Statue of Lady Justice at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland

Civil Rights

Americans have always been concerned about a too powerful government taking away their various freedoms.  This is especially true when someone has been charged with a crime. Often people work with a bondsman to secure their freedom while waiting for their day to be judged in court.

This is especially true in America, a land that has many different racial, religious and economic groups. One of the founding principles of America is that people have rights that are actively protected by the government.

What are civil rights?

Civil rights are those that are guaranteed to an individual. The civil rights that we most often hear about are those that are guaranteed by the US Constitution (and any amendments and other subsequent actions designed to clarify what those rights are.) Some of the most valued civil rights include:

• Freedom from discrimination.
• Due process.
• Equal protection of laws.
• Freedom of speech.
• Freedom of religion.
• The right to peaceably assemble.
• The right to bear arms.
• The right to a fair trial (and the right to have a jury hear your case).

Many civil rights that we now enjoy are the result of people who have struggled for them. These struggles include the civil rights movement, whose many marches and open clashes have helped ensure the civil rights of minorities. The Constitution exists at the federal level to help protect the rights of private individuals, but those laws must be carried down to the state level for them to have their full effect.

What’s the difference between civil rights and civil liberties?

Civil liberties are limits placed on the government. They are things the government can’t do that might interfere with your personal freedoms. Civil rights are the limits on the power of majorities. So civil rights are guarantees of equal participation in social institutions. They prevent discrimination of minorities by the majorities. Let’s use the example of same-sex marriage. In some states that don’t allow same-sex marriage, the majority of voters are able to deny something to a minority. This creates inequality in the way that the laws work. That’s why same-sex marriage has been taken up as a civil rights cause.

Lawyers also frequently talk about the difference between substantive and procedural liberties. Substantive liberties are limits on what powers the government has. Substantive liberties most often come into play regarding freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For example, the First Amendment states that Congress isn’t allowed to make a law establishing religion. So this means that they cannot create a national church or privilege one religion above others. Procedural liberties are limits on the ways in which the government can act. For example, defendants are procedurally presumed innocent in a court of law. Juries and judges have to act as though the accused is innocent until the prosecution successfully argues their case.

Civil rights, the Bill of Rights, and the 14th Amendment.

Civil liberties are enshrined in the “Bill of Rights,” which is basically the name given to the first ten amendments. For example, the Fifth Amendment protects you from incriminating yourself and the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

After the Civil War, the U.S. passed a trio of amendments to the constitution, including the 14th Amendment. It stated that no one can be denied equal protection, civil rights or due process. This amendment encompassed both civil rights and civil liberties. If someone felt that the state where they lived was violating their liberties, they could petition to have their case heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has incorporated almost every clause in the Bill of Rights against the states. For example, in Mapp vs. Ohio, the court ruled that states couldn’t use evidence gathered from warrantless searches. In Benton vs. Maryland, the act of trying a person for the same crime twice was held as unconstitutional. Once a liberty is incorporated against one state, it’s incorporated against all of them. Almost all of the 10 Amendments have been incorporated against the states. This implies that all individuals are protected from their state or federal government taking away their liberties.

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