No rule of criminal procedure is older than the one forbidding the government to try defendants twice for the same offense. It was considered so fundamental to due process that its appearance in the Bill of Rights is not surprising.
As the Electoral College was originally constituted, the candidate who received the most electoral votes became President and the runner-up became Vice President. With the rise of a two-party system, this meant that the President and Vice President might be chosen from different parties.
In the Magna Carta (1215), the great charter of English liberty, noblemen forced King John to abide by the “law of the land” in his dealings with them. Under this agreement, the king accepted the idea that his power was not absolute.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1793 that two South Carolina men could sue and collect debts from the state of Georgia, states’-rights advocates in Congress proposed what became the Eleventh Amendment. This amendment specifically prohibits federal courts from hearing cases in which a state is sued by individuals from another state or country.
The image is an old one in Western history: accuser versus accused, each summoning witnesses publicly in front of a judge to present their different versions of the truth. If the contest is equal and the judge impartial, then we deem the outcome fair and the verdict just, one that speaks the truth.
We cannot imagine a modern democracy without adult citizens having the right to vote freely. It is a basic right of citizenship in a democratic society. Yet nowhere in the Constitution is the right to vote granted explicitly.
Slavery is the ultimate form of discrimination, and racial slavery had been part of the American landscape since the mid-seventeenth century. By the time of the Revolution, holding human beings as property was allowed in all thirteen states.
Many legal observers consider the right to petition to be uninteresting. It has spurred no landmark cases, and the First Amendment’s language is plain and straightforward: Congress shall make no law abridging the “right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It guarantees citizens the right to complain and ask officials to correct a problem or right a wrong, but where is the controversy in exercising this right? It is an obvious right in a democratic society.
The Sixth Amendment further specifies the protections offered to people accused of committing crimes. It allows the accused to have their cases heard by an impartial jury made up of people from the surrounding community who have no connection to the case.
Rooted in English common law, the Fifth Amendment seeks to provide fair methods for trying people accused of committing a crime. To avoid giving government unchecked powers, grand jurors are selected from the general population, and their work, conducted in secret, is not hampered by rigid rules about the type of evidence that can be heard.
Every day and at all ages, we come together voluntarily in civic groups, religious institutions, benevolence societies, sports leagues, service societies, and school clubs, among thousands of other organizations. In doing so, we exercise the fundamental freedoms of assembly and association, rights protected by the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
The First Amendment may well be the best known of our constitutional protections, and possibly the least understood. The First Amendment’s free speech, assembly, and press guarantees allow citizens to express and be exposed to a wide range of opinions.
Supreme Court Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy discuss with high school students the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that ended racial segregation in schools.
This documentary examines the case Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) in which the Supreme Court held that noncitizens have due process rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Court said that unequal application of a law violated the rights of a Chinese immigrant.
Unlike the Articles of Confederation, which needed the unanimous consent of the thirteen states to make changes in the structure of the government, the Constitution required ratification by only nine of the states for the new government to go into effect.
The new Constitution recognized that the debts of the previous government under the Articles of Confederation were still valid. If a state law is in conflict with federal law, federal law must prevail.
Realizing that over time the nation would want to make changes to the Constitution, its framers established a process to allow that to happen. Unlike laws and regulations that can be passed by simple majorities in Congress, the Constitution is more difficult to change.