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Justice Matters: Honoring the Bill of Rights

16 September 2014

The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

Chief Justice TeitelmanMany milestones exist in our country’s history, which are often forgotten. Perhaps equally as important as July 4th, but little remembered, is September 17th, 1787 – the date when the United States Constitution was signed inPhiladelphia.


Drafted 227 years ago and totaling just 4,543 words, including signatures, the United States Constitution is considered to be the oldest and shortest surviving written constitution of any national government in the world. The authors of the constitution provided a written charter for a new federal government and developed a framework that would provide balance and freedom, taking into account federal and state interests, as well as individual human rights. Once signed, the Constitution needed to be ratified by at least nine of the 13 states. This was accomplished in June of 1788 and the Constitution officially took effect.


Probably the most familiar part of the United State Constitution is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution that recognizes our basic rights. It was two years after the Constitution was signed that Congress gave its approval to the Bill of Rights. Hallmarks in the Bill of Rights include the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to bear arms, freedom of press and many more.


It would be difficult to imagine a single day of life in the United States without the liberties granted in the Bill of Rights. Think about waking up in the morning and not being able to read the news in the newspapers and online or even watch it on television. How would you feel if you could not worship in the manner you desire? Imagine not being able to bear firearms to go hunting. Would you accept a government that could punish you simply for criticizing it?


Our job as judges is to make sure the government does not infringe on the liberties granted to all persons in the Bill of Rights. Many of the cases we encounter encompass important issues such as the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures, the right against self-incrimination as well as rights to a jury trial and to an attorney.


The Bill of Rights affects our lives every day, and so we should appreciate that we have it as a part of our Constitution, and that we live in a country that protects those rights. I encourage everyone to read all 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, and always remember the many rights and protections we all have against government intrusions on our liberties.


As we celebrate Constitution Day, it was probably said best by Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President: “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”