Hat tip: Tom Mullen’s Blog
by Tom Mullen
Thursday, March 4, 2010
The U.S. Constitution is widely believed to have been written to limit the powers of the federal government and protect the rights of its citizens. Inexplicably, this belief is held even by those who acknowledge that the constitutional convention was called for the express purpose of expanding the powers of the federal government, supposedly because the government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak. That this was the purpose of the convention is not a disputed fact. Nevertheless, most people who care at all about the Constitution continue to believe and promote the “Constitution as protector of rights” myth.
To the extent that the Constitution enumerates certain powers for the federal government, with all other powers assumed to be excluded, it does set some limits on government. When one includes the first ten amendments of the Constitution, it also protects certain rights. Indeed, the ninth amendment makes the very important point that the specific protections of certain rights does not in any way deny the existence of others, while the tenth amendment makes explicit the implied limitation to enumerated powers in the Constitution itself. At first glance, the so-called “Bill of Rights” seems to confine government power within an airtight bottle, rendering it incapable of becoming a violator of rights instead of protector of them.
However, this theory does not hold up well under closer examination. To begin with, the Constitution itself does not protect a single right other than habeas corpus, and that comes with a built-in exception. What the Constitution does do is grant powers, and not just to a representative body, as the Articles of Confederation did, but to three separate branches. That leaves it up to the Bill of Rights to serve the purpose of protecting our rights. Generally, those ten amendments protect our rights under extraordinary circumstances, but not under ordinary circumstances. More specifically, the Bill of Rights provides protections for the individual during situations of direct conflict with the federal government, such as when one is accused or convicted of a crime, when one is sued, on the occasion of troops being stationed in residential areas, or when one speaks out against the government or petitions it for redress of grievances.