Constitutional Review

So, Bush is likely to endorse and fight for an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, according to some sources, which will turn the issue into a political football this summer. This made us wonder: since the Constitution is, more or less, a document that reigns in the State, its primary mission is the preservation of personal liberty and the limitation of State power. How many amendments, then, explicitly limit what citizens can and cannot do? Let’s review. Follow along in your own copies, which I’m sure you keep handy, though surely you know the first ten by heart, right?

  1. Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition the state for redress of grievances.
  2. The right to keep & bear arms; a well-regulated militia (otherwise known as “the only Amendment the ACLU seems to overlook”).
  3. A real hot-button issue in the 21st century: soldiers cannot be quartered in private homes. Thank God for that; we have NO ROOM.
  4. You know when cops come in and take your shit for no good reason? Yeah, man, that totally sucks. Also, it’s UNCONSTITUTIONAL under Amendment IV. Rock on.
  5. A great omnibus amendment, this one guarantees the grand jury process, outlaws double jeopardy, ensures we’re free from self incrimination (remember Ollie North?), guaruntees due process, and enshrines private property.
  6. More judicial goodness: here we get the right to a speedy & public trial by an impartial jury in criminal matters.
  7. Yet MORE judicial rights: this one says we can have a jury trial on common law issues, too. Ask a lawyer what that means.
  8. The last of the first ten’s judicial amendments, VIII frees us from excessive bail (ask Jeff Skilling) as well as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
  9. The last two from the Bill of Rights ensure that this list of rights isn’t viewed as exclusive; IX says “we know we listed a bunch of rights, but we didn’t list all of ’em, and the exclusion of something here doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
  10. “…and the same goes for the rights of states.”
  11. Now out of the Bill of Rights, we get into some administrative work. XI contains the rules for suing states. Basically, you can only do it in state court, and the state has to let you sue. Remember this one; it’s important later.
  12. A bunch of stuff about presidential elections. It’s long. It’s boring. But you probably ought to read it on the grounds that, you know, it’s the basis for our government. (Offer not valid in Canada.)
  13. “Slavery is evil. No more of that.”
  14. Lots of the later amendments are about states. According to Senior NoGators Legal Analyst Triple-F, XIV says “We really mean Amendment V, and the states have to play by those rules, too.” It also contains a bunch of other bits more or less unrelated the the primary focus of the amendment. Call it housekeeping.
  15. “Everybody who has a penis may now vote.” Exercising this right for people with darker skin took a while to become (a) commonplace and (b) safe.
  16. Goddamn income tax.
  17. Senatorial succession, more or less.
  18. Prohibition and the establishment of organized crime. Just kidding; it’s really just prohibition. Remember this one, too.
  19. “Did we say ‘with a penis’ back in XV? We meant ‘everybody, period.’ Our bad, really. Honest mistake. Can we have sex again now?”
  20. Dates of terms of congressional sessions and presidential terms, plus a bit about how to handle things if the President-elect dies between election and taking office.
  21. “Say, baby, how about a drink after you vote?” Prohibition repealed. (Organized crime stayed.) Once again, remember this one, too.
  22. Fuck FDR.
  23. DC can have representatives, but no more than the smallest state, and they can’t vote.
  24. “We meant what we said about voting before. No more turning away voters for not paying taxes, poll or otherwise. Confederacy, this means YOU.”
  25. This is the one that has always weirded me out. It wasn’t until 1965 that presidential succession as we know it — i.e., beyond the VP — was proposed, and it wasn’t ratified until 1967. Wacky.
  26. If you can go to Vietnam and die, you ought to get to vote, too. Voting age is lowered to 18.
  27. “You know when Congress used to pass laws giving itself pay raises that take place immediately? That’s creepy. From now on, they can’t take effect until after the next election.”

Even a cursory review of our pithy amendment summary shows that the Amendments, on the whole, deal with either protecting rights, or with the mechanics of our government (which can be seen as protecting said, and therefore our rights inasmuch as our State does such). Only twice have we adopted amendments that can be construed to limit liberty:

  • Amendment XI, concerning lawsuits against states; and
  • Amendment XVIII, when for some wacked-out reason we thought prohibition would be a good idea.

N.B. that within a few years, we also repealed this bad idea with Amendment XXI.

The same absurd we-must-control-everyone puritanism that brought about XVIII is at work again today in the hew and cry for an amendment “protecting” marriage. No one can yet explain to me why this is a good idea — i.e., why the State should care whom we marry, when, for what reason, etc. “Protecting marriage” is code for “we hate gays,” since no one seems all that upset about 48-hour Vegas couplings, or the fact that Liza Minelli married a wax statue. They don’t care about the sanctity of marriage; they just want to make sure we don’t extend legal recognition to homosexual unions.

The trouble is: no one has yet articulated a good reason why we shouldn’t. Marriage, in its best state, is about stability, support, and family (and I don’t mean “kids” necessarily). Because marriage is state-sponsored, it’s the easiest and best avenue for default inheritance, insurance, next-of-kin designation, powers of attorney, and a wealth of other societal logistics. To deny committed couples the right to marry because they’re the same gender denys them these functions of society, and to what end? My relationship with Erin isn’t harmed by the middle-aged gay men next door; my married friends would be similarly undamaged were those neighbors able to make their long-term union legal.

When I look a this list of Amendments, mostly I feel pride — especially with the Bill of Rights, and then again with XIII, XV, XIX, and XXIV. I feel ashamed of us only once, at XVIII, and that shame is only temporary; we knew we’d screwed up, and we fixed it. We were foolish; we backtracked; and we moved on. This proposed marriage amendment would restore a far more bitter taste in my mouth; we’d be enshrining in our Constitution a fundamentally bigoted position, and breaking with tradition in a terrifying way. Twenty-four amendments codify and protect liberty, and all but one apply equally to all members of our republic — and even the outlier there was eventually superceded by a later act. Do we really need to keep gays out of wedding chapels this badly? Why?

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