The Bill of Rights and Constitutional Interpretation

Part III

Part I dealt with guns and the Second Amendment. Part II dealt mainly with the First Amendment. This Part III looks at the origins and purposes of the Bill of Rights and questions the direction in which our nation is headed.

The Bill of Rights in general

When the Constitution was being considered there was opposition to inclusion of any Bill of Rights and the Bill of Rights as we now know it — the First through Tenth Amendments — was added not long after the Constitution had been adopted.

The Founders’ indifference toward a bill of rights in the national Constitution was premised on the idea that it would not be practically useful. The experience of the states in the 1780s demonstrated that bills of rights, though suitable for theoretical treatises, imposed no effective restraints on those who would be responsible for protecting rights in practice. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84, the provisions of the various state bills of rights “would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.”[1] Benjamin Rush similarly stated that those states which had tried to secure their liberties with a bill of rights had “encumbered their constitutions with that idle and superfluous instrument.”[2] The Founders at the Convention believed that a bill of rights would be merely another “parchment barrier” incapable of restraining those who would seek to violate its provisions, and thus it would fail to provide true security for liberty. (Emphasis added,)

“Mere parchment barrier” is a good phrase and we should keep it in mind, particularly but not exclusively with reference to the Second Amendment. Unfortunately but with substantial justification, the Constitution as a whole seems to have become, or at least to be on the way to becoming, a porous “parchment barrier.”

There was also concern that since not all rights of the people could be encompassed within a Bill of Rights, adopting such a bill might imply that only the rights expressly mentioned in it were intended to be retained by the people.

To suggest, for example, that the liberty of the press is not to be infringed upon might imply that, without such a provision, the federal government would possess that power. The Founders feared that we might infer that they created a government with unlimited power and that the specific provisions in the Bill of Rights denote particular reservations of power from an otherwise unlimited government. (Emphasis added.)

In view of the ways in which the original Constitution (i.e., sans the Amendments) — the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 for example — has been interpreted, those fears seem prescient, see below on New Deal legislation and its interpretations. Unfortunately, the various amendments did little to temper interpretations toward increasing power for the Federal Government and therefore less for the people.

The Ninth Amendment addresses such concerns as follows:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment importantly provides,

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. (Emphasis added.)

Declaration of IndependenceIn drafting what became the first ten amendments, James Madison

pointed back to the Declaration of Independence as the philosophic statement of rights and first principles; the amendments were not intended to replace or revise what had been set forth in that document. Therefore, the amendments should not be construed as enlarging the grant of power to the federal government by the Constitution, nor could they be thought to serve as a sufficient definition of all the rights and privileges of citizens. (Emphasis added.)

These points illustrate the crucial importance of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Those amendments were drafted and ratified to prevent the Constitution from becoming a carte blanche of authority to an unlimited government. Neglect of these amendments by the public as well as the courts has been so conspicuous as to illustrate the force of the Federalists’ original objections to a bill of rights. Yet for Madison, these amendments were central. They were intended to prevent the false interpretations that might be placed upon the provisions enumerating powers in the Constitution. (Emphasis added.)

The Declaration of Independence was not self-executing and neither is the Bill of Rights. Nor is it dependent upon governments alone to guarantee or to respect it; indeed, governments are the only possible culprits in violating not only the Bill of Rights but the rest of the Constitution. The Constitution authorizes the Federal Government to do various things and only those things. The Bill of Rights attempted to guarantee that the Federal Government would not exceed the authority granted to it and specified some but not all of the rights of the people that the Government can may not violate. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments generally extended the prohibition against Federal violation of the rights of the people to the States as well. No person, acting solely in his private capacity, can violate the Constitution; private citizens have only the ability to violate laws promulgated in alleged conformity to it.

The safeguard of individual liberty, Madison reasoned, must lie with the people themselves. It is the people who must be responsible for defending their liberties. And a bill of rights, Madison and his colleagues finally concluded, might support public understanding and knowledge of individual liberty that would assist citizens in the task of defending their liberties. (Emphasis added.)


The Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court.
The times they are a changin

If the people are unable to defend their liberties, who is likely to do it for them? The Legislature or the Executive Branch? I wouldn’t count on it. The Courts, maybe, but only if requested by someone directly affected by a particular loss of liberty or property who therefore has the requisite standing. In addition, prosecuting or defending a case up to and through the Supreme Court is costly and can take years.

A bill of rights, they saw, could serve the noble purpose of public education and edification. As Madison confided to Jefferson, “The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”[12] (Emphasis added.)

Where has that national sentiment gone? Has it “gone with the wind?” Will it ever return?

Does the possession and use of firearms, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment, no longer rank among the possible methods (and one hopes last resort) by which “the people who must be responsible for defending their liberties” may do so? That is a legitimate concern and Part I attempts to deal with it. Without the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment, we would appear to be left with little more than what the founders referred to as “parchment barriers.” That was not the intention and would be contrary to it. However, it may be well on the way to becoming the practice.

Where do these principles mean?

I submit that they mean the following.

1. The rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are pre-existing. They can be withdrawn only by subsequent amendment of the Constitution pursuant to Article V (see Part II of this series). Neither legislative action, nor bureaucratic action pursuant to broadly granted discretionary powers, nor judicial fiat can be permitted to impair those rights. Sometimes it happens anyway.  Have we only a porous “parchment barrier?”

2. Other rights not expressly stated in the Constitution can properly be inferred from what it meant when adopted or amended. They can not be based on what popular sentiment may now or hereafter suggest should be granted. Nor can they be inferred from the Constitution if inconsistent with its specific or implied provisions that have not been amended pursuant to Article V.

3. Rights that are neither expressly stated in the Constitution nor properly inferred from it can be granted legitimately by statute, but only if rights expressly stated in the Constitution or properly inferred from it are not thereby infringed. This suggests that in most cases the rights that can properly be granted by statute are against only the Government, thereby limiting its own constitutionally granted prerogatives. Government has no authority other than as granted by the Constitution and it can presumably waive that. Rights against the Government legitimately granted only by statute can thereafter be abrogated by subsequent statute. The rights of the people, however, are extensive. They are pre-existing and no mere statute can legitimately waive any of them.

4. Statutory grants of rights, as indicated in #3 above, that infringe upon the constitutional rights of the people can be permitted only following the adoption of amendments to the Constitution pursuant to Article V. (See Part II.)

Popular opinions on the proper functions of State and Federal governments have changed over the years. Through various amendments pursuant to Article V, the Constitution itself has changed responsively. Unfortunately, it has also changed in response to popular sentiment, as reflected in statutes and in judicial interpretations, in disregard of the exclusivity of Article V.

Judges are not, and should not act as though they were, legislators. The consequences of judicial “activism” of that sort have commonly been unfortunate breaches of the “parchment barrier.” For example, many New Deal era and later interpretations of the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution have distended it beyond recognition, certainly by its authors and by those who approved its adoption. The results of that distention have usually been to increase governmental power, at the expense of the freedoms of the people. Some of those interpretations followed FDR’s threats to “pack” the Court. Ultimately, he found it unnecessary to do that.

The legislation was unveiled on February 5, 1937 and was the subject, on March 9, 1937, of one of Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.[5][6] Shortly after the radio address, on March 29, the Supreme Court published its opinion upholding a Washington state minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish[7] by a 5–4 ruling, after Associate Justice Owen Roberts had joined with the wing of the bench more sympathetic to the New Deal. Since Roberts had previously ruled against most New Deal legislation, his perceived about-face was widely interpreted by contemporaries as an effort to maintain the Court’s judicial independence by alleviating the political pressure to create a court more friendly to the New Deal. His move came to be known as “the switch in time that saved nine.” However, since Roberts’s decision and vote in the Parrish case predated the introduction of the 1937 bill,[8] this interpretation has been called into question.[9]

Roosevelt’s initiative ultimately failed due to adverse public opinion, the retirement of one Supreme Court Justice, and the unexpected and sudden death of the legislation’s U.S. Senate champion: Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson. It exposed the limits of Roosevelt’s abilities to push forward legislation through direct public appeal and, in contrast to the tenor of his public presentations of his first-term, was seen as political maneuvering.[10][11] Although circumstances ultimately allowed Roosevelt to prevail in establishing a majority on the court friendly to his New Deal agenda, some scholars have concluded that the President’s victory was a pyrrhic one.[11]

Since the courts normally construe the Constitution in light of precedent, their own or that of higher courts, the locomotive of constitutional abrogation — rolling along tracks of convenient interpretation — continues to run along those same tracks while gaining momentum as it has for many years. I am concerned that changes in the composition of the Supreme Court and of inferior courts during President Obama’s second term in office are likely to add more fuel to the firebox beneath the locomotive’s boiler and bring even more of that. When will we learn the rest of the story? Before or after it has become too late to do anything about it?

Obama Second Coming

I was not happy with his “first coming” and expect the consequences of his second to be far worse. Will we soon arrive at the point where because “the people” want something and “the Government can” provide it, it will?

Not if the people think about it, but that is a gigantic “if.”

In that video, Mr. Whittle seems more optimistic than I am. I hope that he is right and that I am wrong. However, this slightly newer video suggests that his frustration, if not his pessimism, may be rising as his optimism wanes. Mine too.

About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.
This entry was posted in 2016 Obama's America, Abuse of Power, Bill of Rights, Commerce Clause, Congress, Conservatives, Constitution, Court packing, Courts, Declaration of Independence, Democracy, Education, Free Press, free speech, Freedom, Freedom of religion, Health Control, History, Ideology, Law, Law and Order, Obama, Politics, President Obama, Regulations, United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Bill of Rights and Constitutional Interpretation

  1. Pingback: What Purposes Would Federal Background Checks and Firearm Registries Serve? | danmillerinpanama

  2. Pingback: danmillerinpanama

  3. I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the format to your blog. Is that this a paid subject or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to look
    a nice weblog like this one these days..

  4. NEO says:

    Well said, Dan.

  5. ” The Founders feared that we might infer that they created a government with unlimited power and that the specific provisions in the Bill of Rights denote particular reservations of power from an otherwise unlimited government. ”

    Another fear I read about, compliments the quote. It was the fear that the courts would be inclined to review a law to determine if if violated the Bill of Rights instead of determining if it exceeded the enumerated powers.

  6. Pingback: » The Bill of Rights and Constitutional Interpretation » Tea Party Tribune

  7. boudicabpi says:

    Reblogged this on BPI reblog and commented:
    The Bill of Rights and Constitutional Interpretation

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