The term “constitutional rights” refers to the rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to all American citizens. For example, constitutional rights include freedom of speech and freedom of the press. If anyone attempts to stop someone from exercising his constitutional rights, then this is a potential violation, and the victim has the right to file a lawsuit against that person. To explore this concept, consider the following constitutional rights definition.
Definition of Constitutional Rights
- Rights the U.S. Constitution provides to American citizens, especially the first ten amendments to the Constitution, a.k.a. the Bill of Rights.
History of the Constitution
The Founding Fathers of the United States signed the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. The Founding Fathers’ purpose in drafting the Constitution was to establish a stronger, more unified government consisting of three branches:
- Executive Branch
- Legislative Branch
- Judicial Branch
They also created the system of checks and balances to ensure that no one person, nor one the government’s departments or branches, grew too powerful.
Prior to signing the Constitution, the United States’ national government was weak, and each state operated like its own independent country. The signing of the Constitution brought the states together under one unified banner. The first ten amendments to the Constitution – the Bill of Rights – protect and guarantee the individual Americans’ rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
In addition to the U.S. Constitution, each of the 50 states within the U.S. has its own separate state constitution. State constitutions are longer than the U.S. Constitution, coming in at about double the wordcount on average, because state constitutions must cover the minutiae of the state’s dealings with the government and the people. Vermont has the shortest state constitution, while Alabama has the longest.
The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land and supersedes state constitutions. However, the Bill of Rights specifically states that anything not covered by the Constitution falls to the states to figure out and rule upon. Therefore, state constitutions fill in the gaps that the U.S. Constitution could not possibly cover for all 50 states and their individual residents.
Inalienable rights, or “natural rights,” are those rights that humans can innately enjoy. These are rights that cannot be taken away through laws created by man. Inalienable rights are different from legal rights, which are rights provided to an individual by the legal system, such as the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent.
Scholars believe that Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, took many of his ideas from the English philosopher John Locke. Locke was famous for saying that every human being has a natural right to “life, liberty, and property.” Locke believed that every individual has the right and responsibility to fight for his own survival. Murderers were the exception, however, as they were to forfeit their own lives in exchange for acting unreasonably.
Legal rights are those rights that the law guarantees and protects. For instance, parents naturally have the legal right to have custody of their own children. Though, this is not an inalienable right, as the presence of some parents in their children’s lives is more detrimental than if their children were living apart from them.
Another legal right is an individual’s right to an attorney upon his arrest. While this is guaranteed in the 6th Amendment, it is a legal right, not a natural one. This is because it solely exists as the result of the individual having been accused of breaking a man-made law.
Civil and Political Rights
Civil and political rights are rights that protect people from having their daily lives invaded by the government, social organizations, and other individuals. Civil and political rights allow people to engage in both the civil and political sides of society without having to fear discrimination or repression.
Civil rights protect a person’s life and safety. Examples of civil rights include protection from discrimination as a result of a person’s:
- Sexual orientation
- Political leaning
Political rights, on the other hand, protect a person’s right to receive fair treatment under the law. Examples of political rights include the right to:
- a fair trial
- due process
- freedom of assembly
- defend oneself
Constitutional Rights Example Involving a Birth Control Clinic
The case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) is an example of constitutional rights coming before the U.S. Supreme Court. Here, Estelle Griswold and C. Lee Buxton opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut in November of 1961. After Griswold and Buxton had seen their first 10 patients, police arrested them for violating the Connecticut Comstock Act of 1873, which prevented the distribution of contraception.
Upon the conclusion of their trial, the jury convicted both women and fined them $100 each. The women appealed, but Connecticut’s appellate courts upheld their convictions. The two then brought their case before the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that the Connecticut Comstock Act was a violation of their constitutional rights, specifically their rights to liberty and property – rights otherwise protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. They also made an argument for the constitutional right to privacy with respect to protecting their patients.
The Court ruled 7 : 2 in favor of the women, though it Court noted that there wasn’t an explicit constitutional right to privacy. Though the Court added that the Constitution does allude to it, and it should apply to married couples within their own homes. Said the Court, in their own words:
“This Court, in a series of decisions, has held that the Fourteenth Amendment absorbs and applies to the States those specifics of the first eight amendments which express fundamental personal rights. The language and history of the Ninth Amendment reveal that the Framers of the Constitution believed that there are additional fundamental rights, protected from governmental infringement, which exist alongside those fundamental rights specifically mentioned in the first eight constitutional amendments.
The Ninth Amendment reads, ‘The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.’ The Amendment is almost entirely the work of James Madison. It was introduced in Congress by him, and passed the House and Senate with little or no debate and virtually no change in language. It was proffered to quiet expressed fears that a bill of specifically enumerated rights could not be sufficiently broad to cover all essential rights, and that the specific mention of certain rights would be interpreted as a denial that others were protected.”
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Checks and Balances – A system that permits each branch of the government to either change or outright veto the acts of another branch so as to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful.
- Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties receive notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to defend their positions.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.