for an outstanding warrant.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
Without this amendment, people may not be informed of their charges until they are tried. It is often included in the arrest process what a suspect is being charged with. N/A. The amendment did not apply.
Call for witnesses clause
Crawford v. Washington(2004)7
A woman does not remember what happened the night her husband disappears.
Without ratification With ratification Rights fulfilled
Witnesses would be one-sided and not in favor of the defendant. Defendants and their attorneys can call their own witnesses to testify on their behalf. Yes. Witnesses were allowed.
Table sources:
1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/05-5992
2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/467/39
3. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-gideon-v-wainwright
4. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/va-supreme-court/1298565.html
5. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/497/836/
6. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/456/1/
7. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-9410.ZO.html

Bill of Rights: Amendment #7: Rights in Civil Cases

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.

The Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights addresses criminal proceedings as we have discovered. The next amendment addresses civil actions. While civil proceedings often come after criminal trials have been argued and decided upon, this is not always the case. 

This amendment was ratified in 1791 while George Washington was serving as President. Civil cases are not criminal cases, but involve civil actions regarding criminal acts. They occur when individual citizens, as well as the government, are in need of judicial intervention. Dissolution of marriage

Types of cases where the Seventh Amendment is often cited according to Reference.com

  • Contract violations
  • Child custody and support
  • Property issues
  • Landlord/tenant issues
  • Financial recovery

For example, one would not go to civil court to address an individual guilty of D.W.I., but they would go to recover damages left to their vehicle. Another difference between the way that civil cases are conducted versus their criminal counterparts is the number of jurors that are present to hear the case. Criminal cases have most heavily relied on twelve person juries, while civil cases usually have only six.

Historically, these types of cases were heard in federal courts, but most recently they fall at state and local levels of the judicial system. When a civil case does begin at the federal level, it must go through a distinct and arduous process before it ever sees the inside of the courtroom. According to United States Courts.

The steps involved in a civil case at the federal level are as follows:

  1. Filing of Lawsuit: Defendant is served the appropriate paperwork by the plaintiff.
  2. Discovery: Information is exchanged between parties, lawyers, and witnesses.
  3. Attempting a Settlement: Elements such as arbitration and mediation are used to come to an agreement before the trial date.
  4. Trial Process: Evidence is submitted, witnesses testify, and arguments are heard by the judge and jury.
  5. Closing: Final arguments are made and, in cases of jury trials, the judge informs the jury of their responsibilities.

Now that we understand what the Seventh Amendment is and how civil proceedings are conducted it is important that we know some of the landmark civil lawsuit cases in American history. These cases are most popularly found in class-action lawsuits that involve groups of people going after large corporations. Though they are not the only types of civil cases that have been heard, they are some of the more notorious.

Largest civil cases and class-action lawsuits Source: CNBC
The largest class-action lawsuits in United States history concluded with hefty judgements of up to $206 billion against the defendants below.
Defendant Case status Amount
AOL Time Warner
Sued for false earnings statements
Settled $2.5 billion
Exxon Mobil
Sued for oil spill affecting thousands of people
Judgement $5 billion
Changed to $500 million
Sued for illegitimate stocks
Settled $7.2 billion
Changed to $500 million
Sued for sexual discrimination
Pending $7.2 billion (seeking)
Master Tobacco Settlement
(Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Philip Morris, etc.)
Sued for health related medical issues, misleading advertising.
Settled $206 billion

Bill of Rights: Amendment #8: Excessive Bail, Fines, and Punishments Forbidden

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

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution refers to elements of judicial proceedings as well. Though it addresses excessive fines and bail, it is most often cited in regards to the death penalty as punishment for crimes when a defendant is found guilty. Before we delve into that matter specifically, defining some of the terminology associated with this amendment would be appropriate. 

For example, fines are monies due to the court in regards to violations that involve breaking various laws. Fines are often predetermined amounts based on a set of guidelines determined by the court. They can, however, fluctuate based on the judge’s rulings.

Bail is a term used to describe monies or conditions that allow individuals accused of crimes to be released from jail pending their judiciary hearings. Late in this description and analysis we will focus on some cases dealing with excessive fines and bail, but first let us look at cruel and unusual punishment.

The death penalty has been a way of handling those guilty of the most extreme crimes in the United States of America since the beginning. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it was Americans that conceived this form of capital punishment, but a habit that we derived from British influence. Throughout history, the way in which America has administered capital punishment has evolved greatly. 

Some methods of capital punishment have included:

  • Hanging
  • Firing squad
  • Electric chair
  • Lethal injection
  • Lethal gas

The death penalty was widely accepted until it began to fall under scrutiny in the 1960s. It was then decided that some of the methods used to bring criminals to death were “cruel and unusual”, as the amendment says we must avoid. 

One issue with the death penalty that came up most popularly was the fact that jurors were responsible for making the decision in regards to issuing the death penalty as a punishment. Despite the long, intense history of debate about the topic, most states do allow it as punishment for the most heinous of criminals.

A lethal injection roomSource: WC
A room used for lethal injections given to inmates convicted of a capital crime in San Quentin Prison.
A room used for lethal injections given to inmates in San Quentin Prison.

It was in 1972 that “cruel and unusual” began to be defined in terms of the severity of the crime in relation to using the death penalty. Many states also began to steer away from any other methods of capital punishment other than death by lethal injection. 

The following statistics show how the different states administer the death penalty currently

  • 17 states solely use lethal injection in death sentences.
  • 5 states give the choice between lethal injection or lethal gas.
  • 7 states give the choice between lethal injection and electrocution.
  • 1 state gives the option of death by firing squad if lethal injection drugs are not available.
  • 1 state gives the option of death at the gallows if lethal injection drugs are not available.
  • 1 state used to solely rely on electrocution, but was deemed unconstitutional. The case is pending.
  • 18 states and the District of Columbia do not participate in the death penalty.

The following shows court cases that have involved issues with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Court cases regarding the Eighth Amendment
Clauses in the Eighth Amendment - such as the Excessive Fines clause, the Excessive Bail clause, and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause - formed the basis for each of the following court cases.
Waters-Pierce Oil Co. v. Texas(1909)1
Issue Details Decision
Excessive fines Waters-Pierce Oil Co. was charged with an antitrust violation and ordered to pay $1.5 million. Rejected by the Supreme Court
United States v. Bajakajian(1998)2
Issue Details Decision
Excessive fines Bajakajian left the country without reporting the over $350,000 he took with him. Penalty was not appropriate for the crime
United States v. Salerno(1987)3
Issue Details Decision
Excessive bail The option of bail being set was withheld from Salerno. Upheld because he was a danger to the community
Stack v. Boyle(1951)4
Issue Details Decision
Excessive bail Bail amounts were set for petitioners at $50,000 each for violating the Smith Act and appealed it. Motion to reduce bail was denied
Furman v. Georgia(1972)5
Issue Details Decision
Cruel and unusual punishment Furman was tried for a murder resulting from attempted burglary and was sentenced to death because he was Black. Violation of 8th Amendment
Wilkerson v. Utah(1878)6
Issue Details Decision
Cruel and unusual punishment Wilkerson was sentenced to public execution by firing squad. He appealed because hanging was the form of the death penalty used at the time. Supreme Court approved punishment
Table sources:
1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/177/28
2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/96-1487.ZO.html
3. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/481/739/
4. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/342/1/
5. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/408/238/
6. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/99/130/

Bill of Rights: Amendment #9: Other Rights Kept by the People

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

The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution is probably one of least understood of the bunch. So much was covered with the first eight amendments that it is hard to construe exactly what “other rights” mean.

Randy Barnett, via Constitutioncenter.org, goes in depth on the Ninth Amendment in regards to its legal effects on the American public. He tells us that the true meaning may lay in James Madison’s notes on the amendments, not the actual amendment itself. Madison, along with the help of Roger Sherman, most explicitly discusses “natural rights”. 

The rights covered by the Ninth Amendment include such things as:

  • The rights of conscience in religion
  • Acquiring property
  • Pursuing happiness and safety
  • Speaking, writing, and publishing works with decency and freedom
  • Assembling to discussion personal welfare
  • Petitioning 

This amendment is important because it speaks most closely to rights of the individual in regards to protection from outside influence, including the United States government. Close attention should be payed to the phrase” inalienable rights”. 

The Bill of RightsSource: WC
Yellowed by age, the original Bill of Rights remains one of America's most historic documents.
The original Bill of Rights document is now yellowed by age.

The Ninth Amendment has become a blanket of sorts to protect the American people and keep them safe, as well as happy. Exploring some cases in which the Ninth Amendment is addressed could clear the air a little bit and help us to more fully grasp this complicated amendment. 

There are two cases that stand in particular when discussing this amendment. They are:

  • Barron v. Baltimore (1833)
  • Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

In the case of Barron v. Baltimore, it was determined by the Supreme Court that the great Bill of Rights only applied to happenings on a federal level, not the state. To make a long story short, according to PBS, Barron ascertained that Baltimore violated his Fifth Amendment rights and took his land without paying him for it.

The state argued that that the Fifth Amendment did not apply in Barron’s case because it fell under state jurisdiction and not federal. The Supreme Court ruled against Barron and for the state of Maryland. States later fell into line with the federal government’s stance on eminent domain and now require compensation to be given to owners of private land taken for public use.

In 1965, a different attack on the Ninth Amendment was being waged in Connecticut. The Executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut began offering counseling advice, among other services, the married couples in regards to contraception (Oyez). Evidently there was a law that prohibited such services and Griswold was found in violation of the statutes.

Griswold argued that it was an invasion of privacy when the state tried to intervene. There is no privacy clause specifically listed in the Constitution, but there are combinations of amendments called penumbras, or zones, that when added together cover privacy (Oyez). 

In the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, this penumbra consisted of the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments. The end result was a victory for Griswold, as well as the rights of married couples universally.

Bill of Rights: Amendment #10: Undelegated Powers Kept by the States and 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.

The final amendment to the Constitution is last, but most definitely not least. It directly pertains to the rights of individual states. It provides balance between the federal government and the individual states most importantly. 

Some of the issues that the Tenth Amendment covers include:

  • Taxes
  • Police
  • Wage laws
  • Personal information and record keeping systems
  • Strip mining

It also helps keep citizens closer to legislative matters and the government. In layman’s terms it also keeps a chain of command in tact when dealing more pressing governmental topics. Another point of the Tenth Amendment is that it extends any powers not given to the federal government to the people or the states.

The Tenth Amendment Center tells us that there two very important pieces of legislation that relate directly to this amendment. They are the Treaty of Paris and the Articles of the Confederation. 

These documents ensured that each state would maintain its own sense of freedom, independence, and ability to be self-governing. The tenth amendment is cited often as more states begin to legalize things that are not legal under federal law, such as recreational or medical marijuana. There were several other pieces of legislation, clauses, and other documents that came into play in retaliation, as well as agreement to the Tenth Amendment. 

Other clauses included or in agreement to the Tenth Amendment:

  • Compact Theory
  • Alien and Sedition Act
  • Kentucky and Virginia Resolution
  • Supremacy Clause
  • Commerce Clause
  • Cooperative Federalism
  • New Federalism

What has always been desired is that the states and the government can get along and compromise their ways into doing what is right for the American people overall. As with the other amendments, examining some cases surrounding the issues presented will shed light on this final, yet very important piece of the Bill of Rights.

Tenth Amendment court disputes
Below is a summary of court cases from 1904 through 1998 involving Tenth Amendment clauses.
Case Details Decision
McCray v. United States(1904)1 Congress abused its authority by issuing unreasonable taxes. Not in violation
Case Details Decision
Jacobson v. Massachusetts(1905)2 A man was arrested for not adhering to safety standards involving the vaccination of smallpox. Not in violation
Strip mining
Case Details Decision
Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining(1981)3 This case involved a pre-enforcement challenge of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1777. Not in violation
Wage laws
Case Details Decision
Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority(1985)4 This case dealt with the minimum wage requirement in regards to state governments. In violation
Personal information and record keeping
Case Details Decision
Travis v. Reno(1998)5 This case posed the question of whether Congress had the power to enact the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. In violation
Table sources:
1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/195/27
2. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/197/11/case.html
3. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/452/264/
4. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1179465.html

Knowing your rights

In conclusion, our forefathers did not begin their journey into the development of our government blindly. The men responsible for documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were proactive with their visions of how things would eventually evolve in their new world.

Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were exceptionally brilliant for their time. Many looked to them for their superior knowledge, global thinking, and stellar leadership skills. These documents combined formed the Charters of Freedom, which guided our country in its earliest of days, and today in 2016. There are still those, however, who abuse, challenge, and question the very things that have made our country successful, groundbreaking, and the entity that it has become.

It is clear by the information relayed in this comprehensive guide to the Bill of Rights that we will all experience either violations of victories in regards to them at some point in our lives. They were designed to protect us, the states we live in, and our government from corruption and misguided rulings. We can, however, take action to protect them. The most important thing we can do is vote, and be aware of our voting rights. It seems as though each year our rights are being threatened, but if we vote to keep them alive and in place they will never be in danger of being eradicated. This is your call to action!

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