Constitutional Rights

Constitutional rights refer to the rights granted to citizens by the Constitution of the United States. These rights, set forth in the first 10 Amendments, are known as the Bill of Rights. An example of Constitutional Rights is a person’s freedom of speech or a person’s right to bear arms. To explore this concept, consider the following constitutional rights definition.

Definition of Constitutional Rights

Noun

  1. The fundamental rights granted to the people by the Constitution to the United States

Origin

Ratified on December 15, 1791

What is the Bill of Rights?

On September 25, 1789, Congress proposed 12 amendments to the states’ Legislatures. The states adopted 10 of those amendments, which then became the United States Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

Written by James Madison, the Bill of Rights limits governmental power, and ensures greater constitutional protections for individuals. This important document plays a vital part in American law and acts as a key symbol of the country’s culture and freedoms. The National Archives in Washington D.C. displays one of the 14 original copies of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights:

1st Amendment – Prohibits Congress from making laws that prevent the establishment or free exercise of religion. It also protects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government.

2nd Amendment – Protects a citizen’s right to keep and bear arms.

3rd Amendment – Pledges that citizens will never have to keep soldiers in their home without giving consent.

4th Amendment – Protects individuals from unreasonable searches of their bodies, homes, or possessions. It requires the government to have obtain warrant based on probable cause and issued by a judge.

5th Amendment – Protects the rights of individuals accused of a crime by assuming a person’s innocence until proven guilty. It gives people the right to not testify in court and protects them from prosecution without due process of the law. For example, the court cannot sentence a person to jail simply because it suspects a person committed a crime. The amendment also prevents the courts from trying a person twice for the same crime.

6th AmendmentProvides requirements for fair trials in criminal cases. It guarantees that defendants have a speedy, public trial by a jury of their peers. This amendment also gives the accused the right to confront witnesses and the right to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one.

7th Amendment – Gives Americans the right to receive a jury trial in civil cases involving any property valued over $20.

8th Amendment – Prohibits excessive bail, unreasonably high fines, and protects citizens from cruel and unusual punishments.

9th Amendment – States that people have rights not listed in the Constitution and that the government cannot violate these rights.

10th Amendment – Holds that powers not specifically given to the United States government belong to the states and the people.

Other Amendments Involving Constitutional Rights

13th Amendment – Prohibits slavery in the United States.

19th Amendment – Gives women the right to vote.

26th Amendment – Gives citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote.

Why Was the Bill of Rights Added to the Constitution?

The original constitution contained few individual rights guarantees, as federalists believed in establishing a strong central government. Anti-federalists however, argued that power should remain with the states in order to safeguard individual liberties. George Mason proposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

The convention rejected the proposal and after the convention ended, delegates held their own ratifying conventions in their respective states. A dissenting minority at the Pennsylvania ratifying convention believed that the Constitution needed a guarantee of certain basic rights.

Majorities in the conventions of several states including New Hampshire and Massachusetts also called for adding amendments to the Constitution. While the exact wording of the amendments varied by state, most limited the powers of the new federal government.

Ratification of the Bill of Rights

James Madison, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, altered the Constitution where he believed appropriate. Some representatives objected claiming Congress did not have the authority to change the wording of the constitution.

In response to the objections, Madison presented his changes as a list of amendments. Though the Federalists argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary, they began pledging their support in ratification of the Bill of Rights. Otherwise, they risked jeopardizing the Constitution’s ratification in key states. The states approved 10 out of 12 amendments in August, 1789 and ratified them on December 15, 1791.

Center for Constitutional Rights

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is a non-profit legal advocacy organization. Based in New York City, it focuses on advancing and protecting the human rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The Center for Constitutional Rights employs litigation and education, to change the law in a positive manner and strengthen the movement for social justice. They use creative strategies to fight various forms of oppression. They also partner with communities affected by racism, economic inequality, and governmental outreach.

Constitutional Rights Example Involving Education

Almost every sovereign country in the world has the word “education” in their constitution. Some that don’t, rely on the UN’s treaty on children’s rights, which offers education protections. There is one exception however, and that is the United States of America. Over the years, federal courts have even rejected the concept that education is a protected right. Cook v. Raimondo and Gary B. v. Snyder are two recent examples of Constitutional rights cases.

Cook v. Raimondo

In November 2018, 14 public school students and their parents filed a claim in the court system. In Cook v. Raimondo, the plaintiffs accused Rhode Island of failing to fulfill its constitutional duties by providing an inferior education to their children.

Because the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee an education, the plaintiffs are claiming that by denying students an education, the state is depriving them of the skills they need to participate in a democracy. For example, by failing to provide a quality education, the state is violating their right to vote as guaranteed in the 15th Amendment.

Gary B. v. Snyder

Additional lawsuits are pending to get the Supreme Court to determine whether the Constitution guarantees a right to education. Gary B. v. Snyder claims the state of Michigan violated the Constitution by denying students the opportunity to become literate. Standardized test scores show that fewer than 10% of Detroit’s public-school students are proficient in reading.

In this example of constitutional rights, should the Supreme Court rules in favor of the defendants in either case, it could form the basis for the right to education.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Defendant – A party who is the target of a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Due Process – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Jury – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Plaintiff – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Probable Cause – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.

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