Fixing What's Wrong with the Bill of Rights

So that no future US president skips over the fine, excessively wordy print, I recommend we update the Bill of Rights so it sounds a bit more, shall we say, awesome.

As I rode the bus this afternoon, I overheard a man railing against the complacency of the American populace and the heinous behavior of King George and his cohorts: "He has completely disregarded the Constitution," he complained to a beleaguered commuter whose expression indicated thorough regret for having struck up a conversation. "They've thrown the Constitution out the window."

Now I'm not one to rush to the defense of George the second, whose actions often leave me unable to even postulate a defense, let alone articulate it, but I can't abide that kind of overstatement: Once such hyperbole gets momentum, Bush's persona escalates from "bumbling fool" to "worst president ever" to "the soulless physical form of Beelzebub himself." Obviously that's not true, because even Beelzebub would demonstrate more decorum than to approach the Pope as he steps away from the podium and say, "Thank you, your holiness. Awesome speech." (To GW's credit, at least he didn't hold up his hand for a high-five.)

What frustrates me about the Bush-and-the-Constitution discussion is that all blame for any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the document gets heaped upon Bush, never on the Constitution itself. It's a venerable document, yes. A cornerstone of American democracy, yes. But answer this honestly: When was the last time you actually read the document? I bet it was high school, Freshman-year Civics class, and you were spending most of your class time eying the cut of the proverbial jib on the hottie who sat next to you. If you're like most Americans, you probably remember the preamble as something like, "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, do hold these truths to be self-evident, blah blah all men are created equal blah blah blah." Close enough for cocktail party regaling, but it would have garnered a big red "F" in Civics class.

The reason our collective memory of the preamble is so poor has little to do with fading recollections or the subtle flexing of so-called reality that remembers the hottie from Civics as coyly interested in us. The particulars are vague in our minds because the Constitution is a dense jumble of Jeopardy words that leaves the average 21st century intellect flipping the document in hopes of finding a picture and a graph to enlighten the text-heavy content. Seriously, there's a reason this was never made into a movie -- it's like getting stuck on a train next to lawyer who takes advantage of your captive-audience condition to expound upon the minutia of governing.

Let's face it, America is no longer a reading nation. Sales of the classic Catcher in the Rye (a title chosen because almost everyone I know has read it at one time or another) peak at about 250,000 a year these days, mostly purchased by college Sophomores who will spend the next seven years listing Holden Caulfield on their list of "People I wish I could date, living or dead"; meanwhile, sales of the new Alvin and the Chipmunks DVD have exceeded 5.2 million copies since being released just over two months ago. True, J.D. Salinger's book is old, and the Chipmunks movie is new, but the disparity tells a tale. Faulting the president for not paying attention to a document that we have spent our own adult years not paying attention to is an unfair double standard.

And to be more clear, Bush has not "completely disregarded" the US Constitution. In fact, he has been completely faithful to the bulk of the document. Article One: The Legislative Branch, has been thoroughly ignored by the Bush administration; Article Three: The Judicial Branch has rarely gained the attention of White House legal staff. Contrary to what the irate bus rider opined, the Constitution has not been thrown out the window during this administration -- most of it is sitting on the shelf collecting dust, just as it was during previous administrations. The only parts the Bush/Cheney team have adulterated directly are the amendments.

Furthermore, even most of the amendments have survived "interpretation" as well: Amendment 26, which established 18 as the voting age, Bush has left that alone; Amendment 19, which gave women the right to vote, the administration has never violated; Amendment 18, prohibition, was repealed by Amendment 21, and despite his temperance, he hasn't sought to repeal the latter.

The so-called ignoring of the Constitution really involves just the first ten amendments, commonly known as the Bill of Rights. There are almost 8,000 words in the entire Constitution, the Bill of Rights containing approximately 500 of them. Is it fair to say Bush has "completely disregarded" the Constitution when more than 90 percent of it has been upheld? That's not my idea fair play.

While ignorance of the law is not a valid defense, I remain convinced that this administration flouted the law not because it disagreed with said laws, but simply because it had eye fatigue by the time its members got to that part of the document. Think back to any late-night study sessions in your life -- when you get to the end of a verbose document, then see a bunch of addendum at the bottom, you tend to dismiss those items as reference citations. Isn't it possible, Mr. Bus Rider, that the Bush team simply mistook the amendments as bibliographical footnotes? And if so, who is to blame for that, Bush, or the Constitution itself?

Compare that to the Ten Commandments. Now there's a concise document -- any shorter and either God or Moses would have lost points for incomplete sentences. No footnotes, no parentheses, just facts. Quite simply, the Ten Commandments couldn't be more clear: There is no interpretation of "Thou shalt not kill", there is no legalese escape hatch that allows for a postmortem "I misunderstood." Plus, that commandment has brevity. Compare it to Amendment One of the Constitution that that guarantees rights of religion and the press and expression and assembly and to petition the government, all in a single sentence. Too much information. Had Moses brought that decree down from the mount, it would have required its own stone slab.

To avoid audiences glazing over before getting to the good parts, especially audiences that really ought to be familiar with the content, I recommend we update the text on the Bill of Rights in two ways: First, modernize the vocabulary so it sounds a bit more, shall we say, awesome, and second, establish an imposing tone that clearly defines adherence as a requirement, not a suggestion, by modeling the Bill of Rights on the syntax of the Ten Commandments, paying attention to brevity and directness.

Photo (partial) from "Our Limited Bill of Rights" installation ©Blake Unger Dvorchik, Activating

The results would read something like this:

Old Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

New Amendment 1: Thou shalt allow the people to talk about what they want, where they want, with whomever they wish.

Old Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

New Amendment 2: Thou shalt not tussle with the NRA.

Old Amendment 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

New Amendment 3: Thou shalt not ask Americans to clear the couch for unexpected military guests.

Old Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

New Amendment 4: Thou shalt not rifle through anyone's stuff.

Old Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

New Amendment 5: Thou shalt have one shot at a conviction (no mulligans), and no one is required to snitch on themselves.

Old Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

New Amendment 6: Thou shalt, with regard to criminal trials, get on with it. Everyone can invite guests.

Old Amendment 7: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

New Amendment 7: Thou shalt lay your fate in the hands of a dozen strangers who seem like anything but “your peers”.

Old Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

New Amendment 8: Judges and prison guards shall be nice to their charges.

Old Amendment 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

New Amendment 9: Thou shalt not use the Constitution to, say, peer into thy neighbor's bedroom.

Old Amendment 10: 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.

New Amendment 10: Thou shalt obey your state government, too.

There you have it, the new Bill of Rights. True, it fails to take into consideration the dangers of preserving certain subjective words from the original text, e.g. “cruel”, which obviously remains open to personal interpretation. And true, now that I think about it, maybe “thou shalt not” isn't as carved in stone as I think, considering the loopholes Cheney and the guys have identified.

But it's important that we start somewhere, and I think we should start with the Constitution. We'll give it five or six months to see if the administration continues to treat the amendments as akin to New Year's resolutions rather than divine decree. If the violations continue, I'll admit that the bus rider is right, that the problem was the President, all along.

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