This post is the continuation of a weekly Constitution Revolution series for TheBlaze.com and TheBlaze Radio’s Chris Salcedo Show. To see last week’s lesson, click here.
It’s trendy today to believe that our Constitution is outdated. That it’s irrelevant to us as individual citizens.
But as Americans, we have to realize that our Constitution isn’t just some old document that gives power to our federal government. Our Constitution was primarily designed to act like a shield that protects citizens like you and me from the government.
The idea behind the Constitution was to put limits on the government and keep it from doing bad things to you. That’s why the Constitution matters so much to people like me. That’s also why people like me tend to freak out a little bit when the government violates the Constitution—those violations tear down the protection that we have against the government doing bad things to us.
As much as that might seem theoretical or academic initially, Article 1, Section 9 is a perfect example of why those protections in the Constitution matter so much to us on a personal level.
The Constitution Impacts You On a Personal Level
Article 1, Section 9 is just a list of actions that the federal government is forbidden from taking—and three of the actions in that list are intended to prevent the government from unfairly putting you in prison. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the idea that my government shouldn’t be able to randomly throw me in jail.
So let’s stop here and take a look at the part of the Constitution that prevents that. In Article 1, Section 9 it says:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.
I realize that this quote has all kinds of vocabulary words from your high school government class that you recognize but don’t actually remember. That’s ok. I’m going to go through each one of them to help you remember what they mean—and why they should matter to you.
Writ of Habeas Corpus
Let’s say you get put in jail but you think there’s no reason for it. You can petition the court to issue something called a “writ of habeas corpus.” If the court grants your petition, it will require whoever is holding you to physically bring you in front of the court so it can figure out if you are being unlawfully imprisoned.
Obviously, if it’s found that you are being held unlawfully they have to let you go.
The Constitution says that you can’t be denied the privilege of habeas corpus unless there’s a rebellion or an invasion.
It should be easy to see why that’s important. It means that our federal government can’t just randomly throw you in jail. Instead, if our federal government wants to put you in jail, it has to be able to show in a court of law why you are being held.
Ex post facto
An ex post facto law is one that makes something illegal after it has already been done.
For example, imagine that you enjoy playing sports so you go out and play some baseball today. This part of the Constitution says that Congress can’t get together tomorrow and pass a law saying that baseball is now illegal and you are going to be punished for it—even though playing baseball was perfectly legal when you did it.
In other words, as long as you obey the law today you don’t have to worry about Congress going back and punishing you sometime in the future.
Bill of Attainder
A Bill of Attainder would be a situation where Congress passed a law declaring that someone was guilty of a crime without giving them the benefit of a trial.
William Rawle – who was appointed by George Washington to serve as U.S. District Attorney for Pennsylvania – characterized the idea of a Bill of Attainder perfectly:
Bills of attainder are those by which a person without a judicial trial, is declared by the legislature to be guilty of some particular crime. The definition itself shows the atrocity of the act.
Just knowing what Bills of Attainder are should be enough to show you how dangerous they are. Can you imagine how members of Congress could use this to punish their political opponents?
If we could take a poll, I’d guess that most Americans would say that they like the idea that the government can’t use these methods of unfairly imprisoning people.
But here’s the catch – if we want the protection that Article 1, Section 9 provides us, we have to enforce the entire Constitution to get it. We can’t decide that we’re only going to enforce certain parts of the Constitution and not others.
Either the Constitution is binding on the government or it isn’t. There is no in between.
Thomas Jefferson explained why that’s true:
To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.
Once we decide that it’s ok for the government to violated the Constitution a little bit, it’s impossible to define exactly how much is too much.
So if the people who run our government can decide that it’s ok to ignore the First Amendment, why can’t they decide that it’s also ok to suspend habeas corpus as well?
If the people in our government can ignore the part of the Constitution that protects the right of every American to exercise their religion, they can ignore every other part as well.
That’s why it should matter to every American when the Constitution is violated. It was designed to protect us from our government. But if we don’t fight to uphold every part of it, we lose the protection it offers.
Of course there will be people who say, “Who cares? Are you seriously worried that our government is going to start rounding people up and putting them in jail randomly? That would never happen here.”
And maybe those people are right; it probably won’t happen here. But it happens in other countries. The question you have to ask is, if it can’t happen here, is that because we are special people who live on magic land? Or is it because we have a Constitution that has prohibited the government from taking those actions?