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Preserve Our U.S. Constitution
Getty Square, Yonkers, N.Y. in the 1960s
Philadelphia Convention of 1787
For some 200 years Americans have rejoiced in a U.S. Constitution frequently described as a model for the rest of the world.
We have boasted of a Bill of Rights that has helped make this country the "land of the free and the home of the brave." We relish the document that insures life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each of us.
Americans can, and often do, cite their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. We feel secure in the virtue of rights granted to us as well, under the other nine amendments, including those that guarantee us a speedy trial, trial by jury, the right to keep and bear arms and of due process of law.
Bill of Rights Treasured
And we treasure the Bill of Rights' enumerated protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, double jeopardy, excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishment.
So why is it that so many of us feel that the rights and responsibilities we inherited from our forefathers may be, despite our reverence for the U.S. Constitution, in serious jeopardy?
It is often said that the Bill of Rights, if put to a vote in the United States today, would be rejected by the American electorate.
Could it be so?
Sorrowfully, the answer is: probably.
Why? If we have held these rights to be dear to us for so many decades, why would we risk losing them now?
For many of us, we'd rather lose our right arm; but for some who may feel overcome by the problems of the 20th Century -- such as drug addiction and rampant street crime, white collar crime, malfeasance in office, racism -- it might seem easier to give way to surer, more efficient ways to correct these problems and worry about protecting our rights later.
Americans have a reputation for impatience. We want things done now, not later. We hate to wait for anything.
Many of us have no time to read a good book, preferring to pick up the gist of it in such publications as the Reader's Digest. We often prefer to get our information from television sound bites rather than reading the details in our daily newspaper. We don't have time to cook a good dinner, often settling for some rolled turkey, instant potatoes, instant coffee -- or, perhaps, a TV dinner. But, when it comes to our Constitutional rights -- won for us by a handful of wise and brave men who framed the document -- we might be wise to summon all the patience we can muster rather than endanger any one of those rights.
Some of us are optimistic that Americans, upon closer examination, will take the necessary care to maintain our Constitutional rights. despite some worrisome recent examples of impatience.
Confident of Our Country's Future
Personally, I try to be confident of our country's future, and there have been many recent incidents that tend to reinforce that confidence, but:
* * * I worry when I see laws proposed that are designed to circumvent the Constitution by making it illegal for drug dealers to loiter in certain areas. We must always be diligent not to trade long-term basic individual rights for short term quick fixes that more often than not prove unworkable.
* * * I worry when judges sentence convicted criminals to some off-the-wall punishment in the name of justice. When a convicted rapist is given the alternative of going to prison for some period of years or undergoing castration, society may be going beyond the bounds of propriety.
* * * I worry when a judge imposes unreasonable fines -- such as one imposed on the city of Yonkers, N.Y., in a housing case in which a $1 million fine was to double each day until the city knuckled under to the judge's demands. This kind of unreasonable abuse of power only serves to aggravate an already difficult situation.
* * * I worry when judges impose unreasonably high bond on those accused of a crime, ignoring, or at least evading, the Constitution's caveat against excessive bail.
* * * I worry when police, with court approval, indiscriminately stop traffic to make arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While the motive may be commendable, the action smacks of the philosophy of "the end justifies the means" and an abuse of power as well as abuse of the Constitutional right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.
* * * I wouldn't worry so much if, under our system of justice, judges were limited to penalties specified by statute, and discretion, if given, were spelled out in the legislation.
When we consider proposals for new and unique laws that sponsors ballyhoo as the panacea everyone's looking for, we should stay alert to its Constitutional implications.
Once lost, a Constitutional right will be difficult, if not impossible, to regain.
The following column was written for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on July 3, 1992.