We the people of the United States
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
In 1775, the American colonies began their fight for independence from Great Britain. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence outlined the new country’s ideals. By 1777, the revolutionaries needed a governing document for this new country, so they drew up the Articles of Confederation.
The Revolutionary War ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. The colonies were now the independent United States of America. The Articles had been ratified in 1781; they provided for a very weak central government with most powers left to the individual states. This was fine with Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t like the idea of a strong central government, but eventually the other founders realized this wasn’t working. They called for a constitutional convention in 1787 to fix the Articles if possible (which it wasn’t) or to write a whole new governing document if necessary (which it was).
The United States Constitution was the result. It’s a governing document, clarifying the rights and responsibilities of the various branches of government and of the people themselves. One of the most important aspects of governing is determining how to choose those who will govern. In a monarchy, it’s determined by birth; in a dictatorship, by force. In a republic or a democracy, citizens choose who will govern them. This makes the concept of citizenship crucial to the proper functioning of the government.
When you read the Constitution, the word “citizen” isn’t used very much. Instead, it says “persons” or “the people.” Several Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that this means the rights and protections enumerated in the Constitution are not limited to those who are citizens of the U.S. Where any right or duty is limited to citizens, that word is used to make it clear. The basic right and duty limited to citizens is the right to vote. Non-citizens, legal or illegal, have no right to vote. Non-citizens get taxed and they have the protections of the law, but they have no say in who will govern our country.
This means the main purpose of achieving citizenship is the right to help choose who will govern us. Citizenship isn’t even defined in the Constitution until the 14th Amendment, which states that people born in the U.S. are citizens of the U.S. first and their respective states second. Nowhere does the Constitution place state sovereignty above the federal government.
The Supremacy clause of the Constitution makes this clear: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land…” Article 6, Clause 2.
The Nevada state constitution reaffirms this principle. “But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers …; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States.” Article 1, Section 2.
This election year we are hearing from politicians about how much they love the Constitution, while their words and actions show the opposite. One example is the Republicans saying, almost immediately after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, that they wouldn’t even consider holding hearings, let alone a vote, on anyone President Obama nominates to replace Justice Scalia.
Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution makes it clear that the president has the responsibility to appoint Supreme Court judges: “[The president] shall have power…” It doesn’t say, “But not during his last year” or “When the opposing party allows it.” By saying Obama shouldn’t even try, Republicans are showing their contempt for the Constitution. The Republicans have every right to vote down the nominee; they have no right to forbid a nominee in the first place. By doing this, they make a mockery of the Supreme Court and of the Constitution.
Next column, I’ll present specific example of newsmakers who claim to honor the Constitution but who reveal their contempt and ignorance by their actions. Please stay tuned.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.