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On Citzenship, the 14th Amendment, and Political Discourse

June 15th, 2008

Unless you live in a some sort of political cave, by now you know the United States Supreme Court ruled that the denial of Habeas Corpus to detainees held in Guantanamo Bay by the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is unconstitutional. It was a 5-4 split decision with the dissenters saying some very nasty things that makes one think they were not talking to the legal world at large, but rather trading in fear mongering so often employed by those convinced of the “Islamofascist” threat. However, it is not my intent to quibble with either side of the decision… I think it’s pretty clear I support the majority’s approach here. No, my problem is with the political discourse that has emerged since the decisions announcement.

Republicans in Congress, in particular Senators who have enough personal clout to actually matter, have declared they will do whatever it takes to undo this “harmful” decision. John McCain and Lindsay Graham have both spoken of legislative efforts to narrow the scope of the decision. This, in of itself, is fine. In fact, it’s what is supposed to happen. The political branches make a law, the Court review the law with facts, rules whether it passes Constitutional muster, and if it doesn’t, the political branches go and give it another try. The problem is when these Senators craft their words as combative… that they will fight for the little guy to see justice done in the face of an evil, overbearing Supreme Court. It makes it sound as if the Senators are white knights out to rectify deep wrongs inflicted upon the helpless, regardless of the consequences. Passing over the obvious fact that it is the Courts, not the Congress, that is trying to grant some small level of humanity to the helpless, this sort of dialog only serves to tarnish the view of the Court in the public eye. The long term consequences of that tarnishing is no worse that the presidential reputation destroying effects of the last eight years of the Bush Administration. The Courts are our courts, and when we tear them down, we do ourselves no service.

This, however, is just a minor quibble… my real objection is to the language used to vilify not the Court itself, but the decision they rendered. Here is a typical example from John McCain, “[the detainees] are not citizens, they do not have the rights of citizens.” This is a true statement. The detainees are not citizens, and ergo do not have the rights of citizenship. So what?

Implicit in Sen. McCain’s language is that the rights granted by the Constitution are to be enjoyed by citizens, and citizens alone. Three interesting observations emerge from the language.

First, a simple word frequency analysis (a common tool of political scientist) of the United States Constitution reveals that the drafters and subsequent amenders were not very interested in the concept of citizenship beyond the right to vote. The term appears in the Constitution (including amendments) a grand total of of nine times. Five instances are in relation to the federal and state privileges and immunities clauses (more on that in a moment) and the other four times relate to voting rights or apportionment of representatives.

Second, the Constitution is not a positive rights document. Meaning the rights are not granted to citizens… the First Amendment does not say “you have the right to say whatever”, it says (paraphrasing) “the government does not have the right to stop you from saying whatever.” Our Constitution is a negative rights document, by which power is taken away from the government, not granted to the people. You can read through nearly every clause and you’ll find they are all phrased as “the government can or cannot do X”. So going back to the first point, when we talk about “privileges and immunities”, there really aren’t any constitutional privileges or immunities beyond the right to vote, most are defined by statute.

So, let’s take a look at the language of the Constitution that relates to Habeas Corpus:

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

And here we find yet another negative right… “shall not be suspended.” The clause is found in Section 8 of Article I, which is a big list of the things Congress is forbidden from doing. In other words, Congress may not suspend Habeas Corpus, except under specific circumstances (which the court, in other cases stemming from the Civil War, has made clear cannot be a case-by-case basis… either the writ is entirely suspended for everyone, or it is not). Note there is no mention of citizenship, simply that the Congress may not suspend. I admit I’m glossing over some interesting bits of Federal Con Law here… like could the Congress abolish the writ altogether forever? Many suggest that the Congress could do that, but that’s different from denying the writ to just a subset of the population.

Finally, conservatives have been increasingly pushing this notion of citizenship. It is part of the dialog surrounding immigration rights and so called “illegals.” The concept of citizenship infers a right to be here, and all others walk a fine line… heaven help you if you upset us, or we will deport you in a flash. The next step in that project seems to be to redefine the what it means to be a citizen. As I already demonstrated, the Constitution is primarily concerned with the right to vote… but now we see state legislation stripping illegal immigrants of their right to access social benefits, deny access to state colleges, even attempts to discriminate against their children. Some have gone so far as to propose altering the Constitution such that being born in the United States is not enough to establish citizenship.

So far these efforts are targeted at those who come to the States illegally… but it seems only a matter of time before the citizenship discourse gets to the point where we turn a suspicious eye to the legal immigrants who are not citizens. What then? Will John McCain declare that the First Amendment only applies to citizens?

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