Here is a highlights sample of the Bill of Rights in action since the last Independence Day was celebrated. (The Third, Seventh and Ninth amendments did not factor in, as they usually do not.)
First Amendment: churches vs. Obamacare
Catholic and Christian hospitals and schools tangled with the Obama administration most of the year over a health care law mandate requiring them to provide contraception and controversial morning after pills to their employees through health insurance.
A number of corporate employers also weighed in, including the retailer Hobby Lobby. Their claims fall loosely under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, but because the Supreme Court pared back religious protections in a 1990 decision, their claims actually stand under a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In July, a federal court granted Hobby Lobby an injunction, putting the requirement on hold pending litigation.
Second Amendment: Sandy Hook and aftermath
A school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., ignited a new national debate on gun control, including a hard push by the Obama administration and Senate Democrats for a new assault weapons ban. This is the first time since the original assault weapons ban expired in 2004 that Democratic leaders tangled forcefully with gun advocates. The measure was defeated on the Senate floor, 40-60.
Fourth Amendment: NSA eavesdropping scandal
Leaked revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting emails and phone calls from millions of Americans ignited a firestorm focused on the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable (and warrantless) “searches and seizure.” The data collection is arguably legal, as Congress has been informed and approved, and defenders — including the Obama administration — argue that the program is urgently needed to protect against terrorism.
Fifth Amendment: IRS official's testimony
Lois Lerner, a high-ranking official near the heart of the IRS scandal in which the agency targeted conservative nonprofit groups for prejudicial scrutiny, takes the Fifth Amendment when testifying before a hostile House of Representatives oversight committee. The House later concluded that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by reading a statement before claiming that right. When Lerner was called back to testify, her attorney requested immunity in exchange for testifying.
Sixth Amendment: 50th anniversary of key decision
"Gideon’s Army" debuted on HBO, a critically acclaimed film on the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, launched on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainright, the Supreme Court decision that established that right for poor defendants. The film explores the difficulty of delivering on that promise in the face of enormous workloads and inadequate funding.
Eighth Amendment: California struggles with prisons
California continued to struggle to comply with federal court orders based on Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered California to slash its prison populations to bring them into balance, but by 2013 the state was still lagging. On June 20, a federal court ordered the state to release 9,600 more inmates, but as the San Jose Mercury News noted, 90 percent of remaining state inmates are violent offenders.
10th Amendment: Do states control marriage?
The Supreme Court, with Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion, invoked state autonomy in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, by implication appealing to the 10th amendment. Kennedy also gave a nod to the Fifth Amendment “due process” clause, while resting the bulk of his decision on an honorary Bill of Rights member, the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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