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Bill of Rights (United States)

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The United States Bill of Rights is the term for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. They were proposed by Congress in 1789, and ratified by the states in 1791. They specify a set of rights belonging to individuals, states, and the people at large — in some cases, by positive guarantees of certain rights, and in other cases, by restrictions on certain actions by the Federal government.

Some (but not all) of the provisions of the Bill of Rights now also apply to state governments, according to the courts' interpretation, beginning in the early 20th century, of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. In other cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment, courts have held that corporations are legal "persons" and enjoy some of the same rights that the Bill of Rights guarantees to individuals.

Provisions

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from infringing freedom of speech, of religion, of the press, of peaceable assembly, or the right to petition the government.

The Second Amendment forbids the infringement of the "right of the people to keep and bear arms," although there has been and continues to be much debate and litigation over many issues raised by this amendment, including exactly what types of governmental regulation of firearms constitute unconstitutional "infringement" of the right.

The Third Amendment prohibits the military from forcing homeowners to let soldiers stay in their houses in peacetime, and requires that even in wartime soldiers may be quartered in private homes only according to law.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to freedom from "unreasonable searches and seizures," and permits courts to issue search and arrest warrants, which must be specific, only with "probable cause."

The Fifth Amendment deals mostly with criminal prosecutions, but also with the power of eminent domain. It prohibits (in most cases) prosecution for serious crimes without a grand jury's indictment; prohibits double jeopardy; guarantees defendants' right to refuse to testify against themselves; prohibits punishment "without due process of law"; and requires the government to pay "just compensation" when it takes private property for public use. The colloquial expression "to take (or plead) the Fifth" usually refers to a defendant's invocation of the clause guaranteeing freedom from self-incrimination.

The Sixth Amendment contains further provisions about criminal trials. Defendants have the right to a speedy, public trial by jury, to be represented by a lawyer, to know the charges against them, and to call witnesses. The trial must be held in the court district where the crime allegedly took place; this prevents the prosecutor from shopping around for a court that would be more hostile to the defendant.

The Seventh Amendment deals with civil (non-criminal) lawsuits. Either party may demand a trial by jury, and any decisions of fact by the trial court are (in general) final.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment as well as excessive bail and fines.

The Ninth Amendment provides that the absence of the mention of a specific right in the Constitution may not be construed as meaning that right does not exist. The amendment, in other words, forbids courts to apply the principle of legal interpretation known as "inclusio unius est exclusio alterius" (the inclusion of one is the exclusion of the other) to the question of Constitutional rights.

The Tenth Amendment, on the other hand, explicitly applies the "inclusio unius" principle to governmental powers. The Federal government has only those powers that the Constitution gives to it; all other powers are reserved to the states (except those the Constitution forbids to the states) or to the people.

Origins

The Fourteenth Amendment and "incorporation"